Ancient Near Eastern Studies at BYU

On the advice of more experienced bloggers, I’m posting a (very slightly modified) comment I made on diahman’s post:

I’ve got to respond to (and disagree with) ben’s statement:

I would actually put up BYU’s new ANES degree (replacing the old NE Studies degree) against any undergrad Biblical studies degree at other schools.

I agree in nuce with ben’s other posts and the fruitful discussion regarding the creation of the Ancient Near Eastern Studies major. From all I can tell, it’s giving BYU religion professors whose ancient Near Eastern expertise has long lain dormant the chance to dust off the cobwebs and get back to their training. It’s great to see guys such as Kent Jackson, Dana Pike, and David Seely teaching things they were trained to do at world-class universities (UMich, UPenn, UMich, respectively) under the biggest names in the field (D.N. Freedman, Jeff Tigay).

What is more, this is not, as far as I can tell, a rehashing of the old degree, but contains some perhaps unexpected items, the most noteworthy being the innocuously named “ANES 363: Hebrew Bible Studies.” Its description promises to make some waves, however: “Current analytical methods used in academic study and interpretation of the Hebrew Bible.” This will include, if there is truth in advertising, the various types of criticisms most pertinent to Biblical Studies: Source Crit, Rhetorical Crit, Text Crit, etc. I wait with baited breath to see how this goes over. I’m guessing Seely will do a great job, but I’m anxious to see what kind of oversight, if any, will arise.

My reasons for begging to differ from ben, however, are a result of the problem of the Religion Department itself. Were this major offered primarily by, say, a Near Eastern Studies Department, two or three profoundly weak points could be resolved:

1) The Hebrew instruction could be taught by other than grad students, and in a much more robust way than currently done. (This point does not carry over to the Classics department, which has a much more rigorous stance.)

2) The core text classes should be offered by other than religion faculty. A BYU OT or NT class, in my experience and judging from the range of professors allowed to teach these, tends not to teach the text of the OT or NT in the way normally done in “Biblical Studies” programs. (I know there are exceptions.) But the bottom line is that an ANES major can be instructed in OT or NT by those not trained in OT or NT and . This is a fundamental flaw in a degree that purports to be ANES and not “Religious Education”.

3) This major would begin to rank with others nationwide if its faculty participated in the (national and international) field. I’ve heard rumors that one or two BYU rel profs have begun to start publishing in other (non-LDS) venues, but BYU is not known in the least for its OT/NT scholarship. Two factors seem to contribute to this isolation:

a) the Religion Department, which houses most of the core ANES faculty (judging by the web site’s list of “interested” professors and by those that have actually taught ANES core courses) allows LDS publications to count for rank advancement, so Ensign articles count, Deseret Book publications count, etc. These are much easier to churn out, with the result that no one takes the time and effort to engage in the wider field. Plus, LDS pubs are much more lucrative than Biblical Studies monographs, making the choice even easier.

and b): There is no member of the (again, Religion) faculty that engages in the mainstream of Biblical Studies. Perhaps for obvious reasons, BYU is not producing scholarship on the fundamental aspects of Biblical research. The professors, as far as I can tell, are relegated to “safe” areas: Dead Sea Scrolls/II-temple texts, Moabite language, etc. Why is there no BYU prof, for example, writing on the Doc Hypothesis, from any perspective? Why do our only LDS treatments of this topic come from non-specialists and amateurs?

Until such fundamental issues were addressed, I think I’d send my kid elsewhere for Biblical Studies. But there’s hope on the horizon.

10 Replies to “Ancient Near Eastern Studies at BYU”

  1. I see little hope on the horizon. I’m a prophet of gloom and doom. I forsee a speedy end to any attempt at teaching current trends in critical biblical scholarship.

