The Corruption of Biblical Studies

Academic scrutiny of scripture, a discipline prey to intellectual fashion since its inception, is today pursued by many in the service of secular liberal positions.

When a scholar adduces evidence for the unity of a text, even if he makes no mention of theology whatsoever, he is liable to be labeled a conservative and the academic form in which he expresses his argument will be dismissed as an impermissible weave of scholarship with the suspect ideology behind it. In Revelation & Authority, Sommer explicitly and unabashedly reveals his theologically liberal views, but I suspect he would bristle at being labeled a “liberal scholar”—for to be so labeled would suggest that he lacks impartiality in considering evidence and that his reading of that evidence is driven by his liberal theology.


The bias can take several forms. Recently, one of the leading German publishers of biblical studies, Harrassowitz Verlag, released the work of an up-and-coming scholar. Sight unseen, several major periodicals based in Europe declined to review the book, and German libraries with strong holdings in biblical studies refused to order it. The reason: the author is affiliated with a seminary deemed to be on the conservative end of the Protestant spectrum.


In the 2017 edition of The State of the Bible, its annual survey, the American Bible Society reports that more than half of all Americans who regularly read the Bible now search for related material on the Internet. This shift in how the faithful learn about scripture has resulted in unprecedented public exposure to one particular kind of Bible study—namely, the academic kind. Major websites now offer the latest that scholars have to say about the Bible—its authorship, its historical accuracy, its proper interpretation—and those websites attract hundreds of thousands of unique visitors each month. In an age when interest in the humanities is generally waning, the department of biblical studies is providing enrichment to what has become the most popular online branch of the liberal arts.

This is surely a blessed development. Men and women of good faith engage with these study materials in pursuit of that purest religious ideal: the truth. In doing so, moreover, they fully recognize that academic researchers ask important questions and often offer compelling answers by drawing on resources and insights unavailable through denominational venues. For many users, these answers and insights do not merely supplement but may also challenge the traditional Jewish and Christian teachings in which they have been brought up. So the interest in academic scholarship of the Bible increases—and with it the authority of the scholars purveying it. As a Jewish day-school teacher recently put it to me: “Often, I find that students might not be so well informed about the meaning of a scientific or archaeological claim­­; it’s enough that many academics holding respected titles have advanced a certain way of understanding something.” In today’s climate, the university biblicist, even before he or she speaks, enjoys a deep line of credit.

For Jews in particular, nothing in biblical studies draws so keen an interest as the issue of the origins of the Torah: the Five Books of Moses, or Pentateuch. The scholarly pursuit of the Torah’s putative sources and how they evolved into the text we have today is referred to in the academy as “source criticism”: the discipline’s oldest sub-field and still its largest. And source criticism of the Torah is also front-and-center in the Jewish public eye.

Over the past fifteen years alone, four major projects by Jewish scholars have showcased the methods and achievements of source criticism. I have in mind two books, How to Read the Bible by James Kugel and Richard Elliott Friedman’s The Bible with Sources Revealed; the section on the Pentateuch in the JPS Study Bible; and, most recently, the website, which is explicitly devoted to “integrating the study of Torah with the disciplines and findings of academic biblical scholarship.”

It would seem hard to find fault with any of this. Intuitively, readers of all ages know that their rabbis or pastors have to affirm the antiquity and accuracy of the biblical accounts. By contrast, the academic biblicist is duty-bound to “tell it like it is” on the basis of a rigorous scholarly method and rational, humanistic modes of discovery. For many raised with a traditional approach to scripture, this is a breath of fresh air. Here, finally, we find scripture without an agenda, and a method that leads only where reason and data take the faithful researcher. Here, we find the truth.

If only it were so. But the fact of the matter is otherwise. From the time of its inception 200 years ago, the field of biblical studies has never been value-free. Instead, and precisely because of the Bible’s unique and central role in Western culture, study of the Bible in the academy has been influenced—and, I would argue, tainted—by a range of cultural and intellectual forces, and repeatedly led astray from its calling as a rigorous mode of inquiry. Never has this been truer than in our own times, when many claims made in the name of the critical study of the Bible have been turned into weapons in a political struggle between liberals and conservatives.

In what follows, I offer an insider’s tour of today’s field of biblical studies—my field—and question whether some of its central conclusions really deserve the high pedestal on which they have been placed.

I. Source Criticism and Its Problematic Roots

Let’s begin with a brief tour of the historical horizon.

Benedict Spinoza, rightly credited as the father of the modern critical study of the Hebrew Bible, was the first to question systematically the unity of the books of Hebrew scripture. This he did at length in his 1672 Theological-Political Treatise. Like today’s source critics, Spinoza was convinced that the Torah was written by more than one hand. Unlike today’s source critics, however, he was equally convinced that it was beyond our capacity to recreate the prehistory of the received text by recovering its earlier versions or parts.

