Anti-Bible scholar Hector Avalos defends himself against one of the greatest Bible scholars of the era, on theDebuncking Christianity blog (9/07/2008) Avalos is author of the book The End of Biblical Studies. It's been a couple of years since he wrote the book calling for the dissolution of Biblical scholarship, and Avalos is still taking university money to teach Biblical criticism, even though according to him his field worthless and useless. The great scholar Koester takes issue with being told that his life work is crap and thus critiques Avalos. But Hector strikes back. I not that Hector has not yet quite his job. When will be be to his word and get into a field he thinks has some use to it?
Prof. Helmut Koester of Harvard Divinity School attacks The End of Biblical Studies by clinging to religionist arguments for biblical studies.
In the September/October 2008 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review (aka, BAR, pages 11-12), Prof. Helmut Koester, a retired and eminent member of Harvard Divinity School, launched an attack on my recent book, The End of Biblical Studies.
Unfortunately, Prof. Koester’s critique (which is not currently accessible on-line) is short on facts and long on routine religionist apologetics for biblical studies. He begins his critique as follows:
He begins by trying to re-describe the categories of thought in which a Bible scholar would logically work. This trick of re-description is a postmodern ploy. It is not an argument it's a tactic. This is a cheap postmodern tactic, to re-describe things in terms that leave out the assumptions of the advocate and paint the whole enterprise of defense of belief as propaganda. That way one need never bother with valid arguments, all one is continually re-describe the arguments one cannot answer. Now the DC guys will come back and say I'm being so hateful and rude. No, I have said nothing about the guy as a person. But I'm going to critique his strategy becasue that is all it is. It is not a set of arguments, it's not scholarship, it's a rhetorical ploy.
Avalos cuts lose on Koester, and one might well these remarks as rude:
"Perhaps I should not be surprised that a scholar who
has advocated a Biblical nihilism and has recommended
that Biblical Studies should be ‘tasked with eliminating
completely the influence of the Bible in the modern world’
would launch an attack on the discipline of Biblical archaeology
and on a magazine that is Biblical archaeology’s
most important outlet...What would be required for such
an endeavor, however, is knowledge of the realities of
American religious life and Biblical scholarship in general,
as well as the details of the controversial issues in present
debates. Unfortunately Professor Avalos reveals a deep
ignorance in both respects."
Koester never said he watns to eliminate study of the bible. He wants to eliminate an un-scholarly approach that would guard inerranacy without doing the proper spade work to understand the context of the early community.
He concludes, by saying:
"The relationship of American religious life,
Bible and scholarship is a vital and undeniable
factor in our society—especially in the United
To which Avalos remarks:
At once, we are introduced to one of the most common defenses of biblical studies today. That defense rests on the illusion that “the Bible” is uniquely vital and essential for Christianity and the American religious life.
Pointing out that this is a common defense is something supposes to prove that it's wrong. I haven't figured that one out yet, but that's the name of the game, describe their strategy then re-describe it leaving out their basic reasons and assumptions, that creates the illusion of critique and gives the impression that the critic is up on the psychological motivations of the one critiqued. But it's merely his opinon that he Bible is not vital and he only believes this because he disregards what beilevers see in the Bible and chooses instead to privilage his own position.
Curiously, Dr. Koester seems to privilege a more traditional view of the biblical canon in his attack on my book. But his own past work shows that he did not always think that the Bible, as we currently know it, was uniquely essential or vital for Christians in all periods.
For example, in his own Introduction to the New Testament: History, Culture, and Religion of the Hellenistic Age (2 vols.; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1982), he tells us the following about other early Christian writings (Volume 1, p. xx1):
"These non-canonical works are witnesses to early Christian
history no less valuable than the New Testament."
This is a rich one. What Koester essentially says is that the Bible is vital but the non canonical sources are also very helpful because theta are artifacts that help us to understand the period and the people. But Avalos treats the statement as though its some sort of contradiction. This is because he is trading upon a tendency among Dawkamentalists to see all Christians as fundamentalists. He's trading upon the ignorance of the Dawkies to think that anyone who would find any value in the Bible must be a fundie.He knows quite well that Koester is not a fundie, and he must know that one can value both the canonical and non canonical sources, either for different reasons or for the same reasons. Surely he must know that one can see the Bible as vital for many reasons and ones reasons do not have to the same as the fundamentalists reasons. But he chooses to ignore all that and pretend that Koester has somehow made some great contradiction. this is a tendency I've noticed in Avalos before; the tendency to treat ideas as posturing, and to prefer postures over substance.
So, why is Dr. Koester not incensed that these non-biblical witnesses are not deemed as essential and as vital for modern Christians?
