the bible in a university context

Biblical Scholars of the World Unite!

By James Crossley
Department of Biblical Studies
University of Sheffield
April 2010

This is not a joke: what do Hector Avalos and William Lane Craig have in common? The study of the Bible! It may be that Avalos wants to bring about the end of that which is deemed a cultural cancer but he still recognizes that to do this he must study this collection and his argument clearly assumes the Bible as something deeply embedded in culture. Like most university departments where the Bible is studied, my own department has students from a range of backgrounds where believers and non-believers will openly disagree, sometimes sharply. But they are all committed to the study of the Bible as a culturally important collection of texts and have defended such study with great vigor and determination. As my colleagues often point out, even prominent atheists bemoan a perceived biblical illiteracy. If you don’t know your Bible and biblical interpretation you are not going to understand some of the strange things human beings do and you are not going to get far analyzing Michelangelo, Emily Dickinson, Caravaggio, Lars von Trier, Spenser, Tolstoy, Milton, Philip Pullman, Tolstoy, T.S. Eliot, Dan Brown, Samuel Beckett, Elizabeth Jennings, Mel Gibson, Johnny Cash, Toni Morrison, William Blake...

There is a basic argument which ought to be used but only fairly: the Bible is very important and lots of people hold part or all of it as their sacred text. The implied criticism: it is probably best not to use this argument and then do (say) some standard traditional historical exegetical work with only a token use of the high rhetoric of "relevance." This is not to criticize some of the more traditional historical critical work; on the contrary, the argument, when used in such instances, needs to be sharpened. Traditional historical criticism needs to be vigorously defended in a way that will show why it is "relevant" because, alas, arguments about critical thinking being civilized don’t work with the not-so-civilized. In terms of the arts and humanities, historical questions concerning ancient Israel, the Pentateuch, the historical Jesus, and Christian origins, have been massive issues in the history of ideas with significant cultural ramifications, and negative ones for some of those poor souls who pioneered historical critical approaches. Moreover, the biblical texts were written, composed and canonized over periods of formative world history, interacting with the major empires. The "religion" of Paul and John of Patmos even became the Roman Empire!

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