Danger: Biblical Scholar at Work

Ronald S. Hendel (Berkeley) challenges right-wing political correctness


Danger: Biblical Scholar at Work. Ronald S. Hendel (Berkeley) satirically suggests that a caution label be placed on his books—and perhaps those of other Biblical scholars—to warn readers that they may encounter unfamiliar and uncomfortable ideas within their pages. Image: John Gregory Drummond.

Is modern Biblical scholarship at risk?

In universities and institutions around the world, scholars engage in academic and critical Bible study. The goal of the modern Biblical scholar is not to prove or promote particular religious doctrines but to examine the Biblical text carefully—analyzing its composition and transmission and presenting the best interpretation of the text. Sometimes the results of academic and critical Bible study contradict the beliefs and doctrines held by certain religions, such as Christianity and Judaism. When there is a disagreement between academic and critical Bible study and traditional religious belief, it can lead to a variety of reactions—from outright rejection of an interpretation to acceptance. People fall everywhere in between the two ends of this spectrum, with some thoughtfully considering but still rejecting an interpretation and others arguing against but ultimately accepting it. All of these responses have their place in modern academia, where meaningful discussion and critical thought are major goals.

Recently Ronald S. Hendel, the Norma and Sam Dabby Professor of Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, has come under attack for promoting academic and critical Bible study. In the Biblical Views column “Biblical Scholarship at Risk,” published in the May/June 2017 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Hendel explains how he and his scholarship have been criticized by a right-wing organization—and what this could mean for the future of Biblical scholarship.

In our free eBook Frank Moore Cross: Conversations with a Bible Scholar Hershel Shanks conducts five interviews with the renowned Bible scholar.

During the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, the stakes were high for Biblical scholars whose work contradicted traditional religious beliefs; they were labeled heretics—and sometimes traitors. One would expect the accusation of treason for academic and critical Bible study to be a relic of the past. Ronald Hendel explains, “At public universities like the University of California, Berkeley, where I teach, there are rules about academic freedom to protect scholars from accusations of treason or heresy.” Yet despite this protection, Hendel was charged with treason by a right-wing organization. He explains:

Shortly after the presidential election, a right-wing organization issued a “Professor Watchlist,” which includes my name and picture. Along with some 200 other professors, I am accused of “promot[ing] anti-American values and advanc[ing] leftist propaganda in the classroom.” My un-American propaganda is modern Biblical scholarship. The list accuses me of the following crime: “[telling] students not to take his class if they think the Bible is infallible.” This is not quite true since I tell students that they are welcome to take the class if they can operate within its academic horizons, that is, learning the material even if they disagree with it.

In the U.S. and in other countries where there is religious freedom, Biblical scholarship that disagrees with the traditional religious beliefs of some is not grounds for treason. Hendel offers a satirical solution for those who disagree with his work: “In this dawning era of right-wing political correctness, I suppose that I ought to put a trigger warning on my books and courses, lest students be confronted with unfamiliar and uncomfortable ideas. Here’s my idea for a trigger warning: ‘Danger: Biblical scholar at work.’”

To read more about the development of modern Biblical scholarship and some of the threats it has faced over the centuries, read the Biblical Views column “Biblical Scholarship at Risk” by Ronald S. Hendel, the Norma and Sam Dabby Professor of Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, in the May/June 2017 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.


BAS Library Members: Read the full column “Biblical Scholarship at Risk” by Ronald S. Hendel in the May/June 2017 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

Not a BAS Library member yet? Join the BAS Library today.


Related reading in Bible History Daily:

Defining Biblical Hermeneutics

Who Tells the Truth—the Bible or Archaeology?

The Bible and Religious Violence
Ronald Hendel examines religious violence in antiquity and today

Overcoming Religious Illiteracy: Not as Simple as A, B or C
A Bible History Daily-exclusive contribution by “Bible in the News” author Leonard J. Greenspoon


Posted in Archaeologists, Biblical Scholars & Works.

