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Carol J. Dempsey
The book The Bible as Political Artifact: On the Feminist Study of the Hebrew Bible written by Susanne Scholz is no ordinary text and represents no ordinary thought. The Bible as Political Artifact is a volume that has vision, and its vision presents a challenge to Bible scholars and teachers of the Bible if we scholar-teachers want to have an important participatory role in this unfolding twenty-first century, wallowing in climate crisis, political chaos, social injustices, species extinctions, and a lot of the US population on oxycodone, anti-depressants, and anti-anxiety meds. Our time and changing life on this planet is like no other experience in history, and we as scholar-teachers are either going to rise to the occasion to become catalysts of change and transformation or we will become extinct like the great northern white rhino, of which only two females now exist. Scholz’s vision in Artifact can no longer go unheard, nor can it go unheeded.
My comments concern three areas of Scholz’s book: first, the redesign of biblical studies curriculum, academic Bible teaching, and the future of biblical studies; second, historical criticism and the Christian (and Catholic) right; and third, the volume’s contributions to gender studies and the worldwide problem of rape, a topic of particular interest to me since in India, members of women’s religious congregations suffer rape by Catholic priests and bishops. I am a member of a women’s religious congregation, and I am Catholic (more little “c” than big “C”).
I offer my comments from the perspective of one who has been engaged in biblical research, scholarship, publication, and teaching for more than twenty-five years. I teach undergraduates at the University of Portland in Oregon, a Catholic institution founded by Congregation of Holy Cross. UP’s older “sibling” is the University of Notre Dame. I am an Old Testament / Hebrew Bible scholar, and I am a member of a Catholic religious Order known as the Dominicans. My Ph.D. is from the Catholic University of America, and thus I come out of a historical critical background, although the literary approach has always been my tool of dissection. My education and church culture trained me to read “with the text,” forever searching for the “meaning” of the text and the text’s illusive author, dating, and setting. For years I taught my Bible classes this way until I encountered Artifact and was encountered by its author. For the past two years, my 19–20 years old undergraduate students have been reading Artifact in my introductory Bible classes (70–80 students each semester), and at the conclusion of their reading, they say to me, “Give us more Scholz.” Artifact speaks to their frustrations as learners; it connects with their lives and their world; it gives them hope; it has helped to transform our biblical studies curriculum and our entire Theology Department; and it has thrown everything in my life as a Bible scholar into question and turmoil while breathing new life into my intellect, my teaching and classroom, my scholarship, and my person whose charism has the Bible as one of its cornerstones. I share all this information with you because my lived experience, social location, and background shape my comments on The Bible as Political Artifact. And so I now offer you my comments.
1. Pedagogy: The Redesign of Biblical Studies Curriculum, Academic Bible Teaching, and the Future of Biblical Studies
In chapter 1, Scholz outlines the inside and outside challenges facing Biblical Studies today as a discipline and a field. Specifically, the field remains aloof from the world and is intellectually caught in literalist biblicism. Her discussion on Schleiermacher and his profound influence on shaping the teaching and study of the Bible in places of learning worldwide makes ever more compelling her argument for curricular changes at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Are undergraduate students of the twenty-first century engaged and interested in Schleiermacher’s way of studying the Bible? The simple answer is “No.” Should Ph.D. students continue to be trained in Schleiermacher’s nineteenth century way of studying and teaching the Bible? Again, the simple answer is “No,” not if they want to be effective educators in a twenty-first century globalized world, the world into which these students have been born and in which we are all living.
