Alan Lenzi (10/08)

Blogger of the Month for October 2008

John Hobbins Interviews Alan Lenzi

Editorial Note: Alan Lenzi authors the Bible and Ancient Near East blog at

JH: Alan, thank you for agreeing to be interviewed. I really enjoy your blog though I will note that your wife’s blog has better pictures. Anyone who loves their field of study as much as you do and has such a beautiful family deserves to be a very happy man.

AL: Thank you for deciding to interview me. I totally agree that my wife’s blog has better pictures. Of course, just one picture of her radiance makes my blog’s images look absolutely Neanderthal. She likes to post pictures of where we’ve been or what we do as well as what she sees on here walks. Her blog is a visual, literary, and sometimes musical treat. She’s very creative. I am indeed a lucky man to have such a wonderful wife and kids to love and love me back.

JH: How on earth do you manage to put up with your Christian colleagues in the field whose beliefs are, as they themselves admit, scandalous to Jews and foolishness to everyone else with sufficient self-awareness (I’m paraphrasing 1 Cor 1:23)?

As a believer, I freely admit that I must distinguish between conclusions I reach based on a framework which embraces all of my control beliefs, and those I reach based on a framework which embraces only those control beliefs which are connatural to the disciplines of literary, historical, and anthropological study. In this sense, an atheist, at least potentially, has an advantage: less background static to contend with. What advice do you have for believers who work in the same scholarly vineyards you do?

AL: So the gloves come off, eh? Let me say it up front: I don’t “put up” with my Christian colleagues; I cherish their best academic contributions and respect much of what they do. A great deal of their work has been and is absolutely essential to the field. In fact, without believers, Biblical Studies would not be where it is today. By the way, although that can and should be taken both positively and negatively, I am focusing on the positive here.

Ideally, however, academic believers should tune out what you are calling “static,” that is, their theological beliefs, in their academic work. (You suggested the metaphor!) That’s my advice. They should practice methodological atheism when pursuing academic Biblical Studies. They should remove their theological commitments from their mind’s throne and welcome the hegemony of self-critical human autonomy. (See below on how this practice affected me.) Now that kind of bald statement sounds arrogant, insensitive, and even blasphemous. I understand. But allow me to nuance matters . . . a little.

Although Biblical Studies can be a lot of things, I’m in it to understand people not an imagined god, a culture not a theology. I think many other academic pursuits in the Humanities would say the same. It is certainly well within the rights of believers to pursue Biblical Studies for other, theological reasons. It is a free country, after all. But this is best done—and is usually done—in theological or religiously-oriented institutions that serve religious constituents. Unfortunately, those theological perspectives, as many believers would agree, are not easily isolated from historical-critical concerns. Let’s be honest: it’s impossible to completely compartmentalize history and theology, especially since “revealed religions” make theological claims based on alleged historical events (e.g. Sinai and the Resurrection). So the field gets clouded up with books that sort of try to bridge the historical-critical and theological worlds. And with the rise of Postmodernism, it seems that things are only getting cloudier. We all have ultimate commitments (presuppositions) and these can influence our sifting of data. We must all be careful about how our positionality affects our scholarship. What I’m advising believers to do is to be rigorously self-conscious to limit the ideological effects of their theology on their historical research.

As a humanistic field of inquiry, I would say that the proper concern of academic Biblical Studies is history and humanity. Theologians are not usually welcome to such “this worldly” intellectual projects—imagine a theological interpretation of US History! The field should be critical not apologetic or theological (there’s little distinction between the two, in my opinion). This is very hard for many (conservative) colleagues to appreciate. Or, if they do, as many Liberal Protestant scholars are inclined to do, they will contend that the theological dimension is something one may (or should) add on for whatever reason—or against reason! It’s very common, for example, to believe that the historical-critical study of the Bible lays the ground work for theological interpretation, which is the capstone on biblical interpretation.

So even among ardent historical-critical but believing scholars (whose ground work is often very useful to unbelieving scholars), we find biblical scholars-cum-theologians (Childs, e.g.), both amateur dilettantes and professionals serving their religious organizations. That’s fine in theory and within one’s seminary or denominational setting. But a theological “add-on” or “capstone” creates a lot of problems, many latent and others explicit, in our academic field and learned organizations. That’s why I think the Society of Biblical Literature should very clearly state that its mission is historical, cultural, and literary in nature and its critical methods do not privilege the Bible in any way (i.e., the same canons of criticism one would apply in any other field of study are applied to the Bible). For the same reasons, I think the SBL should tighten its membership requirements. There’s a very long conversation in and of itself in that last sentence, which I’ve touched on from time to time on my blog. I won’t go into here.

