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Taking the Bible Seriously by Leander E. Keck


Leander E. Keck is Winkley Professor of Biblical Theology at Yale Divinity School, and former Dean. His books include The New Interpreter's Bible (Abingdon 1994-96), Who is Jesus?, Paul and His Letters, and The Life of Jesus. Published by Association Press, 291 Broadway, New York 7, N.Y. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Chapter 3: When Scholars Go to Work


Saturdayís church ads in a metropolitan newspaper reveal a religious jungle. Most of this bewildering assortment of denominations, cults, and societies claim to offer the real meaning of life and the true meaning of the Bible. In fact, the whole history of the Church is largely a history of trying to come to terms with the Bible. Similarly, each denomination has claimed to represent the Bible most adequately. Those who teach in interdenominational theological schools are often asked how they get away with it -- a Baptist, for instance, teaching Methodist, Disciple, Presbyterian, and Church of Christ students what the Bible means. People ask for an explanation because they do not realize that today there is a commitment to the scholarly understanding of the Bible which runs deeper than a commitment to a purely denominational understanding. When seen in the light of twenty centuries of Christianity, this is a new development. It is possible because there is widespread agreement that the Bible must not be exempt from the rules of the scholarís game.

Who Has the Last Word?

The Protestant reformers were biblical scholars. Although the theoretical issues concerned manís relation to God, the reformers insisted this had to be settled by the "plain sense of Scripture." They believed they were not irresponsible innovators but interpreters of what the Bible actually said and intended to say. This conviction turned out to be decisive, for it implied that the meaning of Scripture was not determined by what the theologians decreed but by what the words of the text actually meant. The reformers insisted that Scripture, read in this way, was the ultimate authority. The Catholic instinct correctly realized the radical character of the Protestant proposal, for the reformers claimed the Church had misunderstood its own Bible. Moreover, they held that the life and thought of the Church must be corrected by what the Bible intended to say. Although the reformers did not actually say so, this meant that in effect, the grammarians, lexicographers, and historians could reform the Church because they knew better than the bishops what the Bible actually meant. The Reformation demanded that the Church reform its sacred theology on the basis of profane study; that is, by what competent scholars concluded the text intended to say. The Reformation was largely a scholarsí reform.(The point is well made by E. H. Harbison, The Christian Scholar in the Age of the Reformation (New York: Charles Scribnerís Sons, 1956), p. vi. He writes, "The Protestant Reformation began in a scholarís insight into the meaning of Scripture. It was to a large extent a learned movement, a thing of professors and students, a scholarís revolution. . . . The Catholic response . . . partook of the same nature. The prestige and influence of Christian scholars probably never stood higher in all of Western history than during the two generations which embraced the lifetimes of Erasmus, Luther, and Calvin.")

So revolutionary was this proposal that Protestantism has hardly been able to live with it. After Protestantism jelled into its own orthodoxy and traditionalism, it was seldom flexible enough to correct itself by the scholarís conclusions. Like the earlier Church which it tried to reform, Protestantism assumed it knew in advance what the Bible meant. The scholarís task, in such case, was to provide learned documentation but no correction.

This outlook is still alive. It can be seen in the arguments that raged over the way Isaiah 7:14 was translated in the Revised Standard Version. The King James Version of 1611 reads: "Behold, a virgin shall conceive. . . ." Ever since the Gospel according to Matthew quoted this as evidence that Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament even in his birth (Matthew 1:23), Christians have assumed that Isaiah predicted the Virgin Birth. But the matter is not so simple. For one thing, Matthew quotes the Greek Bible, the Septuagint. The trouble is that scholars conclude this verse is not accurately translated. The Hebrew word means simply "maiden" or "young girl"; her virginity may be assumed but it is not pointed out. Scholars correctly translated the verse according to its normal Hebrew meaning and not according to the Greek translation or Matthewís quotation. Consequently, this translation suggests that Isaiah did not predict the Virgin Birth. Now the issue is clear: who knows what Isaiah meant -- Matthew (and the Church) or modern students of ancient Hebrew? Must the Church modify its understanding of Isaiah because a group of scholars reach this conclusion? The Protestant principle answers "Yes." This is why many nonCatholics find it so hard to be real Protestants.

