How Disability Figures into My Scholarship
By Jeremy Schipper, Associate Professor of Religion
“Considering how common illness is… it becomes strange indeed that [it] has not taken its place with love and battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature” – Virginia Woolf, “On Being Ill.”
Recently, the editor of the Faculty Herald invited me to write a piece on how disability figures into my scholarship. As an associate professor of Hebrew Bible (sometimes called Old Testament) in the Department of Religion, a large component of my research agenda focuses on representations of disability in biblical and related texts from the ancient Near East (especially Mesopotamia). I have written several books and articles on disability in the ancient world (for a sampling, consult the bibliography below) and designed and taught courses on the body and biblical literature that include units on disability.
Prior to taking courses in the Department of Religion, many of my undergraduate students have some exposure to the texts that my research focuses on because they have read portions of the Hebrew Bible and the Epic of Gilgamesh in the required Mosaic I course. In that course, they investigate how these and other texts discuss the individual in human society with attention to themes such as journeys, self and others, community, and faith. Similar inquiries have helped biblical scholars gain a more critical and comprehensive understanding of the material in biblical and related ancient texts and of the cultures that produced this literature. Yet, only in the last decade or so have scholars shown a sustained interest in critically examining how representations of disability help to articulate these and other prominent themes in this literature despite the abundance of images of disability, which can be found in nearly every book of Hebrew Bible, not to mention the Code of Hammurabi, Hittite Laws, and the Egyptian Instruction of Amenemope, to cite just a few key examples. To modify slightly my earlier quotation of Virginia Woolf, one might say that considering how common disability is in the Bible, it becomes strange indeed that it has not taken its place among the prime research interests within biblical scholarship. Two possible and somewhat related reasons for the neglect of critical examinations of disability by biblical scholars include: 1) its overrepresentation in literature and 2) the type of historical information that biblical scholars often search for when studying this literature.
Regarding the first reason, disability imagery represents such a wide variety of experiences and social conditions that it becomes easy to assume that it must almost always represent something other than an experience of disability. The meanings mapped onto disability extend far beyond descriptions of people with disabilities and their experiences. For example, a passage in Isaiah 53 that is referenced frequently throughout later Jewish and Christian literature describes a figure identified only as the “servant” with language and imagery that are typically used to describe persons with various disabilities and diseases in other texts. Yet, although scholars often acknowledge the nature of these descriptions, they interpret the servant as representing otherwise non-disabled messianic figures, prophets, kings or a collective experiences of imprisonment and exile rather than as describing a person with a disability. The lack of scholarship on disability may not result from limited representation of disability in the Bible but from the limitlessness of what disability can represent in the Bible and related ancient literature. Ironically, since disability imagery is often assumed to be symbolic of something other than a disability, scholars have not devoted much attention to disability as a subject of study in its own right despite the ubiquity of this imagery.
Regarding the second reason, biblical scholars often prioritize information that allows for historical reconstructions of the lived experiences of individuals or communities. Yet, since scholars often interpret disability imagery as symbolizing something other than disability, images of disability in biblical and related ancient literature rarely, if ever, serve as reliable records from which to reconstruct lived experience. We learn very little about the lives of people with disabilities in the ancient Near East from these texts. Thus, scholars have often neglected representations of disability in their historical reconstructions of the cultures that produced the Bible and related literature. Nevertheless, while often underappreciated, the critical study of these representations may help us better understand the ways in which certain segments of these cultures conceptualized their society and their world. For example, a lot of information about the Israelite priesthood and about the monarchy comes from the books of Leviticus and Samuel respectively. Some of the Bible’s most extensive use of disability imagery occurs in these books’ discussions of these two very significant social institutions. In this sense, the critical study of the use of disability imagery in these books allows for more comprehensive reconstructions of how certain segments of the cultures understood their society even if the imagery does not provide realistic depictions of the lived experiences of people with disabilities.
In university culture, we often think of disability as relevant only to matters of accommodations and services for our students, staff, and faculty with disabilities instead of an important aspect of identity and diversity on campus. Nevertheless, disability is not only related to these very important matters, but also to critically understanding our notions of the self, others, and community as we engage both the people and the texts that play a fundamental role in a liberal arts education at Temple University. •
For further discussion and bibliography consult:
Moss, Candida R. and Jeremy Schipper. Disability and Biblical Literature. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.
Junior, Nyasha and Jeremy Schipper. “Disability Studies and the Bible.” Pages 21-37 in New Meaning for Ancient Texts. Edited by Steven L. McKenzie and Jonathan Kaltner. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2013.
Olyan, Saul M. Disability in the Hebrew Bible: Interpreting Mental and Physical Difference. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
Raphael, Rebecca. Biblical Corpora: Representations of Disability in Hebrew Biblical Literature. New York: T & T. Clark, 2009.
Schipper, Jeremy. Disability and Isaiah’s Suffering Servant. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.