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4 | 2008-2009
The Letter
Academic year 2008-2009
Selected papers
Inaugural lectures

Chair of The Hebrew Bible and/in its Contexts

Thomas Römer
p. 22
Cet article est une traduction de :
Chaire Milieux bibliques

Notes de la rédaction

Thomas RÖMER gave his inaugural lecture on 5 february 2009. His course entitled “The construction of an ancestor: the formation of the cycle of Abraham” began on 11 february 2009.

Texte intégral

Extracts from the inaugural lecture:

1“[…] Unless I am mistaken, the Chair that you have entrusted to me is the first Collège de France Chair in which the word ‘Bible’ appears explicitly in the title. Why is this so? Is it simply fortuitous, or does academic France have a problem with the word Bible? Can this avoidance of the word Bible be explained by the idea that scientists can study Hebrew, Aramaic, epigraphy and Semitic antiquities, but that the Bible and its understanding are reserved for synagogues and churches? The Hebrew Bible is one of the great founding documents of the so-called Judeo-Christian civilization and at least of Western civilization. It is also a key element for grasping the birth of Islam and the Muslim civilization. How can history, literature, pictorial art and music be understood, along with certain current geopolitical conflicts, without in-depth knowledge of biblical texts and their meaning?

2I am scarcely attracted to the sirens of post-modernity who proclaim the end of history or chant the wonders of subjective or synchronic readings, to the detriment of rigorous research. I am convinced that an understanding of the Bible requires historical study. Of course the danger of circularity is particularly great, for to reconstruct the historical context in which the texts of the Hebrew Bible were written, the most important document is the Bible itself!

3As a result of the advancement of literary methods and archaeology, the construction of what can be called biblical historiography is called into question, from an historical point of view. Unlike Assyriology or Egyptology, disciplines which still have thousands of documents to decipher and publish, the Biblical sciences are dealing with a ‘corpus clos’, a ‘canon’. This canon differs, depending on the religion based on the Bible – Judaism, Catholicism, Protestantism – but the books comprising it were published long ago, and it is unlikely that it will ever be amended. Yet the Biblical sciences cannot settle for this canon; they have to examine many other writings and documents without which the canonical texts would never have been written. The entire Fertile Crescent contributed to the constitution of the Hebrew Bible in one way or another. In fact the Bible explicitly shows this. Consider the beginning of Abraham’s story in the Book of Genesis. The family of Abram (the first ancestor) is from Our Casdim. It then moves to Harran, where Abraham receives the divine call enjoining him to go to the Land of Canaan, which he covers from Sichem to the Neguev before going into Egypt. Thus, from the outset Abraham covers the entire Fertile Crescent. His initiatory travels describe the geographic space in which Judaism will be born during the Persian era, but also covers the different cultures and empires that influenced the writing of the Hebrew biblical texts.

4It is up to the scholar of the Bible to pay justice to the text and to defend it against improper use or interpretations. This is a tricky exercise because the Bible, in its different versions, is the document on which Judaism and Christianity are based. In synagogues and churches, Biblical texts are read and interpreted from a religious perspective; they are intended to feed believers’ faith and provide them with references. Scientific analysis is therefore sometimes perceived as a threat, even as hostile, by believers because they see it as challenging the verity of the Bible. The role of such analysis is however not to judge the spiritual value of these texts. Yet certain fundamentalist circles seem to want to turn the Bible into an ideological weapon to defend creationism, inequality between the races or the sexes, the death sentence and other reactionary ethical or political reactions. Faced with these abuses, Biblical scholars cannot escape their responsibility to society. They have to emphasize the fact that the Bible did not fall from the sky, and that these texts were written in very different historical circumstances to those of today.”

5The inaugural lecture is available from Editions Fayard. The video is  available on the College de France website.

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Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

The Letter of the Collège de France, Collège de France, Paris, juin 2009, p. 22. ISSN 1958-1408

Référence électronique

Thomas Römer, « Chair of The Hebrew Bible and/in its Contexts », La lettre du Collège de France [En ligne], 4 | 2008-2009, mis en ligne le 15 novembre 2010, consulté le 18 janvier 2019. URL :

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Thomas Römer

Professor of Hebrew Biblical Studies at the Faculty of Theology and Religious Science, University of Lucerne

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