Deeper Reasons for the Bias in Biblical Studies

There is a liberal slant in biblical studies, but it has an older and more persistent source than merely the general liberalism or leftism of today’s academy.

Looking closely at the Hebrew Bible. iStockPhoto/tzahiV.

Looking closely at the Hebrew Bible. iStockPhoto/tzahiV.

July 17 2017
About the author

Jon D. Levenson is the Albert A. List Professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard University and the author of Inheriting Abraham: The Legacy of the Patriarch in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (Library of Jewish Ideas; Princeton University Press).

Joshua Berman’s essay, “The Corruption of Biblical Studies,” is an insightful and eloquent discussion of some of the outstanding problems in the discipline of which we are both members, and it offers some wise counsel about how, ideally, the discipline can set itself aright. Although I do not dispute his observations about the history that has brought us to this pass, I think the problem is somewhat larger, deeper and, sadly, less amenable to correction than he implies. Let me briefly explain.

Berman’s opening comments about the breadth of current interest in the Bible draw attention to the key fact that much of the study of the Bible takes place outside the modern academy. Indeed, the phenomenon of biblical studies, understood as the systematic intellectual exploration of the scriptural text, long predates the emergence of characteristically modern modes of study and their institutional homes. Traditionally, the study of the Bible (Jewish or Christian) took place in religious communities. It was an expression of personal commitment and occurred in tandem with the study of other books essential to the community in question.

There was, in other words, a larger, encompassing affirmation that valorized and energized the whole enterprise, and teachers and students shared the particular life of practice with which the affirmation was inextricably associated. The instructors were not simply sources of information or people from whom to learn a skill; they were expected to be, in one way or another, role models, engaged in the liturgy of the community, observing its norms, and upholding its ethic. For teachers and students alike, studying the Bible constituted what the historian of philosophy, Pierre Hadot, borrowing from the Jesuit tradition, called a “spiritual exercise.” Certainly, talmud torah, the study of Torah (whether Written or Oral) in Jewish tradition, fell into that category.

This was true not only for the older European universities, which were closely associated with the Church, but also for a large proportion of the early private colleges and universities in the United States, which began under religious auspices and, in many cases, maintained an active commitment to the theology of the sponsoring group into the 20th century. A pamphlet from 1643, for example, gives this as the reason the Puritans had recently founded a college (Harvard): “One of the next things we longed for and looked after was to advance learning and perpetuate it to posterity; dreading to leave an illiterate ministry to the churches, when our present ministers shall lie in the dust.”

In a small minority of institutions of higher learning today, vivid, holistic religious commitments of this sort can still be found, but if Berman is right that biblical studies is “the most popular online branch of the liberal arts” (emphasis added), most of the people doing the searching are not professional scholars but, as he notes, religiously motivated laymen seeking enlightenment.

Berman is also right to point to the early modern period and figures like Spinoza for the origins of the distinctively modern (“critical,” “historical critical”) mode of biblical study. Further in the background of this momentous shift lay the Protestant Reformation and its rejection of a large part of Church tradition in the name of scripture. Even that development, in turn, owed much to the emergence in the Middle Ages, among both Jews and Christians, of a mode of commentary that sought out the plain sense (peshat in Hebrew, sensus literalis in Latin) in contradistinction to the more imaginative but less controlled interpretations of the classical traditions.

What distinguishes historical critical study from those distant medieval antecedents is the question of authorship. In a word, whereas the premodern traditions, including the Protestant Reformers, had seen God as the ultimate author of the text (whatever the degree or mode of human mediation), historical critics increasingly came to treat the text as a human artifact, authored by historical figures with their own contingent identities, including linguistic, cultural, social, political, and now gender identities. (Scholars could still believe that God was the ultimate author, but this became a private conviction without operational relevance to the task of the critical biblical scholar.) To interpret the text accurately, the identity of the author and his historical location had to be reconstructed, and this required the dating of the text and, correlatively, its extrication from texts of later or earlier authors with which it had come to be interwoven. Biblical scholars in this newer mode, like scholars throughout the humanities, drew energy from the recognition that texts and religions had histories; they were not static and unvarying.

