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The Effective ‘History of the Bible: A Challenge to Biblical Scholarship?1

  • Heikki Räisänen (a1)


Abiblical scholar is sometimes asked, “What effect has the Bible had?” To my embarrassment, I have not been able to draw on solid results of research to answer this very reasonable question. It has been all but ignored by the exegetical guild.



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2 ‘Bible in the Church’, ERE. 2 (579–615) 579.

3 Edinburgh 19M. The quotation is on p. 3 (italics mine). A German version appeared in 1934 with the title Die liibei im Leben der Volker (2nd ed. Witten 1936). von Dobschütz deals at length also with textual history, translations and biblical study (matters which are ouusidc of the scope of the present article). Bui he has also instructive; sections on the Bible in divine service, in private use and in ‘folk life’.

4 Rost, H., Die Bibei im Mittelaller: Beiträge zur Geschichte und Bibliographie der Bibel (Augsburg 1939, 1112) made a similar plea, noting that it would be worthwhile to trace also the ‘profane’ aspects of the significance of the Bible ‘for the culture of mankind’, He planned an archive for the cultural history of the Bible which ought to cover such areas as the distribuiion of the Bible in the world biblical geography, excavations in the holy land, culture within the Bible itself, reports on biblical scholarship and on the work of the papal Bible commission, etc. (p. 11–12). This vision is much wider than the one developed in this article and, I am afraid, to diffuse to be practicable.

5 I am speaking of the influence of the Bible, not of the history of its exposition which has been studied by a number of scholars. I will return to this distinction later.

6 Jerusalem 1973.

7 Some of this is also visible in Roth's, C. opening chapter on ‘The Hebraic Heritage’ in his The Jewish Contribution to Civilisation (Oxford 1943, new ed., 116) to which Sivan is indebted.

8 See e.g. The Cambridge History of the Bible, especially volume 3 (The West from the Reformation to the PresentDay, ed. Creenslade, S. L.) and Pelikan, J., Jesus through the Centuries: His Place in the History of Culture, New Haven-London 1985 (cf. below, n. 28). For a very readable introduction to the medieval situation see Hamilton, B., Religion in the Medieval West, London 1986. Koran excellent bibliography see H. Karpp, ‘Bibcl IV. Die Funkiion der Bibel in der Kirche’, TREVJ (1980) 48–93. Karpp's article is a good introduction to the useof the Bible in the church.

9 The need is seen by the editors of Bible de tous le temps; cf. vol. 1 (Paris 1984) p. 5: ‘Un hisioiredu recours pratique a la Bible, surune tongue durec, manque á ce jour. Cette nouvelle collection répond á ce besoin, en voulant ouvrir les yeux sur le lieu, la place, l'usage de la Bible dans la société occidentale, du Christ a nos jours: comrnenlla Bible estdécouverte, mise en main, mise en oeuvre, lue, medité, vécue; comment. la Bible devient un ferment pour des societes ct des cultures.’

This vast project involved some two hundred participants. In it, no clear distinction is made between the effects of the Bible and iis use. The laneris more in focus, but valuable information on the effects is also found in many contributions. The series is a useful collection of materials, a first step toward the venture of a synthesizing account. A shortcoming is that harmful effects of the Bible are seldom mentioned. See now the review article by E. Ann Matter, ‘The Bible in All Ages?’, JR 71, 1991, 79–90.

10 In accordance with the English translation of Gadamer I shall render it with ‘effective history’.

11 Truth and Method, London 1988 3. For a critique see II. G. Stobbe, Hermeneutik — ein ökumenisches Problem: eine Kritik der katholischen Cadamer-Rezeption (ÖT 8), 1981. Stobbe concludes that Gadamer's philosophical hermencutic is an aporetic, self-contradictory conception which leads to unacceptable results (2M); cf. the more detailed criticisms 124IT. (esp. 140f.).

12 H. -11. Schrey, referring lo Gadamer, speaks of a kind of ‘secular authority of Scripture’, allegedly possessed by Scripture since we live, willynilly, in a world influenced by it: ‘Die Auiortät der Heiligen Schrifmnier dem Gesichtspunkt der Wirkungsgeschichie’, ThZ 26, 1970 (419–33) 428. Schrey (431f.) also postulates that effective hisiory of the Bible can not mean the effective history of an individual ‘word’ of the Bible, ‘however much influence such words may actually have had’, but ii must mean the ‘total impact’ (Gesamlduktus) of Scripture. Thus, the concept of ‘partnership’ is not foundin the Bible, but the pertinent subject-matter, the equality of man and woman in a relationship in which they from different presuppositions aim at the same goal, is there. This example shows that a very selective reading of the Bible is in view here. For criticisms see Petzke, C.. ‘Exegese und Praxis,’ Theologia Phactica 10, 1975, (219) 12f.

