As someone pointed out, this question was probably the high point of an otherwise strange session I chaired this afternoon at the Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting. How did we get there?

‘Twas a panel on a book I edited, Secularism and Biblical Studies, with some of the contributors speaking and then two respondents, James Linville and Russell McCutcheon. This ensured the debate was spirited, precisely the sort of the thing the initial and necessarily incomplete edited volume set out to do. But the strange thing was that despite the discussion continuing in many smaller groups well after the session finished, a strong sense of oddness pervaded people’s impressions afterwards. As chair I was not in a position to enter the debate fully, in which I would have sided with Hanna Stenström’s position. So these are perhaps some of the things I would have said in response (I leave aside the strange desire to foster an objective, apolitical, analytical and ultimately revived historical critical analysis of the ‘Bible’, as one among any number of sacred scriptures. And I leave aside the curious effort by McCutcheon to insert Jonathan Zed Smith (who should always be given a zed) into the debate, since all that did was reaffirm my sense that Mr Smith is less an innovative scholar than an extraordinarinarily – and that’s a very emphatic extraordinarily – traditional one).

The most puzzling argument, from McCutcheon, was that the ‘Bible’ is a discursive artefact – and by discursive he meant a discursively religious artefact. Or rather, the most curious thing about it was the assumption that a discursive artefact is somehow unreal, that as soon as you say it is a discursive artefact, you have thereby dismissed it and the discipline of biblical criticism. The only proper form of scholarship is thereby to analyse the discursive practice by which it became such an artefact. So a question came from the floor: how would you analyse a fossilised turd? To which the answer was that you analyse the dinosaur that produced the turd and not the turd itself.

Now, this answer showed up the problem of arguing that the Bible is a discursive artefact (and indeed social and historical artefact). To begin with, this position has been pretty much standard among intelligent biblical scholars for at least 30 years, so it is strange to find it regurgitated as an issue now. Further, the suggestion that the ‘real’ thing for scholarship is to analyse the social, historical and religious issues that produced such an artefact seems to be a call to revisit complex analyses have engaged in this analysis for some time (Philip Davies’s Scribes and Schools is but one example among many, as is George Aichele’s The Control of Biblical Meaning). But perhaps the most significant point is the assumption that such an artefact is somehow ‘unreal’, for this is a curious misreading of poststructural scholarship from some years ago. A discursive construct is, if anything, more real, than the fossilised turd. Or rather, if we locate the category of ‘discursive’ within the much longer and richer history of Marxist analysis, for which social construct is a key breakthrough, then a social construct is far more powerful and pervasive than any supposedly ‘concrete’ object. One might say the same about ‘Plato’ or ‘Shakespeare’. Ultimately – and using an immanent analysis – the need to make such a move says more about the the context of North American turf wars between religious studies and theology, if not struggles over the Bible itself.

All of which led me to suggest to Philip Davies that he might name his next article: ‘Is the Bible a Fossilised Turd?’