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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.

The Pluralism of Methods in Recent Scholarship

There is no doubt that the diversity and pluralism that have become part of the everyday scene in biblical studies have brought great benefits to students and scholars alike. When I began my teaching in Durham in 1964, we were still fighting some of the battles of the nineteenth century. Students were sharply divided into two camps, liberals and conservatives, and the major issue that divided them was that of authenticity. To take one example, were the closing verses of the book of Amos, those that speak of raising up ‘the booth of David that is fallen’ (Amos 9: 11 ) the words of the eighth-century prophet Amos, or the work of later editors dating from the time when the temple (the booth of David) was in ruins between 587 and 515 BCE? Conservative students wanted to maintain the authenticity of the words, that is, that they indeed derived from the eighth-century prophet. Most, if not all, of their teachers were liberals, who regarded the words as later additions. The whole discussion was controlled, however, by the fact that there was only one method that the conservatives and liberals could use in their approach to the text. This was the method that tied biblical interpretation to the search for the intended meaning of the biblical writers and which, in the case of prophetic books, tried to discover the authentic words of the prophets as opposed to material that scholars classified as later editorial additions. In New Testament studies the gospels were treated as repositories of the words of Jesus, which, once the authentic words had been separated from later additions made by the early church, could be used to reconstruct the mission and intentions of Jesus.

There were laudable theological impulses behind this method. If the prophets were men of God speaking the word of God to their contemporaries in concrete historical circumstances, one wanted to hear these inspired utterances and was less interested in the work of later editors. If Christianity was primarily concerned with the mission and message of Jesus, one wanted to know what he actually said. There was also the hidden assumption that editors were less ‘inspired’ than prophets who proclaimed ‘thus saith the Lord’, and that additions to the words of Jesus by the early church were less ‘inspired’ than his genuine utterances. It is true that even in 1964 there were scholars in Scandinavia and Britain who were trying to introduce a more flexible approach to prophetic books into Old Testament scholarship, via the idea that prophetic books were produced by prophetic schools, or by disciples of prophets. But these trends had only a small measure of success compared with the impact made by literary, structuralist, and final-form methods in interpretation.

Suddenly, we were being warned again the ‘intentionalist fallacy’, that is, the fallacy that we could discover the intentions of writers or that these intentions were necessarily the most important factor in interpreting a text. We were made aware of latent meanings; we were shown how texts could be interpreted in terms of their binary oppositions, how plot and character contrast functioned in the final form of a text. To scholars who had been trained to interpret texts diachronically, that is, to peel off their literary layers like layers of an onion so as to penetrate back to the earliest units of which they were composed and then to work out how all the layers had been added to make up the whole onion, structuralist or final-form criticism came as a blinding revelation.

Ferdinand de Saussure's example of the chess match can convey something of what the new approaches offered. If we see a chess match adjourned at, say, move nineteen, we do not need to know what moves one to eighteen were in order to appreciate the state of the game and whether one player has an advantage. That will be clear from the relation of the pieces to each other. Moves one to eighteen will, of course, be important to experts, who may discern in them a strategy by one player that will become important. The value of the chess match example for our purposes is that, crudely generalizing, we can say that prior to the advent of literary and structuralist methods in biblical studies it seemed as though we spent much of our time trying to guess, on the basis of the state of the game at move nineteen, what the earlier moves had been, so that we could properly understand the state of play at move nineteen! The discovery that the final form of the text, that is, the game as adjourned at move nineteen, contained its own resources for interpretation, brought a new dimension to biblical studies.

If we go back to the example of Amos 9: 11–15 , the new dimension did not settle the question whether or not these were the words of the eighth-century prophet. But they did make it legitimate to study the book of Amos in its final form as opposed to scholarly attempts to discover the authentic utterances of Amos. The text now assumed a new importance in its own right. Previously, it had been more of a means to an end, that end being the recovery of the historical Amos. Conservative students, at least, could now study Amos in a manner that could be defended intellectually, and scholarship had moved on from the battles of the nineteenth century. In the case of the gospels, these could be studied as compositions in their own right, and not simply as repositories for possible authentic sayings of Jesus.

But biblical studies is a fast-moving field. No sooner had structuralism and finalform criticism been assimilated than other new approaches arrived, including deconstruction, feminism, liberation theology, and, later, ideological criticism. Each of these approaches had, and has, a positive contribution to make to interpreting the Bible. Deconstruction looks for features in a text that appear to undermine it. At the end of Psalm 23 , for example, the psalmist affirms that he will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever. This is an odd place for a shepherd to want to be, and the statement at once puts into question the pastoral images that the psalm contains about lying down in green pastures, passing through deathly valleys, and enjoying banquets in the presence of enemies. Of course, it has long been known that shepherd imagery in the ancient Near East was used of kings, and Psalm 23 is possibly a royal psalm. However, by ‘deconstructing’ the imagery of the psalm, the concluding statement about dwelling in the Lord's house invites and initiates a deeper examination of the psalm than does the observation that it may be a royal psalm.

Feminist criticism has made biblical studies aware of issues that were previously overlooked, not least, the whole question of sexuality. Phyllis Trible's pioneering God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, parts of which appeared as separate articles in 1973, showed how an approach to the Bible that was driven by the modern concern to redress historic discrimination against women could open up familiar texts to all sorts of new insights. Once the approach was established, men as well as women were able to contribute to feminist criticism, a good example being an essay by John Sawyer pointing out that the second half of Isaiah, as well as containing material on the male servant of God, also has a good deal to say about the female daughter of Zion. Feminist criticism also made the discipline aware of gender-derived translation distortions, as in Psalm 22: 9 . English translation, from Coverdale (1540) to the Revised English Bible of 1989 translated this verse as

thou (you) art (are) he that took me from my mother's womb,

thus obscuring the fact that in this verse God is implicitly likened to a female midwife. The New Revised Standard Version

yet it was you who took me from the womb

is both closer to the Hebrew, and makes possible the connection with the feminine imagery.

