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Studying the World in Which the Bible was Written: History’s Contribution to Biblical Studies in the Classroom

By Megan Bishop Moore
Wake Forest University
April 2011

In two previous “In My View” columns in this forum, I have addressed history’s place within Biblical Studies and how future histories of Israel must incorporate wider scholarship and recognize that the biblically based paradigm of historical study is no longer tenable. In doing so, I hope that history can contribute more to Biblical Studies than a catalogue of what probably happened the way the Bible said it did and what probably did not, as well as more than general context, or background pictures, for understanding biblical stories. That goal goes hand in hand with histories beginning to spell out better how they can contribute to topics such as theology, or the comparative study of historical ideologies or ancient political landscapes, or a variety of others. Nevertheless, despite the importance of publications for defining the field of Israel’s history, the way history is presented and taught in Biblical Studies classes also creates and solidifies impressions about its usefulness and scope, often for students who will never pick up a history of Israel. Thus, where history fits into a Biblical Studies curriculum needs to be articulated, and its potential contributions to biblical studies classes, the academic study of religion, and the humanities in general need to be considered.

Most students’ encounters with Biblical Studies in higher education probably occur in classes such as Introduction to the Bible or Introduction to the Old or New Testament. In such classes, history has an ever-present minimum role, namely, allowing the world in which the Bible was written and which it purports to describe to be located in a concrete historical context. In other words, it is important for introductory students of the Bible to know roughly when ancient Israel and Judea existed and how these entities related to the great powers of Egypt, early civilized Mesopotamia, and the Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek, and Roman empires. Along those lines, then, early lessons in Genesis, for instance, often include information about the antiquity of Mesopotamian myths compared to biblical stories that have similar structures, plots, and characters. The point of this particular historical contextualization is allowing students to realize that the Bible’s stories of very early times were written millennia after civilizations appeared in Egypt and Mesopotamia. The point of historical contextualization in general is similar’to allow students to understand ancient Israel as a relatively late civilization that borrowed from and could not escape the influence of many more impressive nearby cultures.

Where history goes from aiding general contextualization in Biblical Studies classes depends on the instructor. Certainly large swaths of the Old Testament can be introduced without historical context. For instance, the stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs are rich for instructors who want to discuss ethical behavior, methods of biblical storytelling, Israel’s memory of its earliest encounters with God, or a variety of other non-historical topics. The wisdom literature and much of the writings of the Hebrew Bible also fall into this category. On the other hand, it seems unlikely that the prophets, especially Isaiah (1st and 2nd), Ezekiel, and Jeremiah could get a proper introduction without some discussion of the historical events which these books interpret. Falling in the middle are the stories from the exodus through the monarchy that have various degrees of historical reliability and for which historical context might be a productive entrée for the introductory student (the portrayal of the time of the Judges, David, or Solomon in the context of what is known about early Iron Age central Palestine, for instance).

Thus, despite my protestations that history can do more than provide general context or background pictures for study of the Bible, it is apparent that such information plays an important role in introductory classes. In addition, regardless of the amount of history an instructor chooses to incorporate into an introductory class, I am willing to wager that one of the primary questions on many introductory students’ minds is whether the biblical stories relate the past reliably, or “are true” as they might describe it. Thus, though I have been urging history to offer more to Biblical Studies than assessments of the correspondence of biblical stories to reality, I do admit we are doing our students a disservice if we don’t address this topic.

Can history offer more to the introductory student and the harried instructor who must get through the entire Bible or even a testament in a semester? I believe that it can and should. Since it is my experience that the late adolescent/early adult college student has serious but often poorly expressed questions about the reality of the events the Bible describes, I believe that all introductory classes (and textbooks, too) should provide students with access to information about these matters across the canon and, further, with a basic introduction to the methods and evidence scholars use to make these determinations. These may not be the questions the instructors find most interesting, but I have not found that ignoring them or shifting students’ attention to other matters, such as literary analysis and ways to appreciate the Bible whether it’s “true” or not, makes the questions disappear. Of course, questions of historical reliability often lead to more complex questions about faith. Depending on the type of college or university and the instructor, these might or might not be appropriate for classroom discussion. Nevertheless, acknowledgement of the questions and the potential consequences of the answers (with perhaps some guidance toward resources for the interested or confused student) is in my opinion an essential job of the introduction to Bible teacher.

Another contribution history can make to introductory Biblical Studies hearkens back to the days when historical criticism was the primary way to study the Bible academically. Though J, E, D, and P may play small roles now in the introduction of the HB/OT, and, I imagine, the historical development of Israelite religion to which they were originally tied is almost never discussed, there is still value in seeing history in the way the text was written rather that in what it portrays. There is enough evident editing and interpretation within the text, and we know enough about when this might have happened, to allow the text, and more importantly, the ideas it expresses, to be evaluated diachronically. Biblical scholars are fond of pointing out the plurality of voices in the Bible, and this important point coupled with historical understandings of the world out of which these voices arose and were reinterpreted is a fantastic entrée into the process of interpreting the text in the modern world, for whatever reason.

Whereas Biblical Studies, Christian History, and Christian Theology once ruled Religion departments, students now must take a variety of courses to become a certified scholar of religion. Conceived of most simply, religion departments’ primary goals these days seem to be exposing students to a variety of ideas about the divine and concurrent practices. Biblical Studies runs the risk of being an outlier in this pursuit if it (or the department) fosters the impression that knowing about the Bible is equivalent to knowing about Christianity or Judaism, (i.e., if Biblical Studies classes are the main classes in which these traditions are examined), or if Biblical Studies sticks to philological analysis when the rest of the courses are examining vital and living religious communities. History can help Biblical Studies make clear that the Bible is an ancient text from an ancient context. Thus, religious ideas and practices described in it can be understood first and foremost as parts of the past. The ramifications and reinterpretations of these ideas and practices up until and in the present (covered, hopefully also in classes on the history of Christianity or Judaism and in courses on modern Christianity and Judaism) then provide separate but overlapping points of entry into the diversity of humans’ religious experience.

Finally, consideration of how Biblical Studies are primed to instill the very values and practices important to humanities education should be at the forefront of the minds of biblical scholars, historically oriented or not. Historical and archaeological knowledge about ancient Israel and its environs is advancing at an exciting pace, and knowledge of how the ancients envisioned society, how they constructed it, how they portrayed themselves, and the broader climatic, economic, and cultural factors that shaped this world are fantastic subjects of study for today’s learners—learners who might just learn how to relate such methods and conclusions into examinations of our modern world. More broadly, the type of education Biblical Studies offers can help students become not only more educated practitioners of their tradition but also can make them better critical thinkers, better judges of various facts and opinions that are sometimes uncomfortable to consider, more cognizant of the potential real-world ramifications of ideas, negative and positive, and, hopefully, more confident about making decisions about ideas and acting on them. We historians and biblical scholars should be open and proud of these aims in our writings and in our classrooms.