Brigitte Rabarijaona

What Bridge Can There Be Between Modern Biblical Sciences
and Faithful Readings of the Bible?

After working in a rural parish and after spending several years in modern biblical studies my desire to create a bridge between modern biblical science and faithful biblical reading was born. How can a complementarity of these two completely opposite reading methods be formed? The aim is not to force a combination, but to take from one what is lacking in the other and vice versa. These two readings can feed each other mutually in order to promote a life affirming reading in which there is an interaction between the text and its readers. But this desire is also a challenge. The challenge of opening: the opening to a world, to a long overshadowed method, and to the Word that drives us out of our habits and our traditions in order to bring us back to our own reality.

D’un côté le travail dans une paroisse rurale malgache, de l’autre côté l’expérience des sciences bibliques modernes: voici comment mon désir de créer un pont entre les sciences bibliques modernes et la lecture croyante de la bible est né. Il s’agit de trouver la complémentarité de deux méthodes de lecture que tout oppose, et prendre chez l’une ce qui manque à l’autre et vice versa. Elle peuvent se nourrir mutuellement dans le but de favoriser une lecture vivante et édifiante dans laquelle il y a interaction entre le texte et ses lecteurs. Mais ce désir est aussi un défi. Le défi de l’ouverture: ouverture à un monde, à une méthode longtemps occultée, et à la Parole qui nous sort de notre habitude pour nous ramener à notre propre réalité.

„What will change in your preaching when you finish this degree?“ a lady from my old parish asked me when I announced to her that I was going to resume studying in order to pursue a doctorate in theology. Later, when I presented my thesis project, a professor of biblical studies told me: „One does not do a three-year thesis for five minutes of preaching!“ These two remarks, as naive and ironic as they are, are significant. Some regular Bible readers think that modern biblical studies are useless and „kill faith“ by putting everything into question. They are considered as having no pastoral utility due to the fact that the methods used do not always take into account either the final form of the text nor its hermeneutical and spiritual dimension. On the other hand, for researchers in biblical studies, faithful readings of the Bible that focus solely on the final form of the text are too literal and fundamentalist, destined more for the heart than the head.

I found myself caught between these prejudices. I speak of prejudice because I find these points of view reductionist. The academic side expected of me to do scientific work in good and due form, meeting the requirements of modern biblical science, while the church side expected me to do the pertinent and speaking work of a messenger for the current context. How to meet these expectations that, a priori, are diametrically opposed? This is where my idea and desire to create a bridge between the two were born. To satisfy only one of these expectations would mean to ignore what benefit each one can have for the other. In my opinion, the results of scientific biblical research are not reserved exclusively for the university. The same goes for the question of interpretation, it is not restricted to ordinary readers. The two are complementary. The Bible is not a simple book that one can peel and dissect in order to emerge only with a scientific result, through whatever method. Neither can it be taken literally, because although it has the authority of God’s Word, we must recognize that it is written by human hand. How can a bridge be created between these two points of view, these two methods, and these two ways of reading the Bible? How can they each become more useful to the other?

Modern Biblical Sciences

The most widely used but also the most criticized method in biblical sciences is the critical and historical exegesis. The strength of this method is that it aims at understanding the intention of the author, the tradition behind the text and the historical events related to it. It seeks to distinguish the various sources and composition of the various strata of a book or a biblical text. This work of cutting and decomposition looks critically to the smallest textual, historical or archaeological details that could provide information. Through this method, the production period of the different layers of the text becomes more understandable; such seemingly shocking accounts that speak about warfare or murder as are often found in the Old Testament, for instance, are less frightening once one understands the context of their production. The careful reading proposed by modern biblical science thus becomes an effective instrument to avoid putting warfare and conflicts on the account of a bloodthirsty God. However, despite its quest for rationality, this method finds its limits on the edge of the academic circle. What is the interest in understanding the history of the composition of a book, a chapter, or a biblical passage, if it isn’t to find an adequate message? The “abusive” use of this method born in the occident is often pointed out by certain ordinary readers of evangelical background in Africa or in Europe as being one of the reasons for the dechristianization of Europe.

