Section of Biblical Studies – University of Copenhagen

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Section of Biblical Studies

At the Biblical Studies Section we study and teach the texts of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament as well as the Qur’an. These texts exercise an enormous influence on religion, faith, culture, and practice in history and today. The Hebrew Bible and the New Testament came into being over a long period reaching back more than 2000 years. When we attempt to understand these texts, this requires insight into the period and society in which they were written, and knowledge of how people have used and interpreted the texts in different ways.

At the Section we work with the texts in their original languages, Hebrew, Aramaic (parts of the Old Testament), and Greek (New Testament), Arabic (Qur’an). We use methods and theories that range from philology, linguistics, archaeology, history, and sociology, to literary theories and theories of interpretation.

Interpreting the texts of the Bible is the core of the Section's expertise. We have also accumulated special research competencies in apocryphal literature, the Dead Sea Scrolls, Gnostic texts, reception history, Hellenic philosophy, gender hermeneutics, and text theory.

Research

The Section of Biblical Studies’ research in Hebrew Bible literature focuses on three main areas: One research area is the critical discussion of the historicity of Hebrew Bible texts. The section is the home to the "Copenhagen School” in biblical studies. This school’s defining position is that the Hebrew Bible is not so much a book about ancient Israel's history and religion as it is a book aimed at early Jewish society in the fourth to second centuries BCE. The Hebrew Bible is not a book about the authors’ past, but a book about the society in which it was written and its intention is to inform this society about itself and the country to which it belongs, and about its relationship with God.

Another research area is to study religion, social customs and everyday life in Hebrew Bible texts. The section’s researchers apply a wide range of theories and methods borrowed from e.g. anthropology, sociology and cognitive science of religion in order to illuminate the ritual, social and sensual aspects of Hebrew Bible texts and to analyze them in their ancient Mediterranean contexts.

Finally, the section has been a center for research in exile and identity in Hebrew Bible literature for several years. The point of departure for this research area is an interest in the concept of exile as a literary theme or ‘topos’ in biblical literature rather than as a monolitihic historical event, which Hebrew Bible texts are interpreted through. Research in this area has treated topics such as myths, ideologies and metaphors of exile in the Hebrew Bible.

The Dead Sea Scrolls come from the time between the Old and the New Testament. Jewish scribes hid them away in caves 2000 years ago. They give us a direct glimpse of what Judaism was like at the time of Jesus, the first Christians and the early Rabbis. All other books that Jews wrote in this period, we only have in much later copies. But the scrolls bring us back to that time itself. They help us answer questions such as: How did Jews back then interpret the Law of Moses? How did they think of the Messiah? How was Jewish worship carried out? Section staff work on both the publication of the original hand-written scrolls and on exploring their content.

During several decades, the study of the relationship between Classic/Hellenistic philosophy and the New Testament has held a high priority at the Section. Two externally financed, collective projects, Philosophy at the Roots of Christianity (2003-2007) and Centre for Naturalism and Christian Semantics (2008-2014) have studied the complex influence of Stoicism and Platonism on primarily Paul’s letters and John’s Gospel.

Whereas the first project questioned the idea that the influence from philosophy belonged to the early Christian reception, the next project has shed new light on this reception by interrogating a clear-cut line between orthodox and the heterodox Christianity.

In particular, the research has broken new ground in New Testament studies by drawing attention to the way Stoic physics have influenced the phenomenon of the spirit in Pauline and Johannine texts. A new project, which focuses on the role of Stoic naturalism in the so-called esoteric Christian tradition (from ‘gnosticism’ via the monastic tradition to Protestant mysticism), is planned as a follow-up on the former projects.

Several of the sections’ researchers apply insights from gender studies in their readings of biblical and qur’anic literature. The vast majority of ancient texts reflect patriarchal and hierarchical societal structures and gender hermeneutics, such as feminist, masculinist, trans and queer readings, can help to both reveal, critique and question gender norms and ideals in these texts.

Through the centuries, people have translated and interpreted the texts of the Old and the New Testament in many different contexts. Jewish and Christian communities regard the texts as sacred and authoritative, and the texts function as the basis of worship, liturgy, doctrine, and practical instruction. There is a long tradition for reading and interpreting the Bible in devotional contexts, as well as in academic settings.

Furthermore, the Bible is interpreted in visual art, literature, music, drama, and cinema. This complex and variegated history of interpretation is important for understanding biblical texts and their effects. At the Biblical Studies Section we investigate the history of academic biblical interpretation and translation as well as various effects and echoes of biblical texts and themes in the history of culture more generally.

Several of the sections’ researchers explore canonical and non-canonical gospels. The project “The Gospels as Rewritten Bible” (2010-2014, partially prolonged until 2017) aimed at mapping the literary development of the New Testament gospels.

The project challenged amongst others the common view that two of the narratives that emerged in the wake of Mark, viz., Matthew and Luke, independently drew on a second source, traditionally called Q, that is no longer preserved. An alternative model is to assume that Luke is dependent on both, Mark and Matthew, which allows dispensing with Q.

Other projects explore the Christology in the Gospel of Mark as compared to the non-canonical Gospel of Peter and the logic of narrative development by investigating the ways later gospels (e.g. the Gospel of Nicodemus) rewrite earlier gospels.

Many of the sections’ researchers contribute to the emerging field of identity studies, e.g. regarding the significance of the Dead Sea Scrolls or the notion of ‘exile’ for the emergence of ancient Judaism; the decoding of the role of biblical narratives in the construction of identity has also proven to be a significant interdisciplinary contribution to ethnographic studies.

In the years to come the Sections plans to intensify the work on identify formation in and by the biblical tradition; this will for instance be furthered by a project on food and identity in biblical literature (focus on Old Testament and the ancient Near East) and by another one on identity construction in the three Abrahamic traditions (focus on conceptions of martyrdom) thus creating a natural link between the three research groups within the section and transgressing the boundaries of the respective canons.

The Qurʾān is regionally, linguistically, stilistically, thematically, theologically and historically related to a variety of biblical texts. This relationship is recognized in the Qurʾān itself; it mentions biblical texts such as Torah, the Psalms of David, and the Gospel and it refers to biblical characters and narratives.

Research has also revealed numerous links to biblical material beyond the canonical scriptures, e.g. various form of Jewish-Rabbinic and Christian texts. However, the Qurʾān is not only interconnected with the biblical literature and milieus but also stemmed from and relates to an Arabian polytheistic culture. These contextual factors demands a cross-disciplinary combination of qurʾānic and biblical scholarship to which the present focus area is committed.

This focus area is also based on the conviction that modern qurʾānic studies can make use of the rich theoretical and methodological apparatuses of Biblical studies. Running in the period 2018-2021 the research project Ambiguity and Precision in the Qurʾān (supported by the Danish Independent Research Council) investigates linguistic and rhetoric markers for ambiguity and precision in the qurʾānic text.