The Birth of Academic Biblical Studies – By Angela Roskop Erisman

Angela Roskop Erisman on Magne Sæbø, ed. Hebrew Bible/Old Testament: The History of its Interpretation, Volume III/1: The Nineteenth Century — a Century of Modernism and Historicism

Magne Saebo, Hebrew Bible/Old Testament III: From Modernism to Post-Modernism. Part I: The Nineteenth Century, Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 2013, 830pp., $192.99
Magne Saebo, Hebrew Bible/Old Testament III: From Modernism to Post-Modernism. Part I: The Nineteenth Century, Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 2013, 830pp., $192.99

There is no such thing as a timeless text. We revisit some works of literature generation after generation because they continue speaking to us in profound, life-altering ways. When a text from the past feels as fresh and relevant as if it were written yesterday, we are easily fooled into forgetting that it was written in a particular time and place, in a culture that made it possible. The Bible is no exception. It has a history of composition and a history of interpretation, which some scholars (myself included) would argue are not so distinct.

The Hebrew Bible/Old Testament: The History of its Interpretation, edited by Magne Sæbø, is a comprehensive reference series that covers biblical interpretation from antiquity through the twentieth century. Part 1 of volume III focuses on one chapter of that history, providing us with glimpses of the story of how biblical studies emerged as a professional academic discipline in the nineteenth century. It’s a story that reveals why we think the way we do about the Bible in the twenty-first century and the origins of some of the controversies in which we find ourselves mired.

Intellectual culture in nineteenth-century Europe was shot through with interest in history — not just interest in what happened in the past, but a desire to set events in their cultural and social context, and to do so with empirical rigor. Historical criticism certainly has its predecessors in the sixteenth-eighteenth centuries (English Deists, continental rationalists, Spinoza, Richard Simon, etc.), but scholars in the nineteenth century placed a premium on understanding history as a determining factor in individual events. Historicism also emerged in this period as an ideology that views ideas as time-bound rather than universally valid and a philosophy of cultural relativism. All have in common the notion that human events are best understood by examining their historical and cultural context.

The Bible was hardly new subject matter in this intellectual milieu. But its centuries-long history of interpretation was, up to this point, largely the product of Christians and Jews motivated by religious interest, using methods designed to serve religious ends. When biblical studies made its way into the secular university in the nineteenth century, scholars applied to the study of the Bible the same methods used in other academic disciplines — this was arguably nothing short of a revolution.

Historicism has its roots in the Renaissance, and nineteenth century scholars took seriously the ad fontes (“to the sources”) dictum. The discovery and decipherment of ancient texts in Akkadian, Egyptian, and various Canaanite dialects provided context for the Bible the like of which had not been seen for centuries. Study of the languages of these texts led to a greater understanding of the place of Hebrew among the Semitic languages. Cognates provided help with heretofore obscure or mistranslated words. Comparative study was now possible and enabled scholars to contextualize the Bible in a history of Semitic literature and folklore.

The notion that the Bible itself had been composed using sources may not have been popular at the dawn of the nineteenth century, but it was nothing new. Focus on rigorous critical use of sources to write history drove a push among scholars interested in the history of ancient Israel to identify these sources. W.M.L. deWette, often dubbed the father of biblical criticism, and Julius Wellhausen were interested in literary criticism less for its own sake than as a necessary tool for writing religious and legal history. Using diplomatics to identify and date different sources within the biblical narrative, studying the genres of different texts in order to assess their historical value, comparing biblical texts with evidence provided by the newly-forming discipline of archaeology — all of these goals and methods, familiar to any twenty-first century biblical scholar, have their genesis here. They were pioneered on the Pentateuch but came to define how composition history is studied for other books of the Hebrew Bible as well.

J. Wellhausen
Julius Wellhausen. Image via Wikimedia Commons

To a goodly extent, they still do. As I approached the end of the volume, Katharine Dell helpfully articulated what was beginning to take shape in my own head: “sometimes when we think we have a new idea we need to heed Qoheleth’s warning that ‘of making many books there is no end’ (12:12) and that there may be little that is ‘new under the sun’ (1:9) after all.” As an author who has also worked in publishing, I understand the immense effort and expense that goes into making books at all points of the process. We ought to have a significant and useful contribution to show for our investment when ideas see print, yet so many books cover the same territory using the same well-trodden paths. Knowing the story can spare us running in circles and spending our energy in vain.

