Who Can Interpret the Bible?

I finished Mark Smith’s Untold Stories: The Bible and Ugaritic Studies in the Twentieth Century.  I’ll start this post with something that Smith says on page 223:

“In the last two decades, historical criticism has hardly been the hegemonic enterprise that its critics have made it out to be.  Few fields have been as open to nonspecialists and dissenting scholars as the biblical guild…Scholars of Ugaritic and Bible should continue to insist on a rigorous knowledge of primary sources even as the discipline engages recently developed methods.  All who enter biblical studies should have their insights noted, appreciated, and refined, as the Bible is hardly the private domain of scholars.  By the same token, the research of specialists or nonspecialists alike legitimately deserves criticism if it does not exhibit knowledge of primary sources.  A field lacking basic professional standards is by definition not professional, and failure to invoke such standards surrenders its identity as an arena for rigorous research.”

Who can comment on the Bible?  Only scholars?  Or can non-scholars—even non-scholars who are unaware of scholarship or scholarly criteria—arrive at legitimate insights about the Bible?  I like how Smith handles this question: He says that everyone should have the opportunity to contribute insights about the Bible, but that all insights should be sifted according to a scholarly criteria, such as consistency with primary sources. I’m for this, on some level, but something that has been reinforced in my mind as I have read this book is how there are disputes among scholars, and scholarship changes.  Just in today’s reading, I encountered a debate about whether or not El is passive in Ugaritic sources, a period of scholarship in which Ugaritic studies declined because Mitchell Dahood went overboard with the language (in the eyes of many scholars), and questions about whether or not Ugaritic should be labeled a “Canaanite” language.  In one humorous story, a student of Frank Moore Cross was writing on the board a vocalized text that was based on one of Cross’ articles, and Cross said that the vocalization was wrong.  So Cross was disagreeing with himself!  And so what is a layperson to do?  He or she should rely on the insights of biblical scholars, but which ones?

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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