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

From 1970


The most striking feature of the past thirty-five years has been the way in which Old Testament studies have embraced new disciplines. Until the 1960s the historical-critical method was the only ‘respectable’ academic way of approaching the text, even if ‘conservative’ scholars disputed its results by arguing, for example, that they were based upon too superficial a knowledge of the ancient Near East. Beginning in the 1960s, methods influenced by linguistic and anthropological structuralism began to be applied to the Old Testament, not least by experts in those fields such as Barthes (in Barthes et al. 1971) and Leach (1966). Around the same time Old Testament scholars influenced by literary ‘New Criticism’ began to look at texts as pieces of literature. A further development was that liberation theologians and feminist scholars began to produce important studies of Old Testament texts, and as all these approaches begin to make headway in the discipline, they were enlarged to include such things as reader-response criticism, deconstruction, and psychological ways of reading texts influenced by theorists such as Foucault and Lacan. ‘Post-modernism’ became a further factor, with its insistence on the lack of master narratives by which to understand and characterize reality. Amid all this, historical criticism developed new insights and techniques, sometimes in dialogue with the newer methodologies. There was a new awareness of the importance of the history of the discipline (see Smend 1989). The study of social anthropology led to a questioning of many of the older assumptions about Hebrew mentality (Rogerson 1978), while the application of sociology to biblical narratives—in fact, an extension and refinement of form-critical work begun by Gunkel and Gressmann—yielded new information about Israelite society. A revival of interest in Old Testament ethics and in the contribution of biblical texts to understanding contemporary problems produced notable studies by Walter Brueggemann (1977). A significant development in the area of theology was initiated by Childs's canonical criticism, while in the area of the history of Israel new techniques and developments in archaeology produced a sharp polarization between scholars described as maximalist or minimalist in regard to what could be known about ancient Israel's history. In the field of traditional literary criticism of the Old Testament, as opposed to the newer literature criticism, there was a marked tendency to date everything a good deal later than had previously been the case. The formative period, ironically that about which scholarship was less well informed than some earlier periods, was seen to be the Persian period of the late sixth to the late fourth centuries BCE. Also within more traditional Old Testament studies the rise of the so-called Richter school called for a new level of technical expertise in the handling of ancient Hebrew texts based upon modern linguistics (see Chapter 34 below). The ground that needs to be covered in the remainder of this chapter is immense and will necessitate treatment that is highly selective and brief. The sections that follow will deal with literary approaches, anthropology and sociology, feminist and liberation interpretations, ethics, theology, archaeology and history, and traditional literary criticism.

(a) Literary Approaches

Although the first essays in literary interpretation of the Old Testament were published in the 1970s, the impetus for the approach has been taken to be E. Auerbach's Mimesis, published in German in 1946 and in English translation in 1968. Mimesis is, to quote the book's subtitle, about ‘the representation of reality in Western literature’, and Auerbach illustrated this on the basis of European literature extending over many centuries, but also including, in the first chapter, Homer and the Bible. Mimesis showed that the Bible could be treated ‘like any other book’ when it came to asking how its stories sought to represent reality, and this opened the way to pioneering studies such as that by Good on irony in the Old Testament (1965), Licht on story-telling in the Bible (1978), and Bar-Efrat on narrative art in the Bible (1979 in Hebrew, 1989 in English). Also in the 1970s Gros Louis, Ackerman, and Warshaw edited a two-volume work on Literary Interpretations of Biblical Narratives (1974), and Robert Alter published some of the essays that would form the basis for his influential The Art of Biblical Narrative (1981). The 1980s saw the appearance of Adele Berlin's Poetics and Interpretation of Biblical Narrative (1983) and The Literary Guide to the Bible edited by Alter and Kermode (1987). Many of the contributors to the latter would make distinguished contributions to the field in their own right. Through these and other works, Old Testament studies became familiar with chiastic structures, the formal structuring of plots and narratives, and concepts such as ‘point of view’ and implied author. Where these studies differed from what had gone before was in taking the final form of the text to be a literary whole. Whereas source criticism would look to apparent contradictions in a text to indicate the work of redactors who had combined disparate sources, literature criticism would accommodate these features to literary devices that contributed dramatic or other effects. There was, indeed, a tendency in literature criticism to regard the possibility of accommodating apparent discrepancies in the text to literary explanations, as proof against the older source criticism. Reader-response criticism, strongly influenced by the work of Fish (1980), focused attention upon reading and readers, and the interests and assumptions that they brought to the text, while deconstruction, influenced by Derrida (1967), looked for contradictions in texts, not in order to identify sources but to show how texts can often undermine themselves by contradictory statements. Acceptance of the view that interpretation is profoundly affected by the assumptions brought by readers to texts (a point clearly proved by work on the history of biblical interpretation) can also be turned back upon texts themselves. If readers have interests, so do texts (and their authors if they can be identified), and this leads to ideological criticism, to the attempt to identify class, gender, and power interests that have affected the production of texts (see Barr 2000). The many ‘readings’ of Old Testament texts that have been produced by attention to the interests of the texts and their interpreters, as well as to their literary structures and devices, have greatly enriched the discipline. They have also often disregarded attempts to make literature criticism ‘scientific’ (see below, section g).

