Approaching the Bible (RJS)

Approaching the Bible (RJS) May 16, 2019

Walter Moberly, The Bible in a Disenchanted Age, proposes three approaches to reading the Bible. As Christians we read the Bible through eyes of faith, to know God. But the Bible remains a subject for significant study in the secular culture.  In addition to reading the Bible as Scripture, it can be read as ancient history or as a cultural and literary classic. The Bible as Scripture is the subject of the bulk of Moberly’s book, but before digging into this approach he outlines the other two.

The Bible as ancient history. The Bible, like much other ancient literature, provides a window to the past. “The material is interesting because it has survived and gives insights into human cultures other than our own.” (p. 43) This general approach has dominated much biblical scholarship and is integral in the so-called historical-critical approach. While this approach often divorces the study of the Bible from Christian (or Jewish) theology, it can also lend insights and understanding to a faithful reading as Scripture. Moberly notes: “belief in relation to the Bible needs to be based on as accurate an understanding as possible of its content.”(p. 45)  Nonetheless, nothing in this approach requires faith and is often completely independent of faith and some scholarship is openly dismissive of faith. “The Bible can be studied like other documents of ancient history – in other words, “like any other book.”” (p. 46)

The Bible as cultural classic. The Bible has played an important role in Western civilization and is significant for this reason if no other. Moberly looks at four forms that reading the bible as classic can take. These are not mutually exclusive, but are worth looking at individually.

First, allusions to the Bible show up in much literature and art. These cannot be understood and appreciated without some familiarity with the Bible itself. I recall reading Pale Horse, Pale Rider in High School – and the teacher stopping to explain the allusion (Rev. 6:8) because the story loses something if the title is not understood. Thus the Bible is read as cultural source.

Second, the Bible is studied in the context of what people have made of it – how has its reception changed through the years.

Third, the Bible is studied as cultural heritage. How has the Bible shaped cultural and how does it inform some of our values and practices even today.

Finally, the Bible is read and studied as “a literary classic of the human condition.” The bible contains stories about people and their response to triumph and trouble. The great trial of exile shapes much of the Old Testament.

Moberly summarizes:

In all this, my concern it to make the basic point that it is entirely possible to take the Bible seriously, and to benefit from so doing, without taking it religiously – and to offer a provisional map of some of the many different ways of doing so. Such approaches are compatible with a believing approach to the Bible, and indeed should be used to inform one. Nonetheless, their raison d’être is independent of questions of faith. (p. 51)

In each chapter of the book Moberly uses Virgil’s The Aeneid 1 and Daniel 7 to illustrate various approaches to these ancient texts. Both of these works were composed at a specific time in history and speak to that time. The Aeneid was composed during the rule of Augustus Caesar and there are political and perhaps even anti-imperial currents in the text. Daniel 7 is set as a vision to Daniel during the Babylonian exile, but was likely written later (just before the Maccabean revolt) according to Moberly and other Old Testament scholars. There appear to be political implications of Daniel’s vision that are best understood in this context.  Antiochus Epiphanes is the little horn with eyes like human eyes and a mouth speaking arrogantly (7:8). We can see these connections without regard to faith-claims. This is an example of reading the Bible as ancient history. Although it will challenge assumptions about the Bible (like the dating and genre of parts of Daniel), it is not inherently in conflict with reading the text as Scripture.

What value is there in approaching the Bible as ancient history?

Of what value is the Bible as cultural classic?

How do these approaches inform or undermine approaching the Bible as Scripture?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net

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