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Citation for The Modern Study of the Bible

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Berlin, Adele and Marc Zvi Brettler. "The Modern Study of the Bible." In The Jewish Study Bible. Oxford Biblical Studies Online. Oct 30, 2020. <http://www.oxfordbiblicalcstudies.com/article/book/obso-9780195297515/obso-9780195297515-chapter-62>.


Berlin, Adele and Marc Zvi Brettler. "The Modern Study of the Bible." In The Jewish Study Bible. Oxford Biblical Studies Online, http://www.oxfordbiblicalcstudies.com/article/book/obso-9780195297515/obso-9780195297515-chapter-62 (accessed Oct 30, 2020).

The Modern Study of the Bible

Adele Berlin

Marc Zvi Brettler

The Historical‐Critical Method

General philosophical developments of the 17th and 18th centuries prompted an approach to the Bible that is often characterized as “critical.” It was critical in the sense that it was free of presuppositions, especially those derived from either theology or tradition. To fully understand the Bible, scholars increasingly adopted an inductive approach, interpreting the Bible as they interpreted secular literature, setting aside received views of its authority and authorship. By and large, Jews, who continued to work within a traditional framework, did not participate in this early stage of critical scholarship. This critical approach, an outgrowth of attitudes fostered during the Enlightenment, was very much in the spirit of the times, and was, like other legacies of the Enlightenment, influenced by larger intellectual currents, such as Romanticism and the theory of evolution.

The overriding goal was historical: to determine what had actually taken place, and to recover the actual persons and events of the Bible as they had been preserved in the various stages of biblical tradition. The nature and development of these stages were to be understood through the historical‐critical method. This was the aim of “higher criticism,” as distinguished from “lower,” or textual criticism (see “Textual Criticism,” pp. 2067–2072). With its many subdisciplines, the historicalℐcritical method dominated biblical interpretation through the mid‐20th century and continues to be influential. The scholars whose work is surveyed in the following pages were immensely learned, often experts in a variety of fields, including philology, textual criticism, comparative literature, and thestudy of ancient Near Eastern cultures contemporaneous with the biblical traditions. Moreover, also in keeping with the intellectual mood of the 19th and early 20th centuries, they were optimistic, in retrospect even overconfident, operating on the assured conviction that with sufficient data and careful analysis of the data an objective, accurate, and complete understanding of the Bible was possible.

Source Criticism

The critical study of the Bible began in the 17th century with Hobbes, Spinoza, and Richard Simon, and continued to gain momentum during the Enlightenment. The emphasis was on history, and the way to get at history was to begin with a careful analysis of the sources. This was done, first of all, in the analysis of the Pentateuch (the term used by Christian scholars) into several literary strands. Jean Astruc had proposed in 1753 that the different names used for God in different parts of the book of Genesis were evidence of different sources that antedated the final composition of the book. Astruc's insight was elaborated and refined mainly by German scholars, especially W. M. L. de Wette and K. H. Graf, who extended the analysis of sources to the rest of the Pentateuch (and in some cases to the book of Joshua, leading to the term “Hexateuch”; see below).

The results of more than a century of this source criticism were brilliantly synthesized in 1878 by the German scholar Julius Wellhausen, in his book (Prolegomena to) The History of Israel. Wellhausen's goal, which he never completed, was to write a history of ancient Israel, especially its religion. He followed an evolutionary model, arguing that the religion of Israel had developed in three stages, from a primitive, spontaneous phase in the era before the monarchy, to its high point in an ethical monotheism, from which it degenerated into a sterile legalism (this reflected a Christian view of rabbinic Judaism). To support this reconstruction he engaged in a careful analysis of the biblical traditions, and, drawing especially on the earlier work of de Wette and Graf, gave the classic formulation to what is called the Documentary Hypothesis. According to the Documentary Hypothesis as elaborated by Wellhausen, the Hexateuch was an unreliable source for reconstructing the history of the time periods it narrated, but the “sources” that comprised it, identified as J, E, D, and P, were datable and important evidence for the periods in which they were compiled. These “documents,” reconstructed from the Hexateuch in its current form, were hypothetical constructs, that is, they did not now exist as separate documents, but they were the best explanation of the evidence—the parallels, repetitions, and inconsistencies in the final form of the Hexateuch.

