“We live in a white world.” I made this statement on Facebook to a white male friend right after the killing of George Floyd on the street of Saint Paul, Minnesota. This friend insisted that he does not see white supremacy or racism in America at all. As a person of color, I told him that I see whiteness everywhere. When I go to groceries store, for instance, the foods that I eat are placed in the “ethnic food” section. White foods are never labeled “white.” They are just foods. As Sara Ahmed puts it, “whiteness is only invisible for those who inhabit it. For those who don’t, it is hard not to see whiteness; it even seems everywhere.” Whiteness is generally treated as a non-identity, a normal position, a transcendental self. It is the omnipresent, stubborn, grand signifier against which others are defined. George Lipsitz writes in The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: “As the unmarked category against which difference is constructed, whiteness never has to speak its name, never has to acknowledge its role as an organizing principle in social and cultural relations” (1). Yet, whiteness is anonymous, unseen, invisible.
In biblical scholarship too, whiteness is both omnipresent and invisible. There is no group in the Society of Biblical Literature dedicated to the particularity of white questions, white scholarship, and white social identity. This is not because whiteness is non-existent, but rather because most groups at SBL are white. These white groups wrestle with white questions, white history of thoughts, and white social identity—but without the “white” qualifier. The SBL space is practically the property of whites. Whiteness is the host, the owner, of biblical scholarship and everyone else is just a guest. In a recent essay, Denise Buell correctly observes:
Among the programme units at Society of Biblical Literature conferences, some have a ‘visible’ interpretive approach (ideological criticism, LGBTQ hermeneutics, Paul and Politics, ecological hermeneutics, feminist hermeneutics of the Bible) where others do not (Pauline Epistles, Book of Acts, Gospel of Luke, etc.). Those for whom the ‘unmarked’ units feel like ‘home’ or the ‘centre’ of the field might do more to question the persisting homogeneity of the spaces, in terms of approaches and questions entertained in them, as well as in terms of whose embodied presences are taken for granted and whose bodies are viewed as ‘adding diversity. The audience and panellists at these ‘unmarked’ sessions are, not coincidentally, overwhelmingly white and male.
Because whiteness lies at the center of biblical studies, the accepted way of doing biblical scholarship is one that engages white questions, white concerns. The system forces scholars of color, especially those who receive their doctoral trainings in the western educational system, to be familiar with white scholarship. In the United States, a doctoral student has to pass a comprehensive or qualifying exam after their taking their coursework, and in many schools the materials for the comprehensive exams are a huge stack of books written by white scholars.
Being able to read German and French is a minimum requirement that every doctoral student has to pass. You may ask, why German and French, why not Urdu or Korean or Chinese? Well, because those are the primary languages (along with the assumed English) in which (white) biblical scholarship is written.
In short, the capacity to be familiar with white scholarship is technically the goal of the scholarly training. To be a biblical scholar is to be white. Biblical scholarship training is a whitewashing machine. Of course, schools would never say that the entire program is based on whiteness because whiteness needs to remain invisible, unsaid. Whiteness is the ghost that haunts every doctoral program. The invisibility of whiteness remains intact. Some scholars of color survive these programs and write to exorcise this ghost, while others unsurprisingly conform to it.
Before I give an example of the invisible white concern or question that shapes the thrust of modern New Testament scholars, a few words need to be said first about the politics of publication and citation. Major journals such as the New Testament Studies, Novum Testamentum, Catholic Biblical Quarterly, Journal of Biblical Literature and many others are crowded with white scholars. Rarely does one see scholars of color publish in those venues. The guardian angels of these journals (the peer-reviewers) are mostly white scholars who filter what gets in and what does not. The peer-reviewing process is a disciplinary power mechanism—to borrow a concept from Michel Foucault—that controls and disciplines the discourses in biblical scholarship. Discourses that are outside the acceptable white desire are pushed out or shaped to conform to whiteness.
