A bunch of quotes I find myself sharing regularly, organised by topic.

Hermeneutics

Without a reasonable idea of the various literary conventions and styles of the ancient writers, we are in constant danger of imposing our own modern readings on the texts instead of understanding them on their own terms.

Jens Bruun Kofoed, Text and History: Historiography and the Study of the Biblical Text (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2005), 54.

As readers, we want to place ourselves in front of the text (and allow it to address us) rather than behind it (and force it to go where we want). The reader’s background and ideas are important in the study of biblical truth; however, this must be used to study meaning rather than to create meaning that is not there.

Grant R. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (Rev. and expanded, 2nd ed.; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 29.

Like much of our theology, our exegetical practices in most cases have been passed on to us by teachers who learned them many years earlier. Unless both our teachers and we ourselves have kept up, it is all too likely that our exegetical skills have not been honed by recent developments. Hermeneutics, linguistics, literary studies, greater grammatical sophistication, and advances in computer technology have joined forces to demand that we engage in self–criticism of our exegetical practices.

D. A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies (2nd ed.; Carlisle, U.K.; Grand Rapids, MI: Paternoster; Baker Books, 1996), 20.

Biblical literature has two dimensions: historical intentionality, in which the author assumes certain shared information with the original readers; and literary intentionality, in which he encodes a message in his text. Authors either address (prophetic and epistolary literature with a present historical thrust) or describe (historical narrative with a past historical thrust) background situations. In both of these cases there are “shared assumptions” between the author and the original readers, information not found in the text, data that they knew but we do not. While semantic research and syntactical analysis can unlock the literary dimension, background study is necessary in order to uncover that deeper level of meaning behind the text as well as within it.

Grant R. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (Rev. and expanded, 2nd ed.; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 158–159.

Anti-intellectualism

Greeting in God, from Origen to my good lord and most reverend son, Gregory. Natural ability, as you know, if properly trained, may be of the utmost possible service in promoting what I may call the “object” of a man’s training. You, for instance, have ability enough to make you an expert in Roman law, or a philosopher in one of the Greek schools held in high esteem. I should like you, however, to make Christianity your “object,” and to bring the whole force of your ability to bear upon it, with good effect. I am therefore very desirous that you should accept such parts even of Greek philosophy as may serve for the ordinary elementary instruction of our schools, and be a kind of preparation for Christianity: also those portions of geometry and astronomy likely to be of use in the interpretation of the sacred Scriptures, so that, what the pupils of the philosophers say about geometry and music, grammar, rhetoric, and astronomy, viz. that they are the handmaidens of philosophy, we may say of philosophy itself in relation to Christianity.

Perhaps something of the kind is hinted at in the command from the mouth of God Himself that the children of Israel be told to ask their neighbours and companions for vessels of silver and gold, and for clothing, so that by spoiling the Egyptians they might find materials to make the things of which they were told for the Divine service. For out of the spoils which the children of Israel took from the Egyptians came the contents of the Holy of Holies, the ark with its cover, and the Cherubim, and the mercy-seat, and the golden pot wherein was treasured up the manna, the Angels’ bread. These things, we may suppose, were made of the best of the Egyptian gold…

Do you, then, my lord and my son, chiefly give heed to the reading of the Divine Scriptures; do give heed. For we need great attention when we read the Divine writings, that we may not speak or form notions about them rashly. And as you give heed to reading the Divine volume with a faithful anticipation well pleasing to God, knock at its closed doors and it shall be opened unto you by the porter, of whom Jesus said, “To him the porter openeth.” And as you give heed to the Divine reading, seek, in the right way and with an unfaltering faith in God, the meaning of the Divine writings, which is hidden from the many…

Orig., Philoc. 13.1–4 Origen, The Philocalia of Origen, trans. George Lewis (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1911), 57–60.

Creation vs. Evolution

Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of the faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason? Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion.

Aug., Gen. litt. 1.19.39. St. Augustine, St. Augustine: The Literal Meaning of Genesis, ed. Johannes Quasten, Walter J. Burghardt, and Thomas Comerford Lawler, trans. John Hammond Taylor, vol. I, 41st ed., Ancient Christian Writers (New York; Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1982), 42–43.

Does the evolutionary doctrine clash with religious faith? It does not. It is a blunder to mistake the Holy Scriptures for elementary textbooks of astronomy, geology, biology, and anthropology. Only if symbols are construed to mean what they are not intended to mean can there arise imaginary, insoluble conflicts… The blunder leads to blasphemy: the Creator is accused of systematic deceitfulness.

Theodosius Dobzhansky, “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense except in the Light of Evolution.” The American Biology Teacher, vol. 35, no. 3 (1973), 129.

How to read Joshua

We are not dealing in Joshua with a factual report of the ways of ancient warfare. Rather, the slaughter of the Canaanites, here and elsewhere, is presented as a theologically correct ideal.

John J. Collins, Introduction to the Hebrew Bible and Deutero-Canonical Books, Third Edition. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2018), 205.

The Joshua of the Deuteronomist is in many ways a thinly disguised Josianic figure who acts out the events of the Deuteronomist’s own day on the stage of the classical past. Against the backdrop of Gilgal, Ai, and Hazor, he struts out a deuteronomistic script recalling contemporary events involving Jerusalem, Bethel, and a Judean expansion to the north. While all this was obvious to the Deuteronomist’s seventh-century readers, the passage of years and later exilic redaction have made Joshua’s make-up and costume less transparent than originally intended.

Richard D. Nelson, “Josiah in the Book of Joshua,” Journal of Biblical Literature 100, no. 4 (1981): 540.

