Reading the Bible as a (Dis)interested Reader?

I have been asked by the good folks at RBL, the SBL book reviews division, to review the new Genesis volume in Fortress Press’ new Texts @ Contexts Series (the Genesis volume is edited by Brenner, Lee, and Yee).  In reading through the series introduction written by Athalya Brenner and Nicole Wilkinson Duran I was struck by the following lines:

The project of recognizing and emphasizing the role of context in reading freely admits that we all come from somewhere; no one is native to the biblical text, no one reads only in the interests of the text itself (xii).

While the basic premise lying behind these words may seem patently obvious and thus presumably goes without saying, I would contend precisely the opposite is the case.  No one is a disinterested reader; we all bring biases and assumptions to the text.  Not incidentally, in every paper I write, as well as my dissertation, I always include a section titled “Assumptions and Methodology” where I try to articulate as clearly as I can that which I am assuming to be the case (it isn’t as cumbersome or dull as it may sound!).  I simply think interpreters need to be blatantly obvious about this dynamic of interpretation: as I say in my dissertation (and this is hardly a new idea), meaning occurs in the interaction between text and reader.  The text, though, is a sort of control, and serves as the basis against which the success or failure of any meaning can and should be adjudicated.  But much (more than most openly admit) of one’s conclusions also stem from context, be it geographical, political, economic, gender, race, etc.  I don’t believe these comments quoted above are endemic only to a volume such as this one in the Texts @ Contexts series.  This is part of my frustration with some, though not all, historical-critical scholarship: typically earlier twentieth century biblical scholarship purported to know what the biblical writers meant to say better than the biblical writers themselves, and felt free to correct the text accordingly, or postulate a tradition history or redaction that produces a text that may have never existed.  I think it is only academically honest and responsible for scholarship to admit at the very least its biases and to recognize, in print or at the very least in the process of writing, where these readings come from: readers and texts interacting in symbiotic relationship.  In good postmodern fashion, no reading can or ever will be the definitive, final reading of a text.  This is not to say all readings are equally valid; it simply wishes to press others into recognizing that one’s reading of a text derives not simply from the text itself, devoid of any a priori assumptions.  No ‘final’ reading is possible.  Not until all contexts have been exhausted.

The Textual God and the Actual God? Reflecting on an Aspect of Eric Seibert’s Disturbing Divine Behavior

Recently I have been working through various parts of Eric Seibert’s brand new volume, Disturbing Divine Behavior: Troubling Old Testament Images of God.  This issue–which long-time readers of this blog will know is of keen interest to me as it pertains in a way to my dissertation project–seems to have become quite prominent in scholarship recently.  Seiberts is among the most recent treatment.  I was excited about the title of the book.  Methodologically, though, I am disappointed.

Seibert’s main contention is that one may–nay, must–distinguish between the “textual God” and the “actual God.”  For Seibert, the OT images of God are not divine portrayals but rather human  depictions of the divine which “both reveal and distort God’s character” (170).  God, therefore, did not say and do everything the Bible says God did.  Fair enough.  I’ll follow. 

How then does one adjudicate what is and is not the true (and I hesitate to use that word) portrayal of God in the text?  How does one distinguish the “testual God” from the “actual God”?  Seibert proposes a Christocentric hermeneutic.  He writes:

“I wil argue that the God Jesus reveals should be the standard, or measuring rod, by which all Old Testament portrayals of God are evaluated.  Old Testament portrayals that correspond to the God Jesus reveals should be regarded as trustworthy and reliable reflections of God’s character, while those that do not measure up should be regarded as distortions.  Using a christocentric hermeneutic in this way employs a principled approach to determining the degree of correspodnence between the textual God and the actual God that keeps us from simply making choices based on our own preferences” (185).

This hermeneutic is problematic for a variety of reasons, not least of which is that it relegates these problematic images of God to utter meaningless and drains them of any theological import.  Nevermind history . . . the theological ramifications of these portrayals evaporate as well.  I will not here engage in a thorough, systematic refutation of Seibert’s proposal; I hope the difficulty is patent as it stands.  But I would like to raise a few questions that I think press the issue in an important way:

1) What makes the NT and/or its portrayal of Jesus ‘infallible’ and more reliable than what we have in the Hebrew Bible?  Could one not advance just as well the possibility (likelihood?) that the NT is shaped in a highly theological and intentional way, often in line with and as a reflection of Israel’s Scriptures, and that it also may be prone to the same difficulties of differentiating “textul” vs “actual.”