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23 Responses

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  1. Tom says

    In the new era of left wing hostilities, that attempt to affect change through lawless deeds, inflammatory rhetoric, prevention of contrary speakers to address college audiences, etc., I find it quite disingenuous to claim that ONE, unnamed conservative group so upsets/offends/frightens a scholar.

  2. Jules says

    I trust that Professor Hendel was as passionate defender of free inquiry in the face of left wing threats of violence and actual violence. I would be curious to know his response to the recent left wing “demonstrations” at Berkeley, which after all, are much much greater a threat currently to the university than some “dawning era” of right-wing political correctness. We are still in the high noon of left-wing PC.

  3. Dan says

    I have been accused of “academic heresy” for suggesting that the biblical chronology for the kings of Israel and Judah is more accurate than the Hebrew kings chronology that has been forced to agree with Assyrian chronology. In order to make the Bible agree with secular Assyrian chronology, error in the biblical text must be assumed. However, it is just as valid to say that there may be error in the Assyrian chronology prior to 745 BCE (after that date, both agree). The reign of Tiglath-pileser III seems to be where most of the problem is located. That period of Assyrian history is iffy at best (not the fault of scholars, the Assyrian data is sketchy that they are working with). If anyone is interested in reading my argument that supports the accuracy of the biblical chronology for the Hebrew kings over the Assyrian chronology, you can download a free copy of my book Sacred Chronology of the Hebrew Kings at http://www.prophecysociety.org/?p=8146

  4. AF says

    It’s a shame that the article doesn’t mention specifically by name the organization that’s attempting to blacklist professors and “charge” them with treason.

    Surely, not identifying groups like this just shields them from public scrutiny. Their claims and ideology should be exposed to the light of day, not so much as to silence them necessarily, but so as to further discredit them.

    I for one was a bit surprised to hear that academics at places like UC Berkeley are concerned with a rising tide of “right wing political correctness” that seeks to supplant the regular old garden variety political correctness. It’s difficult to imagine these days that there is a single Biblical literalist student at Berkeley, much less sufficient numbers of them that professors opine about including “trigger warnings” with their course material. But stranger things have happened I suppose, and perhaps there is more extra-racial diversity at places like Berkeley than is often thought.

    As for literalists, dogmatists, extremists… They’ve been around forever, obviously. But I would hesitate to over-generalize the variety mentioned here in this article as “right-wing” since the over-generalization potentially gives the impression of seeking to conflate far-right radicalism with traditional, mainstream right-of-center thinking that is ethically sound, rational, and fact based.

    So if there really is an emerging threat to modern Biblical scholarship by far-right organizations and “right-wing political correctness”, then shouldn’t the perpetrators of it be mentioned by name?

  5. William says

    Did Dr. Ronald Hendel make the statements in class alleged by
    David Kurz? Statments such as, “Anyone can take this class, as long as you play by the rules of the game.” “If you disagree with the approach we use, that’s an F.” and “I don’t want people who are going to disagree with me all semester.”

    The entry on the Professor Watch List does not mention anti-American values and leftist propaganda. It’s simpley a very short description of what Dr. Hendel said to David Kurz when questioned about the point of view taken in the class.

    Anti-intellectual bigotry is not a “relic of the past.” It is alive and well in this article and Dr. Hendel’s classroom.

  6. Peter says

    This really is a bit much! – Ronald Hendel making a wild claim that Biblical scholarship is under threat from “political correctness” of the political right when his own university is involved in controversy over efforts to shut down speeches and courses which challenge the accepted majority views – all in order to appease groups who are prepared to use violence to prevent any defence of traditional Christian views.
    Across the western world such views on any and every subject are derided, abused, and silenced. In Biblical studies in particular this has long been the case. And yet Hendel plays the victim??? As if it is his revisionist views that are silenced. Incredible !
    He pretends that “Biblical scholars” (note the implication that those who disagree with his opinions are not scholars) possess intelligence beyond bias and their declarations are beyond the influence of opinion or group solidarity.
    All of this is nonsense, his fellow travellers are still human and humans are not like that. I find the views and attitudes of those he is prepared to call “biblical scholars” AND those who accuse him of “treason” to be irrational, illogical, and self-delusional. As for “unAmerican,” what has that to do with it? I have always thought that to be unAmerican is a good thing.

