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Faith and Biblical Scholarship

Today the Bible is no longer studied only through the lens of faith or doctrine but has become firmly planted in the humanities as a legitimate object of academic inquiry.

Saint Jerome in His Study

Through the Enlightenment and the early modern period, the Hebrew Bible was studied in explicitly religious contexts to foster particular religious beliefs and practices. Each reading community’s own definition of the biblical canon, or of what it thought the Bible was, influenced the way it was studied.

Within the Christian Church, the Hebrew Bible, or more properly the Old Testament, was understood as part of a larger canon that included the New Testament. The notion of supersessionism, that the New Testament supersedes or replaces the Old, meant that until recently Christian scholars spent a disproportionate amount of time studying the New Testament, rather than the (significantly longer) Old, and it was normal to understand texts in the Old Testament as being fulfilled in the New Testament. For example, unlike their Jewish contemporaries, Christian scholars understood the Suffering Servant passages in Isa 53 and elsewhere to refer to Jesus.

Within Judaism, until the modern period, the Hebrew Bible—the written Torah—was also understood in relation to a later corpus of material: the rabbinic collections known as the Oral Torah. The Oral Torah differs from the New Testament as a body of literature that interprets the meaning of the Hebrew Bible, however, because rabbinic literature is a broad category without a clearly delimited canon. Thus, it was easier for Jewish scholars to reject or critique particular rabbinic interpretations than it was for Christian scholars to avoid or evaluate those of the New Testament. For this reason, Jewish commentary on the Hebrew Bible included some elements of critical analysis at an earlier stage than did Christian exegesis. Once a text became canonical in the eyes of the religious community, its very sacredness discouraged dispassionate inquiry.

Today the Bible is no longer studied only through the lens of faith or doctrine but has become firmly planted in the humanities as a legitimate object of academic inquiry. One major feature of modern biblical scholarship is the advent of the historical-critical method. In this context, “historical” refers to a primary interest in understanding the Bible in its original historical setting. “Critical” is a misleading term; it implies not criticism of the Bible and its norms and beliefs but rather independence from theological beliefs. Ideally, use of the historical-critical method should mean that biblical studies becomes theologically neutral.

This is not completely the case, however, because historical-critical study was developed, and continues to function, within the world of seminaries and schools of theology. Most scholars choose to study the Bible because it is their religious document, and even though they try on one level to highlight, following the historical-critical method, what the text meant, they are often influenced by what the text means (to them and their religious community). Often, this desire to connect the religious past of the Hebrew Bible to the religious present of the believer and his or her community is facilitated by institutional considerations; many professors of Hebrew Bible teach at seminaries and are expected to engage the text in a manner that is appropriate to a particular denomination. Until several decades ago, this was also true of biblical scholars working at colleges and universities—these often have denominational affiliations, and the professors taught Bible in departments of religion, whose job, in part, was the inculcation of positive religious (Christian) values.

This situation began to change in the latter part of the twentieth century and is reflected in the changeover of many departments of religion to departments of religious studies, often housed within a school of social science, using the tools of social science and teaching the Bible as one of many scriptures. This began, at least in the United States, to divorce biblical studies from theology, particularly in the colleges and universities that were no longer closely connected to the religious missions of their founders. In Europe, however, the Bible is typically taught in departments or schools of theology and thus remains more closely anchored to institutional religious commitments. For example, in Germany, the Bible may be studied either in Protestant or Catholic faculties of theology, by professors and students who are either Catholic or Protestant; this may facilitate greater connection of scholarship to belief than in the departments of religious studies in nonsectarian American colleges and universities.

Until a decade or two ago, it was easy to read an article or book on the Bible without knowing the author’s name and to guess with great accuracy the religion of the author. In part, this was highlighted by whether or not the study in any way connected the Hebrew Bible to the New Testament or other Christian theological ideas or terms, for example salvation history or kerygma. Conversely, with few exceptions, any scholarly work that referred to rabbinic writings or medieval Jewish commentary was likely to be written by a Jew. There were other telltale signs—works that focused on the Torah, especially on the legal (and most especially the Priestly) material that forms the basis of Jewish observance, were likely to be written by Jews. A disproportionate number of scholars of the prophets were Protestants, since Jesus’ teaching may be seen as a continuation of Old Testament prophecy. Some non-Jewish scholarship deprecated the later books of the Hebrew Bible, such as Chronicles, due to a belief that Christianity developed because Judaism in this period had gone astray, whereas Jewish scholars showed an overwhelmingly positive interest in late biblical books because they offered examples of the transition from Israelite religion to the Judaism of the rabbis. In addition, less theologically significant biblical books, such as Judges or the Song of Songs, were ignored by both Jews and Christians.

Only in the last few decades has the situation changed significantly. This may be seen in the intense scholarly interest in books that are less theological, such as the Song of Songs and Judges. And it may be seen in the increasing number of non-Jewish scholars interested in the Torah and Jewish law and of Jewish scholars interested in prophecy. It is fairly common now to see Jewish scholars cite New Testament texts in their commentaries and for Christians to cite rabbinic texts and medieval Jewish exegetes. This is often done to explain texts rather than to convince readers of particular doctrinal points.  For the first time in history, courses on the Hebrew Bible taught by professors of different religious backgrounds are largely interchangeable, and (ideally) little of the religious belief of the professor comes through.


  • Marc Zvi Brettler

    Marc Zvi Brettler is the Bernice and Morton Lerner Professor of Jewish Studies in the Department of Religious Studies at Duke University. He is the author of How to Read the Jewish Bible (Oxford, 2007) and coeditor of The New Oxford Annotated Bible, The Jewish Study Bible, and The Jewish Annotated New Testament.