To wrap this answer up: I’d like to challenge people to ask themselves if a learned mathematical society would tolerate some of its members presenting papers from a latent Pythagorean perspective or one that implicitly utilizes principles of Gematria somehow or otherwise engages in or is influenced by a form of mysticism. Its members may believe in such things as articles of faith; surely no one would try to police its members’ thoughts! But I dare say such ideas would not be tolerated at its learned meetings because these ideas are not appropriate in an Enlightenment-based learned society. The same is true of theological and religious perspectives in papers presented and books sold at the SBL, a problem especially evident among papers presented at regional-level meetings. That’s why believers need to tune out the “static.” Many other believers have successfully done this in other fields. The same ought to be true of ours. The schools will have to deal with it if they want credentialed professional scholars teaching their students.

Wow, that was kind of long. But you asked!

JH: Tell us more about your existential and intellectual journey.

AL: That’s a very, very long story. I have been trying for two years to put together a volume of autobiographical accounts from believing and unbelieving biblical scholars about how their academic work affected their religious faith. But publishers keep turning it down. They don’t think anyone will read it. And yet people keep asking me how I lost my faith studying the Bible.

Let me give you the short version. I began studying the Bible very carefully years ago. I began studying with people outside my tradition about 11 years ago. I began to see things that caused problems, in my opinion, for a high view (traditional inerrancy) of scripture (about 11 years ago). I reconciled myself to a different view of scripture that took into account much more fully the human and historical features found within it (about 9 years ago). I then began to read about religion more broadly (outside parochial Biblical Studies) (about 8 years ago). I realized that the same exact things I see in biblical texts and among my religious convictions occur in other scriptural texts and religions. So, I concluded, the only thing that made scripture and Christianity special was my preconceptions and experience (about 6 years ago). I saw that many people have tried to argue that the content or ideas of Christianity were superior to these other religions. But on the theological level these ultimately seemed strained and apologetic to me. Not wanting to give up my faith, I lived as a mystic for a while—the Liberal Protestant solution (see below) (about 6 years ago). This was not satisfying for a number of reasons. So I got brave and took the final step into agnosticism (about 4.5 years ago). It was rather scary at first. But now I feel like I’ve been liberated from a very heavy existential burden.

Let me give you the shortest version of this story now. I allowed human autonomy to displace theological conviction as my primary interpretive framework, and I then gave a wide array of evidence an honest read (see advice to believers above.). The result was logical and compelling. I don’t have an answer for everything (e.g., where did the universe come from?), but the biblical and religious data makes a lot more sense to me now. It seems like my story should be more commonplace among biblical scholars. But I often feel like the oddball.

I want to address one other matter. Just the other day while lunching with some colleagues, I told our university chaplain that I had attended a Bible college. As soon as she heard that, she said, “That explains everything. No wonder you lost your faith.” I get this a lot and almost always from Liberal Protestants. It’s extremely condescending and Evangelicals should be offended. “Poor fundamentalists and Evangelicals, if only they had our intellectual firepower.” But their answer is essentially fideism, mysticism, or faith-infused doubting. Although I recognize the mysterious nature of much of our existence, I’m not able to acquiesce to theistic mysticism because it seems to revel entirely in one’s imagination. Knowing what I know about our human cognitive tendency to posit non-obvious beings (see, e.g., Stewart Guthrie and Daniel Dennett), such mysticism seems absolutely absurd to me. It’s like consciously embracing wishful thinking.

I’ve sort of taken the direct tone in this answer here. Just for the record: I don’t ever do this to my students when it comes to faith issues. In fact, I often suggest to them theological avenues they can explore that they might find helpful to reconcile faith and historical inquiry.

JH: What drew you to blogging? Where did you learn to write with such clarity and candor? If everyone in our field wrote as well as you do, a lot more people might get excited about its challenges and prospects.

AL: I started a blog because I found myself hijacking other people’s. I still do that on occasion but not as much. My wife had one first. So I followed her lead and decided to take the plunge.

My writing? I’m a very slow writer and do not think I have a great knack for it. But thanks for the compliment. In terms of clarity, constant self-scrutiny helps me refine my writing. Asking for input from others also helps. In terms of candor, I just can’t help myself. I too often say what is on my mind, and I have a penchant to make confessions. It’s a product of my personality mixed with the remnants of my religious background.

JH: I believe you are one of the editors of an online monograph series in the launch phase. Can you explain and do you have a progress report?

AL: It’s an SBL initiative spear-headed by Ehud Ben Zvi. But there’s not really much to report yet. We have our first meeting at SBL in Boston. After that, I’ll be able to say more.