  7. eugene says

    What a blessing to hear of this watch list.
    It’s needs to be disseminated in all Christian periodicals, especially those with adolescent and college readers.

  8. Tim says

    This is ridiculous and another case of the academic community trying to counter anyone who disagrees with their highly biased community with some light from outside. Whereas campuses, particularly publicly funded schools, should demand a free exchange of competing ideas, our government universities have truly become ivory towers of liberalism in not only questioning but pontificating the minimalist position of biblical archaeology and a skeptic’s view of scripture, both as to its origin and in its content.
    That a professor at Berkeley, one of the most closed fortresses of “godless theology” in the nation, should complain about being blacklisted by those totally disagreeing with his teaching is the height of hypocrisy, or better yet of whining, when this same university and likely under his own leadership would and has easily restricted contradicting teaching on campus. This all has to be viewed as the privileged protecting their advantage in the marketplace of conflicting ideas where they hold the overwhelming advantage. The amazing fact is that with all this advantage in all the educational fields, including biblical studies, to spread their elite denial of biblical inspiration, they still are not able to convince the majority of Americans of their inferior world view.

  9. Rev.Susan says

    Where is Voltaire when we need him? “Believe as I do or God will Damn you” is infamy which needs crushed again! I’m a retired Presbyterian Church USA pastor and in the 1980s it was the conservative students at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary who complained of bias. NOW it is the far ‘right’ who are dangerous. Professor Ronald Hendel hold on tight. Some of us believe in the RIGHT of FREEDOM of RELIGION.

  10. Tim says

    Excerpting from in comment regarding the above:

    Phillip E. Johnson
    Reprinted from California Law Review,Volume 80, Number 4
    “The Creationist and the Sociobiologist: Two Stories About Illiberal Education”

    That a professor in a university classroom has no greater freedom of expression than the student editor of a high school newspaper, and much less than a high school student who wears an armband protesting the Vietnam War,33 might be surprising to those who recall the strong statements of support for academic freedom in Supreme Court opinions of the loyalty-oath era. For example, Justice Brennan’s opinion for the Court in Keyishian v. Board of Regents said:

    Our Nation is deeply committed to safeguarding academic freedom, which is of transcendent value to all of us and not merely to the teachers concerned. That freedom is therefore a special concern of the First Amendment, which does not tolerate laws that cast a pall of orthodoxy over the classroom.34

    Judge Gibson’s opinion actually quoted that statement, but only to hold that it “cannot be extrapolated to deny schools command of their own courses,” because “[federal judges should not be ersatz deans or educators.”35 Academic freedom is protected not by the judiciary, wrote Judge Gibson, but by the presumed sensitivity of administrators to conditions in the academic labor market. “University officials are undoubtedly aware that quality faculty members will be hard to attract and retain if they are to be shackled in much of what they do.”36

    The district court had been particularly impressed by the selectivity of the University’s policy, which did not exclude the subject of religion, but permitted only one kind of opinion on that subject to be discussed. The policy “would allow groups of young philosophers to meet to discuss their skepticism that a Supreme Being exists, or a group of political scientists to meet to debate the accuracy of the view that religion is the ‘opium of the people.'”37 The district judge noted that the University even offers courses in religion and theology, but prohibits instructors in those courses (but not in other subjects) from stating their personal views about the subjects they teach.38 How can the First Amendment permit, much less require, that the content of speech be so selectively restricted? The court of appeals answered that selectivity was entirely justified, because Bishop’s viewpoint was particularly likely to cause “apprehension”:

    [T]he University asks only that [Bishop] separate his personal and professional beliefs and that he not impart the former to his students during “instructional time” or under the guise of the courses he teaches in so-called optional classes.

