The Westar Fall Meeting 2011 has passed. Thank you to all the participants who made the meeting a success! A report on the proceedings appears below for those who were unable to attend.

Report of the Bible Seminar

Stephen J. Patterson, Chair

From The Fourth R
Volume 25-3
May-June 2012

The Bible Seminar has begun. In Berkeley, California, just down the hill from where the Jesus Seminar made its start twenty-five years ago, Fellows and Associates of the Westar Institute assembled to begin the new work. The gathering was quite different from the initial meeting of the history-making Jesus Seminar. In the Fall of 1985 Robert Funk had gathered fifty scholars to a task set forth, more or less, by scholarly convention. The “quest for the historical Jesus” was a well- known, if overgrown path. As the Jesus Seminar unfolded and news spread, its reputation grew. Before long people who were not biblical scholars took an interest and asked to listen in. Funk said, “Of course.” And so the Westar Associates program was born. The Jesus Seminar became something more than just another gathering of scholars at work. Now sometimes hundreds of Associates also would gather to listen, learn, and pose their own questions.

When the Bible Seminar gathered for the first time at the Double Tree Hotel Berkeley on November 17–19, it was not simply a gathering of scholars. Together with fifty or so scholars, there were also two hundred or so Associates assembled to participate in the most unusual scholarly meeting any of them had ever attended. The plan was for scholars and Associates to sit together around a table and create the agenda for the Bible Seminar. This was a collaborative meeting. There was voting. There always is with the Jesus Seminar and its progeny. But this time the votes were from scholars and Associates and they were tallied together. At the end of the day, the assembly had identified a dozen or more high-interest questions in three different areas and ranked them in order of urgency. When the Bible Seminar meets again on November 24 in Chicago, the agenda will be the top-ranked questions in each area.

The day began with an opening statement from John Dominic Crossan, one of the co-chairs of the Bible Seminar. Next up was Mark George, professor of Hebrew Bible at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, who explained the day’s process, a variation of what has become known as “World Cafe.” Around each table were seated ten to twelve scholars and Associates. Before them lay ten questions, identified ahead of time by a scholar known for his/her expertise and interest in the subject matter. Their task was to assess those questions and rank them in order of urgency and importance. Then, they were to come up with additional questions to add to the initial list. Through the magic of Google Documents and the direction of Michael Hemenway, a graduate student at Iliff, the results from all the tables working simultaneously were made to appear in a common list that was projected for all to see in the convention hall. The work of the Bible Seminar could be observed in real time.

The first session of the seminar was devoted to questions about the Bible itself: What is it? How did we get it? What will it become in the future? The session was introduced by Pamela Eisenbaum, professor of New Testament at Iliff and a co-chair of the Bible Seminar. She kicked off the session by introducing her list of questions and offering a rationale for why the Seminar might want to direct its efforts here. The scholars and Associates took it from there. When the dust had settled, the following questions emerged, listed here in order of importance:

  1. Do we need to lend more precision to our terminology—what is the difference between sacred texts, scripture, canon, and Bible?
  2. If the Bible gets reconceptualized in the digital age, will Christianity, broadly speaking, get reconceptualized too?
  3. In what ways has print technology informed and delimited the modern understanding of the Bible?
  4. Can we ascertain what the conceptualization of scripture was before the rise of the codex? What is the relation between scripture and scroll?
  5. In what ways is digitization constructing scripture and canon differently than the book form and print technology?
  6. In what ways has the codex form of the Bible in- formed and delimited the modern understanding of scripture and canon?
  7. What is the relationship between a closed canon and a fixed text? And are they both tied to the printed word?
  8. How are the peoples of other religions imagining their holy books today, or historically for that matter? How is the digital revolution impacting them? What can we learn about the Jewish and Christian biblical imagination by the comparison?
  9. What do we know about written media technology when the writings of the Hebrew Bible were being collected?

Because the Bible is so familiar, it is easy to assume that every possible question about it has already been asked and answered. But in fact, there are basic questions that have never really been posed. For example, questions 3, 4, and 6, are questions that few have ever considered. One scholar, Robert Kraft, for more than fifty years professor of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, has addressed the question of how ancients viewed these texts that moderns regard as sacred. His response: we don’t exactly know. Kraft delivered the inaugural lecture for the seminar on Thursday evening to a packed ballroom. What does it mean, for example, that the texts we group together into one book, the Bible, all existed as separate scrolls in Antiquity? Before the codex (the first ancient book format) was invented, texts were written on scrolls, usually large enough to hold but a single text. How many sacred scriptures today derive their sacred status simply because they are printed alongside other sacred texts? And what will the status of these texts be when books are finally replaced by digital versions of the printed word? Will there still be a Bible when books are no more?

