Open-mindedness and Planning for the Future of Academic Studies in Ancient Israel History

Text of a talk in a symposium in Honour of Bob Becking (Sept. 2015). A slightly different version appears in Studies in Honour of Bob Becking (LHBOTS, 616; London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015), 37-44 and is currently available at
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  1/ 17   Open-mindedness and Planning for the Future of Academic Studies in Ancient Israel History Ehud Ben Zvi University of Alberta First of all, I would like the organizers for inviting me to participate in this symposium in honour of Bob Becking and above all to Bob for just being who he is! Thank you, Bob! Today I would like you to join me in exploring the future or futures of my field, studies of ancient Israel history. Given my own social location and that of my work, it would should not surprise anyone in this room that my own position on these matters is strongly influenced and I’d say deeply rooted in social and institutional developments that have taken and continue to take place in North-America. Again given my location and background, it should surprise anyone that within this context I would focus on ‘liberal’ (secular or non-secular) institutions of the Higher Learning (Universities and Colleges) rather than on North-American religious seminaries, particularly those with strong bonds with what is usually called ‘conservative Christianity’ or its parallel forms among Jewish groups. This said, I am, of course, not unaware of the multiple European academic settings and institutions in which the study of the history of ancient Israel is taken place today. I am fully cognizant that there are very substantial differences not only between European and North American social and academic settings, but also among the different European countries, and at times also at the sub-state level. Likewise, the so-called Anglophone research world in my field is certainly not of one cloth, but carries multiple threads. And yet, I do think that there are some important general and cultural developments as well as institutional systemic dynamics at work  2/ 17   in the so-called global North. Addressing these developments and discussing, with open minds, their potential impact on our field and how they impact the future/s of our field is upon us. This said, with the exception of this symposium we rarely hold formal academic symposia or workshop on this and related matters, nor we talk about it in our usual academic lectures at meetings of professional societies and rarely we use the tools we have to study these developments. Whatever our own preferences might be, and however, we may construct them in terms of preferred value systems, one cannot avoid taking very seriously the combined effect of (a) financial pressures on institutions of higher learning—an all too common feature of academic politics and economics even in OECD (or OECD-type) countries, (b) the usual, accompanying stress on required number of students for the ‘sustainability’ of academic units along with a more prominent discourse about equal-teaching-load among colleagues within the university/faculty; (c) current social and cultural processes that tend to reduce the number of students in the humanities in general and within them even more in perceived to be ‘traditional’ areas such as biblical studies, due to the ‘reduced’ social capital associated with them and (d) the concurrent shift within academic administrative discourses towards STEM disciplines, to be sure, but also towards certain fields within the humanities and social sciences rather than others, and the resulting budget prioritization. All these tendencies and the responses that they evoke are likely to intensify, over time, pressure for shifts in academic structures and there is no doubt in my mind that these shifts will affect the study of ancient Israelite history, and biblical studies in general. There is no doubt that the rate of change will be different from country to country and even region to region; not only because financial pressures are not distributed evenly among countries, but also and among  3/ 17   others, because in some cultures institutional tradition and stability are given more prominence than in others. This said, the historian within me suggests that substantial change, in one way or another, will happen over time. Scholarship is practiced within social structures. Academic location is certainly not a matter of secondary relevance or just an issue of practical ‘convenience’, as some may try to convince themselves. Thus choices about, and changes concerning the academic institutional frames within which both scholars and their disciplines will tend to develop will unavoidable, over the long term, have a substantial impact in shaping the set of future paths along which future scholarship will evolve, including preferred trends, discourses and thus outcomes. I will return to this point 2. The Matter of Department of Religious Studies Let me begin with an important example. It is a matter of fact that, in North-America, Departments of Religious Studies emerged out of and replaced, for the most part, old biblical and theological departments within university structures. Similar processes took place in professional associations. This process is now beginning to develop in some, though not all, European countries. 1   1  Similar processes took place in professional associations. The ‘Association of Biblical Instructors in American Colleges and Secondary Schools’ was founded in 1909 and in 1922 it became the ‘National Association of Biblical Instructors’ (NABI), whose acronym explicitly associated members of the association with constructions of biblical prophets, but in 1962 it  4/ 17   This change in North America was consistent and partially a response to social developments that led to new expectations and cultural norms about the humanistic (and social scientific) study of ‘religion’ or ‘religions’ in ‘liberal’ (secular or non-secular) universities and colleges. Whereas, explicitly or implicitly, Christianity (or more precise particular versions of Christianity) stood at the centre of the former departments—for obvious historical reasons, the new ones had both the academic study of ‘religion’ and of multiple ‘religions’ as their focal point. To be sure, no one doubted that the academic study of Christianity/ies (as well as of Judaism/s) should continue to be carried out, but their place was now conceived in a multi-focal academic space. Although, the mentioned process took time and in some institutions initially this was indeed little more than just a name change, partially because the rate of change of academic personnel is always much slower than conceptual changes, the underlying logic of this process and the existence of new social and academic expectations eventually led to a strong de-emphasizing of Christian theology/ies and, often, biblical theologies, and Christian and biblical studies. 2  changed its name to the American Academy of Religion (AAR) and was incorporated under this name in 1964. A memory/memorial for this institutional evolution is provided and placed prominently in the website of the AAR see  2  The present contribution deals only with the future of ancient Israelite history at ‘liberal’, state or private, universities in the so-called global North. It does not deal with seminaries, in the  5/ 17   The mentioned academic and social processes are associated with multiculturalism, widespread acceptance of secularized post-Christian (?) attitudes (shared by many ‘Christians’ and ‘non-Christians’, both ‘secular’ or ‘non-secular’) and the desire to create spaces for teaching and research that implicitly and explicitly do not privilege any single religious traditions. None of the latter are restricted to North-America (or the ‘Anglophone’ world). This being so, it seems reasonable to suppose that it is a matter of time until similar processes will develop in other ‘global-north’ academic worlds, though always localized and attuned to the academic particularities of each country and society. These changes will directly impact the future of research in terms of approaches and outcomes and will have a very strong impact on the discourse/s governing our areas of studies. This is so, because academic structures come with their own expectations and not only facilitate scholarship but directly and far more importantly indirectly, socialize scholars in particular ways. Academic structures have an impact not only on the selection of courses being taught and thus global North, whose main goal is training religious leaders for particular religious groups or sets of groups for today’s world. There is no doubt that such seminaries will continue to exist for any foreseeable period not only in the ‘global North’ but in most countries of the world. One may mention, though, that ‘academic’ biblical studies play a less central role than in the past in some/many (?) ‘liberal’ (both Christian and Jewish) seminaries, for a variety of reasons. In addition, some churches who have (traditionally) ‘outsourced’ the training of their future religious to what they conceive to be secular/secularizing academic institutions have begun to question these arrangements. A study of these processes is beyond the scope of this essay.


Jan 12, 2019

Alam ternak lele

Jan 12, 2019
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