This controversy illustrates how important scholarship has become for understanding the Bible. The decisive factor in the translatorsí decision was a historical judgment and not a theological conviction. In other words, the crucial point was what the author intended to say. Therefore, the fundamental emphasis in biblical study is not simply "what it means to me now" but what the writer meant to say then. The only reliable way of learning this is by using the accepted methods of historical study. That is, we learn what the Apostle Paul, for example, wanted to say in his letters by precisely the same method we learn what Calvin or Cicero wanted to say in theirs. Reading the Bible this way does not rule out inspirational reading, but it does insist that we know what the writers wanted to say only by historical study. There are no short cuts.

Unfortunately, some people continue to resist this outlook. They see the need for using historical criticism for certain matters of biblical study like language or history. But they are unwilling to let the historian have the decisive word about what the Bible means. Since for them the Bible is Godís own Word, these Christians insist that we develop a special, sacred method for this special, sacred literature. Beginning with the assertion that the Bible is Godís inspired and therefore perfect Book, they demand that this conviction control all study of it, even the conclusions which the historian is permitted to draw.(An example of this is the work of L. Berkhof, Principles of Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1950). This highly conservative Calvinist argues that because biblical interpretation "deals with a book that is unique in the realm of literature, viz. with the Bible as the inspired Word of God," we must develop a sacred interpretative science of a "very special character (page 11). Consequently, he does not hesitate to say that when one finds solid historical evidence which conflicts "not with his interpretation of the Bible, but . . . with the Bible itself . . . there is only one legitimate course, viz., to cling faithfully to the statement of the Bible, and to wait patiently for additional lightíí (131f.). In the same vein, right-wing conservatives insist that Moses actually wrote the entire Pentateuch (first five Books of the Bible) despite the overwhelming literary and linguistic evidence to the contrary, they do so primarily because the Bible can be quoted to the effect that Moses wrote it. See for example Merrill F. Unger, Introductory Guide to the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Publishing House, 1951, Chs. II, VIII).

Though there are many reasons why such a stance is unsatisfactory, we select two. (a) The Bible does not need to be protected from historical study. The zealot thinks he must guard the Bible lest the historian and the literary critic destroy it. He does not realize that he may be so intent to preserve the Book and a doctrine about it that he misses the point of the Book itself. One should not be afraid to ask the Bible directly what it has to say. Even the person who believes strongly that the Bible is Godís own Word should be willing to let it speak for itself, on its own terms and in its own way. This is precisely what the historian aims to do -- penetrate the literature so that, as far as possible, the writer may communicate with his modern reader as he once did with his contemporaries. This takes diligent use of all the tools of historical study.

(b) The Bible itself requires historical study because it is pre-eminently concerned with history. Judaism and Christianity not only tolerate historical analysis of their Bibles but insist that this be a fundamental part of the training of their clergy. This is unique in the history of religion. Both faiths emphasize historical criticism because they focus on the religious meanings of historical events. They realize that events can have no meaning if they are not understood; conversely, the more one knows about the events the sharper faithís meanings may be. Thus, the character of the Bible itself and the communities for whom it is Scripture ask for historical study. Both faiths use historical study to keep from inflating themselves with religious fantasy or speculation. In addition, historical study keeps attention focused on important questions about our own history, including that of the individual reader.

The rest of this chapter will show briefly how historical study of the Bible proceeds and the kinds of questions it leads the Bible and its readers to ask one another. In this way we hope to show how such work affects the way we understand what the Bible says and what it is.

What Are Scholars Doing to the Bible?

Scholars distinguish among three kinds of work: literary criticism, historical reconstruction, and theological analysis. These should never be carried on in isolation from each other; they should, however, be distinguished for the sake of clean method.

Literary criticism is the foundation of all biblical study and was the first to be developed in the modern period. Two phases have been distinguished. One aims to find out what the writer actually wrote; the other attempts to understand what he wrote in the light of his circumstances.

The basic question is, What did the author actually write? Even after centuries of work, there is no complete agreement on this issue. The reason is that we do not have an original manuscript of a single book in the Bible (technically called the Autograph). Therefore the text critic tries to determine what was originally written. He has three basic sources: hand copies of hand copies of the original (the manuscripts in Hebrew or Greek), early translations into ancient languages like Latin or Syriac, and the quotations of the Bible found in early Christian literature. With painstaking skill and attention to detail, he tries to determine what Luke, for example, actually wrote. In spite of the thousands of Greek manuscripts, an abundance of quotations and a handful of ancient translations, there is an amazing amount of agreement so that in most cases we are more confident of the text of the New Testament than of any other literature of the period. Yet, there are many instances in which we simply are not sure what the author wrote. Hence every English Bible is not only the translatorís understanding of what the text means but also the text criticís judgment of what it actually says. Fortunately, the new translations print important alternatives in the footnotes. But even where no alternate phrases are printed, the wording of the Bible is the result of a critical judgment of all the evidence.

