The “Scriptural Bible” and the “Academic Bible”


Michael Legaspi begins his fine book, The Death of Scripture and the Rise of Biblical Studies,(1) which treats the eighteenth century origins of modern biblical studies, with an elegantly written description of two approaches to biblical interpretation, what he terms two Bibles–the “Scriptural Bible” and the “Academic Bible.”

Legaspi starts with the “Scriptural Bible,” painting a moving picture with his prose description of the Divine Liturgy:gospel

“From behind the icon screen, the priest comes into view, carrying overhead, in solemn procession, an ornately bound, gold-plated volume: the Book of the Gospels. All stand. There is incense in the air. Acolytes, candles in hand, stand by to illuminate the reading of the Gospel. In that moment, the people are told not to look, to follow texts with their eyes, but rather to listen. The priest proclaims, ‘Wisdom! Let us attend!’ and the people go silent.”(2)

He continues by contrasting this image with that of what he calls the “Academic Bible,” using the example of the university biblical studies seminar classroom:

Bibles“It too is filled with people. They sit, not stand. At the center is a long table. On it are many Bibles, various copies in assorted languages: Hebrew, Greek, Syriac, Latin. Some lie open, others are pushed aside into impromptu stacks. They share the table with other writings: teacher’s notes, photocopies, reference works, dictionaries, grammars, commentaries. The atmosphere is sociable but cerebral, quiet but static. Heads are bowed, but over books. There are readers here too, but the oral performances are tracked closely by others whose eyes are attuned carefully to common texts.”(3)

Not long ago I published an article length review of Legaspi’s book in the scholarly theology journal Nova et Vetera.(4) I had already read the earlier version of the book, which was Legaspi’s Harvard University doctoral dissertation, and I must say that both versions make an incredible contribution to the field. The published version is a must read for anyone interested in the history of modern biblical scholarship.

The quotations I include above from Legaspi’s book, bring up some very important issues concerning methodology, among other things. The issues relate to the relationship between the scholarly study of the Bible in the academy to more traditional forms of encountering Scripture as the Word of God. Can there be a connection? Can one engage in theological interpretation in a way which is scholarly? Are Legaspi’s “Scriptural Bible” and “Academic Bible” mutually exclusive? Can anything that may be gleaned from the study of the Bible in the modern biblical studies seminar like that Legaspi describes be profitable for the spiritual life? Is there something about theological interpretation that can benefit the study of the Bible in a non-theological context? Is there something in particular about the role of Scripture in the Liturgy, and especially the Sacramental Liturgy (Divine Liturgy or Holy Mass) that can benefit the scholarly study of the Bible?

In thinking about this last question in particular, I am reminded of two important scholarly pieces that Scott Hahn wrote, which are thankfully both available online. The first piece is his article entitled, “Worship in the Word: Toward a Liturgical Hermeneutic.”(5) The second essay is entitled, “Canon, Cult and Covenant: The Promise of Liturgical Hermeneutics.”(6) I published a related piece in the journal Logos wherein I used the example of Genesis 1-3 and its use in the Memorial of St. Joseph the Worker.(7)

In the end, I think that both approaches described by Legaspi have their benefits. I would not want to shut out the theological from the academy, nor, however, do I think that close attention to language and history is inimical to theological enterprises. Afterall, traditional Jewish and Christian biblical interpretation paid careful attention to issues concerning language, various textual traditions among different manuscripts, as well as matters of history. The story of the creation of the “Academic Bible” that Legaspi recounts, however, does represent a dramatic shift from what came before. The mode of scholarship that Johann David Michaelis (the main scholar Legaspi examines) initiates has wide-ranging implications, and has left its mark on the world of biblical studies as it continues today in universities across the globe.

(1) Michael C. Legaspi, The Death of Scripture and the Rise of Biblical Studies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

(2) Ibid., vii.

(3) Ibid.

(4) Jeffrey L. Morrow, “The Enlightenment University and the Creation of the Academic Bible: Michael Legaspi’s The Death of Scripture and the Rise of Biblical Studies,” Nova et Vetera 11, no. 3 (2013): 897-922.

(5) Scott W. Hahn, “Worship in the Word: Toward a Liturgical Hermeneutic,” Letter & Spirit 1 (2005): 101-136.

(6) Scott W. Hahn, “Canon, Cult and Covenant: The Promise of Liturgical Hermeneutics,” in Canon and Biblical Interpretation, ed. Craig G. Bartholomew, Scott Hahn, Robin Parry, Christopher Seitz, and Al Wolters, 209-235 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2006).

(7) Jeffrey Morrow, “Work as Worship in the Garden and the Workshop: Genesis 1-3, the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker, and Liturgical Hermeneutics,” Logos 15, no. 4 (2012): 159-178.