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 Studying the Bible, obviously 

OT law scroll

 Beginning to Study the Old Testament

 Peter Williams





This article is taken from Encountering God's Word: Beginning Biblical Studies, edited by Philip Duce and Daniel Strange, and is reproduced here with kind permission of IVP/Apollos.

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Preparing to Study

The Old Testament (OT) is a sizeable body of writings and, according to people of quite diverse persuasions, it was written over a very long time. The extended period of writing is itself complex, which makes study difficult. The matter is complicated further by the fact that the OT is written in a couple of obscure languages (Ancient Hebrew and a bit of Imperial Aramaic). To cap it all, the account of the origins of the OT given by many contemporary scholars is quite different from the account the OT seems to give of its own origins. So it is hardly surprising that some students beginning OT study feel a bit lost.

Yet, if the challenges of OT study can be overcome, it is also an area that yields rewards far greater than the effort put in. A good grounding in OT not only has the reward of studying the OT itself, but also pays dividends in New Testament (NT) study and in many areas of Christian theology. Moreover, the OT not only helps these disciplines but is itself a foundation for them. All of Jesus’ teaching assumes a familiarity with the OT. No one can really develop a serious understanding of the New Testament without the backdrop of the Old, nor can any Biblical or Systematic Theology afford to ignore the material of the OT. So while students choosing modules for a Religious Studies course might well be advised to delay OT study until they are ready, the delay should not be indefinite. The study of the OT is imperative. The question then is not whether to study the OT but when and how.

Answering the when question first, it is important to remember that a confused mind presented with a complicated issue is unlikely to end up clearer than it was at the start. Someone therefore approaching in-depth study of the OT will greatly benefit from prior familiarity with the OT subject matter. To put it briefly: it is helpful to have read the OT before beginning an OT course. This may seem like a high demand, but given that to read the whole OT out loud in English takes less than fifty hours, the demand is not really so high. Suggestions for reading the Bible through first time are given in an appendix.

Yet it might seem that to become familiar with the OT before studying it formally defeats the object of study. After all, the main motivation a student has in taking an OT course is usually precisely to become familiar with the OT. But at a practical level this often does not work. Most lecturers would love their students to immerse themselves in the primary text of the OT, but also need to test that students are working. They therefore set essays, and essays require arguments which in turn require the reading of secondary literature. In order to make sure that those who have read the primary text before the course do not get off too lightly lecturers will normally set for reading a quantity of secondary literature that will fill all the available time, which is generally not hard in a busy student’s life! There is similar pressure from the student’s side to read secondary rather than primary literature. There is no doubt that fifteen well-spent minutes cribbing from secondary literature will in general help a student ask smarter sounding questions than fifteen minutes spent on the primary sources. The problem is that those who pursue such a short-sighted approach over a long period are liable gradually to lose touch with the text they are supposed to be studying. Most contemporary scholarly writing will only be of minor historical interest within a generation, whereas the primary text will live on. So it is vital to read the text first. Anyone who has already started an OT course without having read the OT through should endeavour to read the whole at the first available opportunity (such as a holiday week).

This necessity of familiarity with the biblical text prior to engaging in academic study of it is in line with how we learn best. Essay topics will inevitably invite students to assess critically their own assumptions and views, as well as those of others. Students with good reasons for believing what they believe should not be anxious about such probing; it is rather an opportunity to develop mentally. However, in order to judge properly the views of authors on the bibliography it is necessary not only to evaluate the strength of the arguments they use, but also to know whether there are additional relevant contrary arguments which they do not consider. How can you critically assess any writer if you have a blank mind to start with?

So the question of when to study the OT is answered simply: study the OT when you have a firm outline in your mind of its contents and a basic familiarity with its text.

The next question is how to study, including what order to study things in. I would like here to advise strongly that someone beginning OT study should consider prioritising study of Hebrew. Not everyone finds languages equally easy or attractive, and not everyone is given the opportunity to learn Hebrew. However, this is one of the first questions you need to ask: are you going to learn Hebrew and study the OT in its original language, or are you going to study it all in translation? Here there is something analogous to the contrast above between studying primary and secondary literature. Progress with any language will seem incredibly slow at first, and much quicker comprehension of what is going on will be achieved if the same time is spent reading the English translation of the Bible. You need to weigh the effort of learning Hebrew against the length of a course in OT. If the course is three years or more then you should learn Hebrew.

The advantages of tackling original languages in Bible study are several, but only for those who persevere for the reward:

  1. In the long run you can save time reading secondary literature. It is still necessary and profitable, for instance, to read commentaries on books of the Bible, but you no longer need to rely on these as the major way of finding out the meaning of words.
  2. You can critically evaluate commentaries. A surprising number of commentaries are written by people who do not have a good grasp of Hebrew. Familiarity with the original languages will help you recognise which commentators are more worth reading and which less.
  3. Many parts of the Bible use specific items of vocabulary as linking words, in word play, or in other similar devices. You will be able to recognise these easily if you know the language.
  4. All academic disciplines are subject to fashions to one degree or another. It is possible to become immersed in the theories that prevail while one is a student only to find that they have become outdated within a generation. Language skills are less affected by fashion.

If you do decide to take up the challenge of Hebrew, you should take it up sooner rather than later. You should begin learning, and then, by seeking to use the Hebrew text at every opportunity, all subsequent study can revise your Hebrew. If you do not, then you need to get used to consulting a variety of translations of the Bible, and to learn to suspect suggestions made in commentaries about the original language that cannot be verified in at least one other source.[1]

New textbooks for teaching Hebrew are being produced all the time and there are also less traditional helps.[2] Each has advantages, though there is no way to avoid the fact that much time has to be invested in order to learn a language. Many recent grammars do not contain exercises of translating English into Hebrew. This is fine for a low level grasp of a language, but ultimately if you want to have a firm grasp of the language it will be necessary to undertake the rather artificial exercise of writing Biblical Hebrew.

