by Elizabeth VanDyke, WSC alumna
It is the inevitable question posed to any Ph.D. student of the Bible. In a world increasingly fixated on the practical and immediate, the notion of spending six grueling years learning dead languages and pouring over ancient documents makes little sense. What does such intense devotion to a world long gone give us in the age of Twitter and the iPhone? The Bible has been around for millennia. What more can be said when some of the greatest minds in history have already dedicated themselves to its study? Shouldn’t we be satisfied with what we know, get on with our lives, and leave its interpretation to pastors?
The short answer is no. WSCAL graduates, myself included, keep investing more time in biblical studies quite simply because we still do have a lot to learn about the Bible and its world. Understanding the languages, cultures, and history of Scripture’s context means that we can read its stories and arguments with greater clarity and depth. We can find better translations, explain otherwise perplexing cultural practices, and gain knowledge of daily life in the ancient world. In other words, we can get a better sense for the original meaning of the biblical books.
"WSCAL graduates, myself included, keep investing more time in biblical studies quite simply because we still do have a lot to learn about the Bible and its world."
This desire to know more means that biblical scholars must go beyond their seminary training in several ways. Often this starts with learning several other ancient languages. Some of these languages allow us to better understand biblical Hebrew and Greek as they share similar words, terms, and grammatical features. These studies, however, can also give us a view of the people targeted by the writers of the Bible. In both the New and Old Testaments, the authors warn their readers about outside traditions and philosophies. The Israelites were not to follow the customs of the people around them; Paul wrote against those that would fall back into Judaism or Greek Hedonism. By reading works concurrent with the Bible, as well as by exploring the archaeological record, we learn more about what challenges the biblical writers faced in keeping their people true to the faith. The biblical environment comes to light in a new way. We gain perspective both on what features of foreign religion attracted the original biblical audience, as well as what makes the biblical books truly distinct from everything around them.
Those trained in biblical scholarship thus become resources for pastors and laypeople that do not have the time, means, or skillset to explore every detail of a text. Practically, this turns into a variety of different careers. Most of Ph.D. students want to teach at colleges, seminaries, or graduate schools. Here we can host classes on a variety of topics ranging from theology, history, and ancient language instruction. Others biblical Ph.Ds. instead choose to go into publishing, translation work, or the pastorate. What we all have in common is the ability to research, teach, and write. With these skills we can compose books, commentaries, and articles to better communicate the meaning of the text, express new theories of interpretation, or explore biblical themes and their developments. We can also evaluate other interpretations of passages and engage broader scholarship.
The education required for these degrees, as well as the positions they lead to, are far from easy. Some of the work gets to be exceedingly tedious and difficult. In addition, theological challenges often arise. There is no end to suggested interpretations of texts−or to the writing of books− and biblical scholars work in the middle of it all. Still, we could not ask for a better object of study as we seek to serve the Church.