How Do Biblical Scholars Read the Hebrew Bible? by Sarah Shectman

A quick look at the biblical-interpretation section in any college library will immediately show that biblical scholars read the Hebrew Bible in a variety of ways. What most scholars have in common, though, is that they avoid overtly doctrinal readings based on the idea that the Bible is the “word of God” because such interpretations are based on faith claims that are inherently unprovable. Though there is a place for theology in biblical scholarship, most scholars treat the Bible as a work of literature with human authors and readers who live in particular places and times that affect what they write or how they read a text. Biblical scholars use methods of reading that are critical—that is, they do not take the claims of the Hebrew Bible or of traditional interpreters at face value. These methods fall into a range of historical and literary categories.

Historical-critical interpretation seeks to understand the development and meaning of the Bible in its ancient context. First, scholars use textual criticism to try to determine the correct letters and words of the text in its original language. Because there are no existing copies of the Hebrew Bible from the period when it was written, this can be tricky. Different copies of the same text exist and may contain different versions of a particular verse or chapter—perhaps because over the centuries the scribes copying the text made mistakes, or perhaps because the text existed in more than one version from very early on.

Once the words of the text have been established, biblical scholars turn to the content itself to try to determine its meaning, which often begins with trying to understand who wrote it, when, and why. This is called source criticism, as it is aimed at determining the literary sources that were used to create a particular biblical narrative. Many narratives contain repetitions, contradictions, and gaps indicating that multiple sources have been combined in the text. In the flood story, for example, variations as to the number of animals brought onto the ark (Gen 6:19-20, Gen 7:2-3) and the length of the flood (Gen 7:17, Gen 7:24) show that two separate accounts have been woven together to create a single story. Scholars also use redaction criticism to study the process of redacting, or editing, the text.

Scholars may also use form criticism, which focuses on genres of biblical literature. This approach is especially helpful for the book of Psalms, which contains a variety of types of poetic texts—for example, communal laments (Ps 74), individual laments (Ps 77), hymns (Ps 19), and psalms of thanksgiving (Ps 92). In this case, the form or type of poem tells us much about its social function and purpose. Many genres of biblical literature can also be compared to nonbiblical texts—for example, the biblical flood story bears remarkable similarities to the Babylonian flood story, Atrahasis. This comparative approach helps us understand the Hebrew Bible in its broader ancient context and see potential influences on the biblical texts.

Though not a means of reading the Hebrew Bible, archaeology is another useful tool in the biblical scholar’s toolbox. When archaeologists determine the identity of a site mentioned in the Bible and excavate it, their findings may be important for understanding biblical narratives that mention that place. For example, excavations at the site of Jericho, which according to Joshua 6 had walls in the period of the Israelite conquest, have revealed no walls for the historical period in which the conquest is supposed to have happened, thus indicating that the biblical account cannot be entirely historical.

In addition to historical-critical methods, many scholars use literary approaches that have developed as a result of postmodernist trends in twentieth-century scholarship more generally. This broad category includes methods such as structuralist, deconstructivist, and reader-response criticism, which closely examine a narrative’s literary features, but without the same focus on the historical origins of the text. A related group of methods, also primarily literary, is termed ideological criticism. Literary and ideological methods both reject the idea of objectivity, arguing that all readings are subjective and thus the author’s intent is both unrecoverable and irrelevant. Such scholars instead advocate reading the text from specific, stated ideological stances.

Thus, feminist interpreters use modern understandings of gender roles or patriarchal social structures to reveal new readings of biblical texts, sometimes condemning them as misogynist (for example, validating women’s subordination to men) and sometimes applauding them as empowering to women (for example, depicting female leaders such as Miriam and Deborah). Postcolonial readings examine how the power imbalance between colonizer and colonized may shed light on biblical texts and reveal new readings. Postcolonial interpretation varies from culture to culture; in Latin America, for example, postcolonial interpretation of biblical texts about oppression (such as Exod 1-14) and poverty (for example, in Jesus’s life) led to the development of liberation theology, allowing readers to reject the colonizers’ use of the Bible as a means to maintain their own power. Marxist interpretation may also play a role in such readings, which look at how economics and power function in biblical texts; exposing those dynamics can allow them to be overturned—for example, reading wisdom in Prov 1-9 as a commodity to be acquired and thus accessible only to those with the time and money to pursue it.

In between this focus on ancient and modern contexts for readings sits reception history, which studies how the Bible has been read and received over the centuries. This can begin in the canon itself, with references in one biblical text to another (for example, Dan 9:1-2 refers to Jer 25:11-12 and Jer 29:10-14), and extends into the modern period, covering the use of the Bible in other religious writings, in literature, in the arts, and in communities. This approach is broad (covering historical and literary aspects) and can shed considerable light on the many meanings that biblical texts have had through the ages.

Akin to reception history, canonical criticism is a way of studying how the Bible functions theologically in various communities of belief, from ancient Israelites to modern Americans. Unlike the other methods discussed above, canonical criticism takes the final form of the text as its starting point and focuses on how the text as a whole functions as sacred Scripture. Because canons assume audiences of faith communities, this approach is inherently theological, though it aims more to discover theologies in the text than to apply theologies to the text.