A Christian Approach to the Old Testament


It is impossible to study without presuppositions, and to admit to having presuppositions is not to admit to having an incurable disease of brain-bias. Since no one is without presuppositions, the question is not whether one has presuppositions or not, but whether one has good presuppositions or not, and whether they are held in the right way. Presuppositions are belief systems that can direct observation and affect the way data are understood. Belief systems, whether ‘religious’ or not, can function at more than one level. An overarching system could be that there is a God who acts in the world. A lower-level system could be a particular literary or linguistic view. Individuals can sometimes share higher-level beliefs without sharing lower-level ones, or share lower-level beliefs without sharing higher-level ones.

This is an explicitly Christian introduction to OT study, and its approach is moulded by the overarching beliefs that God is truthful and that the Bible is speech from God. These statements need both elaboration and defence and space here permits neither. Nevertheless, I hope that the rest of this chapter at least provides a little of both.[3]

To treat the OT as God’s own speech makes a difference right from the moment you open a Bible. It is not only that we probe it, but also that its contents probe and challenge us deeply. When we read that ‘The fear of the Lord [YHWH] is the beginning of knowledge’[4] we are faced with a choice. Either it is true, in which case the way to be knowing, even about the statement itself, is to adopt a reverent attitude before YHWH, the God revealed in the OT, or we can reject the statement without having entered into the state exhorted by the verse. There is no possible position of abstract consideration of the truth of this statement: you either adopt the attitude it encourages and fear YHWH, or you reject its claims in both thought and experience. While the YHWH-fearing cannot claim objectivity, neither can the person who has rejected the statement without ever following the exhortation. It can be argued that religious writings outside the Christian faith also exhort followers to engage with them by a similar trick of insisting that personal experience is the only test. But the point here is simple: according to claims within the OT it is not possible to consider the Lord in a dispassionate way. Involvement with the God found in the OT means more than mental assent, but life, desires, and everything. So a Christian student of the OT needs to be involved beyond the mental level. Prayer and obedience need to integrate with study. A Christian needs to adopt the habit of praying in relation to the Bible, both before reading it and in response to reading it. And what is prayed through needs to be worked out in life too. After all, according to Paul one of the primary purposes of the OT is to teach people to live righteous lives.[5]

But there is surely a problem here. If the student is involved in this way in study will this not lead inevitably to being uncritical, and to religious bias clouding judgement? Not necessarily. Arguably those who are explicitly aware of their biases will be more able to prevent them from clouding their judgement than those who deny that they have such biases. Moreover, as one studies the OT one is also often studying the supposed basis for beliefs. Students may find with time and study that certain starting assumptions they have are not supported in the way they thought, and this can lead to modifications of belief. The key thing here is that change is made after due reflection and after one has sought at appropriate length for explanations within the framework within which one is working. A leaking roof in an individual’s world-view does not necessitate abandoning the building. Christian students encountering faith problems should be familiar enough with what has been written by those sympathetic to their view to know whether there are ways of plugging the leaks.

Most university and college courses aim to teach students to think critically by setting a number of written assignments in which a student has to evaluate contrary arguments. In order to maximise the intellectual exercise assignments are generally set in areas of controversy. Over the course of a year’s study a student may look at literally dozens of such controversial issues, often with considerable time constraints. Courses are not, however, designed so that students reach closure on an issue. That is, it is not expected that students will have reached the definitive answer by the time they complete their essays. The exercise is to start people thinking about issues. This is important in terms of how students regard conclusions they come to at the end of their essays. Essay conclusions should not be viewed as definitive results, and students need to be ready to revise their views with subsequent study. It also means that a student needs to be ready for more questions to be opened than are closed. It generally takes much less time to ask a question than to give a coherent answer. This may mean that at the end of a year there are a lot of open questions, and in OT studies some of these will inevitably touch on matters of faith. It needs to be recognised up front that the number of such questions that a student has failed to resolve bears little relationship to whether the questions are soluble or not but much relationship to the general way that people are taught to think in the academic system. Thus it is entirely plausible that someone could end up with much greater mental confusion after a course than the subject really needed to involve. This is not anyone’s fault, but simply a product of a learning system, which nevertheless has its advantages. Returning to our house analogy: everyone wants to live in a habitable house; if there are too many unresolved issues in someone’s mind then it may be like a house with a large number of leaks. There is no reason to believe that any of the leaks cannot be plugged, and there is absolutely no reason to doubt the soundness of the basic structure of the building, but the leaks may well make someone want to move out. To speak plainly, unanswered questions in large quantities may make people want to change their beliefs. However, unanswered questions in large quantities can result from two quite different sources: (1) from the inadequacy of the student’s belief system; (2) from a problem-centred method of learning. It is important to distinguish these two. The only way that this can be done is by going out of your way to look for answers to the problems that arise, and to do so persistently. It is only after trying this that one should consider any large shift in belief.

Related to this, it is important to judge correctly how certain the knowledge acquired during a course actually is. What to an undergraduate writing an essay on the basis of three days’ research seems certain is often not at all certain in real terms. It is frequently a conclusion drawn from a limited understanding based on a selective reading of the items that the student has selected to read from what a lecturer has selected from his or her already selective knowledge of writings on the topic. The writings that exist on any topic are a small subset of what could have been written on that topic, and their makeup is affected by human circumstance and market forces, and, above all, by the limits of what has yet been discovered. Humans need therefore to admit the provisional nature of their knowledge. This is difficult in an academic environment where essays are generally a means of showing off knowledge to a tutor, and where admitting ignorance is hard.

Alert Reading

If undertaking a broadly secular course the Christian student should read a wide variety of literature from diverse standpoints. At a university or college, students of the OT will inevitably be challenged to read books by those who do not share their view of the OT. To interact with this literature is an important part of the intellectual training the course provides. However, if a course is set from a secular viewpoint it is likely that Christian students will find that the course leaves little time for them to get to know their own heritage. Of course on some topics it may be that the approach which the student finds most helpful is not written from a Christian perspective. It may be more helpful because it provokes that student, or simply because it is a fairer treatment of a subject. However, students need to beware of reading and hearing much that has been said from non-Christian points of view and yet imbibing little of what has been written from a Christian point of view. To overcome this practical hurdle requires a student to be organised and to arrange time to read Christian approaches on the same issue. Because of limitations of time during a course it may even be beneficial if a student reads such approaches before beginning the course, but since advance warning of essay topics is often not given this is difficult.

