Why Biblical criticism is important for both the religious and non-religious

I know I haven’t posted anything in ages.  Sorry; been busy with important stuff.  Thanks a lot for sticking with me.

I can’t write as well as this guy.  Here some of my favorite quotes on the virtues of modern Biblical scholarship (a.k.a. Biblical criticism) – especially for those who are religious, courtesy of the late Italian scholar of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) Alberto Soggin, via John Bowden’s outstanding translation (Introduction to the Old Testament, Revised Edition).  [I’ve added occasional points of clarification in brackets].  If you have any favorite quotes on the subject, please share!  Enjoy:

“It is impossible to understand the attitudes of people or schools of thought and therefore the writings that derive from them, without knowing the events which have influenced them in whole or in part.  For example, inadequate knowledge of Canaanite religion would constitute a most serious obstacle to understanding the message of the prophets…, nor could we understand properly their comments on society if we did not know the economic and social conditions which they were attacking (p. 4).”

“The fact that the Christian theologian is convinced that he finds Christ foretold in the writings of the Old Testament (cf. John 5:39) or that the Jewish believer discovers here the revelation and the promise of God for his people, and the divine law, should not in any way prejudice critical and historical study of the texts, which is needed if faith is not to be reduced to the level of ideological prejudice.  The fact that the texts of the Old Testament have an authoritative character for the believer, whether Jew or Christian, which they evidently do not have for the unbeliever, should not prevent the former from achieving a proper objectivity.  On the contrary, it should compel him to listen humbly to what they say.  This is not a paradox.  He should therefore make as calm an examination of the text as possible, taking care not to read into it what is not there.

“Thus the criterion of scientific objectivity applies first of all to the believer, if he wishes to hear the word of the Lord instead of his own, and if he wishes to have a dialogue with his Lord instead of a monologue with himself and his own opinions.  At the same time, it is right that the scholar who is not a believer should be asked to apply the same objectivity to the text of the Bible as to any other oriental [Near Eastern] text (pps. 9-10).”

“In the case of the Old Testament and all the literature of the ancient Near East, the reader finds himself at a considerable remove in both geographical setting and chronological context; the modern reader, especially the Westerner [of the Western hemisphere], meets peoples (and therefore literature, customs, institutions and patterns of thought) with which he has little or nothing in common.  We shall certainly be right in supposing that anyone who does not have an advanced and specialist education will be largely ignorant of the historical, political, economic, social and religious facts to which the texts refer.  In addition, … there is a problem peculiar to the biblical texts; when considering a work which for thousands of years has been the sacred scripture of Judaism and Christianity, and still is, it is all too easy for the Western reader, who has grown up within the Judaeo-Christian tradition, to have assimilated unconsciously a theological and ecclesiastical tradition which will not fail to make its weight felt in an any explanation of the texts.  Without one noticing it, centuries of exegesis loaded with preconceptions can lead either to uncritical acceptance of certain unproved assertions or, paradoxically, to an equally uncritical rejection of particular positions simply because they have traditionally been sustained within the sphere of the religious community.  The need for a science of introduction which offers a critical view of the biblical literature must therefore be obvious to anyone (p. 5).”

“While there has never been a time when the reader of the Bible has not felt the need for information about the circumstances which accompanied and often governed the origins of a particular text…, we must remember that (leaving aside the Antiochene school and Jerome) up to the Renaissance the Christian church was not very interested in establishing in an independent and original form the circumstances in which the sacred books had their origin, being content to accept the traditional views of them handed down by the synagogue.  Allegorical exegesis [interpretation] , very soon practiced on a large scale in the medieval church, avoided problems by means of that special form of unhistorical sublimation which is its hallmark; consequently the problem of the difference between the reality presented in the texts and the traditional interpretation of them did not arise before humanistic exegesis  at the beginning of the sixteenth century….  It was humanism, with its principle of a return to the sources, which first laid the foundation for scientific and critical introduction (pps. 5-6).”

