The Bible and Modern Scholarship

The longer description of the course:

If you have little or no prior experience with the Hebrew Bible or New Testament, this course will introduce you to the best-known and most significant portions. If you do have some background, you’ll be continuously surprised at the ability of modern bible scholars to get behind the text and reveal its history and development. Further, although Jewish rabbis and Christian priests and ministers learn all of this material during their training, there is virtually no opportunity to make use of it in a liturgical context. So even confirmed believers can expect some surprises.

We'll be addressing the Bible not as scripture but as an artifact of history. In other words, we'll regard the Bible as many devout scholars do when they conduct scholarship.

Above all, the Bible depends on the history of the people who wrote it. And since it was written over a period of at least a thousand years, that’s a lot of relevant history. To get the most out of the course, you’ll need to brush up on the main events in the eastern Mediterranean during that millennium. You could get a start by looking at this interactive timeline which I prepared for the Harvard undergraduate course on the Hebrew Bible. A useful exercise would be to print this blank version of the timeline and add the dates and events to it until you know them.

The first portion of the course will be concerned with who wrote the Torah (the first five books, called the Pentateuch by scholars). For two thousand years, Jews understood from their traditions that it was written by Moses (thus, the common reference “the five books of Moses”). Only at the end of the nineteenth century was this seriously challenged. Today, virtually all scholars agree that the Torah is a skillful combination of four sources written at different times by authors with different purposes. We’ll read both Who Wrote the Bible a terrific (and accessible) book by Richard Elliott Friedman, and parts of How to Read the Bible a grand survey of modern bible scholarship by James Kugel, formerly a long-time Harvard professor whose top-enrollment Hebrew Bible course provoked the classic Crimson headline "God Beats Mammon" (viz., Ec 10, the intro economics course).

Next we’ll turn to the remainder of the Hebrew Bible, particularly those portions which establish and challenge the theology of Second Temple Judaism: second Isaiah, Ecclesiastes, Job, and Daniel. We’ll see that as Israel shifted from monolatry to monotheism following the Exile, what I call the fatal flaw of cosmic monism (the belief that there is but one power which governs the cosmos) became recognized and agonized over. The last half of Daniel was the response of some Jews to this problem. (Given its departure from tradition, one wonders how it ever became part of the canon.)

The solution previewed in Daniel was then taken up by a substantial number of Jewish Apocalypticists. Among them was the self-isolated community at Qumran (the Dead Sea Scrolls), and Jewish preachers such as John the Baptist, Jesus of Nazareth, and Paul the apostle to the gentiles.

So this takes us to the New Testament: the four gospels, the seven letters of Paul (and the six letters said to be by Paul), and Revelation. We’ll study the order in which the gospels were written and their dependencies on earlier sources. We’ll look briefly at Q, a document which has not survived but is now commonly hypothesized as a source for Matthew and Luke. Our main reading will be Bart Erhman’s Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, a splendid general-audience book simply packed with information.

You're encouraged to read both of the cited books before classes begin; you'll find them even better on a second reading! (Remember: the public library is your friend!)

A note about style:

Every study group has different expectations of SGMs. Because I want no one to be disappointed, let me spell out what sort of experience you can expect. First, we will consider a lot of material. Most of it will have been written for a popular audience so it will be accessible with little jargon. But the preparation for class will require more time than for many other study groups and you'll be expected to have completed it so that we can have an informed discussion. You're very welcome to be skeptical about any aspect of our topic but you should be able to present persuasive reasons for your conclusions.

I'll try my best to present the material in a clear and organized manner. My habit is to prepare a set of slides containing the questions we’ll discuss and then limit discussion to the question being projected at the moment. There will of course be designated times for questions or comments on any topic. I’m grateful at any time to hear suggestions for how the study group could be improved and hope that you won’t hesitate to tell me your opinions.

A note about the books:

Unlike other study groups, this course needs not only the main texts (the Bible) but also more than a little explanation about how modern scholars have viewed those texts. For those who regard the Bible as a book which belongs in every household, a purchase of the Jewish Study Bible is well worthwhile. Those for whom it seems a luxury may read the NRSV (New Revised Standard Version) which appears as the Old Testament in many modern Christian bibles and online. The NRSV New Testament is available online if its purchase seems unnecessary.

Our three other books have no substitutes. Each is a superlative example of scholarly writing for a popular audience and I guarantee that you'll find them worthwhile. I apologize that the Friedman book did not appear in the catalog description; I hadn't read it yet! If you find that its purchase would make taking the course too expensive (but you are otherwise engaged by the subject), I'd be pleased to loan you a copy.

You can contact me with questions at b[at]ruml[dot]com.