Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Kugel's HTRTB (Part 2): The Achievement of Modern Biblical Scholarship

From left to right: Julius Wellhausen, Hermann Gunkel, and W. F. Albright.

This post marks the formal beginning of my read-through of Chapter 36 in James L. Kugel's How to Read the Bible. The chapter title, "After Such Knowledge...," refers specifically to the knowledge of the Bible produced by modern biblical scholarship. Knowing now what we do about the Bible and how it came to be, what is the impact on our beliefs about (and on our relationship to) the Bible? What is the proper way to deal with such knowledge, especially if one holds to orthodox practice in a Bible-based faith?

Let's avoid a possible misunderstanding at the outset by distinguishing between knowledge and truth. Now, I don't recall Kugel himself advising us explicitly to make this distinction, but I think he'd agree with it (reservedly, perhaps) because he stresses that modern biblical scholarship stands as a marvel in human achievement. Modern knowledge of the Bible, in other words, is borne of human creativity and ingenuity. Such knowledge is the product of approaching and understanding both the Bible and the world of its production in particular ways.

Yet this knowledge differs from the truth in important ways. While our knowledge about the Bible can expand and deepen, it may or may not correspond to the truth. Indeed, when it comes to the content and the historical production of the Bible, we cannot know the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Nevertheless, this knowledge is formidable in its grounding, its diversity, and its substance. It cannot simply be dismissed or refuted because it's not just another way of approaching and understanding the Bible--unless one is prepared to have serious study of the Bible expressly ignore evidence coming from such disciplines as  archaeology, Assyriology, Egyptology, ancient Near Eastern history, and comparative Semitics.

Kugel is as serious as anyone about modern biblical study and its pursuit of both knowledge and truth. For his purposes, modern biblical scholarship goes back approximately 150 years, when researchers in universities and divinity schools, principally in Europe and Germany, began to analyze and interpret the Bible in new ways. Seeking to understand the Bible "scientifically," scholars such as Julius Wellhausen and Hermann Gunkel detected clues about the purpose and developmental history of Scripture. Through careful analysis of the biblical texts alone, they marshaled the evidence of language use into empirically-based hypotheses of composite authorship and composition in stages. They developed a picture of Israel's religion, explained the role of biblical texts in daily life, and broke out common literary genres across texts.

Researchers illuminated biblical words and phrases--and elements in narratives, prophecies, and laws--through newly deciphered texts from Egypt, Mesopotamia, and other Near East civilizations. Scholars identified parallels between biblical stories and those of Israel's older neighbors. They also pointed out what seemed to be connections between elements of Israel's religion and previously existing institutions. Everything in the Bible was subject to detailed analysis and inspection:
  • Israel's history from the book of Joshua through the books of Kings was argued to be "a highly theological and idealistic retelling" of the past.
  • Books of prophecy were studied closely, as were the Psalms, Proverbs, and other texts.
  • Institutions of biblical Israel's daily life and religion were studied.
  • Prophecy was examined.
  • The priesthood and the priestly worldview were analyzed.
As Kugel remarks, the scope of study as well as the resulting insights and interpretations were often "dazzling." He rightly praises the "intellectual achievement and intellectual courage" of researchers such as Wellhausen, Gunkel, and W. F. Albright.

Kugel is surely correct also to lament that biblical scholars and their work have not received the recognition given to comparable scholars in other fields. Indeed, for many like myself--interested in biblical scholarship but not an academic researcher--these scholars are as important as Charles Darwin or other seminal figures in the sciences and humanities. Consider Richard Dawkins's well-known statement about Darwin:
An atheist before Darwin could have said, following Hume: "I have no explanation for complex biological design. All I know is that God isn't a good explanation, so we must wait and hope that somebody comes up with a better one." I can't help feeling that such a position, though logically sound, would have left one feeling pretty unsatisfied, and that although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.
Similarly, modern biblical scholarship produced explanations for the Bible that went beyond "God," beyond inherited scriptural commentaries, and beyond the doctrines of institutional orthodoxy. The intrepid intellectual talents of modern biblical scholarship established an empirically-based justification (not only a logical justification) for one to assert an atheist position.

In the next post, I will review Kugel's summary of what modern biblical scholars thought they were doing.

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