Consigning God to ancient

The Biblical World
May 16, 2003

Modern biblical scholarship is peculiarly self-conscious about its own modernity. According to the standard account of its history, modern biblical scholarship originates in the decision to read the biblical texts outside and apart from the doctrinal traditions of the Christian churches.

In the "pre-critical" era (so the story goes), people used the texts merely to confirm what they already believed on other grounds. In the "modern" era, however, we have learnt to read the texts as they should be read - by restoring them to their original historical contexts, the native habitat from which they were uprooted by their later inclusion within the biblical canon. This "historical" or "historical-critical" perspective is supposed to deliver us, and the Bible itself, from various objectionable fundamentalisms that misappropriate it as a polemical weapon and as a means of ideological control.

The concept of the "original historical context" is a highly flexible one, however. It encompasses the immediate circumstances of origin - a specific date, place, author and intention - but also the broader historical, social and cultural setting presupposed in the text. The original historical context of a text from the Old Testament or "Hebrew Bible" comprises not only a specific set of circumstances in ancient Israel but also, potentially, the entire history of the ancient near east. In principle, almost anything within that history might become relevant for biblical interpretation. Ultimately, it is the interpreter who must determine what is going to count as the historical context of a specific text. A context is not simply given; it must be constructed.

Contributions to The Biblical World oscillate between narrower and broader construals of historical context. The treatment of the gospels (John Muddiman) confines itself to reconstructing the intentions of the canonical evangelists and has little to say about broader generic conventions that make it possible for early Christians to write bioi or "lives" of Jesus. On the other hand, the article that follows is devoted to "Letters in the New Testament and in the Greco-Roman world" (Harry Gamble), and shows how the letters that comprise 21 of the New Testament writings reflect and adapt contemporary practice. A wide-ranging treatment of "Near eastern myths and legends" (Stephanie Dalley) is followed by an article that confines itself to "Historiography in the Old Testament", even though the author (A. D. H. Mayes) acknowledges that attempts at history writing were not unique to ancient Israel.

If historical contexts are determined by interpreters, this oscillation between narrower and broader construals does not pose any particular problem. It does mean, however, that the two volumes fail to deliver the unitary, coherent "biblical world" that they appear to promise. The 49 contributions cover 49 topics more or less closely related to the Bible, but the whole is not noticeably greater than the sum of its parts. In a section headed "Institutions", for example, "The Greek language" is followed by "Warfare", which is followed by "The arts", which leads in due course to "Religion in pre-exilic Israel" and to "The social life of the first churches". One of the contributors describes the New Testament as "something of a mixed bag", a "somewhat haphazard collection". The same could be said of these volumes.

A mixed bag, then, and not a biblical world: yet many if not all of the individual contributions are of high quality and offer valuable accounts of contemporary scholarly thinking on a range of issues. Several of the most interesting contributions highlight the difficulties involved in the entire project of restoring the biblical texts to their original historical contexts. As these contributions show, the relationship between text and context is anything but straightforward.

Take the biblical account of the early history of Israel. This begins in Mesopotamia, in "Ur of the Chaldees", and reaches the land variously known as Canaan, Palestine or Israel only by way of an extended detour via Egypt.

The archaeological rediscovery of the ancient civilisations of the near east provides an immeasurably rich context within which this narrative may be set; or so one would assume. Indeed, an entire subdiscipline, that of "biblical archaeology", was developed to uncover correlations between the biblical and the archaeological data. In the work of figures such as the American archaeologist and biblical scholar W. F. Albright (1891-1971) the desired correlations duly came to light. The conditions of the "patriarchal era" of the early 2nd millennium BC seemed to be illuminated by contemporary Mesopotamian legal material. The date of the exodus from Egypt could be more precisely determined on the basis of Egyptian history.

Evidence of the widespread destruction of Canaanite cities in about the 13th century BC appeared to confirm the scriptural account of the conquest under Joshua. Building projects datable to about the 10th century were linked to the prosperity and cultural flowering of the reign of Solomon.

This project of restoring the history of Israel to its "original context" is now in very serious trouble. At point after point, the supposed correlations turn out to be problematic. The patriarchal and exodus narratives are increasingly dated to the 6th century BC, many centuries after the alleged events of which they speak. The supposed evidence for the Israelite invasion of Canaan in fact reflects the more protracted and extensive period of social instability at the close of the late Bronze Age. The archaeology of Jerusalem indicates that the biblical image of an imperial metropolis presided over by King Solomon is a product of legend rather than historical recollection. Even the Babylonian exile turns out to have been a relatively small-scale affair that would not have significantly affected population patterns in Palestine as a whole. It now seems that the entire national epic that forms the foundation of the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible is only rather tenuously related to what we would now regard as history. And so it can be argued (by Keith Whitelam) that the study of Bronze and Iron-Age Palestine must be liberated from the constraints of biblical history. If the primary "historical context" of the Hebrew Bible was once thought to be the history of the ancient near east, the biblical texts are now being unceremoniously ejected from that context.