So what is read is important. Yet it is also important to know how to read. Frequently the best book on a subject is not a Christian book. Most often there simply is no ideal book on a subject from any standpoint, but several from which the relevant information needs to be gleaned. For this reason it is necessary to develop the ability to evaluate secondary literature critically, to separate information and data that an author gives from their assumptions, and to develop a sense of what needs to be double checked.

Sometimes scholars are kind enough to state their world-view. Consider the following quotation from the well-published OT scholar Philip R. Davies in an essay entitled ‘Whose History? Whose Israel? Whose Bible? Biblical Histories, Ancient and Modern’.[6]

The belief in a single transcendental being who can comprehend, indeed controls, all history is precisely a biblical belief: it is one of the major tenets of biblical historiography... When I claim, then, that there is no ‘objective’ history I am implying a world-view incompatible with that of the biblical writings (except perhaps Qoheleth) for whom history was defined by divine deeds…’

In the ensuing context Davies criticises other scholars who have indicated that they are atheist or agnostic for adopting the Bible’s framework that there is a definitive view of the past, and thus for having a ‘theistic’ approach to history.[7] The conclusion of the essay that a good historian needs ‘to remain sceptical, minimalist and negative’ gives us insight into his approach and will not entice many students with a faith commitment. Unfortunately Davies’ candour is rare. This means that a student needs to be aware of both the wider agendas that can influence the work of scholars and of how a Christian approach may lead to different conclusions.

Divine Coherence

One of the main areas where the historic Christian approach differs from other approaches within contemporary academia is in seeing overarching harmony within biblical writings. If biblical writings are genuinely expressions of a coherent divine mind then they must cohere at the level of what they communicate even if ultimately the nature of the coherence is beyond mortal comprehension. Thus while there is no problem in the admission that contrary statements appear in the Bible[8] these are seen as linguistic codes for a message which at a deeper level is coherent. Contradiction is a perfectly legitimate method of communication,[9] one frequently used by humans, but which when found in the Bible is used to deny coherence. However, the issue of coherence in the Bible is one which must be explored beyond the level of mere contrary statements, which can easily be seen to have slightly different referents.

One of the attractions, however, of secular academic methods is that, according to them, the interpreter is not bound to see a coherence between two different texts. This ‘liberates’ the interpreter from the constraint of fitting together texts which are incoherent and is held to be fairer to the text. The appeal thus of secular critical methods is that by them the interpreter is being more faithful to the Bible than within a framework ‘constrained’ by seeking to find a deep harmony between passages in Scripture. This view is a strong element motivating people to abandon a classical view of Scripture’s coherence derived from the Bible’s statements about God’s word.

Nevertheless, this appeal needs to be examined to see whether it is all that it seems. In fact, much modern research on how language works indicates the importance of unexpressed elements in the context of a text for its correct understanding.[10] The proper interpretation of texts therefore can require a wide context. Historical-critical scholars can, however, by their focus on the true meaning of small units of text be in danger of treating small isolated texts as self-interpreting. It is important to see clearly that fairness to a text does not necessitate viewing it in isolation. What is the natural reading of a text in isolation may in fact be a distortion of its meaning, while what is a less natural reading of a text in isolation, but one motivated by reading it in a wider context, may be the correct one.

An example of this are passages in the prophets that seem to express prophetic disapproval of the OT sacrificial system and festivals (e.g. Isaiah 1:11–14). It would be possible to treat these statements as an isolated unit by some hypothetical author who believed that animal sacrifices should not be offered to God. However, viewing the verses within a wider context allows another interpretation.[11]

But there is a danger here. It is possible so to qualify the interpretation of a text by a wider context that one in fact drowns out the message of the individual text. An interpreter can bring a text into false harmony with another text. This must be avoided while also being wary of historical-critical approaches that use the identification of incompatibly divergent voices within Scripture as a foundation upon which to build a history of OT religion. Proponents of this method can seek to discover divergent voices within the OT since such divergences are the building blocks to write a ‘critical’ history, that is one not dependent on an uncritical acceptance of scriptural statements. The way to avoid misinterpretation seems to be to read texts as a whole and simultaneously with regard to the detail they contain. Detail can modify one’s interpretation of the whole, as can the whole modify one’s interpretation of the detail.

The interpreter of Scripture also needs to be aware of the ramifications of positions taken on issues of interpretation. While coming to a view that two biblical texts cannot express truth about a coherent reality may appear like the best solution to an interpretative problem, it makes it hard to view both texts as coming from a single divine author. A student should expect a corpus as rich and diverse as the OT to present a balance of statements on a number of subjects and should not quickly conclude that variety of statements indicates a variety of theologies in the OT, if by ‘a variety of theologies’ is meant incompatible rather than merely complementary theologies.

It might be urged that to encourage students to be patient in recognising unity within Scripture will lead to an uncritical approach. There are, however, many parallels for this within other academic disciplines. For example, while a popular perception of science is that it proceeds from evidence to understanding to belief, this is very often not the case. Invariably a student of quantum mechanics believes it before understanding it, often even believing it although never expecting to understand it. The order is as in Anselm’s saying credo ut intellegam ‘I believe in order that I may understand’. For Anselm, as for Augustine before him, belief preceded understanding. This is a frequent human order, because without the belief that something makes sense it is often difficult to summon the patience to see how it makes sense. If students believed quantum mechanics to be incoherent and to have no correspondence to the universe they would certainly not have the patience to study it as intensely as if they believed that it was one of physics’ great unifying theories with wide explanatory powers. There is, of course, a danger with credo ut intellegam, since it can be used to justify continuing to believe in something unworthy of belief. However, the principle of patient positive study of Scripture to find unity is not something that should be undervalued.

