No Country for Biblical Scholars

I must come clean about something, though I could plead guilty to a lot more, and it has to do with the modern study of the Bible. At times I have criticized the study of the Bible as practiced since the Enlightenment, even to those who are not of the guild of Biblical scholars. That is, I have betrayed my brothers and sisters in the Catholic Biblical Association and the Society of Biblical Literature. But now criticism of the guild of Biblical scholars has gotten out of hand. There have been many worthy criticisms made of practitioners of biblical studies, of people whose work is clearly prejudiced against dogma, against the Church, and even against the reality of the divine. Now, however, I feel that the criticisms of Biblical studies have so gotten out of hand, that people in general, fellow Christians and theologians who are not biblical scholars, have lost sight of the worthy accomplishments that have been made in my field. By virtue of my criticisms of excesses in my field, I have conspired in my own downfall, for it seems that there is no good in current biblical studies.

R.R. Reno, blogging today in First Things, outlines his reasons for proposing and producing the Brazos Commentary on the Bible, a theological commentary on the Bible, in which biblical scholars need not apply. Really? Reno writes that "for more than a thousand years it was simply assumed than an exegete and a theologian were pretty much synonyms. After all, you need to know what the Bible says in order to develop an accurate account of God and salvation—and you need to study classical doctrine in order to give a clear and cogent account of what the scripture says." Fair enough, but it seems that the solution to this separation between exegete and theologian is to rid the study of the Bible of biblical scholars. Reno says that "over the last two hundred years, the work of biblical interpretation has rotated away from the churchly business of teaching doctrine. Bible scholars have built their own independent intellectual project, one that excludes Church doctrine from the process of interpretation as a matter of principle. The job of the modern historical exegete is to scientifically determine what a particular portion of the Bible meant when it was composed, not how it should be read by the Church today."


I am not certain that I agree with that statement in its entirety – especially that Biblical scholars have built their own "independent intellectual project" – but let that be for now. What, however, is wrong with determining what a "particular portion of the Bible meant when it was composed"? If the study of the Bible is to determine meaning, then it seems that a determination of meaning in proper historical context is essential, if not sufficient. It is especially meaningful in that all other senses of the Scripture, as the Church tells us in the Catechism and other Church documents, such as the Pontifical Biblical Commission’s "Interpretation of the Bible in the Church," are based upon the literal meaning. There is this increasing hue and cry amongst theologians who are not biblical scholars to return to the glory days, supposedly, of the Church fathers when a portion of Scripture could mean whatever the particular Church father’s imagination proposed it meant. Those who simply want to return to the interpretation of the Bible in the Church fathers need to read the Church fathers.

I am not opposed to the spiritual reading of Scripture – it is essential and necessary to interpreting the Scripture, as Jesus himself engages in it (see a general example in Luke 24 and a specific example in John 3) – but this desire to cast out excellent historical work on the Bible is atrocious. Reno says that historical study of the Bible has produced results that "on the whole…have been disastrous." I disagree with this, and could point to numerous examples as to why, but instead I might say the same about moral theology in the past two hundred years. Have Catholic moral theogians done a stellar job of interpreting the Church’s teaching for the faithful? Have they produced a literature which is accessble to the laity? Is the solution to throw out moral theologians and let biblical scholars, untrained in the field, take over. I mean, how could we do worse, right? Yet, that is what Reno suggests is the solution for his biblical commentary series: take people untrained in the Bible and let them have a go. Instead, the solution to bad biblical scholarship is good biblical scholarship, and there are many superb biblical scholars who take seriously the primary goals of the biblical texts: to teach us the nature of God’s activity amongst human beings and to show us the way to salvation.

