Criticizing Critics of Biblical Criticism
One of the reasons why I love the Jewish blogging world so much is that at any given time there is a whole array of topics being discussed simultaneously that directly relate to our lives as Jews.
While the past few weeks have been full of articles about the Temple Mount, North Korea, Charlottesville, and everyone’s favorite topic: Trump, there has been another topic that has been the subject of much debate within the Jewish sphere. Beginning with an article by Bible professor Joshua Berman about what he perceives as corruption in the field of Biblical studies, a raging discussion regarding the accuracy, honesty, and biases of Biblical studies has taken over a considerable portion of my newsfeed.
Understandably, the field of Bible studies (or Biblical criticism to be more accurate), is a very contentious subject within religious circles. While fields such as biology and physics may implicitly challenge religious ideas, Biblical criticism is in explicit opposition to religious teachings. Unlike the sciences, no amount of exegesis, re-interpretation, or thumb waving can account for the disparity between Orthodox teachings and the academic field of Bible studies.
While I personally accept the mainstream arguments and conclusions of Biblical criticism, I do not wish to expand on its arguments in this article. There will always be points of debate regarding how to in interpret historical, literary, and archeological data and I do not wish to bore you regarding these topics.
What I wish to do is point out the single issue that bothers me the most when people try to argue against Biblical criticism.
Introducing...the ad hominem!
Any time we are confronted with foreign ideas that challenge our own outlook, it is always easier to discredit the individual or community making the argument than attack the argument itself. Sadly we see this with politics, religion, and virtually any other time people disagree with each other in just about any way. If we wish to have any hope of retaining our pluralistic and democratic society we need to understand that attacking a political or religious belief cannot be conflated with attacking the group itself.
When it comes to Biblical criticism, the ad hominems can come in two forms. The first reflects Solomon Schechter’s famous epithet of Higher Biblical Criticism being Higher anti-Semitism. To be fair to Schechter, many early figures in the field were extremely anti-Semitic, but it is difficult to show how this currently clouds the research, especially when we recognize that the challenges of Biblical Criticism equally affect Christianity.
It is pretty rare to hear someone today denounce Biblical criticism as anti-Semitism. Rather, they take a step back and call it anti-religious. If one can discredit the entire field of academic Bible studies by attributing to it strong and judgement clouding claims of anti-religious bias, then they need not contend with the actual arguments.
Somehow, there is this notion amongst many Orthodox circles that anyone involved in academic Bible studies absolutely abhors religion. Implicit in this belief is the idea that when an individual decides to go into a field under the umbrella of religious or Biblical studies, they are doing so to purposely and continuously challenge religious ideologies.
Now this assumption comes from a very narrow worldview and cannot be further from the truth. First, it is critical to point out that within the vast majority of academic fields, religion is not only always assumed to be false and meaningless, but it is often assumed to have no significance within history. Most science departments view religion as a force that has continuously stymied intellectual growth throughout the ages and is currently obsolete. Furthermore, a growing trend within history and ethnic studies departments, following Marxist ideas (another problem that may warrant a future article), view religion as an oppressive tool that can be singularly reduced to economic or socio-political gains and losses.
Truthfully, most true anti-religious individuals do not spend their careers or free time looking into and studying the intricacies of the Bible or religious history. Rather, the vast majority of them view the Bible as an archaic, monolithic, violence inspiring fiction – one that is absolutely worthless in today’s society. They therefore stay far away from it.
It is the individuals who find religion truly valuable, multifaceted, and important who decide to dedicate their lives to its teachings and history. Of course, the conclusions that these scholars make must follow the evidence and data so, more often than not, they may not follow the more traditional views held by various religious communities. However, just because historical, archaeological, or literary data does not support dogmatic religious teachings does not mean that one’s researching and teaching these in these fields are somehow anti-religious. Personally, throughout both my undergraduate and Master’s program at UCLA (both in the religious studies department), a surprisingly large percentage of my professors entered the field because they themselves were religious.
At the end of the day, difficult academic issues such as Biblical authorship will always be up for discussion and debate. However, like any other type of argument, it is completely antithetical to any sort of intellectual progress if one group is constantly attributing ill intentions to the other side’s arguments. When Bible scholars and communities conclude something, it is generally because they believe that it is the most reasonable way to interpret the evidence. If you disagree, that is great and you should have a conversation.
But please, do not call someone dedicating their life to studying religion, anti-religious, just because their views differ from your tradition.
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