What Biblical Scholars Do (since you were likely losing sleep about it)

Biblical scholars build models.

A model is a way of accounting for as much of the available data as possible in as coherent and persuasive manner as possible, producing along the way as little cognitive dissonance as possible.

A model is a hypothesis of what the “big picture” looks like. Models do not focus on biblical issues in isolation, but are after the big picture. All biblical scholars–fundamentalist to liberal and everything in between–have models that form the intellectual parameters within which they handle the particulars of biblical interpretation.

Ideally, biblical scholars understand that the model and the data (the forest and the trees) are in dialogue. They are self-consciously aware of the paradox that models can both guide and distort biblical interpretation. A good biblical scholar will embrace that tension, which means being on the lookout for when the model moves from help to hindrance.

When biblical interpreters need to massage the data in order to maintain the model, or need to resort to specious argumentation, or find too many exceptions, it is an indication that a new model is needed–or at least a serious refinement of the existing model.

If I can switch metaphors, biblical scholarship is like building a picture puzzle. The box says 1000 pieces, but there are only 200 in the box. Biblical scholars, working with this limited data set, take those pieces and try to come up with an overall picture of what the entire puzzle looks like.

They begin by sorting the pieces out by shape and color. Pieces with straight edges form the periphery of the puzzle. After grouping the pieces together, one can see a picture forming: a patch of grass here, a path to what looks like a barn (or is it a farmhouse?) over there, a sky with patches of blue and clouds up to the left, mountains off to the right.

This looks like a compelling overall picture, and puzzle experts generally agree. Some point out, however, that there are some pieces that don’t seem to fit the scene very well. Two non-joining pieces are gray and shiny and look like two sections of a fighter jet. Some puzzle experts write books on what kind of fighter jet it is. Some suggest that, if it is a fighter jet, it is out of place in a farm scene and so abandon that model. Others think it is fully compatible with the farm model, although some adjustments need to be made (e.g., the farm scene is post World War 2, not nineteenth century as was first asserted). Some reject the fighter jet hypothesis entirely because it is so out of place with farm the model, that otherwise seems so certain.

Biblical scholars debate over how best to explain all the pieces.

Occasionally someone finds ten puzzle pieces under the sofa and adds them to the picture. The result will either corroborate the farm hypothesis, disconfirm it, or more often than not, answer some questions but raise others.

I could go on like this, but you get the point. All biblical scholars work with a fairly limited data set and by it try to explain the bigger picture. The models that catch on and stick around are those that do the best job of explaining the data in the minds of people who spend their time and energy working with the data.

The fact that the data set is limited does not mean that any explanation is as valid as any other. For example, an anti-farm fringe group may have a vested interest in interpreting the puzzle pieces as an urban scene. They do so through a clever manipulation of some pieces and discarding others. This model will fail to persuade those outside of this group, and so will likely not catch on in the long term.

Because biblical scholars are, ideally, open to migrating to news models (or at least modifying old ones), they tend not to be persuaded by arguments that rest on the authority of theological tradition. In other words, the mere presence of theological tensions resulting from a model is not automatically an argument against that model’s value. It may mean that the presence of theological tensions is an indication of a theological model that is itself in need of adjustment of some sort. (Theologians have models, too.)

So, to bring this home, one quick example.

“Moses wrote the substance of the Pentateuch in the 2nd millennium BC” is a model of Pentateuchal authorship. “The Pentateuch is a product of postexilic scribal activity working with older oral and written traditions and adding new material” is another model of Pentateuchal authorship.

The question is which of these models (or other models) does a better job of accounting for the data in as coherent and persuasive manner as possible, producing along the way as little cognitive dissonance as possible.

The fact the mosaic authorship is the traditionally accepted model does not automatically validate the mosaic authorship model or invalidate the postexilic scribal activity model.

What complicates the matter is that one must decide at some point what actually constitutes “data” and how precisely does the interpretation of those data affect one’s assessment of the overall picture.

What makes it even more complicated is discerning how debates over models of Pentateuchal authorship square up with other issues of biblical scholarship. To return to the puzzle metaphor, Pentateuchal authorship is one group of puzzle pieces in the lower left of the partially constructed puzzle. Does this grouping of pieces “fit” with what we see in the puzzle as a whole or are we forcing pieces together and laying them out in a way that just doesn’t work?

This is why it’s sometimes difficult to answer questions directly like, “Why do you interpret Genesis 36:31 as evidence of postexilic authorship rather than slight editorial updating during the monarchy?”  or, “Why do you read Gen 1 and 2 as two separate creation accounts?” Whole models lie in the background of any answer one might give, and models can’t be laid out quickly, and certainly not in a moment of interrogation.  That takes time and patience.

So, that’s what biblical scholars do. Aren’t you glad you asked? I hope you sleep better tonight.

This post originally appeared in May, 2013.


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  • Richard W. Schaeffer

    Pete, excellent post! Thanks for underscoring the important, but oft overlooked, distinctions between data, hypothesis, model, and (one might add) theory.

