Is Modern Biblical Studies a “Historical” Discipline?

Is Modern Biblical Studies a “Historical” Discipline? February 7, 2015

John Gee presented an interesting analysis of the question of whether a person can get a PhD in biblical studies without taking required classes in history or archaeology.  The answer is obviously yes.  (This does not mean that many, or even most graduate students in biblical studies don’t elect to take courses in history and archaeology.)

This lead to a great deal of unuseful and confused ranting here and here.

Gee’s obvious point is that biblical studies as practiced in the modern academy is fundamentally a philological and literary discipline.  Which is fine.  (People can get degrees in medieval Anglo-Saxon literature, or in golden age Latin literature, for example, without much exposure to history or archaeology–but they have to do philology and literature to get such degrees.)

What we need to realize that the Bible is generally studied in the modern academy as a literary text, not a historical text.  (Indeed, many secular scholars believe the Bible is not a historical text at all–as Bokovoy has argued.  Such a presupposition makes it unlikely that one would examine a non-historical Bible in search of history–rather like no one reads the Lord of the Rings in search of the historical Gandalf.)  Hence the widespread existence of “The Bible as Literature” (or “Book of Mormon as literature” courses–courses which have been strongly advocated by many in the LDS blogosphere.  And one can teach an outstanding Bible as literature without a single reference to history or archaeology, by waxing eloquent on the brilliant literary depiction of David, while rejecting the historicity of David.   (A century or two ago, the Bible was most generally studied as a predominantly theological text, rather than a literary or historical text–and still is in many Evangelical schools.)

Archaeology is an entirely different discipline from biblical studies, and one cannot get a degree in “biblical” archaeology essentially for two methodological reasons: 1- the Bible is a text, and hence is technically not archaeological at all, nor susceptible to archaeological methodologies, and 2- an archaeologist must master the material culture of a specific region and age (e.g. Bronze Age Palestine), not the material culture of a text.

Likewise, modern biblical studies is generally not a historical discipline.  One does not get a degree in biblical history.  Like archaeologist, historians can’t do the history of a single text.  They must study periods, regions, cultures, etc, of which the Bible could be one important text.    This is not to say that the historian cannot use the Bible as a important source for the study of history.  But the study of the “history of the Bible” is the study of the reception history of the text, not the study of the “historicity of the Bible,” which is an entirely different topic.

Literature, philology, history, religious studies, archaeology, geography, anthropology, etc. must all be integrated together to form a complete understanding of a text like the Bible.  But the predominance of literary and philological questions, methods, and classes in biblical studies clearly shows the bias of the discipline.  For many modern secular scholars, the Bible cannot be studied as history precisely because it is not a historical text.  It is an imaginary literary text.  And hence, the disregard of history and archaeology.  After all, what’s the point of doing Middle Earth archaeology?  Why, then, do they get upset when we point out the obvious fact that biblical studies scholars are neither historians nor archaeologists?


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