Defended despite everything

 Despite these criticisms, which have been voiced since the birth of this method, it continues to be applied, developed, used and studied. Jean-Louis Ska, professor of Old Testament, is one of its strong advocates. While acknowledging its negative aspects and the criticism against it[1], he tries to demonstrate the validity of the approach. For him, given that the Bible does not give a comprehensive historical narrative but rather a story aimed at forming the consciousness of a people that seeks to understand its destiny, it is the historical critical method that allows filling the historical and literary vacuum[2]. All these analyses have the merit of not considering the text as having fallen from heaven. However, by dint of questioning everything and criticizing everything, they forget that the biblical texts were not written for historical but primarily theological purposes. They merely delve into the past of the text without seeking to understand what it means in the present time of the reader. This is where it is accused of feeding scepticism instead of nourishing the faith of those who read the Bible. There is no real interaction between the text and its readers, since the focus is directed at the relation between the text and its authors.

Faithful readings of the Bible

 This reading uses the text in its final form in order to respond to questions posed by readers in their own context. It is the meaning of their life that is put into question in a double dimension: individual and communitarian. In the individual dimension, the reader can use his or her own method and reflexion in his or her own way. In the communitarian dimension, this reading is most often practiced in different church-related groups and environments. Individual or communitarian, this reading favours the interpretation of the text, the interaction between text and reader, and the interaction between the readers themselves. The readers allow the text to challenge them by its pertinence, its symbolic and spiritual dimension, and the echo that it sends back in to their present circumstances. The readers can identify themselves with characters or situations in the Bible that carry a similarity or a relation with their own life. Thus, the reader’s experience, their culture, their convictions, their sentiments and their whole personality are concerned in the reading that they conduct. Here, the notion of incarnation finds its whole meaning.

Opening or closing up?

 Faithful Bible readings give the readers a certain freedom for a personal and personalised reading, but it becomes risky once it is practiced with rigidity, as it is the case in certain evangelical environments. A mechanical rigidity, oriented through the theological dogma and tendency of a community or a denomination that refuses to consider the humanity of the author even though God has chosen to reveal Himself through this human. It is sometimes forgotten that the Bible doesn’t tell the story of God but of the humans to which it is addressed. The freedom of interpretation can lead the readers to pretend to possess the truth or to justify their acts in the name of what they think is the truth. Instead of opening themselves to a life-giving word, they lock themselves up in a naïve fundamentalism that refuses to confront reality. In this case, the Bible stops being the liberating word that incarnates itself in the reality of its readers and the readers become indifferent to their own reality. The danger is to fall into a sectarian spirit inclined to radicalism in which one only feels at ease in the company of those who share the same perspective and the same conviction, but which paralyses once one encounters people outside that circle.

Each of these two readings has its strengths and its weaknesses. In the reading of modern biblical sciences, the text is at the centre of the studies, while in the traditional reading, it is the reader who is at the centre. Obviously, the other can provide what lacks each one of these readings. This is exactly where my desire to create a bridge between the two so that they stop rejecting each other also becomes a challenge.

An example : The starving people and the gargantuan meal of the governor (Nehemiah 5:1–19)

I take as an example chapter 5 of the book of Nehemiah that I have recently read with two groups of readers: the students of the faculty of theology of Ambatonakanga and a group of women from the congregation of Antanamalaza.

I proposed to my students at the faculty of theology to read this passage without telling them what method to use. The students, having learned the methods of modern biblical science, immediately remarked that in its final form, this text contains a certain amount of incoherence that one cannot understand through a simple reading. Indeed, the passage begins by an account of the complaint of the people because of the famine and ends with the gargantuan meal that Nehemiah serves every day to his guests. It was thus indispensable to try to understand the reasons for this and the best method was socio-historic criticism, which allowed the students to come to the conclusion that this chapter cannot be considered as an entity. This chapter is divided in two parts: one recounts the complaint of the people (v. 1-13), and another one describes Nehemiah’s role as a governor (v. 14-19). The only thing that both pericopes have in common is the principal and exemplary role played by Nehemiah. The editor of the book decided to combine them in order to legitimise the role of governor Nehemiah, of whose nomination one knows neither the date, nor the process, nor the person who was responsible. I then asked the students to explain this. In order to respond to this, they were compelled to go back to the history of the return of the exiles to Jerusalem, their economic and social situation, the role of a governor at this time, the religious organisation of this time, and other questions of that nature. It was at the very end that a student had the idea to find a coherent message within the text despite its incoherence. This message was rather difficult to formulate after the tentative of understanding the text in itself. But once we tried to read it with our own context in mind, taking into account the question of injustice and unequal distribution of resources, it was easier for the students to formulate a message and to identify with one or another character of the text. The message that they found went from the courage of the people to dare denounce the abuse of certain rulers, to questioning the sensitivity of the rulers to the reality of life of their people. And between the two, the role and the presence of the ecclesial community in the quest for justice in society.

