Philip Davies on The End of Biblical Studies

Does Prof. Davies love the Bible more than Prof. Avalos?

Philip Davies, a professor emeritus at the University of Sheffield in England, is one of my heroes. He has been a long-time critic of biblical scholars who claim that there is more history in the Bible than there is.

His work is one of the inspirations for my book, The End of Biblical Studies (EOBS), which argues that the field of biblical studies is still permeated by religionist biases.

But, although Davies may agree with me on some major issues, he says he disagrees with me on the notion of ending biblical studies. He has expressed his opinion in his review of my book in The Journal of Theological Studies 60:1 (2009):214-219. He has also posted a related item at The Bible and Interpretation blogsite--- Philip Davies’ post.

There already is a response to Davies at Missives from Marx

Here, I will respond briefly to some of Prof. Davies' observations (quoted in bold italics and numbered in no particular order for convenience).

1. “It may be relevant in ways that we don’t like, but the last thing that the situation calls for is to stop studying it, and its effects, critically.”

Davies seems to misunderstand what I mean by “the end” of biblical studies. On. p. 341 of EOBS, I clearly state that I don’t want to stop studying the Bible. I want to end THE WAY the Bible is studied. In fact, I provide three scenarios on that page:

1) Eliminate biblical studies completely from the modern world.

2) Retain biblical studies as is, but admit that it is a religionist enterprise.

3) Retain biblical studies, but redefine its purpose so that it is tasked with eliminating completely the influence of the Bible in the modern world.

I stated there that I do not advocate the first option, at least for the moment, because I do believe that the Bible should be studied, if only as a lesson in why human beings should not privilege such books again. My objection has been to the religionist and bibliolatrous purpose for which it is studied.

The second option is actually what is found in most seminaries, but we must advertise that scholars in all of academia are doing the same thing, though they are not being very open and honest about it.

I prefer the third option. The sole purpose of biblical studies, under this option, would be to help people move toward a postscriptural society. The third option is also the most logical position, given the discovery of the Bible’s alien character. This scenario also calls for studying the "effects" of the Bible, just as Davies suggests we ought to do.

2. “Avalos’s criticisms of both the Bible and biblical scholarship are valid enough (and well known to most scholars, too); but his conclusion and his suggested remedy are nonsensical. It would leave the Bible with little function or value other than to serve as Christian and Jewish scripture, to be studied (in whatever fashion) only by the faithful—who, he says, do not and cannot properly read or understand it.”

Not under my option 3 above. If our task, as biblical scholars, is to end THE INFLUENCE (or what remains of it) of the Bible in the modern world, then there should be no function or value left to the Bible anymore than there is to Homer’s Iliad in modern society.

3. “But in assuming that the relevance of the Bible to the modern world is purely ethical Avalos allies himself precisely with this constituency.”

But I do not assume that the relevance of the Bible to the modern world is “purely ethical.” In fact, Davies quotes my sentence where I define biblical irrelevance as follows: “a biblical concept or practice that is no longer viewed as valuable, applicable and/or ethical.” So, I list THREE items here (valuable, applicable, and/or ethical), and now he has reduced it to one (ethical). By “valuable” I also include literary aesthetics, or the claim that the Bible is more beautiful than other books, and that we should privilege it for that reason.

4. “Yet Avalos’s criticism of the Bible is directed not at its aesthetics, but its morality, which most literary criticism would regard as beside the point.”

Not quite. I devote pages 237-240 to explaining why we cannot always divorce aesthetics from ethics. I explained that there is a whole philosophical school that argues that we cannot necessarily divorce ethics from aesthetics. I gave a few examples of how often biblical episodes of violence were extolled for their literary quality, thereby deflecting attention from the violence endorsed therein.

5. “What we need is not the end of biblical scholarship but more of its critical engagement with the public (mis)use of the Bible.”

That is not much different from my option 3: Retain biblical studies, but redefine its purpose so that it is tasked with eliminating completely the influence of the Bible in the modern world.

I argued precisely that what biblical scholars are not doing sufficiently is informing the world that the Bible is not relevant. It is partly the fact that biblical scholars largely hide the Bible's irrelevance that makes people think it is relevant. That false sense of relevance is what allows the Bible to be misused more than any other work from antiquity. By the end of the process I envision, the Bible will be just as relevant as The Epic of Gilgamesh.

6. “‘Why not extend our thesis to all ancient literature?’ asks Avalos (p. 24), and wonders whether he might be suspected of what he sees as typical American ‘anti-intellectualism’. Allowing that he could extend his critique, he explains that he is concentrating on the ‘most egregious and historically important example.’”

