The State of Biblical and Ancient Near Eastern Studies in America

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By: Mark S. Smith

I thank ANE Today for asking me to address this question. The perspective on the state of Biblical and Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) studies that I offer here is my personal take; I speak for no one else. Furthermore, my remarks are also hardly comprehensive.

The field has been in a continuous state of flux since the mid-1980s. This coincides with the passing of the last great generation, represented by the students of William Foxwell Albright at programs such as Harvard and the University of Michigan, as well as the students of other post-World War II greats at the University of Pennsylvania, Columbia University-Jewish Theological Seminary, Yale University, and the University of Chicago. This passing also corresponds to a major shift in the broader intellectual atmosphere, from rich historical and language knowledge often with little theory, to probing questions of literature and culture highly informed by various sorts of theory. So our field has been changing; it is optimal when substantial knowledge and penetrating questions informed by suitable theory work together.

William Foxwell Albright (1891-1971) of Johns Hopkins University.

William Foxwell Albright (1891-1971) of Johns Hopkins University.

Harvard University’s Frank Moore Cross (1921-2012), a leading student of Albright.

Harvard University’s Frank Moore Cross (1921-2012), a leading student of Albright.

Albright’s student G. Ernest Wright (1909-1974) of Harvard University.

Albright’s student G. Ernest Wright (1909-1974) of Harvard University.


This change corresponds to a further shift in our programs, universities, and society. Within our programs, questions have been raised about how to pursue the learning needed for research. Why study a fairly obscure language such as Ugaritic when you can study wonderful areas such as anthropology or literary criticism? The underlying question is not the value of all these areas; we should all be interested in as vast a series of fields as possible. The issue becomes why one at the expense of the other and how they are valuable for what sorts of questions or problems.

In the university, the field of Bible and ANE is of little interest to other fields. Unlike many others, little in ours has attracted the interest of other academics. For various historical reasons, we generate little by way of theory for other fields, although I think that we conduct various sorts of inquiry valuable to others (for example, the analysis of textual processes for literary criticism). Bible and ANE studies have also tended to their own tasks, with little concern for relating our value to other fields. We need to do better.

Outside the university, the value of our work is acknowledged in some respects. A good number of people do find much of what we study interesting. And whether for the good or not, popular media will continue to draw on the Bible (witness Russell Crowe in the 2014 movie, Noah). However, for the vast majority of Americans, what we do is simply not on their map. Despite efforts to publicize our field, we live in a fairly remote corner of our universities and our society.

Baal epic tablet from Ugarit.

Baal epic tablet from Ugarit.

Whether in the university or outside of it, attitudes about what we do (and why) have changed. Once the value was generally assumed (I think, mostly for religious reasons) – and assumed to be a positive one; this now needs to be rearticulated – and re-thought. (Good!)  It will include religious reasons, but not necessarily because of personal religious convictions, but because religion is inherently interesting, and a good deal of work in Bible and ANE entails different aspects of religion embedded in the cultures that we study. The forms of society and religion that we study have a great deal to contribute to current perspectives on religion in American society. I find students in class often rethinking all their mental categories about religion and society when they take courses on Bible and ANE.

So where does this put us at the moment? Insiders often focus on three material conditions affecting the field: the support for students entering academic programs; the situation with faculty appointments and mentoring of students; and the condition of the job market.

Overall resources for student scholarship seem to be shrinking. The Johns Hopkins University reportedly released a “draft” of its Strategic Planning Final Report for the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences to graduate students. The plan proposes increasing funding packages for students to $30,000 a year for five years, including a summer stipend, from about $22,000, to “compete against our wealthier rivals.” At the same time, the plan also proposes cutting enrollment across departments by about 25 percent, over a period of five years. The Bible and ANE program at NYU has similarly boosted support for doctoral students. Overall, doctoral programs in Bible and ANE seem to be accepting fewer students. In addition, many programs no longer allow students to pay their way, even in part. As a result, several programs, such as Hopkins and NYU, provide substantially better funding for students, but for fewer of them (we are admitting one or two a year in our Bible and ANE program, and The Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at NYU is also admitting students in the ancient fields).

The silver lining for Bible and ANE? This shift towards fewer students certainly accords better with the historically low number of jobs available in our field. Still, some wonder if this will lead to the reduction of faculty appointments in Arts and Sciences, especially in small, vulnerable fields such as our own.

Is there another silver lining? As a result of the smaller programs, we faculty find ourselves able to give each student a great deal of individual attention over the years of their coursework, exams, and dissertation. I see this not only with our program, but also with some others I have visited in recent years, such as Brown. I also see greater cohesion and networking among students in different years, more relationships with students in other fields, and even between students at schools.

The overall strength of programs, especially when it comes to faculty appointments, rightfully remains a concern. When any program suffers, we all suffer. Some seem to be in a downspin, while others are treading water. A couple have increased their faculty numbers in recent years (notably Brown and NYU, thanks to the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World). Still others seem to be rethinking what they do and who they are. Some of this is potentially encouraging. However, the long-term trend remains unclear, and I remain concerned that it will be easy to put Bible and ANE on the academic chopping block.