Furthermore, for too long the study of the Bible has been what Susanne calls, “PPS”—personalized, privatized, and sentimentalized. I wholeheartedly agree with Susanne that the Bible needs to be brought back into the academic world, but that academic world needs to encounter and be encountered by the present-day globalized world and all its social, political, cultural, and religious issues. Attuned to the planet’s struggles and attuned to the students in the classroom, I can honestly say that the radical-democratic approach, first introduced to us by Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza and now heralded by Susanne, is the only approach that is going to work today if we desire education to be transformative for teacher, student, and the world. In conclusion to chapter 1, Scholz makes a bold statement and asks a pointed related question:
. . . it is time to develop a biblical studies curriculum on all levels of higher education that teaches biblical studies as an academic field of inquiry, needed for a comprehensive understanding of culture, politics, and religion. Can the biblical studies curriculum be reshaped to account for the social, political, religious, and intellectual struggles in our world today? (p. 26)
The simple answer is “Yes,” Susanne, the biblical studies curriculum can be and must be reshaped.
In chapters 2 and 3 Scholz illumines the need for curricular debate and accurately describes the influence of neoliberalism, the marginalization of the humanities, the corporate management principles by which institutions of higher education are guided and governed, the future marketability of biblical studies courses. Scholz is correct in her view that “the architects of corporate universities and colleges define education as a skill set that adapts students to the mainstream of the global economy” (p. 42). Have we taken a look at our Schools or departments of business lately? What is their “culture,” their “ethos,” their teaching, and who is funding them as they strive to “get ahead” and compete in the never-satisfied, ever voracious marketplace?
Prior to the death of David Koch, the American Prospect and The Tablet reported that, “the Kochs champion a far-right ideology that scoffs at climate change and workers' rights. After the business school at Catholic University announced its first $1 million donation from the Koch Foundation three years ago, 50 Catholic theologians and scholars raised alarms.”
In 2015, Huffpost reported that scholars, in an open letter to the university, made the case that the Kochs help to “advance public policies that directly contradict Catholic teaching on a range of moral issues from economic justice to environmental stewardship.” The article went on to say that “the Koch brothers are nearly doubling their investment in the business school of Catholic University of America, which is overseen by the U.S. bishops. That’s despite the fact that many Catholics — including Pope Francis — say the kind of unregulated capitalism that the Kochs promote runs counter to church teaching.” By 2019, the money that the Koch brothers gave to the School of Business at the Catholic University of America amounted to $10 million dollars.
In Artifact where Scholz comments on the state of higher education, Biblical Studies, and current markets, does she side-step her role as a Bible scholar or does she use her twenty-first century hermeneutical Bible tools and skills to deconstruct institutions, markets, systems of thought to split open our minds and make us realize that the focus and purpose of higher education is drastically and rapidly changing, that faith-based institutions and their church-related affiliations that once privileged the study of Bible, religious studies, and theology, have already a compromised mission for the market in a neoliberal world? Scholz confronts us with the reality that Biblical Studies is now marginalized, and as a field, discipline, and subject, it does not have market priorities. Scholz wonders if biblical studies courses should be a market priority and states that perhaps they should not be (p. 44). She is right. Unless the academic study of the Bible, as well as other disciplines in the arts and sciences, moves beyond the nineteenth century and into the twenty-first century, the Bible—along with its professors—will become more and more obsolete in the ever-changing world of education. And as long as Bible scholars remain in their silos without becoming public intellectuals who use new hermeneutical lenses and skills to speak to a globalized world, the world’s people we will be left to the colonizing influence of a growing religious fundamentalism that takes the Bible literally and uses it for policy-formation and targeted discrimination of every kind. When Scholz states that “[i]t is high time then to occupy not only academic Bible teaching but also institutions of higher education as a whole. . . .” (p. 47), and then raises the question, “What ought the future of the Bible and biblical studies to look like in Western societies, beyond Christian fundamentalism revival efforts?” (p. 47), she is offering us a vision of what we need to do as scholars to reclaim the integrity and credibility of our work, but work that must be done in a new way to reflect diversity, inclusion, pluralism, freedom of thought, creativity, and imagination that leaves behind the “singularity of biblical meaning, whether such meaning is historical, literary, or religious” (p. 56). Are we listening?
