Question time for Bible

January 26, 1996

Of all academic disciplines, study of the Bible must be the most contentious. Israel Finkelstein comments on the "subjective environment" which "threatens objectivity and excellence of scholarship" (THES, January 19).

The problem is that objectivity is in this context a chimera; we cannot escape from subjectivity in that biblical studies touches beliefs, dreams and personal identity. Jewish and Christian academics have contributed a great deal over the years to "Old Testament studies" ("Old Testament" is itself a partisan label) and continue to be a strong voice, with varying degrees of conservatism or radicalism. They are joined today by academics less aligned to particular faith positions, or unaligned, who view the same evidence from different perspectives.

Sound academic scholarship needs each of them to help us towards overall balance. I edited in 1989 Creating the Old Testament: the emergence of the Hebrew Bible to which Whitlam and Davies contributed, alongside others, including Jewish and Christian scholars. Our concern was to analyse the evidence of emerging history, trace how the Hebrew writings became canonical Jewish scripture, and assess what these writings can still say to us today. Scholarship is a dialogue embracing many different positions: the purpose is to seek the truth, even where that is uncomfortable.

"Ancient Israel" has been a good, durable hypothesis with roots in Jewish and Christian doctrine. It has not been seriously tested until recent years, so it is time that the evidence and its interpretation is assessed. The result is hard to predict: but to refuse to examine the issues for dogmatic reasons would be academically and intellectually unfortunate and unwise.


Westminster College, Oxford

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