13 Tree, Gadamer did not think of ‘effective-history’ as an empirical discipline at all: ‘I am not saying that historical enquiry should develop this effective-historical problematic: that would be something separate from that which is concerned directly with the understanding of work. The requirement is of a more theoretical kind.’ Op. cit. 267; cf. Stobbe.op. cit. 118, 244 n. 108. Gadamer's talk of effeciive history is just a way of saying thai we are influenced by tradition (‘we are always subject to the effects of effectivehistory’, op, cit. 267) — and also of claiming ihai we should heed the tradition.

I think that the term should be rescued lor less speculative employment with reference lo an actual history of empirical effects.

14 Vom VersUhen des Neuen Testaments: eine llermeneutik, Göuingen 1979, 221.

15 See also Stuhlmacher, op.cit..30. 198.208 (with an appeal loGadamer). In a passage entailed ‘Exegesis, effective history, and doctrine’, a Finnish bishop (formerly professor of systematic theology) equates the effective history ‘with the post-biblical discussion in the church and its results’; these results are taken to be implicit in the Bible. K. Toiviaincn, TAik 91, 1986, 241f.

16 Strecker, G.Schnelle, U., Einführung in die neutestamentliche Exegese, Göttingen 1988 3, 161.

17 Berger, P., The Social Reality of Religion, London 1969, 113, with reference to Max Weber. As a random example consider the effective history of Virgil's fourth Eclogue (written in honour of Augustus), because of which Dante paid to Virgil the salute ‘through you I became a poet, through you a Christian' (Purgalonio 22). It is also intriguing to reflect on the possibility that both the preservation of Paul's letters and the birth of the New Testament canon as a whole may be effects caused by Marcion's activity!

18 Ebeling presented in 1946 his programme of church history as a history of the interpretation of the Bible (reprinted in Wort Cottes und Tradition, Götiingen 1964, 927). Cf. op. cit. 24: the task of church history is to discover the relation of the events to Scripture and to organise and weigh (!) them in viewoi Scripture. Church history thus understood is, for Ebeling, a prescriptive discipline which studies what ought to have been; ‘Christ’ is the normative criterion applied by this historian. Cf. op. cit. 27: church history serves the radical critical destruction of everything thai has, in the course of history, put itself between us and Christ. The church historian must presuppose God's revelation in Christ and the unity of the whole Scripture (op. cil. 23). 1 have instead an empirical-historical task in view.

19 Those of us in particular who are drawn toward that elusive subject ‘biblical theology’ should take the trouble to reflecton the actual empirical role of the Bible. I wrote (Beyond New Testament Theology, London 1990, 140) that the contribution of a biblical scholar at a theological level (as distinet from his or her historical task) should include ‘a critical reflection on the role of the Bible within the post-biblical development’ (and also ‘a rational assessment of the biblical ideas and values from some modern poiniol view;’ this latter task is another story, but obviously an evaluation of the effective history would be a good preparation for it).

20 Cf. Smiih, W. C., ‘The Study of Religion and the Study of the Bible,’ JAAR39, 1971 (131140) 132f.

21 Cf. Luz, U., ‘Wirkungsgeschichtliche Exegese: ein programmatischer Arbeitsboricht mil Beispielen aus der Bergpredigtexegese’, Berliner Theologische Zeitschrift 2, 1985 (1832) 30f.

22 Cf. Luz, an. cil. 31: ‘… wirkungsgeschichtliche Beobachtungen (können;) zu einer direkten Anfrage an die Wahrheit der Texte führen’.

23 The distinction was once made by von Dobschütz; see above, n. 2.

24 See e.g. Sawyer, J. V. A., ‘Interpretation, History of’, in A Dictionary of’ Biblical Interpretation (ed. Coggins, R. J. and Houlden, J. I., London 1990) 316320. He states (316): ‘The view that the history of interpretation is an integral part of biblical studies, and should not be left entirely to theologians or church historians, is now widely held.’

25 This is one of the aims of the series Evangelisch-katholischer Kommentar as a whole, but Luz is the one contributor who has really tackled this issue in a more systematic way: Das Evangelium nach Matthdus 1, Zürich etc. 1985. Cf. especially his remarks in op. cit. 78–82. See further Luz, U., ‘Die Bergpredigt im Spiegel ihrer Wirkungsgeschichte’, in Moltmann, J. (ed.), Nachfolge und Bergpredigt, München 1982,23772; id., ‘Exegese’.