While many faculty do an excellent job with their students and are very devoted, my sense from conversations with graduate students in different programs is that there are many faculty who contribute little to student development apart from teaching; even in graduate instruction there are significant deficits. Other faculty seem not to have seriously scrutinized their students’ dissertations. And I have heard of some faculty members who virtually ignore their students. I think some faculty just plain forget how vulnerable their graduate students’ lives really are. As a result, students in these situations may not develop their intellects and skill sets as much as they could, and they emerge from their programs less equipped to face the job market.

As for the job market, despite the seemingly perpetual gloom that hangs over the field about this matter, there still are some jobs out there in Bible, and a number of doctoral students trained in both Bible and ANE are getting those positions. Especially since the recession in 2008, it has been harder for Bible students (ANE and otherwise). Several are not getting jobs, and many suffer through post-docs, a major feature of the employment landscape that has developed over the past 20 years. Worse, the lot of the eternal adjunct faculty is just simply heartbreaking. This is one of the saddest aspects of my life in our field. It would be interesting to see some real numbers to have a better idea of the situation, but I think all of us know really qualified people who have never gotten the job that would benefit from their superb abilities. In any case, I am impressed, even inspired, by the resilience of many struggling doctorates.

So I suggest that not everything in the conditions of our field is negative, but still, things feel tenuous and potentially very dangerous. More encouraging to me (but hardly entirely) is how our learning is changing. As is well known, we have more hard copy tools as as well as more and more powerful electronic tools and databases than ever, and in the future we will only have more. The challenges will be how to learn and digest the massive amounts of old and new information and to provide intelligent frameworks for contextualizing it.  We will constantly be challenged about how to put the big picture together.

Our students and faculty are becoming more interdisciplinary in their mental habits; this is a wonderful advance. We seem to be learning how to employ several approaches, from overarching frameworks informed by theory to local, focused approaches to texts or problems. We are learning from all corners of the university and the world. Students in Bible and ANE programs continue to learn ancient languages, despite the lament sometimes heard that studies are not as deep as they used to be.  This has not been our experience at NYU (we require coursework in Akkadian and West Semitics, and many our students also want Sumerian, Egyptian, and now Hittite and Luwian).

But historical knowledge seems to be the greater victim; it seems harder and harder to fit in coursework devoted to history. In the current environment, the disinterest in historical knowledge is shocking. Historical facts are left behind or forgotten in the wake of attention paid to what people find “interesting.” (Why let evidence get in the way?) Particularly lamentable in our program, as elsewhere around the country, is the terrible neglect of Syro-Palestinian archaeology.

At the same time, the quality of work being done keeps improving. There are great archaeological excavations that keep yielding wonderful material that change how we think about things. We also see major efforts to draw on all sorts of data in conjunction with better and broader theoretical frameworks. This comes from both our doctoral students and faculty. The standard for serious books keeps rising, as new contributions such as Bernie Levinson’s 1997 Deuteronomy and the Hermeneutics of Legal Innovation, Karel van der Toorn’s 2007 Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible, and Dan Fleming’s 2012 The Legacy of Israel in Judah’s Bible, have shown.

In the meantime, I continue to worry a great deal about students getting jobs, and I worry about universities moving toward downgrading faculty positions, if not eliminating tenure altogether. Like Syro-Palestinian archaeology, my own favorite subspecialty, Ugaritic, seems to be fading in America. Apart from Ugaritic’s leading practitioner, Dennis Pardee of the University of Chicago, this language plays a significant role in few Bible and ANE programs. At what point in this diminishing context does a field like Bible and ANE lose the critical density for continuing its intellectual growth? Changes are coming — in some places they’ve already arrived. What will happen? Sometimes I feel as if we — faculty and students alike — are in quicksand, but most of us, especially those of who have positions, don’t realize it. Pushing against the downward trends, some programs are becoming more entrepreneurial, and others are successful in building ties to contiguous fields. We all have to do more — and better.

Mark S. Smith is Skirball Professor of Bible and Ancient Near Eastern Studies at New York University

[1] The story has appeared in many on-line sources, e.g., http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2013/12/11/hopkins-plans-shifts-graduate-school-and-faculty-hiring#ixzz2vn2RWHzR

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2 Comments for : The State of Biblical and Ancient Near Eastern Studies in America
    • Wayne Coppins
    • May 12, 2014
    Reply

    Thanks for a helpful attempt to survey these positive and negative developments in Biblical and Ancient Near Eastern Studies.

    • Griffin Gaddie
    • May 22, 2014
    Reply

    The tremendous importance of general ANE studies for an understanding of the Bible is hugely underestimated by the American religious community.

    Thanks for your own continuing efforts however. Which are of renewed interest however in the recent American “Mythicist/Historicist” debates; regarding the status of an historical vs. mythical (/ANE?) Jesus.

    Dr. Thom Thompson participated in these blog debates about a year or two ago. I’d like to extend his approach the OT, to the NT.

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