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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

An Oxford don once related the advice that he had been given in the late 1930s when he was looking for a research topic in Old Testament studies. The advice was to learn Hittite. The potential for research in the Old Testament had been exhausted, it was thought, and new discoveries were only likely to come from the study of surrounding cultures.

It is easy to be critical of such an attitude, and to forget that academic disciplines go through periods of both apparent stagnation, when prospects of progress seem slight, and of vibrant creativity when scholars almost fall over themselves to get onto a bandwagon that seems to offer unlimited possibilities. The late 1930s stood unknowingly on the threshold of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Similarly, the early 1960s stood unknowingly on the threshold of the advent of methodologies such as structuralism, deconstruction, feminist criticism, and liberation theology.

There is no doubt that the past 30 years have witnessed one of the most exciting and creative periods in the whole history of biblical interpretation. One of the features of this period has been that biblical interpretation has become less dominated by the interests of ‘professionals’. All of the scholars whose work is described in the chapters on the study and use of the Bible were professionals in the sense that they were experts in one or more of the many fields that are associated with the study of the Bible: scribes, copyists, linguists, textual critics, exegetes, translators, historians, printers. This ought to be reassuring. The study of the Bible, if it is to be done with the utmost seriousness, requires training in a number of disciplines whose mastery can take many years. However, the need for expertise also created a situation in which biblical interpretation became the province of a guild whose legitimate concerns were understandably narrowly conceived. The needs and interests of ‘ordinary people’ were neither disdained nor overlooked by professional biblical scholars, as many popular commentaries and other works on the Bible by them indicate; but the ‘ordinary people’ had to be content with receiving what the professionals considered they needed.

The advent of liberation theology in particular has shifted this balance, because it had its origin not in the lecture room or the private studies of scholars, but in the struggles of oppressed people in the ‘two-thirds’ world, oppressed people who dared to believe that the Bible had a message directed to their material as well as their spiritual well-being. The story of the Exodus has been important here, for it has been observed that salvation for the Israelites was a material matter, in that it involved liberation from physical slavery and the granting of freedom. Liberation theology has similarly produced an understanding of Jesus, which has emphasized his political involvement on behalf of the poor and oppressed of his day.

Partly influenced by liberation theology, but also arising spontaneously, have been the feminist movements and the European liberation theology movement in biblical interpretation. These have been much more the concerns of professional scholars, but in the case of the movements described by Luise Schottroff in Chapter 16(c) they have included the attempts of ordinary churchgoers to relate the Bible to contemporary issues such as apartheid, nuclear disarmament, and the disparities in wealth between the first and the ‘two-thirds’ worlds.

Some of the results of broadening the scope of those whose interests affect biblical interpretation have been disturbing, but the newer methods of interpretation and the pluralism that they have brought with them look set to become a permanent feature of biblical studies. This makes it imperative that professional scholars collaborate with those who are helping ‘ordinary people’ to see how the Bible addresses their situations, not so that professional scholars can reclaim a right to be the sole arbiters in matters of biblical interpretation, but so that exegesis is safeguarded from arbitrary and fanciful interpretations that rob the Bible of its power to challenge people and to give them high aspirations.

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