Well perhaps for one thing it might be because they are. But I think what Hector wants here is for the atheists to think "O yea why not regard GTom and GPete as equal sources of revelation along with the Bible. Why doesn't that make him angry?" But in reality that's not what Koester means when the says the Bible is vital. He is not thinking of the Bible as source of revelation. I doubt that Koester even regards the bible as any kind revelation. If he does I doubt that he thinks of the non canonical books as any sort of back up revelation. He regards all of these texts as artifacts.He wants to study them as an archaeologist, for what they tell us about what people thought. He thinks it's vital to understand the sources of our culture, I think that is correct. But Avalos chooses to regard this as though he Koester is Jerry Falwell. I think Koester has his own kind of faith, but it would not surprise me to learn that he did not. I find this ploy extremely disingenuous. There is no contradiction here. Koester regards both sets of texts as valuable for many reasons. The problem is Hector wants to eliminate the study of all Christian texts and texts related to Christianity. According to his book he wants to study Babylonian religion and Baal worship and so forth with the same methods that Koester studies the Bible. I'm sure Koester would tell him "more power to you." I also say "go for it dude, what is holding you back?" Why hasn't Hector tried to start his own Baal studies department? instead he chooses to spend his time inside the camp that he's wishes to close down, working overtime to kill it off.
Hector goes on:
In his article, “The Text of the Synoptic Gospels in the Second Century,” (in W. L. Petersen, ed., Gospel Traditions in the Second Century [Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame, 1989] p. 19) he says:
"In the late period, the Gospels were considered holy
scripture; no such respect was accorded to them
in the earliest period."
Indeed, the majority of Christians in the first two centuries did not really have what we call “The New Testament.” We know that some early Christian communities got along well with just one or a few Gospels. Jews get along just fine without the New Testament (note that, for Koester, a Christian, “Bible” includes the New Testament).
Of course we probalby should stop and take note at this point that Jews are not trying to be Christians are they? So it wouldn't matter to them if they don't have Gospels. Of course they would get along fine without Gospels because they don't need any. but they are trying to be Christians. They certainly aren't trying to follow Jesus. We Christians have this odd little habit of wanting to follow the guy who started our tradition. To do that we have to cling to the historical accounts of the faith. It really baffles me why Hector thinks that is such a terrible thing. But he does, or so it seems.
So what about the role of the Bible in modern American religious life? Here, Prof. Koester, who is an eminent biblical scholar, shows himself to be an astonishingly poor student of the modern American religious life. He offers no facts, no statistics, and no sociological studies to support his claim about American religion.
You know it's a darn funny thing about that. Neither does Hector. In fact Hector is rather down right ignorant of the story of the Christian left. I published a
critique of his book on the CADRE blog ("Relevance is Where you Fidn it") which included direct factual challenge of all of his bluster about American Christianity and traced out the Christian left from the early centuries. Not a word from Hector. He didn't bother to even try to refute it, juts as he runs in horror at the suggest that he debate me. So I trounced his arguments with facts, which he cannot refute, yet he goes on pretending as though they don't exist. Avalos' arguments are strangely fallacious:
The reality is that few Americans actually read or know much about the Bible. In The End of Biblical Studies, I cited, as one example, the survey published in 2006 by Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion. It showed that 21.9% of Mainline Protestants and 33.1% of Catholics “never” read Scripture. So how “vital” is the Bible if a sizable group of Christians can get by without ever reading it?
Yes, one could argue that the Baylor survey means that the majority of Christians are reading scripture, but that also would be an illusion. Other studies show that even those who read scripture more than “never,” don’t read or apply much of it.
The study that he evokes can actually be turned around on him so evokes another study to prove the original assertion that is disproved by his own study. The original logic is rather cock eyed anyway: Americans are suffering from ignorance of the Bible, but the solution is not to teach more bible but to do away with the bible. What I suspect is that he's trying to make an appeal to popularity but knows he can't do it head on. I fail to see the relevance in siting this point at all otherwise. Who cares if people don't know about the bible? That doesn't determine the worth of the bible and it just means people are not paying attention. We should build more bible schools not close down the one's we have.
Prof. Michael Coogan (“The Great Gulf Between Scholars and the Pew,” in Biblical Studies Alternatively: An Introductory Reader, ed. Susanne Scholz [Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall 2003] p. 7), a former colleague of Dr. Koester, tells us: "Although the Bible is acknowledged in theory as an authority, much of it has simply been ignored."
In fact, most Christians probably use a miniscule amount of the Bible in their lives because they do not find most of it relevant. This is not just my judgment, but that of many conservative evangelical scholars and sociologists. Dr. Koester should read, for example, Josh McDowell’s The Last Christian Generation (2006) or Robert Wuthnow’s After the Baby Boomers: How Twenty-Somethings are Shaping the Future of American Religion (2007).
I answered Avalos assertions on this piont in this essy here.