2) To piggy-back off #1, who is the “textual” and who is the “actual” Jesus?  To clarify, I think it is quite clear from the gospels that Jesus’ character also should not be whitewashed.  What about Matt 15 and its parallels, where Jesus calls a woman seeking healing for her sick child the French equivalent of a ‘female dog’?  Even if you want to advance the idea that Jesus is testing the woman (a reading I find terribly wanting, especially in Matthew) then you still have to wrestle with Jesus’ harsh rhetoric.  There are other examples I could offer . . . many stem from my past work in Performance Criticism, where along with a group we embodied, staged, and acted out various texts and even the entirety of Matthew.  Every decision, from clothing to facial expression to tone and intonation became decisions loaded with interpretive import.  I came to the conclusion here that Jesus probably yelled sometimes too.  He should hardly be whitewashed himself.  So, is there a textual Jesus and an actual Jesus?

3) I am troubled by Seibert’s use of the phrase “measuring rod” in the quotation cited above.  My difficulty resides namely in what this language evokes.  The Greek word kanon, meaning precisely that–measure, rod, reed–is where we get the word “canon.”  I do not wish to imply Seibert intends this, though he may, but saying Jesus’ revelation of God should be the “measuring rod” may just as well be put that Jesus’ revelation of God is the canon.  I can’t make that move.

4) Lastly, Seibert tackles perhaps my biggest worry head-on: Marcionism.  He seeks to distance himself from what Marcion did in the following way:

“I want to draw a clear distinction between what I am doing and what Marcion did centuries earlier. Rather than rejecting the Old Testament, I have proposed an interpretive appraoch that can help us evaluate the appropriateness of various portrayals of God in the Old Testament.  Since some Old Testament portrayals of God do not accurately reflect God’s character, these particular portrayals should not be used to determine our beliefs about what God is really like.  This is consistent with the way Jesus used various images of God in the ‘Old Testament.’  Although Old Testament texts were obviously very important to Jesus–he quoted from them and referred to them on numerous occasions–he did not embrace every portrayal of God contained in them.  Instead, he endorsed some and rejected others.  Like Jesus, we too can reject certain portrayals of God without consequently rejecting the Old Testament.  Just because we find some portrayals of God problematic, we should not repeat the mistake of Marcion.  Marcion treated the Old Testament as though it came from one cloth, so to speak, equally bad and problematic from start to finish.  In doing so, he robbed himself of many valuable and unobjectionable insights that can be derived from the pages of the Old Testament.  Moreover, by failing to appreciate the rich diversity of the Old Testament, Marcion lost the opportunity to hear the Old Testament’s own critique of certain problematic portrayals of God” (211).

I see the difference, and I agree Seibert is not advocating a jettisoning of the entire OT.  He is, however, jettisoning much of it that is not consistent with the NT.  There is no place for tension in Seibert’s understanding of things.  What’s more, there is no place for recognizing the “rich diversity” of the OT of which Seibert writes above.  His explanation here distances him from Marcion, yes, but I am still reticent to say it justifies his approach, which at least, latently, seems to have neo-Marcionite underpinnings.


(For other reflections that may inform your reading of this post, see HERE and HERE)

On Science and Religion: A Modest Proposal

(My thanks to Mike Parsons for some of these ideas)

Must science and religion be inimical to one another?  By no means.  I think it is feasible to speak of each as having a specific role and addressing very specific questions that the other does not.   To clarify, on the topic of creation . . .

Science can answer the question how and how long.

Religion can answer the question who and why.

Not everyone will be happy with this propsal.  That’s fine.  I don’t intend for it to be all inclusive or cover all the bases.  It does, however, seem to have some potential.

It is interesting to look, then, at what arises when the roles and questions become confused.

When religion attempts to answer the how and how long:

Heaven and earth, centre and circumference, were created all together, in the same instant, and clouds full of water,” and that “this work took place and man was created by the Trinity on October 23, 4004 B.C., at nine o’clock in the morning.”

Dr. John Lightfoot, Hebrew scholar
Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, 1644

When science attempts to answer the who  and the why:

“The cosmos is all that is, and all that ever was, and all that ever will be” and “we are snowflakes on the hearth.”