At first glance, the new insight might be taken to be not so new after all. An example that Berman offers in order to make a somewhat different point is instructive here. Berman understands the contradictions between the laws of the Passover offering in Exodus 12 and in Deuteronomy 16 to mean that the Deuteronomic procedure is “a later adaptation and newfound application of the law in Exodus 12.” Thus, “the final version of the Torah retains the earlier version of the law because it is committed to showing how the law evolved” (his emphasis).

Whether the version in Deuteronomy is newer or older than the one in Exodus is a nettlesome question, long disputed by historical critics. But even if we assume that Deuteronomy 16 is the later text, it is doubtful that the author(s) of Exodus 12 would have accepted the idea that its procedures were only temporarily valid, to be happily superseded as time went on and circumstances changed. If the admonition, “You shall observe this as an ordinance for you and your descendants forever” (Exod 12:24), refers to the whole rite, then it certainly counts against any such argument for smooth historical evolution rather than diversity of discrete sources.

To be sure, the home-based blood ritual of Exodus did disappear and centralization of sacrifice in the Temple (a key provision of Deuteronomy) came into effect; but to call this “a later adaptation and newfound application” of the same law seems to me to downplay the degree of divergence. And even if Berman is right that “the final version of the Torah retains the earlier version of the law because it is committed to showing how the law evolved”—actually, to reconstruct the intention of the final version without a circular argument is another formidable challenge—this evolution is placed by the narrative within the lifetime of one man, Moses, and thus is only a very distant analogy to the sort of historical change that critical scholars trace, a change proceeding over centuries and taking effect only unevenly among various communities.


In sum, historical critical scholars are after much bigger fish: not simply the pragmatic adaptation of one unvarying religion to new circumstances but the historical development of a whole religion. To use Berman’s American analogy, most historical critics, at least classically, have conceived of the process not, as he suggests, along the lines of amendments to the Constitution but rather of different constitutions that ultimately come together in a redacted document that privileges none of them: the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

With the wide diffusion of historical criticism in the 19th and 20th centuries, history thus became the prestige discipline among university-based biblical scholars and, increasingly, among their seminary-based colleagues as well; non-historical, or synchronic, readings came to appear at best non-academic and at worst indefensible. Scholars who read biblical texts as coherent wholes, effectively without compositional histories, seemed naïve because they ignored history, the key category.

Berman objects to today’s labeling of acclaimed literary critics like Robert Alter and Meir Sternberg as “uncritical” for reading “the received text . . . as a coherent work,” but the label makes sense if one understands the specialized use of the word “critical” in biblical studies. Traditionally, critics in the literary sense of the word have read texts synchronically, as a snapshot, as it were, whereas biblical critics have read them as videos, unfolding over time and with alertness on the part of the interpreters to the possibility that discordant materials have been spliced in, as in the case of other ancient Near Eastern compositions.

In this light, one of the more encouraging developments over the past 40 years or so has been the increasing openness of biblical scholars to synchronic readings and, correlatively, to the literary sophistication of the texts. Whereas redactors were once seen as clumsy—after all, they are identified by their errors—there has now emerged a sense that editors can be literary artists in their own right. Still, the fact that a text can be read as a unity does not entail that it must be so read or is best read as a unity for all purposes, including those of the historian. Whereas biblical critics have traditionally begun their inquiries with a keen openness to the possibility of multiple sources, and literary critics, like ardent religious traditionalists, have usually begun theirs with an assumption of the unity of whatever text happens to lie before their eyes, today I sense that biblical scholars are increasingly seeking to do justice to both dimensions of study—a highly difficult task, to be sure, but also one that is more balanced than the alternatives.

Another factor at work here is that the emergence of the historical focus in biblical studies in the distinctively modern mode corresponded to large-scale changes in the social dimension of the field. No longer would teachers and students need to share a religious commitment or even to have one. Now, Jews, Christians, secularists, and others could, in principle, all meet as equals in the classroom, pursuing a sense of scripture that was, ideally, independent of all contemporary commitments.

In other words, whatever religious identity and theological affirmation scholars may have had (or not had) became a strictly private matter, bracketed off from their academic work. Precisely because the scholarly enterprise was restricted to the study of the past—to what the text meant, not what it means—all could work together in ways they could not in the older, religiously affiliated context. The relation of this new social situation to Enlightenment notions of the separation of church and state and of freedom of religion is obvious and hardly coincidental.