Dr. Koester, who has spent almost his entire academic career in a private divinity school, also is oblivious to the realities of the job market out in the real world, where most colleges are public or are afflicted with constant budget cuts. I hate to break the news to Dr. Koester, but Harvard Divinity School, my alma mater, is not a microcosm of American academia.
Here he returns to the postmodern politically correct card. Koester is bad because an elitist. He's from a private school and he's elitist and he's bad. But at the same time Hector wants the cache that goes with dropping the name Harvard. So he reminds us "I went to Harvard too." But of course he's the politically correct guy who is crusading against the elites even though he's one of them, and even though he has no knowledge of the American left.
So, allow me to inform Prof. Koester of a few realities. The March 2008 edition of Religious Studies News, published by the American Academy of Religion, counted 152 registered positions in religious studies in 2007. In biblical studies, there were 9 primary employers and 81 candidates for positions in Hebrew Bible. There were 16 primary employers and 83 candidates for New Testament jobs.
That means a total of 139 candidates in Hebrew Bible and New Testament will not get one of those jobs even if all 25 jobs are filled. As I point out in The End of Biblical Studies, when we study closely the quality of jobs in biblical studies available, the picture goes from bad to apocalyptic.
His argument for destroying Biblical studies is that you can't get a job in it. Well we might as well close down every department in the university except Business, science and golf. This just gets back to the sort of anti-intellectual game playing that is the hallmark of Hector's disingenuous nature.He's a postmodern, and like the postmodernist en mass he wants to denude academic life while reaping the advantages of belonging to it. No one is asking the average to be a Biblical studies perosn or a theological student. No one is trying to trick unsuspecting graduates into enrolling in graduate school in theology. For years philosophy departments have sent letter to all student enrolled in philosophy classes telling them they cannot get jobs. Yet for some reason they continue to crowd the roles. Why? Because people want to learn it. It is extremely unfair, dishonest and fascist to try to that away from them. I know this probably never dawned upon Hector but some of us are willing to do our academic thing even when don't make money from it. I ran an academic journal didn't make a dime from it. I'm about to start again and I don't plane to make any money from it again. I'm not even teaching. I don't have Ph.D and I will never in a university but I'm stilling doing papers and will present my papers at professional conventions becasue believe in doing the work and give a rat's hind quarters about being paid for it. This kind of argument, which really is typical of Hector's way of arguing, is so unfair because it's meaningless. What difference could it possibly make that there aren't enough jobs in theology? That says absolutely nothing about the truth content.
Bigger shock for the Hec man. Universities want a professor glut. They do. There were studies in the early 90s promising that there would be a professor shortage in the late 90s when the baby boomer began to retire. They would have had that but what did they do? The dismissed all the TA's, cut programs and went to the one year contract. Why? Because they want a glut. They want too many professors for the number of jobs. Having too many means they don't have to pay them much, and they can keep the young once bouncing around for years on one one year contract after another. Whatever justification for his view Hector thinks he sees in the professor glut the fact of iti s it is artificial and it's not there becasue people don't like the bible; it's in all departments across the board and it's there becasue the people who run the schools want it that way. It's a big mistake to think about academic departments and jbos in terms of the labor theory of value. There is a good article by Gary North, "academics without Academia" everyone considering graduate work should read it.
The real scandal, and one about which Dr. Koester and Harvard Divinity School remain silent, is why even excellent job candidates with recent doctorates in biblical studies from Harvard may end up working in grocery stores or in fields outside of their doctorates. Others leave the field quietly or never finish their graduate work.
The North article answers that. A better question is why in the hell does Hector think this is some special problem of theology? Why do I not have a Ph.D.? Because I took ten years to Finnish. I had to take of my parents because they were both dying. I cared for them round the clock just as though I were a nurse, for three years, then they died. In those three years my graduate work suffered. Well you try chainging your mother's diapers, massaging your father's behind, shaving him, helping him walk, making all the meals and dispensing all the pills, and have to stay in the house 24/7 becasue your mother will wonder off an get killed, and then get through doctoral language work at the same time. So it went for three years. But then the dean said "you have been here too long. you didn't get out soon enough." So they kicked me out. That was not a private theology school, that was a secular liberal arts program;that was not at Perkins. I remember Perkins would hall people in when turned 32 and give them a little lecture on how hopeless it was to get a job teaching theology and urge them to quite. There was no deception there to keep students. In fact they get more money for not keeping them.That is way they kicked me out of the secular program. After a certain period they can't justify it anymore in terms of the tax breaks they get for having a certain number of students. not profitable to keep them after a certain time, that is to eliminate professional students. This society really hates anyone who peruses a life time of learning. Apparently so does Hector.
