Warning. This is a long post. I am editing the first chapter of my Bible Introduction. At its end, I give an excursus that explains that we will be approaching the Bible from a literary and historical perspective, not a confessional perspective. It’s a very tricky and touchy topic, as this is meant for 19 and 20 year olds, most of whom know the Bible, if they do at all, only from church and Sunday school – believing perspectives. I give this kind of excursus in my New Testament textbook, and most teachers like it. But I’ve altered it for this book, to stress that the emphasis is both literary and historical. I would like some feedback: do you think this works, is sensitive to students, yet is clear about what the book will be doing and why? Let me know, if you feel so inclined.
Most of the people who are deeply interested in the Bible in modern American culture are committed Jews or Christians who have been taught that this is a book of sacred texts unlike other books. For many of these people – especially many Christian believers – the Bible is the inspired word of God. In communities of faith that hold such views, the Biblical books are usually studied not from a literary perspective that takes seriously their discrepancies and inconsistencies, and even less from a historical perspective that asks whether they may contain historical difficulties and mistakes. You yourself may find these literary and historical approaches to stand at odds with what you have been taught to believe. If so, then it is for you in particular that I want to provide these brief additional reflections in this excursus.
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Our Literary Approach
There are a great number of ways that one can approach any text – including the texts of the Bible – as literary works. In our approach we will be taking the Biblical writings seriously as pieces of ancient literature. We will look for such matters as the structure of the texts and their overarching literary themes, trying to determine how each writing can be understood through a careful reading that takes into account the flow of the narrative, the recurrence of important motifs, and the possibility that earlier sources have been used by an author in producing his account. In particular we will be keen to situate the various parts of the Bible in relationship to their appropriate literary genre, on the assumption that without knowing how a particular genre “works,” it is impossible to know how a particular writing in that genre can be interpreted. We will need to learn, for example, about Hebrew poetry, and proverbs, legends, myths, Gospels, and apocalypses.
Such literary approaches may strike readers as novel – as when we discuss some of the narratives of Genesis as “legends,” or try to interpret the book of Revelation as a clear instance of an ancient “apocalypse.” But we will see that such approaches can significantly illuminate the writings in question.
On a literary level we will also be stressing that each book (or part of a book) needs to be read for what it, itself, is saying. One of the key things we will notice is that there are many, many differences among the different parts of the Bible – and indeed, sometimes there are key differences even within a single book of the Bible. In some instances these differences represent tensions, discrepancies, and even contradictions. The reason to point out the contradictions between one author and another, or one book and another, or even one passage and another is not simply so the student can come away from the course saying, “See! The Bible is full of contradictions!” Quite the contrary, the discrepancies and contradictions in such a big book as the Bible alert us to the fact that the Bible is not a single book, but is lots and lots of books, written by many different authors, at different times, in different places, for different purposes, to different audiences, in different contexts, even in different languages.
This kind of literary approach stresses that each writing needs to be read on its own terms, to be allowed to say what it has to say, without assuming that what one author, one book, or one part of book is saying is exactly (or even approximately) the same as what some other is saying. As we will see, rather than hindering our study of these various writings that eventually became the Bible, these literary conclusions open up the possibility of new and exciting interpretations that would otherwise be impossible, if we were to assume that every author, and every book, of the Bible was basically saying the same thing.
Our Historical Approach
In addition to a literary approach to the Bible we will be taking a historical approach. On one hand, we will want to establish the historical context of the writings of the Bible, to the best of our ability, determining when each writing was produced, and within what context. These historical judgments will affect how we read and understand these texts, since if we take a text out if its own historical context, we change its meaning (just as someone does when they takeyour words out of context). Without knowing that the book of Jeremiah was written in the sixth century BCE during a time of national crisis, or that the Gospel of John was probably written in the last decade of the first century CE, some sixty years after the events it narrates, we simply cannot understand them as the historical documents they are.