Reno says he is not surprised that Biblical scholars are antagonistic to the project. "Eight volumes have appeared, and in the main biblical scholars have shown themselves opposed to—and often angry about—the series." Biblical scholars are antagonistic because most of the series, and some of the people recruited to write in the series, do not know what they are doing with the biblical text. It is an anti-intellectual enterprise in the guise of being for the Church. Reno goes on to say that "it is a plain fact, however, that today the Church does not need to know more (or want to know more) about ancient Israelite religion or the Q hypothesis." How he knows this, I do not know. If he does not want to know more about Q or ancient Israelite religion, then carry on without it, but knowing much about history can be more than helpful, it can be essential to opening up the text for readers today. He also says that there exists a "widespread sense that modern historical–critical study of the Bible has run its course." Again, I am not certain where this "widespread sense" emerges, whether in the classroom, or in the pulpit, or in the pews, or perhaps amongst academics who do not want to do the research to engage in modern biblical study. When I speak at Churches what I note is how much the people in the pews love historical information and data. They love history because ever since the rise of historical consciousness in the West, we must understand things in historical context. We cannot escape this reality. We must understand the Bible historically. Yet, bad history and bad historical understanding is so much the norm, which is why the Da Vinci Code exploded as a pop cultural phenomenon, even amongst Christians, Catholic and other. People are hungry for good historical information about their faith. Churches have so poorly explained the historical rise of Judaism and Christianity that Dan Brown and his overwrought prose took in millions of people who should have known better, but were never taught better. The answer to this is not to cast out historical study.

We cannot simply revert to the time of the Church fathers, and pretend that the Bible did not emerge in particular historical contexts. The Church fathers turned to, sometimes, tenuous spiritual senses to make sense of data that they could explain in no other way. For the Church fathers, "The lack of a sense of history, of historic change, development, and reversal, of the unpredictable and far-reaching diversity that human development entails, and the corresponding lack of historically oriented interpretative resources made it impossible simultaneously to affirm the unity and coherence of divine revelation and to maintain in practice the primacy of the literal sense of scripture" (Ben F. Meyer, Critical Realism and the New Testament [Allison Park, PA: Pickwick Publications, 1989] 33). Reno does not have the same historical context or excuse as the Church fathers, however, and we do not need scholars such as Reno doing an end-around on biblical scholarship. If biblical scholarship is sometimes bad, it is not because of the worthlessness of history or the intended sense of the text, it is because of bad philosophical presuppositions regarding history, revelation and interpretation. Reno’s project is antagonistic and ill-advised. We need more talking amongst theological disciplines not the rejection of biblical scholarship. Meyer goes on to argue that "communion in faith with the Church of apostolic times is hardly more than an illusion if it fails to include creedal commitments to the same revelation. Thus, the maintenance of authentic Christian identity is the ultimate theological rationale of insistence on the intended sense of scriptural texts" (Critical Realism, 33).

