Old Testament Studies Offer Critical Insight into Todayâ€™s World
By Ljubica Jovanovic
Faculty Member, Humanities at American Public University
There is a silent tendency in college-level religion programs to equate biblical studies with Bible school. This phenomenon is especially present in the predominantly Protestant environment where the Bible is often seen as the only source of Christian belief.
Departments of religion, by definition, study world religions. Large departments are partitioned along these lines. While the study of the New Testament constitutes a part of Christianity, the Hebrew Bible forms the sacred scriptures of both Judaism and Christianity. Moreover, Islam shares many biblical stories and figures with Judaism and Christianity. These three faiths are also called the Abrahamic religions because they all look at Abraham, who is a major figure of the Hebrew Bible, as their physical or spiritual progenitor.
Different understandings of the shared biblical events and stories lie at the bottom of their historical, and contemporary, disagreements and violent interactions. Living and working in today’s world demands a good knowledge not only of the contents of the Hebrew Bible stories and books, but also of their interpretations and use in the rhetoric of current political discourse.
While the importance of Hebrew Bible study is undeniable for religious and political studies, its place in today’s academic departments of religion is uncomfortable. If it is studied as Old Testament and presented as a part of Christianity, then it promotes Christian teachings and ignores Judaism and Islam. If it becomes a part of Judaism, then it is used to defend the Jewish faith.
Hence there is a no win situation for Hebrew Bible scholars in the academic studies in today’s university. In order to get academic jobs they find ingenious ways of changing the name of their expertise, such as ancient Mediterranean studies, Middle-Eastern philosophy, or South West Asian cultures.
However, the contribution of the Hebrew Bible study to the humanities in the area of comparative literature and cultural criticism, historiography, and ancient science, is also remarkable. The history of the interpretation of the Hebrew Bible is the longest history of the interpretations of any literary work in the Western civilization, and one of the longest in human history. Thus, the comparative method has a unique case where the constant stays the same for thousands of years with variables that are in the form of many different interpretations which reflect the fashions of passing centuries.
The best intellectual minds over the course of time and space in history have made efforts to find what the sacred texts mean and how certain passages should be read and understood. Modern scholars benefit from the finest interpretations based on popular current methodology that reflect cultural and intellectual expressions of a historical community.
For example, we are today interested in the treatment of women, minorities, and the oppressed. We address these issues using feminist studies and the banner of equal human rights. Our popular methodologies are statistics in social sciences and experiments in STEM sciences. It makes a big difference for us today, if the creation of Eve from Adam’s rib (Genesis 2:21-24) is taken as the subordination of women to men or the perfection of women as the last act of God’s creation. Does this passage reflect the place of women in ancient tribal societies, or is the text written by chauvinistic men?
Another interpretive vignette: the first century Alexandrian Jews were very concerned with showing the omnipotence of the single God and the superiority of their religion over Greek philosophy and polytheism (Kugel, 1999). In this quest, they struggled with the fact that their deity’s celebrated revelation to Moses–in the burning of a tiny, dry thornbush (Exodus 3:2-3)–was so undramatic, of such a small scale, and so unlike what one would expect of almighty God that they marshaled their interpretive methodology of choice, namely allegory, along with what I have argued was their anthropocentric scientific approach, to recast the event as a spectacular divine manifestation (Jovanovic, 2013). Branches were sprouting while burning, using the fire as fuel, and angels radiated an extraordinary beauty from the middle of the flames (Philo, Life of Moses 1:65-67).
What we learn from history can be applied to the different parts of the globe today. The awareness of the different readings of the Hebrew Bible among Jews, Christians, and Muslims themselves may be an essential step towards lasting and meaningful religious tolerance.
Kugel, James L. (1999). The Bible as It Was (Harvard University Press) 302-303.
Jovanovic, Ljubica. (2013). The Joseph of Genesis as Hellenistic Scientist (Hebrew Bible Monographs 48; Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press) 7, 15.
About the Author
Dr. Ljubica JovanoviÄ‡ is a graduate of Athens University, Greece. Her Ph.D. in Hebrew Bible is from Vanderbilt University. Her publications are in early Jewish, Christian, and Muslim sacred texts and science and Mediterranean studies. She has developed and taught courses in religion from 2008 to 2014 at Cornell and Vanderbilt University, and the University of Tennessee. She joined APUS in 2014.