Liberation theology had a similarly illuminating contribution to make. It emphasized that, for ancient Israel, salvation was something material and social; and it challenged biblical scholars to examine their own political attitudes and to place their extremely privileged positions alongside the marginalized and persecuted positions of prophets such as Amos and Jeremiah. Liberation approaches rediscovered texts that were generally overlooked. For example, everyone knows that the sin of Sodom was an attempted public homosexual orgy. But liberation theology emphasizes another view of the sin of Sodom, that in Ezekiel 16: 49 :

This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.

Again, liberation theologians brought to light and emphasized the pathos of Lamentations 5:

We have become orphans, fatherless; our mothers are like widows. We must pay for the water we drink; the wood we get must be bought. With a yoke on our necks we are hard driven: we are weary, we are given no rest. We get our bread at the peril of our lives, because of the sword in the wilderness … Our skin is black as an oven from the scorching heat of famine. Young men are compelled to grind, and boys stagger under loads of wood. The old men have left the city gate, the young men their music. The joy of our hearts has ceased; our dancing has been turned to mourning.

Who can fail to be moved, not only by these verses, but by the knowledge that they have brought hope to the poor and distressed in Latin America? The simple discovery that their plight is described in the Bible has been the beginning of hope for some.

Finally, and briefly, a word about ideological criticism. This is an approach that asks questions about the interests of those who produced the various texts of the Bible. Whom did they represent, and what were their aims in writing as they did?

I have tried to outline, then, the impact made on biblical studies by the methods that established themselves in the 1970s and 1980s, and I have noted that they had positive things to offer. But they also brought negative possibilities. Along with feminists whose aim was to redeem the biblical text for those concerned with women's issues were feminists who believed that the Old Testament was irredeemable. It was so much the product of a patriarchal society in which women were oppressed that it could serve as no more than evidence for an oppression that needed to be redressed. Women's voices in ancient Israel had been silenced and were hardly heard, if at all, in the Old and New Testaments. Their story needed to be recovered, with the help of archaeology and by reading behind the Old Testament text.

The same ambiguity could be found with liberation theologians. Whereas the first wave of them used the Old Testament, and especially the story of the Exodus, positively to advocate social and material liberation in Latin America and Southern Africa, voices were later to be heard questioning whether texts produced by ruling and oppressing classes could, in fact, be liberating for oppressed people today.

The approach most likely to bring negative considerations to bear on the Bible was ideological criticism, especially in a Marxist-derived form which regarded ideology as a false consciousness that blinded people to the truth and which needed to be unmasked. While it was, and is, perfectly legitimate to enquire, for example, into the interests of those who produced the Ten Commandments—they were evidently property- and slave-owning circles—such questioning can be unsettling to anyone who regards the Decalogue as an expression of God's will for ancient Israel and a key element in traditional Christian ethics. To be told that the Ten Commandments originated in class supremacy, rather than a theological attempt to define human responsibility, can be disturbing.

I have kept until last the question of deconstruction, because it raises fundamental questions about biblical interpretation, and because dealing with these questions will lead to the main aim of this chapter, which is to outline a theory of scholarship which will accommodate the best insights of recent approaches while marginalizing their negative aspects.

Earlier, I presented deconstruction in a favourable light as a reading device. It is now necessary to indicate its negative sides and the long-term effects that they have had upon biblical studies. Inevitably, this outline can only touch on a complex subject.

I began by going back to structuralism and the new possibilities that it offered to biblical interpretation. I described it as a move that brought the text back into the centre of attention in contrast to methods that I caricatured as resembling the peeling of an onion. But structuralist approaches were also approaches which removed the text from any social and historical context. If the stress was upon how the plot was constructed, and how the characters related to each other, it was not necessary to ask questions about the social and historical contexts in which a text was produced. Thus, decontextualizing the text was the literary equivalent of Saussure's distinction between language system (langue) and language use (parole) and his concentration upon language system, which was investigated in terms of its own organization and structures, unrelated to social context. This in turn was connected with the theory of the arbitrariness of the linguistic sign—a grey area, but one which was taken to mean that meaning within the language system was determined by the internal relationships between signs rather than by a connection between a sign and external reality.

Before I elaborate this further, I want to stress that there were gains in decontextualizing certain biblical books and in paying attention to their final form and their internal structures. When I was a student, we were required to study the book of Ruth in the following way. We were expected to accept that it was written in the fifth century BCE as a protest against the narrow, nationalistic policies of Ezra and Nehemiah, and we were expected to be able to discuss the problems of relating the practice of levirate marriage in the book (the marriage between Ruth and Naomi's kinsman Boaz) to the law of levirate marriage as stated in Deuteronomy 25: 5–10 . We were also expected to discuss whether the book's concluding genealogy, which makes the Moabitess Ruth the grandmother of King David, was a later addition, or was the datum that the book of Ruth had been written to explain. What was never explained to us was that the book had a narrative arch, from the hopelessness of Naomi in a foreign land and with no male dependants at 1: 5, to the concluding verse of the story (prior to the genealogy) at 4: 17 with the exclamation ‘a son has been born to Naomi’; nor was it pointed out that the narrative developed via the contrasts between Naomi and Ruth on the one hand and Boaz and the nearer kinsman, who refused to marry Ruth, on the other. These, and many others gains brought by literary structuralism masked the negative aspects of such approaches.

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