Thursday, August 20, 2015

Reflections on Biblical Studies Part III: The Plot Thickens

This is the third post in a series on my first year of my master’s program.

My first year of graduate school has been interesting and fruitful for me. However, I’ve also been a bit disillusioned by it. I came in somewhat naïvely thinking that Biblical Studies would approach the Bible primarily as a serious theological text with the goal of understanding precisely what it taught. In fact, I discovered much scholarship focused instead on seeing the Bible in political and historical terms, as a document that tells us about its time and its writers (who frequently aren’t the same people tradition says they are).

This certainly isn’t a bad thing. The Bible was written by human beings and for human beings (although it was also inspired by God). There is very much to be gained from seeking to understand the Bible the way its original readers did. However, focusing exclusively on political and historical influences can lead to overlooking broader theological points. And in practice, these approaches tend to undermine not only the authority but even the basic accuracy of the Bible. It is presented like any other historical source, and as no more reliable than, say, The Illiad.

Frankly, I was shocked at certain scholars’ skepticism and dismissiveness toward traditional views of the Bible and even toward the text itself. I read things like the following:

“No type of writing could possibly contain the inconsistencies, doublings back, apparently aimless changes of style, of titles for God, of narrative tone, that these books [the Pentateuch] encompass. For one man to write such a text, he would have to be mentally incoherent or disturbed, or – and here source criticism really begins – he would need to be using a lot of already existing material which, for whatever reason, he was unable to change, and setting it down in all its inconsistency.” – John Barton

 “Rather than ask whether a text is revealed (and by what criteria could we possibly decide?) it is better to ask whether a text is revelatory, whether we learn something from it about human nature or about the way the world works. A text that is neither historically reliable nor morally edifying, such as the book of Joshua, may be all too revelatory about human nature.” – John Collins

As a Christian Bible scholar, these types of comments raised a lot of questions. They basically fall into two categories:
1. Are these scholars correct in saying that the Bible is incoherent and self-contradictory? That would mean that at least some of it is untrue, and therefore not the word of God.
 2. If the Bible is reliable, the fact that scholars can spend their lives studying it and come away with the conclusion that it isn’t raises questions about their methods. Does this mean that academic study of the Bible is a waste of time, or worse, dangerous to faith?

Of course, to completely answer these questions, even in my own mind, would take much longer than a year. But in my next post, I’ll share the answers I’ve come to so far.

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