A journal reviewer once asked me to remove a huge chunk of my discussion on the social struggle of people of color in the United States. According to that reviewer, that material introduced unnecessary additional information to an already solid article. That chunk of material, however, was critical, for it displays the subjective grounding of the project. I didn’t work on that project from a vacuum. It is motivated by a particular social Tendenz. Yet, I was asked to cut it out. The peer-review process is designed to discipline me, to ensure that I conform to the white mode of thinking by removing my subjectivity out of the picture. I was disciplined to be invisible, to be objective, to be white. In the economy of scholarly career, the inability to get one’s works published by these established journals in the guild could have a tremendously negative impact to a scholar’s career and reputation.
We can see the same trend in the commentary publications as well. A few weeks ago, a scholar did an inventory on Twitter of Asian/Asian American biblical scholars who write for major commentaries. Yes, there are a handful of Asian scholars who have published in major commentaries, but the sobering reality is that most major commentaries, e.g., the New International Commentary of the New Testament, the Anchor Yale Bible Series, Hermeneia Series, Word Biblical Commentarry, and many others, are published by white men. Out of 51 volumes of the Hermeneia Series, for instance, except for Adela Yarbo Collins (the Gospel of Mark) and Carolyn Osiek (the Shepherd of Hermas), all other contributors are white men. I replied to that Twitter thread that “The main problem with many major commentaries is that they are methodologically very conservative, which makes it hard for Asian/Asian American voices to be heard.” I intentionally used the term “conservative” here to demonstrate that the commentary publication is a systemic effort to conserve and perpetuate whiteness. These scholars, unsurprisingly, only work from within the particularity of white imagination without naming it as such. This trend is of course the result of the politics of scholarly invitation. Who are the gate keepers of these series, the editors, who get to invite contributors? Who is invited to contribute to these commentary series? Who knows whom?
Scholars of color publish too. But they tend to publish their works either as standalone monographs or in edited volumes or journals that are friendly to their discourses (e.g., Biblical Interpretation, Semeia [no longer in existence], etc.). Some commentaries have also been published outside the white normative scholarship (e.g., African Bible Commentary, Asia Bible Commentary Series, A Postcolonial Commentary on the New Testament Writings). That being said, this politics of publication also has an impact on the politics of citation. Since most scholars of color are trained in a white educational space, they thus spend days and nights reading white scholarship. Many white scholars, however, are not remotely interested in the issues raised by scholars of color. For instance, a book with a rather ambitious title, The Future of Biblical Interpretation: Responsible Plurality in Biblical Hermeneutics, came out 2013 (published by IVP). I imagined it would be a very insightful book. After looking at the table of contents, I immediately lost interest in reading it. All the contributors are white men. Eventually I did pick it up again and read it. In reading chapter after chapter of this book, I was troubled because I did not find there any significant engagement with scholars of color and their scholarship. This silence is so telling and ironic in light of the book’s overall claim to promote a “responsible plurality.” Such absence demonstrates a profound unwillingness to listen, to learn, to engage. This is a form of scholarly discrimination.
Another recent example is worth mentioning. Larry Hurtado published his Journal for the Study of the New Testament article in 2014 with a similar tone—predicting the future of the New Testament studies. Unsurprisingly, the entire discussion is centered around white biblical scholarship in both Europe and North America. Toward the end of the article, Hurtado discusses postcolonial studies. After stating that postcolonialism is “one of the commendable developments in the field over the last several decades” and that “we can all learn” from their critique of western scholarship, Hurtado immediately dismisses its importance by saying that “based on my own experience with postgraduate students from various countries and cultures, I doubt that postcolonialist interpretation of the NT will prove to be the typical, or at least not the dominant, approach taken by scholars in ‘non-Western’ settings” (137). What is the cause of this “doubt”? Hurtado states further, “Most of these emerging scholars identify themselves strongly as Christian and associate with churches in their home countries, and for them NT writings continue to be regarded as scriptures.” To describe postcolonialism as being in direct opposition to being “Christian” and to “associat[ion] with churches” is a serious misunderstanding of what postcolonial theory is trying to achieve. Postcolonialism is critical of the relationship between Christianity and colonialism, but it is not a negation of Christianity. It is no surprise that there are many Christian postcolonial thinkers.
