A professor of Hebrew Bible at the University of California–Berkeley quit the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL), voicing concern that North America's leading organization for biblical scholarship had welcomed "the views of creationists, snake-handlers, and faith healers."

In an op-ed in the July/August 2010 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Ronald S. Hendel complained that SBL had ended its annual joint conference with the American Academy of Religion (AAR) after 2007 and reached out to "evangelical and fundamentalist groups" to boost its numbers.

"The battle royal between faith and reason is now in the center ring at the SBL circus," Hendel wrote, accusing some attendees of proselytizing at the conference.

The piece caused a miniature tsunami on academic blogs, eliciting a mix of outrage and amusement from evangelical scholars. (SBL disputed Hendel's claims but hosted an online debate over its membership standards.) Coincidentally, not long after the article appeared, SBL and AAR announced plans to resume their joint conference in 2011.

Hendel now says he might revise a few sentences of his article, but stands by his main position. "The SBL has a commitment to the standards and practices of academic inquiry. The best of the evangelical scholars understand this," he said. "The problem is that these standards have become blurred, and practices befitting a non-academic context have come to be tolerated and even normal at SBL. This must change if SBL wants to continue to be recognized as a learned society. If it wants to be a National Council of Churches, then it should continue its present course."

The question of evangelicals' role in organizations such as SBL and AAR is a perennial one.

After joining 10,000 attendees at SBL's 2009 conference in New Orleans, Daniel Wallace, professor of New Testament at Dallas Theological Seminary, cited the "darker underbelly to the conference" and a bias by "left-wing fundamentalist" scholars against evangelicals.

"The prejudice runs deep—almost as deep as the ignorance," Wallace said in a blog post.

In response, Scot McKnight, religious studies professor at North Park University in Chicago, did not dispute that a bias against evangelical scholars exists. But he said evangelicals must understand themselves not as dispassionate, modernist scholars, but as "passionate, believing scholars who think the NT is the Word of God and that God does miracles in this world."

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"American evangelicals have an identity problem," McKnight wrote. "Too many think acceptance at the University proves they are legitimate scholars; too many strive to be approved by the American University so they can consider themselves real scholars."

Nonetheless, several evangelical scholars tout the importance of Christian involvement in organizations like SBL and AAR.

Those scholars were skeptical about the claim that Christian fundamentalists had invaded SBL to silence other perspectives and proselytize. More likely, several said, Hendel is simply frustrated that an increased number of religious scholars have joined SBL's ranks.

"Basically, Hendel is flabbergasted that a society dedicated to the study of religious texts is populated by people who are religious," said Michael Bird, lecturer in theological studies at Crossway College in Australia. "He's basically a secular fundamentalist who thinks that 'real' scholarship is what he does, and everyone else does pseudo-scholarship."

Certainly, SBL is not the place for overt evangelism, said Joel Willitts, chairman of North Park's Department of Biblical and Theological Studies. "It is, however, the place to argue for the truth through rigorous arguments and solid evidence," he said. "Christianity is a public faith, and its truth should stand up to public scrutiny. Evangelicals should point out weak arguments in others, but more so … we should point out the weakness in our own."

Ben Witherington III, New Testament professor at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky, said evangelicals "absolutely" need to be involved in SBL.

They should not "ghettoize themselves," he said, by involvement only in organizations such as the Evangelical Theological Society.

"We have much to learn and much to share with other points of view, and going to society meetings of just evangelicals—while it has many virtues—is neither a good witness nor a good way to be stretched and challenged," Witherington said. "I honestly do not think that discrimination against evangelicals is much of an issue in the guild anymore, and more specifically, I see no evidence of that in SBL."

As for Hendel, he got an earful—in person—from at least one evangelical scholar. Tremper Longman III, professor of biblical studies at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California, said he and his friend Hendel talked about the article at dinner, and then exchanged e-mails about it.

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"It was multifaceted," Longman said of the conversation. "I agreed with him that we shouldn't be proselytizing within the context of [SBL]. I disagreed with him that only people who do traditional, historical, critical methods should participate in [SBL]. The society is for everyone who has an academic interest in the Bible."

Related Elsewhere:

Ronald S. Hendel's op-ed is available in the July/August 2010 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review (subscription required). Christianity Today wrote about the Society of Biblical Literature and the American Academy of Religion's joint conference.

On August 12, SBL executive director John F. Kutsko posted a lengthy response to Hendel's article and the debate that followed. "Confession-based scholarship that also embraces the norms of humanities-based scholarship will be welcome," it read in part. "Under no condition will prejudicial speech be tolerated."

Previous articles related to theology and scholarship include:

The Jesus We'll Never Know | Why scholarly attempts to discover the 'real' Jesus have failed. And why that's a good thing. (April 9, 2010)
Beyond Believers | Religion is now the hottest topic for American historians. (March 11, 2010)
The Heavyweights of Religion Research | Reference works that provide pound-for-pound excellence. (April 22, 2002)

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