Mike recently posted an answer to another meta question that got me thinking about this distinction and the impact this has on BH.SE's viability (I'm beginning to wonder if ScottS was really onto something in this post). The reality is that the lines are still blurred - even in secular academia.
What is/are Biblical Studies?
The preface to The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies (published in 2008) gives an excellent statement concerning this:
What is (or should it be are? but we shall stay with the singular) Biblical Studies? Is it a watered-down version of theology with the doctrinal parts omitted? Is it like Religious Studies, but concentrating on Judaism and Christianity? The answer is that Biblical Studies is a collection of 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 branches of the Christian churches. These disciplines range from Archaeology, Egyptology, and Assyriology through Textual Criticism, Linguistics, History, and Sociology, to Literary Theory, Feminism, and Theology, to name only some. That these disciplines should have come to be connected with the study of the Bible results from the unique position that the Bible (however understood) has occupied in Western history, art, and culture for some 2,000 years. No comparable collection of texts has been subjected to such sustained critical examination and elucidation over such a long period of time.
If you continue to read the preface, you will see that this diversity is the current state of the field. The confusion inherent to BH.SE is symptomatic of the greater lack of precise definitions in the field itself. If Oxford hasn't figured it out yet, we should also expect some roadblocks and challenges when it comes to determining our scope and future direction. But we also shouldn't avoid defining our site simply because the field itself has not done so (considering that many Biblical scholars and scholarly Biblical publications are affiliated with religious traditions or are decidedly pluralist, there is no impetus to do so for many, and there will likely never be universally agreed-upon terms for this reason).
The History of Biblical Studies
The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies has articles on the history of Hebrew Bible and New Testament scholarship which are fascinating and extremely helpful to understanding where the field of Biblical Studies has come from and where the field is going. I will quote portions of the abstract for each article:
Hebrew Bible Scholarship
Seventy years ago, the discipline was still reacting in various ways to the theory of the history of Israelite religion and sacrifice and the theory of how and when the Old Testament had been composed, which had received classical expression fifty years earlier in J. Wellhausen's Prolegomena (1883). In Germany, the discipline faced the determined attempts of the ‘German Christian’ movement to banish the study of Hebrew and the Old Testament from universities and the use of the Old Testament from Christian worship. However, the ending of the Second World War initiated a period of consolidation with strongly marked theological interests, until the emergence, in the late 1960s, of new methodologies including structuralism, literature criticism, feminist and liberation theology, deconstruction, and canonical criticism.
New Testament Scholarship
[There are] three scholarly generations that differ sufficiently to be labelled as times of continuation (1935–62), transition (1960s and 1970s), and innovation (1980–2005). The changing social, political, and economic environments are reflected in a tendency towards cautious theological synthesis in the first generation; theological radicalism, internationalism, and ecumenism in the second; and a new pluralism, including some retreat from or repudiation of theology, in the third.
Given these statements, the current direction of the field of Hebrew Bible scholarship includes "structuralism, literature criticism, feminist and liberation theology, deconstruction, and canonical criticism." The current direction in the field of New Testament scholarship includes "a new pluralism, including some retreat from or repudiation of theology."
A Christian Bias is (Currently) Inherent to the Field
As an example, the The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies refers to the Tanakh as the Old Testament, as do many other scholarly institutions and publications. But if one would study the history of Oxford and the development of Biblical Studies as a field, he/she will find that many of the top institutions have a decidedly Christian background. It is only recently (post-1960s) that existing Biblical Studies methodologies and approaches have significantly expanded to Jewish scholars (as well as Muslim Quranic scholars). The current direction of the field is moving away from exclusively Christian language and biases (to the point of repudiating theology in the field). BH.SE has the opportunity to move in this direction by evaluating the bias inherent in the terms often used in the field.
It should also be kept in mind that the chapter divisions commonly used in the Hebrew Bible reflect the Christian textual tradition. The common chapter divisions and verse numbers have no significance in the Jewish tradition. The Christian chapter and verse divisions are often not supported by many manuscripts in numerous languages and thus questions concerning these texts should specify the location of the text and manuscript used where pertinent. The divisions used in critical texts or specific primary manuscripts should be preferred over those used in modern English Christian and Hebrew Jewish Bible translations, as those used in critical texts are more precise in scholarly discourse (even Christian Bible references do not line up between Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant English Bible translations).