John W. Marten

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11 years 4 months ago
John, Thank you! In your response to Reno's blog you certainly make better use of the virtue of charity than I would have. As a young biblical scholar myself it is hard not to consider Reno's article a punch in the stomach. I remember feeling very uneasy when I read his article and fearless claims over biblical scholarship. He seems to have described and corrected everything about modern biblical scholarship except, perhaps, without a true knowledge of what modern biblical scholarship really is and where it stands today. I felt uneasy not so much with his 'spiritual reading' of the Bible - that he erroneously attributes to the fathers, as with his outright contempt for the great names that have marked biblical scholarship within the last century. John, your response captures it all. As for his 'method' or 'approach' to reading the Bible, we shall leave it to history. It cannot avoid the test of time. Can it? The allegory of the seven blind men and the elephant comes to mind. Perhaps, Reno has just felt the tail of the elephant. So he prefers the old fables about the large size of the animal. What he needs perhaps is to walk around the giant beast to feel its greatness. Reno and other bashers on the subject needs to catch up with the most recent debates in biblical scholarship. To my fellow colleagues in the guild, time is too precious to waste on apologetic scholarship. Let's get back to work...
11 years 4 months ago
The defensiveness of too many biblical critics is troubling, as is their sense of ownership of the Bible. Is it really an archaeological artifact only to be touched by the Learned Few? That's the impression I often receive, especially when those dreaded theologians dare enter the discussion of the Bible. While I have little interest in praising or condemning the Brazos series, or Reno himself, the hostility to it & him is telling, & should be just a bit embarrassing. It's as if he said that only the Church Fathers had any interpretive sense, & "all you modern scholars" are conceptually & spiritually bankrupt. I don't get that from him, or other scholars unhappy with the lack of historical & critical sense exercised by too many historical critics. I don't know Greek, Aramaic, or Hebrew; my training was in historical theology, & I focused attention on biblical interpretation; does this mean I am incapable of reading the Bible intelligently & critically? If I grow weary of discussions of Q, does this mean I am an anti-intellectual? I'd like to know.
11 years 4 months ago
Thank you Michel. Your words are very kind. Like you, I am most hurt by attributing to great men and women who work or have worked in the field of biblical studies base motives for their research. I was taught by excellent Catholic, Protestant and Jewish biblical scholars. All of them sought the truth in their work. I will defend my teachers, not out of anger with misguided opponents, but because I love them and the work they did.
11 years 4 months ago
Anthony: I do not find it defensive to argue for the value of the historical study of the Bible. As I wrote in the first post, ''We need more talking amongst theological disciplines not the rejection of biblical scholarship.'' I suppose if I mounted a critique against historical theology, claiming historical theologians are simply not up to their own task, there might be howls of disapproval. But this is a constant refrain against biblical scholars, especially those who engage in historical critical scholarship. You state that ''It's as if he (Reno) said that only the Church Fathers had any interpretive sense, & ''all you modern scholars'' are conceptually & spiritually bankrupt.'' Yes, that is basically what he is saying. I, however, feel that the Bible is the book of the Church, which needs both historical critical scholarship and the wisdom of the ancient and medieval theologians. We need both; I am asking for inclusivity. It is also true, of course, that some people need no critical scholarship, modern, medieval or ancient, to have a true encounter with the Bible - it is not essential to meeting the living God whose word is alive and active.If we are talking about reading the Bible as a theologian, though, it is always best to read it in Greek, Hebrew or Aramaic. If you grow weary of discussions of Q, just put down the book and walk away. You are like many, many people, including myself. My point is not that everyone examine the Q hypothesis, but that they understand it is not inherently destructive of the doctrine of the Church and has yielded some fascinating insights into the nature of the Synoptic Gospels.
sadi beret
4 years 4 months ago
A quick look at the biblical-interpretation section in any college library will immediately show that biblical scholars read the Hebrew Bible in a variety of ways. What most scholars have in common, though, is that they avoid overtly doctrinal readings based on the idea that the Bible is the “word of God” because such interpretations are based on faith claims that are inherently unprovable. Though there is a place for theology in biblical scholarship, most scholars treat the Bible as a work of literature with human authors and readers who live in particular places and times that affect what they write or how they read a text. Biblical scholars use methods of reading that are critical—that is, they do not take the claims of the Hebrew Bible or of traditional interpreters at face value. These methods fall into a range of historical and literary categories. Historical-critical interpretation seeks to understand the development and meaning of the Bible in its ancient context. First, scholars use textual criticism to try to determine the correct letters and words of the text in its original language. Because there are no existing copies of the Hebrew Bible from the period when it was written, this can be tricky. Different copies of the same text exist and may contain different versions of a particular verse or chapter—perhaps because