The Golden Era of Biblical Exposition

For several centuries, Western readers of the English text utilized the Douay-Rheims version of the Bible originally completed in 1609 at Douay, France which was a direct translation of Jerome’s Latin Vulgate. Across the channel in Great Britain between 1585 and 1611, the original King James Version was issued. This followed Stephan’s Received Text for the most part. Spanish, German and other texts were cited to complete this version where Middle Age texts from the 10th Century were not available.

By the late 18th century, scholars began to notice narrative structure in the biblical text such as poetic forms, stories, epics and other literary genres. Adam Clark of Edinburgh wrote exhaustive commentaries through the entire biblical canon in early 1800’s. His expository notes would be the standard for many decades to follow.

In the 1840’s Henry Alford began to develop modern Greek readings for his New Testament textual commentary and interlinear. (see Alford’s Greek Testament – an Exegetical and Critical Commentary, 1877, seventh edition). By 1858, the rise of the Westcott and Hort theory would provide new dimensions for lower and higher critics to examine the biblical text.

Karl Fredeich Kiel began to question the multiple authorship of the Pentateuch in the 1860’s. Afterwards, Pentateuchal criticism and authorship of Deuteronomy were critiqued for many decades to come by great scholars such John William McGarvey (The Authorship of Deuteronomy, 1902). And on the New Testament exegetical front was Dr. Frederick Louis Godet’s The Gospel of John was published by Funk & Wagnalls Company in 1886. During the 1870’s, Richard Chenevix Trench, DD (Synonyms of the New Testament, 1880) was traveling to distant lands to develop New Testament synonyms. During this period, extensive Old Testament literary analysis was provided by S. R. Driver, DD, Litt. D who compared the Hebrew grammar and syntax against other Semitic and Persian literature to show the literary influences the biblical writers utilized to tell their stories. Lexicographers such as William Gesenius, Charles Briggs, DD, Litt D teamed up with this effort to produce lexicons by Francis Brown, DD., Litt D, Driver and Briggs. Later in 1906, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament with an Appendix Containing the Biblical Aramaic was published by Clarendon Press, Oxford. This team of international scholars were also responsible for the critical analysis contained in The International Critical Commentary published by T and T Clark. These works have been updated by William L. Holladay, Ludwig Koehler, Walter Baumgartner and others scholars to show more recent grammatical discoveries.

Textual criticism in the late 1800’s was led at the University of Chicago by the efforts of Charles Burgon and Frederick Henry Ambrose Scrivener. This discipline attempted to find the sources of the New Testament by pinpointing the origin of textual centers of translation. This was created by establishing textual types and classifications which were used to determine the geographical origin of the textual types. Today, these manuscript classifications with a letter such as “P” followed by a number such as “66” representing textual types is still in use by modern scholars such as Robinson and Priorpoint and Comfort.

As the great lexicons from Oxford and the University of Chicago were being published, work on Ugaritic and other Semitic languages began to blossom. Later, in the 1920’s, the work of Cyrus Gordon and his students would rise to the forefront of Semitic inscriptions. Today, Ugaritic and Canaanite texts serve as the backdrop of Old Testament studies especially in the Pentateuch and the writings of the Psalms.

On the New Testament side of the equation, the work of W. F Arndt and F. W. Gingrich would supply superb lexical data, which on a practical level, would be updated in 1930 by Thayer.

During the period of 1880-1930, the Doctor of Divinity in North America was an earned degree. In Europe the academics of today follow that tradition. The Litt D was often awarded for producing a multi-volume commentary on the text or for popular usage. One could also earn this degree by publishing widely in theological and university journals to establish scholarly credibility. During the period of Burgon and Scrivener, a few scholars emerged with a double PhD, Litt D and ThD. The reason for this academic phenomenon was so professors could teach in the university arena as well as seminaries. Today, this practice is not as necessary due to the accreditation of many church sponsored seminaries and the Doctor of Divinity and Litt D’s in publishing and religion are generally issued in North America with Honorius Causa’s.

In this Golden Age of Biblical study and exposition, multi-volume sets were produced from every corner of biblical studies. Some of these were McClintock and Strong’s Encyclopedia of World Religions, Hastings Bible Dictionary published by Scrivener’s and a multi-volume Concordance to the Greek Testament by Moulton and Geden, T and T Clark publishers. These massive works have never been completely updated to today’s scholarly standards. Multi-volume modern bible reference material is issued primarily in supplemental forms now such as the Interim and Preliminary Report Series or by electronic programs such as Logos.