    I might (were I so bold) quibble a wee bit with some of your language; for example, in the natural sciences, we generally draw a distinction between hypothesis and model: both have a provisional character (which I think was your point), but the former is more speculative and the latter more developed.

    And I’ll happily take the photo of a ball-and-stick molecular model as your nod to chemists for our long-time recognition of both the usefulness and the epistemological status of models. It is nice to see that (at least one) biblical scholar has come on board. :)

    • peteenns

      Doing my best to make you proud of me, Schaeffer.

  • Don Johnson

    I use the puzzle analogy in my teachings and I actually hand out a puzzle in which some pieces are missing in order to explain the need for cultural context. I think people need the experience of seeing that things do not always fit together perfectly, but one does the best they can.

  • Paul Brassey

    Your post implies that what biblical scholars do is to reconstruct the past, out of a primary concern for the past. They’ve found scattered pieces of a puzzle, to use your metaphor, and try to fill it out and reconstruct it. Surely, however, there are contemporary concerns that shape the models they choose, even to the extent of absorbing the Bible into relatively modern ideologies, such as Marxism or conservatism. There is also the need for an aspiring or junior professor to find a niche for publication that will lead to the promised land of academic tenure and invitations to address learned societies, or even Congress. Then the criteria for accepting or rejecting a particular interpretive model become less and less related to ancient evidence and more about career-building.

    • peteenns

      Paul, good point, of course, but this would have taken the poste in a very different (though fully legitimate) direction. What I am trying to lay out in simple terms for non-biblicists is that biblical scholarship is not a straightforward discipline but requires nuance and training. I try to cover myself a little bit regarding your concern when I say “Ideally” and “a good biblical scholar” in the same paragraph.

      As for biblical scholars being driven by all sorts of ideologies–including fundamentalist and evangelical–don’t get me started.

  • http://spiritualmeanderings.wordpress.com Sentinel

    Awesome post, thanks for writing it!
    I particularly like your puzzle piece analogy, I think it’s very helpful.

  • http://thejawboneofanass.wordpress.com Eric

    I agree with Paul’s concerns, although I can’t judge the extent he thinks this problem has. Coming from biology where we have, to extend your analysis, more puzzle pieces available I do sometimes feel like Biblical scholarship can go in bizarre directions just because everything that can be said about these three pieces has been said but there are still papers to write and they need to say something new. I also have some worries about how slowly bad ideas get discarded. For instance, in animal taxonomy people come along and split a species into two or three or five and sometimes it sticks but sometimes someone else comes along and says, “No, that’s crap,” and we are left with one species again (or two instead of the original one or the revised three). In Biblical studies it seems to me that authorial sources multiply and multiply but never get pruned. I doubt that’s because every single new suggested source is really good and valid.

    However, I also worry that the strange flights of fancy some scholars go on serves to feed an unhealthy distrust of scholarship. “I heard someone say that John is really all Greek mystery religions and when I looked it up it turns out we don’t know almost anything about the religion this scholar said John was stealing from! So, obviously, we can’t trust scholars who say that Matthew and Luke borrowed material from Mark.” I suppose this is a long complaint that I wish everyone understood the methods of scholarship in general much better than the average person seems to.

    • peteenns


      Good points. John and mystery religions is a good example. According to my post, what I would have proposed to someone is: “Let’s see if ‘mystery religions’ is a good model by which to understand John” and then go with it to see where it leads. If there is something there, keep going. If not, move on.

      • http://creativefidelity.wordpress.com Dan F.

        I agree with this concern and I would take it even further – In most sciences there are relatively authoritative bodies/groups individuals who do that pruning. Another example would be the Académie française which is the Authority when it comes to French words and their meanings.

        Who or what group can do that for Protestant Theology? I suppose individual institutions through their statements of faith can impose some restrictions but that only applies to the individual institution. Same for within a denomination but new theology seems to generally lead to the “Split-P’s” and all the rest.

      • http://thejawboneofanass.wordpress.com Eric

        Very much agreed, Peter. In terms of explaining how scholarship works to people who don’t do it I think you’ve done an excellent job. I think if someone wants to be confrontational about it, though, the occasional weirdnesses of modern Biblical Studies will be used as a (bad) reason to reject all modern scholarship.

        Incidentally, while I’m completely unsure about the internet etiquette of this, I’m the Eric associated with David Williams. We talked over breakfast after your talk in Raleigh. I feel like maybe it’s a bit unfair that I know this and you possibly didn’t.

        • peteenns

          Ah, thanks for the reminder, Eric–and we’ll keep that quiet from the internet police. :-)

  • Bev Mitchell

    Excellent summary Pete. When biologists are presented with a model (and there are so many) the first question we teach students to ask is “What are the assumptions?” – those tricky things we have to use when data are lacking. It’s a cliche in science to say “a model is only as good as its assumptions.” Modelers generally don’t like it when empiricists get too probing in this direction. 

    You imply that assumption is a part of modeling, but you seem to concentrate more on data – what are the pieces, are they really part of this particular puzzle, are there enough of them to even make a model, how can we find more pieces? How would you fit the all important assumption problem into the busy day of the Biblical scholar? :)