For Hurtado, it is clear that “we” refers to white scholars. To put it differently, this “we” is actually the invisible collective identity of whiteness. More troubling, however, is the fact that Hurtado does not cite any works of postcolonial scholars. He instead uses a Wikipedia (!) entry as his main source. This gesture of ignoring a body of literature on this field of study is not only disrespectful; it also sends a signal that he does not take their scholarship seriously. While scholars of color pour their energies into reading closely the works of white scholars like Hurtado (I’ve read many of his works myself and discussed them in my class), Hurtado got his information from a Wikipedia entry. Imagine if a scholar of color were to discuss the Synoptic Problem and uses a Wikipedia entry as the main source: would JSNT take it as a viable article for publication?
Let me now turn to the Synoptic Problem as an example of the persistent invisibility of whiteness in New Testament studies. Anybody who studies the New Testament, especially after the nineteenth century, cannot escape the Synoptic Problem. It is discussed in every book on New Testament introduction, in commentaries, monographs, scholarly journal articles, etc. It is omnipresent in the study of the gospels today. My first encounter with this so called “problem” was when I was doing my undergraduate studies in Indonesia. It was quite a surprise to me at that time because I had never regarded the relationship between Matthew, Mark, and Luke as a “problem.” Why does this relationship among the Gospels somehow become a problem? Whose problem is this? These are questions that have bothered me for many years. The longer I study it, the more I realize that this is an exclusively white “problem.” The Synoptic Problem is a retrojection of whiteness into biblical texts.
Historically speaking, prior to the modern biblical scholarship, the tendency of those who studied the New Testament was to harmonize the Gospels. We can see this trend from Tatian’s Diatessaron in the second century, Augustine’s De Consensu Evangelistarum in the fifth century, to Calvin’s The Harmony of the Evangelists in the sixteenth century. In the eighteenth-century a change began to take place. German scholars (particularly J.J., Griesbach and Johann Gottfried von Herder) began to problematize the traditional way of harmonizing the Gospels. The advancement of the discourses around the Synoptic Problem reached its apogee in the nineteenth century. The technical term “Synoptic Problem” (German: das synoptisches Problem or die synoptische Frage) itself did not appear until the nineteenth century. So again, this is a uniquely white modern European phenomenon.
Because this is a modern white phenomenon, it is deeply grounded in a modern white social imagination. In order to uncover this white modernist logic, I turn to the work of an influential Oxford scholar, Burnett Hillman Streeter, entitled The Four Gospels: A Study of Origins, Treating of the Manuscript Tradition, Sources, Authorship, and Dates (originally published 1924) at the height of the scholarly obsession with this “problem.” The importance of this book cannot be overemphasized. It is practically the key text in solidifying the dominance of the four-source theory hypothesis (Mark, Q, M, and L) in New Testament studies today. As William Reuben Farmer puts it in his The Synoptic Problem: “Any books which departed from the two-document hypothesis as Streeter defined it in his “Fundamental Solution” were no longer to be considered seriously” (152). Of course, Streeter’s proposal of the solution has been criticized by many subsequent scholars, which I will not discuss further here. My focus is rather on the white logic that underlies his discussion of the Synoptic Problem.
The opening sentence of his chapter, “The Fundamental Solution,” is quite revealing. Streeter states: “The conception of ‘copyright’—a consequence of the invention of printing—has entirely changed the conditions under which it is legitimate for authors to make use of previous writers” (151). Streeter then explains further:
The mechanical invention of printing has reacted on the methods and conventions of authorship itself in more ways than we are apt to imagine. When books were copied by hand, copyright had no commercial value; no kind of injury could be done either to author or publisher by any one who made and sold copies. But in the setting up of a printed book capital is sunk; work has been done and a risk has been incurred, in return for which it is reasonable that the publisher should enjoy such legal protection against unauthorised reproductions as will enable him to derive a fair profit (155).
“Copyright,” in Streeter’s argument, is a conception that is intended to secure private property in order to maintain the market value. In simple terms, if I write (or produce) something, I need to make sure that my right to this property is protected so I can sell it. Thus, we need to talk about who uses whom in the synoptic relations.