In the 1920’s, James R. Moffatt’s Commentary and Bible Translation appeared in modern English. Other scholars such as E. W. Bullinger published Figures of Speech Used in the Bible from their Semitic idioms. During this period, Syriac readings behind our Greek New Testament were also under great study by scholars such George Lamsa Rocco A Errico, Geoffrey Cumberlege and Theodor Noldeke. The Gospel of the Twelve Apostles in Syriac translated by J. Rednel Harris, MA was published by Cambridge University Press. Also, complete re-evalutions were issued dealing with the Synoptic problem in publications such as Horae Synopticae by the Rev. Sir John C. Hawkins, BART,MA, DD.

Also in the 1920’s, the first wave of Jesus scholarship was questioned in its historical light by Dr. Albert Schweitzer in his book, In Search of the Historical Jesus. Rudolf Bultmann responded with New Testament naturalistic explanations of the miracles of Christ. He believed they could be explained from natural phenomenon. Willem Van Unnik agreed essentially with Bultmann. Karl Barth held the Synoptic Gospels had historical import but should be understood as Gospel stories.

By the late 1930’s Gerhard Kittel began his encyclopedic treatises from Semitic and Beos literature of the Roman period along with Hellenistic writings to establish his lexical data contained in his biblical dictionaries. Critics responded by stating there was Nazi influence upon his definitions to which Bultmann was a contributor. Even with those accusations, Kittel’s work today is a standard reference for any theological library.

In the 1940’s, French scholar of H. C. Leupold began research for his multi-volume Old Testament commentary. He employed translations of multiple language texts so that reader could follow the lines of transmission from ancient to modern readings.

By 1945, J H Rawley stated studies in the Apocrypha and extra-Biblical literature was completely dead. Little did he know The Great Eruption of extra-Biblical literature would be found in Egypt. At the end of World War II, the two great finds of the century were located which were the Nag Hammadi text and library in 1945 and the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947. These two discoveries have influenced our modern biblical studies and archaeology more than any other sites have done in modern times. The Nag Hammadi library has provided Coptic recensions of the Church Fathers and early church literature well as Gnostic texts were studies for first time in modern history. New Coptic dictionaries were issued by Sir Alan Gardiner and W. E. Crum. The Dead Sea Scrolls have given us ancient commentaries from Qumran on every Old Testament book with the exception of Esther. With the scholarship of Frank Holbrook in the mid-1950’s, we were able to establish the correlation of Revelation Chapter 12 with the Songs of Sabbath Sacrifice contained in the liturgy of the Dead Sea Scrolls (see 4Q 400-403). Among the early editions was More Light on the Dead Sea Scrolls by Millar Burrows in 1956. Further research about Qumran revealed nothing about the New Testament Christianity or the Gospels. Some early Dead Sea Scroll scholars such as Potter believed Jesus and possibly John were from Qumran. Today, more scholarship has dismissed many of these notions.

In 1968, Mary Daley published her work entitled The Church and the Second Sex. This publication was the start of many more liberation and feminist theological and biblical treatises to come. Liberation theology has already come to the forefront in the 1950’s especially in the Third World. By the 1970’s, feminist scholars would move from literary studies into the biblical studies field. Among the first was Phyllis Tribble from Baldwin School of Theology at Union Seminary, New York. In her work, Text of Terror, she showed how male misogynist interpretations have left out feminist readings about the female nature in religious studies as well as the biblical text itself. In decades to follow, feminist commentaries would be published such as The Women’s Bible Commentary by Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe, editors followed by Searching the Scriptures – A Feminist Commentary, Vols 1 and 2, edited by Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, Woman In Scripture, Carol Meyers, general editor. Today’s feminist scholars often take a comparative religious view with an anthropological emphasis to show alternative ethical applications of textual readings. They have opened for us a more complete understanding of God’s female nature. (see Rosemary Ruether’s Sexism and God Talk).

Today, biblical scholarship has many disciplines. Even Old Testament redaction criticism has more than 22 sub-set disciplines. So, post-modern scholars have to specialize in a very specific field of study. Here are few examples: Raymond Brown in his monumental treatment of the Gospel of John contained in the Anchor Bible Commentary; Zimmerman’s treatment of Ezekiel, parts 1 and 2 contained in the Hermeneia Commentary. This work comprises the finest German scholarship published in the English language.

We set on the shoulders of the scholarly predecessors who have come before us. We owe these and other giants a debt of gratitude for what they have provided for our generation. It is not likely that we shall ever see the Biblical text received such treatment from secular scholars or the ecclesiastical authorities ever again. Let’s move forward from the information that has been provided during the golden period of Biblical exposition.

Leave a Reply