New users currently get mixed messages and have to hunt around to learn about our site distinctives and guidelines. This is an attempt to put it all in one place.
This post was inspired by a similar post on C.SE, and also uses some of that content.
1) We are a Q&A site—not a forum!
As our site tour states,
This site is all about getting answers. It's not a discussion forum.
There's no chit-chat.... Not all questions work well in our format.
Avoid questions that are primarily opinion-based, or that are likely
to generate discussion rather than answers.
We are looking for quality questions and answers. While some character in posts is good, excessive tangents (e.g. sermons, rants) or mere responses that don't fully answer the question should be avoided.
2) We don't do 'Bible study'—we study the Bible
Biblical Studies is a scholarly endeavor that involves various, and in some cases independent, disciplines clustering around a collection of texts known as the Bible whose precise limits (those of the Bible) are still a matter of disagreement among various scholars and religious leaders. These disciplines range from archaeology, Egyptology, and Assyriology through textual criticism, linguistics, history, and sociology, to literary theory, philology, and theology, to name only some.
'Bible study' is a religious endeavor that seeks to understand, interpret, and apply the Biblical texts. We stop short of application when answering questions about the Bible (which means we don't fully exegete the text in the religious sense of the practice). It is agreed that for this site:
Questions are on topic if they are focused on the text, rather than
things to which the text may apply.... Questions that seem to be
seeking to apply the Bible are off-topic.
Questions about the application of the Biblical texts are best asked on sites devoted to specific religious traditions such as Christianity.SE or Judaism.SE. We try to avoid eisegesis as much as possible.
A helpful three-point test has been developed for determining whether one is staying on topic:
Meant/Means: Is the question focused on what the text meant to its original authors and reading community in antiquity or on what it means according to recent or contemporary reading communities?
Production/Consumption: If the Q&A is orientated towards processes and actions of textual "production" (authorship, editing, transmission), rather than "consumption", i.e., the text's use and adoption by recent or contemporary reading communities, then we'll be on safe ground (of course, we might be interested in "consumption" by reading communities in antiquity — that's part of #1, after all).
Descriptive/Prescriptive: If something is being prescribed for readers of BH.SE, or if the Q&A in some measure is implying norms binding on readers here ... that's a problem. On the other hand, if a Q&A is describing the linguistic, literary, or theological dimensions of the text as it was understood by its authors and reading community in antiquity, then we'll be on safe ground.
Sometimes new users don't realize they're asking for the application of a text due to presuppositions they bring to the text. Here are some of those assumptions that should generally be avoided here:
- Claims that the text is addressing a later issue or idea in history (i.e. anachronisms, with the obvious exception of prophetic literature and hermeneutics that require this—but within reason).
- Assertions of modern-day-revealed truth concerning the texts (i.e. answers claiming modern divine/spiritual revelation. E.g. "The Holy Spirit revealed to me that the angel in this passage is Jesus").
- Application of a text to a contemporary group (or to oneself).
3) We expect you to 'show your work'
This is a significant distinctive for us. Different users bring multiple perspectives concerning the Biblical texts. This is to be expected, but we try to minimize unstated presuppositions in questions and answers. For this reason, we expect good questions and answers to lay out a logical argument beginning from the Biblical text. This is like mathematics homework: you shouldn't give an answer without showing how you derived it. Other users have pointed out:
Writing descriptively—"such-and-such source says X", as opposed
to "X is true"—dovetails nicely with "show your work". If you do
this you're most of the way to showing your work.... Answers should
show sensitivity to other users of the site. This may include an extra
explanation when later texts are applied to earlier texts (e.g. ones
that read Jesus into the Hebrew Bible). Claims that could reasonably
be seen as controversial or offensive must be relevant and supported
from the text. "Supported" means an explicit link or citation of
text, or clear logical reasoning starting from a cited text. Sometimes
the text will be offensive, which we have to accept. The aim should
be [to] add no further offence to the the offence of the text.
We thus ask for description rather than prescription.
4) This is a university, not a church/synagogue
We are interested in questions about Biblical texts and the process of translating and interpreting them, not absolute truth(s). We want to know how things are and have been—what they should be is your concern.
In the university, the Bible (viewed as an academic text of literature rather than as 'scripture') is taken up as an object of philological, moral, aesthetic, and antiquarian interest.1 The university’s goals are "to avoid controversial ideologies, outmoded systems of thought, dogmatism, and extreme positions on either end of the theological spectrum."2
Imagine being observed by a bunch of professors who know the Bible, but don't necessarily believe it (at least not in the same way that you do). That is your audience—even if many of us are adherents of a religion. In a university setting (such as a rigorously academic seminary), truth is often less important than how you arrive at it. A quote from the movie Indiana Jones comes to mind:
Archaeology is the search for fact... not truth. If it's truth you're
looking for, Dr. Tyree's philosophy class is right down the hall.
That is not to say that truth isn't important (indeed, those of us who adhere to religious beliefs and practices are very concerned about truth in our lives)—it's just secondary to scholarship in this context. We make the Internet a better place by bringing rigorous scholarship to bear on the real questions people have about the Biblical texts and the process of understanding them (stopping short of the application of these texts).
5) We are concerned with hermeneutics, but that doesn't mean we always care 'what you think'
Questions aren't asking what 'you think' (or feel) about a given topic or text. They are looking for answers that 'show their work.' We want to know what and how experts think—not what you found interesting. If you know the difference between eisegesis and exegesis, you will understand why we don't particularly care about novel hermeneutics. We're more interested in facts than opinions.
This doesn't mean that your opinions aren't welcome here. Please understand that:
It's OK to a degree for an answer to include personal anecdotes and
other tangents, where this adds flavour and character, so long as the
main line of an answer is supported, connecting the dots starting from
the text. It's also ok to include opinions so long as they are
relevant and labelled as your opinion or belief. Opinions and tangents
should be garnishes, not the entire meal. If a post is essentially an
opinion-based argument or testimony, it doesn't fit and will need to
be removed or edited.
6) We prefer lectures over sermons
If you are here to convince someone of your point of view, you are probably in the wrong place. If you're here to answer questions while contributing your perspective in a diverse, pluralistic setting, welcome aboard!
Stack Exchange sites are based on a question-and-answer model. We like questions to be just that—honest questions that seek to enhance your knowledge. If your goal in writing an answer or a question is to "make a point," then sadly, you've missed the point of this site!
As this meta post puts it,
"Preaching" involves both exposition and exhortation. The latter part includes a call to belief or action. This latter aspect is fundamentally rhetoric and passionate, designed to persuade by appealing to people's emotions based upon the logic of the argument presented. It is an expansion of the approach of laying out a logical argument (showing your work) and persuading people by reason only....
Going from a question about the original context of a passage (i.e. discussing an exhortation made to the audience of antiquity) to what you should personally do in your life is a shift from description to prescription....
We can describe the original author's intent, even passionately—but we must not cross the line into preaching to BH.SE readers.
We thus ask you to describe your perspective without prescribing it to readers.
7) We're glad you're here!
We are different, and sometimes it takes a little bit of a paradigm shift to adapt. Every student who enters an academically rigorous seminary feels that way at some point. Having your assumptions challenged, your motives questioned, and your contributions edited is not always pleasant. However, if you endure the initial 'poking and prodding,' you'll quickly realize that you have found a community that cherishes the Biblical texts and desires to understand them in a unique way not found anywhere else on the Internet—and you'll learn a lot and make some new friends along the way.
1 Michael C. Legaspi. The Death of Scripture and the Rise of Biblical Studies, Oxford University Press, USA: 2011, 31–32.
2 Ibid., 41.