Behind the Curtain of the Old Testament

Last week’s post was a sort of summary for one of the classes I took this semester. I wanted to do something similar for this week, except my other class this Fall was “Advanced Introduction to the Old Testament.”

Besides the oxymoronic title, the class doesn’t translate easily to short, easy blog posts. While we did analyze the structure of some books and note parallels between them—something most Church-goers could appreciate—and spent time looking at the archeological backgrounds for the Israelites—something a mild fan of history might enjoy—most of the course was dedicated to the highly specific work of scholars—stuff like the difference between form and redaction criticism, understanding the canonical process behind the Hebrew Bible, comparing similar literature from the ancient Near East. These topics and others are interesting for those paying money to learn about them, but for everyone else, not so much.

I think instead of a summary, a brief defense for studying these things at all is in order. This isn’t for everyone, of course—though anyone is welcome—rather, I want to briefly defend why somebody needs to be studying these things. And it’s not simply for better Bible classes.

A defense of this sort of work necessarily begins with a defense of scholarship in general. Many Christians (particularly in America) are skeptical of scholar and academics by default. They believe their work, at best, distracts from the pure gospel message or, at worst, originates in more malevolent motivations. But it should be noted that for some, it’s just a job, no different from the work of a Hallmark card writer; for others, their work comes out of a deep desire to understand the scriptures better.

Some would disagree, but I’ll suggest that the most important reason for engaging in critical study of the Bible is because it helps us understand what the Bible is. We all have an assumed understanding of what the Bible is; it’s the understanding we adopt anytime we read from it or talk about it, and we probably inherited it from someone before us. But assumptions always deserve to be challenged—particularly when they’re concerning the life-altering words of religion—and critical studies help us do that. And you’ll notice that the really exciting stuff comes out of Old Testament studies. That’s because in a certain light the New Testament and what we often think Scripture is look an awful lot alike. But when we take that same vision of Scripture and apply it to the Old Testament, that’s when the old molds really start having a hard time fitting. The Old Testament is weird like that.

But yeah, in addition to helping us understand the nature of Scripture, it’s true—critical analysis of the Bible will help us make better Sermons and Bible classes (which are hopefully helping make better us). When we better understand the context and the big picture of the Bible or any individual narrative, we more ably teach that story and convey its meaning. We more ably live out the message behind that story and incorporate it into our lives.

Regarding this scholarly stuff, everyone is invited, but not everyone has to participate. Yet if you don’t participate, the Church needs you to patiently listen to and learn from those who did. Because at the heart of all those dates and theories and German exegetes is a statement about what the Holy Bible is and where it came from and why we need to listen to it.

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  1. I like your point about how different the NT and OT are in how we should approach studying them.

    The item you mentioned that interests me the most is what you learned about the Hebrew canon. As you may know from my studies, this is an important topic because it determines what our Bible looks like as well as how history has changed as far as what books belong in the OT canon. Namely, the Septuagint as well as the existence of Christianity have both shaped what the OT canon looks like. Are there any thoughts you can share about what you learned from your class about the Hebrew canon? Feel free to email me. 🙂

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    • I’ll post a comment here first, and we can continue over email if you want.

      Hebrew canonization is purposefully a vague phrase because we discussed a lot of issues relating in some way to that broad topic. Our most in-depth discussion of the subject was in regards to the “canonization process,” whereby the texts that eventually become the canon evolve. We specifically compared the Septuagint, MT, Samaritan Pentateuch, and Qumran evidence to demonstrate how the lines between writing and redacting are blurred and the thematic content of the books is developed by several hands over, in some cases, multiple centuries.

      Something I read the other day that surprised me–and you may already know based on your comment–is that the Rabbinic community dropped the Deuteronomic texts from their canon partially in response to the Christian adoption of those texts. The Reformers later adopted the Rabbinic canon in contrast to the Catholic OT canon. (I had always imagined the Protestant canon’s use of the MT over the Septuagint was rooted solely in a desire to return to the Hebrew.)

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      • Thanks for sharing, Daniel. The piece you mentioned that I know very little about is what the Qumran evidence has to say about which books are canon. Will you share what you know about their witness to which books they believed were canon?

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      • My knowledge of the subject is fairly limited, but a few notable points: the DSS contain all but one biblical book (Esther), though the findings for several of the later traditions (e.g. Chronicles) are few; they contain some of the deuterocanonical books (Tobit, Ben Sirach, Baruch 6, and Ps 151) and many other non-biblical books; they contain their own versions/edits of the books which are useful for determining older traditions of the text; there are 4 copies of Jeremiah in Qumran, 2 resembling the MT and 2 the LXX. That’s all I can think of off the top of my head; if I run across any articles that go into the nitty-gritty of how they’re used in the comparison of texts, I’ll send them your way.

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  2. As someone who is into stats, I would ask, “What happens when you inevitably critique the scripture and find that it does not hold up?”
    Also, I think there is a huge disparity between how scholars are perceived and the product they actually produce. When you look at what incentives there are for scholars we find that they are in a very thankless professional that does not compensate well. The scholars that find themselves in the light and publishers payroll are those that offer something new and thought provoking. We would be fooling ourselves to think that the majority of scholars are not deeply affected by this pull to fame and fortune. Even more so when you take into consideration that some have families to provide for.
    And this leads to the issue that scholars are often isolated in what they are researching because they are so granular. Only in certain occasions do we have scholars check the finds of another, which are usually on how the relate to major doctrinal issues.
    Since I am not one to point out a fault without offering a solution, I would say that we need test the work of scholars for what they are worth. More often than not, they are insightful, but do not alter anything noteworthy.

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    • That’s a very good question. I think the Christian hope is that Christianity will stand even as we refine our faith.
      An interesting case study for your question is all of Christianity post-Enlightenment. Before the Reformation and subsequent Enlightenment, real critical work had not been done regarding the Bible or the Christian religion (or any religion)–to be sure, real /theological/ work had been done, but that’s not quite the same. In any case, people start using the tools and strategies that would eventually give us philosophy, rocket ships, and modern democracy, and applied it to Scripture. What they found was that their belief systems did not hold up. That’s why we get the movement called “Liberal Protestants” after this. Liberal Protestantism is the Christian movement of those who could not maintain a particular belief system but believed nonetheless in the Christian God and sought to maintain their faith. This movement dominated from the late 1700s to early 1900s. Karl Barth, around the time of WWII, would help demonstrate that the Liberal Protestant project was misguided, but the movement still represents the largest possible sample of people responding to your question.
      (Liberal Protestantism (LP), particularly throughout the 1800s, is associated with very specific beliefs; I have many issues with LP proper, but I think their historical situation is interestingly close to your proposal.)

      I think you’re exactly right in everything you said (except the point about being too granular) in your latter two paragraphs. The market needs to adjust so that scholars are not tempted by radical claims in order to sell books. (Though an interesting counterpoint would be that scholars have something radical to say–sort of prophetic voices–but those who don’t do so out of fear of offending their constituents.) Your last point is also really good, and somewhere where I see a lot of my peers stumble–we want our intense study of Scripture and Church history and theology to result in dramatic calls to change, but the truth is that good people are generally doing the best they can 90% of the time. There’s not a whole lot that needs changing. (Though some of those small changes, the 10% that’s left, may have dramatic effects–see environmental friendliness and climate change.)

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