Historical Issues

One of the first issues that any student of the OT is faced with is the issue of historicity, or the question ‘Did it happen?’ Here one needs to be up-front about the importance of a historical basis for the Christian faith,[12] and about the fact that the Church’s consensus up until the time of the Enlightenment was that the OT was true history.[13] There were, of course, many for whom literal historicity was not the major concern. A prominent church father, Origen (ca. 185–254), was one of a number who stressed the primacy of the allegorical interpretation of Scripture. But this should not be taken to mean that he denied the general historicity of Scripture. Nor were considerations of the OT’s historicity without qualification. Martin Luther, for instance, accepted the book of Job as history but held that Job’s speeches in the book were not records of his actual words, but a creative expression by the author of Job’s thoughts.[14] Luther thus maintained the historical nature of biblical books, but also that truth can be presented in a variety of literary genres.

It Is Literature Too

‘Genre’ has, in fact, been a much-used word recently as a number of scholars have stressed the literary qualities of the OT. Various contemporary approaches maintain that many parts of the Bible contain literary structures showing careful composition.[15] The relevance of this to the issue of history in the OT has been to shift the focus of investigation of certain texts from their historicity to their literary nature. Authors with literary approaches range from those who use the literary nature of a work to deny its historical nature through to those who accept the historical nature of the work but choose to focus on literary structures.[16] Some such approaches to a text are called ‘synchronic’ because they seek to view the text without regard to temporal distinction in origin, and thus interpret the whole without considering historical development. The synchronic approaches are contrasted with the diachronic ones which look at the development of texts through time.[17] Whatever approach ultimately is taken it must be justified on a basis other than widespread use. It is important that texts are allowed to speak for themselves and that a serious attempt is made to understand the focus and themes of a text as a whole. This said, no student can afford simply to ignore historical questions.

Recognising a literary focus may even alter one’s view of the history to which a narrative refers. Thus King Jeroboam II of Israel receives relatively little treatment in the biblical narrative, much less than King Ahab, though there can be little doubt that in terms of his political achievements Jeroboam was by far the more significant.[18] The emphasis of the biblical text thus differs from what would be given by a modern historian. The same mismatch between thematic biblical emphasis and generally applied quantitative criteria for importance is present with regard to the Babylonian exile. According to Jeremiah 52:29 the number of captives taken by Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon at the time of the destruction of Jerusalem in 587/586 BC was 832. Thus one of the most significant events in the whole OT, round which Jeremiah and Ezekiel focus their narratives, which is the precondition for a book like Lamentations, and which is the culmination of the books of Kings (or arguably Genesis to Kings) is the deportation of a relatively small number of people. By contrast a much more significant military event just over a century earlier is passed over in these words: 'In the fourteenth year of King Hezekiah, Sennacherib king of Assyria came up against all the fortified cities of Judah and seized them.'[19] If Sennacherib’s own account of this expedition is to believed, he took 200,150 captives at this time.

The average student with a general familiarity with the OT, but who had not studied it formally, would be quite surprised to know that there is no document outside the Bible that records Nebuchadnezzar’s capture of Jerusalem and taking of the people captive in 587/586 BC. This might even cause the student to conclude that the Bible’s narrative could not be relied on historically at this point. However, this would be because the student had confused narrative or theological importance with the sort of importance that would cause a foreign historian to record the events about the fall of Jerusalem. Besides, it would be to ignore the fact that the records of the other interested party, Nebuchadnezzar, no longer survive for the relevant period, the last surviving chronicle of his reign referring to 594/593 BC.

All this means that it is very important to read the biblical narrative with the utmost care to ensure that one is not attributing significance to an event recorded, which it does not actually have. This could be to attribute a wrong international importance to a narrative or wrong archaeological significance to an event. A biblical account must be carefully examined as a narrative before one can properly assess its historical implications.[20]

Fact or Fiction?

When the narrative of the OT is considered as a whole it is obvious that there is generally more agreement about the historical nature of records recounting events towards the end of the OT period than about those that report earlier events. Though some would assign the whole OT to the category of story with no historical basis,[21] most scholars believe that narrative books such as Ezra and Nehemiah are substantially historical,[22] and that books relating to earlier periods have successively less historical substance until one reaches zero some time before the opening of the Bible in Genesis. Among scholars the cut-off point varies greatly: some deny a basis for the Bible’s picture of Solomon’s splendour, more deny any historical basis for the Exodus, and only a minority accept that if there were patriarchs, they did anything like what is attributed to them in the Bible.[23]

Thus, broadly speaking, the more remote an event is from the present the more likely it is that its historicity will be doubted, disputed, or denied by scholars. This difference between nearer and more remote events is, of course, what would be expected if the biblical authors wrote basically towards the end of the period that the Bible is about, and possessed no super-human insight into the more remote periods. In that model, writers of Bible books were of course able to describe with moderate accuracy the time in which they lived and even preserve a certain amount of information about the time shortly before them. However, for more distant events they only had tradition, which was liable to corruption, and a certain level of imagination. Sometimes it is even said that in Bible times writers did not have a sense of history as we do now.[24] However, differences in emphasis and historiography should not be taken to indicate a fundamental discontinuity between the approach to history then and now. Denial of a sense of continuity between attitudes to history then and now has particularly arisen with a postmodern view, which as part of a wider philosophical scheme refuses to acknowledge continuity between thought of the present and of the past.

However, the question of the historicity of earlier parts of the Bible needs also to be seen from another perspective. What was more remote from biblical writers is also more remote from us, and when considering the biblical period greater uncertainties attach to modern scholarly reconstructions of earlier as opposed to later stages in that period. While the chronology of events in the fifth century BC is generally fixed to within a year, the chronology of a millennium before is open to wider dispute, with three quite different chronologies, for example, of the first dynasty of Babylon, varying by about 120 years, and related uncertainties sometimes of around 64 years in Egyptian dating.[25] It is true that one particular chronology of Egypt, the ‘Low Chronology’, is more widely accepted, but it is important for a student to appreciate the various levels of uncertainty in the study of different periods. The gaps in our information about the history of the period around 1,000 BC when, according to the Bible, David was king are very much greater than those around the time when Nehemiah was governor of Judah in the fifth century BC.