It is amazing how fundamentalism (In this essay, the term "fundamentalism" is used loosely to characterize right-wing Protestantism in general. The term has a checkered history. After a conference at Niagara Falls in 1895 said that five doctrines were of fundamental importance, twelve volumes of essays, called Fundamentals, were published privately and circulated free in 1909. The five doctrines are [1] divine inspiration of every word of the original copies of the Bible [verbal inspiration] resulting in complete absence of all error [infallibility]; [2] the literal, biological fact of Jesusí Virgin Birth [as opposed to symbolic or poetic interpretations]; [8] the literal atoning work of Jesusí blood; [4] physical resurrection; [5] bodily return of Jesus from heaven [Second Coming]. The term "fundamentalist" naturally became the label for militant advocates of these points. Probably, Ďliteralist" would be more accurate. In a way, fundamentalism is as much a frame of mind as a set of doctrines, for many Christians hold these convictions without repudiating those who differ.

In recent years, fundamentalism has become more sophisticated, and many are fleeing the term whenever possible, preferring the term Evangelical or Orthodox. The major voice of sophisticated fundamentalism is the journal Christianity Today, a recent imitator of the Christian Century. Fundamentalist churches have formed the National Association of Evangelicals, a counterpart to the National Council of Churches; they have also organized the International Council of Christian Churches as a parallel to the World Council of Churches. On college campuses, sophisticated fundamentalism is represented by the Inter-Varsity Fellowship and it provides its own journal as well, The Collegiate Challenge. An example of a completely unsophisticated, old-line fundamentalist journal is The Sword of the Lord, which looks on many conservatives as being "soft on liberalism." Recently conversation has been resumed between sophisticated fundamentalists and the other wings of Protestantism; this is clearly a good omen.) talks so confidently about the inerrant, perfect, infallible character of the original Autographs of the Bible when no one has seen one for more than eighteen centuries Moreover, it is clear that originally no one thought the wording was perfect since copyists, translators, and authors had little fear of changing it. This is one reason the text criticís task is so complex. He aims to unravel these changes in order to provide a text which is reasonably reliable. He has no perfect text to offer.

The other kind of literary criticism, misnamed "Higher Criticism," studies the circumstances in which the original text was written. Since most of the Bible is anonymous, we want to know who the actual authors were; moreover, we want to know if the names now associated with documents, like Moses or Mark, are reliable. We also want to know whether the document was written as it now stands or whether it has been compiled and edited. We are interested also in the time and place of writing, the original readers, and the issues that evoked the literature in the first place. These questions are standard inquiries in all literary criticism. Yet it is around such questions that furious battles have raged in the Church. Consequently, we note first why this kind of work caused such controversy; then we note how the historian relates the biblical literature to its original setting.

The Book of Isaiah illustrates the issue and the conflict. This Old Testament document has 66 chapters introduced as Ď`The Vision of Isaiah." We want to know whether Isaiah of Jerusalem (eighth century B.C.) wrote the entire Book or whether the different styles, vocabulary, and concerns indicate additions to it. Chapters 1-39 are addressed to eighth-century Jews living in Jerusalem; Chapters 40-66 assume the Jews are exiled in Mesopotamia two hundred years later. When a critic finds such a situation in other literature, he concludes that the last section was written two centuries later and was simply added to the earlier work. Biblical scholars reach the same conclusion about Isaiah.

But fundamentalists have objected strenuously. Without denying the data on which the conclusion was based, they insist that it has been overemphasized and wrongly understood. Because fundamentalists believe the Bible was divinely inspired in such a way as to exclude any error, they hold it is impossible to detach Chapters 40-66 from a book which claims to be from Isaiah. Moreover, they insist that the situation presupposed in these chapters was divinely revealed two centuries before. Consequently, they argue, what is at stake is whether or not such a prediction was made to Isaiah. For this reason those who insist that the book is compiled are accused of "denying the Bible.íí The fundamentalists have correctly seen that if one concludes Chapters 40-66 were written during the later situation (and not a prediction of it) they must change their conception of the Bible, and perhaps their understanding of God as well.

