Religion and Bible
Smith, Jonathan Z., Journal of Biblical Literature
When we last convened our annual meeting in Boston, nine years ago, I was invited to present a plenary lecture to the Society. I chose, then, as my topic, "Bible and Religion."1 Among other matters, I chided, in a fairly gentle manner, biblical scholars, especially students of the literatures of early Christianities, for resisting the social category 'religion in their work, and for markedly preferring the personal and experiential term 'faith.' In so doing, I was mindful of the compound compo- sition of my audience, and so began by acknowledging the significant number of scholars then gathered in Boston who "held joint membership in the Society of Biblical Literature [SBL] and the American Academy of Religion [AAR]." I went on to recognize a smaller, but no less significant segment of my audience, by reminding those present that "in the past decade, the North American Association for the Study of Religion [NAASR]," an organization that regularly met concurrently with the SBL/ AAR, had "devoted four full sessions" at its annual meetings "to theoretical questions" in the study of religion "raised by New Testament research." These sorts of affinal relations, I suggested, constitute "a massive syncretism, uncommon outside of North America, which holds out hope for the development of different practices, and for experiments in reconceptualizations of both religious and biblical studies." Rehearsing these remarks before you, nine years later, gives rise to no little sense of irony. (A prophet, I clearly am not!) Since then we have experienced our own version of the Millerite 'Great Disappointment,' a rupture more recently eased, although surely not healed, by signs and portents of a 'New' [post-2011] 'Dispensation.'
Indeed, had we met together with the AAR in Chicago this year, I would have begun by referring not to one of my own past appearances before this Society but rather to the 1936 publication, in the Journal of Biblical Literature, of a brief article, "The Interpretation of Sacred Books," by the intellectual founder of the History of Religions field at the University of Chicago, Joachim Wach, in order to stress the deep interrelations of the two enterprises, the study of religion and biblical studies.2
It is, no doubt, a reflection of our recent 'time of troubles' that I find it, now, necessary to state at the outset that nothing in that lecture- or in this one, for that matter - was (or is) intended to imply that the sorts of biblical scholarship represented by the SBL were alien to the sorts of study of religion represented by the AAR. Taken together, the separate and shared scholarly interests of both associations reflect and inform elements of our 'normal science' of religion.
This is no new synergy. To pick only one strand out of a complex weave of intellectual, academic histories: in pre-Ugarit days, Arabic was the chief cognate language of Biblical Hebrew and therefore was a competence of many OT scholars. Towering figures such as Julius Wellhausen and Johannes Pedersen used their skills in comparative Semitic philology to make important contributions both to biblical studies and to the study of Islam, thereby becoming immediately involved in the wider Continental discussions and debates characteristic of the formative period of Comparative Religions as an academic field. By way of an aside, I would call attention, as well, to Pedersen's remarkable 1914 comparisons of the Book of Mormon to the Quran, a project that remains the focus of a series of learned conferences sponsored by Brigham Young University. Other scholars - William Robertson Smith is, perhaps, the most familiar example- used the same philological learning to write classic theoretical works that are still influential on contemporary students of religion.
While other European scholars readily come to mind, the same pattern was equally characteristic of North America. Here, the most influential example remains Morris Jastrow, Jr. …