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Remembering Cain Hope Felder, Scholar Who Highlighted the Bible’s African Presence

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The first time that I met Cain Hope Felder in person was during a job interview. I was a finalist for a faculty position at Howard University School of Divinity. I had just launched into the start of my presentation when he sauntered into the room. There were students and other faculty present, but to me, it was as if the prophet Elijah had rolled in on a chariot of fire. I had devoured Felder’s book Stony the Road We Trod when I was a master’s of divinity student, and I regarded Felder as legendary hero in biblical studies. I managed to get through the presentation, and then I asked for questions. When Felder raised his hand, time stood still. In that moment, I recognized that whatever he said was going to determine my fate. With his booming voice, he wheeled back in his chair and bellowed, “Let me just say that…” (I held my breath.) He continued, “This is very fine work, and we need more of this around here.” (I exhaled.) Reader, I got the job.

In academia, faculty productivity is usually judged within three main areas: teaching, service, and research that leads to publication. Biblical scholar Cain Hope Felder was that rare academic who was exemplary in all three areas. Felder died on October 1, 2019, at the age of 76. His dedicated service to both the church and the academy will stand as his abiding legacy.

Felder was an internationally recognized New Testament scholar who forged new paths in African American biblical hermeneutics. In 1982, he earned a Ph.D. from Columbia University. His first book, Troubling Biblical Waters: Race, Class, and Family, was published in 1989, but he is probably best known as the editor of the landmark 1991 volume Stony the Road We Trod: African American Biblical Interpretation. It was written and edited by Black biblical scholars who challenged conventional Eurocentric scholarship, highlighted the African presence in biblical texts, and engaged traditions of African American biblical interpretation, including interpretation outside of the academy. In the introduction, Felder wrote:

There is a great tradition of black biblical understanding. It is our calling in our time and place in history to recover, enlarge, and proclaim that tradition. We must use the training that we have received, but we must also argue with and correct such training, so we can apply our tools, language, and theological sensitivity to those realities that we were not taught to take seriously academically.

Felder was never content to focus solely on the biblical text as a dispassionate or seemingly neutral biblical scholar. Building on the research of scholars such as classicist Frank M. Snowden Jr. and Hebrew Bible scholar Charles B. Copher, Felder’s work attempted to provide a corrective to traditional biblical scholarship by emphasizing the importance of Africa and highlighting how interpreters had used and misused biblical texts, especially concerning matters of race and racism. For instance, in his article “Race, Racism, and the Biblical Narratives” in Stony the Road, Felder detailed how the so-called “Curse of Ham” (Genesis 9:18-27) was used to justify enslavement and negative views of Black people.

In an interview with New Testament scholar William H. Meyers, Felder admitted that at Union Theological Seminary he earned a “C” in his New Testament Introduction 101 course—the only C on his transcript—because it was so thoroughly “Eurocentric.” Felder told Meyers, “I became exasperated and had little patience or interest in dissecting the text and thereby seeming to murder it!” He was more concerned with addressing how the text was interpreted and how it applied to ministry. In his book Troubling Biblical Waters, he discussed his decision to pursue what would become a life-long research agenda. He explained:

I began to realize that my own theological training and graduate studies had treated most of ancient Africa as peripheral or insignificant. I also recognized that aspects of European historiography and archeology have been tainted by a self-serving, racialist hermeneutic that sought not objective truth but careful, ‘scientific’ ways of reinforcing the superiority and normative character of Western culture (i.e., white people) as the sole arbitrator of the biblical tradition. Read the Whole Article

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