On one way of understanding the fundamental postulate of Biblical criticism

On or around the first day of a class on modern biblical criticism – and I’ve taught the class – you find out that the point is to read The Bible like you would read any other ancient text. It’s the fundamental postulate of the discipline, coloring and guiding all that comes afterward.

Like many fundamental postulates it can be understood in subtly different ways that soon make for large differences. I here want to mention one way in which it leads to a performative contradiction, and though it’s not the only way of understanding the postulate I think it is a common one, and noticing its contradiction illumines an important link between faith/religion and reason/history/science.

If The Bible were just any other ancient text then I would be reading it as thought it were a randomly chosen sample of from that group. Now I know something about the sort of person who would be happy to study any randomly chosen ancient text, who would, for example, be just as happy to translate sales receipts written in ancient cuneiform as to learn verb forms in Linear B as to count the number of times Osiris is called “shining” in the Pyramid texts, etc. There aren’t many such persons, and I find it physically impossible to imagine what it would be like to be one of them. So if I understand the fundamental postulate in this way, then the idea that governs my study of the Bible leaves me unable to understand why I’m reading it in the first place.

Again, if the Bible were any other ancient text, why am I getting paid to teach it in an introductory theology course? I’d be crazy to go to my school’s administration and pitch the idea of a class dedicated to studying the competing hypotheses on the nature of Harappan script, but if The Bible is any randomly chosen ancient text, then this is exactly what the theology course would be.

And how could I believe the fundamental postulate in a church? If my whole career were dedicated to translating tomb inscriptions on Minoan ossuaries I would be extremely confused to find hundreds of buildings within miles of my house where people go every Sunday to hear lectures and readings from the stuff I studied during the week.

Notice that we can’t dispel this by distinguishing the Bible of the believer from the Bible of history.* When I read the Egyptian Book of The Dead I don’t feel any polemical desire at all, but it would be emotionally perverse to read it in the same way if I were surrounded by millions of passionate believers in the text. Maybe I’d believe it with them and maybe I wouldn’t, but I’d have to do one or the other, and so could not avoid the need to make some a deeply significant response in a way that is not forced on me when I am actually reading a randomly chosen ancient text.

I don’t live in a world where The Bible can be just any ancient text any more than a Saudi lives in the world where the Koran is just any Arabic text or the Israelites around mount Pe’or could treat Ba’al as just any ancient god, and I’m moreover committed to the idea that a world that would treat the Bible in this way is less desirable than the world in which I find myself, and this is integral to why I am teaching and studying it.

*The opposition between “The Jesus of history and the Christ of faith” can be read as one application of the fundamental postulate, and runs into the same sort of performative contradiction if we interpret it in the same way.



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