Most scholars use a combination of these methods, as each reveals different aspects of the text, whether historical, cultural, sociological, literary, or theological. And when scholars of different backgrounds, faiths, and cultures weigh in, they bring their own unique experiences and questions to the text. Some scholars discuss literary approaches as though they are completely separate from historical-critical ones, but in fact the two overlap in significant ways. The fullest understanding of the biblical text is gained by trying to see the text from as many perspectives as possible.

Sarah Shectman, "How Do Biblical Scholars Read the Hebrew Bible?", n.p. [cited 28 Jun 2017]. Online: http://www.bibleodyssey.org/en/tools/bible-basics/how-do-biblical-scholars-read-the-hebrew-bible

Contributors

Sarah Shectman

Sarah Shectman
Independent Scholar

Sarah Shectman is the author of Women in the Pentateuch: A Feminist and Source-Critical Analysis (Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2009). She is an independent scholar living in San Francisco, California.

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

An ancient Mesopotamian text which includes stories of creation and flood that parallel Biblical accounts.

Of or relating to ancient lower Mesopotamia and its empire centered in Babylon.

An authoritative collection of texts generally accepted as scripture.

Belonging to the canon of a particular group; texts accepted as a source of authority.

An approach to biblical interpretation that considers books of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament as wholes, in their final forms—as opposed to the historical-critical method, which looks at texts' development, origins, and structure.

Evaluating its subject carefully, rigorously, and with minimal preconceptions. "Critical" religious scholarship contrasts with popular and sectarian studies.

The application of critical models of scholarship to a text.

Related to a type of literary criticism attributed to philosopher Jacques Derrida that denies any stable relationship between a term and its definition.

Of or related to beliefs held by an institution, such as a religion.

Of or related to a social conviction in the equality of women.

Interpretation of the genre and shape of a narrative in order to determine its original setting and function.

The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."

Of or relating to systems of ideas and commitments, often social and political in nature.

People who study a text from historical, literary, theological and other angles.

Relating to or associated with people living in the territory of the northern kingdom of Israel during the divided monarchy, or more broadly describing the biblical descendants of Jacob.

A movement within Roman Catholicism that first arose in the 1950s in Latin America and reads Scripture through the eyes of the poor, seeking redress for unjustness through political and social activism as well as worship.

Of or related to the written word, especially that which is considered literature; literary criticism is a interpretative method that has been adapted to biblical analysis.

Of or relating to the writings of Karl Marx, a 19th-century German philosopher, historian, and economist who advocated for a radical rethinking of social stratification and monetary policy.

A written, spoken, or recorded story.

Free of bias, a philosophical ideal.

A social hierarchy based on men and paternity.

Of or related to history after a colony is declared independent; also: of or related to postcolonialism, an academic orientation that critiques colonialism and impoerialism.

A method of biblical study that considers seriously the experiences and interpretations of everyday, nonexpert readers of Scripture.

Tracing the reactions and uses of a given text throughout history.

Redact, redacting. A method of biblical study that considers the various versions of a text and the edits that have been made to it.

A historical-critical method of biblical interpretation that analyzes discontinuities, inconsistencies, repetitions, and other narrative clues to identify the different authors of the Bible; see Documentary Hypothesis.

Having a qualitative basis or being influenced by point of view rather than objective.

Relating to thought about the nature and behavior of God.

Writing, speech, or thought about the nature and behavior of God.

The third division of the Jewish canon, also called by the Hebrew name Ketuvim. The other two divisions are the Torah (Pentateuch) and Nevi'im (Prophets); together the three divisions create the acronym Tanakh, the Jewish term for the Hebrew Bible.

Gen 6:19-20

19And of every living thing, of all flesh, you shall bring two of every kind into the ark, to keep them alive with you; they shall be male and female.20Of the b ... View more

Gen 7:2-3

2Take with you seven pairs of all clean animals, the male and its mate; and a pair of the animals that are not clean, the male and its mate;3and seven pairs of ... View more

Gen 7:17

17The flood continued forty days on the earth; and the waters increased, and bore up the ark, and it rose high above the earth.

Gen 7:24

24And the waters swelled on the earth for one hundred fifty days.

Ps 74

Plea for Help in Time of National Humiliation
A Maskil of Asaph.
1O God, why do you cast us off forever?
Why does your anger smoke against the sheep of your pas ... View more

Ps 77

God's Mighty Deeds Recalled
To the leader: according to Jeduthun. Of Asaph. A Psalm.
1I cry aloud to God,
aloud to God, that he may hear me.2In the day of my tr ... View more

Ps 19

God's Glory in Creation and the Law
To the leader. A Psalm of David.
1The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.2Day t ... View more

Ps 92

Thanksgiving for Vindication
A Psalm. A Song for the Sabbath Day.
1It is good to give thanks to the Lord,
to sing praises to your name, O Most High;2to declare ... View more

Exod 1-14

1These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each with his household:2Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah,3Issachar, Zebulun, and Benjam ... View more

Prov 1-9

1The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel:
Prologue
2For learning about wisdom and instruction,
for understanding words of insight,3for gaining inst ... View more

Dan 9:1-2

Daniel's Prayer for the People
1In the first year of Darius son of Ahasuerus, by birth a Mede, who became king over the realm of the Chaldeans—2in the first yea ... View more

Jer 25:11-12

11This whole land shall become a ruin and a waste, and these nations shall serve the king of Babylon seventy years.12Then after seventy years are completed, I w ... View more

Jer 29:10-14

10For thus says the Lord: Only when Babylon's seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this plac ... View more

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