  2. As I said in the prior post, there is an ongoing movement in requirements for hiring and advancement. There are several professors who are looking to publish in their original field (Thomas Wayment and Eric Huntsman come immediately to mind and I know that David Seely and Dana Pike remain active in their fields also). Part of the problem is the teaching schedule within the Religion department, which requires an enormous amount of time and makes it very difficult to publish with any sort of regularity.The school is aware of the ongoing problems with Hebrew instruction, but as Hebrew language instruction falls outside of the purview of the religion department, it is hard for those involved in ANES to directly affect it. Probably the best that they can do is emphasize the areas that seem to be lacking in their own courses.Regarding the non-religion faculty clause for core text classes, I don’t see your point. The religion courses are inherently devotional courses as it is; it doesn’t matter who teaches it, it won’t be a rigorous examination of the text using theologically neutral approaches. This is why it is necessary to have courses like the one that Bro. Seely is teaching. In those courses, I assume that issues like the Documentary hypothesis and so forth will be brought up and discussed. If anything, the creation of the ANES major allows Religion professors more freedom to talk about these topics. It really is a good thing.

  3. I agree with some of your criticisms. There’s nothing that can be done about the Biblical Hebrew, though in all fairness, it’s only recently that they’ve started having grad students teach it. Without opening a huge can of worms (and I don’t know who you are), let me just say that it’s not necessarily a bad thing having grad students teach Hebrew. If by “core texts” you mean the actual OT/NT classes, there’s also nothing that can be done about that, per se. It’s been discussed. However, the nature of the other required courses in the major essentially counteracts any potential negative effect or lack of knowledge resulting from just taking OT. By the end of the program, the student will still have learned everything that they would pick up elsewhere in a “intro. to the Hebrew Bible course.” As to the third point, certainly most faculty don’t participate much outside LDS venues, though others have. There’s always been a good contingent attending SBL, for example, and some presenting. Generally the younger the faculty member, the more involved. Refocusing on the student (my original point), I think any good BYU ANES grad would be highly competitive in graduate applications due to the new program. They’ll have decent language skills, familiarity with all the relevant tools of the field, and broad knowledge of the ANE context.

  4. There must be a lot that goes on behind the scenes between professors and department chairs, deans, etc to limit the mobility of BYU professors. You guys would know more about this than I do; although from conversations with ex-BYU faculty, I’ve learned that a lot of potential publishing venues are taboo – by contract. Maybe that produces aditional anxiety: “publish and perish.” If you were (or currently are) a recent PhD, would you take a job at ANE? And, if so, what kinds of things would you leave off the “intro to Hebrew Bible” syllabus?

  5. handle,I’ve not heard that certain venues (we can probably all guess which) are contractually verboten, though that is certainly interesting and would add, as you say, to the move away from participation in the wider arena.I would certainly take a job at ANES if it were its own department. As it stands now, it’s a major whose courses are taught by a confederation of departments, with one floating chair. So no one can take a job “at” ANES at this point.I wouldn’t leave off anything from the Intro Syllabus. That is to say, I wouldn’t leave off anything that is taught “normally” in Intro to Hebrew Bible courses at “secular” schools. I would leave off, however, the institute manuals, which are totally useless for understanding the Hebrew Bible.Good questions.