I actually tried to start my own on-line, open-access monograph series about a year ago. I met with Ehud at last year’s SBL to talk about the feasibility of it, etc. He was totally behind it. I got an editorial policy together, met with librarians to talk about the mechanics of the undertaking, convinced several well-respected scholars to get on (the editorial) board, and even designed a web page. Then just about the time I was ready to start soliciting manuscripts, I got an email from Ehud inviting me to join his team. So I closed shop on the series that never was and joined up with the Ancient Near Eastern Monograph series.

JH: Do you have any specific role models in your fields of interest? Since you are, among other things, an Assyriologist, I would mention J. J. Finkelstein as an example of someone who, in his classic “The West, the Bible and the ancient East:apperceptions and categorizations,” Man (N. S.) 9 (1974) 591-608, punched holes in many commonplace notions that continue to enjoy wide currency today. He also loved to make fun of “bublical archaeology,” as I think he termed it, but also turned around and wrote a splendid cross-disciplinary work entitled The Ox That Gored(TAPS 71/2 [Philadelphia: The American Philosophical Society, 1981]). I assume you have other role models you would like to mention.

AL: I have several. Karel van der Toorn is perhaps my first. His work is wide-ranging and creative. Tzvi Abusch, one of my advisers, taught me how to read carefully (as did Marc Brettler and David Wright at Brandeis) and to think outside one’s own field in order to harvest the results and contribute to the work of humanistic scholarship. Simo Parpola is incredible, too. He produces very creative—sometimes too creative—work. We need scholars like this! Through his writings I learned to imagine new possibilities. Joseph Blenkinsopp’s stuff inspires me to create big pictures from details. Bruce Lincoln has opened a whole new vista for me in the broader field of Religious Studies. There’s a host of others in several fields that I really respect and have learned from. Here’s a few: Hurowitz, VanderKam, Fox, Milgrom, Noegel, Machinist, Walls, Fishbane, Veldhuis, Lambert, Beaulieu, Bell, Grimes, Dennett, Guthrie, McCuthcheon. . . .

JH: Tell us a couple of anecdotes about your experience as a Ph.D. student at Brandeis. Here’s your chance to plug your alma mater.

AL: I was only physically on the Brandeis campus for 3 years even though I was in the Bible and Ancient Near East program for 8½.

The first semester at Brandeis just freaked me out generally. I had so much invested in me becoming a Hebrew Bible scholar that I created a lot of pressure on myself—still do, honestly. I couldn’t fail; the world would have to end, I felt, before I failed. Yet I felt so intimidated by how much I didn’t know and how much I needed to learn that I wondered if I could do it. It was a terrible 15 weeks. The person who suffered most was my wife. She’d pick me up in the car, and I’d go through a litany of all the stuff floating through my head. (I’m one of those vocalizing-types.) On the days that she didn’t pick me up (when I had the car), my mind was so full of stuff that I’d often forget where I parked. I can laugh now, but it was a really dark first semester. Christy was a great source of comfort and strength. The other semesters were tough, too, but each successive one got a little easier.

On the positive side, Brettler’s teaching is phenomenal. He was relentless about student preparation and thorough in class discussion. He’d hone in on one student per verse and just keep questioning that student until the issues in the verse had been fully covered (at least fully enough for that pedagogical context). The most a first year could aspire to was survival—that you hadn’t missed anything crucial. You knew you had reached the final stage of development when Brettler would respond to your comment with, “Interesting, I hadn’t thought of it that way before.” He’d then write it in his notes. Those student comment notes had a special place in the program because occasionally he’d say to us, “It’s interesting that you suggest that because just two years ago [So-and-So] said something similar.”

The best social aspect of Brandeis’ very small program was lunch with the other grad students. We’d frequently gather in the cafeteria and sort of decompress collectively. We’d complain, talk shop, laugh, strategize, etc. We were a diverse group, but we all stood together. And we still get together at SBL when we can. Without those folks, grad school would have been unbearable.

JH: I just read your classy JBL article on Proverbs 8:22-31, which you conveniently link to on your blog and provide in pdf format. I wish all scholars would do this with their work. It mainstreams valuable research in a practical way.

I have one basic criticism of your essay I thought I’d share with you. It has to do with the identification of instances of literary dependence. Your criteria are tighter than those of many, but I’m still left shaking my head at the notion that the author of Prov 8:22-31 was alluding specifically to a passage or passages in Enuma Elish, and furthermore, expected his readership to pick up on these allusions.