2. The Politics of Method: Historical Criticism and the Christian (and Catholic) Right
In her comments on chapter 4, “Tandoori Reindeer: Exegesis: On the Limitations of Historical Criticism and Two Alternatives,” Susanne makes some striking observations about historical criticism, the school of thought in which I was “trained” and the school of thought that remains foundational to Catholic biblical interpretation, once heralded by the renowned Catholic biblical scholar, Raymond E. Brown. Scholz notes that the method of historical criticism became “part of the standard curriculum in Protestant theological studies” in the twentieth century (p. 74) and “Catholic and Jewish institutions eventually accepted it as the standard for biblical interpretation” (p. 74). As Scholz notes, historical criticism was once considered innovative, “subversive” (p. 72). It countered the excessive doctrinal approach and interpretation of “Scripture” and liberated biblical scholars from “religious and academic status quo” (p. 72) Today, however, this method serves conservative purposes, as Scholz observes. Contemporary Bible scholars tend to naturalize the historical critical approach: this is what the text meant then, and therefore, this is what the text means today. The text-fetish approach obsesses over the quest for authorship and dating, a text's historical origins, such as the time and place in which the text was written; its sources; and the events, dates, persons, places, things, and customs that are mentioned or implied in the text. Historical criticism’s primary concern is the world behind the text. The method is not concerned with the world in front of the text or the agency of meaning making by interpreters who use meta-methods for interpretation and who meta-commentate on interpreters’ interpretations.
The historical critical approach reads “with the text” and not “against the grain of the text.” Historical criticism is not concerned with the social location of interpreters and their interpretations and their biases. The method thus perpetuates a disconnect between reader and text; it works against reading the Bible from the perspective of the contemporary globalized world. The way scholars use this “objective, value-neutral” method today allows them to keep the text frozen in the past. In their interpretations of texts, these scholar-interpreters do not expose cultural attitudes and mindsets of gender and sexual orientation discrimination, hegemony, misogyny, racism, classism, ableism, patriarchy, kyriarchy, xenophobia, homophobia, ethnocentrism, androcentrism, and anthropocentrism that shaped these texts and which continue to shape our world today and our reading of the Bible. Instead, these exegetes keep hegemonic cultural attitudes and mindsets covered up, hidden, and undisclosed while they reinforce simultaneously the unjust status quo.
We know that the Bible is a product of a male-centered culture, and it is one of the texts that actively created this culture in the past and continues to legitimate it today. Women, as gendered and constructs of the male imagination, are essentialized and mostly erased from the text. The historical critical approach deals with none of these elements, no wonder the approach is opposed by the margins, as Scholz points out in rigorous detail (pp. 74–84). In other words, the historical critical approach fails to bring the Bible into the twenty-first century, and it does nothing to address the pressing issues and crises of justice in our world today. In reading with the text, those who use this method usually endorse male privilege and male power and keep the margins marginalized and the intellect and spirit of readers colonized and controlled. I know this experience to be true because I am the product of Catholic Higher Education, taught by all males in an institution that adheres to Vatican teaching per its mission: “to teach and to offer academic degrees by the authority of the Pope. At the School of Theology and Religious Studies, we don’t just teach about the Church; we teach for it.” Many of the younger John Paul II and Benedict XVI Catholic scholars who come through programs like this one I mentioned are the new breed of the Catholic right influenced by the Christian right and embrace the so-called “new evangelization.” They take the Bible literally, and in their work, they are clueless about hermeneutics. Such is the way and state of Catholic biblical scholarship today (with a few exceptions), whose scholars are steeped in an historical critical approach that present-day students find oppressive, colonizing, and meaningless.
