What and when was postmodernism, and why is the postmodernism debate now pushing up shoots in the pages of JBL decades after it has wilted, withered, and all but vanished in the fields in which it first flourished? Yvonne Sherwood and I are grateful to Ronald Hendel for featuring our jointly authored book, The Invention of the Biblical Scholar, so prominently in his “Mind the Gap: Modern and Postmodern in Biblical Studies”—grateful but also puzzled, since the book marks our own distance from postmodernism.
First, our gratitude. Hendel deftly pencils the figure of Spinoza into our Foucauldian sketch of early modern biblical scholarship. Hendel argues compellingly that Spinoza’s absence from our sketch is a notable lacuna and missed opportunity. His intriguing analysis of Spinoza’s significance and his recourse to the concept of the Radical Enlightenment to contextualize it suggest how our re-description of biblical-scholarly origins might have begun farther back.
We are less convinced, however, that Hendel’s introduction of Spinoza significantly alters our sketch, turning a “genealogy of the biblical scholar … that is too idealist in orientation” into a more “political” one.1 “Political” is a thoroughly mystified term in contemporary academic discourse, as Sherwood and I argue in our book.2 To claim that term for one’s interpretation while engaging in the language game of one’s discipline is a strategic move that automatically elevates one to the moral high ground—however remote that language game might be from [End Page 444] the extra-academic world, one in which the “political” is now, paradoxically, the virtual antonym of the virtuous.3 We’ll see you and raise you, Professor Hendel.
Now, our puzzlement at our prominence in Hendel’s article. Our book does not represent itself as a postmodern intervention in biblical studies. On the contrary, our stance toward biblical postmodernism was one of critical distance: “Our argument in this book is that contemporary biblical scholarship, including even those developments within it that most readily invite the label ‘postmodern(ist),’ is still fundamentally predetermined and contained by the Enlightenment épistémè, and far more that is generally realized.”4 And we had even more unkind things to say about biblical postmodernism:
Theory, in the form of a banalized and sloganized postmodernism, was translated into biblical studies as an exhortation to overhaul and refuel the aged methodological engine of the discipline. Theory in this perhaps inevitably narrowed form extended, rather than challenged, the fundamental project of the Enlightenment Bible—however much anti-Enlightenment polemic might feature in biblical postmodernist rhetoric.5
We also complained: “The revelation that knowledge of the object (in this case, the biblical text) can only ever be mediated by the subject, and hence objectivity by subjectivity, was trumpeted as a postmodern epiphany in work that was frequently oblivious to how such issues had been hotly-debated ones for philosophy when biblical scholarship was still in its infancy.”6 And so on.7 We were not unaware that our own earlier, postmodernism-besotted selves were spread-eagled on the targets at which we were taking aim.8 It is not so much that we were renouncing the postmodernism of our early careers as observing its myopic limitations with the benefit of hindsight. With apologies to the Bard, we had come neither to bury biblical postmodernism nor to praise it. Our entire book was premised on the conviction that it was now high time for a critical look back at the ways in which “theory,” generally of the anti-foundationalist type, has been appropriated in biblical studies—“postmodernism” being the term of convenience for that appropriation—and to consider how and why it might be appropriated differently.
Our critical distance on postmodernism is entirely erased in Hendel’s account of our project. Our book is a “perspicuous example” of “weak postmodernism” (the good kind, in his mind).9 It “construct[s] a postmodern genealogy of our academic [End Page 445] discipline.”10 This is in keeping with Hendel’s employment of the term(s) “post-modern(ism)” in his article as a whole. He repeatedly applies “postmodernist” to a congeries of influential thinkers who themselves do not identify...