A further complication is the issue of antisupernaturalism (or naturalism) in historical investigation. It is possible, even common, for historians studying ancient texts to discount the possibility of narrated miracles, and to assume that only natural processes have been involved in the past. If processes other than natural ones have been at work then this naturalistic method will lead to historical distortion. For instance, in Deuteronomy 29:5 Moses points out to the Israelites how during forty years of wandering in the desert their sandals had not worn out. The narrative plainly appeals to something outside of ordinary processes, and there is the implication that if one sought for the usual evidence for sandal-wear it would not be there. There is the claim, then, of event without natural trace.[26] If a scholar, therefore, were to argue that the wanderings did not happen on the ground of lack of evidence of wear on sandals, it would be an illegitimate argument. On the other hand, if a scholar were to argue that the wanderings did not happen on the ground of lack of evidence for bodies that perished in the desert, it would be a legitimate type of argument, because there is a legitimate expectation of evidence in this case. 

Of course, scholars often do not come to the view that they should not make allowance for miraculous or non-natural events on the basis of mere prejudice. Often they first come to an opinion that the genre or date of literature in the Bible is not such as we can expect to give us reliable information about non-natural processes in the past. Nevertheless, the issue of naturalistic pre­suppositions in scholarly discussion is one that a Christian needs to address. A student must assess independently the likelihood that any statement about ancient history, particularly in regard to the history within the Bible has been established on a basis which he or she may want to question. This is not to encourage a dismissive attitude to the work of others, but merely to encourage an awareness of the theory-laden nature of people’s observations. Nowhere do the conditions of remoteness and of naturalistic presupposition come more to the fore than in consideration of the highly disputed first eleven chapters of Genesis.[27] The issue is too complicated to address here, but any solution reached with these chapters must be able to be consistently applied in method to other parts of the OT, and within a coherent Christian theology.[28]

But the pillars of scholarly consensus on the subject of OT history have not only been recently examined for assigning too great a level of certainty to scholarly reconstruction and naturalistic assumptions; in recent years scholarly consensus on the OT has been questioned from a new approach that is hyper-conservative in terms of sources admitted to discussion of history. Proponents of this approach have often been labelled ‘minimalists’.[29] Niels Peter Lemche is a leading proponent of such a view and denies that the OT can be viewed in any way as historical in the classic sense of the word.[30] Lemche clearly sees his approach as having advantages for a Christian viewpoint:

This new trend [i.e. the trend of which Lemche is a part] seems to be liberating the Bible from the tyranny of having to be historically accurate in the most minute detail in order to remain a Bible for Christians and Jews.[31]

Lemche goes on to make a trenchant critique of the assumptions behind much OT study. Drawing on a variety of social-anthropological discussions Lemche claims that OT scholars have too often tried to view historical Israel with presupposed concepts of ethnicity and nationality that can be shown to be invalid. Nevertheless, the ‘minimalist’ critique of consensus historiography is not merely sociological. Lemche seeks to support his view with an examination of ancient documents seeking to establish that there is virtually no evidence for regarding the biblical narrative as a reliable source of historical information.[32]

When Enemies Are Friends

Perhaps the easiest thing for a Christian student to do when faced with Lemche’s approach is to look for an instant refutation. Plenty of responses will be found both within mainstream scholarship and from explicitly Christian scholarship, which are firmly aligned in their opposition to minimalism. The lesson here is to see that the interplay between data and paradigm is extremely complex. Those with a common general outlook may disagree over data at the same time as those without a common outlook agree over it.

In order to consider the dynamics here we will look at a specific issue in OT history, namely the relationship between the biblical figure Shishak and an Egyptian Pharaoh called Shoshenk.

The Bible tells us that in the fifth year of Rehoboam’s reign King Shishak of Egypt came up against Jerusalem and took away a large amount of treasure from both the Temple and the royal palace (1 Kings 14:25–26). Shishak’s name in the Bible, especially in a consonantal form in which it occurs, šwšq, is naturally compared with the Pharaoh Shoshenk (low Egyptian chronology 945–924 BC),[33] who invaded Palestine and recorded his invasion on a temple gate at Karnak in Egypt. The establishment of a time link, a synchronism, between the Bible and the Egyptian record has had important consequences in scholarship. First of all, it provides the earliest agreed record of an event recorded in the Bible which is also recorded in another document. Secondly, by the addition of the reigns of the kings of Judah within the Bible, the event can be given a date.[34] This in turn is used to fix dates in Egyptian history, which otherwise would not be able to be calculated to the precision of a year. Shishak’s/Sho­shenk’s invasion is calculated to ca. 926 or 925 BC.

This striking agreement between the Bible and an Egyptian record has been called into question by some of those with more minimalist leanings. Garbini criticises the standard reconstruction for arbitrary manipulation of Egyptian chronology in order to achieve an agreement with the Bible.[35] He argues that if Egypt were given its most natural chronology without biblical interference it would be seen that the campaign of Shoshenk did not take place during Rehoboam’s reign, but during the reign of his predecessor Solomon. The Bible has moved it in order not to take away from the glory of Solomon’s reign. A different critique of the synchronism is made by Lemche.[36] He argues that there is a strong distinction between the Egyptian and biblical texts. Whereas the biblical text records that Shishak came up against Jerusalem (1 Kings 14:25),[37] the Egyptian record lists a large number of towns captured during Shoshenk’s campaign, but gives no indication that he visited Jerusalem, or even came near it. Lemche concludes that the biblical account of Shishak’s campaign to Jerusalem has been made up by a later writer on the basis of a memory of a campaign by Shoshenk in Palestine generally. The detail that Rehoboam handed over gold to get rid of Shoshenk was made up on the basis of the way Hezekiah in 701 BC handed over gold to buy off the Assyrian Sennacherib.[38]