The basic principle is that we must separate the theological issues (holding the Bible to be inspired Scripture) from literary questions. The problem of who wrote a passage is a strictly literary and historical problem. The question of how many men wrote the Book of Isaiah cannot be answered by quoting doctrines about the Bible but only by detailed study of the text. Every adequate conception of the Bible is willing to do this; it should also accept the consequences. The fundamentalist cannot really listen to the historian; nor can the Roman Catholic who must believe that Matthewís Gospel is older than Markís, even though most critics insist that Matthew used Mark. Both the Catholics and the fundamentalists are willing to follow the critic so long as his conclusions bolster the answers they already have; neither can afford to be corrected.

Such a position should be surrendered. The historian must be free to reach whatever conclusion he believes the evidence requires, even if this does not harmonize with tradition or doctrine. Questions about the unity and authorship of a book cannot be settled in terms of a scholarís orthodoxy but solely on the basis of his competence in assessing the evidence. This is the Protestant principle, and when it is taken seriously one risks putting his conception of the Bible into the hands of the scholar. It also means rethinking the authority of the kind of Bible which scholarship shows it to be. This is what this book attempts to do.

Having seen the kinds of issues raised by so-called "Higher Criticism," we can now show how this method actually functions and the questions it forges for faith.

When we relate the Bible to its proper setting in history, we first ask, "What happened to the original manuscripts the authors wrote?" The text critic cannot close the gap between our printed text and the original because we know very little about the transmission of the original copies. For example, we have the letters of Paul only in collections made by the Church, and there is no reason to think that the collection is complete. Moreover, the Church edited what it collected. Thus Romans 16 may have been added to the rest of the book, and II Corinthians appears to be made up of parts of at least three letters. The same sort of thing can be said about other books, including those of the Old Testament. This reminds us that the Bible is the communityís book. We have this literature because groups of people used, copied, and collected it. The hand of the community can be detected at every stage in the Bibleís growth. This can never be forgotten.

The next step is to study the situation of the writer. Some parts of the Bible are completely unintelligible until the author is seen in his setting. For instance, the books of the prophets must be studied with one eye on the history of the ancient Near East because these men spoke to the problems posed by international affairs. The setting is important not only for understanding men like the prophet Amos or the Apostle Paul who speak directly to particular problems they face, but it is also vitally important for authors who write about historical events. This is because the situation of the writer shapes what he says about history and how he says it. A book review illustrates this very well; for the reviewer not only tells his reader about the book but, by the way he talks about it, he reveals himself as well.

A biblical example of this can be found in the stories of Jesus in the temple at Jerusalem. In Markís Gospel, Jesus expelled the merchants the day after he rode into Jerusalem just before his death. Mark also reports (11:11-19) that Jesus said the temple was to be a house of prayer for all nations. Matthew and Luke follow Mark generally, but here they tell the story as the climax of the entry, thus putting the temple-scene a day earlier. Moreover, both omit the reference to the temple as the house of prayer for all nations (Matthew 21:1-17; Luke 19:45 f.). They omit this because in their day the temple was already destroyed by the Roman army; consequently, that temple clearly was not destined to be the house of prayer for all nations. Johnís Gospel (2:13-22) puts the event at the beginning of Jesusíministry instead of near the end, because for John it symbolized Jesusí work in purifying Judaism. Our point is that each writer tells the incident in the light of his own situation.

With regard to Jesus, we could find many similar illustrations because we have four Gospels, each with its own setting in which it views and interprets Jesus. Parts of the Old Testament also are parallel accounts of the same period, such as the books of Joshua and Judges, Kings and Chronicles. But, whether we can trace it or not, we must recognize that both what is told and how it is reported are influenced by the situation. Since these differed as the life of the community went on, the presentation of history changed as well, whether it was the reign of David or the ministry of Jesus. This is such a fundamental matter that we shall return to it in Chapter Five.

The third step the historian takes is to seek the writerís sources. The traditional view is that the authors of the Bible needed no sources because God simply inspired them, that is, revealed what they should write. There is no way this can be demonstrated. But, even if one accepts this view, it does not follow that the writer was ignorant before he was inspired, or that inspiration made using ordinary sources unnecessary. In fact, the writerís inspiration probably consisted of insight into the traditions and resources available to him.