Wellhausen's historical reconstruction is clearly a product of its time, and reflects the biases of the late 19th century. His view of early Israel as a fresh, undefiled religious spirit has a Romantic flavor, and his characterization of postexilic Judaism as a decline into dead legalism has an anti‐Semitic cast, which caused Jewish scholars to ignore it or to polemicize against it. But his formulation of the Documentary Hypothesis became a classic statement, the theory that subsequent scholars up to the present have built upon, accepted, modified, or rejected. Though the exact contours of the sources identified by Wellhausen and his simplistic reconstruction of their development are rejected by many, the general picture that he popularized—the image of the Hexateuch developing through the combination of different strands from different periods—is widely accepted by biblical scholars.

Source criticism was not an end in itself, but a method to be used in historical reconstruction for the entire Bible. It recognized the inherent complexity of biblical traditions, and attempted to disentangle the prior stages of their development. Among the many significant results of source criticism was the recognition that the book of Isaiah is a composite work. The isolated insights of earlier scholars, including Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra in the 12thcentury, and J. G. Eichhorn and others in the 18th, were expanded and elaborated in the commentary on Isaiah by Bernhard Duhm in 1892, who argued that the book of Isaiah was in effect an anthology spanning sev‐ eral centuries. A similar argument was developed concerning Jeremiah, suggesting that a poetic core by the prophet was supplemented by prose sections authored under the influence of Deuteronomy. The same was found to be true of other biblical books, such that almost all of the traditional authorship ascribed by rabbinic and church tradition was questioned.

The Recovery of the Ancient World

The recovery of extensive written remains from the ancient Near East coincided with the development of the disciplines of anthropology, sociology, linguistics, and folklore. Both new data and new methods were applied to the Bible, resulting in works of extraordinary insight, and, in retrospect, often of a certain naïvete. As a result of these discoveries, which helped to place ancient Israel within the ancient Near Eastern world, Biblical studies, however labeled, became a subject not just in theological curricula, but a discipline recognized in larger university contexts as well, often as part of religious studies or ancient Near Eastern studies, and later, also as part of Jewish Studies.

The process of recovery began with the deciphering of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic writing in the early 19th century, made possible when a member of Napoleon's army, in Egypt in 1799, discovered the Rosetta Stone. The vast literature of Egypt was opened up, including valuable historical texts that provided synchronisms with biblical data relating especially to the first millennium BCE, and provided the basis for what would eventually be a comprehensive absolute chronology of the ancient Near East. Egyptian literature also provided parallels to such biblical genres as love poetry and wisdom literature.

In the midℐ19th century, British and French explorers began to unearth hundreds of thousands of cuneiform texts in Mesopotamia, and these too were rapidly deciphered, giving access to the literature and written remains of ancient Babylonia, Assyria, and Persia. Like the Egyptian texts, they could often be correlated with biblical history. But their impact on biblical studies was more profound. In 1872, George Smith, working in the British Museum, discovered on one of the tablets that had been sent to London a flood narrative remarkably similar to the account in Genesis. While some took this as a simple historical confirmation of the flood, it soon became clear that the biblical account was a liter‐ ary descendant of earlier Mesopotamian accounts. Further discoveries provided many other parallels between Babylonian and Israelite literature, law, institutions, and beliefs, and in most cases Babylonia again appeared to be the source. Sparked by a series of lectures by the German Assyriologist Friedrich Delitzsch in 1902–1904, a heated controversy developed, pitting “Babel” against the Bible. Ultimately many of the simplistic conclusions concerning the priority, and the superiority, of the traditions of “Babel” were rejected, and in retrospect they seem clearly anti‐Semitic. But the controversy not only marks the emergence of Assyriology (the study of the cultures of ancient Mesopotamia) as an independent discipline, but also established the importance of a wide variety of nonbiblical materials for the understanding of the Bible.

Form Criticism

While source criticism became a dominant interpretive method, the influx of nonbib‐ lical data, along with the rise of folklore and a growing awareness of oral literature, prompted a more nuanced investigation of the prehistory of the written biblical traditions. The pioneer in this work was the German scholar Hermann Gunkel (1862–1932), perhaps the most influential biblical interpreter of the 20th century. While accepting Wellhausen's analysis as valid, Gunkel incorporated evidence both from Babylonian literatureand from comparative folklore to propose a shift in emphasis from history to the history of literature. Prior to the formation of the Hexateuchal “documents” there was discernible a long process of development and transmission of “forms,” or genres, which both had parallels in nonbiblical sources, and, coincidentally, were vehicles for preserving very ancient traditions. These forms have their own history and diachronic continuity, and similarities across cultures.

