What’s a Bible?

LegaspiWhat is the Bible? This might seem a strange question coming from someone who holds a doctorate in what has sometimes been characterized as biblical studies. Still, it is a valid question. The fact is, very different things are referenced by the word “Bible.” This is made abundantly clear in Michael C. Legaspi’s The Death of Scripture and the Rise of Biblical Studies. Legaspi points out that the Bible hasn’t always been the central force of Christian identification that it seems to have become. Martin Luther was largely (but not solely) responsible for the view that the Bible alone is sufficient for eternal well-being. Historically it had been much more complicated than that. The church had traditions and sacraments, Judaism had Talmud and rabbinic interpretation. The idea that the Bible alone was necessary was more radical than it might seem in today’s secular world. The problem was, the Bible isn’t an easy book to understand.

It has long been recognized that the Enlightenment and the Reformation went more or less together. The mysticism and mystery of “superstition” were bound to fade in the brilliance of pure reason. The Bible, however, still held a revered place, and it had to be studied. The sea change of the scriptural Bible to the academic Bible took place largely in Germany. No surprises there. What Legaspi demonstrates is that this study was closely bound with the university as an organ of the state. Germany didn’t boast the oldest universities in the eighteenth century, but it could claim the most intellectually rigorous. Among its biblical scholars, indeed, perhaps the one who led to the creation of the academic Bible, was Johann David Michaelis. The book is mostly about Michaelis and his influence and background in biblical studies. Clearly, applying university treatment to an ancient text was not going to be Sunday School.

By the time people like me began advanced study of the Bible, the “academic Bible” was about all there was. Many of us with serious training in the field watch in wonder as some (many) theologians take the Bible literally. They use ideas and concepts that biblical scholars have long recognized as artifacts of antique understanding. The problem is once you’ve gone down this path, there’s no going back. You can’t unlearn the academic Bible. So, what is the Bible? Obviously, it’s going to depend on who you ask, but it is clear that no one answer will satisfy all takers, even if they all claim to share a single faith. And should you venture to those hallowed halls of higher education, you’ll find the Bible is studied here, as are dinosaurs and an earth that is a few billion years old.

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