(b) Anthropology and Sociology

As noted above, anthropology and sociology in the forms of investigation of the social settings of units of tradition were well established in Old Testament studies. From the late 1960s scholars using these methods were influenced, among other things, by the descriptions of contemporary tribal peoples by Evans-Pritchard and his associates (Evans-Pritchard 1937, 1956, 1965; Lienhardt 1961), by American cultural anthropologists such as Service (1962), and by the structural anthropology of Lévi-Strauss, whose monumental volumes on myth stimulated new thinking in this area (Lévi-Strauss 1964–71; Kirk 1970). This led to a re-evaluation of many ideas about Hebrew mentality (Rogerson 1974, 1978) and to a work on Israelite history and religion that made a great impact, Gottwald's The Tribes of Yahweh (1978). Gottwald developed an idea first proposed by Mendenhall (1962), that the Israelite occupation of Canaan had been an internal revolt of peasants against the city-states. Gottwald proposed that the revolt produced an egalitarian society, which in turn engendered belief in YHWH as a God of liberation. Subsequent history, with the rise of the monarchy, represented a failure to maintain this ideal. Based upon extensive anthropological and sociological research, Gottwald's book owed something to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s in America. In Germany, the student unrest and demonstrations of 1968–9 also influenced a generation of scholars, who determined to see Israelite history in terms of social attempts to achieve justice. An influential anthropological book was Sigrist's Regulierte Anarchie (1967), an attempt to describe segmentary societies which lacked a central governing authority. Crüsemann's Der Widerstand gegen das Königtum (1978) drew upon Sigrist to describe Israelite history as a struggle between egalitarian and power-based centralizing principles. The fact that a concern for civil rights and social justice affected these developments did not invalidate them. These concerns merely shifted attention to a study of ‘class’ and other conflicts that existed in ancient Israelite society. In the work of Brueggemann a series of studies and commentaries created a link between social concerns and problems as presented in the Old Testament, and the similar problems facing today's world, thus providing insights for theology and ethics. Among social problems dealt with by this newer sociological research was the impact of the exile upon those who experienced it (D. L. Smith 1989) and the development of social ‘classes’ in the post-exilic period (Kippenberg 1982).

(c) Feminist and Liberation Interpretations

Already in the work of Gottwald and Crüsemann there was a strong element of liberation, and this was both anticipated and developed in works stemming from the liberation theologians of Latin America, most notably Gutiérrez's A Theology of Liberation (1974). Liberation theologians questioned the right of Western-based academics in secure employment to be the sole guardians of biblical interpretation, and claimed that they, too, working among the oppressed peoples of their continent, had a right to be heard. Feminist theologians made a similar point, noting that biblical interpretation had been an almost entirely male preserve, and claiming the right to expose the patriarchal biases of the Old Testament, its silencing of women's voices, and the way in which the interpretation of the Bible over the centuries had contributed to the oppression of women. Both approaches drew upon a variety of methods. Historical-critical and sociological methods illuminated the social position of women and of oppressed groups in ancient Israel, while the newer literary methods, especially in feminist interpretation, made ‘readings’ from a feminist perspective possible. Liberationists paid particular attention to the story of the Exodus and to the preaching of social justice by the prophets. Feminists concentrated upon texts which had been used to justify the subordination of women, such as Genesis 1–3. They also concentrated upon notable women in the Old Testament and the Apocrypha. Attention to the history of interpretation from a feminist angle led to a history of cultural studies, and especially to the way in which male artists had represented women in portrayals of incidents in the Old Testament and the Apocrypha. For some liberationists and feminists the Old Testament was ‘irredeemable’ so much did it represent class and male interests (Mosala 1989 and Daly 1973). The purpose of research was to remedy these deficiencies. Others found ways of using the Old Testament in the interests of women and the church (Trible 1978). The accusation by Jewish feminists that to condemn the Old Testament as irredeemably patriarchal was a form of anti-Judaism was taken particular seriously in Germany, and attempts were made to develop a form of feminist interpretation that was sensitive to this issue (Schottroff and Wacker 1995).

(d) Ethics

Having been something of a Cinderella subject in Old Testament studies, ethics has assumed a more central position, especially through the work of Barton in Britain and Otto in Germany. The latter's Theologische Ethik (1994) concentrated upon the legal traditions of the Old Testament, comparing them with other legal texts from the ancient Near East in order to show their distinctiveness, a distinctiveness stemming from Israelite belief in God as being in solidarity with his people, and especially with the oppressed and disadvantaged. Barton (2003) has studied prophetic texts, especially Amos, and has suggested ways of handling narrative texts. The work of Birch (1991) is also essentially a narrative approach, while, from a conservative angle, W. C. Kaiser (1983) has adopted a more propositional and apologetic stance. Old Testament ethical teaching can, according to Kaiser, be defended as revelations of God's will. C. J. H. Wright's approach from a conservative angle (1995) is more subtle, and seeks to present Israelite society by contrast with the society of Israel's neighbours, as containing examples to be emulated.

