The Bible and the Believer: How to Read the Bible Critically and Religiously
by Mark Zvi Brettler, Peter Enns, Daniel J. Harrington
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One of my tasks this year will be to work on answering the two questions that Pete Enns raises regularly in his writings and podcasts:
- What is the Bible?
- What is the Bible for?
The nature and use of the Bible is a matter of debate and, often, controversy in the various traditions and forms of Christian (and Jewish) faith. One of the reasons I have liked Pete’s approach so much is that it cuts through a lot of the surface arguments and focuses on the fundamental questions we should be asking. I’m looking forward to the release of his new book, How the Bible Actually Works: In Which I Explain How An Ancient, Ambiguous, and Diverse Book Leads Us to Wisdom Rather Than Answers—and Why That’s Great News, which will be released in mid-February.
In the meantime, we will take up this theme by considering some other sources, including the book Pete co-authored with Mark Brettler and Daniel Harrington (a Jewish and Catholic scholar, respectively), called The Bible and the Believer.
The goal of this book is to show how Jews, Catholics, and Protestants can and do read the Hebrew Bible/Tanakh/Old Testament from a simultaneously critical and religious perspective. (p. 3)
This goes to the question: how does one approach the Bible? Much as people might like to think we simply take up the scriptures and read them for ourselves, we must realize that our very conception of the Bible and what it is designed do in our lives and in the world is shaped by centuries of tradition and a history of interpretation, including several hundred years of what has been called a “critical” approach to the Bible. Those who practice various forms of biblical “criticism” are trying to understand the background and original purposes of the biblical material.
Rather, we take the term “biblical criticism” broadly to mean the process of establishing the original, contextual meaning of biblical texts and assessing their historical accuracy. This, in turn, might allow those who take the Bible seriously to make informed judgments about its current meaning and significance (or insignificance). Such study is an indispensable step in biblical interpretation. (p. 3)
The book’s introduction gives a helpful overview of the kinds of “criticism” biblical scholars practice.
- Textual criticism means gathering the ancient witnesses in Hebrew, Greek and other ancient languages, comparing them, and then discerning the most accurate form of the text we can reconstruct.
- Form criticism seeks to understand the literary form and genre of the text and then explores how this understanding can guide our interpretation.
- Source criticism seeks to determine if and how the biblical author or editor may have used various sources, which were then integrated into the composition of the text.
- Redaction criticism refers to how and why a biblical author or editor (redactor) arranged his material and what points he wanted to make by doing so.
- Rhetorical criticism focuses on how biblical authors used various literary forms of discourse to get the readers’ attention and/or persuade them.
- Narrative or literary criticism analyzes stories and their various elements in order to understand the impact they are meant to have on the reader.
No one simply picks up the Bible and reads it. Engaging the Bible is a matter of interpreting it, and the various religious traditions that appeal to the Bible have always understood this. The authors of The Bible and the Believer capture this in an excellent overview of the history of biblical interpretation.
Modern critical methods were rooted in Luther and Calvin and the Reformation emphasis on sola scriptura. And though they were often practiced by those with a skeptical view of scripture and faith, the insights they have yielded over time have given those who read the Bible marvelous tools to advance our understanding of what the Bible is and what it is designed to do.