Carl Sagan, scientist

Neither of these statements is terribly persuasive, in my estimation.  The questions and roles have been confused.  This can lead to obvious difficulties.

To close, I would like to cite three specific prominent scientists on the matter of creation and science.  These sum up quite nicely the distinctiveness as well as the possible synergy between science and religion:

“The probability of life originating from accient is comparable to the probability of the unabridged dictionary resulting from an explosion in a print shop.”

Edwin Conklin, Biologist


“Believing the first cell in the universe originated by mere chance is like believing a tornado ripping through a junkyard full of airplane parts could produce a Boeing 747.”

Fred Hoyle, astronomer

AND my favorite quotation . . .

“Faith gives life to my discipline.  I have someone to thank when I admire beauty in nature–and I do admire it, even when I know how it works (such as a beautiful sunset, an eclipse, or a rainbow).  In scientific research I feel I get a chance to think some of God’s thoughts after Him . . .”

Dr. Greg Benesh, physicist, Baylor University

This final quotation is truly a beautiful way to put it. 

Thoughts, reflections, reactions?

How the Documentary Hypothesis has been Debunked: R.N. Whybray

In the comments to THIS POST I was asked about a good and accessible volume that communicates how and why the documentary hypothesis has been debunked.  My response: R.N. Whybray’s The Making of the Pentateuch, published in the JSOTSup series.  Whybray challenges both source-critical and tradition-historical approaches to Pentateuchal composition.  What is most helpful, though, is the distillation at the end of each chapter of the basic tenets of his argument.

Since the topic of the documentary hypothesis has come up several times on this blog and elsewhere, and because I think it is quite clear it has been debunked and is by no means a convincing way to talk about Pentateuchal composition . . . . AND because I’m going to be lecturing on Pentateuchal composition in a week . . . . I thought it would be helpful to post up Whybray’s list here from the conclusion to his source-critical chapter.

These are the following reasons Whybray argues the documentary hypothesis holds no sway:

1) DH “relies on a complexity of converging arguments” (the old ‘house of cards’ argument)

2) DH cannot account for all the material in the Pentateuch.  Even Wellhausen had to admit the law codes did not fit tidily, and the distinction between the so called earliest sources J and E is often blurred.

3) DH is “dependent on a particular view of the history of the religion of Israel,” an evolutionary view, that is no longer persuasive to many.

4) Authors are required to be consistent, but this same criterion is not applied to redactors (this is one of the strongest arguments in my view).  Such a view requiring consistency also fails to take into account the possibility of deliberate use of these features for aesthetic or literary purposes.

5) Doublets, repetitions, inconsistencies may already have existed in the oral stage of transmission.

6) Breaking up these narratives (“scissors and paste method”) lacks ancient literary analgoies, and destroys literary/aesthetic qualities of the narratives that should not be ignored.

7) DH places an over-emphasis on differences of language and style, especially in light of our ignorance of the history of the Hebrew language.

8 ) “Constants” required throughout each document (i.e., single style, purpose, theology) and an unbroken narrative thread do not exist in any document.

9) Pre-exilic authors appear to konw nothing of ancestral and Mosaic traditions, raising doubt about an early (United Monarchy) date for J or E.

10) Countless attempts to modify the hypothesis are only indicators of its breakdown.

11) Supplementary and fragmentary hypothesis have been neglected and need to be reassessed.

There are surely other reasons, but this is Whybray’s list, a very fine one at that.  For more on Pentateuchal composition, see my work HERE.

So, what do you think?

The Metanarrative of the Hebrew Psalter: On Reading the Book of Psalms as a Whole

Throughout the history of Psalms scholarship, attention has been placed largely on individual psalms.  Form-criticism, championed by Hermann Gunkel, and the cult-functional method of Sigmund Mowinckel (in which he saw the interprter’s task as being to reconstruct, from the various psalms, the religious and worship life of ancient Israel, and to assign a specific cultic Sitz im Leben to each individual psalm) have long ruled the day.  Recently, however, a shift in Psalms scholarship has occurred, looking at the larger whole and attempting to discern the meaning behind its shape and shaping.  This shift was brought about by the late Gerald Wilson.

