Current Issues in Old Testament Scholarship


 Only a few years ago the topic at hand would have seemed marginal to the interests of all but specialists in the field. This is no longer the case. Books, periodicals, television specials, and screen scripts are devoted to a seemingly never-ending thirst for topics of biblical interest. Frequently these are antagonistic toward established beliefs, but on the other hand sociologists report an increasing trend toward spirituality if not toward institutional religion. Thus media attention to the Old Testament as part of the broader spectrum of this revival of interest in religion and spirituality should not be surprising.


 Fascination with the Old Testament springs largely from its claim to be a revelation from God. As such it has been cherished by both Judaism and Christianity. Moreover, a virtual consensus holds that the Old Testament is a major foundation stone supporting the superstructure of Western civilization. This is despite its loss of authority in the popular imagination as well as in academe. Indeed, the assertion that the Old Testament has profoundly shaped the history, culture, law, politics, and mores of both Jewish and Christian traditions as well as the secular institutions that explicitly or implicitly stand in debt to their influence is no exaggeration.

 Popular interest in the Bible is both generated by the media and is also responsible for unprecedented media attention. Shows like “Nightline” and programming by PBS, the Discovery Channel, and the History Channel regularly feature matters relevant to religious topics such as Jesus scholarship and Old Testament history and culture. The Iran hostage crisis, the 911 attacks, and the Iraq war have ironically drawn attention to sites of biblical significance as has the upsurge of technologies such as DNA, currently being employed to establish the antiquity and personal identities of Egyptian mummies. Persons with only a modicum of interest in the Bible are naturally drawn to such media exposure no matter their faith commitments.

 History of Old Testament Scholarship

 Modern approaches to Old Testament issues cannot be understood fully without at least brief acquaintance with the history of Old Testament scholarship, a survey for convenience divided into the Pre-Enlightenment, Enlightenment, and Post-Enlightenment periods. The first of these refers to a time when the Old Testament was taken largely at face value as the revealed word of God, infallible and authoritative in all it said. This included the miracle stories and other “incredible” events and ideas that no longer find currency in our sophisticated day.

 By the end of the 17thcentury the first rays of the rising sun of the Enlightenment began to penetrate the darkness of the “naïve ignorance” of the church. Rationalism and the scientific method ascended, relegating the Bible to the status of a purely theological treatise at best or a hopelessly irrelevant collection of myths, legends, and folk-tales at worst. First came the documentary hypothesis concerning the Pentateuch, an approach that denied its Mosaic authorship and that viewed it as a collection of originally independent traditions woven together over a period of many centuries. In its wake, a continuing spirit of skepticism denied the possibility of miracles, predictive prophecy, and special, verbal revelation. This eviscerated the Old Testament in particular of any claim to scientific or historical credibility except among those derisively labeled “Fundamentalists.”

 Ironically, the origins of archaeological research in the Middle East were concurrent with the rise of the so-called “historical critical” method just described. Two rivulets thus feed into contemporary biblical scholarship, the one being modern and post-modern versions of the older criticisms and the other the practice of archaeology now refined to a near-exact science. While these two at times intermingle and coincide, they also frequently go their own ways in mutually hostile opposition. Many critics summon archaeological research to put to rest biblical claims to historical authenticity and just as often, or even more so, conservative scholars invoke it to support the biblical tradition. Worse still is the proclivity of both sides to manipulate Scripture into coherence with the conclusions of archaeological method.

 Contemporary Issues

 In an increasingly naturalistic age the relevance of the Bible to everyday life in America has correspondingly decreased. This is due not only to the florescence of democratized pluralism, but to academic and political establishmentarianisms that regard the Bible as a vestige of medieval superstition unnecessary for a well-ordered society. More at blame perhaps has been the accommodation by religionists to unbelief and by bibliocentrists to a broadminded worldview that eclipses the narrowness of evangelical theology and practice. No longer is it fashionable in the intellectual world to view the Bible as magisterially relevant literature. In fact even popular culture has consigned the Bible to benign neglect, a text that at best takes its place among the curios of a past age.

 However, and to repeat, the media have never been more fascinated by the Bible as an object of public interest. Twentieth-first century Hollywood, followed by television and other entertainment vehicles, has produced a number of blockbuster films devoted to biblical subjects. Increasingly, however, the subject matter of such presentations has turned from rather straightforward narrations of biblical texts to creative reconstructions of those texts in a generally controversial or even blasphemous direction. “The Da Vinci Code,” “The Fifth Element,” and “John Q” come to mind as typical examples. Iconoclasm and sensationalism still sell; thus when the Bible and the church have lost their magisterial standing among their own adherents, it is but a short step toward exploitation of hitherto out-of-bounds areas of sacredness in the interest of profiteering and even desecration.