Central to form‐critical method was the identification of the Sitz im Leben (“setting in life”), the original and subsequent contexts in which the forms were developed and used. Gunkel applied form criticism himself to the book of Genesis, in his commentary first published in 1901, where he isolated such forms as saga, legend, taunt, curse, hymn, etiology, and proverb. His studies on the Psalms (1928–1933) were also groundbreaking, setting the terms of the discussion for the rest of the century by his classification of the various genres (hymn, individual and communal laments, individual and communal thanksgivings, royal psalms, wisdom psalms, etc.). Although there is a kind of idealism about the definition of the forms, parallels from outside the Bible confirmed their applicability and enhanced the understanding of the particulars of biblical traditions.


Serious exploration of the Levant began in the early 19th century, and notable advances were made in mapping the region and in identifying ancient sites. In the decades before World War I extensive, and by the standards of the time scientific, excavations were undertaken by British, German, French, and American archeologists. Attention was focused on the major cities of ancient Israel, and Jerusalem, Samaria, Megiddo, Shechem, Jericho, Taanach, and Gezer were all partially excavated. An overriding preoccupation of the excavators was historical, even apologetic: to verify, by independent data, the historicity of biblical traditions.

In the 1920s and 1930s many more projects were initiated, and excavation techniques were improved. Greater accuracy in dating excavated remains became possible through the refinement of ceramic typology, especially as elaborated by the American scholar W. F. Albright in his excavations at Tel Beit Mirsim. But very little of the vast amount of material that was excavated and published could be related directly to the Bible, and debates often ensued about how to synthesize archeological and biblical data. When work resumed in the 1950s and 1960s, new projects were undertaken and many sites that had been earlier, and fortunately only partially, excavated were redug, especially by British, American, and Israeli archeologists. In part because of the flood of material from periods long before and after biblical times or with little direct relevance to the Bible, archeology began to develop as an independent discipline, as had already happened in the study of the classical world. More attention was given to what archeology actually produced, the material culture of the region in various periods, and in some circles there developed a theoretiℐ cal tension between archeology and biblical studies.

Many earlier archeologists were also biblical scholars. Now, more and more archeologists were acquiring interest and expertise in periods and regions not directly relevant to biblical history, and in methodologies (like urban planning and soil analysis) that were far removed from the methods for studying the Bible. The result, by the late 20th century, was that some archeologists lacked sufficient textual and historical expertise to connect what they excavated with the written sources, and in any case, they considered it a virtue to work independently of biblical scholarship. On their part, many biblical scholars simply ignored the potential contributions of archeology to the interpretation of the Bible, a situation exacerbated by the fact that, at the end of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st centuries, several archeologists, in a reversal of the Albrightean school, became interested inshowing how the archeological record conflicts with the Bible. Thus, a century after the beginning of serious archeological study of ancient Israel, the relation between the biblical text and archeological finds remains problematic.

Ethnography, Sociology, and Anthropology

As explorers and archeologists began to make the ancient Near East known, they also observed those living there in the present. While many of the descriptions published were little more than naïve catalogues of perceived parallels between Arab customs and details of life in biblical times, there were serious works of scholarship, including W. Robertson Smith's Lectures on the Religion of the Semites (1889) and Gustaf Dalman's extensive survey of Palestinian social life and customs (Arbeit [work] und Sitte [customs] in Palestina, 1928– 1939). At the same time, the disciplines of sociology and anthropology were becoming more sophisticated. An early sociological interpretation of the Bible was Max Weber's Ancient Judaism (1917–1919), though sociological studies of the Bible began to proliferate only in the late 20th century.

Anthropological research had an earlier impact. Typical of early efforts was the encyclopedic work of James G. Frazer. In The Golden Bough: A Study in Comparative Religion (1890; revised and abridged by Theodor Gaster in 1959), and subsequent works, such as Folklore in the Old Testament (1919), Frazer organized a staggering amount of data in support of his understanding of the evolution of society from primitive beginnings to civilization. His principal focus was on myth and rituals, especially the essential role of the king in the welfare of the larger society, and he included both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament in his analysis.

While Frazer's work was subsequently criticized for its failure to pay sufficient attention to specific cultural contexts and for his cavalier treatment of the data to fit his theories, his influence was considerable. In particular, both in Britain and in Scandinavia, many scholars developed and refined his approach, de‐ veloping what has been characterized as a “myth and ritual” school. The work of Sigmund Mowinckel of Norway is representative. Using form criticism as a method (he had been a student of Gunkel) and the function of the king as an organizing principle, and drawing heavily on Babylonian sources, his study of the Psalms (1921–1924) focused on their use in what he suggested was an annual enthronement festival of God, like the Babylonian New Year festival. Most scholars now find Mowinckel's reconstruction overly conjectural.

