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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.

- Preface

Until comparatively recently the history of biblical interpretation was something of a Cinderella subject in Britain. Dubbed ‘the study of the study’, it was regarded in some quarters as a diversion from the main business of biblical studies, which was to study the languages, textual transmission, historical background, and exegesis of the Bible. This attitude was understandable. Modern scholarship, assisted by such resources as archaeology, cognate Semitic languages like Akkadian and Ugaritic, or the recovery of Hellenistic Greek from papyri discovered in Egypt, was unlikely to learn very much from the scholarship of earlier ages that did not have the benefit of these discoveries.

However, it has been increasingly recognized that while many of the methods used in biblical studies are objective, the results that they yield can be affected by ‘external’ factors. The most obvious are chance discoveries, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls; but new techniques and conclusions from archaeology or new insights in the interpretation of cultures in social anthropology can all play a part, and there is also no doubt that theological considerations can affect the results of biblical studies. A second point is that it has become increasingly difficult to distinguish a pre-critical period of biblical scholarship from a modern critical period. Of course, there have been key points in the history of interpretation when new insights radically altered subsequent scholarship, but it is also the case that there is much less that is really new about modern critical scholarship than is often supposed. To take one example, the radical criticism of the psalms in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries proposed that many were to be dated to the Maccabean period, that is, the second century BCE. However, such possibilities were already noted, if not necessarily accepted, in both medieval Jewish scholarship and by Puritan commentators. Again, it has often been pointed out that the use of different divine names in the Pentateuch that led to the Pentateuch being divided into several literary sources in the eighteenth to twentieth centuries had already been noted and discussed by early Jewish exegetes, even if they had not resulted in documentary theories of composition.

The most important outcome of the renewed interest in the history of interpretation is that it has become clear that the study of the Bible has always been critical, in the sense that scholars have used a knowledge of languages other than Hebrew and Greek as well as philosophical and scientific knowledge about the world and human growth and development in their interpretation of biblical passages. Early Jewish interpreters used the Aramaic Targumim (expanded translations) as aids in interpretation and, with the rise of Islam and the spread of Arabic, Jewish scholars whose first language was Arabic used that language to lay the foundations for all subsequent study of Hebrew grammar and lexicography. Arabic culture also rediscovered the philosophy of Aristotle, and this came to influence biblical interpretation in the Middle Ages. For example, Maimonides' masterpiece The Guide of the Perplexed (1190 CE) played an important role in convincing Christian interpreters that they should take the ceremonial laws of the Old Testament more seriously. Questions were also raised by the scientific knowledge of succeeding generations. It was recognized that the creation of light on the first day of creation and that of the sun on the fourth day raised the question of the nature and source of the light created on the first day. This was only one of many problems that were addressed as early as the fourth century, and it gives the lie to the idea that it was only in the nineteenth century that there was a clash between the Bible and science.

Study of the Bible's interpretation can engender a new respect for earlier scholars and a certain amount of humility in present-day scholarship. The achievements of two thousand years of interpretation are outlined in the section that follows; but it is also important to take note of George Bebawi's contribution on the eastern churches. Here, there is a quite different tradition of interpretation compared with that in the west, and it provides much food for thought.

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