A similar conclusion was reached by Father Richard Simon of France, the most learned biblicist of the 17th century:

What we have at present is but an abridgement of the ancient records, which were much larger, and those who made the abridgements had particular reasons which we cannot understand. It is better therefore to be silent in this subject . . . than to search farther into this matter and condemn by a rash criticism what we do not understand.

Although both Spinoza and Simon were convinced that the Pentateuch was a composite work, both also felt that one could no more successfully unravel the prehistory of the received text than one could unscramble an egg.

But now fast-forward two centuries to the late 19th century and the scholar Charles Augustus Briggs, co-author of a dictionary of biblical Hebrew that is considered authoritative to this day. In contrast to Spinoza and Simon, Briggs positively reveled in the ability of scholars to replicate the stages of a text’s composition and thereby establish “the real Bible”:

The valleys of biblical truth have been filled up with the debris of human dogmas, ecclesiastical institutions, liturgical formulas, priestly ceremonies, and casuistic practices. Historical criticism is searching for the rock-bed of divine truth and the massive foundations of the Divine Word, in order to recover the real Bible. Historical criticism is sifting all this rubbish. It will gather our every precious stone. Nothing will escape its keen eye. . . . As surely as the temple of Herod and the city of the [H]asmoneans arose from the ruins of former temples and cities, just so surely will the old Bible rise in the reconstructions of biblical criticism into a splendor and a glory greater than ever before.

What made Briggs so certain that scholars could recover the prehistory of the received text when figures like Spinoza and Simon gave no credence to such pursuits? What changes between the 17th and 19th centuries is not the evidence but the culture, particularly through the rise and increasing status of science as a cultural force.

The initiating figure here was none other than Isaac Newton. Just five years after Simon’s 1682 Critical History of the Old Testament, Newton was formulating the laws of motion and universal gravitation in Mathematical Principles of Natural History. The work had an overwhelming impact. Where previously nature had been widely regarded as impenetrable, Newton proposed that it was instead subject to laws that could be expressed simply and precisely through mathematical formulas.

This “paradigm shift” influenced all realms of inquiry, as 18th-century thinkers sought to match Newton’s science of nature with a science of what they termed “human nature,” which they regarded as similarly orderly, subject to laws, and open to observation and comprehension. A key tenet of Enlightenment thought was that science consists of analysis: i.e., the reduction of vastly complex phenomena to a small number of constituent parts. In natural science, landmark advances would be achieved by the application of this notion; extraordinarily sophisticated organisms were discovered to be systematically made up of cells, ultimately leading in the 1830s to cell theory, and the atomic structure of the natural elements was laid open, allowing John Dalton to publish the first table of the elements in 1803.

The newly founded science of human nature could do no less; analysis, it was firmly believed, would reduce the daunting complexity of historical data to comprehensive, systematic narratives, no matter how conjectural. Thus, theorists sought to define the developmental stages traversed by man in his progress from savagery to civilization. Changes in climate or in modes of sustenance were carefully laid out along a timeline to explain the evolution of moral character.

It is in this milieu that we encounter the first attempt to delineate the putative sources of the Pentateuch. In 1753, a French scientist and medical doctor by the name of Jean Astruc transferred his vocation’s new analytical disciplines to his avocation: biblical study. Like Spinoza and Simon before him, Astruc had only the biblical text from which to work. Unlike them, he lived in the confident age of the Enlightenment: all the text needed was a set of laws to explain its inconsistencies, paramount among them being the Torah’s use of diverse and seemingly divergent names for the divinity. Already going back to the 17th century, confidence had become endemic to academic pursuits, as in René Descartes’s insistence that we accept only knowledge that can be known and demonstrated with certainty. Scholarship of the Bible could be no exception. From Astruc one can trace a straight line to the assertion of Charles Augustus Briggs that “surely will the old Bible rise in the reconstructions of biblical criticism into a splendor and a glory greater than ever before.”

A key ancillary step in this process involved the beginnings of “history” itself as an academic discipline—and not only a discipline but, like physics, an exact science: a Wissenchaft. (In practice, Wissenschaft referred both to science in the strict sense and to scholarship in general or any legitimate field of knowledge.) If, in the 18th century, educated people turned to philosophy to unlock the mysteries of human life, during the 19th century they turned to the putatively “scientific” analysis of the past to provide insight and inspiration in politics, law, economics, morals, and religion.

But how could history become a true “science”? According to the German historicists, by basing its findings on original, authentic sources. Traditions had passed down tales about the past, but only by returning to primary written sources, contemporaneous with the events under study, could the historian attain a clear, objective view. Scholars were especially eager to get to the original sources of the writings of Homer and of the Bible—the great touchstones of European culture. Imbued with the confidence of the scientific revolution, classicists and biblicists alike believed that access was available through the careful literary mining of the received texts. Identifying irregularities of all sorts within those texts was the key to recovering their precursors.

German historicism, however, ran into a crisis at mid-century, and the course it then took would have enormous consequences for the source-critical study of the Bible. As the natural sciences progressed by leaps and bounds, the putative alliance of the “sciences of the spirit,” or liberal arts, with the natural sciences came to be seen as a liability. Practitioners of the human sciences had no hope of keeping up with the refined results achieved by statistical analysis. If anything, the progress of natural science was demonstrating just how unscientific—if not unscholarly—were the so-called sciences of the spirit.

