Why Damn the Old and Create a New Method?

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by Neil Godfrey

They damned the old method, and self-consciously proposed a new method — not because they sought to create a new theological or scholarly party but because they believed the new method was forced on them by the nature of the Bible itself. Gunkel and his friends were convinced that Wellhausen and his school did not understand the religion of the Bible. If it was true that one understands as much as one has the power to love and to give honour, then the implicit challenge was that Wellhausen did not love enough and honour enough the religion he studied. — J.C. O’Neill, 115

Amen. — at least to the highlighted sentence. The same sentiment applies precisely to the reason underlying many of my posts relating to biblical studies. If I had some bee in my bonnet about Christianity such that I had a mind to “attack” or “undermine” or “expose” traditions, then the tone of my posts would be very different from what I believe it to be. The reason I select topics on which I sometimes take a radically different stance from the conventional wisdom is because I believe that much of biblical studies is held captive to tradition and theological bias. My background is in historical studies and I am interested in approaching Christian and Jewish origins from the perspective of the normative standards of research in other areas of historical inquiry.

As for the second half of that quote, I can’t say I “love” the Bible, but I do love research into understanding the Bible. Does an Assyriologist “love” the often cruel and superstitious inscriptions they must study? I doubt it. But they do love what they can understand and share about another culture and dimension of human experience. It is a sad (though inevitable) admission of the bias in which biblical studies has been held captive that one must justify one’s methods by declaring they are rooted in a “greater love” for the religion built upon them.

(P.S. — If I am completely honest and transparent I have to admit that the quotation I offered above had the impact it did because of my recent experience with the earlywritings forum where the moderator waxed at great length and in multiple comments that my interest was in trying to find some new and most extreme “out there” notion that I could, just to be different for the sake of being different, or “to create a party” as per the quote.)

O’Neill, J. C. “Gunkel Versus Wellhausen: The Unfinished Task of the Religionsgeschichtliche Schule.” The Journal of Higher Criticism. 2, no. 2 (Fall 1995): 115–21.


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