In the first half of the 20th century, Gunkel stated in his seminal Einleitung (Introduction to the Psalms) that “no internal ordering principle for the individual psalms has been transmitted for the whole” (2).  Recent scholarship has challenged Gunkel’s claim.

Wilson’s Ph.D. dissertation at Yale in 1981 (subsequently published by SBLDS in 1985), The Editing of the Hebrew Psalter, argues that Books I-III have a different editorial history than IV and V.  He cites the following as evidence:

1) Comparative texts: Mesopotamian hymnic literature (Sumerian Temple Hymn Collection and the Catalogues of  Hymnic Incipits)
2) Qumran manuscripts evidence a certain stablility in shape, content, and ordering for Books I-III; Books IV-V, conversely, are much more fluid and unsettled.
3) Differing organizational techniques: Books I-III are broken up by author designation in the psalm superscription; Books IV-V have many untitled psalms and are thus broken up by hwdw / hllyh
4) Content: Books I-III appear concerned with the Davidic monarchy and its failure; Books IV-V witha time prior when YHWH was king.

Wilson has provided a convincing case, in my view, that the Hebrew Psalter has been shaped in a purposeful way.  The Qumran material itself is a superlative check in favor of this view.  It is point #4, however, that has spawned a great many subsequent reflections and investigations into the overarching metanarrative of the Psalter.  If the Psalter has been shaped, what is its shape?

In a later and still formative essay (“Shaping the Psalter: A Consideration of Editorial Linkage in the Book of Psalms,” 1993), Wilson expands upon this earlier argument.  He avers that there exists a series of interlocking frames that connect the various collections together.  The frames are as follows:

Books I-III
   i. royal covenantal frame: Pss 2 and 87, 88, 89
  ii. Davidic frame: Pss 3-41, 51-71+72
 iii. Asaphite frame: Pss 50 and 73-83 and 86
 iv. Qorahite frame: Pss 42/43-49 and 84-85

Books IV-V
  i. Davidic frame: Pss 107-117, 136-145
 ii. Torah: Pss 118-135
 iii. Wisdom frame: Pss 107-145

These frames, represented graphically (as Wilson does in the article cited here) evinces a highly intentional structuring of the Hebrew Psalter.  Yet, at the macro-canonical level, Wilson sees the shape of the Psalter as clarified through three interrelated, larger frames.

Two segments of the Psalter:
Royal Covenantal Frame (Pss 2-89)
   Wisdom Frame (Pss 90-145)

Final Overarching Wisdom Frame
i. ashre in Pss 2 and 144 (Ps 2:12 // Ps 144:15)
 ii. Ps 1 and 145 both speak of “two ways”

So, for Wilson, the final shape of the Psalter (expanding upon his connecting it with the failed Davidic monarchy and the return to a focus on YHWH’s sole rule in Books IV-V, noted above) is that of a wisdom collection advocating one to “trust YHWH” and not be reliant upon earthly kings or institutions.  Hope lies in YHWH alone.  The overarching metanarrative of the Psalter is, then, for Wilson, that YHWH reigns!

More recently, Nancy deClaisse-Walford has taken up and expanded on Wilson’s thesis.  She argues that the final form of the Psalter is a post-exilic statement of Israelite identity, and that the five books narrate the history of ancient Israel.  She outlines the structure as follows:

Book I: David and Solomon’s reign
Book II: David and Solomon’s reign
Book III: laments over oppression during the Divided Monarchy
Book IV: Babylonian exile and rethinking identity
Book V: Rejoicing in the restoration of YHWH as king

Seminal for Wilson and deClaisse-Walford both is that David returns at the close of Book V, but in a much different manner; he is no longer the king to whom one looks, but rather is the worship leader, encouraging and directing Israel’s praise to YHWH alone as king.  For deClaisse-Walford, Israel survives because she was able to shape and reappropriate her traditional and cultic literature into “a constitutive document of identity: the Hebrew Scriptures.”

Wilson’s view has been highly influential.  J. Clint McCann has published a piece that extends Wilson’s thesis even further, noting a hesitancy towards the Davidic monarchy already at the seams of Books I-III. 

The shape and shaping of the Psalter is a question about which most have thought very little.  How does Wilson’s thesis grab you?  DeClaisse-Walford’s?

What is the Best Way to do Old Testament Theology? A Survey of Four Perspectives

(See my earlier post HERE on the topic of OT theology as [a]historical discipline).

