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The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies Provides a comprehensive survey of Biblical scholarship in a variety of disciplines.



The Bible in Ethics

Eryl W. Davies

A. Methodological Issues

i. The Old Testament

Anyone who has been concerned to examine the ethics of the OT has had to contend with the fact that they are engaged in a difficult and highly complex enterprise. The main problem arises from the sheer amount of material that needs to be analysed. Moral considerations feature prominently in Israel's laws, and are clearly evident in the denunciations levelled by the prophets against their compatriots. Many of the narratives contained in the historical books raise profound ethical questions, and moral issues frequently recur in the sayings of the wise and in various passages in the Psalms. Thus those attempting to write a volume on OT ethics are immediately faced with the perplexing problem of deciding precisely where to begin.

Some scholars—especially those writing in the nineteenth and early part of the twentieth century—opted for a chronological approach to the biblical material, and sought to trace the ethical values of the OT from the patriarchal period down to the exilic and post-exilic age, often with the aim of demonstrating how Israel's morality gradually developed from crude and primitive beginnings to the more enlightened and sophisticated insights of later times (cf. Mitchell 1912; Smith 1923). Other, more recent, scholars have preferred to focus on particular literary genres, such as the biblical narratives (Janzen 1994; Wenham 2000), or the legal (Harrelson 1980), prophetic (E. W. Davies 1981), or wisdom (Blenkinsopp 1983) traditions. Still others have favoured a thematic approach, and have sought to examine the teaching of the OT concerning such matters as wealth and poverty, war and violence, marriage and divorce, land and inheritance (Rodd 2001). But whichever method is adopted, there is now general agreement among scholars that ethics deserves to be treated as a distinct discipline within biblical studies, and that the subject should be studied in its own right and not subsumed under the broader category of ‘biblical theology’, as was once the common practice (cf. e.g. Eichrodt 1967: 316–79).

A further problem that faces those attempting to write a volume on the ethics of the OT is to decide on the methodological approach that best suits the subject-matter under discussion. Some biblical interpreters have opted for a historical-critical analysis of the biblical material (cf. Otto 1994), while others have preferred to adopt a literary-critical approach (cf. Mills 2001). Those who favour the former tend to focus on the moral beliefs and ethical principles embraced by the people of Israel and Judah, in so far as these can be reconstructed from the biblical texts. In effect, the OT is regarded as a window through which the perceptive reader can observe the social world and daily experiences of the ancient Israelites and thus come to some understanding of the manners and mores of the peoples of biblical times. The task of the biblical scholar, according to this approach, is to describe the type of community that produced the ethical norms found in the biblical text and to illuminate the historical and social context in which those norms were originally formulated.

The historical-critical method, however, is not without its difficulties, for the task of describing the ethical values embraced by the people of ancient Israel is by no means as straightforward as might initially be supposed. In the first place, serious reservations have been expressed concerning the possibility of reaching behind the biblical text in an attempt to describe the moral norms of a people who can no longer be observed or questioned at first hand. The task is made all the more daunting by the fact that ancient Israel consisted of diverse groups that probably adhered to a wide variety of ethical ideals, and these ideals were inevitably changed, modified, and refined from one period to another. Any comprehensive account of the ethics of ancient Israel would thus need to include the distinctive moral insights represented by various groups in various periods of Israel's history; but since the requisite evidence needed to carry out such a study is not available, the picture of ancient Israelite ethics must, of necessity, remain fragmentary and incomplete (cf. Barton 1983: 118–19; Knight 1995b: 4–5).

Moreover, the OT writings probably reflect, at least for the most part, the ‘official’ religion of Israel, and the biblical interpreter must constantly be aware of the possible dissemblance between the thoughts and perspectives of the ‘ordinary Israelites’ and those who had a hand in producing the biblical canon. It is often tacitly assumed, for example, that religion was the decisive influence in moral matters for the people of Israel, but due allowance must be made for the fact that the OT is largely a body of religious documents produced by a people for whom religion was presumably a dominant interest. Of course, Israel's ethic appears to demand a religious interpretation, but this is only because it has already been given one in the documents at our disposal (cf. McKeating 1979: 70). This leads to an important observation, the implications of which have not always been fully appreciated: the ethics of the OT and those of ancient Israelite society do not necessarily coincide, and the former may not always be an accurate representation of the latter (cf. Barton 1978). As a result, many studies that purport to be an examination of the ethics of ancient Israel have, in fact, proved to be little more than descriptions of the ‘official’ religion advocated in the OT.

In view of the difficulties inherent in the historical- critical approach, some scholars have favoured adopting a literary analysis of the biblical material. Adherents of this approach do not necessarily minimize the importance of past efforts to understand the original historical setting of the ethical teaching contained in the OT; they merely believe that such research has probably taken us as far as we are able to go, and that it is now time to move on and explore the text from a different perspective. The literary approach involves a close reading and detailed exposition of specific biblical texts that raise issues of ethical concern, and a careful analysis is then conducted of the language, structure, and genre of the passage in question. For example, the story of David's adultery with Bathsheba and Nathan's parable of the poor man's ewe-lamb (2 Samuel 11–12) is viewed primarily as a literary composition that was intended to stimulate the reader to reflect on human behaviour when faced with particular moral choices (cf. Gunn 1978: 87–111). Whether the narrative reflects an actual occurrence in the lives of the individuals concerned is regarded as a secondary (and perhaps even irrelevant) consideration. Rather, the narrative is read primarily as a literary composition that gives concrete form to abstract ethical issues, and which challenges its readers to reassess their own values and to reconsider their own moral principles accordingly.