Lukeís Gospel offers a clear example of a biblical writerís use of sources. Luke is one of the few writers who openly admits he used earlier writings (Luke 1:1-4), though the others clearly used them too. Luke used the Gospel of Mark to provide the basic outline. Because Luke was not satisfied with Mark, he supplemented it with other materials and modified the structure here and there. Besides, some additional material came from a collection (or series) of Jesusí teachings. Matthew used this also, and by comparing Matthew and Luke, scholars reconstruct this lost document. In addition, Luke used stories otherwise unknown to us, such as the story of the births of Jesus and John the Baptist or the parable of the prodigal son. Luke brought all this material together to write a fresh, vivid story of Jesus. By analyzing the ways Luke used his sources, it is possible to gauge his interests and emphases.

As a matter of fact, a careful study of the sources themselves shows that long before Luke found them, they had been shaped by the Christians who used them. For example, Luke 10:38-42 reports Jesusí visit with two sisters, Mary and Martha. The story omits the name of the village and all details of the situation except what is important -- that Jesus chided the domestic Martha because she wanted Mary to stop listening to Jesus and help set the table. Moreover, only the heart of Jesusí comments is reported: "Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her." Here the story breaks off, for it is interested only in this pronouncement and not in the reaction of Martha or the disciples. The Christians who told it had filtered out all details they did not think germane.(In this century, scholars have analyzed biblical literature to see what traces remain from the time when the stories and sayings were told before they were written. This is a highly specialized research problem, and many of its "results," remain hypothetical. However, they shed important light on the way the community treated the traditions it used. This kind of study is termed Form Criticism because it began by studying the structure of the stories and sayings and proceeded to infer their functions in the community. After this method was worked out for the stories in the Book of Genesis, it was applied to the stories of Jesus in the Gospels. Much that we have said about the impact of the communityís use on the stories themselves is rooted in a form-criticism approach to the tradition. Rudolf Bultmann, a leading New Testament form critic, has interpreted his work in "The New Approach to the Synoptic Problem" now included in his essays edited by Schubert Ogden, Existence and Faith -- Meridian Living Age Books No. 29 [New York: Meridian Books, 1960]).

The foregoing paragraphs rest on judgments about the Gospels which cannot be detailed here. They may not be universally accepted by scholars either. In such matters the layman has no choice but to inform himself as best he can (all sorts of tools are now readily available) and to accept the most convincing position. The matter is quite analogous to the problem of selecting components for a "hi fi" set; here too one finds less than unanimous judgments. Indeed, the music one will hear at home is in a real way affected by the decisions made in the store.

Furthermore, the writerís sources include not only documents but words and ideas. Therefore, interpreting the Bible in its historical setting also requires us to relate its ideas to the religious environment of the day. This aspect of study has frequently been misunderstood because some of its advocates prematurely concluded that the biblical writers simply borrowed their ideas from their surroundings. Such oversimplifications suggested that the Bible was not at all a revelation of God to men but a patchwork of ancient religious ideas. The recent excitement over the meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls illustrates this perfectly. When certain writers found it was possible that early Christianity was influenced by the group that produced this material, they immediately concluded this jeopardized Christianity because it meant that it was nothing but old ideas warmed over in the name of Jesus. Such conclusions are perfectly silly. Biblical scholars and theologians are not at all disturbed at the possibility that certain Christian ideas might be found in the earlier Dead Sea Scrolls, or even stem from there, because they see that there is no need to insist on the absolute uniqueness of the Bible and that nothing is lost by seeing it in its true historical setting, whatever that might prove to be. Since the Bible is a historical book written in historical circumstances, then its ideas inevitably have certain parallels in the environment. The alternative to this would be a Bible written in a vacuum, and consequently useless. But it is of fundamental importance not only to see the similarities between certain biblical ideas and those found in its environment, but also to note the differences. The uniqueness of the Bible frequently lies in the way ideas, partly shared with the environment, are related to the mainstream of its faith. In short, the Bible emerged in a community of faith which had a definite cultural context. Reading such a Bible historically requires that we take both elements seriously.

We may conclude this sketch of literary criticism by pointing out that we constantly find an interaction between the community and the materials it transmits. We see it in the way the written documents were collected and edited for use in synagogues and churches; we note it in the way the authors adapted the materials they used in order to say something to their readers; we see how the earliest sources reflect the influence of the community and its context. Thus at every point in its development the Bible stands in a double relation to its context: it comes from the community (in a particular setting), but it reshapes its traditions so as to address it. The life of the community and the development of the Bible belong together.