So far there appears to be a spectrum of opinion with minimalists at one end. A critical consensus stands between them and maximalists, among whom are a number of explicitly Christian scholars. A Christian student with a natural proclivity towards maximalism may be tempted to proceed at once to a critique of minimalism, perhaps even using arguments supplied from within an academic consensus to which they do not ordinarily belong. The problem is that this simple spectrum view does not reflect the whole truth, for this match between Egyptian history and the Bible has also been challenged from a quite different angle. As noted previously (footnote 25) there has been a small even more ‘maximalist’ trend in recent writing, which has been prepared to question more radically the foundations of Egyptian chronology. It has not succeeded in making a very significant dent in the consensus, but it has been most interesting to note some striking parallels between the writings of minimalists and these strong maximalists. Thus Bimson has challenged the equation between Shoshenk and the biblical Shishak.[39] A key point in his argument is the geographical mismatch between the description of the campaign in the Bible and that in Karnak. Thus a scholar who has a very positive view of the historicity of biblical material is found to be using arguments with considerable affinity to those of one with a very negative view of biblical historicity.[40] This illustrates how important it is to reject a spectrum view of modern scholarly literature. Almost all scholars have a large familiarity with material related to the OT, but their analysis can also be influenced by their wider beliefs. It is important therefore to understand a scholar’s work as a whole and to attempt to separate as far as possible information given from the interpretation put on it. Those who are positive towards the historicity of a narrative should not rule out the possibility that a minimalist’s critique of a scholar arguing for a more positive view of historicity is correct. Sometimes a scholar occupying a middle ground can be more guilty of mixing metho­dologies than a scholar at the extreme. This said, there is a lot of strength in the central ground. Despite critiques of Egyptian chronology the present consensus can be seen to provide considerable historical confirmation of the biblical account. The Egyptologist K.A. Kitchen, for instance, observes the vast amount of gold available in the Pharaoh’s coffers at a time directly after Shoshenk’s raid.[41] It is not far-fetched to suppose that some of this is the gold which, according to the Bible, Rehoboam inherited from his fabulously rich father and surrendered to Shishak. But the records are mute, and coincidences like this may not provide incontrovertible proof of the correctness of a scholarly construction. So where does that leave us? A range of competent scholars come to quite different views of biblical historicity. Why do they do so? It is hard to deny that the results have at least as much to do with presuppositions as with data. Presuppositions can work at the highest level of one’s view of life as a whole, but can also provide smaller paradigms within which data are observed and ordered. A student needs to be aware of the interplay of data and interpretation, to avoid an approach which too readily claims historical confirmation of the Bible, and to see the paradigm-myopia of so many claims of disproof of the historicity of the Bible. A proper critique of minimalism needs first to understand what is right within minimalism.

There are of course many problems with minimalism. To bolster its case minimalism has resorted to charges of archaeological forgery;[42] it is constantly having to push the interpretation of data to the limits (and beyond).[43] Moreover, its negative presuppositions are never given full justification.[44]

The most natural reading of quite a few sources is that they provide confirmation of the historicity of some of the events and persons within the biblical narrative. The seal impressions of a number of figures in the Bible have been found: King Ahaz, King Hezekiah, Jerahmeel the king’s son (Jeremiah 36:26), Baruch son of Neriah (Jeremiah’s scribe, in whose handwriting the book of Jeremiah would have been written), and Gemariah son of Shaphan (Jeremiah 36:12).[45] The Mesha stele[46] and Sennacherib’s annals provide, respectively, contrasting accounts of Mesha’s engagement with Israel, the subject of 2 Kings 3, and of Sennacherib’s siege of Jerusalem in 2 Kings 18–20. When adequate account is made of the difference of perspective of these enemy kings the outline of the biblical narratives receives broad confirmation. These documents, of course, are a long way from providing confirmation of the historicity of the Bible as a whole. In the writer’s opinion both attempts to prove the historicity of the Bible by external ‘confirmation’ and attempts to disprove its historicity have failed largely due to faulty paradigms. For this reason students in seeking to adopt positions consistent with the nature of Scripture as God’s Word need to distance discussion of detail somewhat from paradigms.

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Compositional Issues
    Monolithic Writers
    Can Prophets Predict?
    How Many Authors?
Ethical Issues
    Is Genocide Ever Fair?
    Psalms of Hate?
    Use of Background
    Chronological Development
    Towards the New Testament

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Appendix: Reading the Bible Systematically

It is a great privilege to read the Bible and thereby to have access to the mind of God. Here advice is given about how to read through the Bible systematically for the first time. The key thing is to read different books differently. With 929 chapters, it would be possible to read the whole OT at three chapters per day in 310 days. However, when this is attempted for daily devotions it often leads to dry patches which, unfortunately, make many a reader give up before finishing Leviticus. This is because not all parts of the Bible are equally accessible, even though all parts have a profound message for us. Thus while the narratives of Genesis may be gripping, in our culture few find the book of Jeremiah as easy to read. However, some of the hardest parts of the Bible are those which, in the long term, will be most rewarding. All that is advised here is that at first these difficult sections are not read as the prime ingredient of devotions. Broadly speaking for a first read of the Bible it is best to begin with the historical books, that is the narrative from Genesis to Esther in the order these books are found in the English Bible. These provide the historical backbone against which the prophets from Isaiah to Malachi can be understood.

Since particular sections of the OT are often found to be hard work on first reading, the best way to read them is not as part of regular devotions, but by specially setting aside a more extended time, perhaps during a vacation, to work through them. Ideally these special reading times would occur roughly in line with the place of the books in the canon. The parts of the Bible that I would specifically advise are read in such intense sessions are:

Exodus 25–40
Joshua 12–21
1 Chronicles 1–9, 23–27
Isaiah 13–35
Jeremiah 46–51
Ezekiel 40–48

These chapters are no less important than those that surround them. But sometimes the major lesson from them is one made over the course of many chapters, not one summarised in a few sentences. The remaining books: Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs have a timeless quality about them which means that they can be read at any stage, though the last three are probably best read after one has read of the life of Solomon in 1 Kings. Psalms, however, is just the opposite of the books listed above. Because the psalms are largely prayers they speak directly to our own experience, and most of them are readily accessible to us. This means that if we read too much of them at any time we may end up taking less in than we would at a more leisurely pace. The best thing then with Psalms is to read the 150 psalms approximately one at a time over a more extended period.