But the new context of biblical studies did not supersede the old so neatly as this idealized account suggests, and for very good reason. For one thing, the very term “Bible” is inherently confessional. To what collection are we referring, the Jewish canon of scriptures or the Christian? If the latter, to which Christian canon, the Roman Catholic, the Protestant, or one of the Orthodox canons? Recourse to terms like “received text” and “final version” can only obfuscate this question; they cannot answer it.

The difference canon makes can be easily demonstrated. Suppose the subject is the figure of Abraham, the canon is a Christian one, and the interpreter is practicing synchronic literary study—viewing the text as a snapshot, that is, not as a video. In that case, he must take serious account of what New Testament books like Galatians or Romans have to say and cannot dismiss or sideline them as alien or chronologically later. More subtly, he may be inclined to read the Abraham narratives in Genesis through an early-Christian lens, or at least to highlight the putative continuities rather than the differences. Needless to say, interpreting Abraham within a Jewish canonical context would yield a significantly different picture.

But equally important is the simple circumstance that a high degree of attention to the Bible (under whatever delimitation) is mostly a product of its religious usage, current or historical. And, in fact, the personal origins of most critical scholars have always lain in religious communities, whether they continue actively to affirm theological convictions (as many do) or not. Indeed, much of the work in biblical studies still goes on in seminaries and in religiously sponsored colleges and universities. There is, in short, a tension between the modern methods of study, on the one hand, and the choice of subject and the social reality of the personnel pursuing it, on the other.

For some practitioners of biblical studies, this tension can be relaxed by pursuing their discipline in ways that are often labeled “conservative,” the term here referring not so much to a political as to a religious stance that minimizes the divergence between traditional teaching and the findings of modern scholarship. Thus, these scholars tend to:

  • favor the Masoretic text on the assumption (commonest among Jews and usually undefended) that it is the oldest and most reliable in all instances;
  • develop arguments for early dating, though not necessarily as early as claimed by the internal biblical chronology and attributions;
  • deny or downplay historical change and stress continuity;
  • mount cases for the historical reliability of biblical reportage;
  • argue for unitary composition of individual texts or large blocks of text;
  • uphold the overall coherence of the Bible (including, for Christians, the coherence of the two testaments with each other and their mutual implication);
  • argue for the radical distinctiveness of ancient Israel (and, for Christians, the Church and the Gospel as well) against the ostensibly countervailing evidence derived from the massive recovery of ancient Near Eastern and Greco-Roman texts over the last two centuries.

Of course, the key elements underlying the traditional religious claims—the efficacious word, personal intervention, and providential guidance of God in the story told by the text and in the production of the text itself—cannot be confirmed by any historical analysis or textual exegesis. But the “conservative” approach can seem to relieve to some degree the tension between the traditional religious and the academic cultures and to disguise the need for serious theological rethinking about the nature of biblical truth in light of modern discoveries.

To biblical scholars who either have never had a vivid religious identity or are in full flight from one—the former category seems to me to be becoming more common, the latter to have been common for a long time—this “conservative” posture rings alarms, since to them it seems to violate the ground rules of the modern pluralistic academy, recalling instead the pre-Enlightenment situation and the social sectors in which it is still alive today, principally those of Christian fundamentalists and Orthodox or ḥaredi Jews. For that reason, the default position adopted by these scholars is the one that could be labeled “liberal.”

Berman would prefer that such labels disappear altogether. I fully agree, but I would also caution that the “conservative” positions are unlikely to seem any more plausible if the adjective vanishes. This is partly because of the threat that they seem to pose to the social and intellectual basis of modern (that is, pluralistic and non-confessional) scholarship and partly because the issues are complex and, as always in the humanities (and often in other fields), not very amenable to definitive resolution. Contrary to the use of the word “corruption” in Berman’s title, what we are dealing with here is at most a bias, one that persists in part because of the necessarily non-confessional ground rules of study in a religiously pluralistic framework.

To be sure, a more thoroughgoing pluralism would not privilege liberal or secular positions any more than it privileges traditional religious ones. But to achieve that more genuine pluralism is a very tall order indeed and a goal that, in general, liberals and secularists, like their traditionalist opponents, are none too eager to pursue.


