Biblical Scholars: Preoccupied With the Reconstruction of History

Biblical Scholars: Preoccupied With the Reconstruction of History February 14, 2015

Susan Niditch, Folklore and the Hebrew Bible

From archeology, to literary criticism, to folklore analysis, modern biblical scholars use a variety of tools to help interpret the text. Recently, I have shared a couple of posts that introduce the topic of folklore analysis in the Bible. It’s an exciting field of inquiry.

One of the most important contributors to this line of inquiry is Dr. Susan Niditch who teaches in the field of Religious studies at Amherst College. Her book Folklore and the Hebrew Bible provides an especially helpful introduction to this topic.

Some readers have wondered if this type of inquiry is compatible with a “historical” approach to the Bible. The answer to this question is that skills such as folklore analysis are an essential part of a historical reading. The fact that scholars adopt these types of paradigms to help interpret the Bible does not mean that we have abandoned interpreting it “historically.” Historical analysis is the foundation of mainstream biblical scholarship.

Concerning this point, Dr. Niditch explains:

“When dealing with meaning and context surely one important question is, do biblical narratives tell us about Israel’s origins and history? Some might suggest that biblical scholars have been preoccupied with the reconstruction of history— history in a nineteenth-century, positivistic sense…” (p. 24)

As Dr. Niditch notes, historical analysis is the foundation—the primary “preoccupation” of modern biblical studies. But this does not mean that the Bible contains “historicity.” Instead, reading the Bible as “history” means using the text to determine the historical situation and circumstances at the time biblical authors lived and wrote. As I have shared in previous post, the Bible often tells us more about the historical situation and circumstances of its authors than it does the past they they describe. This does not mean, however, that we are not engaged in “historical” analysis. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Commenting on this point, Dr. Niditch continues:

“Concern with the historical setting of the created composition rather than with historicity leads to biblical scholarship that is, in fact, very interested in ‘history.’ Such an approach treats biblical literature as coming from real people who had tastes, aesthetics, and talents, and who lived in settings—economic, political, ecological, cultural, and religious—that helped to share who they were. It encourages us to search for these real people and their worlds rather than to check the accuracy of their information, interesting through their past (and ours) may be. It is, however, also an approach that refuses to explore the text solely in terms of its meaning to readers or that suggests that the text can be interpreted without attention to its author’s intentions, conscious or subconscious. It is, then, an approach that steers a course between biblical scholarship as a means of historical reconstruction and biblical scholarship as a wholly reader-response variety of literary criticism” (p. 25).

As Dr. Niditch observes, simply because biblical scholars employ tools such as folklore analysis to help interpret the text does not mean that “historical” analysis is no longer the foundation of mainstream biblical scholarship. Folklore studies can make a significant contribution to a historical-critical reading of the Bible.

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