The group of women didn’t notice the incoherence within the text because after reading the text silently and then aloud, they began to recount what they felt while reading and rereading the text. They identified easily with the women who denounced the injustice and interpreted the text in relation to the injustices that they experienced in their daily lives. Some envied the place of the women among the people who talked, who denounced the injustices that were listened to and heard by Nehemiah. For them, the political rulers of today should act like Nehemiah: they should be sensitive to the problems of the people and act and reign accordingly. It was interesting to see that none of these women was shocked by the description of what Nehemiah offered his guests during this time of famine. Most of them found it normal that the rulers eat to the full while the people scream from hunger. It is true that the African rulers today act in the same way, but the fact that such accounts are in the Bible doesn’t justify such acts. This is when I proposed the women to find incoherencies in the text. Their way seeing things changed. One very simple textual criticism allowed them to take some distance from the text and enriched their discussion. Having understood that the text could have been written at two or three times, with some decades in between, they acquired a new way of commenting on it. Nevertheless, for each of those different phases of the text, they kept asking the same question: “What does God want to tell us by this?”

This question is the advantage of this faithful reading, which academic readings should take more into consideration. Written by humans, at a precise moment and with a precise aim, a text is more than a collection of information. It is also the carrier of a message that can interrogate the readers of today about what and how they live and what ideals they hold.

The text and the readers: what distance between the two?

 Before proposing the students and the women’s group to do this reading, I tried to compare some readings that were made about this passage. I realised that almost all authors focused on the person and the character of Nehemiah. Those who take the book only in its final form, overlooking the textual incoherencies and difficulties, only idealise further the person that the editors of the book had already idealised. The text is in some way exploited with the aim to justify the ideologies of the commentators who were ready to overlook some of its aspects. It is clear that the idealisation and heroization of one person or situation is the reflection of a lack – or a frustration – from which an ideology is born. Behind each intervention of this “exceptional” person called Nehemiah, there is the precarious social, political and religious reality of the Judeans of this time who had no more figure of reference and sought to build one based on the book of Nehemiah.

We, the contemporary readers, are not so different from those who wrote and composed the biblical texts. Our way of studying, reading and interpreting is also a reflection of our ideal and our ideology, shaped by our reality. Initially, Nehemiah intervened to repair the breaches in the wall of Jerusalem; thereafter, he was described as the one who repaired the social, political and religious breaches of the Judean community. And in chapter 5, it is to repair a socio-economical breach that he intervenes. And he continues to repair the breaches of the different generations of readers: the breaches of their own societies. If he is described as the leader par excellence, this is simply a sign that those who consider him this way live in a society where good leaders are rare. To consider Nehemiah as the rebuilder par excellence is to echo the context in which we live today: in search of renewal and restructuring.[3] Despite this, I think that when one reads a text as complex as the book of Nehemiah, the most important thing is to not focus on one figure, but first to try to understand the socio-historical realities that it echoes. This allows us to keep a certain neutrality towards the text, and a neutrality with respect to the interpretation that we will make. This is where I join Farisani to say that the advantage of a socio-historical reading before all interpretation is to understand the relation between the different constitutive parties of society – or societies – that the text reveals, so that the blind upholding of an ideology which marginalises certain members of societies, as it is done in the Nehemiah memoir, is avoided. Farisani calls this a “deideologization-ideologisationideologization”:

The purpose of such an analysis is to enable us to de-ideologise ideologize effectively the exclusivist ideology in the text and read the text against the grain, that is, from the perspective of the excluded and marginalised am haaretz[4]. [5]

Each in their own place

 Once „de-ideologized“, the text can be read according to the perspectives of each constituent part of society, from those who have power as from those who are marginalized. And it is only from there that we can try to understand, to read and to interpret it, without bias, through our own contexts. But what will be left of the text if we strip it of all ideology? What will remain is the objective reflection of human realities that are closest to our own. We talk about “realities” in the plural, since there can be different realities, according to the stages of composition of the text, as is the case with the book of Nehemiah. The neutral look that we hold on the text, coming from a socio-historical reading, allows us not only to read it from different perspectives, but also to understand the different aspects of the account, without necessarily justifying and approving of what is unjust, as happens in some superficial readings.

