Charles Halton jump-started an interesting discussion by daring to list The Top Ten Old Testament Scholars since 1800. Halton, Jim Getz and Michael Westmoreland White, all of whom are fine bloggers, added observations of their own here, here, and here.
I agree with Michael and Charles that Norman Gottwald has been very influential. Perhaps more to the point, sociological approaches and the use of social-scientific criticism have enriched the study of the Bible immensely.
I also wish to emphasize that archaeology no less than history and literary theory belong among the disciplines through which to approach the world of the Bible. The debates of “biblical archaeology” interest me little, but I do not regret for a minute having learned to look at material culture, society, and ethnohistory through the lens of archeology and the theory it has engendered. My teachers Albert Glock and J. S. Holladay, Jr. set me on a path that led to Lewis Binford, S. N. Eisenstadt, and Bruce Trigger; closer to home, Robert McCormick Adams, William G. Dever, Israel Finkelstein, Thomas Levy, and Lawrence Stager. The more or less revisionist approaches of Finkelstein and Dever to the study of the history of Israel/Palestine are less important than their common commitment to understanding, for example, the transition from “the regulated anarchy” of the period of the Judges to the dynastic monarchies and city-states of Jerusalem and Samaria. The archeology of society is a particularly fruitful discipline.
Lists of influential scholars are fun, but what we really need is a comprehensive dictionary of biblical studies capable of contextualizing them. To be any good the dictionary would have to run to several thousand pages and contain five components. The hot links I provide will take you to very helpful tables of contents and indices.
(1) History, trends, and prospects of the disciplines and approaches to the biblical texts would be surveyed. Two volumes that do this better than many are The Cambridge Companion to Biblical Interpretation (ed. John Barton; Cambridge Companions to Religion; Cambridge: CUP, 1998) and Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies (ed. John W. Rogerson and Judith M. Lieu; Oxford Handbooks in Religion and Theology; New York: Oxford University Press, 2006). The interpretation of the Bible from the Renaissance through the end of the nineteenth century is often given short shrift. What Have They Done to the Bible: A History of Modern Biblical Interpretation (John Sandys-Wunsch; Collegeville: Glazier, 2005) provides a helpful introduction.
(2) Discipline-specific and approach-specific surveys need to be understood against the background of language-specific and confessional-specific surveys of the history of the study of the Bible. Essays of this kind are found here and there in the literature. So far as I know, a comprehensive overview is not available.
(3) Seminal contributions need to be properly highlighted, especially if they are “one-shot deals” by outsiders to the field (e.g., Erich Auerbach’s “Odysseus’ Scar.”). I have yet to see a reference tool do this, but it is a desideratum.
(4) Concise biographies, with an emphasis on confessional and intellectual commitments, and brief descriptions of the chief contributions of authors whose impact has been particularly significant are helpful to beginners and old-timers alike. Social and confessional location are not pudenda to be covered up and left to the imagination. Along with other factors, they codetermine what scholars say and how they say it. Four volumes that are helpful are Historical Handbook of Major Biblical Interpreters (ed. Donald McKim; Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1998); The SCM Dictionary of Biblical Interpretation (2d ed.; ed. Ronald J. Coggins and James Leslie Houlden, London: SCP Press, 2003 ); Dictionary of Biblical Interpretation (ed. John Haralson Hayes; Nashville: Abingdon, 1999); Dictionary of Biblical Criticism and Interpretation (ed. Stanley Porter; London: Routledge, 2007). A fifth volume is forthcoming: Dictionary of Major Biblical Interpreters (ed. Donald McKim; Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2007).
(5) A guide to the thousand-and-one technical terms and abbreviations used in the discipline. Helpful volumes include Handbook of Biblical Criticism (3d ed.; ed. Richard N. Soulen and R. Kendall Soulen; Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001; The SBL Handbook of Style for Ancient Near Eastern, Biblical, and Early Christian Studies (ed. Patrick H. Alexander et al.; Peabody: Hendrickson, 1999).
In a previous post, I responded to a list dominated by WASPMs (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant males) with an alternative list that included no WASPMs. In my view, WASPM parochialism, especially evangelical WASPM parochialism, is a self-defeating and self-afflicted malady. Counter trends are visible, but the same old same old is also evident.
An illustration may prove helpful. The scholars discussed in McKim’s Historical Handbook of Major Biblical Interpreters for the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries are an interesting mix but the coverage also leaves the impression, by its sins of omission, that biblical studies was and is the almost exclusive domain of a WASP fraternity. It will be interesting to see if McKim’s forthcoming volume is less parochial. Let me put it this way: if it does not include (e.g.!) Shemuel David Luzzatto, Luis Alonso Schökel, and Gianfranco Ravasi in its 1000 pages, it might as well be retitled (as far as the 18th-21st centuries are concerned): Dictionary of Major White Protestant English and German Language Biblical Interpreters (with a few Catholics and Jews thrown in for good measure).