Archives of Reception of the Bible

Past blogging in more ways than one.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Berlinerblau on the SBL and all its ills (and by implication, on Reception History)

In a thought-provoking discussion of the SBL and all its ills, entitled 'What's Wrong With the Society of Biblical Literature?', Jacques Berlinerblau makes some comments that resonate with some of my own claims about the dilettante nature of reception history.

“Another problem: Under the mistaken assumption that it is an academic society like any other, the SBL has encouraged scholarly specialization. In so doing, it has always favored philology and archaeology, all the while avoiding the more capacious domain of hermeneutics. The study of how Scripture has been interpreted across history, and in contemporary society, has traditionally held little interest for a society that places a premium on the examination of ancient languages and artifacts. But the study of hermeneutics really forces one to be a generalist. It is a diachronic enterprise through and through.

Let's say that you are interested in studying depictions of Queen Jezebel in music and art. You will need to know about descriptions of her in Hebrew, Greek, or Latin (if not all three). You will need to know what the learned rabbis and fathers of the church had to say. Then you will need to look at renderings of the queen in, say, 16th-century France and 20th-century Ethiopia. In other words, you will need to abandon any pretense of being a specialist (my italics).

The Bible is a civilizational document, one that runs the course of history. So any attempt to study its continued interpretation must be interdisciplinary, and the scholar in question will have to step outside of well-defined fields of inquiry. But because the SBL models itself after specialist academic associations, it cannot speak to the very complexity of its own subject matter.”

Having heard Berlinerblau on the Bible’s use in Washington, I would be very happy to regard him as an exemplary ‘dilettante’ biblical scholar. The most significant point here though is the comparative lack of people involved in such interdisciplinary work. Like Berlinerblau I have no objection to those who work on weird minor texts, some of my academic friends do just that, and I have even been guilty of it myself, but are these really the major areas of work that exists in our discipline? I somehow doubt it.


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