Scholz recognizes all these issues involved in the historical critical approach, especially when historical critics naturalize this approach. In response to the situation, she proposes cultivating alternative ways of reading biblical literature. She advocates using a cultural studies approach which is an interdisciplinary approach. I find this suggestion on target for students today whose learning is already interdisciplinary. They bring this lens to their reading of the Bible easily. They also incorporate ideas from new learnings gleaned from gender studies classes, political science classes, and other classes as well. The students born in the twenty-first century have been born into an interdisciplinary world. This is not the world of many of us Bible scholars, but we need to advance our own knowledge and approach the text in interdisciplinary ways which may not be natural to us but which is natural to contemporary students. A solid education and foundation in the Humanities is certainly indispensable for today’s biblical interpretation. Thus, the demise of the humanities is another concern of Scholz’s, which should also be a general concern for all humanities scholars, including in biblical studies. Scholz’s rigorous critique of historical criticism shows how some scholars who use this approach of interpretation not only keep the Bible frozen in past time but also use and interpret the book in such a way as to advance certain political, social, cultural, and religious agendas that often serve malestream hegemony. Artifact, however, not only deconstructs thought and methodology but also engages thought on contemporary global topics related to gender studies, one of which is rape.
3. Contributions to Gender Studies and the Worldwide Problem of Rape
Without a doubt, Artifact makes a substantial contribution to gender studies and a much needed and crucial conversation pertaining to rape. Several essays in Artifact that focus on these two topics are but a wisp of Scholz’s lifetime work and expertise related not only to the Bible but also to the cultural world. Drawing on the pioneering work of Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Scholz pushes the boundaries of biblical scholarship that for decades has worked against a radical democratic model of doing biblical studies. The ways that many scholars have been doing biblical studies research and teaching have left generations of people and students intellectually colonized and spiritually bankrupt, whether or not they know it. And certainly, these ways have neither liberated or transformed anyone nor brought the Bible into the globalized world. These attitudes and norms are still pervasive today, with Bible’s stories, poems, and extracted theologies being used to essentialize not only women but also men and to reinforce oppressive structures, attitudes, and mindsets.
With respect to the topic of rape and the Bible, Scholz is a leading experts in our field. In my reading and research for this response, I discovered that she presented a paper on rape in the Bible at an international conference in Switzerland that brought together scholars and professionals in all fields of study and work to begin talking about the sexual abuse crisis that is plaguing all religious denominations and its clergy presently.
In chapter 12 on “How to Read Biblical Rape Texts with Contemporary Title IX Debates in Mind,” Scholz aptly covers a lot of ground. In this chapter, she is not reading or interpreting Bible rape stories in light of Title IX, nor is she correlating biblical material on rape with contemporary rape issues or with Title IX content. Scholz’s goal is simple: “This essay explores whether the Title IX debate on US campuses ought to shape feminist scholarship on sexual violence and rape in the academic field of biblical studies” (p. 261). At the end of the essay, she states her own clear position: “I endorse an explicit connection between biblical interpretation on the one hand and feminist theories and practices on the other hand” (p. 277).
This point about the connection between biblical interpretation and feminist theories is important. Scholz employs feminist theories to interpret biblical rape texts. She also utilizes feminist theories to critique rape text interpretations, specifically those derived from the use of an historical-empiricist epistemology that accepts objective, value-free, and universally valid reconstructions of the biblical past. As a feminist cultural critic, Scholz sees all interpretive approaches as “constructs of real readers” (p. 226). She examines these constructs to identify the views and agendas of the readers. This examination is a carefully laid out hermeneutical process that involves feminist theories and approaches. She uses this process in her discussion on how to read contemporary rape texts with Title IX in mind, the topic of chapter 12. This process allows the deconstruction of “the kyriarchal conventions, habits, and argumentation structures that have been produced in extensive interpretation histories of the Hebrew Bible” (p. 277).