Once we understand the Bible as literature deeply rooted in the communities of faith, then we may take the next step -- historical reconstruction. To be sure, the scholar does this all along. But now we point out that since the Bible talks about historical events, the scholar wants to study the events themselves and not simply the sources of information about them.

When the historian reconstructs the history of an event reported in the Bible, like the reign of David or the career of Paul, he brings together as many sources of information as possible: biblical accounts, archeological data, nonbiblical reports. Each of these, in turn, is understood in the light of its setting. But when the historian correlates all the data, the biblical stories carry no more weight than other materials. That is to say, the historian treats all sources of information in the same way. His conclusion about their reliability stems from his professional judgment as a historian. On the whole it can be said that the biblical reports have been verified by archeological materials.

But we must not fool ourselves by thinking that because the archeologist proved that Solomon did have a copper smelter on the Gulf of Aqaba and a horse-trading business at Megiddo, he has thereby demonstrated that the biblical understanding of Solomon is true. Archeological evidence deals with the context of the biblical story but not with its meanings for the Bible. Some writers have not always seen this clearly. Hence they imply that because new evidence confirms the cultural milieu of the Hebrew patriarch Abraham (circa 2000-1700 B.C.), it proves that the biblical account is correct. Actually, all the Bible is a historical book written in historical circumstances, then its ideas inevitably have certain parallels in the environment. The alternative to this would be a Bible written in a vacuum, and consequently useless. But it is of fundamental importance not only to see the similarities between certain biblical ideas and those found in its environment, but also to note the differences. The uniqueness of the Bible frequently lies in the way ideas, partly shared with the environment, are related to the mainstream of its faith. In short, the Bible emerged in a community of faith which had a definite cultural context. Beading such a Bible historically requires that we take both elements seriously.

We may conclude this sketch of literary criticism by pointing out that we constantly find an interaction between the community and the materials it transmits. We see it in the way the written documents were collected and edited for use in synagogues and churches; we note it in the way the authors adapted the materials they used in order to say something to their readers; we see how the earliest sources reflect the influence of the community and its context. Thus at every point in its development the Bible stands in a double relation to its context: it comes from the community (in a particular setting), but it reshapes its traditions so as to address it. The life of the community and the development of the Bible belong together.

Once we understand the Bible as literature deeply rooted in the communities of faith, then we may take the next step -- historical reconstruction. To be sure, the scholar does this all along. But now we point out that since the Bible talks about historical events, the scholar wants to study the events themselves and not simply the sources of information about them.

When the historian reconstructs the history of an event reported in the Bible, like the reign of David or the career of Paul, he brings together as many sources of information as possible: biblical accounts, archeological data, nonbiblical reports. Each of these, in turn, is understood in the light of its setting. But when the historian correlates all the data, the biblical stories carry no more weight than other materials. That is to say, the historian treats all sources of information in the same way. His conclusion about their reliability stems from his professional judgment as a historian. On the whole it can be said that the biblical reports have been verified by archeological materials.

But we must not fool ourselves by thinking that because the archeologist proved that Solomon did have a copper smelter on the Gulf of Aqaba and a horse-trading business at Megiddo, he has thereby demonstrated that the biblical understanding of Solomon is true. Archeological evidence deals with the context of the biblical story but not with its meanings for the Bible. Some writers have not always seen this clearly. Hence they imply that because new evidence confirms the cultural milieu of the Hebrew patriarch Abraham (circa 2000-1700 B.C.), it proves that the biblical account is correct. Actually, all the material does is to make it quite unlikely that the stories of Abraham were invented long afterward when the cultural details would have been forgotten. But mapping trails in the Negev and studying marital customs of the second millennium B.C. will not confirm what the Bible really wants to say about Abraham -- that God made a covenant with him. In other words, archeology does not prove the Bible. It. only proves the Bible is concerned with real history, but this is decisive.