He knows these things. He is overlooking the fact that these problems are in all departments because wouldn't help his cause any. This way it looks like theology school are mean and no good and take advantage of people. The very same things are going on in atheist ran science departments. My graduate committee chairman was an atheist. The Dean who stole my degree was an atheist. I could begin to think they did to shut down my internet presence except they didn't have any idea about message boards. I know that would be a fantasy becasue they had not one whit of respect for Doherty or any other atheist on the net, or any Christian either. They saw being on the net as a sign of not being very good academically. But that dean did have motive to keep the profitability up for the department. Again. Secular Arts and Humanities and history of ideas program.
In the real world, professors of biblical studies have to explain to a dean why their positions should be retained, when a university could use another expert in biofuels or in food economics. Few colleges have the luxuries of a Harvard Divinity School, and even it finds itself struggling at times to attract students. This evident from the HDS recruiters who have visited me in the past at Iowa State University.
Here he's actually that Biblical studies should be shut down because its' a drag on resources. but Harvard is a private school that was started for religious purposes. It was a Calvinist school. No one is asking tax payers to pay for it. It is paid for by rich guys who want their kids to have the cutlu8ral capital of having gone to Harvard. Same with Perkins.So that is not a drag on the state. No state universities pay for theological school. Those are all private. The public state universities that study religion have religious studies departments and those tend to be very anti-religious. But we could use the same logic and shut down any study of literature, poetry, art, music, any kind of liberal arts. Who is going to study Hector's beloved Baal texts when all the liberal arts are shut down?
I am not actually certain that Dr. Koester has read my book, and he often seems to be working with extracts. That would, of course, violate a basic principle of fairness and diligent scholarship. But, if he did read it, then Dr.
I read it. he still debate me even though he seemed to imply that would if it read it. I would tell Koester stick to the extracts. Another thing, Hector would not send me a review copy and most of the DC crowd is oddly in the dark about review copies. But I did not pay for the copy I read.
Koester misses the larger argument in my book, which shows that:
1) The Bible has already lost much of its influence in American religion;
2) Any influence still left is partly the result of an ecclesial-academic complex, of which Dr. Koester is himself a part, which keeps promoting the illusion that the Bible is important. Without the constant effluence of “new translations,” among other marketing devices, the Bible would probably die.
again, appeal to popularity. This has nothing to do with truth content. IT's not true anyway. Atheism only makes up 3% of world population and about 1.5% of American population(I'll give them 3 just to make a liberal estimate).That the margin of error. Christianity has about 85% of U.S. Pop and even though people answer polls about the Bible indicate about half take the Bible seriously, almost 90% want their children to have some religious influence because of the moral value.
Even if one does not believe the Bible is any sort of inspired word of God it still plays a vital role this is undeniable. It's shocking that anyone with a Ph.D. does not know or understand this. Of course hector has also stated that Shakespeare isn't worth reading.
Shakespeare's works, for example, have no intrinsic value, but they function as cultural capital insofar as "knowing Shakespeare" helps provide entry into elite educated society. The academic study of literature, in general, functions to maintain class distinctions rather than to help humanity in any practical manner(Avalos)
Its not wonder he can't see the value in knowing the Bible. He doesn't see the intrinsic value of Shakespeare one wonders what he does see.
Bible Literacy Project
What would you say is the single most important book an educated person needs to know? When the heads of college English departments were asked what book “at a minimum, every incoming freshman should have read” their number one answer was: The Bible.
Yes, the Bible.
Yet today relatively few students receive high-quality, academic instruction about the Hebrew Scriptures and/or the New Testament. For example: While 81 percent of English teachers in one local survey said that teaching about the Bible was important in literature classes, just 10 percent said they actually do so. Scholarly reviews of textbooks in public schools confirm that virtually all religious references, including the Bible’s role in our history, art, and literature, have been excised from the curriculum. One survey of high school textbooks showed that just one quarter of one percent of literature readings was from the Bible.
The state of Bible literacy is atrocious, that is not reason to give up on it. BTW how many people understand the importance of poetry? while it would not surprise me to see Hectie baby wanting to burn Keats or Wallace Stevens, how many readers out there really ant to get rid of poetry because it's not as popular as American Idol?
Dr. Koester may not like the fact that academic biblical studies is dying, but it won’t make the reality go away. Biblical scholars must to do more than become defensive and assert that the Bible is “vital” if they are to survive in modern academia at all.
Postscript: Dr. Koester’s critique in BAR also includes specific misreadings of my comments about Biblical Archaeology Review. Those misreadings may the subject of a future post.
It's the trendy postmdoern thing to say, destroy Shakespeare he's a dead white guy, destroy the bible, destroy the copy write office, kill the father, hate God destroy turth there's no truth there's no learning, using your mind is elitist. Be a robot let the trendy one's guide your thinking. The attempt to make it appear that Biblical studies is dying out, when in reality all liberal arts appear to be dying out, all the time! this is extremely dishonest.
Notice the one thing missing from Avalos counter attack on Koester. he does not deal with any actual arguments of Biblical criticism.