  6. Sorry, guys, I’m working through the comments backwards. I’m going to respond to ben and hp in one comment since many of your points overlapped.Good comments all.ben, we’re on the same page about grad students teaching BH, and I hear you saying that it really depends on the grad student. It’s great if they got the bulk of their training elsewhere. But there’s a problem when their two tenured professors’ interests lie so far elsewhere that they’re not even teaching their subject anymore. BTW, do you know who L. Burton is? S/he’s listed as the teacher for the Honors Hebrew/OT course next semester. I’m assuming grad student, given that no such name appears on the faculty list, though I may be wrong.About faculty participation, attendance at SBL is not participation, if you ask me. I’m surely guilty of overstatement at times, but my impression of BYU religion faculty is that the extent of their participation is showing up at the conferences and, when they do present, they do so on the software that the Computer Science department wrote. Granted, there is the Mormon section now at SBL, but I’m not sure that’s helping us. I am aware that there are one or two (I’m actually not aware of more than two) professors who have presented on mainstream topics at the international SBL, but these are exceptions. And you’re right about the younger faculty; I don’t know their track records as well, but I am suspicious that they’re falling into the same pattern that their more seasoned counterparts fell into.To both of you (ben and hp) about “core text” classes: I agree with you; there’s nothing that can be done, they’re religion (= devotional) classes and can’t be taught from theologically neutral positions. But if they’re religion/devotional classes how do they constitute a core contingent in an ANES degree?! Let them be electives in religion, exactly as for a physics major. Including them in the degree dilutes it, in my opinion. The OT/NT courses make little effort (again, in my admittedly limited and probably warped knowledge) to teach the texts of these books. I’m really not even talking about the inclusion of academic theories, I’m just asking whether a student who has finished those courses knows how to read OT/NT when s/he comes out, and I feel like the answer is a most definite no. Again, there are exceptions (in students and in teachers), but not enough of them…I do hope that the ANES major will open up the discourse on OT/NT.Finally, I realize that the source of some of our disagreement is over how candidates are placed. From my experience going through the admissions process several times and having watched many, many others go through it, and having had professors tell me about it in minute detail, it seems that you are a competitive candidate when you have your recommenders known and respected by professors at your target school. The other stuff (GRE, writing sample, transcripts) is important in that it can get you rejected, but the force of the recommendation is all important. And until BYU profs make some academic waves, their students will have a more difficult time getting in.This was the impetus for last year’s address by Dean Magleby of the FHSS college to his faculty: you’ve got to sever ties with Provo and get out in the world, and get your names known, so that we can get better placement of our students in reputable grad programs. You won’t hear such a comment coming from RelEd, partly because they don’t have any graduates to place, and partly because they seem not to care about conversing with the outside (again, speaking generally, especially about the administration’s stance).

  7. Well, since at least one negative comment here probably pertains to me, I’ll bite. First, Hebrew instruction at BYU may be improving, if it’s being consistently taught by grad students. I taught it as an undergraduate, as did at least one other of my fellow undergrads. If you don’t like having student instructors, write the dept chair and college dean. They have the power to hire more Hebrew faculty, use qualified transfer faculty, or make their current faculty teach their core classes. It’s all about priorities and politics. That said, Laura Burton (yes, grad student) is very bright and actually interested in pedagogy. I expect she’ll be a good instructor.Second, I think this is the beginning of a golden age for LDS biblical scholars. Never have critical methodologies been so evident in LDS publishing on the Bible, and more is being done “outside” every year. There is very strong support for this institutionally. If more faculty are not more involved in the mainstream, it is because they do not have the training or interest, not because they are being discouraged. If you suspect otherwise, write someone like Thom Wayment (former RMGP SBL president, btw) and ask him. Publishing outside makes you a superstar in the dept., and always has. David Seely just received the Ancient Studies chair because of his forthcoming volume in the Anchor Bible series. No publication venues are “contractually verboten,” though it’s true that no one in Religion would publish in Sunstone or Dialogue. But those aren’t biblical studies journals anyway.Because we as a church have little interest in critical biblical studies, you will never have a faculty full of scholars with an interest in it. We’re very lucky to have the handful we do have. I think too that the ANES program is a minor miracle and demonstrates institutional liberalization. I think a far bigger problem than the quality of the faculty and program, or even placement of students in grad programs, is the rampant anti-LDS bias in hiring committees nationwide. This may not be a concern to students caught up in the thick of things, but it will be on the day they’re done. If you are white, male, and Mormon, bon chance, mes amis. I also question how much critical methodology undergrads need to be taught. You can easily glean that out of basic introductions on your own. What aspiring grad students in Bible need are the basic tools for graduate work, esp. language. Greek, Hebrew, Latin, Aramaic, German, French, Italian, and if you have some spare credits after those, why not Coptic, Dutch, etc. I think ANES is trying, to some extent, to give undergrads a graduate experience, since that is conventional wisdom at BYU. I’m not sure I agree that is desirable, or even possible.

