Monday, January 02, 2012

On Biblical Scholarship

By way of explanation, in the days of yore the first professional/academic degree conferred by a seminary was that of Bachelor of Divinity, or B.D. For those interested in academia, the B.D. was followed by both a Master's degree and a Doctoral degree. Although the nomenclature of the first professional/academic degree was changed to a "Master's" level by the development of the Master of Divinity (M.Div.) in the late sixties and early seventies, along with the development of the advanced professional degree Doctor of Ministry (D.Min.) at about the same time, for academicians one still needs to spend significant time in residential university study in order to qualify to teach in a seminary. Such advanced academic study leads most commonly in this country to a Master of Theology (or Master of Sacred Theology) and a Doctor of Philosophy (or Doctor of Sacred Theology).

Here is a simple chart:

Collegiate degree = B.A., B.S. or similar (a prerequisite for any of the below listed degrees)
First professional/academic degree = B.D. or M.Div.
Second professional degree = D.Min.
Second academic degree = M.Th. or STM
Third academic degree = Ph.D. or S.T.D.

I cite the tiers of scholarship so that I can properly identify myself. I hold a Master of Divinity degree representing the first level of professional/academic study beyond the Bachelor of Arts collegiate degree. As the M.Div. was sufficient to pursue the exercise of parochial ministry in my time, I did not choose to extend my studies into the secondary Master's or Doctoral level, either professional or academic.. There are, therefore, a host of parochial clergy and academicians with credentials wholly superior mine and I openly acknowledge same. A good education does not stop with the achievement of degrees, however, but properly is ongoing throughout life. Indeed, it can be argued that educational achievement merely represents the acquisition of tools -- preparation for a lifetime of study.

There was an observation when I was in seminary that Episcopalians were typically not well versed in the Bible when compared to Baptists and others from denominations routinely more rooted in biblical study. I believe that observation was true in my time although one does hope that Episcopalians today are a tad more biblically literate than we were fifty years ago. That said, I am very interested in the Bible and I do have the gift of a better than average education in biblical literature -- something likely true for any ordained cleric. I am certainly well prepared in and sympathetic with the methods of biblical study, something to which the average reader without any theological preparation likely is not familiar. There is more to reading and understanding the Bible than simply opening the book and scanning through the pages. To begin fully to comprehend the Bible, one needs to apply the principles of 'critical technique', principles which include at a minimum questions concerning texts, sources, editorial influences, and translational issues, along with comparisons to other historic sacred writings. Good academically based biblical study is a process of analysis as much as it is of reading skill.

Perhaps unfair or inaccurate, but this observer believes that there is a growing trend for people to believe without much thought whatever they read. It is reasonable to surmise that the growth of Internet is partly responsible for this lack of critical thought. Let me cite a really silly example from the social media site, Facebook. It is not at all unusual to see bright, reasonably well-educated people post to Facebook offers of everything from free electronic devices to prepaid bank cards loaded with money merely for clicking through to another web page. Universally such offers are scams but hope springs eternal and when one sees it posted by others whom one knows the temptation to click through can be overwhelmingly difficult to ignore. Sometimes people do not even have to read a report to accept it as truth. The drivel which comes out of the mouths of some conservative radio commentators is taken at face value by many people without even a moment's thought to question the accuracy or intentions of the reporter. 'Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.'

Can it be surprising, therefore, when people accept at face value that a given biblical passage pertains to a given subject when it is cited as such, the more so if the citation comes from a renowned and/or well trained person? Recently an highly regarded and certainly well known scholar cited on Facebook the notion that two famous biblical personalities were likely homosexual. The reference was to the relationship between Jonathan and David. The scholar went so far as to suggest that the alleged nature of their relationship was noted by famous personages in the history of Christianity, in this case St. John Chrysostom and Peter Abelard. The comments which were made in response to the post suggested that the scholar's words were taken at face value. How sad, how very sad. The scholar's representation may have some currency among an element of society who wish to advance a particular cause relative to gay/lesbian politics, but it is in my judgment biblically unsustainable. Even a person with a simple overview of the story understands that the dynamics of the relationship between David and Jonathan are based upon David's loyalty to King Saul and his son, Jonathan. David's exploits (you remember that David is the one who slew Goliath with the slingshot) were salvific for Saul's reign militarily, but alas, at least according Samuel God had other things in mind for Saul, whom God regarded as unfaithful, the son Jonathan, and the lad David. It is more likely the case that the friendship between Jonathan and David was based on Jonathan's gratitude for David's bravery, loyalty and commitment to both Saul and Jonathan, a relationship of warriors forged in battle. I think the kind of kinship and loyalty among comrades in arms such as is reflected, say, in the many posts of the American Legion is more likely at the basis of the relationship of David and Jonathan than any kind of amorous affection. Furthermore, from a strictly analytical point of view, you have to read a Hebrew word in a way overwhelmingly opposed to its regular usage to find anything amorous in their bond. The biblical message is that their relationship was an example of 'philos', brotherly love of the highest order.

Our scholar cites a passage in Homily XXXIII from Chrysostom which she thinks references the homosexual nature of the relationship between Jonathan and David, but that reference depends upon a misreading of the biblical citation therein (1 Samuel 20: 30), something Chrysostom did not intend at all. Of much greater import is Homily VII wherein the relationship between Jonathan and David is held up by Chrysostom to be the very epitome of Christian love. There is no room for error in understanding Chrysostom in Homily VII. Our scholar goes on to cite Abelard's, "David's Lament for Jonathan" as proof of Abelard's understanding of the homosexual nature of the relationship between David and Jonathan, but that poem can be read in more than one way, through more than one lens. It is likely never a good idea to read historic documents through the lenses of contemporary society, laying as a gloss contemporary ideas and concepts over the words of ancient texts.

For better than thirty years I am on record in writing regarding the utter lack of any convincing text in Holy Scripture which condemns homosexual behavior between two adults who wish to express their love, one for the other, in the context of a caring, committed and monogamous relationship. The various texts which are held up as condemning said behaviors fall well short of convincing evidence -- they are simply not on point. I believe that the Bible does not address the concept, that the Bible is mute on the subject. My stance is not a conservative stance by any manner or means, but I believe it is a correct reading of Holy Scripture, and one which I am willing to this day to debate openly with anyone. That said, to take the story of David, Jonathan and Saul and read into it a legacy which simply is not present in Scripture is, to me, equally if not more offensive than blaming Holy Scripture for discrimination against gay and lesbian behavior.

My call is to be true, to the best of our ability, to what is written in Holy Scripture, to avoid the dual temptations either to demonize or glorify particular issues of the day by isogeting the texts. This call to action is the more important for those in positions of esteem and/or authority, to be very careful and wholly accurate in what they teach and write, and to be especially clear to label hypothetical thought as just that and not fact.