Biblical Studies Hermeneutics of Trauma and the Bible
Joseph McDonald
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 September 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 September 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0303


Trauma, from the Greek for “wound,” refers in the context of this article primarily to a state of emotional and psychic suffering stemming from overwhelming experiences that violate basic expectations of safety and agency, whether personal or social. However, physical injury or existential threat are often central to such experiences. No one definition of trauma commands universal assent, and especially sharp disagreements emerge from differences among clinical, sociological, and literary-critical approaches, and from divides between work on individual versus collective trauma. In biblical studies, a hermeneutics of trauma provides ways to think about how we interpret potentially traumatic events and their aftermaths as they are encoded in biblical texts, in the social contexts that generated these texts, and in social contexts where the Bible is received and used, including contexts where the Bible itself has the potential to traumatize its readers. This is not a methodology but a way of looking at texts that may be incorporated into any number of established and emerging approaches to interpreting the Bible, and the field of trauma studies is frequently deployed alongside allied fields such as warfare studies, disaster studies, refugee studies, survivor literature, and postcolonial studies. The role of memory and questions about the possibility of relaying full testimony are central to trauma studies, and have clear relevance to the analysis of trauma in ancient texts. Trauma theory matured in the disciplines of psychology, sociology, and literary criticism, so this article begins with Foundations outside Biblical Studies that have been especially generative for biblical scholars. It then moves on to reliable Starting Points within biblical studies itself and Essay Collections and Themed Journal Volumes that assemble work on a variety of biblical texts and themes. The experience and influence of the Babylonian exile has been central to biblical studies that draw on trauma theory, and the next section gathers work that considers Exilic Writings broadly, with subsections devoted to the books of Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Lamentations, and Job, which sits somewhat uncomfortably among “exilic” literature but has been profitably read as a reflection of postexilic trauma. Trauma-informed studies of Other Hebrew Bible Texts follow, along with the smaller but growing body of work on Trauma and the New Testament and Early Christianity. A final section gathers work on Moral Injury, an emerging and promising thread among trauma studies and the Bible.

Foundations outside Biblical Studies

While modern trauma theory has its roots in the work of Freud, Herman 1992 succinctly summarizes the development of the discussion before laying out an influential framework of trauma and recovery. Though the author’s ideas, both in adoption and in critique, form the foundation of much subsequent work, sometimes lost are Herman’s explicitly feminist motives and her broader argument that the prominence of the study of psychological trauma is directly related to political will. Herman’s book is clinical in origin, but Caruth 1996 is a work of literary and psychoanalytic criticism and an example of the application of trauma theory to literature. Caruth’s insistence on the unassimilable but intrusive nature of traumatic experiences dovetails with the concentration of Felman and Laub 1992, a collaboration between a clinician and a critic, on the imperative to testify to something ultimately impossible to articulate. Van der Kolk 2014 provides illuminating physiological evidence and explanations for these phenomena in traumatized individuals. In another work of literary criticism, Granofsky 1995 denies that the “trauma novel,” a proposed subgenre of fiction, could have existed before 1945, but critics have found the author’s work generative for analysis of literature of other times. Erikson 1995 provides a helpful bridge between individual and communal trauma, noting traumatic experiences’ centripetal and centrifugal forces, both isolating individuals and damaging communities while sometimes providing opportunities for building shared identity. In part this takes up the findings of Lifton 1991, which describes the capacity of shared guilt to both build and destroy community. Volkan 1997 details “chosen trauma,” one mechanism for defining group identity that has been adopted by biblical scholars in discussion of the legacy of the Babylonian exile. The constructed nature of trauma-reinforced corporate identities is also underlined in Alexander 2012, which argues that it is the claim and acceptance of an idea of a cultural trauma that creates one, not the objective facts of an event.

  • Alexander, Jeffrey C. Trauma: A Social Theory. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2012.

