The State of the Bible in North America and Its Significance for Communities of Faith

Article excerpt

I must confess that I have come to appreciate--and fear--the organizers of the Hein Fry lecture series! The formidable topics assigned for the series this past year were: (1) The State of the Bible in North America; and (2) What this state of the Bible might mean for Lutherans. Yes, that's correct, "for Lutherans." As one who puzzles what the Bible means for Roman Catholics, you can imagine how competent I felt about saying what it might mean for the Lutheran Church! My first temptation was to say: The state of the Bible is fine, and it is good for Lutherans to continue to read it! But of course I will say more, although the bottom line may not be far from this summary statement.

Scanning the landscape

One of my pleasant tasks is to serve as the book review editor of a bi-monthly journal called The Bible Today published by The Liturgical Press in Collegeville, Minnesota. I have been doing the New Testament segment of this review article for many years now, and never in that time have the shelves of books waiting to be reviewed even approached being empty. Books on the Bible--scholarly, popular, and in-between--appear at a steady pace, with no end in sight. Religious publishing companies may live on the margin, and some go out of existence or merge, but the number of authors who are eager to publish continues to abound. Not only is there an unending supply of monographs on various topics, but there are increasing numbers of works that assist congregations and teachers in bringing the Bible to a wider audience: one-volume study Bibles and dictionaries, numerous series of commentaries and study guides designed for popular audiences, commentaries on CDs, a vast amount of software to assist biblical study on the part of pastors and educators, and so on.

From a New Testament perspective alone, the topics that seem to dominate at the beginning of the twenty-first century include some of the following. I cite these in a very preliminary fashion and later will single out what I consider to be key issues.

* The never-ending quest for the historical Jesus, now according to some observers in its "third" phase since its eruption at the end of the nineteenth century, remains a topic of great interest for biblical scholarship. In my own perhaps optimistic view, I sense that more balance is coming into the picture, with more centrist scholars such as Sean Freyne, N. T. Wright, James Dunn, and others making significant contributions that give the gospel materials more historical credibility while also acknowledging the significant role of theological interpretation on the part of the early Christian community. (1) Significant, too, is the increasing attention to the results of archaeology, particularly in Galilee, and its implications for understanding the social, religious, and economic context of Jesus' ministry. (2)

* To the question of the historical Jesus we should add the question of the "historical Paul." Of particular importance for biblical scholarship over the past few years remains the question of how to situate Paul in relation to his Jewish and Greco-Roman background. (3) Did he reject the Jewish law and his Jewish heritage? Does justification by grace alone remain a valid way of assessing the heart of Pauline theology?

* Similarly, there is increasing and well-informed attention to the wider social and religious context of Jesus' time and the emergence of the early Christian community. Biblical scholarship has come a very long way in self-correcting its understanding of first-century Judaism, and this has had a significant impact on biblical studies, including studies of the historical Jesus and also of Paul and other New Testament writings. More recent is renewed attention to the impact of imperial Rome and its power on the life and perspective of the early Christian communities. While this impact was evident in the case of such texts as Revelation and 1 Peter, now scholars are attempting to trace its influence on the gospels and Acts. …