over the centuries the scribes copying the text made mistakes, or perhaps because the text existed in more than one version from very early on. Once the words of the text have been established, biblical scholars turn to the content itself to try to determine its meaning, which often begins with trying to understand who wrote it, when, and why. This is called source criticism, as it is aimed at determining the literary sources that were used to create a particular biblical narrative. Many narratives contain repetitions, contradictions, and gaps indicating that multiple sources have been combined in the text. In the flood story, for example, variations as to the number of animals brought onto the ark (Gen 6:19-20, Gen 7:2-3) and the length of the flood (Gen 7:17, Gen 7:24) show that two separate accounts have been woven together to create a single story. Scholars also use redaction criticism to study the process of redacting, or editing, the text. Scholars may also use form criticism, which focuses on genres of biblical literature. This approach is especially helpful for the book of Psalms, which contains a variety of types of poetic texts—for example, communal laments (Ps 74), individual laments (Ps 77), hymns (Ps 19), and psalms of thanksgiving (Ps 92). In this case, the form or type of poem tells us much about its social function and purpose. Many genres of biblical literature can also be compared to nonbiblical texts—for example, the biblical flood story bears remarkable similarities to the Babylonian flood story, Atrahasis. This comparative approach helps us understand the Hebrew Bible in its broader ancient context and see potential influences on the biblical texts. Though not a means of reading the Hebrew Bible, archaeology is another useful tool in the biblical scholar’s toolbox. When archaeologists determine the identity of a site mentioned in the Bible and excavate it, their findings may be important for understanding biblical narratives that mention that place. For example, excavations at the site of Jericho, which according to Joshua 6 had walls in the period of the Israelite conquest, have revealed no walls for the historical period in which the conquest is supposed to have happened, thus indicating that the biblical account cannot be entirely historical. In addition to historical-critical methods, many scholars use literary approaches that have developed as a result of postmodernist trends in twentieth-century scholarship more generally. This broad category includes methods such as structuralist, deconstructivist, and reader-response criticism, which closely examine a narrative’s literary features, but without the same focus on the historical origins of the text. A related group of methods, also primarily literary, is termed ideological criticism. Literary and ideological methods both reject the idea of objectivity, arguing that all readings are subjective and thus the author’s intent is both unrecoverable and irrelevant. Such scholars instead advocate reading the text from specific, stated ideological stances. Thus, feminist interpreters use modern understandings of gender roles or patriarchal social structures to reveal new readings of biblical texts, sometimes condemning them as misogynist (for example, validating women’s subordination to men) and sometimes applauding them as empowering to women (for example, depicting female leaders such as Miriam and Deborah). Postcolonial readings examine how the power imbalance between colonizer and colonized may shed light on biblical texts and reveal new readings. Postcolonial interpretation varies from culture to culture; in Latin America, for example, postcolonial interpretation of biblical texts about oppression (such as Exod 1-14) and poverty (for example, in Jesus’s life) led to the development of liberation theology, allowing readers to reject the colonizers’ use of the Bible as a means to maintain their own power. Marxist interpretation may also play a role in such readings, which look at how economics and power function in biblical texts; exposing those dynamics can allow them to be overturned—for example, reading wisdom in Prov 1-9 as a commodity to be acquired and thus accessible only to those with the time and money to pursue it. In between this focus on ancient and modern contexts for readings sits reception history, which studies how the Bible has been read and received over the centuries. This can begin in the canon itself, with references in one biblical text to another (for example, Dan 9:1-2 refers to Jer 25:11-12 and Jer 29:10-14), and extends into the modern period, covering the use of the Bible in other religious writings, in literature, in the arts, and in communities. This approach is broad (covering historical and literary aspects) and can shed considerable light on the many meanings that biblical texts have had through the ages. Akin to reception history, canonical criticism is a way of studying how the Bible functions theologically in various communities of belief, from ancient Israelites to modern Americans. Unlike the other methods discussed above, canonical criticism takes the final form of the text as its starting point and focuses on how the text as a whole functions as sacred Scripture. Because canons assume audiences of faith communities, this approach is inherently theological, though it aims more to discover theologies in the text than to apply theologies to the text.Most scholars use a combination of these methods, as each reveals different aspects of the text, whether historical, cultural, sociological, literary, or theological. And when scholars of different backgrounds, faiths, and cultures weigh in, they bring their own unique experiences and questions to the text. Some scholars discuss literary approaches as though they are completely separate from historical-critical ones, but in fact the two overlap in significant ways. The fullest understanding of the biblical text is gained by trying to see the text from as many perspectives as possible.


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