There are, however, instances in which the historianís reconstruction does not verify the biblical account. Such a case is the Israelite conquest of Palestine. The Bible reports that Moses led the twelve tribes out of Egypt and that after forty years of desert migration they finally crossed the Jordan River from the east, captured nearby Jericho and proceeded to conquer the whole area by a series of eminently successful campaigns. The historian who analyzes the invasion produces a different picture, partly because he relies on scattered details in the rest of the Bible and partly because he correlates archeological material. He concludes that probably not all twelve tribes had been in Egypt nor had migrated together. Moreover, Jericho seems to have been destroyed long before. As in all historical study, we deal with probabilities. But even so, our point is that the historianís portrait of history must be taken seriously. The consequences of doing this will concern us again in Chapter Five. Here, we are concerned only to show the kinds of results historical study of the Bible sometimes has.

Theological matters lie near the heart of this essay -- the character of the Bible and what it has to say. We have dealt with literary and historical matters first because it is necessary to show what kind of Bible we are talking about. We have emphasized the complex development of our Bible. The fundamental theological matter before us now is whether such a Bible has any real unity. In the previous chapters we saw the kind of unity the early Church found. Our question now is whether we find any. Is the Bible basically a collection of individual interpretations of Godís will, or do they together constitute a basic, unified message? Scholars have separated it into various strata and traditions; is there enough unity here to permit one to speak of "the biblical faith"? This essay contends that there is both continuity and unity in the Bible.

To begin, we see a continuity which results from the fact that the Bible was produced in a continuing community. But the continuity is deeper than this. The Old Testament grew out of Israelite faith responding to its environment. The fundamental axiom of this faith was the covenant with God, especially clarified in the exodus from Egypt and the experience at Mt. Sinai. Passover celebrates this annually. Some scholars think that the form of the story in Exodus 15 results from telling and retelling it during the festival. Someone simply wrote it down the way it came to be told. Wherever the festival was celebrated, the people would be reminded of the foundations of their faith: Israel was chosen by God, redeemed by him from Egyptian bondage, was made a covenant-partner with him at Sinai, continues to live under the leadership of God who is concerned for this covenant. Passover, together with other festivals, provided a continuing matrix in which the writers of the Bible stand. Besides, the Israelite hymnal (the Book of Psalms) contains many hymns which celebrate the Israelite understanding of her history as the work of God (for example, Psalms 44, 68, 78, 80, 105, 114, 136). Israelís faith was sung as well as told.

Because the festivals and worship provided a continuum of faith, the prophets could appeal to the people to make their lives consistent with this way of thinking about Israel. They can make such an appeal because they have drunk deeply at the well of this tradition; they also assume it is intelligible and fundamental to their hearers. We see this in passages like Amos 3:1f., Hosea 11:1-9, Jeremiah 31:31-34, Isaiah 51:1-16. The prophets are critical because they see their contemporaries ignoring the fundamental meanings of this history which is celebrated in festival and worship.

In the New Testament, the case is perfectly analogous. This time the fundamental point of departure is the life-death-resurrection of Jesus understood as Godís decisive act. Instead of the Passover, it is the Lordís Supper which reminds the believers of their faith. This is the common ground on which the writers and the readers stand. Moreover, the Lordís Supper and the death of Jesus occurred during the Passover festival, thus providing a strong link between the two communities.

The historical method, then, does not simply locate the varieties of materials and traditions in the Bible, but it also helps us to detect the pulse which surges through the whole Bible. This unifying pulse is the worship of the ongoing community. This worship links each generation to those before and after it.

Consequently, the unity of the Bible is not found in a comprehensive system of doctrine of theology. Rather, it is its persistent preoccupation with history understood as the medium by which God meets man. The unity is found not in a set of concepts but in a mode of understanding history. This way of looking at history is celebrated and nurtured by the community at worship, because here the community seeks the presence of the God who has disclosed himself in the communityís history. What holds the Bible together is not a pervasive system but a persistent stance.

This is why the Bible is so little concerned with orthodoxy (except certain later parts of the New Testament). The Bible is not so interested in teaching a doctrine about God as it is in eliciting a kind of relationship to him. The Israelites did not celebrate Passover simply to preserve their memories or to teach ideas about the exodus, but to remind each person that because he was an Israelite, he participated in that event and therefore was a responsible partner to the covenant. Similarly, the New Testament writers almost never develop any doctrines about Christ as part of systematic theological reflection. Rather, they interpret Jesus (technically this is called "Christology") by showing what his life (history) means for theirs. At the Lordís Supper, the believers do not remember Jesus simply to keep their memory alive but in order to vivify their commitment. The Bible, then, is united by its insistence that the decisive events of the past must be told in such a way that God addresses the reader and summons him to obedience within the community.

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