Wrege, H.-T. wrote a monograph on the effective history of ‘the gospel’ (Wirkungsgeschicite des Evangeliums, Göttingen 1981), but the work deals more with certain stages in the history of theology than the specific role of the Bible in them. The influence of the Old Testament receives little attention and the Middle Ages are totally glossed over. Wrege thinks (op. cit. 9) that the situation in which a text was born finds ‘resonance’ in its effective history. This is possible, but it is equally possible that a text may have an impact in a situation quite different from the original context.

26 Cf. also Smith, art. cit. 136.

27 Op. cit. 78. Cf. also Berger, K., Exegese des Neuen Testaments, Heidelberg 1977, 106f.

28 An analogy is the question of the influence of Jesus on subsequent history. Pelikan's great and instructive work Jesus Through the Centuries (n. 8) which explores ‘his place in the history of culture’ gives a full picture of the appropriation of Jesus and of the reinterpretations of his message, so much so that ‘the way any particular age has depicted fesus is often the key to the genius of that age’ (3). But in all this rather little influence of (the historical) Jesus is fell (he did have an effect on monasticism and some peripheral groups).

29 See Pelikan.op.cit. 118f.

30 See Bowden, J., Jesus: the Unanswered Questions, London 1988, 122.

31 Of course, it would be quite hopeless to try to pinpoint the one ‘original’ meaning of any text, But I think it is legitimate to speak of the range of possible original meanings which still excludes a number of interpretations as implausible.

32 The same seems to be true of W. C. Smith's approach despite his broad comparative perspective. Though not insensitive to other aspects, his focus is on the Hible ‘asa living force in the life of the Church’ (art. cit. 133) or ‘its role in the religious life of man’ (136), on how it has served and serves spiritually (139; italics mine).

33 Thus M. Kähler, whose article of 1907 bore the title ‘Goschichu; der Bibcl in ihrer Wirkung auf die Kirche. Beitrag zur Begründung des Ansehens der Heiliger, Schrift’ (my italics). The article is reprinted in Aufsätze Zur Bibelfrage (ed. Kähler, E.), TB 37, München 1967, 131233. Kähler did, however, recognize that the influence of the Old Testament on the church has not always been beneficial (see esp. 271).

34 Thus in ERE 2, 580, in contrast to Kähler's ‘definite theological purpose of showing the significance of the Bible for the Church(“tesimonium Spiritus Sancti in ecelesia”)’.

35 He claimed that ‘the history of the Bible is an objective proof of its beneficent operation’ and refutes hostile attacks by asking, ‘What has Balaam's ass, or Joshua's sun … to do with the Sermon on the Mount or the great hymn of love (1 Co 13)? (ERE2, 615). Where critics attack the Bible as it has been used, von Dobschütz defends it by appealing to those passages which he finds the best. I am notsurt: of the effective history of Balaam's ass, but certainly Joshua's sun did have an enormous effect towards preventing the rise of modern science. This is not to be explained away.

Von Dobschütz has nothing to say of, say, Calvin's tyranny in Geneva. Although his book of 1914 is less apologetic, it too has a theological aim: to show how modern civilisation and Christianity can go on in harmony (v).

36 For a critical assessment of the influence, not of the Bible in particular but of Christianity in general, see Westermarck, E., Christianity and Morals, London 1939. This work, though dated in some respects, contains a wealth of material for the effective history of the Bible as well.

37 Ruether, R., New Woman, New Earth: Sexist Ideologies and Human Liberation, New York 1975, 89ff.

38 Greenslade, S. L., ‘Epilogue’, in The Cambridge History of the Bible 3 (476519) 495, 507.

39 Dr M. Myllykoski, responding to a draft of the present treatise, proposes a somewhat different classification: (1) the imperative, (2) the optative and (3) the cognitive influence. (1) refers to biblical commands and prohibitions, (2) to texts that inspire hope and prompt emotions, (3) to passages that provide knowledge.

40 von Dobschütz, Influence, p. 1 (Table of Contents). See also Karpp, art. cit.

41 This was largely because in many practical mailers the New Testament gives but little guidance; cf. Schöfller, H., Abendland und Alles Testament: Untersucjung zur Kulturmorphologie Europas, insbesondere Englands, Frankfurt am Main 1941 8, p. 11, 20. See also the sharp comments of llowden, op. cit. 110: has not the detrimental ‘chaos of Christian moral leaching’ its ’ultimate origin in the enigmatic nature of the earliestethical teaching of Christianity, that attributed to Jesus, and the church's extremely arbitrary use of it over the centuries?’

42 It led to the split of Christendom when the Reformation lore the Bible apart from other tradition. Sola scriptura proved ‘the harbinger notof peace but of a sword; and a sword of such sharpness as to pierce to the dividing asunder of the joints and marrow of Protestantism’. Socinus and his adherents ‘denied the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity and the co-equal Deity of Christand the Father, together with a number of generally accepted beliefs, such as those in original sin, predestination, vicarious atonement and justification by faith.’ Sykes, N., ‘The Religion of Protestants’, in The Cambridge History of the Bible 3 (171198) 178.