The humanist solution was to cut loose and declare autonomy. While continuing to claim the mantle of science, proponents of the humanities specified that they operated under a different methodology. Where the natural sciences had developed canons of experimental control, including the rule that theories must be testable and falsifiable, historians placed a high premium on the intuition and imagination of the investigating scholar.

Which brings us back to investigating scholars of the Bible and, in particular, source critics. Today this large sub-field continues to rely on frankly intuitionist justifications for its methods—a reliance that has led it into confusion and professional crisis.

II. Source Critics at an Impasse

The nature of the professional malaise is easily stated. Since, inevitably, every scholar has his or her own powers of intuition and imagination, the guild of source critics has been unable to develop a canon of best practices and accepted norms in pursuit of the putative earlier stages of a biblical text’s development. The debilitating consequence is that very little is a matter of professional consensus.

Source critics, for their part, have admitted as much. At two major conferences devoted to the source-critical approach to the Torah, one in Zurich in 2010 and a second in Jerusalem in 2013, the most respected champions of the field publicly acknowledged the lack of consensus on a range of core issues. A few representative testimonies:

Each [scholar] operates with [his] own set of working assumptions, each uses different methods, and each produces [his] own results. In every other academic discipline, such a situation would be felt to be untenable.

Scholars tend to operate from such different premises, employing such divergent methods, and reaching such inconsistent results, that meaningful progress has become impossible. The models continue to proliferate, but the communication seems only to diminish. . . . [Scholars] tend to talk past one another; not to hear what one another is saying, not reading one another’s work sufficiently.

What do we mean when we say source? A text? A tradition? A database? A school of thought? A theology? A group of scribes? A literary style? Maybe we just mean a vocabulary and nothing more? I think each of us uses the word source to mean precisely what he or she wants it to mean; shades of Humpty Dumpty.

How did source criticism arrive at this state? And why has the crisis engendered no change whatsoever in how its practitioners go about their work? In both cases, the answer has little to do with the individual personalities of the scholars involved. Rather, the fatal inability of the discipline to self-correct is rooted in the field’s origins, and is perpetuated by a species of denial.

To be sure, biblicists are not alone here. Similarly disorienting symptoms have afflicted other areas of scholarly inquiry, especially in fields with semi- or quasi-scientific pretensions. A recent example is the stunned reaction among economists in the wake of the 2008 financial implosion, a disaster that so many of them failed to see coming and got so wrong. One outspoken member of the guild, the Nobel laureate and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, suggested afterward that his fellow economists had been led astray by their professional “desire for an all-encompassing, intellectually elegant approach that also gave economists a chance to show off their mathematical prowess.” Thereby, to use Krugman’s own puffed-up terms, the profession “mistook beauty for truth.” If, he concluded, the guild of economists was ever to “redeem itself, . . . it will have to reconcile itself to a less alluring vision” and, above all, “learn to live with messiness.”

Of course, to admit that the economic world is messy is essentially to admit defeat in the long-fought battle to win for economics the status of a science with the power not only to study the past but, crucially, to predict economic performance in the future. And that offers another point of analogy with the predicament of biblical source-critics in their elusive search for the sources of the Pentateuch. In positing the date of a text and the stages of its composition, source critics strive to create an elegant narrative of its history and therefore of the evolution of religious ideas in ancient Israel. For many, this elegance has become a badge of their intellectual identity.

But biblicists, too, are prone to mistaking beauty for truth. The real, harder truth is that the enterprise of dating biblical texts and their stages of growth is messy, much messier than they would like to admit. And the larger truth is that we actually have limited access to the minds and hearts of the scribes of ancient Israel and cannot know the full range of motivations that drove them to compose the texts they did. What may look to our eyes as, for instance, an unresolved inconsistency between two passages may not have bothered the ancients at all.

Consider historical inscriptions left us by Ramesses the Great, who ruled Egypt in the 13th century BCE. To commemorate his greatest achievement, a victory over his arch-enemies the Hittite Empire at the battle of Kadesh in 1274 BCE, Ramesses inscribed three mutually exclusive and contradictory reports, one right next to the other, each serving a distinct rhetorical purpose, on monumental sites all across Egypt. (The longest is full of internal contradictions as well.) This practice is wholly foreign to modern writers, and far from intuitive. Literary conventions are culture-specific.

Will source critics learn “to live with messiness”? The prospect is unlikely. Although some are ready to admit that their field has lost the capacity to make forward progress, few if any have reached the necessary conclusion: that the precursors of the received text—their holy grail—may simply not be recoverable. “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it,” wrote the American activist and novelist Upton Sinclair. Just so, it is difficult to get a scholar to understand something when his entire scholarly enterprise depends on his not understanding it.

And in the meantime, another corruptive condition has disfigured the field, and the professional conduct, of biblical studies generally.

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