Reflections on the state of Biblical Studies
Editor’s note: Last week, Professor Leopoldo Sánchez offered his reflections on this year’s American Academy of Religion (AAR) meeting. The Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) meets and the same time and place. Thus, Professor Paul Raabe offers his reflections on the SBL meeting below.
During the weekend before Thanksgiving many of our exegetical professors at Concordia Seminary went to the annual Society of Biblical Literature meeting in Atlanta. At this meeting thousands of biblical professors and scholars and graduate students converge to read and hear scholarly papers and to talk shop. In short, we were there to “confer, converse, and otherwise hobnob” with other biblical scholars.
It is always a good thing for Concordia professors and graduate students to be there. It allows us the opportunity to see what kinds of research are being done today so that we can try to keep up with the field. In fact, the area of biblical studies is so burgeoning, that it is becoming nearly impossible to keep up. Nevertheless, it is important to engage recent studies and research as much as possible.
Biblical scholarship exercises a lot of influence over what the general public thinks about the Bible and what public universities say about the Bible. Being active in SBL gives us opportunities to give papers and talk with other professors in order to try to have some positive influence on the thinking of those outside our circles who teach the Bible. We are not the only ones in the world who teach the Bible. It would be irresponsible if we were to act like a closed-off, isolated, insular little sect just talking to ourselves. Our teachers need to be involved and engaged in outside scholarly groups. We have things to contribute. Reading texts and doing theology are strengths in the LCMS. We need to invest in this type of activity. Serious biblical scholarship is not a hobby; it takes time and effort and intentionality. And it is encouraging to see more and more orthodox Christians entering into these discussions and debates. The SBL provides one place where that can happen with others from around the world.
Here are some reflections. One thing you see is an ever-increasing atomization. Entire sessions were devoted to examining the ins and outs of some small, insignificant detail in a specific text. While we must attend to details, it can soon end up majoring in minors and much ado about nothing. There were also sessions devoted to old diachronic methods such as source and redaction criticism. For example, one seminar is devoted to studying the hypothetical “Q” document.
However, there are some very positive trends as well. Many biblical scholars are interested in a synchronic, holistic approach to the Scriptures. They ask: “What does the text actually say and how does it say it?” These are good questions to ask. Along with this more holistic approach is a growing interest in biblical theology. Years ago one did not see many sessions devoted to biblical theology, but that is changing. Both of these trends are most helpful and fruitful. And some papers were describing a biblical emphasis in ways that we Lutherans can applaud. For example, to a packed room of almost 500 one paper expounded on Paul’s understanding of salvation in a very acceptable and laudable way. There are scholars out there who are basically Lutheran in many ways without knowing it. We might call them “crypto-Lutherans.”
In addition to the papers are the book displays of various publishers. Much exciting literature is being published in the field of biblical studies. It was great to see our own Concordia Publishing House there promoting the Concordia Commentary series, which now has 29 volumes. In short, much of the work being done in the smorgasbord known as the SBL Annual Meeting proved to be helpful and edifying. It is important for Lutheran biblical scholarship to be active in this and other scholarly societies.