 Competing contemporary ideologies

The Old Testament Bible and the state. Following the conversion of Constantine to Christianity in the early fourth century, the European states joined a few others in the Middle East as “Christian” nations in distinction to those embracing some other religious tradition. Though vigorous disagreement on the matter of the Christian roots of the American experiment has come to the fore in recent years, the general consensus is that the Continental Congress that drew up the articles of American federation consisted largely of Christians who undertook their task as Founders with conscious attention to scriptural principles. The very language of our founding documents puts this beyond doubt.

 At the same time the United States was not intended to be a “Christian” nation in the European sense. Though “biblical” in its orientation, America by law and design was obliged to hold to a position antithetic to the European model in which an established church was governed by quasi-political ecclesiastics and supported by tax-paying citizens. Thus the American experiment called for a separation of church and state with respect to mutual interference. However, waves of immigration for over 200 years have radically changed the American political and religious landscape. Diversity and pluralism have challenged the notion of any particular brand of religious authoritarianism and with it has come a decreasing role of the institutional church in political affairs. The upshot of this manifests itself in an uneasy tension between church and state, one that naturally encompasses within it the role of the Bible in political and public life. Presidents swear their oath of office with hands on a Bible, but this symbolic act rarely translates into intentional public policy.     

 The Old Testament and the schools. Colonial American education was largely in the hands of the home and local community with little involvement by the state. Moreover, the very notion of absolute separation of church and state was unthinkable; in fact religion, particularly the Christian faith, was not only permitted in the schools, but was mandatory. The Bible was the textbook that provided instruction in faith and morals and in reading and writing as well.

 The establishment of the confederation of states, coupled with an increasingly diverse immigrant population, the industrial revolution, and the settlement of the West, brought an end to the concept of truly local education and the beginning of centralized standardization of every aspect of noncollegiate education. People flocked to the cities for work, and in their busyness they surrendered control of their children’s instruction to public schools that increasingly usurped parental authority and abandoned religion and the Bible in the interest of pluralism and tolerance. Well before the end of the 20thcentury, American educational policy mandated that public schools be off limits to religious expression including use of the Bible in student education.

 This trend was exacerbated by increasing emphasis in the public school curricula on secular humanism in the social sciences and biological evolution in the “hard” sciences. This being the case, religion, grounded in the metaphysically transcendent as it is, was barred from the classroom. Evolution, on the other hand, runs so contrary to the Old Testament account of origins and development that the latter fell into the realm of the mythical or imaginary and thus, like theism, was quickly shown the door. A reaction from the Christian community was predictable. In place of schools where their children were taught values and concepts contrary to the Bible and the Christian faith, Evangelicals in particular have created Christian schools or home schooling, both of which have grown exponentially.

 The Old Testament and the church. Most ironic of all, the Bible, especially the Old Testament, has come to be scorned even within some circles of the church. Theological liberalism plays a significant role in this lack of interest in the Scriptures and the corollary disregard of its claims to authority. A holy book of uncertain origins and unreliable transmission can hardly become the bedrock of a viable faith. But the matter cannot rest there. At one time the Old Testament, though regarded as less relevant than the New Testament for Christian faith, nevertheless provided lessons for morality and bases for proper behavior. Besides, its Psalms were a source of blessing and comfort and its stories  alive with examples of persons who triumphed as they trusted God. However, compared to the Gospels and the epistles, the Old Testament seemed dull and dry, the relic of a religion long past its prime and with little or no practical relevance to the modern world. Preachers avoided its texts and laity despaired of ever understanding its arcane practices. Thus three-quarters of the Bible was benignly allowed to die, buried by its own weightiness. The picture is hardly better in evangelical churches, either because of the relative density of the Old Testament or a theology that relegates it to virtual non-canonicity by perceiving it as a book of law as opposed to the New Testament’s status as a book of grace. It is acceptable as moralistic Sunday school material but not as a text to be proclaimed as the Word of God to the church.

 Recent Trends in Old Testament Scholarship

 In the media. Nothing comparable to the sensationalism attendant to the Jesus Seminar, the James ossuary, the Shroud of Turin, and other New Testament topics has yet developed with regard to media handling of the Old Testament. Greater interest accrues to political events surrounding modern Israel and its claims to territory based largely on Old Testament promises. These range from the fundamental right of Israel to exist, to the occupation and settlement of the West Bank, to preparations by the Temple Institute to construct the Third Temple on the site of the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque. Those committed to these ideals use the Old Testament to justify any course of action that brings to pass the fulfillment of its prophetic texts. Those who have a lesser view of its authority and who deem its pre-exilic history to be but myth and legend view any use of the Bible for political purposes as misguided at best.

 On the field. In almost inverse proportion to their coverage in the popular media are the number and significance of archaeological finds in the last thirty years that have enormous bearing on both the understanding of the Old Testament and its shoring up as a reliable historical account. The following list is illustrative of a much larger corpus.

 1. The ‘Ain Dara Temple (1980). In an earlier era the reality of a temple in Israel like Solomon’s was debunked because nothing similar was known from the ancient Near East. However, at ‘Ain Dara (and earlier in Tall Ta’yinat), Syria, a temple from the 10thcentury came to light that bore a remarkable similarity to the temple of Jerusalem. The size is approximately the same; it consists of two chambers, the Holy Place and Most Holy Place; and it clearly accommodated cultic features like those described in the Bible. Thus the notion that Israel had a temple in the 10thcentury rests on very firm ground.