“From Napolean’s expedition to Egypt onwards, with the discovery of the Rosetta stone which provided the key for the deciphering of its two scripts and of the Egyptian language (1798), through the nineteenth century and into the first half of the twentieth, there was a rediscovery of the world in which the men of the Old Testament had lived and against which they often struggled.  Practices and customs, religious, political, judicial, and social institutions, people and places previously unknown, or known only vaguely, began to take shape.  Perhaps more important still, their languages came to be understood.  This restored a proper historical basis and a setting in a wider historical context for texts which hitherto had almost always been read only in a church setting.  It also often eliminated fictitious themes and explanations which had been created by the traditions of synagogue and church (p. 7).”

 “Because the believer, Jewish or Christian, sees the text as having a sacred and therefore authoritative character, he should be able to accept biblical [textual] criticism* without difficulty in so far as it sets out to present a text which is as close as possible to the original.  However, precisely the opposite has happened:  among conservative [religious] Jews, Protestants and Catholics, biblical criticism has often received with mistrust, as through the discipline set out arrogantly, and there impiously, to put itself above the text to judge and to ‘criticize’ it.  Such an interpretation of the functions criticism shows a complete lack of familiarity with the concept … and it cannot therefore be taken seriously (p. 30).

*Textual criticism means looking at various old manuscripts of the Bible and, wherever the manuscripts differ, trying to figure out in each case which manuscript has the best reading.


4 thoughts on “Why Biblical criticism is important for both the religious and non-religious

  1. SJA

    Thank you for bringing this. Good to see a new post from you. I hope you have been busy with good things.

    His lament of religious people’s antipathy to biblical criticism because they mistakenly see it as critical may be in part due to the term biblical CRITICISM. : )

    I think a reason religious people are mistrustful of biblical criticism is also due to the fact that to treat it that way means it is a human document influenced by environment as all other human documents are. I can’t imagine how a religious person can appreciate finding out how Jewish rituals are based on pagan rites.

    Of course Orthodox Jews also have the primacy of tradition keeping them from accepting observations from outside that tradition. Mr. Soggin’s understanding that that tradition may in fact understand less of the reality of the Bible than biblical scholars certainly has merit. Without the bias of religious concepts and current sensitivities, and with the aid of knowledge of the ancient world, the biblical scholar is in a much better position to understand the bible as it was initially.

    1. Freethinking Jew Post author

      Thanks a lot, my friend. I couldn’t have asked for better welcome back. I’ve been OK; just some career-related stress. But I think it’ll be fine.

      I agree about the word “criticism” scaring people away, and that most Orthodox Jews are taught not to learn Torah from non-Jews. I would say though that when the Rambam says for instance that God commanded the Israelites to offer sacrifices only because that’s the only way they knew to connect with a god, in a way he’s using historical criticism. And even Orthodox people love archaeology when it supports their beliefs. Right? So while you’re not going to get yeshivas to start teaching the Documentary Hypothesis, I think they still could incorporate a lot from archaeology, history, linguistics, and literary analysis without crossing their red lines. I think that’s what Mosad Harav Kook tried to do with their perush on Tanakh and what scholars like R’ Menachem Leibtag try to do when they teach Tanakh.

      Of course soon after they probably usually realize that the Bible’s man-made, and then they can’t teach in yeshiva anymore. But I think what I’m suggesting can work until that point at least! 😀

  2. Cynthia

    Soggin’s book was actually one of the texts in my Ancient Israelite History course 23 years ago.

    Soggin treats the various books of the Bible as texts for historical purposes. Religious scholars use those texts for religious purposes. It’s important to realize that those purposes are fundamentally different. To give one example: a historian reading the Book of Esther will wonder if the king was the Persian king Xerxes, will wonder if there is any historical proof for the existence of Mordecai, will notice that the story proceeds along 2 parallel tracks and will wonder if Esther is a form of a goddess Ishtar. Meanwhile, a Jew reading the Book of Esther on Purim is more likely to be thinking about Amalek and anti-semitism, the hidden hand of God, the role of an individual Jew to stand up for the Jewish people instead of just looking out for themselves, etc.

    That said, I found that I had a better understanding of certain passages after I took the course and read his book, and it added another layer of interpretation. So much of the Hebrew Bible is geared toward a society dominated by the paganism of the Canaanites, that you really can’t appreciate what’s it is saying if you don’t appreciate that.


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