FA is no match for the divine

The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies

December 8, 2006

Awesome" is the word that springs to mind after a perusal of The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies. Awesome in two respects - by virtue of the scope and depth of the 45 essays by mostly English-speaking scholars, and by virtue of the underlying subject with which they deal - in essence the present state of the tensions that exist between reason and faith in the Christian world.

What happens to faith when challenged by facts? Do those with faith simply cease to believe, or should faith hold strong in spite of established facts? Perhaps the facts themselves are wrong? But should faith be adapted to take account of facts, even if the facts are correct? How did faith arise? What were the facts that brought about faith? The details of this argument are clearly set out. As far as Christianity is concerned, faith is inextricably linked to the biblical texts that were written and collected 2,000 years ago. From this time, Christianity became the most successful of the organised religions. Today there are 2,039 million Christians in the world, 32 per cent of all believers. What kind of background gave rise to these texts? Why were they selected? Are the texts we now read true to their earliest form or have they been altered to suit opinions or needs?

To appreciate the answers in this book, let us imagine that it was decided to throw away the Bible as a relic of the past and to make a new Bible with a collection of texts that would appeal to the secularists of today.

Various requirements would have to be fulfilled. The texts that were chosen must inspire and instruct. They must teach moral and ethical principles.

They must give a strong sense of the past. They must excite debate. They must challenge the mind. They must unify communities and fulfil spiritual needs. They must command fierce loyalty now and henceforth. And all these qualities from a few shortish contributions to make one reasonably sized book.

What would people suggest? Perhaps a chapter or two from The Pilgrim's Progress , itself inspired by the Bible. Perhaps a section from The Communist Manifesto or something from Dickens? Would an episode of Neighbours excite moral debate? Would an excerpt from The First Rule Book of the Football Association provide a paradigm for fair play? Perhaps Einstein's theory of relativity - a mere three pages - would present some of the fundamental, underlying principles in this wonderful world, thus replacing the need for miracles and signs. And what poetry would be chosen to provide music for the soul? The difficulties that would arise in choosing such texts are surely proof positive that the existence of the Bible proves the existence of God.

After a suitable length of argument and time, a consensus of opinion would fix the core texts. Others might make it after further debate, but still others might be thrown out. And even after selection, changes might be made, perhaps simply for length or because certain sections were not politically correct.

The debate need not stop there. Suppose there was a sudden vast explosion in the numbers of people who adopted these new texts, whose background and beliefs were very different from those who compiled them. Surely such people would add further texts. To add validity, these might constantly refer back to the original texts and accept many of the principles that the older passages express. At the same time, however, the different background of the compilers would mean that the newer compositions would present newer beliefs. They might nevertheless claim that they are the new people of the Book.

It is little wonder, therefore, that these and other questions still relate to our accepted, established ancient biblical text and are discussed in The Oxford Handbook , each by a scholar who is an expert in his field. What emerges are topics alive with debate. Why, for example, did the Church preserve four different versions of the same event, with the inevitable, questions and never-ending problems that such variants pose? How should the discoveries of archaeologists be reconciled with the facts in the biblical books? Many archaeologists now deny, for example, that the Exodus took place, and claim that the stories of Joshuah and the walls of Jericho simply cannot be believed. Archaeologists also claim that there is little evidence for David and Solomon, and assert that Israelite biblical history starts with the shadowy Omri (the father-in-law of wicked Jezebel) in the 8th century BC. Who then built Solomon's Temple in the 10th century BC, one hastens to ask? In fact, archaeology that challenges the Bible, and thus ultimately challenges Christian faith itself, is a recurrent theme of this book. And though the facts exposed by such historical research may not be correct, they are often difficult to deny.

How then can they be interpreted in the light of faith? We must surely have sympathy with the author who desperately tries to reconcile the world of faith and the world of apparent facts with the comment that "the range of credible reconstructions is neither damaging to nor necessarily supportive of orthodox Christianity". All in all, it is clear that the Bible, a miracle of compilation and a basic pillar of the Western world, has neither revealed all its secrets nor relinquished its hold. Anyone and everyone can contribute to the debate.

As far as scholarship is concerned, further understanding rests on the efforts of research of many disciplines - archaeologists, scientists, linguists, epigraphists, philologists, historians, rabbinic scholars and literary experts, to name but a few. And as far as the Christian theologians are concerned, and those who use the Bible as a basis for their faith, it will be an unending source of inspiration and power.

The Oxford Handbook sets out most of the present debate in well-considered articles, although a few odd omissions occur. Why, for example, is there no reference to the 7th-century existence of the priestly blessing from the book of Numbers in the chapter that deals with the ancient versions of the Old Testament? Similarly, why is there no mention of the witch of Endor in the chapter on divination, for which little enough evidence exists. Or again, why are we told in a chapter on archaeology that "the Hebrew scriptures do not show much interest in archaeological matters", and then this author blithely omits that the prophet Elisha made a pilgrimage to Horeb, which is another name for Mount Sinai (I Kings xix, 8), or that there are several references in the Hebrew Bible to ancient monuments such as the tomb of Absalom, which could be seen in later times (II Sam xviii, 18). It must also be noted that in spite of the inescapably Jewish roots of Christianity, there are still some scholars who are ill at ease with the contribution of Judaism and Jewish scholars to the further elucidation of the biblical world.

In other words, like the Bible itself, there are also errors and omissions in this otherwise excellent book. Nevertheless, the compilation as a whole is a fitting tribute to the vast interest, knowledge and expertise in biblical matters that exist today. The information is accessible to all those who want an expert, overall, up-to-date view on the present state of knowledge on subjects connected with the Bible, which has played so large a role in the history and mores of the Western world, and whose underlying assumptions, if correctly understood, could solve so many problems that exist today.

Nina L. Collins, lecturer in Modern Hebrew at the Language Centre, Leeds University, and author of research on the Hebrew Bible, the history of the Greek translation of the Bible, ( The Library in Alexandria and the Bible in Greek ) and Jewish aspects of the writing of Paul.

The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies

Editor - J. W. Rogerson and J. M. Lieu
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 896
Price - £85.00
ISBN - 0 19 925425 5

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