What, finally, of the scriptural Bible? In this story, it has been the shadowy counterpart to the academic Bible forged during the Enlightenment. Though perhaps only a shade, it has lived on in religious communities as long as men and women have revered its authority. A full account of the relationship between the scriptural Bible and its counterpart is beyond the scope of this work. In concluding this study, though, I would like to offer a brief reflection. I believe that the scriptural Bible and the academic Bible are fundamentally different creations oriented toward rival interpetive communities. Though in some ways homologous, they can and should function independently if each is to retain its integrity. While it is true that the scriptural reader and the academic interpreter can offer information and insights that the other finds useful or interesting, they remain, in the end, loyal to separate authorities. I grant the moral seriousness of the modern critical project and, to a modest degree, the social and political utility of the academic Bible. I also grant the intellectual value of academic criticism. A rational, irenic study of the Bible supported by state resources and disciplined by academic standards cultivated across a range of fields has produced, in a relatively short time, an astonishing amount of useful information. It has become clear, though, that academic criticism in its contemporary form cannot offer a coherent, intellectually compelling account of what this information is actually for. What critics like Collins have done as a result is to shift the rationale for modern criticism away from the intellectual and back toward the social and moral. There is value in the social and moral by-products of academic criticism, in things like tolerance, reasonableness, and self-awareness. The problem is that these rather thin, pale virtues seem only thinner and paler when compared to the classic virtues associated with the scriptural Bible: instead of bland tolerance, love that sacrifices itself; instead of an agreeable reasonability, hope that opens the mind to goodness and greatness that it has not yet fully imagined; and instead of critical self-awareness, faith that inspires and animates the human heart. Academic criticism tempers belief, while scriptural reading edifies and directs it. In this sense, they work at cross-purposes. Yet each mode presumes the value of knowledge. Perhaps the two are closest, then, when in that brief moment before thought recognizes itself, the mind wavers between words that have suddenly become strange, and knowledge is a choice between knowing what the text said and knowing what the words might be saying. It is a choice, at such a moment, between the letter that has been revived and the letter that has never died.
Michel Legaspi, The Death of Scripture and the Rise of Biblical Studies (Oxford, 2010), page 169, the last paragraph of the book.
The “Collins” referenced in the above selection is, of course, John Collins, and the work alluded to is his Bible after Babel, in which he describes the value of new postmodernist readings of Scripture as a solution to the chaotic morbidity of historical criticism right here and now as it’s practiced in the early twenty-first century Anno Domini.
On the “revived” in the last sentence, Legaspi refers back to the subject of the first chapter of his book, “From Scripture to Text,” in which he maps the death of Scripture in the sixteenth century and the creation of the academic BIble. The language of “renaissance” or “rebirth” and “revivification” or “revival” were key to the success of the academic Bible in those circles which created it to fill a perceived need for a Bible which is relevant to modern society (does that sound familiar?). In the end, this rebirth is no more universalist or of ultimate objective value than any other human product, as the academic Bible and the societal and cultural needs which it assuaged were time-bound, and are therefore now as obsolete as buggy whips.
This has been a very interesting book. I can only wish that Legaspi had Anders Gerdmars’s Roots of Theological Anti-semitism (Brill, 2009) available to him during the writing. Although Legaspi does touch in passing on the antisemitism of German academic Biblical scholarship, it could and should receive more attention, particularly as it is so very intertwined with the motivations and bases of the methodologies and, of course, their conclusions. There is nothing acceptable in that, particularly in seeing the direction that German culture was shortly to take, justifying its actions in part by recourse academic Biblical studies’ antisemitic conclusions. In fact, it is revolting.
Something else that someone might not catch in Legaspi’s conclusion: while all of Western Europe was convulsed by the death of Scripture and the creation of the academic Bible, Christians further east were those for whom “the letter…has never died.” While Western Europe prided itself on a Renaissance partly effected by refugee people and works from the fall of Constantinople, those same Greeks had never experienced a “Dark Ages” (nor had they ever stopped bathing) and maintained the literature and traditions of the ancient world, pagan and Christian, in a living tradition. There was nothing to “rebirth” as nothing had died. And the Orthodox Patristic interpretation of the Bible does not and will not permit of the kind of separation from faith that scholarship of the academic Bible requires. The academic Bible is an entity completely foreign to Eastern Orthodoxy, yet one which is easily recognized as the result of the shismatic and rebellious nature which seems a particular hallmark of Western culture. Very instructive.