A Classic From the Vault: Helmut Koester on Hector Avalos

This nifty piece ran a few years back and since it has been a slow news day I thought I would do what others have done and post a ‘classic’. And this one is.  That’s for sure.

BAR Most Loved and Most Reviled

koesterPerhaps I should not be surprised that a scholar who has advocated a Biblical nihilism and has recommended that Biblical studies should be “tasked with eliminating completely the influence of the Bible in the modern world” would launch an attack on the discipline of Biblical archaeology and on a magazine that is Biblical archaeology’s most important outlet.

In the May/June “First Person” column by Professor Hector Avalos, as well as his book from which this column is taken, Professor Avalos criticizes not only the policies of *BAR* and its editor, he also questions the legitimate existence of the entire complex of Jewish and Christian religion in the United States, its Biblical base and its relationship to the academic discipline of Biblical studies, to wit, the Society of Biblical Literature—a formidable task indeed! What would be required for such an endeavor, however, is knowledge of the realities of American religious life and Biblical scholarship in general, as well as of the details of controversial issues in present debates. Unfortunately, Professor Avalos reveals a deep ignorance in both respects.

The reality is that both Judaism and Christianity depend upon the Bible. The Bible is their book of law and morality, their source of inspiration and worship, of consolation in sorrow and of festive celebration. The suggestion that the modern world does not need this book at the same time recommends the complete elimination of these Bible-based religions. This is not only preposterous, but it reveals a complete lack of understanding of what Professor Avalos calls “the modern world.” His “modern world” is a fiction in his mind that has no relationship to reality.

As for *BAR *, Professor Avalos off-handedly characterizes it as a journal that “has served Biblical education well in some cases and badly in others” creates the impression that about half of its content belongs to the latter category. He then proceeds to draw a caricature of some of its articles as if this were the kind of thing to which *BAR* was mostly committed. This is far from the truth.

Most of its articles are well-reasoned and well-documented presentations of good scholarship. To be sure, some are controversial—scholars disagree on interpretations of archaeological as well as literary materials—but that is the normal business of scholarship. Does Professor Avalos, claiming to be a scholar, not know that?

In fact the more controversial articles and opinions have served a very important purpose. The albeit-illegal publication of unpublished material from the Dead Sea Scrolls broke a deadlock that many had unsuccessfully tried to do for many years.

It was during the year of my presidency of the Society of Biblical Literature that the society accepted a free-access policy, which had successfully been applied in the process of the publication of the Nag Hammadi Codices (first: publication of a facsimile; second: publication of a preliminary translation; third: critical editions of all documents). But we were never been able to convince scholars involved in the publication of the scrolls to follow the same procedure. Thanks to *BAR*’s bold move to publish some unpublished texts, the deadlock was finally broken. Professor Avalos recognizes this; but is this part of *BAR*’s scandalous behavior?

Then there is the accusation that *BAR* is biased because it calls Professor Frank Cross a friend of Israel and the late Professor John Strugnell an anti-Semite, both Harvard colleagues of mine. This is not bias; it is a statement of a fact. I have known for decades that John Strugnell believed in Christian supersessionism.

Moreover, *BAR *’s seemingly offensive comments about Elisha Qimron are justified in many ways.  That Hershel Shanks has been found guilty by an Israeli court of violating Qimron’s copyright in the translation does not make him a criminal but rather a saint—if there is something like that in Judaism! Qimron has never revealed that the translation of the controversial Dead Sea Scroll known as MMT  was primarily the work of John Strugnell, who never got due recognition for his work.

Professor Avalos also cites as  *BAR *’s “competitive nature” Hershel Shanks’s criticism of the National Geographic’s publication of the Gospel of Judas.  On the contrary, he should have congratulated *BAR* for this critique! The publication of this document by the National Geographic was a scandal. The scholar entrusted with the translation, Marvin Meyer, violated the free-access statement of the scholarly society [the Society of Biblical Literature], of which he is a member. To his detriment, numerous major mistakes in his translation have now been discovered.

This could have been avoided if Marvin Meyer or whoever would be entrusted with its publication had allowed fellow scholars in the field of Coptic studies to discuss this Coptic text before the appearance of the first English translation. What Hershel Shanks wrote, calling attention to the scandal of National Geographic’s publication of this text, was exactly right and has been confirmed by subsequent scholarly investigations.

I shall refrain from setting the record straight on other examples of Professor Avalos’s caricature of *BAR *. More important is a consideration of the fundamental and important role that *BAR * has been playing in the concert of Bible and archaeology. There was once another popular journal, /Biblical Archaeologist/, founded by my former Harvard colleague and prominent archaeologist G. Ernest Wright. In its first years, *BAR * competed with this journal. The American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR), under whose auspices it was published, however, decided to change the name of this publication to /Near Eastern Archaeologist/, since it seemed to the leaders of this society that the name “Biblical” was odious (Professor Avalos evidently agrees with that judgment!). This was done by ASOR after the vast majority of the subscribers rejected such a change of the title. The result was that subscribers interested in the Bible (including me) discontinued their subscription. This makes *BAR * and Hershel Shanks’s Biblical Archaeology Society the only player in the field. Courageously this magazine alone holds up the torch of a scholarly outlet in this important area, although the very name “Biblical” combined with the world of a scholarly discipline—including archaeology—seems to be deplorable for Professor Avalos as well as the leaders of ASOR, who have largely abandoned their responsibility of a publication with an appeal to the general public in this field of study.

It is exactly here that Professor Avalos’s lack of understanding of the realities of Biblical scholarship is most evident. He apparently is unable to see this reality: The relationship of American religious life, Bible and scholarship is a vital and undeniable factor in our society—especially in the United States—however controversial.

Helmut Koester
Former SBL President
Professor Emeritus
Harvard Divinity School
Cambridge, Massachusetts

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