Interview with Wisdom Lit Scholar James Crenshaw

I am delighted to share this interview with another of my former teachers, this time Jim Crenshaw, who recently retired from Duke University.  Dr. Crenshaw is one of the foremost authorities on the wisdom literature.  It is my hope that you will find this interview as illuminating and thought-provoking as I have found it.

(see HERE for my  other interviews with Walter Brueggemann, Richard Hays, and Nancy deClaisse-Walford)

Thank you, Dr. Crenshaw, for agreeing to take part in this interview!  By way of introduction, could you tell us a little about yourself and your educational background?

Born to B.D. and Bessie Aiken Crenshaw on December 19, ’34; reared in upstate South Carolina with an evangelical background, soon discarded for skepticism involving all things religious while clinging to a profound gratitude for life. Married to Juanita Rhodes in June of ’56; blessed with two sons, James Timothy and David Lee, born 1-15-’60 and 9-11-’64, and five grandchildren: Elizabeth & Emily, Connor, Clare, and Carolyn. Hobbies: gardening, fishing, and watching Duke basketball. Education: B.A. in “56 from Furman University with a major in English and minors in Political Science and Sociology; B.D. from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in January of ’60; Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University in ’64, with a summer as a Fellow at the Hebrew Union College Biblical and Archaeological School in Jerusalem in ’63. Further study at Columbia University in the summer of ’67. Sabbaticals at Heidelberg (’72-’73), Oxford (’78-’79), and Cambridge (’84-’85). Phi Beta Kappa. Major Fellowships: Society of Religion in Higher Education, Guggenheim, National Endowment for the Humanities, Pew Evangelical Scholarships, The Association for Theological Schools, and The American Academy of Learned Societies.  Honorary Degree from Furman University in ’93; University Wide Distinguished Professorship, Duke University, ’93-present, McCarthy Visiting Professor at the Pontifical Biblical Institute, Rome, 2007-2008. Teaching Positions: Atlantic Christian College (’64-’65), Mercer University (’65-Dec. ’69); Vanderbilt University (January’70-’87), Duke University (’87-December, 2008). Former editor of the Society of Biblical Literature’s Monograph Series and current editor of Personalities of the Old Testament for the University of South Carolina Press.

What led you to biblical studies, the Hebrew Bible more specifically?

My fascination with the bible began at a very early age. After a year long contest of Bible Sword Drill at a Baptist Church, I was awarded the grand prize of a leather bound Scofield Reference Bible! Greek in college and a young New Testament teacher in seminary, Henry Turlington, convinced me that research into the bible was my future. Graduate study at Vanderbilt was eye-opening; my mentors in Bible were Leander Keck, whose Teaching Assistant I was, Kendrick Grobel, J. Philip Hyatt, Walter Harrelson, and Lou H. Silberman. A minor in Theology was guided by Langdon Gilkey and Gordon Kaufman. I actually took more course work in New Testament and taught it, along with Old Testament, for six years. The literary beauty of the Old Testament and its ancient Near Eastern context tipped the scales for me.

You recently retired from Duke.  Congratulations!  How are you finding retirement?

I wear retirement like a favorite jacket, if retirement aptly describes my present situation. I continue to do research and to write, having completed the translation of the book of Job for Our Common English Bible, forthcoming by Abingdon, a commentary on the book of Job for Smyth and Helwys, a book of poetry, Dust and Ashes (Cascade Books), and several articles. Still, I spend a lot of time attending to my flowers, vegetable garden, and walking with Nita on a Greenway near our house. Above all, I get to see our sons, their wives, and our grandchildren regularly.

You have written extensively on the Wisdom Literature.  What biblical book from the wisdom literature do you find the most interesting or enjoy working on the most, and why?

The books of Job and Ecclesiastes are my favorites, Job for its exquisite, though obscure poetic images and Qoheleth for its honesty. Both of these books raise questions that lie at the heart of modern religious inquiry: Assuming the existence of God, as their authors most certainly did, what is the character of this Being? Will anyone serve God for nothing? How should one respond to innocent suffering? Does life have any ultimate meaning? Given the sentence of death imposed on us all, how should each moment be lived? While others may stress the divine source of scripture, the questions pursued by Job and Qoheleth expose its human side. Because I believe the bible is the product of intellectual inquiry into life’s deepest mysteries, I want to understand what people long ago believed about these unknowns. Clarity in this regard may throw some light on our own situation today.

What questions or issues do you think need to be explored in future scholarship on the Wisdom Literature?

I think the generative influence of societal conflicts is the most promising area of investigation today. In short, how did sages respond to controversial issues of their day that evoked many different views. The development of personified wisdom is the most obvious place to begin this investigation, but other promising topics are the finality of death and the other-worldly struggle between order and chaos. Answers to these questions are far from transparent.

What, if you had to choose, has been your favorite book you have written, and why?

Defending God: Biblical Responses to the Problem of Evil has given me most satisfaction, largely because it is the culmination of a lifetime of research. In my view, the questions  raised in this book are those facing modern believers just as they vexed the ancients. Far too many modern scholars refuse to ask such troubling questions, especially those reflecting negatively on the god of the bible. For interaction with a text, my commentaries on Joel and Ecclesiastes have given me much satisfaction. Education in Ancient Israel and Old Testament Wisdom have helped fill a void in modern research. That, too, is gratifying.

