A Pause for a Taking Stock

I am about one month into my blogging experiment, and I need to remind myself of its purpose.  I gave the blog a name that would help me remember.  Nearly everyone involved agrees that over the past three or four decades my academic field of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament studies has experienced fragmentation and disarray.  Results of the past that seemed settled and assured came under close scrutiny and failed.  A set of methods that seemed cohesive was replaced by a vast collection of disconnected approaches to our discipline.  I started writing these little essays because I think I have noticed some important ways that our work is coming back together, and now, about a month or so into the project I need to state or restate a few convictions I have about this.

1)  The supposed “historical-critical consensus” that reigned throughout the early and mid-20th century was not as cohesive as it may have seemed or as it is now frequently portrayed.  Whether Hermann Gunkel vs. Sigmund Mowinckel , Gerhard von Rad vs. Walther Eichrodt, or John Bright vs. Martin Noth there were always strong disagreements.  Yet, even in the midst of rigorous debate, these guys (yes!) all looked and sounded pretty much alike.  If I can draw an imperfect, but helpful, analogy to the content of our filed, this scholarship was about as “united” as the supposed “United Kingdom” of Israel under kings Saul, David, and Solomon.  The appearance of unity is the result of a shallow reading.

2) The fragmentation of biblical studies and rise of new methods over the last four decades cannot be properly understood as a repudiation of the past.  In every academic field, scholars of the present get a better view by standing on the shoulders of those from the past, even when we disagree with them.  Even the most ardent proponents of literary methods that examine the “final form” of the biblical text and denigrate all attempts to trace its composition history operate with a basic understanding of the development of religious traditions in ancient Israel that was clarified in the historical-critical era, even though the historical reconstructions of that period of scholarship outgrew the evidence that supported them and collapsed.

3)  The convergences of the present will not look like those of the past, because our field of study is far broader and deeper now than then.  I recall with a chuckle a comment by a biblical scholar who chose to leave the professorate in the 1960’s for other pursuits in part because he had “read everything of importance in his area of study.”  Let me give everyone under fifty a moment to laugh and then cry a little before I give you permission to stop feeling badly about how much you have not read.  It is not possible any more, and not because it is too easy to publish a book now, as some would claim.  Biblical scholarship is no longer an activity conducted by a small club of guys who all look and sound alike, even when they are disagreeing.  The new convergences will happen, and are happening, at many different points, when two different approaches bump into each other, learn from and energize each other, then move on better than they were before the collision.  A convergence like this happens even if not everyone in the field is watching at the same time.

If I am mostly right about all of this then our forty years in the wilderness (I don’t have the strength to resist that metaphor) have been productive and purposeful.  Even some old approaches are reemerging in better form than they used to be.


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