Streeter’s argument has to be understood in a larger context of a capitalist-liberal economy and its conception of human freedom. As C.B. Macpherson has pointed out in his Political Theory of Possessive Individualism, the foundation of English political thought—tracing it particularly to the works of Thomas Hobbes, James Harrington, and John Locke—is “possessive individualism.” The modern society consists of free persons who are organized around the idea of the human being as owning or possessing being. He writes, “The basic assumptions of possessive individualism—that man is free and human by virtue of his sole proprietorship of his own person, and that human society is essentially a series of market relations—were deeply embedded in the seventeenth-century foundations” (270). An individual can be free only through their independence from the will of others and the control of their possession of both their labor and things/objects. The protection of possession by a state (or political society) is precisely the basis for the notion of “property,” which is a protected “right” rather than a “thing.” Macpherson explains: “Society consists of relations of exchange between proprietors. Political society becomes a calculated device for the protection of this property and for the maintenance of an orderly relation of exchange” (3). So when Streeter invokes the idea of “copyright” as the reason for the study of the Synoptic Problem, it is clear that he operates within this modern individualistic and market-driven conception of property.
How is this related to race? Cheryl Harris, in her Harvard Law Review article entitled “Whiteness as Property,” argues that whiteness fits all characteristics of modern theory of property. That is to say, the modern notion of property is a racialized notion through and through. Harris notes that it was the Lockean theory of property, which is centered on individual freedom and labor, that influenced the early American colonists. “The founders… so thoroughly embraced Lockean labor theory as the basis for a right of acquisition because it affirmed the right of the New World settlers to settle on and acquire the frontier. It confirmed and ratified their experience,” writes Harris (1727-1728). In other words, whiteness—particularly in the United States—manifests itself in and through property rights. Harris explains: “The origin of property rights in the United States are rooted in racial domination. Even in the early years of the country, it was not the concept of race alone that operated to oppress Blacks and Indians; Rather, it was the interaction between conceptions of race and property that played a critical role in establishing and maintaining racial and economic subordination” (1716). Property rights operate in a context of racial subordination and white supremacy.
Two things need to be noted here about whiteness as property: First, whiteness is the access to properties. It is through whiteness, historically, the owning of Blacks as slaves and the Native American lands are protected by the law. Slavery, according to Harris, “’propertized’ human life.” Native American possession of land is not recognized because they are not white. Only whites’ possessions are protected by law, and thus legally recognized (1722). In the subsequent history, whiteness continues to guarantee “access to a whole set of public and private privileges that materially and permanently guaranteed basic subsistence needs, and, therefore, survival.” Tweaking Macpherson’s possessive individualism that I just discussed above, Harris argues that, in actuality, “whites alone possess” (1721).
Second, whiteness is a property. “Only whites possessed whiteness, a highly valued and exclusive form of property,” Harris explains (1724). Whiteness needs to become property—that is, whiteness as a “right” protected by law—in order to secure its domination and supremacy. At this point, whiteness is not only an external object that one possesses; whiteness is also “an aspect of self-identity and of personhood” (1725). In this sense, “Whiteness as property is derived from the deep historical roots of systematic white supremacy that has given rise to definitions of group identity predicated on the racial subordination of the ‘others’ and that has reified expectation of continued white privilege” (1785).
Let me circle back now to Streeter’s justification for the Synoptic Problem. The Synoptic Problem, thus, operates within a white individual property imagination. In this sense, the Synoptic Problem is both an economic problem and a racial problem. Matthew, Mark, and Luke [and Q] are not only the storytellers but are also the copyright holders of the stories and sayings of Jesus. The gospels are now their private properties. From the point of view of whiteness as property, the gospel authors are “white” because they have the rights to possess, and thus, their rights need to be protected. The logical consequence is predictable: when an author takes a property of the other author, the “problem” becomes inevitable. The Synoptic Problem, in this sense, is an effort to protect the property rights of gospel authors. When one finds Markan materials in Matthew, for instance, then according to this logic of property, the question we need to ask is: Whose property are these materials? The scholarly debate on Markan priority or Matthean priority is fundamentally the debate on the question of who is the rightful property owner of these materials? Or to borrow the term from Streeter, who is the “copyright” holder of these materials? In a way, this debate is an effort to identify who has “the right to exclude” (i.e., the property right owner)—which is one of the crucial characteristics of whiteness (1736).
