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image of Biblical Interpretation

With the possible exception of Old Testament scholars, who reads Old Testament scholarship today? Not other scholars in the humanities or social sciences. Not the oft-discussed "cultivated lay person." Not the average Jewish/Christian Homo Religiosus, nor the various representatives of those religious orthodoxies for whom the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament stands as a foundational text. What, then, accounts for the marginality of a discipline whose object of scrutiny is, most likely, the most widely read text in the history of the species and one of the taproots of humanistic inquiry? This essay presents one possible set of answers to this question. It is argued that the marginality of Old Testament research is - whether rightly or wrongly - a dividend of its intellectual strangeness, its epistemological difference from both the academy and the Church. As for the academy, it is suggested that the ideation (i.e., the not-necessarily conscious manner in which a community of researchers thinks the world) of our field distinguishes us sharply from all others within the comity of (secular) academic disciplines. It is contended that the intellectual foundations of modern Old Testament research comprise something of an epistemological hybrid. Its practitioners have, somehow, managed to combine a modern, secularizing, rational ethic with the fundamental conviction that an existing God is a legitimate analytical variable. Having been expelled from the ideation of nearly every other academic discipline, the latter conviction renders biblical scholarship anomalous in the contemporary university. As for the Church, it is this same hybrid ethic which creates a certain degree of tension between rationalizing biblical researchers on the one hand, and pious laypeople and orthodoxies on the other. Yet as singular and marginal as it may be, biblical scholarship makes a crucial, albeit unintended, contribution to the world: the existence of an authoritative body of religious intellectuals who are at peace with the notion that sacred scriptures are inspired but not infallible has served to safeguard the modern Occident from some of the more deleterious tendencies of organized religion.


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