The value of Joshua for Christians

History is always ambiguous. But the ambiguities of history should not blind us to the fact that the unprovoked conquest of one people by another is an act of injustice and that injustice is often cloaked with legitimacy by claims of divine authorization. At the very least, we should be wary of any attempt to invoke the story of the conquest of Canaan as legitimation for anything in the modern world.

John J. Collins, Introduction to the Hebrew Bible and Deutero-Canonical Books, Third Edition. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2018), 206.

Historicity

The interest of the contemporary reader of the Bible tends to focus, much more than his counterpart in antiquity, on historical issues. In fact, for many Christians today, assent to the historical accuracy of the Bible is a major, if not the major, criterion of orthodoxy.

Joseph Blenkinsopp, The Pentateuch: An Introduction to the First Five Books of the Bible, The Anchor Bible reference library (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 1992), 174.

The Bible is not history; it doesn’t pretend to be. It is literature, and a peculiar brand of theological literature at that. It is a reconstruction of the past after the past was essentially over; written, edited and put together in its present form long after the collapse of both the northern kingdom (Israel) and the southern kingdom (Judah). It therefore refracts, as well as reflects, the past. The Bible is a kind of revisionist history.

One of my theological colleagues likes to remind me that the Bible is a “minority report.” It was written by the ultra-right-wing orthodox party after the fall of Israel (the northern kingdom to the Assyrians and the southern kingdom to the Babylonians) to explain the tragedy of those events. The biblical writers are not telling it the way it was, but the way it would have been had they been in charge. (Laughter.) And that obviously gives us a rather skewed view of Israel’s past.

Until recently, the only source we had was the Bible, that is, before the birth of modern archaeology. For many people that was enough. The Bible seems very simple—if you are a bit simpleminded in your approach. I saw a bumper sticker in Tucson recently that declared, “God said it, I believe it and that settles it.” But of course it doesn’t; at least it doesn’t for those who have inquiring minds.

William G. Dever, “How to Tell a Canaanite from an Israelite” in The Rise of Early Israel (https://www.baslibrary.org/rise-ancient-israel/0/0/3/how-tell-canaanite-israelite)

On a historical core to the Exodus traditions

While we cannot agree with Bright (A History of Israel, 121) that the biblical tradition demands belief since no people would invent such discreditable origins, it seems plausible that some Hebrew ancestors of the Israelites spent time in Egypt, together with other Western Semites, and were engaged in building projects. This part of the story is supported by the tradition of entry into Canaan from the south and east rather than via the usual northern route, and there is no reason to follow those who deny any validity to the tradition at this point. Needless to say, not all the tribes were in Egypt. The tribal structure came into existence in Canaan, some of the tribal names deriving from Canaanite topographical features (e.g., Josh 11:21; 20:7; 21:11, 21), and many would now argue that the twelve-tribal system is no earlier than the United Monarchy. The incidence of Egyptian names in the tribe of Levi (Moses, Hophni, Phineas, Merari, and perhaps Aaron) does not prove that this tribe was in Egypt, since it can be explained by pervasive Egyptian influence in Canaan down to the end of the eleventh century at least.

Joseph Blenkinsopp, The Pentateuch: An Introduction to the First Five Books of the Bible, The Anchor Bible reference library (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 1992), 176.

Originally told thousands of years ago by and about a small and obscure immigrant group within the society of early Israelite peoples, and based in all likelihood on some actual historical experience of some of them in Egypt (perhaps the House of Joseph characterized above) the Exodus story eventually came to be told as though it had been true for all Israel. And this accounts for its enduring place in the literary traditions that found their final expression in the Hebrew Bible.

William G. Dever, Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From? (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2006), 234.

Like many scholars, I used to accept the reign of Ramesses II, more precisely the period subsequent to the famous Battle of Kadesh between Ramesses II and the Hittites in the former’s fifth year (now dated around 1273 B.C.E.), as the opportune time for the Exodus. The battle seemed to have been—in contrast to their Egyptian sources—a fiasco for the Egyptians, who were then undergoing a process of temporary decline, especially in Canaan, where the local rulers revolted. Such a situation in the wake of the Battle of Kadesh could well have facilitated, in a broad manner of speaking, an Israelite exodus.
Now, however, I tend to lower the date of a “punctual” exodus — the climatic stage within a durative event — toward the end of the XlXth Dynasty (the late 13th century B.C.E. and the early years of the 12th century). This period saw the breakdown of both the Egyptian and Hittite empires—in modern terminology, the collapse of the bipolar political system of the day. The simultaneous decline of the two provided a rare opportunity for the oppressed, the small peoples and the ethnic minorities from Anatolia to lower Egypt—in Machiavellian terms, the “occasione.” It is in this fluid context that we may find the true setting that enabled the Israelites to set out from Egypt for Canaan.
While there is no direct extra-biblical source on the Exodus (or Conquest) or on the Israelite servitude in Egypt, we do possess several significant indirect sources—a sort of circumstantial evidence that lends greater authority to the biblical account.

Abraham Malamat, History of Biblical Israel (Brill, 2001) 58-59.

I get a headache reading the conflicting reconstructions of the equally erudite but nakedly polemical Egyptologists Kenneth Kitchen and Donald Redford, who know far more than I and yet reach diametrically opposing conclusions (see chart below). For a biblical scholar, the only sensible recourse is agnosticism. (My instinct, for what it’s worth, is to mediate between Kitchen and Redford, taking the Bible’s geographical accounts as flawed, mid-first millennium refractions of authentic Late Bronze Age traditions.

William H. C. Propp, Exodus 19–40: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (vol. 2A; Anchor Yale Bible; New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2008), 753.