Understanding the social contexts of the composition of a book or a chapter is one thing, but being able to read it in our context is another. The best way to avoid any interpretation that is biased and theologically-oriented towards the doctrinal tendencies of the readers who are tempted to forget important aspects of the text is to take distance and strive for objectivity. This distancing also allows a stepping away from the stereotypical opposition of the naive credulity of some interpretations of biblical texts and the excessive scepticism of modern biblical scholarship. It is possible to avoid both extremes in order to advance reflection. It’s about finding a hermeneutical link between the text in its complexity and our present context. Socio-historical reading is one of the tools that can allow modern biblical science and interpretations of biblical texts to interact in a more humble and realistic way toward the texts themselves.

This interaction will then allow each reader to avoid being locked in his or her own way of reading the Bible. It is my desire that the readers of the Bible can open their horizons and know how to take a step back from their own ideologies and traditions in order to receive a message that makes sense in their everyday life. It is a desire and a challenge at the same time. The challenge to question again and again one’s own way of reading the Bible while letting oneself be guided by the Holy Spirit. To let oneself be upset, surprised and challenged by the reading that others do. To recognise that there is no single recipe for reading the Bible, and that when one is faced with texts that present apparent problems,problems; one should not hesitate to call on the methods of biblical sciences. However, one must not stop at this stage. A living and uplifting reading should be accompanied by a bigger and bigger openness of spirit, vision, space and the will to incarnate it in our daily life.


Response by Evelyne Zinsstag

Brigitte shows in this text that two things are needed for a biblical interpretation that is relevant for the present: a (socio)historical contemplation of the text as well as the relation of the text to the present situation of the readers, the research results of biblical studies as well as a faithful reading of the Bible. She relates two Bible readings she made about Nehemiah’s banquet and recounts how both profited from input from the “other side”.

 From my studies in Switzerland I know the problem of little engaged Biblical studies well: historical analysis of biblical texts is given much more importance than their interpretation for the present context. The latter is regarded as a task of Practical Theology: One doesn’t learn preaching in biblical studies after all!

 At university as at church it is important to keep in mind the danger of ideology as well as the danger of biblical interpretation that is irrelevant for society. When I read the Bible scientifically, I am inspired in head and in heart again and again by the fact that the biblical texts have passed through so many hands, heads and hearts, before they arrived before my eyes. That means that they do not reflect the view of a single author on an issue, but, often, contradictory interpretations of a story are recorded in the same text. This makes biblical texts sometimes hard to understand. But precisely this has become important for my faith: The texts reflect people’s experiences with God, and especially discussions that these people have led across centuries in the search for knowledge of God and for the good common life.

 One could say that both groups that Brigitte describes stand in the same tradition as the people who wrote down the biblical texts: There is not only one opinion, one right interpretation; the question of what makes a just ruler is full of ambivalences and dangers. In discussion, both groups tried to understand what is recounted in Nehemiah 5 ,1-19 with different focuses. In both groups, Brigitte only had to give small inputs to lead the participants to new questions that set both groups off on the path to new knowledge.


[1] Jean-Louis SKA, Les vertus de la méthode historico-critique, Nouvelle Revue Théologique, 131/4 (2009), p. 705-727.

[2] Jean-Louis SKA, Les énigmes du passé. Histoire d’Israël et récit biblique. Traduit de l’italien par Elena Si Pede, Editions Lessius, Paris, Cerf, 2001, p. 133.

[3] During colonisation, the most popular theological trend in Africa was theology of liberation. Then, since the beginning of the sixties when colonisation began to be abolished, theology of reconstruction became more popular. In the course of this trend, the books and the characters of Ezra and Nehemiah, builders of the post-exilic Judean community, became symbolic. Cf. J. N. K. MUGAMBI, Africa and the Old Testament, in M. GETUI, K. HOLTER, V. ZINKURATIRE (eds.), Interpreting the Old Testament in Africa. Papers from the International Symposium on Africa and the Old Testament, October 1999, BiThA 2, New York, Peter Lang, 2001, p. 18.

[4] Am haaretz is a Hebrew expression that means the people of the land. It means the Judeans who didn’t experience the exile in Babylon but stayed in Judah. They were marginalised by those who returned to Judah, after the exile.

[5] E. B. FARISANI, The Ideological Biased Use of Ezra-Nehemiah in a Quest for an African Theology of Reconstruction », in M. W. DUBE, A. M. MBUVI, D. R. MBUWAYESANGO, Postcolonial Perspectives in African Biblical Interpretations, Atlanta, SBL, 2012, p. 331–347.

(Translation from French: Evelyne Zinsstag)


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