    …Dr. Bishop has tried to make much of the fact that the University has no policy for limiting the speech of its professors only to their subject areas…. [He] has filed numerous affidavits by other instructors at the University describing their extracurricular speech in the classroom as efforts to reach out to students. These attempts at professor-student affinity are laudable. But plainly some topics understandably produce more apprehension than comfort in students. Just as women students would find no comfort in an openly sexist instructor, an Islamic or Jewish student will not likely savor the Christian bias that Dr. Bishop professes …. There is no suggestion that any other professor has produced student complaints or struck constitutional chords.39

    Although the court of appeals insisted that it was for administrators to decide which opinions were too unsettling to be uttered in the classroom, the administrators themselves were under the impression that they were obligated to silence Bishop on legal grounds. In court, the University defended its position on the theory that Bishop’s remarks violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.40 The court of appeals did not formally decide the Establishment Clause question, but left little doubt as to what its decision would have been. “Dr. Bishop’s optional class was particularly suspect,” remarked the opinion, because the “creation/design aspect of his lecture could have lent itself to an analysis as found in Edwards v. Aguillard, 482 U.S. 578 (1987).”41

    If the First Amendment forbids a state university to allow any mention of creation even in voluntary, after-class sessions, then freedom of expression must be a very subtle doctrine. If the legality of unorthodox speech turns on whether it has any educational value, then it may conceivably benefit students to hear an argument for an opinion that is pervasively denigrated in the rest of the curriculum. Professor Bishop holds such a disfavored opinion about his subject, the human body. He thinks that the body was produced by an intelligent designer rather than by an unguided naturalistic process. He therefore rejects the neo-Darwinistic theory of evolution, which is taught in most universities as fact. According to Darwinism, the appearance of intelligent design in biology is misleading. No designer was involved, because scientific investigation has established that a combination of random genetic changes and natural selection actually crafted the biological wonders that creationists have cited to support the argument from design. As George Gaylord Simpson, one of the most authoritative proponents of neo-Darwinism, put the point in his book The Meaning of Evolution: “Man is the result of a purposeless and natural process that did not have him in mind.”42

  11. charles says

    Compare: Ronald Hendel explains, “At public universities like the University of California, Berkeley, where I teach, there are rules about academic freedom to protect scholars from accusations of treason or heresy.”

    With: I tell students that they are welcome to take the class if they can operate within its academic horizons, that is, learning the material even if they disagree with it.

    This is the liberal mindset where only one politically-correct view is allowed and they laughingly call it intellectual freedom!?

  12. Peter says

    This posting is written by “Biblical Archaeology Society staff.” The responsibility for the presentation is theirs. It is a summary of an article by Ronald Hendel. I would ask the same questions as William, above, has done? I will assume that the summary accurately reflects the original article, but I am now even less inclined to become a BAS Library member so I am unable to verify that.

    AF, above, regrets that the article doesn’t name the “right-wing group.” I suggest that not naming the group is the whole point. A single event is used to smear “right-wing” groups in what appears to be a nascent effort to invent a threat to academic freedom from the RIGHT. It is symptomatic of the madness of the times that, although the well-established and increasingly violent attacks on academic freedom have been, and are being, mounted from the LEFT, the mere parroting of a supposed threat from the right will be enough to convince those who wish to be convinced, and will encourage those who believe that academic freedom consists in smashing windows, fire-bombing buildings, pepper spraying speaker and audience, and drowning our speech by th constant blowing of whistles, to mention but a few of the techniques of freedom.

    Like William, and unlike the Biblical Archaeology Society staff, I searched for “Professor Watchlist” and quickly found the “threat to academic freedom.” There was a three sentence introduction, one link to the student’s story as reported in The College Fix, and one link to an op-ed by Ronald Hendel in The Daily Californian, which was a response to an earlier op-ed in the same outlet by the student, David Kurz.

    You may judge for yourselves whether each side in this debate is accurately representing his own and his opponent’s point of view. That is, you are free, courtesy of Professor Watchlist, to do so. That fact alone renders Prof. Hendel’s dramatics absurd.

    Most readers will not take that trouble, but will accept this story at its face value, tending to reinforce the fantasy of a “right-wing” threat to academic freedom. Shame on you, Biblical Archaeology Society staff.

