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