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.