The Distinction Between Scriptural Study and Biblical Studies
Michael C. Legaspi wrote an excellent book about this distinction entitled The Death of Scripture and the Rise of Biblical Studies. According to a review of the work,
Legaspi describes the shift he explores as one from a “scriptural Bible” to an “academic Bible,” with the latter having lost its status as (authoritative) Scripture. Rather than tie the origins of the demise of the “scriptural Bible” to the Enlightenment, as is often done, he attributes it to the crisis of epistemological authority engendered by the Protestant Reformation (p. viii). The center of his thesis is that eighteenth-century approaches to Scripture as a text like any other were not a rejection of a “scriptural Bible” (it was, he argues, already a thing of the past) but an effort to preserve its presence in a new cultural context (p. 9). “The academic Bible was created by scholars who saw that the scriptural Bible, embedded as it was in confessional particularities, was inimical to the socio-political project from which Enlightenment universities draw their purpose and support” (p. viii). Legaspi’s interpretation of the period and phenomena involved is thus focused on “social causes” rather than “intellectual antinomies” like the tension between faith and reason (p. ix).
Legaspi goes on to discuss early Biblical scholarship at Göttingen, observing that
the Bible (now “academic” rather than “scriptural”) was taken up as an object of philological, moral, aesthetic, and antiquarian interest (pp. 31–32). The university’s goals were “to avoid controversial ideologies, outmoded systems of thought, dogmatism, and extreme positions on either end of the theological spectrum” (p. 41). Accordingly, its various administrators and instructors (the author focuses on J. M. Gesner and C. G. Heyne) developed the institution’s overall orientation as empiricist in method and motivated by the “social utility” of the subjects of study and a desire for “irenicism” in its demeanor (p. 78).
This last statement sheds significant light on the overall distinction between Scripture and Biblical Studies.
Given all of the above information, I believe that some of the main points that define and distinguish Biblical Studies from the study of Scripture are as follows.
- embraces pluralism. It therefore avoids controversial, extreme, and dogmatic theological positions. It should be kept in mind that Biblical Studies is not specific to any religion, thus assertions that are authoritative, established, and/or non-controversial in one religious tradition may not be so in another.
- is empiricist. Concerning epistemology, Biblical Studies emphasizes evidence, especially as discovered in experiments. All hypotheses and theories must be tested against observations of the natural world rather than resting solely on a priori reasoning, intuition, or revelation. Where this cannot be done (which is often the case in this field), empiricists will opt for skepticism rather than rationalism.
- desires irenicism in its demeanor. This includes conducting discourse in a polite, academic tone but goes beyond this to include advocacy of peace and conciliation. This often takes the form of religious pluralism in an interfaith context such as BH.SE (as opposed to the ecumenism seen in exclusively Christian or Jewish scholarship). This will generally mean that theological positions that are viewed favorably within the field are those that advocate universalism, inclusivism, and subjects with social utility such as feminist and liberation theology.
Site-Specific Considerations for Future Direction
While the field of Biblical Studies itself is very broad and thus allows a variety of future paths, BH.SE's scope is slightly narrower in a few areas, specifically:
- This site is for anyone interested in Biblical texts and the field of Biblical Studies who takes the process of understanding the Biblical texts seriously. This site is not Christian, nor is it Jewish, nor is it affiliated with any specific religious tradition. Whether we allow for "the presence of diverse doctrinal absolutism" or embrace pluralism, the site should not favor any specific religious tradition over another nor allow a tradition's terms used in scholarly discourse to dominate discourse on BH.SE (for instance, using 'Old Testament' or 'Tanakh' as a primary tag rather than 'Hebrew Bible').
