Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Irrelevance of Academic Biblical Scholarship

Just commented on a blog post by Alan Brill about the current state of academic Bible scholarship.  The following is an expanded version of what I wrote there:

Academic Biblical scholarship is often seen as a major challenge to traditional Jewish belief, mainly because it is presented as scientifically disproving the Divine origin of the Torah.

Of course, academic Biblical criticism has always had serious problems, and many of the basic assumptions of its founders in the 19th century have been long disproven through archaeology or simply rejected as baseless. There was a great deal of antisemitism motivating the founders of the field, as well as various intellectual fads (such as Hegelianism). These problematic ideas continue to play a role in many of the underlying assumptions of the field, but the academics are stuck with them because if they got rid of everything that derives from these ideas the entire field would basically evaporate.

There have been many attempts to respond to the conclusions made by academic Bible scholars on their own terms. (The Hertz Pentateuch is probably the best known example in the Orthodox Jewish world.) However, these attempts all suffer from two problems. The first problem is that they are attacking a moving target. The field of Biblical scholarship changes so rapidly that almost nothing written about it today will be true even a few years from now. This means that attempts to refute the specific conclusions of Biblical criticism tend to have a very short shelf life.

However, the bigger problem is that these attempts tend to obscure the more basic issue, and that is that Bible criticism is not, and - for the most part - never has been, a serious attempt to disprove the traditional Jewish position on the origin of the Torah.

This statement is probably surprising to most people, as Biblical criticism is almost always presented precisely as disproving the traditional position. But this is simply not true. Academic Biblical scholarship has never been a serious attempt to disprove the traditional Jewish history of the Bible for the simple reason that it has never attempted to deal with that position on its own terms.

The traditional Jewish position on the origin of the Torah is that it was written by God - not Moses - and given to the Jewish people through Moses, beginning with the Sinai revelation, and that the events it described all happened in the real world. The traditional Jewish position takes for granted that many of the teachings of the Torah were, at some point, the common heritage of all mankind (through Adam, Noah, and others).

Academic Biblical scholarship starts by rejecting that position from the outset. Academic Biblical scholarship has never seriously attempted to prove that God could not have written the Torah, or that God could not have revealed future events to His prophets, or that God could not have performed the miracles described in the Torah, or that the similarities between the Torah and various ancient texts (e.g. Epic of Gilgamesh and the Code of Hammurabi) cannot be the result of a common history and spiritual heritage shared by all mankind.

Rather academic Biblical scholarship simply assumes that these things are not possible and starts from there.  Academic Biblical scholarship is simply a secularist approach to the Bible, which studies the Bible from the assumed position of secular naturalism. It is nothing more than a secular alternative to the traditional history, it does nothing to actually disprove that traditional history. Moreover, given the extraordinarily protean nature of modern Biblical scholarship, it is difficult to say that there even is an alternative history so much as a loose collection of vague ideas about where the Bible came from and how it developed.

A Jew who believes that the national experience and traditions of the Jewish people testifies to the truth of God and His Torah has no reason to be concerned about the assertions of academic Biblical scholarship.

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