Our historical approach to the Bible will also involve asking how we can use literary works of the Bible to determine what really happened in the past – for example, in the history of ancient Israel, or in the life of Jesus, or in the experiences of the early church. This kind of historical question is made necessary, in part at least, by the literary fact I have just mentioned, that we have so many accounts that to appear to have discrepancies among themselves. To determine which, if any, of the biblical sources is historically accurate in what it says, we will look to see if there are other, external sources that can verify or call into question the accounts of the Bible – for example, as they describe the exodus of the children of Israel from Egypt or the events surrounding the life and death of Jesus. And we will certainly want to consider what the findings of archaeology can tell us.
This kind of historical approach to the Bible is very different from a confessional approach that accepts everything the Bible says at face value and maintains that all of the historical events that it narrates actually happened in the way they are described. To expand a bit on the important difference between a historical and a confessional approach, I need to talk about what historians do and how they use sources – such as the books of the Bible – in their work.
Historians deal with past events that are matters of the public record. The public record consists of human actions and world events – things that anyone can see or experience. Historians try to reconstruct what probably happened in the past on the basis of data that can be examined and evaluated by every interested observer of every persuasion. Access to these data does not depend on presuppositions or beliefs about God. This means that historians, as historians, have no privileged access to what happens in the supernatural realm; they have access only to what happens in this, our natural world. The historian’s conclusions should, in theory, be accessible and acceptable to everyone, whether the person is a Hindu, a Buddhist, a Muslim, a Jew, a Christian, an atheist, a pagan, or anything else. Unlike a confessional approach that simply accepts the biblical accounts as describing what God did among the Israelites or in the lives of the early Christians, the historical approach asks what we can establish as probably happening without appealing to particular beliefs in God.
I can illustrate the point by considering some specific instances, first from outside the Bible. Historians can tell you the similarities and differences between the worldview of Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., but they cannot use their historical knowledge to tell you that Gandhi’s belief in God was wrong or that Martin Luther King’s was right. This judgment is not part of the public record and depends on theological assumptions and personal beliefs that are not shared by everyone conducting the investigation. Historians can describe to you what happened during the conflicts between Catholics and Lutherans in sixteenth-century Germany, but they cannot use their historical knowledge to tell you which side God was on. Likewise – moving to stories within the Bible—historians can tell you what may well have happened when Israel entered into the Promised Land, but they cannot tell you that God empowered them to destroy their enemies. So too, historians can explain what probably happened at Jesus’ crucifixion, but they cannot use their historical knowledge to tell you that he was crucified for the sins of the world.
Does that mean historians cannot be believers? No, it means that if historians tell you that Martin Luther King Jr. had a better theology than Gandhi, or that God was on the side of the Protestants instead of the Catholics, or that God destroyed the walls of Jericho, or that Jesus was crucified for the sins of the world, they are telling you this not in their capacity as historians but in their capacity as believers. Believers are interested in knowing about God, about how to behave, about what to believe, about the ultimate meaning of life. The historical disciplines cannot supply them with this kind of information. Historians who work within the constraints of this discipline are limited to describing, to the best of their abilities, what probably happened in the past.
Many such historians, including a large number of those mentioned in the bibliographies scattered throughout this book, find historical research to be completely compatible with – even crucial for – traditional theological belief; others find it to be incompatible. This is an issue that you yourself may want to deal with, as you grapple intelligently with how the historical approach to the Bible affects your faith commitments positively, negatively, or not at all. I should be clear at the outset, though, that as the author of this book, I will neither tell you how to resolve this issue nor urge you to adopt any particular set of religious convictions. My approach instead will be literary and historical, trying to understanding the Bible as a set of literary texts that can be studied like all great literature, and from the perspective of history, which uses whatever evidence happens to survive in order to reconstruct what probably happened in the past.
That is to say, I am not going to convince you either to believe or to disbelieve the faith claims of the Bible; I will describe what these claims are and how they came into existence. I am not going to persuade you that Isaiah really did or did not have a vision of God, or that Jesus really was or was not the Son of God. I will try to establish what they both said based on the historical data that are available. I am not going to discuss whether the Bible is or is not the inspired word of God. I will show how we got this collection of books and indicate what these books say and reflect on how scholars have interpreted them. This kind of information may well be of some use for the reader who happens to be a believer; but it will certainly be useful to one – believer or not –who is interested in literature and history, especially the literature and history of ancient Israel and of early Christianity.