AL: Let me interrupt. Why do you assume that the author of the poem expected his readership to pick up on the allusions? He may have hoped for this, but we have no warrant to believe it was a primary goal in his writing. You may be working with an anachronistic idea of authorial intention here. Scribes may have been motivated to write what they did simply to expand the tradition in the direction of their choosing. Their allusions may have meant more to them than their readers. Readers may have caught the subtleties of their ideas. Perhaps the author even hoped so. But I assume that Prov 8:22-31 was primarily a theological development inserted to contribute what the author perceived as a theological desideratum. Ultimately, of course, his poem communicates his main idea whether one gets the subtle allusion or not: Wisdom is super ancient and super important to creation and humanity.

JH: It is not that the parallels you note are not well-chosen. They are pertinent in the extreme. It’s just that, in the case of a constellation of co-occurrent themes across specific loci in literatures at a considerable remove from one another (Assyro-Babylonian and ancient Israelite), a less daring hypothesis would be that the set of topoi Prov 8:22-31 shares with one or more passages in Enuma Elish is in consequence of independent metalepsis of the set in both cases from a common cultural background. In that shared background, of which we possess only a few scraps, the elements of the set, ex hypothesi, frequently co-occurred.

AL: “Less daring” is not what I was striving for. I understand your concerns about independent, common themes. I made the case the best I could. If it does not convince, then one can see it as a failed hypothesis of literary dependence but an interesting comparative reading.

JH: It is also far from obvious that Prov 8:22-31 is designed as a polemic against specific and by no means universal conceptions attested in the literature of a rival culture, that of Assyro-Babylonia, which has left no particular traces in extant material and cultural remains from Palestine of the Persian and Hellenistic periods.

AL: It need not be obvious to be there, and I think I’ve noted the fact that Mesopotamia was famous in the then civilized world for its ancient wisdom, even in the Hellenistic period. Also, we’re very likely dealing with a learned Hebrew author, not some backwater shepherd in a field. By the way, how do we even know that the person who composed the poem in question was in or from Palestine (his whole life)? The Hellenistic world fostered a relatively high level of geographic mobility, and Jews traveled all over. I think the possibilities are relatively high that a learned individual could know about the ideas and storyline in the Enuma Elish. You do know that the Enuma Elish circulated in various forms even well into the Common Era, right? See further n.88 in the article.

So I don’t think this objection of yours is very weighty. I think you are underestimating the influence and diffusion of Mesopotamian traditional culture in Persian and Hellenistic times. If the literary dependence doesn’t convince, fine. But the possibility for dependence is very plausible.

JH: On the other hand, if, against the current reigning consensus, you wish to date Proverbs 1-9 to Jerusalem of the late pre-exilic period, something I believe has much to say for it, your hypothesis looks a bit more plausible. Hey, what good is an interview if we can’t talk shop a bit?

AL: I’m not attracted to a pre-exilic date for Proverbs, but dating the book is as much an art as a science at this point. As stated above, I think you under-estimate how much the old imperial culture located in Mesopotamia continued to influence the ancient world in the Persian and Hellenistic eras. Note, too, that political hegemony is not always co-terminus with cultural prestige.

JH: What are you researching about at the moment, and what plans do you have to in terms of publishing it?

AL: I’m working on an edition with Amar Annus of Ludlul Bel Nemeqi for the State Archives of Assyria Cuneiform Texts series and have recently been invited to write a commentary on the 500 line poem for the SBL’s Wisdom in Israel and the Eastern Mediterranean World series (gen. ed., Leo Perdue; Mesop. ed., Victor Hurowitz). To help me refine my work, I’m going to UC-Berkeley every couple of weeks for a three hour seminar with NELC faculty and advanced graduate students. We read from my score and talk through the text in great detail. The sessions are very constructive. I’m also preparing a couple of comparative Bible / ANE articles. My teaching load is fairly heavy, so I’m sort of inching all of this stuff along presently.

JH: On a lighter note, what does a day in the life of Alan Lenzi entail?

AL: Rise early at 6-6:30, ride my bike into work by 7-7:30, teach too much on M/W/F (classes and/or office hours from 8-12:20, 1-3:50 on MW, the same on F but only until 2), try to fit in some research or grading on T/TH (I work in my office on campus from 8-5), ride the 4 miles home, eat (sometimes cook) dinner with the fam (too often without my wife, who has had to work a lot of evenings since we’ve moved to CA), have some free time for an hour or two, then prep for classes or read/research until about 12-1am. You’d think I’d be getting more done with this kind of schedule. But teaching and grading requires a lot of time, especially since some of my classes are not within my specialization. I’m also distracted from time to time by emails, blogging, kids, or my lovely wife.

JH: Alan, thanks for responding to my questions. We wish you the very best in your life and calling.

AL: “Calling” implies a caller. Let’s call it my craft. Thank you for the opportunity.

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