Bruce C. Birch

in Biblical Studies

ISBN: 9780195393361
Published online January 2012 | | DOI:


The modern discussion of biblical ethics began in the 1970s. There were, of course, important precursors to that development, but there was not yet any clarity or common understanding about what should be the intended focus of interest in biblical ethics. After almost four decades of significant scholarly discussion and publication, several distinct ways of framing interest in biblical ethics emerged. Many scholars have been interested in examining the ethical practices and understandings of ancient Israel, early Judaism, and the early church. This might be described as a focus on the “moral world behind the text.” This focus has benefited from wider use of social-scientific methods and categories. Results have varied for Old Testament and New Testament worlds. The texts representing ancient Israel are more complex and resist description in developmental or unified understandings. The texts of the New Testament (and of rabbinic Judaism, although these are not strictly understood as biblical) present a more unified descriptive picture of the morality of the early church and synagogue. A second framework used to discuss biblical ethics is the “world of the text in the context of the canon.” Completely apart from the background and perspective of particular biblical texts, both Old and New Testament texts have now been placed in a larger context by the formation of the canon. Texts and perspectives that were not contemporaneous or in conversation historically are now in an ongoing moral conversation within the canon as it is handed on through generations. Biblical ethics may well focus interest on this wider ethical conversation, with its complexities and insights. This conversation may be morally illuminating completely apart from our ability to discover fully the ancient context of these texts. Finally, ethics is an ongoing area of interest to those communities that wish to understand the “text as Scripture through the generations to the present.” Thus, the late 20th and early 21st centuries have seen a lively revival of interest in and publications on reflections upon questions of methodology and content in using the Bible to inform the moral character and conduct of communities of faith and their individual adherents. For these communities the interest is not in the ethical life of ancient communities but in the use of the Bible to inform the ethical life of communities that regard the Bible as a primary, though not self-sufficient, moral resource for today. In this article it has been most helpful to detail work largely done separately on first the Old Testament and then on the New Testament. A final section will focus on the rich body of work reflecting on the use of the Bible as a moral resource for ethics in contemporary confessing communities.

Article.  12805 words. 

Subjects: Biblical Studies

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