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How Do Biblical Scholars Read the Hebrew Bible?

A wide variety of approaches to studying the Hebrew Bible allows biblical scholars to analyze the text on multiple levels.

Detail of a second-century C.E. Greek manuscript of the book of Joshua.
Detail of a Septuagint manuscript

A quick look at the biblical-interpretation section in any college library will immediately show that biblical scholars read the Hebrew Bible in a variety of ways. What most scholars have in common, though, is that they avoid overtly doctrinal readings based on the idea that the Bible is the “word of God” because such interpretations are based on faith claims that are inherently unprovable. Though there is a place for theology in biblical scholarship, most scholars treat the Bible as a work of literature with human authors and readers who live in particular places and times that affect what they write or how they read a text. Biblical scholars use methods of reading that are critical—that is, they do not take the claims of the Hebrew Bible or of traditional interpreters at face value. These methods fall into a range of historical and literary categories.

Historical-critical interpretation seeks to understand the development and meaning of the Bible in its ancient context. First, scholars use textual criticism to try to determine the correct letters and words of the text in its original language. Because there are no existing copies of the Hebrew Bible from the period when it was written, this can be tricky. Different copies of the same text exist and may contain different versions of a particular verse or chapter—perhaps because over the centuries the scribes copying the text made mistakes, or perhaps because the text existed in more than one version from very early on.

Once the words of the text have been established, biblical scholars turn to the content itself to try to determine its meaning, which often begins with trying to understand who wrote it, when, and why. This is called source criticism, as it is aimed at determining the literary sources that were used to create a particular biblical narrative. Many narratives contain repetitions, contradictions, and gaps indicating that multiple sources have been combined in the text. In the flood story, for example, variations as to the number of animals brought onto the ark (Gen 6:19-20, Gen 7:2-3) and the length of the flood (Gen 7:17, Gen 7:24) show that two separate accounts have been woven together to create a single story. Scholars also use redaction criticism to study the process of redacting, or editing, the text.

Scholars may also use form criticism, which focuses on genres of biblical literature. This approach is especially helpful for the book of Psalms, which contains a variety of types of poetic texts—for example, communal laments (Ps 74), individual laments (Ps 77), hymns (Ps 19), and psalms of thanksgiving (Ps 92). In this case, the form or type of poem tells us much about its social function and purpose. Many genres of biblical literature can also be compared to nonbiblical texts—for example, the biblical flood story bears remarkable similarities to the Babylonian flood story, Atrahasis. This comparative approach helps us understand the Hebrew Bible in its broader ancient context and see potential influences on the biblical texts.

Though not a means of reading the Hebrew Bible, archaeology is another useful tool in the biblical scholar’s toolbox. When archaeologists determine the identity of a site mentioned in the Bible and excavate it, their findings may be important for understanding biblical narratives that mention that place. For example, excavations at the site of Jericho, which according to Joshua 6 had walls in the period of the Israelite conquest, have revealed no walls for the historical period in which the conquest is supposed to have happened, thus indicating that the biblical account cannot be entirely historical.

In addition to historical-critical methods, many scholars use literary approaches that have developed as a result of postmodernist trends in twentieth-century scholarship more generally. This broad category includes methods such as structuralist, deconstructivist, and reader-response criticism, which closely examine a narrative’s literary features, but without the same focus on the historical origins of the text. A related group of methods, also primarily literary, is termed ideological criticism. Literary and ideological methods both reject the idea of objectivity, arguing that all readings are subjective and thus the author’s intent is both unrecoverable and irrelevant. Such scholars instead advocate reading the text from specific, stated ideological stances.

Thus, feminist interpreters use modern understandings of gender roles or patriarchal social structures to reveal new readings of biblical texts, sometimes condemning them as misogynist (for example, validating women’s subordination to men) and sometimes applauding them as empowering to women (for example, depicting female leaders such as Miriam and Deborah). Postcolonial readings examine how the power imbalance between colonizer and colonized may shed light on biblical texts and reveal new readings. Postcolonial interpretation varies from culture to culture; in Latin America, for example, postcolonial interpretation of biblical texts about oppression (such as Exod 1-14) and poverty (for example, in Jesus’s life) led to the development of liberation theology, allowing readers to reject the colonizers’ use of the Bible as a means to maintain their own power. Marxist interpretation may also play a role in such readings, which look at how economics and power function in biblical texts; exposing those dynamics can allow them to be overturned—for example, reading wisdom in Prov 1-9 as a commodity to be acquired and thus accessible only to those with the time and money to pursue it.

In between this focus on ancient and modern contexts for readings sits reception history, which studies how the Bible has been read and received over the centuries. This can begin in the canon itself, with references in one biblical text to another (for example, Dan 9:1-2 refers to Jer 25:11-12 and Jer 29:10-14), and extends into the modern period, covering the use of the Bible in other religious writings, in literature, in the arts, and in communities. This approach is broad (covering historical and literary aspects) and can shed considerable light on the many meanings that biblical texts have had through the ages.

Akin to reception history, canonical criticism is a way of studying how the Bible functions theologically in various communities of belief, from ancient Israelites to modern Americans. Unlike the other methods discussed above, canonical criticism takes the final form of the text as its starting point and focuses on how the text as a whole functions as sacred Scripture. Because canons assume audiences of faith communities, this approach is inherently theological, though it aims more to discover theologies in the text than to apply theologies to the text.

Most scholars use a combination of these methods, as each reveals different aspects of the text, whether historical, cultural, sociological, literary, or theological. And when scholars of different backgrounds, faiths, and cultures weigh in, they bring their own unique experiences and questions to the text. Some scholars discuss literary approaches as though they are completely separate from historical-critical ones, but in fact the two overlap in significant ways. The fullest understanding of the biblical text is gained by trying to see the text from as many perspectives as possible.

  • Sarah Shectman

    Sarah Shectman is a scholar and editor living in San Francisco, California. She is the author of Women in the Pentateuch: A Feminist and Source-Critical Analysis (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix, 2009). Her current research focuses on gender in the priestly material of the Pentateuch. She is the cofounder of SBAllies (