The Death of Scripture

LegaspiA review of Michael Legaspi’s The Death of Scripture and the Rise of Biblical Studies

Over the last few months, I’ve put up some reviews of various new academic books on biblical studies. Michael Legaspi would no doubt tell us that those sort of books are indicative of what he calls The Death of Scripture and the Rise of Biblical Studies.

This fascinating study, arising out of a PhD dissertation, focuses ostensibly on obscure German critic Johann David Michaelis (1717-1791), but tells the wider story of the changes in academic perspectives on the Bible over the last few centuries very well. Legaspi is concerned with the Bible’s loss of authority as “scripture” and how this led to the development of academic “biblical studies” as a new science: “textualization” he calls it. Unusually, he doesn’t link the demise of a “scriptural Bible” to the Enlightenment alone, but traces this back to Reformation conflicts, which fundamentally undermined the Bible’s authority he claims.

He looks at how academic university departments began to focus on non-confessional, antiquarian, and supposedly irenic readings of “the text”, replacing the “dogmatic” and controversial approaches of earlier centuries to the word of God.

Stimulating and well-written, with some really interesting glances at Old Testament poetry and how it has been understood (Legaspi knows his Hebrew), but sometimes exasperatingly broad-brush without adequate documentation.

Legaspi’s conclusion that the academic Bible and the scriptural Bible will always be at odds with each other is well worth pondering further, especially for those who are engaged in academic courses of theological study.

Stephen D. Moore and Yvonne Sherwood’s The Invention of the Biblical Scholar: A Critical Manifesto (Fortress. ISBN: 978-0-8006-9774-7) is similarly provocative, claiming that “professional biblical scholars”, even when they imagine they are doing something else such as serving the church and its confession, are actually “sustaining Enlightenment modernity and its effects.” This is a caustic and confrontational book, though quite entertaining at the same time, no mean feat for something so heavily theoretical.

These reviews were first published in Churchman 128/2 (2014).

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