Your introductory volume on the Psalms, published in 2001, brought about a sort of implied paradigm shift in Psalms study because you chose to organize and discuss the Psalms according to collections rather than the traditional literary form.  What was the rationale behind that, and what is your assessment of current Psalms scholarship both in general and in light of your book?

For me, the focus on genre in Psalms has yielded rich dividends, but I think its usefulness has diminished. We need to try other ways of studying the book. After all, the arrangements into five books, and even some smaller compositions, was the earliest way of approaching the psalms. I believe the intuitive insight of ancient readers has utility today. As for contemporary research, I think too much attention is paid to labels like wisdom, to forcing structural design on texts that defy “Procrustean beds”, and to locating ritual explanations for certain psalms. The key questions ought to be: Why were such agonizing laments used as prayer, why did someone feel the necessity to interject confessions of confidence into these cries for help, and does this intervention suggest that honesty in petition was not welcome in certain circles?

What one scholar has most influenced your thought, and how?

I cannot single out just one scholar who has influenced my thought. Perhaps Gerhard von Rad deserves that honor, but James Barr is a close second. The sheer beauty of von Rad’s prose, not matched, however in Weisheit in Israel, and his evangelical piety are rounded out by Barr’s (Humean) secularism and philological emphasis. Both scholars contributed much to the way I interpret ancient texts. A distant third influence is Johannes Pedersen, whose socio0logical/psychological approach to ancient Israel has not been sufficiently appreciated among recent scholars. Perhaps I should also mention Lou H. Silberman, who first introduced me to the rich area of Judaica.

In addition to Wisdom Literature and the Psalms, much of your career has been devoted to the issue of theodicy or the portrayal of God in the Hebrew Bible.  Your A Whirlpool of Torment: Israelite Traditions of God as an Oppressive Presence (Fortress, 1984) and Defending God (Oxford, 2005) especially come to mind. Those these are quite different books.  How, as you look back, would you describe the character of God in the Hebrew Bible?

The character of God in the Hebrew Bible has long troubled me, and I have struggled mightily to mitigate its negative impact on contemporary believers. There are too many disturbing features of the divine persona, as highlighted in Jack Miles’ God: A Biography. From my first book, Prophetic Conflict, to my recent book of poetry, Dust and Ashes, I have refused to accept the biblical depiction of deity as a helpful paradigm. In the end, I have been forced to view scripture as a literary construct of those who created god in their own image. It is becoming increasingly clear that the character of deity in the bible–the mandate for genocide, violence, wrath, sacrifice, patriarchy, slavery, boasting, and so forth–has left a legacy of hatred that the world can no longer bear. As I try to justify my worship by highlighting other features of scripture, it requires an enormous leap of faith. Still, I am not willing to forsake my Judeo-Christian heritage. The myth of divine pathos, while intellectually troubling, is at the same time emotionally compelling.

What are some of the best places in your view to study Hebrew Bible/Old Testament today, and why?

I hesitate to answer this question, for the response depends on what one intends to concentrate on during graduate study. I have always tried to match a student with the strengths of a given program, whether theological, linguistic, literary, philological, archaeological, interdisciplinary, or whatever. Students looking for excellent mentors need not worry. They will be well served at a number of institutions.

What other projects can we expect to be forthcoming from you, who is publishing them, and when should they be available?

Besides the commentary on the book of Job, now complete, you can look for a monograph on Qoheleth entitled The Ironic Wink, which will appear in my series on Personalities of the Old Testament. Other volumes in this series are in the works (Steussy on Samuel, Koosed on Ruth, Balentine on Job, and Fried on Ezra). Beyond that, I am under contract to write a volume on Twentieth Century Interpretation of Wisdom literature for Brill. And more? Mi yodea”? Art is long, but time is fleeting!

Thank you, Dr. Crenshaw!


6 thoughts on “Interview with Wisdom Lit Scholar James Crenshaw

  1. Derek J White says:

    I’ve recently made [in my retirement–2011] the decision to embark on a research project regarding ‘Theodicy?’ in the book of Job. Having already come across Dr Grenshaw’s book on Psalms I’ve included his book ‘Defending God’ among the materials necessary for my personal research.

    Should one be taken up with the idea of a ‘god’ who [that, which?] is evolving along with everything else. Moreover, should one conclude that our knowledge of this ‘god’ can only be relative to our particular place in space/time evolutionary process—concerning the knowledge of the ‘idea’ of God. It ought to be blatantly obvious that such ideas cannot provide solace for anyone looking to defend both the goodness and the omnipotence of such a ‘straw man’. Should there be a reasonable theodicy it has to be one that that fits with the character of God as revealed in a specific time and place rather than in the thoughts of men—be it thoughts regarding the ‘one’ God or many—or indeed one of an altogether different variety. Of course, should one encircle oneself with the all embracing notion of evolutionary theory being itself ‘god’ then we’ll just have to keep thinking up ways of defending a ‘god’ that probably does not exist.

    Thanks for the interview.

    Derek J White [UK]

  2. Loren Crow says:

    I was one of Dr. Crenshaw’s students at Vanderbilt. I have always appreciated the thoroughness of his preparation for everything he does and, even more, the beauty of his English expressions. It was a joy to read your interview because I could hear his gentle voice in my head. He continues to be a wonderful teacher even in retirement.

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