Bible scholarship shows that ideas matter
As the student of many biblical scholars who practiced their faith, I believe that it does so by giving us accurate translations and explanations of obscure customs and beliefs. It also dramatizes the extraordinary differences that the lived faith of Israel and the early church made in the world around them.
Most of all, it does so by fostering a biblical imagination — by helping us read the Bible in a disciplined way so that we become subject to the claims God makes on the church through Scripture.
Just as the Bible itself is a creative work of stories, poems, wise sayings and oracles, so also must those who
read it learn the power of metaphor and parable, of song and oracle to help us envision God’s ideal world.
Scholarship that helps us read in this way can matter because ideas matter.
Recently, I realized this more fully while editing a one-volume commentary on the Bible. Herding 40 authors with 40 perspectives, sets of expertise and kennels of pet peeves reminded me of two things.
First, conformity is not the goal. People who spend their lives thinking about the Bible are unlikely to see it in exactly the same ways. Given the richness of Scripture and the complexity of the human experience, we will inevitably understand some things, even important things, differently. Uniformity can only happen when we cease thinking, or when we coerce others into seeing things our way, both procedures being lethal to a religious community. Healthy disagreement can stimulate deeper study and a deep-felt commitment to loving each other.
Scholars do not comment on the Bible to confirm our prior assumptions or win an argument. Rather, we study the Bible because it calls us to be transformed in heart and mind, and the more we know about it, the more that transformation will conform us to the will of God. While knowledge alone cannot change us, God uses people who are humbly learning to work out the redemption of the world.
Second, commenting on the Bible involves more than paraphrasing it or making practical suggestions. The commentator tries to find the right perspective on the text so as to understand its arguments and images.
Biblical scholars try to think the biblical authors’ thoughts after them, or, in other words, to learn how the various biblical writers responded to the moral and religious concerns of their own time by using literary forms that people understood.
Thus we see Jeremiah using short oracles full of images and word plays to call Israel to understand that their God was the only deity. We see Paul using carefully crafted letters, a popular literary form among philosophers of the first century, to shape the house churches he had planted.
We want to know why and how, as well as what, a given biblical author wrote. We will struggle to understand the Bible’s answers until we understand the questions it addresses.
To ferret out those questions, one needs to read many texts — not just in the Bible — in their original languages. One should understand how ancient people lived, what they thought and what metaphors meant to them. It is also frequently useful to know how Christians through the centuries have interpreted various biblical passages, not because they were always right (though often they were), but because overhearing their conversations helps us have better ones of our own.
When done well, biblical scholarship does more than help us discover the past. It helps us live in the present and prepare for the future. Because the Bible stands at the center of a long tradition of reflection on God’s self-revelation, biblical scholarship concerns both time and eternity.
When done by prayerful Christians, this level of study can be an act of reverence toward God and service to human beings. Biblical scholars serve the church by helping us all understand the implications of the Bible’s perennial question, “What is the human being, that God is mindful of us?”
Anything that helps us do that matters.
MARK W. HAMILTON is associate professor of Old Testament and associate dean of the Graduate School of Theology at Abilene Christian University in Texas. He is general editor of “The Transforming Word: A One-Volume Bible Commentary” (ACU Press, 2008).
FeedbackI went to learn more in your I universityDaniel EssumanNo CongregationAccra, Accra
GhanaNovember, 27 2009I think that Mark Hamiliton’s perception of biblical scholarship is right on and superbly stated.
If we are all thinking alike, in all likelihood no one is thinking.j. David McFaddenGrapevine C of CGrapevine, TX
United StatesJune, 2 2009