Examining Issues of Identification and Ethical Concerns in Biblical Scholarship: An Interview with Hector Avalos
By Tim Morgan
At this year’s American Academy for Religion conference, cohosted with the Society for Biblical Literature, on November 22-26 in Baltimore, I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Hector Avalos, Professor of Religious Studies at Iowa State University and author of nine books and dozens of articles, both academic and popular. On the second day of the conference, he was a presenter for the “Biblical ‘Genocide’ in Biblical Scholarship” panel, which was part of the SBL Use, Influence, and Impact of the Bible Section/Metacriticism of Bible Scholarship Consultation series sponsored within the conference. He presented a paper titled, “Genocide: Biblical Scholarship as Biblical Apologetics,” in which he argued, contrary to the other presenters, that the god of the Old Testament endorses genocide as well as slavery and that this, along with a variety of other reasons, including the idea of hell preserved in the New Testament, makes the Bible indefensible as a source of moral authority. His presentation was met with definitive applause at its conclusion, despite the fact that denunciation of perceived biblical ethics within biblical scholarship is uncommon, a topic he also discusses in his latest book, Slavery, Abolitionism, and the Ethics of Biblical Scholarship, published by Sheffield Phoenix Press in 2011.
The following day, Dr. Avalos graciously sat down with me for thirty minutes to answer some questions for this interview. We discussed his views on the state of biblical scholarship today and how it relates to questions of textual authority, scholarly identity, concerns of ethics and messaging in biblical readings, and future directions in the field.
Tim Morgan: Why do you think there are so few professed atheist and agnostic Bible scholars in the field? Even considering the small representation of atheists and agnostics in the general public, it seems that they are under-represented in your area of study. Do you agree, and if so, why do you think this is?
Hector Avalos: To me, it’s a historical phenomenon –biblical scholars usually come from religious households where the Bible was an authority. Even if they become liberal, they don’t give up their religion completely. They feel that if they did so, then they would abandon their community, their tradition, etc. They agree with me on 95 percent of what I say, but they aren’t willing to take the extra step.
TM: In your experience, on the same token, does increased exposure to the various aspects of biblical scholarship tend to belie the notion of inerrancy for many – possibly most? – scholars, even if the field as a whole remains a “religionist enterprise,” implicit or otherwise, according to your own assessment in your writings? Why or why not?
HA: Yes, it does. I have lots of friends who started out as conservative but had their faith undermined with exposure to biblical study. They believe the Bible is right about some things, but they pick and choose. Most biblical scholars don’t believe it’s right in everything, such as Adam and Eve (as literal historical figures) and Noah’s Ark.
TM: You write in an essay titled “Why Biblical Studies Must End,” published as a chapter in The End of Christianity (Prometheus Books, 2011), that it is best to “[r]etain biblical studies, but redefine its purpose so that it is tasked with eliminating completely the influence of the Bible in the modern world.” Undoubtedly, this is a minority position in your field, and it could be charged with that you are promoting a position that is not neutral with respect to objective goals of academic inquiry. How would you respond to the attestation that you are swapping one form of bias for another, i.e. changing the pro-Christian slant in biblical studies that you allege to an anti-Christian one?
HA: I don’t study the Bible with an anti-Christian bias, but to me, one objective is determining what the authors of the Bible say. I reject the Bible’s principles if what biblical authors say disagrees with my values, but that goes for everyone when they study any text. Other Bible scholars disagree on the justifiability of some things that the Bible says about genocide, infanticide, etc., but they don’t necessarily disagree on what the Bible says about those issues. When I look at the Bible, I’m being as objective as possible in determining what it says. I may disagree with other scholars on whether God actually did command genocide or not. If I’m anti-Christian, it’s not because I’m not objective, but because I have values that are different from those who are pro-Christian. It’s a value judgment whatever side you are on.
TM: You have written in many places and spoken publicly about your belief that the Bible promotes genocide and slavery, amongst other horrors from which humanity can emerge in part from forming a “postscriptural society.” If this is true, how can contemporary Christians speak out against these atrocities, yet still maintain an allegiance to the Bible, in some form or another?
HA: Such Christians have to pick and choose – there is no other way to hold the Bible as sacred. This is called “representativism”. For example, some scholars may argue that love represents the “true” teachings of the Bible, whereas I can argue that intolerance is equally or more representative of the Bible’s “true” message.
TM: Jean-Francois Bayet has written, as the academic website Culture on the Edge emblazons on its header, “There is no such thing as identity, only operational acts of identification.” Given how religious affiliation encompasses so many markers of identification, faith and belief are only a couple of the things that can constitute how and why individuals may consider themselves part of a certain group, including for Christians; faith and belief may not even be reasons at all for why some people identify as Christian. Given this complexity, do you think that it is illegitimate for people to allege to be Christians, considering your views on how the Bible is not a legitimate source for us to derive moral norms and practices, on the whole? Or to put it another way, is it unfair for Christians to claim moral guidance or authority from the Bible, and would the morally appropriate course of action be to renounce their allegiance to Christianity? Or can it still be justified, in your view?
HA: Most people who call themselves Christians are not really following the principles of the Bible, including from Jesus. Should they call themselves Christians? Probably not, but you first have to establish what they mean by identifying as Christian. If you ask such Christians for the specific criteria that makes anyone a Christian, it will soon become apparent that they themselves aren’t actually following them. For example Jesus talked about hating your family and giving up all of your possessions and your life [Luke 14:26ff], yet most people who call themselves “Christians” aren’t really following such teachings.
TM: Lastly, what do you see as the future of the field of biblical studies, and of the state of religion in academia and society in general?
HA: More introspection about what scholars are actually doing – where the field used to be largely about how the Bible was formed, now it’s turning inward and examining the assumptions behind how they study how the Bible was formed. This is what I call “metacriticism.” It may take a while, but there are now sessions about biblical scholarship status on genocide and slavery, which didn’t exist a few years ago. There’s a movement in biblical studies motivating scholars to further examine what they do and why.