Old Testament scholar John Collins: At the heart of scripture, a passion for social justice
The Bible drives people apart these days, with religious right and left asserting rival ideas about what the holy book teaches regarding science, sex and politics. Old Testament scholar John J. Collins says it need not be that way: scripture could be an element of reconciliation in a partisan time.
Don't look for unity to converge around the historical details of the biblical stories, or around any metaphysics lurking behind the canon. Instead, Collins says, gather around the clear message emerging from the text, remarkable for its era and a test for our own times: the Bible's passionate message of social justice, an urgent concern for the unfortunate in society.
"In a way, that's the gospel I preach," says Collins, the Holmes Professor of Old Testament at YDS since 2000.
"There are certain unmistakable values in the biblical material, and they have to do with ethics and justice, treatment of the poor. And these values aren't affected by whatever new archeological discovery is made, and they don't depend on any metaphysics that might be argued. In this way, the Bible could play a part in reconciling the two sides, liberals and conservatives, which keep growing apart."
Collins has a preeminent reputation as a biblical scholar using historical-critical approaches to get at the meaning of the texts. His many books have grappled with subjects that include apocalypticism, Hellenistic Judaism, and the Dead Sea Scrolls. His Introduction to the Hebrew Bible (Fortress, 2006) is a curricular cornerstone. He has been president of the Society of Biblical Literature as well as the Catholic Biblical Association. In recent years he has turned his attention to broader public moral questions and wider audiences. He wrote a short post-9/11 book called Does the Bible Justify Violence? (Augsburg Fortress, 2004). Last semester, he taught a new, well-attended course, "What Are Biblical Values?" A new book for general readers, The Dead Sea Scrolls: A Biography, will be released by Princeton, perhaps this year.
He is also eager to make the point about biblical ethics in an era of ideological segregation: the Bible contains stories that ask perennial questions about human destiny, presuppose a purpose to this life, warn sternly against idolatries, and drive home the sturdy theme of social justice. Yet over the course of a 40-year career, this Irish-born scholar-writer has seen cultural divisions widen in American society despite its many historic ties and salutes to biblical religion. Conservative churches grow, liberal ones decline. Critical scholarship of scripture has enjoyed greater acceptance, but it's also triggered a corresponding backlash.
"People want certainty, and scholarship creates doubt," Collins says. "The ambiguities of history ought to make one more modest in one's claims and therefore less dogmatic. But many people want it all wrapped up neatly. I think there's an increase in the number of people wanting to read the Bible literally. But the sin of that approach is a lack of a sense of proportion and context. Fundamentalists pay lip service to the Bible but quote from it only selectively, if they read it at all."
Nor is "biblical ethics" always a simple matter. Collins makes clear that the message of some foundational biblical stories appears hopelessly immoral to us—the slaughter of the Canaanites in the Book of Joshua, for instance—and we must not evade the enigma and discomfort of such passages.
"The aura of biblical authority must not be allowed to mask the utter barbarism of the conduct," he declares in Introduction to the Hebrew Bible. "That barbarity is not lessened by the fact that it was accepted as part of warfare in antiquity, or indeed by the fact that it is often surpassed in modern warfare."
But he sees a larger, more enduring ethical imperative unfolding in the Bible's voluminous pages. "No other collection of documents from the ancient world," he writes, "and scarcely any other documents at all, speak with such passionate urgency on the subject of social justice."
"To be sure, the biblical laws are not always satisfactory by modern standards. Biblical attitudes to slaves, women, and foreigners are all mired in the cultural assumptions of the ancient world, with only occasional flickers of enlightenment. Nonetheless, the concern for the unfortunate of society in these books is remarkable, and often stands as a reproach to the modern Western world."
John J. Collins made his way to biblical studies rather accidentally. Growing up Roman Catholic in Ireland, he says reading the Bible was not encouraged. But he showed a keen interest in studying classics, a path that led naturally to ancient languages and cultures.
"My Hebrew teacher was more engaging than my Greek teacher," he recalls. "I went to Old Testament."
Much of his learning came under the supervision of the Catholic order the Holy Ghost Fathers, now called the Spiritans. For several years, young Collins studied with the intention of becoming a priest. But his studies eventually led him elsewhere, and he soon came to the U.S., where he learned historical-critical methods at Harvard and did his Ph.D. there.
Most recently, Collins chaired the search committee for a new YDS dean, a process that led to the selection of Gregory Sterling of Notre Dame to succeed Harold Attridge this summer. In a time of cultural transition and convulsion, where many churches are redefining their roles creatively or facing embattled uncertainty, the committee identified Sterling as a nominee who can lead the school through the shifting milieus of the early 21st century.
"We were looking for someone with a strong scholarly reputation who is also interested in theological education—and who is broad-minded, a person who can work with people across the spectrum here. And we wanted someone who sees the importance of parish ministry but who also knows that today there are many forms of ministry besides pulpit ministry."
For Collins, the aims of theological education include the methods of Bible study and teaching that he has dedicated his life to: reading the texts with care and respect in ways that uphold intellectual integrity.
"There are many people who say, ‘This is what the Bible means. There's only one interpretation, and that's the way it will be!' But the price of education is a certain loss of passion—moderation over zeal. There's a reasonable range of interpretation of the biblical material, a reasonable spectrum of interpretations of historical events. Some things can't be, some have a high level of probability. I admit, you don't get people all fired up by telling them there's a ‘reasonable range of interpretation.' There's a rhetorical disadvantage to that in public discourse. But that's the only way to maintain intellectual integrity—and it can put you at an advantage with thoughtful people who are trying to understand with integrity.
"I'd say my biblical theology is this: reading the Bible is a dialogical enterprise. It doesn't give answers. It raises the great questions of life and gives material for dealing with them. It contains the stories of our people in the broadest sense, stories people have told that define human identity. They define the ballpark we play in."