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The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies Provides a comprehensive survey of Biblical scholarship in a variety of disciplines.

The Modern Preoccupation with ‘History’

Old Testament study, through 200 years of Enlightenment rationality, largely eschewed primal theological claims and assertions, and for the most part was preoccupied with historical questions, including (a) the historical events pertaining to Israel's life, (b) the history of developing traditions and eventually documents, and (c) the history of religious ideas and practices. The acceptance of such a perspective on study slowly gelled into a more-or-less consensus hypothesis about the ‘development’ of Israel's religion that clusters into the so-called documentary hypothesis that came to be associated with the name of Julius Wellhausen, a great German interpreter at the end of the nineteenth century.

It is important to recognize that the rise of such ‘historical-critical’ preoccupations under the aegis of the rational autonomy of Enlightenment philosophy was itself a response to the scholastic ‘hardening of the arteries’ of Protestant orthodox theology in Europe (especially in Germany) in the seventeenth century. Thus historical-critical studies undertaken by university professors (largely in Germany and exclusively Protestant Christians) were an attempt to stake out a zone of emancipated scholarly reasoning that did not need to conform to the dogmatic requirements of restrictive church theology. The long-standing tension between church and academy—and by inference the disputatious settlement of issues of ‘faith and reason’—eventuated in a Protestant mode of scholarship that long dominated the academic field of Old Testament interpretation.

In retrospect, it is clear that such an academic enterprise was powerfully shaped by the ‘evolutionary’ assumption of a culture rooted in Hegel and articulated by Charles Darwin in the latter part of the nineteenth century; consequently, the ‘religion of Israel’ and the articulation of the God of Israel were understood in ‘evolutionary’ categories that moved characteristically from primitive to sophisticated, from polytheism to monotheism, and from cultic procedures to ethical insistences. The import of such an ‘evolutionary’ notion, however, caused every ‘phase’ of the development to be context-specific in Israel's culture, and therefore quite relative to a particular time and place. The inescapable consequence of such an assumption is that every ‘faith claim’ given in the text is relative; as a result, no ‘faith claim’ could be, or needed to be, regarded as normative, either in any ancient community of the text or in any contemporary reading community. The contemporary reading community itself—in Enlightenment modes—characteristically prized intellectual autonomy and had no wish to submit to any authority beyond reason, textual, interpretive, or otherwise. By such an interpretive procedure, deeply informed by cultural and philosophical assumptions in the nineteenth century, Old Testament theology as a normative discipline became an intellectual impossibility through the nineteenth century in an academic environment.

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