In the case of the New Testament too, the project of restoring the texts to their original historical contexts has run into difficulties. The spectacular manuscript finds at Qumran have greatly increased our knowledge of the types of Judaism that flourished at the turn of the eras. Yet it has proved surprisingly difficult to establish strong correlations between this knowledge and the realities of Christian origins as reflected in the New Testament. It is symptomatic of this situation that George Brooks' article on the Dead Sea Scrolls has virtually nothing to say about the relevance of these texts for Christian origins. If they belong to "the biblical world" at all, it is as part of the early history of the interpretation of the Hebrew scriptures. Here too, a scholarly project that began as an adjunct to biblical studies now seeks to assert its independence, and to rid itself of the distortions that arise when its object of study is subjected to biblical constraints. The relationship of text to context again turns out to be, at the very least, un-straightforward.

Indeed, the impression grows of a systematic difficulty in correlating the biblical texts with their proposed contexts within "the biblical world". In the article on Jesus, Robert Morgan pays lip-service to the conventional wisdom, which is that the Qumran discoveries have made it possible to locate Jesus' ministry firmly within its original Jewish context, thereby revolutionising our understanding of it. The texts cited in his own account of Jesus' ministry are, however, almost all drawn from the gospels themselves. On one of the rare occasions when Qumran material is cited, Jesus and the "Qumran covenanters" are said to resemble one another in their criticism of the current practice of easy divorce. Yet even this modest attempt to correlate biblical text (here, the synoptic gospels) and biblical world (the Dead Sea Scrolls) runs into difficulties. The two Qumran passages (CD 4.21, 11Q Temple 57.17) may well refer not to divorce but to polygamy: in the background in both cases is the Deuteronomic law regarding the king, that he "shall not multiply wives to himself" (Deut, xvii, 17). Increasing knowledge of Jesus' Jewish context does not necessarily lead to increasing knowledge of Jesus himself. If anything, it makes him all the more elusive.

The project of restoring the biblical texts to their original historical contexts can on occasion produce illuminating results; the internal world of the biblical texts is not a self-contained artefact that holds itself aloof from external cultural and historical influences. Yet the difficulty of correlating text with context is very striking, and it reflects at least a tendency towards self-containment or autonomy. The biblical texts seem unable or unwilling to provide anything more than minimal information about their own circumstances of origin. For example, the four canonical evangelists have virtually nothing to say about their own identity, their intentions, or the time, place or circumstances in which they wrote. On the sole occasion when an authorial first person singular briefly surfaces, at the beginning of the Gospel of Luke, the author gives the name of his dedicatee (Theophilus) but withholds his own. With the exception of the authentic letters of Paul, extreme authorial reticence is the norm; the authorial names supplied by later tradition - Moses, David, Solomon, Matthew, John, or whoever - have little or no basis in the realities of the texts themselves. Many of these texts reached their final, canonical form only through a protracted process that distanced them from the constraints of any one specific historical situation. A composite text such as the book of Isaiah passes through a number of distinct historical situations, so that the book as we now have it is not designed to be read by any one specific community of readers. Here, what is said about a particular prophetic commission may be applied to the book as a whole: "And now, go, write it before them on a tablet, and inscribe it in a book, that it may be for the time to come as a witness for ever" (Is, xxx, 8). A later reader, whether in the 1st or the 21st century, is not reading a message intended for someone else. The fundamental dynamic of the canonical process is a movement beyond the immediate circumstances of origin, into an enduring communal normativity that takes the form of an ongoing process of interpretation and reinterpretation.

In their primary communal settings, the biblical texts are read and reread on the assumption that what they have to say about "God" retains its power to shape the communal life of each subsequent present. The texts speak of God in quite different ways, and various religious communities have understood their speaking of God in equally different ways: and yet it is the fact of that speaking of God, however understood, that accounts for the inestimable value these texts have held for generations of their readers.

The biblical texts were preserved not for their literary merits or for their general historical and cultural significance, but for, and within, communal contexts in which their claim to speak truthfully and relevantly about God was acknowledged.

The key to their existence and persistence is to be found in that fundamental theological claim, which is the object of the ongoing, open-ended process of communal interpretation and reinterpretation.

Disparate in other ways, something of a mixed bag in fact, the contributions to this rendition of "the biblical world" are at one in their neglect of the very reason why we have a Bible at all. To locate the biblical world so exclusively in the distant past is to marginalise the texts' own claim to come from that past in order to address each subsequent present. This claim has generated rich and enduring interpretative traditions in both Christian and Jewish communities, for whom the biblical texts continue to mediate the divine reality. In severing the Bible from the interpretative traditions it has generated, one simply destroys it. If the proposed "historical contexts" prove surprisingly inhospitable to the biblical texts, this may suggest that one is looking for the biblical world in the wrong place.

Francis Watson is professor of New Testament exegesis, University of Aberdeen.

The Biblical World

Editor - John Barton
ISBN - 0 415 16105 3 (2 vol. set)
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £130.00
Pages - 525 and 539

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments