A Brief Report on a Secular Criticism of the Bible Group for the SBL

Hector Avalos reports on the meeting in what follows:

Dear colleagues,

What follows is a brief report of our meeting to explore the feasibility of establishing a group that would focus on non-religious approaches to biblical studies.

Time and Place: Saturday, November 21, 6:45pm-8:15pm in Conference Room Studio 6 of the Marriott Hotel in New Orleans, LA.

Attendance: Kenneth Atkinson, Hector Avalos (moderator of meeting), Zeba Crook, Stephanie Fisher, Jim Linville, John Loftus, Ken Pulliam, Frank Zindler.

The meeting began with introductions, and a description of the goals that such a group should have. Two basic positions were identified: (1) an activist position that would focus on direct challenges to religion and/or the Bible; (2) a non-activist position that would focus on scholarship from a non-religious approach. A compromise of sorts was reached by focusing on scholarship that could both challenge religionist biases and ideas in biblical studies in a scholarly and non-hostile manner, and also contribute original scholarship that would be distinctive of a non-religious approach.

The participants agreed to pursue a two-track approach to establishing the group. One track would focus on preparing the proposal necessary to establish a new unit within the SBL. By a vote of 8-0, the proposed name of the unit chosen was "Secular Criticism of the Bible" consultation/group. However, the establishment of a new unit in the SBL is a long process that might take 2-5 years before the first session would be scheduled in an Annual Meeting of the SBL.

Accordingly, second track was adopted that would work with an existing SBL unit, preferably the Ideological Criticism Section, and propose sessions on non-religious approaches to biblical studies. Such sessions could be scheduled as early as next year. These sessions also would help to draw people interested in working with the first track.

The final main item of discussion was a proposed session for next year within the Ideological Criticism Section. The group agreed to have a session, titled tentatively "Secular Biblical Criticism and Introductions to the Bible." The session would examine and critique the current textbooks used in introductory courses to the Bible, and invite a respondent, preferably an author of one of those introductions. Participants agreed to work on ideas for individual papers that would then form a coherent set for a session. The session would also address the question of what a secular Introduction to the Bible would look like.

No decisions were made on a steering committee for our group, and who would be in it. I will check with the requirements of the SBL before further action on this.


On Monday, November 23, 2009, Hector Avalos attended the business meeting of the Ideological Criticism Section, which is co-chaired by Randy Reed. One result is that Avalos has been added to the steering committee of the Ideological Criticism Section. A second result is that a session of the Ideological Criticism Section for next year is scheduled to include one on our proposed topic mentioned above ("Secular Biblical Criticism and Introductions to the Bible" ). This will be an invited panel, and Randy Reed will soon be making the relevant announcement in the Call for Papers for next year's Ideological Criticism Section meeting in Atlanta.


Papers for the invited session in the Ideological Criticism Section should probably be formulated within the next few weeks. We might envision one paper that would give a brief overview on Introductions to the Bible and/or 3-4 papers that would focus on individual themes in Introductions (e.g., historical, literary, theological biases, etc.). Respondents would be sought from authors of Introductions, and these might include Bart Ehrman, Michael Coogan, James Crossley, and Barry Bandstra.

All in all, I think we made some good progress, including a planned session for next year's SBL meeting in Atlanta. Thanks again for your interest and support.

Dr. Hector Avalos
Professor of Religious Studies
Iowa State University