Of course, the literary approach, like the historical-critical approach, is not without its difficulties, for the ethical material in the OT is preserved in books which date from different periods and which have often been subjected to a long process of collating and editing. Consequently, the ethical principles that they contain are not always self-consistent, and scholars who have attempted to analyse the subject in any depth have inevitably been confronted with the unresolved tensions that exist between various ethical demands. Moreover, some of the key ethical terms that appear in the OT, such as ‘righteousness’ and ‘holiness’, have a wide variety of connotations, and what such concepts mean in one literary context may be quite different from what they mean in another. Any attempt to study the subject of OT ethics from a literary-critical point of view must therefore be carefully nuanced, for biblical interpreters are faced with the difficult balancing act of recognizing the rich diversity of the ethical principles of the OT, on the one hand, and upholding the essential unity of biblical thought, on the other.

Thus, whether OT scholars opt for the historical-critical or the literary-critical approach, it is clear that they are faced with numerous methodological problems. This may well be the reason why the subject of ethics has, for some considerable time, remained a much neglected area of OT research. Fortunately, the tide is now beginning to turn, and the current resurgence of interest in the field of OT ethics is warmly to be welcomed, notwithstanding the reservations expressed by some scholars that the writing of an ‘ethics of the OT’ may well ultimately prove to be an impossible task (cf. Rodd 1990: 208–9).

ii. The New Testament

Many of the methodological problems confronting scholars of the OT have also had to be addressed by their NT counterparts. Here, too, the sheer amount of ethical material that has to be analysed is so great that it is difficult to know how it can be organized and presented in a coherent and systematic way. Some scholars, aware that an exhaustive treatment of all the relevant NT material would probably occupy several volumes, have limited their research to a particular passage (e.g. Matthew 5–7; cf. Strecker 1988; 1 Corinthians 5–7; cf. Rosner 1999), book (e.g. Mark; cf. Via 1985), or author (e.g. Paul; cf. Sampley 1991) within the NT canon. But those who have attempted to write a full-blown account of the ‘ethics of the NT’ have been faced with the problem of deciding where to begin. Many have opted to start with the ethical teaching of Jesus before moving on to discuss the ethical traditions reflected in the epistles of Paul and in other NT writings (cf. Schnackenburg 1965; Sanders 1975; Schrage 1988). Others prefer to begin with Paul, partly because his letters represent the earliest extant Christian writings and partly because, of all the NT authors, it is Paul who offers the most profound and extensive wrestling with major ethical issues (cf. Houlden 1973). Many NT interpreters, however, have preferred to adopt a synthetic approach to the biblical material and have sought a unity of ethical perspective within the rich diversity of the canonical writings. Sometimes this has been done by focusing on a single principle (such as love; cf. Furnish 1972) or on a cluster of central images (such as ‘cross’, ‘community’, and ‘new creation’; cf. Hays 1996a) that might provide an interpretative framework in which the ethical material of the NT could be explored.

Scholars who have adopted the historical-critical approach to the NT writings have largely been concerned to reconstruct the moral teaching of the historical Jesus and the ethical values embraced by members of the early church. Attempts have also been made to describe the distinctive character and ‘ethos’ of the communities within which those values developed, and the ways in which the early Christians absorbed the ethical traditions of the surrounding nations (Meeks 1987; McDonald 1998). Such studies have undoubtedly shed much light on the background of Jesus' teaching and on the social context and community setting of Paul's ministry. Yet, the historical, or ‘diachronic’, approach to NT ethics has its limitations. As is well known, attempts to reconstruct the ‘Jesus of history’ are beset with difficulties, and there remain many uncertainties as to which ethical pronouncements can be traced back to Jesus himself and which are the product of later tradition. Similarly, it is difficult to obtain a clear picture of the ethical beliefs and social organization of the earliest Christian communities, since scholars are forced to rely primarily on the idealized description of the early church in Acts, and on a tentative reconstruction of pre-Pauline traditions in Paul's epistles.

In view of these difficulties, many scholars have preferred to focus on the NT texts themselves, rather than on the social reality to which those texts are supposed to bear witness. In this regard, many useful studies have appeared which illuminate the ethical perspective of the individual evangelists or the moral teaching encountered in the Johannine writings or in the Pauline and deutero-Pauline epistles. The problem arises, however, when the interpreter attempts to discover a moral coherence within the NT canon, for there are sometimes significant differences between the biblical authors regarding particular ethical issues (cf. Hays 1990: 44–5). One need only compare, for example, the treatment of divorce in Matthew (5: 31–2; 19: 3–12) and Paul (1 Cor. 7: 10–16), or the radically different assessments of the relationship of the Christian community to the Roman Empire reflected in such texts as Romans 13 and Revelation 13. Such differences serve as a salutary reminder that one cannot properly speak of the ethics of the NT (any more than one can speak of the ethics of the OT), for what we have is a variety of ethical perspectives that sometimes complement and sometimes contradict one another. The task facing the biblical interpreter is to ensure that each individual voice is heard, and that the tensions between different texts regarding moral issues be allowed to stand. Of course, the diversity of moral viewpoints within the NT raises a profound hermeneutical problem, for one is inevitably left wondering how the NT documents can serve as a reliable guide to faith and practice if its writings are not internally consistent. The hermeneutical problems faced by the biblical interpreter will be discussed below; here it is sufficient to note that any attempt to provide a clear, systematic account of the ethics of the NT is bound to prove a complex and challenging task.

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