Some features of nineteenth-century biblical interpretation were truly problematic. The notion that historical events embody a spirit characteristic of a nation or an age led scholars to understand the Pentateuchal sources to embody primarily the spirit of the age in which they were written, but we’ve since realized that the representation of history in narrative sources is rather more complex. The models for identifying sources were also influenced by notions of progress in history from a beginning (natural religion), through a heyday (ethical prophecy) and decline (legalism of Second Temple Judaism), to a full realization of the spirit that drives history (Christianity) — notions of progress that had significant influence on the Protestant theological milieu in which source criticism arose. Needless to say, even Jews who embraced Wissenschaft resisted the tendentiousness of this particular framing, even as they were open to progressive biblical study. Twenty-first century scholarship is largely free of these narrative framings, but discussion still centers on documentary, supplementary, and fragmentary hypotheses as it did at the dawn of academic biblical study, and Wellhausen’s classical source model is still taught in textbooks even as it is fighting for dear life at scholarly conferences. Whether it stands or falls, the core questions still occupy us, and rightly so: How was the corpus of biblical literature formed? How does it relate to history? Knowing the story is essential for realizing that these nineteenth-century questions still lack adequate answers, which should be an impetus for us to pursue twenty-first century ways to answer them.

A good story always has some drama, and this one is no exception. The application of reason to biblical study meant that the distinctiveness of the Bible could no longer be maintained simply as a matter of orthodoxy. It had to be demonstrated. Academic study of the Bible kicked up the dirt on some long-held assumptions: it fractured the presumed unity of the canon and for the first time raised the possibility that Israel’s history followed a trajectory other than the narrative arc of Scripture. Scholarship was sometimes framed as direct critique of the church, which surely served to fan the flames of dissent. Some, like E.W. Hengstenberg, engaged in an anti-rationalist crusade to defend orthodoxy from critical biblical study. (In a delicious irony, Hengstenberg inherited deWette’s chair in theology at Berlin.) Others embraced critical study as having the potential to cleanse Christian doctrine of that which is unbiblical or as the key to Scripture’s contemporary relevance — although this did not come without backlash from ministers and laity, the heresy trial of Charles Briggs being perhaps the most famous example. Their success is evident in the fact that critical methods are today generally used in both universities and seminaries. But we still see echoes of these dynamics, be it in critiques of religious influence within the guild, dismissal of tenured faculty members for failing to toe the line, or efforts to frame new archaeological discoveries as though they prove the Bible.

Of course, a reference work is not designed to tell stories. Sæbø’s volume is instead a gold mine of bibliography useful to intellectual historians and biblical scholars who wish to delve into nineteenth-century scholarship. Essays in a reference work like this best serve their readers when they provide historical and intellectual context for that bibliography, so readers are oriented to what they are reading and why it is significant when they pull the books off a library shelf. A handful of essays in the volume do this brilliantly. But too many are poorly developed, summarizing details one can easily find in the bibliography when what is needed is general context — which one cannot easily get without assistance — and an example or two to illustrate. I often felt lost in the detail and finished an essay wondering “So what?” These are topics I already know something about, so I can imagine how lost a student or someone from another discipline might be, yet that is precisely the audience for whom a work like this would be most useful. Some essays are extremely difficult to read: paragraphs that go on for a page or more indicate lack of focus and clarity, also unhelpful in a reference work designed to orient readers to unfamiliar topics. Especially because of the importance of the subject matter and the immense value of the bibliography alone, I found myself wishing that the effort invested in this volume more consistently met the work’s potential, especially given its nearly-$200 price point.

As a twenty-first century biblical scholar striving to answer these nineteenth-century questions with new and better literary-critical tools than Wellhausen had, I am grateful for the questions and insights which connect me to this critical era in the development of my discipline. I am inclined to agree with those who saw in historical criticism the key to understanding the Bible’s contemporary relevance — thinkers like Abraham Geiger, who understood its formation in terms of successive revisions designed to make an old text meaningful and relevant to the Jewish community in each age. Sæbø’s book gives us access to insights like these, which should fuel our continued quest to understand the sources and their history, so that we might understand the theological or literary distinctiveness of the Bible on its own terms rather than simply assert what we assume it to be.

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