43 Cf. Rowden, op. cit. 28, citing J. Barr.

44 Brooke, C., The Medieval Idea of Marriage, Oxford 1989, 45f.

45 Brooke, op. cit. 133f.

46 Skinner, Q., The Foundations of Modern Political Thought 2: The Age of Reformation, Cambridge 1978, 113.

47 Sivan, op. cit. 168.

48 Smiih, W. C., ‘Idolatry in Comparative Perspective’, in The Myth of Christian Uniqueness (ed. Hick, J.Knitter, P. F., London 1988, 5368) 54f.

49 A History of Western Philosophical Thought, London 1984 (repr.), 361.

50 Cf. Bowden.op. cit. 16, 165.

51 On the problematic consequences ol such an exclusive conviction see Bowdcn, op. cit., 16, 165; J. Hick, ‘The Non-Absoluteness of Christianity’, in The Myth of Christian Uniqueness (16–36) 20. Some pioneers of missionary work aimed purposefully at destroying the original culture of those missionised; see e.g. Jewett, R.. The Captain America Complex: the Dilemma of Zealous Nationalism, Santa Fe 1984, 142151.

52 See Gilkey, L., ‘Plurality and its Theological Implications’, in The Myth of Christian Uniqueness (3750) 38.

53 See Bainton, R. H., Hunted Heretic: the Life and Death of Michael Seruetus, Boston 1960 (repr.) 169171. Of course, a different paradigm would have been available. The pacifist, advocates ol religious liberty at the time of the Reformation rejected the wars of the OT and would not suffer the frightful treatment recommended lor apostates in Deut. 13 to be applied to Christian heretics. Sebastian Castellio for one wished ‘that, the persecutors would select the finer portions of Moses, those which better accord with the mercy of Christ. If only they would imitate the Moses who, though the children of Israel wished to stone him, nevertheless appeased the anger of the Lord against them and desired to be bloued out of the Book of Life rather than that, they should perish’: Bainton, R. H., ‘The Bible1 in Lhc Reformation’, in The Cambridge History of the Bible 3 (137) 17.

54 See Ruether, R., Faith and Fratricide: the Theological Roots of Anti-Semitism, New York 1974.

55 Apocalypse, Hamburg 1934, 54–56. Lawrence contrasts the Christianity of Revelation with that of Jesus and his love command (40–50).

56 The Muslim scholar F. Rahman writes: ‘… above all, Christian millenarianism played a role, leading Christians to actively interfere in history out of the conviction that if the prophecy of the return of the Jews to Palestine does not fulfill itself, it must be fulfilled by Christian intervention. The importance of the role of Christian millenarianism in this drama is generally not duly recognised.’ ‘Islam's Attitude Toward Judaism’, Muslim World 72, 1982, (1–13) 10f.

57 Cf. on music R. Swansion, ‘Music, The Bible in’, in A Dictionary of Biblical Interpretation, 469–73. In any case, he cites an early instance of indubitable influence of the Bible: some influential early Christians who found music too secular ‘would have banned it’ on many occasions ‘but for its saturating presence in the Bible’. ‘David's dancing and playing instruments before the Load (II Sam. 6.3–14), or Solomon's celebrations … (II Chron. 5.12–14) powerfully demonstrated the acceptability, even the desirability of music in worship …’ (470).

58 Pelikan.op. cit. 113, 135.

59 Correctly Hick, art. cit. 26f.: cf. Barr, J., ‘Man and Nature — the Ecological Controversy and the Old Testament.’, BJRL. 55, 1972, g.32.

60 Hick, art. cit. 28: ‘for the previous thousand years the Christian West had been strongly hierarchical, sanctifying serfdom and the subjugation of women, believing not in the rights of humanity but in the divine right of kings, burning heretics and witches, and brutally suppressing both social unrest and deviani intellectual speculation. The dawning concepts of human rights and of individual freedom and equality were initially as powerfully opposed by the church as was modern science… The belated and still often wavering conversion of the churches to the ideals of human equality and freedom is a very recent development, which is now also occurring within the other world traditions.’

61 Robinson, R., An Atheist's Values, Oxford 1964, 148 points out that it is wholly absent in Jesus' teaching.

62 See in particular Wilkcn, R.. The Myth of ‘Christian Origins, London 1979, 154f.; Smith, ‘Study’.

63 Cf. Smith, art. cit. 140.

1 A shorter version of this paper was presented lo the New Testament seminar of the University of Fxlinburgh on 26 November 1990. Members of the seminar made some most stimulating suggestions. I regret that I have not been able to take account of them here, but I hope to do that in the future.


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