No wonder the problem has been almost exclusively a white men’s obsession. From the nineteenth century to this day, almost all books and articles on this issue are written by white men. What is it about this “problem” that gives many white men such a headache? The answer to this question lies in the interconnectedness of whiteness, capitalism, and private property.
As I have stated earlier, whiteness in biblical scholarship is invisible because most of white biblical scholars do not acknowledge it. Whiteness is “a ghost that has haunted” (to borrow from Harris again) biblical scholarship (1791). In order to thwart this ghost, we have to name it, to make it visible. The decentering of whiteness in biblical scholarship has to begin with this act of “conjuring whiteness,” as George Yancy puts it in his Look, A White! (100). White biblical scholars can no longer pretend that they are objective, disinterested, and culturally transcendental. They are as localized, particularized, and historicized as other readers of the Bible. As David Horrell correctly puts it in “Paul, Inclusion and Whiteness: Particularizing Interpretation,”:
Part of the force of whiteness studies is to insist that if we [i.e., white scholars] find it reasonable to think that, say, African-American interpreters, or other interpreters raced as non-white, might find their identity and experience relevant in shaping their reading of the New Testament, so too those of us raced as white should equally expect that our ethnic or racial identity constitutes part of the package of factors that shapes our reading (141).
However, because white biblical scholars are often not willing to acknowledge the ghost of whiteness behind their scholarship, Gale Yee is correct that one of the tasks of scholars of color is to “make whiteness transparent” (162).
Shawn Kelley’s Racializing Jesus offers a more detailed discussion on the influence of the racial discourses on biblical scholarship.
15 thoughts on “The Stubborn Invisibility of Whiteness in Biblical Scholarship”
Excellent points. I love this article.
As the girl in the Song of Songs was seen to be black (“I am black and beautiful”), Origen saw the Christian body as being a black woman. The theft of Whiteness has been profound. It makes faith itself into a mental exercise guarded by elite gatekeepers, the white man in your head.
Excellent, I learned many perspectives and agreed and answered many personal questions as well. Thank you, bung Ekaputra
A brilliant (and sobering) reflection on the presumption of whiteness (as property) in its ‘colourless’ appropriation of possessive individualism to both the politics of production in and analytical practices of biblical studies. I can’t wait for Ekaputra Tupamahu’s book to come out!! Yonda come day!
Some years back Vinoth Ramachandra wrote the following. Amazing how slowly things change. “Why are North American or British or German theologies never named as such, but Indian or Latin American or African theologies are? Western theologies are simply assumed to be universal, but non-Western theologies are “contextual.” The insularity of most Western theological institutions is astonishing. The study of other cultures and societies is a marginal concern, despite the growth of Asian and African communities in the cities of Europe and North America. The only situation in which the typical theology student is likely to learn about other cultures, histories and religions is if he were to follow a course on missiology. In the more academic faculties, these courses do not exist. And in most missiology courses Asian religions are taught in an Orientalist style. Moreover, where chairs of mission or missiology have been established, these studies have become isolated from other parts of the theological task. They became what David Bosch calls “the theological institution’s ‘department of foreign affairs,’ dealing with the exotic but at the same time the peripheral.” (Vinoth Ramachandra, Subverting Global Myths: Theology and the Public Issues Shaping Our World, Downers Grove: IVP, 2008, 258-259)
This is Truth hidden in plain sight… Thank you for touching my blindness.
An upstanding effort to open eyes and ears about the spectorial nature of white influence in biblical scholarship. Thank you for your courageous writing, Dr. Tupamahu.
You could further refine the category of whiteness to white, male and Protestant/Christian. The biblical study traditions of other religions receive minimal if any attention in western biblical scholarship.
Great article. Thank you for bringing the invisible into the visible not only in biblical scholarship but in the general landscape of a world some of us view as equal yet it is not so. Well worth reading.
