Fat chance!

This has got to be some kind of joke.

One of the guys more responsible than not for the uninformed public’s impression of the Bible—namely that it is a completely invented late artifact of little historical value for the periods it ostensibly covers—now notices one of the side effects of this is a complete and utter lack of interest in being told this, and so the field is shrinking. What sane person would study or fund such a self-cannibalizing field of study? Meanwhile, Bible programs in religious institutions are thriving, or, I should say, religiously-motivated Bible programs in such institutions are thriving. Those programs in religious institutions which ape critical scholarship of the moment are likewise shrinking, judging from anecdotal evidence. People are simply not interested in that approach.

Now that the results of such an approach become more obvious, the suggestion is made of cooperation with religiously motivated study. The two are antagonistic and will remain so. The faith-contingent programs of study will continue to cherry-pick critical biblical studies, and critical biblical studies will continue to fade away, as fewer students can find appealing the necessary philological expertise, if such is even available to them anymore in their institutions, with so many programs having been cut. It’s a time of a kind of twilight for biblical studies.


  1. I confess to feeling a bit confused, largely as a result of the “scare qotes” around the word critical. Is your argument against secular study of the Bible? Or do you genuinely reject critical study, even though this is not an enterprise thoroughly separate from the life of Most churches, both because no one could read the Bible in their own language without textual and other critical academic disciplines, but also because many of those studying the Bible through methods like historical or redaction criticism are people of faith.

    I can understand your criticism of Davies and other minimalists. Was your aim to say through the use of scare quotes that they themselves are not really “critical”?

  2. Hi James,

    (First, where would you like me to close your italics?)

    My post has to be read in the context of my readings on the subject of the hsitory of “historical criticism” and its intimate connection to anti-Judaism and antisemitism. This is the import of the “scare quotes.” “Historical criticism” as an entity has usurped the adjective “critical” for itself, I suppose as a kind of lazy hypocoristicon. This is one aspect of the problem. If, however, one understands a truly critical approach to any thought or study to demonstrate discernment (krisis), then “critical” cannot be reserved for only one particular subset of methodologies.

    No, I didn’t intend to imply that Davies and others are consistently not critical in their work, though it may sometimes be the case (as it is with all study). In fact, they do belong to precisely to “critical” study, understood in that sense of “historical-critical” developed by German scholarship in the nineteenth century, and they take the work several steps closer to its ultimate and inevitable conclusion: imposing an hegemony of pure subjectivism with all authorities abandoned (which is the core of the Enlightenment). Until, that is, they need their help to stay afloat, at which point conciliatory gestures are made, as in Davies’ essay. It won’t work.

  3. What a strange post Davies made. Is he saying he only want people to read the Bible who do not believe the Bible, and only for the sake of arguing about it? Weird.

    1. What I especially love was reference to the complaint about the Church claiming to have the sole authority to interpret the Bible. So what did rationalist scholars do with that complaint? They proclaimed their own interpretation to be the sole valid one, and thus all other approaches to be invalid, particularly the Church-based interpretations. So, rather than the truly rational option of opening the field of interpretation in a respectful and cooperative manner, suggesting and offering that they might occasionally have something to contribute, they instead imposed (and impose) a self-proclaimed intellectual exclusivity and an hegemony of exegetical and hermeneutical approaches (based in their own contemporaneity and subjectivity) from the very beginning of the formation of their field. Rational Biblical criticism was a baby born with teeth and claws, with its first breath initiating conflict, turning and rending its mother.

      But there is gold amidst the dross. The Church does benefit from a number of studies (I think particularly in the realms of philology and archaeology inasmuch as both intersect with historiography), but it is most decidedly not beholden to them. We have learned through such studies much about the ancient societies that interacted with Israel of the Patriarchs and Prophets and Apostles that had been since forgotten. Relearning such is a good thing. (And those scholars, such as Davies at times, who proclaim that such knowledge was not had anciently are easily ignored.) There is a path that allows of such learning for the Faithful, accepting the primary sources and data (as it should, for the Church has no need to fear reality!) and yet keeping in mind the option to reject entirely all secondary (and tertiary, and quaternary) interpretation, particularly when it is animated by what in the nineteenth century was termed negative criticism (the belief that the Old Testament in particular held little of historical value) and now often referred to as minimalism (in which category Davies is certainly lumped), and with it concomitant despite of the Church and its methods of interpretation.

      Here’s an option: turn that despite right back on them. It’s especially easy in seeing that the roots of modern Biblical criticism are thoroughly sordid, mixed up with radical liberal German politics and antisemitism. True love corrects a fault, does it not? Disgusting and stupid opinions such as are bandied about as incontrovertible fact in such circles qualify as faults, and therefore for the contempt and correction that the Faithful, inasmuch as they are enlightened by eternity, may afford them.

      That’s how I see it, anyway. But then I need a bit more of that enlightenment by eternity, too!

  4. The irrelevance of the secular approach to biblicalia is nowhere more evident than in the Bible’s interpretation of itself.

    A glance at the exegesis of the Old Testament in the Gospels, in Acts, and in the Epistles, or in the fathers (or indeed among the rabbis) shows that there is no way these interpretations would ever pass muster at a secular academy. Nor is there any reason why they should. The secular academy is, like any other simplistic bible-thumper, only concerned about the literal meaning of scripture; it has no concern for the anagogical, moral, or allegorical meanings, often referred to together as the Spiritual meaning. In the interpretation of that meaning, it simply has no idea what it is talking about. Or do the academians claim that some other Paraclete has been sent to them?

    It is not so much that they are wrong. Their work has shed insight into the literal meaning, and the literal meaning is in fact the mother of the other meanings. But it is the Spiritual meaning that brings life to the Church *today*, and through that Spirit the Church alone has competence to teach his meaning.

    A man had an orchard in which he produced the world’s most delicious and nutritious fruit. A team of foresters came down from the higher forests to study his trees. After much diligent study, the foresters gave their report. “The wood of these trees is heavy and soft, completely unsuitable for building. When polished, it is mottled, discolored, and unsightly, and cannot be used as trim. Its grain is too coarse for carving. When burned, it produces much smoke, soot, and too much creosote for use in a fireplace, and its fragrance, though it may be pleasing to simpletons, cannot be compared to sandalwood or frankincense. We humbly recommend that this grove be felled, and that this idiot stop wasting his time on these trees. (And anyway, technically, they are more closely related to shrubs than to True Trees.)”

    Even though the trunks of these trees are absolutely critical, and there could be no fruit without them, and even though the foresters were often correct in their findings, their conclusion should be rejected, because they simply do not know what they are talking about. It’s all about the fruit.

    Littera enim occidit, Spiritus autem vivificat.

  5. An excellent translation. Yet too, “occidit” can also mean “cuts down”. This double meaning jumped out at me when I had been reading the Bible earlier on the 21st, and it, along with your post, inspired the parable of the orchard.

    So you see, I didn’t put in that Latin (only) to show off! That would be a foolish thing to do on this blog anyway, since that quote from the Vulgate is about the limit that my classical knowledge is qualified to produce. I wonder, though, whether the double meaning is present in the Greek?

    1. Very interesting! I hadn’t thought of that. The Greek αποκτεννω apoktennô doesn’t seem to have that connotation, which is a nice touch by the Latin translator. The Greek is more reminiscent of “unmaking”, though that may not be the actual etymological meaning, taking the -κτεννω as related to κτιζω ktizô, “create”. So the wordplay there may be in relating Letter and Spirit to creation itself: the Letter undoes life, while the Spirit creates life. What fun!

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