As I am writing my dissertation on an Old Testament theology related topic, and as I prepare to do some TA work Bill Bellinger’s OT theology seminar this Fall, I find myself continually returning to a question on method.  The question, for me, is less what is/constitutes OT theology and more how is one to do/construct an OT theology.  One can learn very much, I feel, by attending to the history of research on the topic.  Reflecting on this question, I will here survey four responses briefly, those of Eichrodt, von Rad, Childs, and Brueggemann.

Walther Eichrodt, Theology of the Old Testament (2 vols.), 1930s
Eichrodt’s theology is systematic in its organization, grouped into three parts: God and world, God and man, God and people.  OT theology for him is an historical (though not chronological), and scientific (though not confessional) exercise.  He sees the task of OT theology as being “to construct a complete picture of the OT realm of belief” (I, 25).  Eichrodt does this by what he calls a “double aspect,” emphasizing 1) comparative material from ancient Near Eastern religions; 2) a forward looking trajectory to the NT and Jesus as fulfillment of OT precursors.  Eichrodt takes a cross-section approach, arguing one can ‘cut’ at any given point in Israel’s historical narrative and there discern the unifed structure of OT belief.  His approach is thus, in this way, synchronic, and it assumes a basic unified structure to OT thought over time.  The conceptual center Eichrodt identifies as the central organizing principle of the OT is the Mosaic covenant, the encounter between YHWH and Israel with formative implications.  Other covenants, such as the Abrahamic or Davidic, are merely later retrojections of this primal covenant concept. 

Problems with Eichrodt’s View
1) Too much unity.  Eichrodt does not take into account adequately the posibility of development over time (as does von Rad, below).  By assuming a continuity across the entire history of OT thought, there is no emphasis on the reshaping and reappropriation of, say, Exodus traditions that are now well known in scholarship.

2) Covenant as the center.  Related to #1 above, there is simply too much unity.  Eichrodt’s covenant is univocal.  What about the Abrahamic, Mosaic, Noachide covenants?  Is it adequate to call them retrojections?  This emphasis on unity has also been challenged by the advent of bi-polar OT theologies or even a great multiplicity of theologies, as Erhard Gerstenberger argues for in his Theologies of the Old Testament.

3) Supersessionism. Writing in Germany in the 1930s, such rhetoric may be understood.  But it is still inexcusable.  While his NT trajectory may be defensible based upon the simple fact this is an Old Testament theology (though I am still not so forgiving), his rhetoric is not.  Not only is his theology full of critiques and jabs at Judaism, which has developed into a degenerate faith, but he also goes so far as to call Judaism a “torso.”  I cannot accept this.

Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology (2 vols.), 1950-60s
Von Rad rejects Eichrodt’s systematic way of doing OT theology because he believes the OT’s own way of doing theology is non-systematic.  He proposes a diachronic model, namely tradition history.  He argues that ancient Israel’s faith traditions developed and grew over time.  As a result, there is no unifying center to the OT; one can and should rather speak of theologies.  The task of the OT theologian is to identify and trace out the various traditions and their development.  Israel’s faith, then, is grounded in a theology of history with its starting point being YHWH’s action in history.  Toward this end, von Rad begins with what he calls the kleine Credo, tiny statements of faith that narrate the basic picture of OT salvation history.  The two kleine Credo he emphasizes are Deut 26:5-10. and Josh 24:2f.  These creedal statements narrate the same events: ancestral promise, exodus, land.  Sinai is absent in these creeds and thus has a separate development.  The importance of doing theology in this way for von Rad is that it honors the order of events as ancient Israel has set them out.  Reactualization (or, the making pertinent and continual reshaping and updating of a tradition in each successive generation) is seminal for von Rad.

Problems with von Rad
1) Too much diversity.

2) Heilsgeschichte seems to function as the implicit center for von Rad.

3) Is OT theology the same thing as history of traditions?

4) Wisdom literature does not fit nicely into his theology; it is not about salvation history.

5) The credo theory is little held to anymore today.  Rather than being small statements of faith out of which ancient Israel’s historical narratives grew and developed, they can just as well (and are likely better viewed as) later, distillations of an already expansive narrative.