Coming to the New Testament for a moment. All of the NT books can easily be read in single sittings or spread out over a period. It is often useful to read NT alongside OT. Chapters in the Gospels and Acts are generally longer than those of other books. Reading half a chapter of the Gospels or Acts each day or a whole chapter of the other books of the NT, one can read through the NT in 377 days, or approximately a year.

In conclusion, it is relatively simple to draw up a scheme of systematic Bible reading. But it is most advisable to allow flexibility in it for the type of material being read. This will make best use of the fact that, while much of the Bible speaks directly to our experience, other parts speak to us more on the grand scale of showing how God works.

[This appendix appeared in the original RTSF booklet]


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[1]   Deuteronomy 19:15.

[2]   Parsons Software produce a multimedia CD-ROM called Hebrew Tutor®, which is most suitable for beginners.

[3]   These presuppositions are discussed in Paul Helm and Carl Trueman, eds., The Trustworthiness of God: Perspectives on the Nature of Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002).

[4]   Proverbs 1:7.

[5]   2 Timothy 3:16–17.

[6]   In Lester L. Grabbe, ed., Can a ‘History of Israel’ Be Written? (JSOTSS 245; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997) 104–122. Quotation from pp. 116–17.

[7]   Davies, ‘Whose History?’, 117 n. 19. Davies even criticises Karl Marx’s view of history as ‘theistic’.

[8]   Compare, for example, ‘I repent that I have made Saul king’ (1 Samuel 15:11) with ‘The Glory of Israel does not lie or repent’ (1 Samuel 15:29); or ‘They feared the Lord’ (2 Kings 17:33; cf. 17:41) with ‘they do not fear the Lord’ (2 Kings 17:34). If these statements were treated in isolation they could easily be ascribed to different levels in the compositional process. However, why should they not come from a single author?

[9]   Witness the opening of Charles Dickens’ classic 1859 Tale of Two Cities, ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...’

[10] This is at the heart of the linguistic discipline of Pragmatics. A useful introduction to Pragmatics is Stephen C. Levinson, Pragmatics (Cambridge Textbooks in Linguistics; Cambridge: CUP, 1983).

[11] John F.A. Sawyer, Prophecy and the Biblical Prophets (rev. edn; Oxford: OUP, 1993) 21–24.

[12] See for instance the argument of Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:1–19.

[13] N.P. Lemche, The Israelites in History and Tradition (London: SPCK, 1998) 2, holds rather bizarrely that ‘the historical reading of the Bible is a comparative newcomer in comparison to such venerable procedures as allegorical understanding or typological interpretation…’. He manages to maintain this by stressing that exclusively historical interpretations only developed more recently.

[14] Theodore G. Tappert, ed., Luther’s Works, Vol. 54: Table Talk (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1967) 79–80.

[15] Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (London: Allen & Unwin, 1981); Robert Alter and Frank Kermode, eds., The Literary Guide to the Bible (London: Collins, 1987); Adele Berlin, Poetics and Interpretation of Biblical Narrative (BLS 9; Sheffield: Almond, 1983); Shimon Bar-Efrat, Narrative Art in the Bible (BLS 17; JSOTSS 70; Sheffield: Almond, 1989).

[16] This latter category includes many of the authors in Leland Ryken and Tremper Longman III, eds., A Complete Literary Guide to the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1993).

[17] Quite closely related to synchronic approaches is the ‘canonical’ approach, developed especially by Brevard S. Childs. See his Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture (London: SCM, 1979). See also the evaluation of this with qualifications by Paul R. Noble, The Canonical Approach: A Critical Reconstruction of the Hermeneutics of Brevard S. Childs (BIS 15; Leiden: Brill, 1995).

[18] Jeroboam II is treated in the short passage 2 Kings 14:23–29 whereas Ahab is treated from 1 Kings 16:29–22:40, though some of this is taken up with the figure Elijah.

[19] 2 Kings 18:13. I am of course exaggerating the case slightly. Jeremiah 52:28–30 and 2 Kings 24–25 attest more than one deportation at the time of the Babylonian exile, involving more than 832 people.

[20] A worthwhile though tough aid to such reading would be Meir Sternberg’s The Poetics of Biblical Narrative: Ideological Literature and the Drama of Reading (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985).

[21] This is generally the approach of Lemche in The Israelites.

[22] Speaking of Ezra and Nehemiah, David J.A. Clines says ‘From these books we learn virtually all we know about the history of the post-exilic community.’ See his Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1984) 14.

[23] Cyrus H. Gordon and Gary A. Rendsburg, The Bible and the Ancient Near East (4th edn; New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1997) represent a more maximalist trend towards viewing the Bible as historical while working within a secular framework.

[24] Thus Lemche, The Israelites, 2, quoted above.

[25] Paul Åström, ed., High, Middle or Low? Acts of an International Colloquium on Absolute Chronology Held at the University of Gothenburg 20th–22nd August 1987, Parts 1–3 (Gothenburg: Paul Åströms Förlag, 1987–1989). Very much on the fringe of scholarship, a small group has proposed ultra-low chronologies that reduce parts of the Egyptian low chronology by several centuries during the Third Intermediate Period (normally around 1069–664 bc). Proponents claim that such schemes are alternative paradigms into which conventional data can be arranged so as to provide striking confirmation of biblical narratives. See Peter James, et al., Centuries of Darkness: A Challenge to the Conventional Chronology of Old World Archaeology (London: Pimlico, 1992) and the journalistic David Rohl, A Test of Time: The Bible—From Myth to History (London: Century, 1995). Several scholars reply to the former book in the review feature in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal 1:2 (1991) 227–53, to which the authors respond on http://www.centuries.co.uk.