  8. I don’t know Burton personally at all. Here’s her info. BS-Computer Science, current MA student in Creative Writing. Sounds bad for her Hebrew classes, right? She apparently has at least passing familiarity with Modern and Biblical Hebrew as well as Aramaic, Ethiopic (!) and Syriac, and the reconstructive principles of Proto-Semitic (or at least an earlier stage of Hebrew. Her handout on this sticks largely with morphology/phonology, and doesn’t say anything about the verbal system, for example.) Her “blog” of sorts is at http://www.laraburton.comI've heard a glowing report of her, but it comes from an enthusiastic freshman.”Again, there are exceptions (in students and in teachers), but not enough of them…” This is true, but the numbers are growing. Are you associated with another department? I wish I knew the identities of those participating on this thread… Should anyone wish to identify themselves to me privately, feel free to email me at aaron.nonymous at and I will respond in kind. And of course, there’s my “bio” at M*

  9. This is going to sound very negative so I apologize in advance. Is it possible that the anti-LDS bias is based on the assumption that even our very best have fundamentalist attitudes about the Bible? We haven’t done a whole lot to prove otherwise. Ever since Roberts and Sperry, our main apologetic line goes something like, “critical theories don’t prove that the Book of Mormon isn’t true, the Book of Mormon proves that the critical theories are false.” We have become known for holistic readings of Isaiah, to give one example. Personally, the “guilt by association” makes me a little nervous. Like anon. said, “bon chance, mes amis.” Maybe I should just give up now?!?

  10. Ben: Lara’s husband is on the CS faculty and she is a perennial student, with a background in CS and (I believe) linguistics. She is also a technical writer–hence her MA prog–but in fact spends most of her time in semitics. She also works for Stephen Ricks. I know her and would not hesitate to take her class. I don’t know her precise background in Hebrew, but she is a gifted linguist and interested in pedagogy, as you can see from her website. Teaching intro Hebrew is more about linguistic savvy and effective pedagogy than anything else. And yes, I work at BYU in another dept.handle: The bias against LDS is that we are a conservative religious sect, and most scholars, even of religion, know little more about us than that. But that’s enough. The modern academy is predicated on secular liberalism. Most religion depts in big state and private universities have liberal, secular faculties and they want to keep it that way. Everyone wants like-minded colleagues. Most conservative scholars of faith in Religious Studies, etc., work at religious schools which they are affiliated with denominationally. In fact, many seminaries and church schools require employees to sign a confessional statement of faith. LDS scholars therefore fall between both stools. While a relatively centrist LDS scholar could break into a 19th American religious history position (Kathleen Flake), most any other area of RS will shut you out unless you are clearly disaffected. If you could get hired, then fired, from BYU (David Wright) or the CES (Philip Barlow), that would certify you as a liberal Mormon, and then your application could perhaps be safely entertained. If you’re an ex-Mormon, that would be even better for your job prospects. Not sure I want to go down that path myself.Also recognize that most religion depts are white and male, and under tremendous pressure to diversify. When one of their white males retires, they are very slow to replace him with another white male, let alone a white male from a strange, conservative, maybe-or-maybe-not-Christian religious sect. Read job postings and most say, “We especially encourage applications from [long list of the underrepresented].” Unfortunately, I’ve never seen Mormons listed among the underrepresented, even if we most certainly are. Being white and male myself, I find this diversity policy all the more painful because I largely agree with it. Oh, and it is an unspoken policy at BYU as well.Still, throw enough spaghetti at the wall and some has to stick. We have so many Mormons going into religion programs that (I hope) at least a few have to be able to get jobs while being allowed to keep their faith. Every time that happens, it makes it that much easier for the next generation.

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