 2. Tel Dan (1993). Avraham Biran and his team of Israeli excavators were wrapping up a day’s work when one of them noticed the faint outline of characters incised on a rock embedded in a wall. Study showed it to be an Aramaic text from about 830 B. C., the substance of which was the account by an Aramaean king of his military operations against the “house of David.” This (along with a possible example in the Mesha inscription) is the only reference to David so far in any extra-biblical text. This puts the historical existence of David beyond doubt and furthermore shows him to be so powerful a figure that the nation was named for him.

 3. Wadi el-Hol (1993). Just west of Abydos in southern Egypt, this site yielded an alphabetic inscription carved on the underface of a ledge. Palaeographically it resembled a text found at Serabit al-Khadem in the Sinai Peninsula from1600 B.C.,till 1993 the earliest alphabet ever found. However, the Wadi Hol example is at least 200 years older, from the time of Jacob and his sons in Egypt. A former argument that Moses could not have written the Torah in alphabetic form that early (ca. 1400 B.C.) thus has no basis.

 4. Ketef Hinnom (1979). Excavation of a tomb overlooking the Hinnom Valley in Jerusalem brought to light a small silver scroll containing a tiny inscription bearing the words of the priestly benediction of Numbers 6:24-26. Not only does this shed light on Hebrew orthography and morphology, but also its date (ca. 7thcentury B.C.) long precedes the composition of the P document of historical-critical scholarship (450 B.C.), thus undermining the hypothesis to that degree.

 In the academy. By “academy” here is meant the guild of Old Testament scholarship across the board—Jewish and Christian, Catholic and Protestant, liberal and fundamentalist, with special focus on Evangelicalism. Among a multitude of issues that could be addressed relative to the academy and particularly to Evangelicalism are the following.

 1. Erosion of biblical authority. Though the documentary hypothesis and other regnant 20th-century methods of accounting for Old Testament texts have lost favor, no corresponding return to the Bible as the basis of ultimate truth has emerged. In fact, skepticism has never been more rampant than today, particularly in areas of science and history. Straightforward readings of narratives based on traditional historical-grammatical exegesis have been rejected as overly naïve in the light of modern scientific method. The social sciences too have led to new ways of reading Old Testament laws and customs because of their alleged homophobic, antifeminist, and militaristic overtones. In this view only a Bible deconstructed so as to rid itself of these embarrassments can speak with authority.

 2. Macroevolution. Mainstream religious traditions have long embraced evolution as a replacement for biblical creationism. However, lately it is becoming fashionable for evangelical scholars as well to part company with “young earth” creationism and the notion that God created everything in “six days and six nights.” Theistic evolution is the favored means of alleviating the tension between science and Scripture with its claim that God created all original matter and used the process of evolution to bring everything to its present state. The BioLogos Foundation founded by Francis Collins is spearheading this approach, one being endorsed in principle by a number of evangelical theologians.

 3. Historical minimalism. The historicity of the Old Testament has been seriously questioned for 200 years, but not to the degree current in the past 25 years. In its most extreme form, minimalism asserts that no reliable account of Israel’s history exists prior to the postexilic period (530 B.C. or later). The narratives purporting to recount history are no more than political propaganda designed to justify Jewish occupation of the land in postexilic times. Remarkably, this interpretation is being employed today with the unintended (or intended?) consequence of bolstering Palestinian claims to the same land. Thus the antiquity of the patriarchal promises, channeled through the prophets, is without substantiality since they lack genuine historical grounding. Sadly some dabble in minimalism as though theology and history can be viewed as parallel universes.

 4. Canonical redactionism. Brevard Childs popularized the terms “canonical criticism” and “canonical theology,” meaning in both cases that all that can be known for certain about the Old Testament and its development is what can be found in its final postexilic canonical form. The whole question of the Bible’s origin and development can be dismissed by maintaining that the canonical shape is the last layer of reshaping and reinterpreting biblical texts so as to make them meaningfully authoritative to every generation. Some evangelicals find comfort in this approach because it delivers them from the burden of having to argue for or “prove” some point or other regarding authorship, dating, text-transmission, and the like.


 Today’s fads are tomorrow’s de rigeurs and today’s tentative issues in scholarship are likely to become tomorrow’s solidified givens. This has been the story of Christian scholarship since its beginnings; hence the need for unending introspection and reassessment lest the ancient moorings be cut loose and the vessel of truth and authority be scuttled. Since the author is a committed evangelical, there should be no surprise that this essay embodies a subtext of warning and exhortation, one directed especially toward his young evangelical colleagues.

 Dr. Eugene Merrill is distinguished professor of Old Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary.  This information was created for his presentation at the 2010 national meeting of the Evangelical Press Association in Irving, Texas.