(e) Theology

A main point of contention has been whether it is possible to write a theology of the Old Testament, as opposed to a history of Israelite religion (Albertz 1992) or a description of theologies contained in the Old Testament (Gerstenberger 2001). This has not prevented Westermann (1978), Preuß (1991–2), O. Kaiser (1993–2003), Brueggemann (1997), and Rendtorff (1999–2001) from producing theologies, and the discussion has repeated some of the issues aired in the 1920s in the famous article by Eissfeldt (1926). The matter is complicated, of course, by the much greater diversity of possible methodical approaches to Old Testament interpretation, and it becomes imperative for authors to identify the interests in terms of which they attempt a theology. The main development to be mentioned here is that of the canonical approach announced by Childs in 1977 and developed in other works (Childs 1979). Canonical criticism is an attempt to harness historical criticism to the interests of faith communities by claiming that a canonical process can be discerned in the way in which Old Testament traditions were shaped into their final form in order to become scripture. The discernment of this process enables priorities to be established which can then be used by modern scholars to undertake theological interpretation of biblical texts in accordance with the intentions of the redactors who deliberately and consciously produced sacred texts, i.e. scripture. While Childs's approach has aroused opposition, defence, and modification, it has raised fundamental questions about how and why the Old Testament reached its present form, and whether the answers to these questions are in any way mandatory for interpreters, especially those who belong to communities for whom the Old Testament is ‘scripture’.

(f) Archaeology and History

The refinement of archaeological methods over the past forty years has produced a new picture of the history of ancient Israel that has major implications for the story of the Old Testament. Large-scale surveys of whole areas and the plotting of settlements have largely replaced the old practice of excavating individual prominent sites. It has become clear that the areas of Trans-Jordan known as Ammon, Moab, and Edom did not become small ‘states’ until the ninth century BCE (Bienkowski 1992), and that the same is probably true of the area occupied by the northern kingdom, Israel. Judah lagged behind and did not become a ‘state’ until the eighth century (Jamieson-Drake 1991). The implications of these findings for the picture of the reigns of David and Solomon have divided scholars sharply into ‘maximalists’ and ‘minimalists’. The former maintain that it is still possible to use archaeology to support the biblical picture of an occupation of Canaan by Israelites in the late thirteenth century (albeit a more peaceful one than is implied by the book of Joshua), followed by the gradual emergence of a nation ruled by David and Solomon and their successors in the divided kingdoms (Mazar 1990). The ‘minimalists’ argue that the archaeological picture should have priority, and that the biblical picture of the ‘empires’ of David and Solomon has no basis in fact (see Davies 1992). There seems to be general agreement that the Israelite settlement in Canaan was largely peaceful, and not even the ‘maximalists’ attempt to recover the periods of the Patriarchs and Moses and the exodus. There is general agreement that the main outlines of the narratives of the divided monarchy in the books of Kings are to a greater extent in accordance with what can be checked from extra-biblical—i.e. Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian—records. The debate is currently in full flight, and only time will tell how it is resolved. A major development in archaeology has been the work of Keel and his associates in collecting and classifying the artistic representations on seals, amulets, and other items (Keel and Uehlinger 1992). This has shed enormous light upon the popular religion of ancient Israel, and has provided rich material for any history of religion(s) in the area.

(g) Literary Criticism

Two trends can be noted here. The first is a tendency to date Old Testament sources much later than was previously done, with the J source being assigned to the post-exilic period (van Seters 1975, 1983), the composition of parts of Isaiah 1–39 being placed in Hellenistic times (O. Kaiser 1973), and the psalms being dated to post-exilic times (Gerstenberger 1988). Studies of the prophetic books have emphasized the role of prophetic ‘schools’ in the transmission and redaction of the works, while the composition of the narrative parts of the Pentateuch and former prophets (Joshua to 2 Kings) have indicated continuous processes of supplementation and redaction (Kratz 2000). The other trend, discussed more fully in Chapter 34 below, has been the attempt by Richter (1971) and his associates to introduce precision and rigour into literary criticism by generating morphemic transcriptions of the Hebrew and Aramaic of the Old Testament, and by applying linguistic analyses of a highly technical nature.


Much has changed since 1970. Looking back to the work of Noth and von Rad, few would agree today that there was an Israelite amphictyony or tribal league in the period of the Judges which was the catalyst for the fusion of disparate elements of tradition into a coherent story. Whereas Noth and von Rad saw the reign of Solomon as the likely period in which Israel's literature began to flourish, the more likely period is now thought to be that of Hezekiah at the end of the eighth century. New ways of viewing the history, sociology, and religion of ancient Israel have had to compete with the arrival of new methods, as well as the investigation of the Old Testament from new standpoints, such as feminism and liberation theology. At the same time there has been a renewed interest in Old Testament ethics, and in how Old Testament texts can speak to today's world. The resultant picture is that of a discipline full of vigour, offering many new challenges and possibilities.

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