  13. FROILAN says

    Listening from opposing panels reactions & reasonings give essence and substance to the issue being raised. I enjoyed much listening to their feedback moreover than the article itself.
    This is what make BAR Society I’m thankful for!
    An open forum is an open arena for intellectual persons. We see them and feel them by reading between the line of their conversations!
    Thank to contributors, readers and the BAR Society itself.

  14. Donald says

    Boo-hoo. The left can’t take criticism. It can only dish it out ? Students can’t challenge their teachers ? Just what country is Berkeley in ? Oh wait, I forgot, professors speak with the FINAL VOICE OF AUTHORITY ! Oh, woe is me and any other to raise a voice of dissension.

  15. JEFFREY says

    I concur

  16. hope says

    Are the classes at Berkley free? No? When did grown men become as dramatic as pre teen girls? I suppose your anonymous right wing group is Christian . Maybe they were warning those that believe the Bible is a religious (not political ) book , the infallible Word of God not to waste their time or money. Nice try

  17. Krzysztof says

    Scandalous. Bible is true but not as a textbook of science (biology, history or physics); any textbook on Bible teaches on literary genres text were written by authors. True strictly is a term (philosophical) used to value (true or false)a sentence (St.Aristotle, 4th B.C, A.Tarski, On Truth, 1935 A.D). I suspect we live in a Dark Ages again not insulting St.Thomas Aquinas or Paris University, though much of his work is outdated like any scholar. I dare to say only a “Tsunami” will give a lesson; remember, Jesus from Nazareth warned the whole generation and not only individuals. Do not forget that a Devil Empire, Red one collapsed formally on Dec.8,1991, Immaculata Feast like plenty military battles in the past; forgotten the Fear of 1970 of nuclear Disaster? A short memory? Who has planned it? An invisible Hand -Exodus 3,14 (I AM)!

  18. Jolynn says

    Oh no! It’s the vast, right wing conspiracy at Berkeley.

  19. Eugene says

    I find it laughable that a professor at Berkeley, of all places, is concerned about a threat to academic freedom.

  20. Martha says

    Berkeley? BERKELEY? You gotta be KIDDING!!! The People’s Republic Of Berkeley, bastion of political correctness, is complaining about an unnamed “right wing Christian group?” But of course never, never, never complaining about unnamed political “sources” in the White House, the Congress, the Pentagon, and elsewhere, most of which in my opinion originate in the newsroom.

  21. David says

    belief or opinion contrary to orthodox religious (especially Christian) doctrine is the definition of Heresy. If you are teaching other than the orthodox viewpoint of the Bible, you are a Heretic – be proud of it! Expect those with orthodox views to attack your position – I will attack your position any time you teach the Bible is wrong.

    I will not attack you, nor should any other person attack the person of the heretic. Each of us have positions where we disagree with the current teaching of even our own church, and those disagreements are heretical. They are also proper and should be applauded. This is the way we learn – we must reject all previous thought and force our teachers and instructors to prove every point that put forth as truth.

    I would not expect a heretic to attack me or my position either. If the instructor has a position and presents a valid proof for his position, and I take a counter positions and am able to present an equally valid proof for my position, then I should not expect the instructor to hold me in disrepute, nor to judge my position by his position.

  22. bob says

    Such list are nothing new. That you so recently learned of ’em means you are living in a bubble, I suspect. I doubt there is anything to worry about for you. You may have been on other lists in the past.

    Perhaps you need to get out more, LOL. :)

  23. Joe says

    When it comes to religious belief, what is taught or submitted as absolute must be absolute TRUTH as best we can determine. This information dissemination is well documented in “Israel and the Dead Sea Scrolls” that shows hard disagreement at the time the Scrolls were first discovered and how the information finally came into scholastic scrutiny. This article is witness to continued bias in the I’m-right and you’re-wrong attitudes so contrary to Scripture that calls for love. There is no love outside of truth and those without total truth had better nuzzle up to forgiveness for many reasons, whether on the Left or Right. Biblical Archeology is not the place for right fighting. Just present the beautiful facts as discovered and allow the Subject of it all to correct thinking, belief and knowledge. We all want to know more. Biblical Archeology Review is in that teachable position. No prejudice, please.

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