I have been immersed in multicultural/ethnic involvement for over 20 years. However, in only the last few years have I become aware of how my “whiteness” has shaped relationships and actions. Now I must also stand back and evaluate the relevance toward biblical reading and scholarship, beginning with “white questions and concerns. “
This is really good, but I think there is something still reductive going on here. Yes, the whole of Alpmerican and European culture, including the Biblical studies that grow out of it, are biased toward whiteness. Because whites, particularly white males, own the means of production and the weapons to enforce the economic hegemony of whites. And whoever owns the political and economic hegemony owns the cultural norms. And whoever owns the cultural norms owns the State Religion. And the State Religion is a form of Christianity.
If a few things had gone differently in the Middle Ages, Euro-American culture would have been shaped by Arabic male norms and the State Religion would be a form of Islam. Likewise, other dominant groups and other dominant religions would have come from India or China had been colonizers instead of Europeans. White culture does what white culture does because it follows the logic of what Empires do. And I would also note that the white patriarchal culture which shapes Biblical studies isn’t exactly the white working class culture I grew up in in Arkansas (although, since I am a white male, I can still “pass” in academic circles). And I know that the classicism I’ve experienced in education as a white person from a working class family is nothing compared to the power differentials experiences by women and people of color and queer persons, but it is still APPARENT and formative. The white culture that dominates religious discourse is an upper class, economically privileged, culture of white imperial leisure. You don’t really find any Biblical scholars aiming for a blue collar audience now, do we?
But I will go even deeper: The white elite culture that shapes most religious discourse in Europe and America is not just white, not just patriarchal, and not just economically elitist, it is also distinctly Protestant. Yes, over the last half century it has let in Catholic and Orthodox scholars. But only when they play the game by Protestant scholastic rules and cite everything in ways defined by Protestant scholasticism and use sources approved by Protestant institutions. For instance, if you look at Catholic and Orthodox theological and Biblical commentary stretching back 1900 years, you find a wide swath of voices and sources and cultures (although predominantly male). But when you move to “modern” Biblical scholarship (read: White, European, Protestant, Elitist), the acceptable cultural heritage and modes of discourse gets strangled out until you are left with Anglo-Franco-Germanic sources only.
So, yeah, I agree with the insights of the article. But I would situate it in an even larger context of Empire criticism and Liberation theology. For instance, is there probably an obsession with “property” lurking behind the “synoptic problem” which the author lays out? Probably. But is obsession with “property” just a white male thing because it has been analyzed and laid out for centuries by white male philosophers? I doubt it. It’s what privileged classes in Empires do: They accumulate property to themselves and devise justifications for why others cannot have their property. We find this in Empires across cultures and across history. What I fear is that if we locate these concerns in an “ontology of whiteness” rather than in the logic of imperial systems, we will simply reduplicate the problem when the current white occupants of the seat of Empire go away. Taking white Protestant men off of the throne of culture will not solve the problem (although it is a good start). The problem will be solved when we get rid of thrones altogether.
This was very helpful and generative. The intellectual property decoding of the synoptic problem was very powerful and has analogies with the conflict between traditional knowledge systems and patents/ plant breeders rights and the like. These are systems of fragments and the fragments are monetised. Thank you for revealing so clearly the paradigm of apparent consensus is white ownership – and its self-silence.
As a postgrad research student in Theology & Religious studies, this article is very insightful. I am currently writing on decolonising the study of religion and appreciate the facts contained here. Looking forward to your book sir.
You misread Streeter. In the two quotations you make of his work, he is laying out the modern conception of literary property that has existed since the invention of the printing press in order to differentiate it from that of the ancient world. The position you attribute to Streeter is a position he is explicitly calling out and rejecting.
No, Streeter does not reject it. Not sure why you come to that conclusion.
He makes that contrast in order to show that the habit of taking materials from other authors (or “earlier sources”) in the ancient world (the pre-printing press age) was never a “problem” for them. The emphasis here is on the word “problem.” This practice is so common in both Greek and Hebrew literature. It is the modern notion of “copyright” that problematizes such habit. To put it differently, without the modern notion of copyright, without a white modern hermeneutical sensibility, the synoptic relations will never be a “problem.”
It is to find the “solution” to this “problem” that many white male scholars are obsessed with. This is why Streeter entitles his chapter, “The Fundamental Solution.”
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