Given the regnant secularism and liberalism of the contemporary academy, a less costly mode of relieving the tension between the academic framework and a robust religious identity is to interpret the religious heritage as endorsing views and attitudes that the academy favors. Berman’s analysis of recent works by Benjamin D. Sommer and David M. Carr, two of the outstanding biblical scholars of our time, suggests that they are doing just that.

It is certainly true that if Sommer and Carr took positions strongly opposed to those they advocate in the books Berman discusses, their work might be labeled “conservative” and marginalized to a large degree, at least in the elite academy, as a result. But, here again, there is no “corruption” (and Berman wisely does not use the term in connection with them), and, if any argument these two scholars make is to be countered, it will have to be on the basis of “the evidence put forward and the cogency and integrity of its treatment,” to quote Berman’s words.

Although I do not pretend to speak for Sommer or Carr, it would surprise me if either of these particular scholars thought his work advanced a “secular” perspective or promoted “deconstruction,” two terms that Berman finds indicative of the bias of the discipline in general. Rather, the books in question seem to me to be in the service of what we might broadly term “liberal religion.” In the minds of most adherents of this kind of religion, work of the sort produced by Sommer and Carr does not devalue the Bible or reduce it to inaccuracy or incoherence, to employ three other terms with which Berman characterizes “the default academic position of the left.” Nor does the determination of “late composition” (another of Berman’s complaints) generally serve to discredit the scriptures for liberal communities, as it does for those on the religious right whose faith stands or falls on the basis of the historical accuracy of the traditional attributions and chronologies.

Rather, in my experience, religious liberals tend to perceive interpretations like Sommer’s and Carr’s as reclaiming the Bible and revitalizing the community’s engagement with it. This is not an argument in favor of the particular cases made by these scholars (or by liberal theology overall), but it does caution against the assumption that a given argument must derive from the same motivation and have the same effect across the religious spectrum. What may seem to devalue and discredit the Bible in a heavily Orthodox Jewish institution like Bar-Ilan University, where Berman teaches, can elicit a very different resonance in liberal seminaries of the kinds at which Sommer and Carr teach. The key variables are the theological conception of the Bible and the way that it meets, or declines to meet, the challenges to traditional doctrines that emanate from modern critical study.


The brunt of my argument has been that in the case of biblical studies, the liberal bias has a deeper and more persistent source than merely the general liberalism or leftism of today’s academy. That source is the social situation that emerges from the non-confessional, pluralistic study of an incorrigibly particular and religiously delimited set of books. In order to participate in the whole enterprise, scholars must learn to bracket the preconceptions deriving from the vivid religious life that most of them have had (and many still have) and to subject them to critical scrutiny. If, ultimately, the scholars re-embrace those conceptions, they must do so on the basis of something like what the philosopher Paul Ricoeur called the “second naïveté.” But that move of reclamation and normative affirmation lies outside the domain of historical critical study of the Bible per se and in that of theology instead (an area of study in which, increasingly, biblical scholars have little experience). To the extent that a given interpretation by a given scholar seems to validate the positions characteristic of the “first naïveté,” it will be critically suspect, and other scholars will sometimes overreact to it for reasons that are, ironically, themselves suspect from a critical point of view.

At least in the American context, the political situation on campus at the moment adds more fuel to the distaste for traditional Christian positions, and sometimes Jewish ones as well. That academics, and elite academics all the more so, lean strongly to the left on politics has been true for some time. So has the disproportionate rate of secularity among professors. By contrast, about 80 percent of evangelicals (the most Bible-centered of Christians) voted for President Trump, and the positions such believers espouse, especially on issues of sexuality, are anathema to the left—redolent, it is said, of hatred and violence and not to be tolerated. The old term “liberalism” does not fit this attitude: what is actually at hand is an angry, aggressive radicalism without the respect for personal conscience and the sense of limits characteristic of political liberalism in the past.

As for liberal religious groups, they tend, for the most part, to be in full accord with the new ethos. In any event, being in precipitous demographic and cultural decline, they are unlikely to offer much effective counterweight to the militant secularism and contempt for Bible-based religion endemic (with some exceptions) in the academic world today.

It is hard to predict how far the academy will go in its current direction or how long the present cultural situation will last. But if things continue on their current course, the effect on biblical studies, as on the life of the mind in general, will result in something even worse than what Joshua Berman describes in the most accurate descriptions in his essay.

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