[26] One scholar who proposed a host of practical objections to the Exodus narrative was the nineteenth century figure John William Colenso, whose objections were particularly shocking at that time because he was Bishop of Natal. See his The Pentateuch and Book of Joshua Critically Examined, Volume 1 (London: Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts, & Green, 1862). Not all his arguments are equally compelling, and several are predicated on an overly pedantic reading of the text. An example of a rather obtuse objection is that he rejects the historicity of the numbers of Levites given in the Pentateuch since they are counted in the first census in the book of Numbers as 22,000 males, and in the second 38 years later as 23,000 males (p. 110). His objection, based on population growth statistics in England from 1851 to 1861, is that they should have grown more (as he estimates starting from 22,000 to 48,471 thirty-eight years later). However, many of his objections are more substantial.

[27] After a long absence the possibility of constructing theories of origins outside of naturalistic assumptions is now firmly back on the agenda; see William A. Dembski, The Design Inference (Cambridge: CUP, 1998) and Dembski, Intelligent Design (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1999).

[28] For an outline of the interaction between science and faith see Philip Duce, Reading the Mind of God (Leicester: Apollos, 1998). An approach which seeks to address some of the scientific issues but without the usual positivistic trappings of a Christian apologist is Leonard Brand, Faith, Reason & Earth History: A Paradigm of Earth and Biological Origins by Intelligent Design (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University, 1997).

[29] Scholars associated with this group include Niels Peter Lemche and Thomas L. Thompson, both of Copenhagen, and Philip R. Davies of Sheffield. Lemche and Thompson prefer the term ‘maximalist’ for themselves, but this is in part due to a rhetorical technique used by the Copenhagen scholars whereby they subvert accepted meanings of terms. See BAR 23 no. 4 (July/August 1997) 28.

[30] Lemche, The Israelites, 1.

[31] Lemche, The Israelites, 1. T.L. Thompson’s critique of much of the academic consensus in historiography is likewise framed in rather religious terms. See his The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives: The Quest for the Historical Abraham (Beihefte zur Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 133; Berlin: De Gruyter, 1974) 326–30.

[32] Lemche, The Israelites, 35–64.

[33] In the Bible the spelling of Shishak is normally q#y# (šyšq) but in 1 Kings 14:25 it is q#w# (šwšq), which is very close to the Egyptian consonantal spelling of Shoshenk, ššnq.

[34] Of course, it is necessary to count the reigns of the kings of Judah back from a fixed date. For a number of dates in OT history after 853 bc Assyrian documents are compared with biblical ones to provide chronological anchors.

[35] Giovanni Garbini, History and Ideology in Ancient Israel (tr. John Bowden; London: SCM, 1988) 29–30. There are important differences between Garbini and some other minimalists. See James Barr, History and Ideology in the Old Testament: Biblical Studies at the End of a Millennium (Oxford: OUP) 91–92.

[36] Lemche, The Israelites, 55–57.

[37] And we might add that according to 2 Chronicles 12:4 he captured all the fortified cities in Judah. For these see 2 Chronicles 11:5–12.

[38] Lemche, The Israelites, 57, 187.

[39] John J. Bimson, ‘Shoshenk and Shishak: A Case of Mistaken Identity?’, Journal of the Ancient Chronology Forum 6 (1992/93) 19–32. However, in the New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition, ed. D.A. Carson, R.T. France, J.A. Motyer, G.J. Wenham (Leicester: IVP, 1994) 355, Bimson identifies Shoshenk with Shishak. This may not be a revision of his earlier opinion, but rather a curtailment of discussion for a popular audience. Bimson became known for his book Redating the Exodus and Conquest (JSOTSS 5; Sheffield: JSOT, 1978), which argued that the Exodus was essentially historical.

[40] This sort of cross-over is not uncommon. The minimalist T.L. Thompson finds himself approving of Bimson’s critique of W.F. Albright’s widely accepted chronology. See Thompson, Early History of the Israelite People: From the Written and Archaeological Sources (Leiden: Brill, 1992) 24–25.

[41] Kitchen, ‘Where Did Solomon’s Gold Go?’ BAR 15 no. 3 (May/June 1989) 30.

[42] Lemche’s readiness even to raise the possibility that a properly excavated inscription mentioning the ‘House of David’, or another inscription mentioning kings of the Philistine city Ekron, are fakes shows a lack of judgement. He retracted the latter opinion in a footnote. However, before examination to have raised the possibility of forgery, with its implied slur on the behaviour of others, is one of the more disingenuous traits of Lemche’s behaviour. See BAR 23 no. 4 (July/August 1997) 36–38 and Lemche, The Israelites, 182 n. 38.

[43] This was certainly done by John Rogerson and Philip R. Davies in denying that the inscription commemorating the completion of the Siloam tunnel was from before the Babylonian exile. See Rogerson and Davies, ‘Was the Siloam Tunnel Built by Hezekiah?’, Biblical Archaeologist 59 (1996) 138–49, with a strong rebuttal in the multi-authored review feature ‘Defusing Pseudo-Scholarship: The Siloam Inscription Ain’t Hasmonean’ BAR 23 no. 2 (March/April 1997) 41–50, 68.

[44] Take Lemche’s statement of the biblical writers that ‘Everything narrated by them may in principle be historical, but the biblical text cannot in advance be accepted as a historical source or documentation; it has in every single case to prove its status as a historical source.’ The Israelites, 29.

[45] See for instance, Hershel Shanks, ‘Fingerprint of Jeremiah’s Scribe’, BAR 22 no. 2 (March/April 1996) 36–38.

[46] The Mesha stele, also known as the ‘Moabite Stone’, may provide some of the earliest references outside the Bible to the dynasty of David. See André Lemaire, ‘“House of David” Restored in Moabite Inscription’ BAR 20 no. 3 (May/June 1994) 30–37.