    Building on Erikson 1995 and reacting to Caruth 1996, Alexander argues strongly in a programmatic first chapter that events are not inherently traumatic. Instead, “trauma is a socially mediated attribution”—an assertion that does not primarily point to the possibility of genuine trauma resulting from wholly imagined events, though this can happen, but to the imagined quality of all narrative representation. Cultural traumas begin as claims about events, which are then spread, promoted, and accepted.

  • Caruth, Cathy. Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.

    Caruth explores the paradox of the inaccessibility of full conscious recall of traumatic events alongside intrusive memories and flashbacks: traumatic experiences are contemporaneously unassimilable but retain the power to possess the psyche. Caruth is not a clinician but a literary critic who reads classic psychoanalytic texts and works of literature and literary theory, providing suggestive avenues for biblical studies in its engagement of trauma.

  • Erikson, Kai. “Notes on Trauma and Community.” In Trauma: Explorations in Memory. Edited by Cathy Caruth, 183–199. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.

    Urges an extension of the definition of trauma from an inciting discrete event to an individual’s reaction to such an event, or to a complex of prolonged experiences, as well as an enlargement of the concept that encompasses damage to social connections. While shared trauma can help build positive community, more often it enhances existing social divisions or creates a new communal temper in which trauma dominates a group’s self-conception.

  • Felman, Shoshana, and Dori Laub. Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History. New York: Routledge, 1992.

    A collaboration between a literary critic and a clinician (and Holocaust survivor) that considers literature, cinema, and witness testimony bearing on the Holocaust. Most influential for detailing survivors’ driving urge to tell about traumatic events as this collides with the impossibility of relaying them fully or adequately. Important portions are reprinted in the volume that contains Erikson 1995.

  • Granofsky, Ronald. The Trauma Novel: Contemporary Symbolic Depictions of Collective Disaster. American University Studies, Series 3, Comparative Literature 55. New York: Peter Lang, 1995.

    Defines the “trauma novel” as a distinct subgenre of modern fiction in which literary symbolism is used to represent collective trauma through individual experience. This process is broken into interdependent stages, not necessarily sequential, of “fragmentation” of psyche or society in the face of unassimilable events; “regression” to an elemental or primitive state; and (only potential) “reunification,” where trauma is accommodated into a broader narrative.

  • Herman, Judith Lewis. Trauma and Recovery. New York: Basic Books, 1992.

    Arguably the primary foundation of the contemporary discussion of trauma. After tracing the modern history of the concept, Herman defines trauma’s conditions, symptoms, and effects, focusing on contexts of combat, sexual violence, incarceration, and child abuse. She then treats the stages of recovery, emphasizing the need to move from danger to safety, dissociation to remembrance, and isolation to human connection.

  • Lifton, Robert Jay. Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.

    DOI: 10.5149/9780807882894_lifton

    Originally published in 1967. Most influential in biblical studies for its description of survivor guilt, especially as reinforced by members of a community that has endured trauma. Shared guilt can both connect and isolate survivors. The final chapter extends the book’s reach beyond the context of atomic destruction, considering other extreme circumstances, such as concentration camps and deadly pandemics.

  • van der Kolk, Bessel A. The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. New York: Viking, 2014.

    Provides a physiological account of individual trauma, explaining how evolutionarily older parts of the nervous system can take over during overwhelming events, causing dissociation that leaves only sense impressions that do not form real memories of the kind that can be integrated into an autobiography. Rather, fragments of the traumatic experience intrude into an individual’s consciousness with the immediacy of the original event, as if past and present were collapsed.

  • Volkan, Vamik. Bloodlines: From Ethnic Pride to Ethnic Terrorism. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997.

    While Volkan’s work ranges much more widely, biblical scholars have focused on his insights into “chosen trauma,” which refers not to elective traumatization but to a social complex of shared memories, fantasies, and feelings centered on an ancestral trauma. The intergenerational transmission of a chosen trauma, often founded on a remote event, defines and maintains group identity in a largely unconscious way.

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