I explained, however, that people usually don’t kill other people because of misinterpretations of Hamlet or almost any ancient work we can name. That does make the Bible different. That is also why it is particularly important to reduce the Bible to the importance of Homer or the Epic of Gilgamesh in the modern world. It is not that Homer should be MORE important, but rather that we should work to expose the fact that the Bible should be as EQUALLY relevant as The Epic of Gilgamesh or Homer's Iliad are today.

Throughout Davies’ commentary there is the sense that somehow Western civilization will be less fulfilling without biblical literacy. He cites figures on how illiterate modern people are about the Bible. An acute answer to Davies’ plea for his type of biblical literacy is given by Craig Martin (and quoted in Missives from Marx), in his commentary on Stephen Prothero’s Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know---And Doesn’t (2007):

Prothero’s grave concern about religious illiteracy seems to be invalidated—or at least attenuated—by his own argument. On the one hand, he argues that Americans don’t know much about religion anymore and, on the other hand, that this ignorance prevents them from understanding religious references in popular culture, political speeches, etc. However, if people don’t know much about religion, won’t those references slowly disappear, in which case there’s no need to worry about the matter? There is a part of me that wants to summarize Prothero’s central concern like this: “Americans don’t any longer know about this important part of their culture that’s no longer important.” This formulation is unfair—Prothero’s argument is not this superficial—but I think that there is something to it that is right.

Yes, it seems as if Davies himself realizes that most people are not reading the Bible. We, biblical scholars, just have to help those that are still reading it realize that it is no more more relevant than many other ancient works.

7. ...Hector Avalos, the only non-religious scholar I know of that actually seems to hate the Bible...”

As has been pointed out at Missives from Marx, Davies must surely mean “the only non-religious BIBLICAL scholar.” However, this characterization of my position is not quite correct. I certainly do not like any book that endorses genocide, misogyny, etc. However, if I hate anything, it is the WAY that the Bible is being used. Otherwise, I don’t hate the Bible anymore than I hate the Epic of Gilgamesh.

In any case, Philip Davies is still my hero. I am one of “the monsters” that he has helped to spawn, whether he takes credit for it or not.


Jonathan MS Pearce said...

give me any concrete evidence for the existence of a soul, and come back to me.

Harry H. McCall said...

Davies statement: “More recently, Hector Avalos, the only non-religious scholar I know of that actually seems to hate the Bible,…” is wrong and extreme in and of itself.

I make my secular living in electronics. About a year ago I was in a music store and got in a debate with a salesman who swore that a tube amp has better sound that a MOSFET solid state amp. I challenged him to use an audio spectrum analyzer (an instrument that injects a know range of audio frequencies into the amps input and measures the amount of distortion after amplification at the output). He had no idea what I was talking about, but continued to insist (now backed up by a customer) that tube amps will beat a solid state MOSFET any day hands down (without logic, a both were true believing fundamentalist).

Do I hate tube amplifiers? No! … No more than I hate the first spark gap radio. But reality and facts do change and just as the late Robert Funk once said; “We must be honest about the truth.” In such reality, digital Sirius / XF satellite radio is totally out of the technical field with primitive electronics.

I first meet Phillip Davies at the 1986 SBL meeting in Atlanta, Ga. in a session where John Hayes and Maxwell Miller were introducing their new A History of Ancient Israel and Judah. I remember Davies comments to Hayes and Miller when they used the phases: “It might be the case…” or “Maybe…”. Davies responded to them “Maybe it is or maybe it isn’t. So what have you said? Nothing! This state of Davies irritated both Hayes a Miller who train ministers at Candler school of Theology, Emory University.

Well, I could have told the salesman at the guitar store: “Well maybe your are right. Tube amps maybe work as good as MOSFET amps.” But then I’ve, in reality, have said nothing!

T said...

Dr. Avalos has been a very influential author in my own life. I believe him to be passionate about the truth. His precision with words in order to respect truth is why sometimes I think people interpret him as being disrespectful to religion. But many times I have heard people find offense in his words where I thought Dr. Avalos was merely being factual. His debate with William Lane Craig is an example of this. WLC opens with this incredibly shallow (in my opinion) swipe at Dr. Avalos. I went back and listened to the debate WLC based his argument from and I don't believe WLC was at all justified in his interpretation. For me, this cheap shot on WLC's part sullied himself in my eyes.