Focus On Scholarship and Belief

Focus On Scholarship and Belief

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Current Feature: Scholarship and Belief

Scholarship and Belief

Dan Schowalter

Academic study of the Bible is different from that found in most Jewish or Christian faith communities. While the use of the Bible in synagogues and churches centers on recognizing the word of God contained in the sacred text and affirming its implications for a life of faith, many scholars focus on the processes by which the books of the Bible were produced, transmitted to other communities, translated into different languages, and ultimately selected from a larger body of writings to form an authoritative collection. In investigating these developments, biblical scholars make use of literary-critical methods, archaeology, cultural anthropology, feminist hermeneutics, and a host of other practical and theoretical strategies.

The distinction between confessional and academic approaches is not absolute. Within faith communities, many use scholarly techniques, and many academics bring a deep faith to their analytical work on the scriptures. In general, however, academic study of the Bible attempts to reconstruct the contexts within which the biblical documents were written, edited, circulated, read, translated, and canonized. This requires an appreciation for the diversity of the biblical material, and rejects viewing all biblical passages in light of particular theological ideas. While many themes can be traced across the great distances of space and time covered in the Bible as a whole, scholars more often focus on the places and times in which the documents were written, the literary themes within each document, and on the specific individuals or communities by and for whom they were produced.

For instance, most scholars recognize that a variety of sources have been woven together to produce the texts of the Pentateuch as we know it today. Many look at the first two chapters of Genesis and see two creation stories rather than a single account. This understanding is based in part on the tendency of all societies to develop multiple creation accounts and to pass these on as oral tales that explain the origins of the world as they understood it and of the societies in which they lived. This tendency is confirmed by comparing the creation reports found in Gen 1.1–2.4a and Gen 2.4b–25. An academic approach considers differences in style, format, detail, and vocabulary as a reflection of two different oral accounts which eventually came to be included in a single written version.

In Gen 1.1–2.4a the use of the seven day format reflects a concern with calendar that is not present in Gen 2.4b–25. The fact that God rests on the seventh day (Gen 2.2) provides an etiological explanation for observance of the Sabbath in later Jewish tradition. The story in 2.4b–25 highlights the role of the man. He is the first creature created, and has the job of naming all the subsequent creatures. At the end of the story, the woman is created from the man, and in chapter 3 she will be described as subservient to him. This is especially striking since in the first story the male and female are created at the same time and both in the image of God (Gen 1.26–27).

This focus on differences does not seek to reconcile the two versions, but to compare details in an effort to better understand the communities that produced them. For some people, this very process is an affront to the sanctity and reliability of the Bible. How could the inerrant word of God contain more than one version of such an important story? Why don't both stories agree completely? From a literary-critical perspective, however, this kind of diversity is expected and embraced. Alternate accounts in Genesis and elsewhere are seen not as a diminution of the text or its sacred importance, but rather as an enhancement of the insights into the various communities that produced the Bible. Both creation stories express deeply held beliefs. As such they add richness to the scripture rather than some kind of deficiency. Although it may be possible to harmonize details of the two stories and mask any potential contradictions, a literary-critical approach would prefer to focus on the differences in order to learn from them.

A similar academic approach can be applied to well-known New Testament texts, such as the Lord's Prayer. Versions of this famous text appear in the Gospels of Matthew (6.9–13) and Luke (11.2–4). Why such an important text would be absent from Mark or John's Gospel is one interesting question to ask. Usually New Testament scholars will, again, refer to oral traditions about sayings and stories of Jesus that circulated after his death. When authors began to put these stories together in the form of the Gospels we know today (beginning around 70 C.E. ), they made use of the parts of the oral tradition with which they were familiar. Most likely, the authors of Mark and John did not have access to the Lord's Prayer in the tradition they knew. A less likely possibility is that they knew of the Prayer, but for some reason decided not to include it in the account that they were composing for their communities.

This question of sources for the Jesus material becomes more complicated when one notices that although Matthew and Luke both include similar accounts of a prayer given by Jesus to the disciples, the content of the prayer is not identical. Biblical scholars notice this kind of divergence and ask what such differences can teach us about how the Jesus traditions were transmitted in the early churches.

Most scholars think that Matthew and Luke had access to a written text that included a collection of sayings drawn from the oral traditions about Jesus. (This hypothetical document is commonly referred to as Q.) This theory explains the similarity between the two versions of the Lord's Prayer, but what about the differences? According to most scholars, either the authors' copies of the Q document were different, or the authors themselves chose to change the wording of the prayer to suit better the needs and understandings of the audience for which they were writing. For some people of faith, it may be shocking to suggest that an author would even consider making changes to the Jesus tradition as it had been received. For many biblical scholars, however, the diversity once again provides an opportunity to learn about differences in beliefs and practices among these early communities.

This approach is actually reflected by the author of Luke's Gospel, who knows that "many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word" (1.1–2). Luke, however, is not satisfied with these other efforts to tell the story, so he does extensive research and endeavors to write his own "orderly account" (1.3). Luke's purpose is to tell the story of Jesus in a way that enables his audience to "know the truth" (1.4). A similar goal led each biblical author to present the message in a particular way. By examining the approaches of the authors of the Bible, scholars hope to come to a better understanding of the traditions they used, and through it a deeper appreciation of both the texts themselves and the communities for which they were written.

Related Content

Biblical Passages and Apocrypha

Genesis 1-2
Matthew 6
Luke 11

Subject Entries and Commentary

Christian Interpretation in the Premodern Era
Ethnography, Sociology, and Anthropology
Feminist Hermeneutics
History of Interpretation
Jewish Interpretation of the Bible
Lord's Prayer
Social Sciences and the Bible

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