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The Enduring Value of the Old Testament—An Interesting Quest

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image of Biblical Interpretation

The period when the Society for Old Testament Study held its first meeting in 1917 marked a major turning point for the study of the Hebrew Bible. This rested on two factors: first, the preceding half-century had witnessed the slow, and often painful, acceptance in Christian and Jewish circles of a modern 'critical' explanation of the historical origin of its writings. Secondly, the context in which serious study of this literature was undertaken had increasingly moved out from a religious forum into that of a wider secular field of cultural and academic interests. The new methodology aimed to show that the Bible presented a worldview agreeable to modern scientific knowledge. In this setting, older, well-worn hermeneutical strategies were abandoned and replaced with new ones consonant with this aim. Prominent among these was a claim to present a historically verifiable demonstration that the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament possessed an enduring value based on its presentation of ideas of social justice, religious monotheism and universal morality. The claims to this uniqueness, however, rapidly lost credibility when fuller knowledge of the social world of antiquity became better known through archaeological and anthropological research. Such claims could be shown to depend largely on the Bible's own polemic. Nevertheless the idea of enduring value bears welcome comparison with comparable concerns to define what entitles any literary work to be regarded as a classic, and to deserve universal approval. Useful criteria can be set out but fail to command any wholly definitive acceptance. Rather, the best that can be achieved is to note those features and qualities which give to certain writings an intrinsic power to generate a continuity of interest and appeal. The history of the interpretation of the Old Testament shows that it performs well in such a context.

Affiliations: 1: King's College, London


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