Next the Bible Seminar turned to questions about the role the Bible plays in society. Given the way the Bible is deployed today in the culture wars, are there issues that scholars and Associates think the Bible Seminar ought to engage? Arthur Dewey of Xavier University in Cincinnati, a longtime Fellow of the Jesus Seminar, introduced the questions for this session. A lively discussion ensued, and the results were gathered and projected in real time on the large screens in the front of the hall. When the results were in, these were the questions, in this order:

  1. Can the Bible be read meaningfully within a scientific, technological, and planetary perspective?
  2. Who speaks for the Bible today? How can the Bible be read, discussed, debated, and employed responsibly in a public venue?
  3. What should critical readers of the Bible do with such texts that depict divinely ordained or initiated violence? Is it enough to understand such texts, or should they be expunged from scripture?
  4. Is the Bible still a resource for a society in which interdependence and equality, not patriarchal domination, are the hallmark for a liberated life of women and men?
  5. Can investigation of the basic metaphors, and assumptions of debt and obligation in the Bible, throw significant light on the problem of individual, corporate, national, and global debt?
  6. Does the Bible have anything significant to say to other religions that transcends the tribalism of its temporal frame?
  7. What can and should a responsible reader of the Bible say within the public forum about the question of homosexuality?
  8. Has the Bible been replaced by film as the vehicle of meaning for human life?
  9. What does the Bible say about marriage and family values?
  10. Can the utopian aspects of certain biblical texts be embraced without aiding and abetting the denial of human limits and death?
  11. What does the Bible say about the American mono- myth of the rugged individual hero, who uses violence as a legitimate means to an end (for example, Dirty Harry’s “Go ahead, make my day”)?

This list contains some expected items, like, What does the Bible say about homosexuality? But these were not among the things that made the top of the list. Fellows and Associates aimed their sights at more basic questions, like whether the Bible even has a legitimate place in the modern world. And what shall modern readers do with the pervasive violence that runs throughout scripture? Can we afford to place a book so fraught with problems at the center of our conversations about ethics and values? This will be an exceptionally interesting and challenging set of questions.

Finally, the Bible Seminar turned to questions of history. The Jesus Seminar had posed the historical question about the early Christian gospels, but what about the rest of the Bible? Were there particularly salient questions that might be posed about the Hebrew Bible or other texts of the New Testament? To introduce the topic the Seminar invited David McCreery, professor of Religious Studies at Willamette University, an archaeologist and a scholar of the Hebrew Bible. Again, discussion followed and the results were tabulated. Here is what the assembled participants identified as the most pressing questions, in order:

  1. What is the current status of our understanding
of the origins of Ancient Israel and Judah? How does one define terms such as Canaanite, Amorite, Hebrew, Israelite, Judean, and track their historical development and interrelations?
  2. To what extent does Wellhausen’s Documentary Hypothesis of the origins of the Torah/Pentateuch still serve as a standard for literary analysis of the Hebrew Bible? How should these analyses be re- vised or should they be discarded altogether?
  3. What can be said about the historical Moses and the date(s) and origin(s) of the legal tradition(s) that are associated with him?
  4. What is the historical evidence (archaeological and literary) for the biblical account(s) of the Exodus from Egypt?
  5. To what extent does Gunkel’s analysis of the genres of myth, legend, and historical narrative still serve as a standard for literary analysis of the Hebrew Bible? How should these analyses be revised, or should they be discarded all together?
  6. Can the United Monarchy under David and Solomon be historically documented or is it largely fictitious?
  7. What can be documented regarding the historical Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as well as the nature of the Hebrew Bible genealogies in general?
  8. What is the historical evidence for the enslavement of the Hebrews in Egypt and the accounts of Joseph and his brothers in the biblical narrative?
  9. What led to the rise of the so-called Divided Monarchy of Israel and Judah in the ninth century bce? Was it the result of the breakdown of the United Monarchy, or were they kingdoms that emerged independently at roughly the same time, along with Edom, Moab and Ammon?
  10. How many voices are there in the Isaiah literature?

Some of these questions are of a technical nature, such as the matter of Wellhausen’s documentary hypothesis, or Gunkel’s literary forms. Still, Associates joined Fellows in ranking these arcane things relatively high. But some of these questions might turn out to be quite explosive. To what extent, for example, is U.S. Middle East policy wrapped up in a version of ancient history that scholars might call into question? Did the Israelites really conquer the land, directed by the hand of God, as the Bible says? And who were the ancient Israelites? How did they differ from Canaanites, if at all? The history of the Ancient Near East is the first chapter in the continuing story of modern Israel-Palestine, where history matters perhaps more than anywhere on earth. Whatever scholars say about these questions of ancient history, it is sure to raise even bigger questions about the Middle East today.

The Bible Seminar has made a beginning. The questions have been set, at least for now. Next fall the real work will begin as scholars take up the questions generated by Fellows and Associates alike. We will meet, again, on the eve of the Society of Biblical Literature in Chicago. Watch for announcements and a call for papers in the near future.