NEWS FEATURE: Number of black Bible scholars slowly growing

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c. 1998 Religion News Service

UNDATED _ When New Testament scholars talk about slavery, the tiny book of Philemon _ a one-chapter book traditionally read as the Apostle Paul’s note accompanying the return of a slave to his owner _ is their definitive text.

But Allen Callahan, an African-American Bible scholar, believes the text isn’t even about slavery. In his view, it’s about reconciliation and the slave language is metaphorical, making the book a story about how Paul tried to heal a relationship between two brothers.

Callahan attributes his unique perspective on the book in part to his”social location,”not least of which is the fact he is an African-American.”When I look at it (Philemon) that way, all kinds of possibilities, helpful possibilities, about reconciliation arise,”he said.”If I were writing from another social location, I wouldn’t be as sensitive to that.” Callahan, an associate professor of New Testament at Harvard Divinity School, is one of a small number of African-Americans with doctoral degrees in biblical studies who are bringing fresh interpretations to texts long read through white and Western eyes.

And their ranks are slowly growing thanks to efforts by established scholars to recruit talented young people into the difficult and sometimes arcane field and to mentor current graduate students.

Biblical studies, Callahan said, is the”final frontier”of African-American scholarly influence in the field of religion, something of an ironic situation for an African-American church community so grounded in the biblical narratives.

Of the thousands of biblical scholars with Ph.D.s, estimates of African-American biblical scholars range from 35 to 50.

The obstacles _ financial and academic _ can be daunting.

A great deal of preparation is required to become a scholar, including extensive theological studies as well as knowledge of several foreign languages, starting with Hebrew and Greek, the languages of Scripture.”Most people aren’t prepared to make that kind of sacrifice and for fairly compelling reasons,”Callahan said.”You don’t get into this business for the money.” Another factor, said Randall Bailey, associate professor of Old Testament and Hebrew at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, is that in the past some white scholars thought blacks lacked the ability to do biblical scholarship.

Matthew Collins, a program area director for the Society of Biblical Literature, acknowledged some scholars did think that way. But, he said, the expense of higher education presented a larger problem.

To help increase the numbers, the Atlanta-based society created the Committee on Underrepresented Racial and Ethnic Persons in the Profession. A recruitment conference was held in 1996 and eight of the 25 students who attended that program are now in graduate school studying religion while two others are applying. On September 25-27, a second conference will be held at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., in part to continue a society goal of increasing the range of perspectives in biblical studies.”The field is always evolving and what these particular students might bring to biblical scholarship is pretty wide open,”Collins said.

Vincent Wimbush, who was the committee’s first chair, said biblical studies is now more appealing to minority students than when he started.”When I look back upon it, I really thought that if I were to proceed as far along the way as my abilities could take me in the academic study of the Bible, I could make the connections between my own culture and the larger interests of the academic study of the Bible,”he said.”Certainly my program didn’t allow me to make that kind of connection.” But he persevered.”I can’t really understand why I continued to hold on as long as I have without some of the things that my students have started to take for granted,”he added.”I was going a little bit on faith.” While some students take for granted their opportunity to integrate their experience with their studies, cultural relevance is only one aspect of the scholarly work of these African-Americans.”It (relevance) is big for the black church which sees these persons as resources,”said Stephen Reid, associate professor of Old Testament studies at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Texas.”It is big for white liberals who assume that we can do nothing else. For us, it’s just a part of the work. It’s not all the work.” For instance, linguistic and historic aspects of scholarship are also important, he said.”If you can’t make a grammar and syntax argument, then no matter how many relevance arguments one can make, it’s not a persuasive argument as far as biblical studies is concerned,”Reid said.

Bailey, who earned his Ph.D. in 1989, said he and many of his contemporaries viewed getting into the field as their contribution to the struggle for equality in America.”Most of us who have degrees now came after the civil rights movement,”he said.”Most of us saw getting a degree in biblical studies as furthering the liberation movement in this country.” Cain Hope Felder, a professor of New Testament language and literature at Howard University School of Divinity in Washington, D.C., established the Biblical Institute for Social Change in 1990 to help take the liberating truths he found in his scholarship to the public, particularly his findings of racial harmony in the biblical text.”We are going directly to the people with the real good news that indeed there is a problem of racism but that it is not in the Bible,”he said.

Judy Fentress-Williams, who is finishing her doctorate at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, said the pioneering work of other African-American scholars has made it easier for young scholars like herself to approach Scripture without having to focus exclusively on black issues.

Like many people, a love of the Hebrew language drew Fentress-Williams into Scripture study. She is interested in literary approaches to the Bible and feels the growing number of African-American biblical scholars helps make it easier for her to pursue that area of research. Scholars no longer feel boxed in by the expectation they would concentrate solely on black issues. “The more diversity there is, the better it is for everyone,”said Fentress-Williams.

The increasing number of African-American scholars also presents new chances for students to reach out and find mentors.

Reid, of Austin seminary, pointed to colleagues like Wimbush at Union Theological Seminary in New York as an example of scholars now helping students make their way through the graduate school maze.”One of the things that African-American biblical scholars do for African-American graduate students is assume a certain level of competence when more often European-American Bible scholars assume that persons of color are incompetent unless proven otherwise,”said Reid.”And so, having someone who is moving from an assumption of student excellence enables those persons to increase the number of successful Ph.D. candidates.” Hugh Page, an assistant professor of Hebrew Scriptures at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., said that while, at 41, he is a relatively young scholar in the field, he often gets calls from graduate students asking for advice.”In a way, we’re just a couple of miles ahead, blazing the trail, making the map and doing our best for others who want to follow to do so without making the same mistakes,”he said.


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