Redaction Criticism

The impression left by source criticism was that the final forms of the Pentateuch and other biblical books or collections for which multiple sources were hypothesized were pedestrian compilations with little literary merit. Beginning in the 1930s, again mainly in Germany, attention began to be paid to the larger units as creative works in their own right. In a number of influential essays, and in his commentaries on Genesis and Deuteronomy, Gerhard von Rad argued that the Hexateuch (the Pentateuch plus Joshua) was itself a literary form. This observation was extended at the end of the 20th century, as a variety of scholars posited structural and thematic patterns that were used by redactors to create a finely crafted, aesthetic final product. Ultimately these discoveries helped to influence a branch of biblical scholarship called Canonical Criticism (see below), which emphasized the role of the text in its final form within the canon as a whole. They also bore some relationship to the newly developing literary approaches to the Bible, which also emphasized the final form of the text, its coherence, and its aesthetic merits.

Discoveries of Texts between the World Wars

The discovery and deciphering of cuneiform texts of ancient Assyria and Babylonia during the second half of the 19th century had profoundly changed the understanding of theBible. On the historical level, the repeated references especially in Assyrian annals to kings of Israel and Judah and to events mentioned in the Bible enabled the construction of a detailed chronology. But for the most part connections between the cuneiform texts and biblical traditions were indirect. This is not surprising, given the distance and often the time that separated those Mesopotamian cultures from ancient Israel. And apart from a scattering of inscriptions in Hebrew, Phoenician, Aramaic, and Moabite, there were no significant written remains from Israel itself or its most immediate neighbors. That changed in the 1920s and 1930s, as excavations uncovered more collections of ancient texts, and further deciphering shed light on more distant groups such as the Sumerians, the Hittites, and the Hurrians. While there were seldom direct correlations with the Bible, the tablets from Nuzi in northern Iraq and Mari and Ugarit in northern Syria were especially important in expanding the knowledge of the larger world to which ancient Israel belonged.

In many respects the mythological texts from Ugarit are the most important because of their geographical proximity to ancient Israel and the direct light they shed on the Bible. Written in a previously unknown Semitic language belonging to the same subfamily as Hebrew, they are composed in poetry that is often remarkably close in diction and in form to biblical poetry. The myths feature gods and goddesses such as El, Baal, and Asherah, all frequently mentioned in the Bible but hitherto incompletely known, largely because of the biblical writers’ antagonism toward other gods. Moreover, similar motifs—for example, the childless patriarch, the theophany of the storm god, the council of the gods, the sacred mountain—and innumerable smaller details illustrate the shared commonalities between the culture of Israel and those of its neigh‐ bors. Despite undeniable chronological and geographical discontinuities, the literary, religious, and institutional traditions of the Levant, including ancient Israel, are best understood as part of a cultural continuum that, allowing for local particularities, is remarkably consistent and pervasive.

The Dead Sea Scrolls

Another discovery that sent scholarship in new directions was that of a cache of manuscripts in caves near Qumran at the northwest corner of the Dead Sea (see “The Bible in the Dead Sea Scrolls,” pp. 1920–28). Over the course of several years, beginning in 1947, the remains of hundreds of manuscripts were discovered, first by local Bedouin and subsequently by archeologists. Some of the manuscripts were largely intact, including an almost complete scroll of the Hebrew text of the book of Isaiah, and others were preserved only in fragments. Written mostly in Hebrew and Aramaic, with a few in Greek, they are generally agreed to have been a library deposited in the caves for safekeeping during the First Jewish Revolt ( 66–73 CE) by the inhabitants of the nearby settlement. Most scholars identify these inhabitants as Essenes, one of the major groups within Judaism in the Roman period, according to the 1st‐century CE Jewish historian Josephus. Among many important aspects of the scrolls, three may be highlighted here. First are the manuscripts of the Bible, more than a thousand years older than any previously known, giving new evidence concerning the history of the biblical text and greater impetus to text criticism and the history of canonization (see above). Second is their contribution to the understanding of both Hebrew and Aramaic in the Roman period, and the histories of these two biblical languages. And third is the glimpse they provide of one community within Judaism around the turn of the era. Through what have been termed “sectarian documents,” that is, various community regulations, hymns, eschatological texts, and biblical commentaries (pesharim; see “The Bible in the Dead Sea Scrolls,”pp. 1920–28 )—we learn the beliefs and practices of this one group and we get insight into how they used and interpreted various books of the Bible. It turns outthat the variety of early Judaisms and the early history of the textual transmission and interpretation of the Bible are much more complex than earlier imagined.

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