Scholz’s goal and agenda, then, are quite different from exegesis and interpretation rooted in scientific-empiricist epistemology. If we misread Scholz and if we do not understand her use of hermeneutics—feminist theory and cultural criticism—her process of analysis, the positions she takes, and the vision that emerges from it all, it is because our minds have been locked into the scientific-empiricist epistemological world. This situation keeps us aligned to the oppressive and hegemonic cultural attitudes and mindsets that perpetuate interpretations advancing the perspectives of power. For example, some contemporary scholars read “with the text” and unabashedly accept that in biblical times women were male property and that if a woman is raped, then the real violation is against the male and not the female because “his” property was violated. Those scholars who employ various methods to read texts this way is indicative of what I call “ethical depravity” in scholarly thought and methodology. Such readings reflect on biblical studies that has spawned into readings, interpretations, and methods that ignore the perspectives of victim-survivors. To read from “the perspectives of victim-survivors and deconstruct kyriarchal conventions, habits, and argumentation structures as they have been produced in the extensive interpretation histories of the Hebrew Bible” (p. 277) is Scholz’s goal, and this goal should be the goal of every biblical scholar who has the responsibility to read and interpret texts ethically. Forget dating, authorship, original texts. Our world is coming apart at the seams socially, politically, environmentally, and even religiously. We Bible scholars need to step up to the plate, step into the twenty-first century world, and get on board with the vision embedded in Artifact.
In sum, The Bible as Political Artifact is a rare and beautiful gem in the field of Biblical Studies. As a biblical scholar and as your colleague in the field, I thank you, Susanne, for the time, effort, and thought you have put into creating this book that my undergraduate students and I cherish. Most of all, my students and I thank you for the vision embedded in this volume, one that calls us to task as scholars and readers of the Bible. Your vision breathes new life and possibilities into our slowly fading field. Would that the field of biblical studies embrace Artifact wholeheartedly and move with its vision so that it leads Bible scholars into a process of gender transformation anywhere.
And P.S.: The only thing Artifact needs is a conclusion.
 See https://prospect.org/culture/koch-brothers-latest-target-pope-francis/#.Xo_Q-lCDiwg.email and https://www.thetablet.co.uk/features/2/15277/the-university-the-koch-brothers-and-the-right-kind-of-catholic
 See https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/02/02/koch-brothers-catholic-university_n_6594834.html?ncid=engmodushpmg00000006
 See the website for the Catholic University School of Theology and Religious Studies:
 To be noted, not every historical critic engages the historical critical approach in the way that has been described. There are some exceptions. For example, some feminist biblical scholars such as Phyllis Bird and Carol Meyers, among many others, do use historical criticism for their gender reconstructions in ancient Israel.
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Rebecca Todd Peters, Santiago Slabodsky, Carol J. Dempsey, Susanne Scholz - Reviewing “The Bible as Political Artifact: On the Feminist Study of the Hebrew Bible” by Susanne Scholz A Panel Discussion at the SBL 2019 Annual Meeting in San Diego, CA (332.7 KiB)
Carol J. Dempsey, OP, Ph.D.,
is Professor of Theology (Biblical Studies) at the University of Portland, Oregon, USA. She is the author of eight books, the latest of which includes The Bible and Literature (Orbis Books, 2015) and Amos, Hosea, Micah, Nahum, Zephaniah, Habakkuk (Liturgical Press, 2013). She is also the editor of 12 books, the latest of which is the Paulist Press Commentary (Paulist Press 2018) which she co-edited and contributed to as a member of the General Editorial Board. She serves on the editorial boards for the Wisdom Commentary series (Liturgical Press), the Catholic Biblical Quarterly (2017–present; 2004–2008), and Old Testament Abstracts (2010–present). She is currently working on two commentaries on Isaiah for the Wisdom Commentary series (Liturgical Press) and Isaiah 1–39 for the Berit Olam series (Liturgical Press), a volume entitled Beyond Christian Anthropocentrism: What It Means to Be catholic in the New Diaspora for the Dispatches from the New Diaspora Series (eds. Marc Ellis and Susanne Scholz; Lexington Press), and a collected volume Empathy and Hope: The New Diaspora Responds to Climate Crisis (eds. Carol J. Dempsey and Norah Martin; Lexington Press). Her research focuses on Prophets, Feminist Hermeneutics, Gender and Cultural Studies, and Ecological Studies. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org