- We don't allow doctrinal questions. This meta answer goes so far as to assert that "any discussion of beliefs, doctrines or theology belongs on Christianity.SE.," to which I would also add MiYodeya.SE. Another meta post explains that BH.SE "should work forwards from a given text but stop short of application and doctrine.... Other verses and texts may be referenced in so far as they aid the understanding of the language and context of a passage, but not specifically to make an extended doctrinal point or provide application not derivable from the passage in question. A textual or hermeneutical relationship between passages should be shown rather than just theological [sic]."
- We don't allow questions that are specifically about the Greek, Aramaic, and Hebrew languages. Our About page makes it clear that these types of questions are off topic. Thus questions should only receive answers that explain the language insofar as it helps understand a specific text (we have inconsistently allowed several questions that violate this rule, however).
- We don't allow questions about ancient history without reference to Biblical texts. This is also stated on our About page. It might be better to edit this statement to say "without reference to specific Biblical texts" (I also believe we have been somewhat inconsistent on this as well).
- We must be nice. According to site policy, "Civility is required at all times; rudeness will not be tolerated. Treat others with the same respect you’d want them to treat you because we’re all here to learn, together. Be tolerant of others who may not know everything you know, and bring your sense of humor." We don't all agree on what constitutes being rude in this field, however. The definition of civility is "formal politeness and courtesy in behavior or speech." I believe that not allowing the needless disparagement of biblical and related scholarly texts, religious traditions, and theological positions would be a good start. A user has noted that many "biblical scholars" of the past did not follow this rule, which is true. At the same time, I believe that Legaspi has made it clear that Biblical Studies as a separate discipline from scriptural studies (which exclusively represented perspectives within or in opposition towards various faith groups) did not come to exist until the late 18th century in Germany. Thus you will not find examples prior to this as these would be examples relevant to C.SE or MY.SE not to what we are aiming for on BH.SE.
I believe that BH.SE also has some unique challenges that we must address and resolve soon in order for this site to remain viable:
- We are inconsistent. We have not followed two out of the three site distinctives I listed above which came directly from our About page. We need to ensure that we follow (and enforce) existing site guidelines and maintain our distinctives.
- We don't agree on what texts are on topic. As mentioned above, neither do Christians or Jews for that matter. We must specify the texts that are on topic in order to move forward satisfactorily. Once we have done that, we must also not allow people to disparage these texts needlessly simply because of their religious tradition or personal prejudices.
- We do not have agreed-upon definitions of commonly used terms in the field. Some terms have differing academic, textual, and even pejorative meanings. Examples include apocryphal, pagan, and (as it stands) biblical. For instance, I might (correctly) refer to Porphyry as a pagan philosopher, meaning that he was a polytheistic writer from the classical world. At the same time, I might discuss the meaning of the Greek adjective ἐθνικός which occurs throughout Biblical literature, which was somewhat of a derogatory term used by first-century Jews to refer to a Gentile. But I might also call a modern non-Judeo-Christian scholar a 'pagan' in a deprecatory fashion. This last use is inappropriate, but the first two have a place in scholarly discourse within the field of Biblical Studies. The alternative to having a central list of definitions is requiring OPs to define their terms when they use them, which seems excessively burdensome but may be the only way forward if we do not wish to standardize our terms and their meanings.
There are those who might argue that distinguishing between the study of Scripture and Biblical Studies creates a false dichotomy. I believe that Legaspi sufficiently defends the distinction in his book (and he even argues for a return to Scriptural study - thus against the direction of this site - but decidedly within a specific religious framework), but I would also argue that our site definition and the existence of C.SE and MY.SE justify (and perhaps even necessitate) such a distinction.
There are certainly those who will refuse to acknowledge such a dichotomy, or who will patently reject one field/approach over the other. These individuals are free to ask their questions on a site that encourages asking and answering exclusively from the perspective of their specific religious tradition. For those who acknowledge the distinction, they will learn (and many have already learned) to tailor their question(s) to each site in order to remain within site guidelines and to receive answers suited to the strengths and scope of each site.
What Does The Community Want?
I think I've made my position abundantly clear. It's time to hear back from the community. What do you want? Do you want a site devoted to Biblical Studies (as defined), or do you want a place for the study of Scripture?
It is my belief that existing sites already exist for the latter, and thus a choice for the latter or a choice for both brings our site viability into question. Thoughts?