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The Oxford Illustrated History of the Bible A richly illustrated account of the story of the Bible written by leading scholars.

Historical Criticism Reassessed

If I compare myself now with what I can remember about the beginning of my teaching in 1964, I can say that in 1964 I was not aware of women's issues, nor of the way in which my political attitudes might affect my scholarship. I did not think of books such as Ruth and Jonah or the gospels as literary works to which purely literary techniques could be applied. None of this change of perspective affects, of course, the communicative intention of the biblical writers in producing their texts; but it has affected how I understand my task as a practitioner of historical criticism, and to that extent I hope that it has enabled me to do the work better.

Historical criticism has benefited, then, from its encounter with newer methods. But these newer methods need to benefit from historical criticism, especially a historical criticism informed by sociology and anthropology. I have argued that Giddens's sociological approach to texts makes it possible to challenge certain deconstructionist strategies. But challenges also need to be made to feminist and liberation approaches to the Bible.

A commonplace of feminist criticism is that women were oppressed and marginalized in the patriarchal society of ancient Israel, a charge that has brought the accusation from some feminists that such scholarship is anti-Jewish, and which has caused scholars such as Luise Schottroff (see her essay above) to seek for a feminism that is not anti-Jewish. Liberationists point similarly to oppression of peasants by the ruling classes. Now these assertions may be correct; but they do not become correct simply by being asserted. Such claims have to be established, if that is possible, by reference to evidence about the nature of ancient Israelite society, by the roles of women within that society, by how power was actually exercised. Feminist anthropologists such as Henrietta Moore have pointed out that it is difficult to generalize about gender roles, and that such roles are determined by the cultural contexts in which people live. Gerald West has drawn attention to what have been called ‘hidden transcripts’, that is, rumours, gossip, folk-tales, gestures, jokes, which are the strategies of resistance among so-called powerless groups and which need to be taken into account in analysis of how power is actually exercised. It may be, of course, that we lack the means of discovering the answer to some of these questions; in which case, we should say that we do not know what the position of women and peasants was in ancient Israel. That would not alter the fact that, in the history of interpretation of the Bible, certain texts have been used to advocate male headship over women; but that is another matter.

In a way, the Bible is like people whose faults are the most obvious thing about them but who turn out to have many sterling qualities on deeper acquaintance. If, to use George Steiner's analogy in Real Presences about respecting a text as one would respect a stranger, we concentrate not on the obvious faults of the Bible but its virtues, it presents many striking features. The feature that constantly impresses me is the degree of criticism that is brought to bear upon the chosen people of Israel and its leaders, and upon the failure of the disciples of Jesus to understand him or be loyal to him. Confining ourselves to the Old Testament, it is possible to find self-satisfied and nationalistic sentiments in the Old Testament portrayal of Israel, but these are far outweighed by unfavourable comments on Israel's radical failure to fulfil its vocation. These unfavourable comments stem from a deeply realistic understanding of human nature in general, and its propensity for inhumanity, insincerity and violence. The Old Testament at its best longs for a transformed world, a world of nature that is at peace with itself (this is the implication of the vegetarian world of the envisaged new creation of Isaiah 11: 1–9 and 65: 17–25 ) inhabited by humans who are not deprived by human or natural evil of life, or food, or habitation. It witnesses to people trying to live out this hope in the context of a cruel and ambiguous world that is none the less, and against much evidence, believed ultimately to be in the hands of a God whose mercy and justice will have the last word. The witness to such a hope, in both Old and New Testaments, is what gives the Bible its abiding value even in a so-called postmodern world, if that is a correct designation of the world today.

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