One of the trends that we have been monitoring at Newman and which has been reflected in a number of the posts on this site has been the use of (or allusions to) the Bible within the public spheres; political and social media (for example see, Migrants, Refugees & the search for a Biblical Perspective; No room for the 3 ‘kings’: Refugees, the nativity and the social media; Weaponising Romans 13). Far from being dismissed, as critics would suggest, as an irrelevant, out-dated text that is only read by an ever reducing number of religious zealots, the Bible’s influence (though not necessarily its content) is very present on the contemporary stage. This means that a critical and informed understanding of the Bible (its texts, history, use) remains an essential part of education. It is therefore of great concern that the recent changes to GCSE Religious Education (RE) syllabi (in England and Wales), although placing a greater emphasis on the study of sacred texts, does not reflect recent developments within biblical studies and, at times, could reinforce negative stereotypical views. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that, at present, only one RE A-Level syllabus includes any in-depth component on the Bible. Consequently, Prof. Susan Docherty‘s article in the current edition of the British Journal of Religious Education is a very welcome and much needed call for a new dialogue to commence between biblical scholarship and the provision of RE in UK schools
Sue draws upon two of the recent major shifts within biblical scholarship. The first of these is the “transformation in the understanding of the first century Jewish context within which Christianity was formed.” Sue argues that the shared common roots of both religious traditions, together with an awareness that Christianity formed within the richly diverse landscape of second temple Judaism as a sect not only “has profound implications for inter-faith dialogue” but has also influenced recent key statements and documents issued by the Church on questions of religious pluralism.
A consequence of the first paradigm shift in biblical studies… has been an appreciation of the breadth and diversity of the early Jewish matrix from which Christianity emerged.
Unfortunately this new understanding of Christian origins and interfaith relationship is not reflected in most current RE syllabi and course material.
…however, on the RE syllabi and text-books in use in the UK, … [the] misleading impressions may continue to be passed on about both the origins of Christianity and about the nature and development of Jewish religion.
Those of us who work within biblical studies are, by now, very familiar with the range of ancient non-canonical literature that needs to be studied and considered alongside the biblical texts. Within the academy, there is an acknowledgement that writings like these are essential in helping us to understand the context, and development and diversity of religious Jewish and Christian thought. Sue argues that, here too, biblical scholarship can aid the teaching of modern RE in order to provide a clearer understanding of the variety and development within religions.
This picture of the evolving and pluriform nature of all religions serves as an important counter-balance to fundamentalist mind-sets which are reluctant to acknowledge change and diversity within belief-systems.
The second major shift that Sue identifies is the “emergence of new forms of biblical interpretation which draw on the perspectives of previously marginalised groups” and, in particular, the inclusion of contextual readings that move away from the hermeneutics of (predominantly) white, western, male professionals to foreground the insights and experiences of, often excluded, minorities.
Such approaches foreground the insights of groups who have generally been excluded from formal interpretative circles, particularly women, people of colour, and those living in the Global South.
This aspect of biblical studies also provides a far greater opportunity for pupils of other faiths and none to engage with the texts.
[Use of contextual reading approaches] can help to address perceived weaknesses in current use of biblical material in school RE by fostering a greater understanding of biblical passages as literary wholes, a deeper appreciation of the pluriformity of perspectives present both within biblical texts themselves and among commentators, and a consequently far more nuanced application of them to contemporary theological and ethical issues. As recognised in some recent curriculum reform
Sue concludes that…
[b]y drawing in voices which have been unheard in the past, and by emphasising the multi-faceted nature of the bible, current biblical scholarship can thus aid teachers in leading students to a better understanding of what the bible is, and of how it actually functions within believing communities today.
Religious Education (RE) naturally draws on various aspects of the academic study of religions to ensure the accuracy and currency of its content and pedagogy. This paper sets out the case for a more intense dialogue between RE and the field of biblical studies, in order to address perceived weaknesses in the teaching of Christianity in UK schools, specifically in the use of biblical material in the classroom. Two recent major shifts within biblical scholarship are highlighted here: (1) a transformation in the understanding of the first century Jewish context within which Christianity was formed and (2) the emergence of new forms of biblical interpretation which draw on the perspectives of previously marginalised groups. These developments potentially have important and positive implications for RE, because they demonstrate the breadth and variety of the religions of early Judaism and Christianity; offer new information about central topics on current RE syllabi; raise questions about the plurality and ‘ownership’ of the interpretation of sacred texts; encourage greater nuance in applying biblical texts to contemporary theological and ethical debates; and provide space for people from varied backgrounds to engage directly with the biblical texts in informed and innovative ways.