Brevard Childs, Old Testament Theology in a Canonical Context, 1985.
Childs’ opening chapter on methodology is worth the price of this volume alone.  Literally.  In it, Childs notes several problems with prior attempts at OT theology: 1) is one’s task to write an OT theology, a history of Israelite religions, or both?; 2) an overemphasis on variety and growth has led to an inability to see any sort of coherence; 3) OT theology has failed to engage the question of how concrete communities of faith have heard and appropriated these texts; 4) the relation of OT theology to Judaism and the NT remains ill-defined.  As a result of these points, he says the field is at a stalemate.  As a way forward Childs advances the canonical approach, whose basis is the received traditions of Israel located in the Hebrew Bible, and not the (reconstructured) events or experiences lying behind the text.  Childs argues that canonization represents the final step in a process of hermeneutical activity that establishes the scope of what is and is not authoritative literature.  The final form of the text, for Childs, still preserves many elements of ancient Israel’s earlier theological thought and its development.  It is now given a new interpretive context, though, in its place in the canon.  Now, Childs is quite inconsistent across all his volumes over what constitutes canon (see Brueggemann on this).  Here, canon seems to mean an exercise in intertextuality (very Midrashic!) in which Scripture interprets Scripture.  Therefore, tradition-historical exercises like those of von Rad are absent and inconsequential for Childs; according to him, they are not only reconstructions but also lie outside the bounds of  Israel’s faith.

Problems with Childs
1) Which/whose canon?  There is no single canon for Christianity; the canon varies by faith community.  How is one to adjudicate what canonical shape of the text is or is not authoritative?

2) What is meant by canon?  Childs is inconsistent across his works on what he means by canon.  In Introduction to the OT as Scripture, it means the literary shape of the book.  In OT Theology in a Canonical Context, it means an intertextual exercise.  In his earlier Exodus commentary in the OTL series, it is an exercise in reception history. 

Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy. 1997.
Brueggemann is writing after what Leo Perdue has called The Collapse of History (noting the move away from history for a variety of reasons in OT theology/study in general).  Brueggemann’s Theology is itself postmodern, perhaps the first truly postmodern OT theology we have.  Methodologically, Brueggemann’s work may be described as a “theology of metaphor” or a “theology of rhetoric” in that he intentionally brackets out discussions of history and focuses upon what the text says and how the text says it.  Towards this end, he employs the image of a courtroom to talk about the witness of the OT, focusing upon Israel’s solicited testimony, counter testimony, unsolicited testimony, and lastly, embodied testimony.  Given this methodological stance, Brueggemann is very happy–indeed, interested and purposeful in–maintaining the tensions of the text.  He notes, in good postmodern fashion, the plurality of interpretive strategies and possibilities that pervade OT study.  At bottom, though, Brueggemann seems very much to be a covenant theologian and reads the text through this lens.

Problems with Brueggemann
1) Is OT theology entirely ahistorical?  Can it be?

2) Does the image of a courtroom cause an unintended problem by fostering, unintentionally, a sense of ‘legalism’ in the OT?

3) Does a truly postmodern OT theology lead, again, to too much diversity?

I take a little from everyone.  Each has difficulties, which I note, but also areas that are to be commended.  Here is what I glean:

From Eichrodt . . . . an appreciation of the covenantal concept as central from the OT and Israel’s faith.

From von Rad . . . . an agreement with his focus on reactualization and development of the traditions, as well as emphasizing that one must honor them in the order preserved by ancient Israel.

From Childs . . . . the realization that the final form of the text is the beginning place (the raw material, perhaps) for OT theology, and that the final form preserves therein earlier stages of Israel’s faith development.

From Brueggemann . . . . an appreciation for the emphasis on rhetoric as a place of focus (contra Childs’ wholly intertextual approach in the volume discussed above) and not seeking an easy smoothing out of the tensions in the text but rather allowing them–even those concerning God’s character–to stand and have meaning.

What are your thoughts on Eichrodt?  Von Rad?  Childs?  Brueggemann?  What do you take from each?  And, most importantly, how do you (or, how should we) do OT theology?

For Whom Do We Write? On Biblical Scholars and the Church . . . .

We had one of my colleagues at Baylor, his wife, and son over for supper last night.  SBL quickly became a topic of conversation.  My friend’s wife asked me what my paper was on, or if it was “too complicated.”  Knowing my wife can’t stand to hear me talk about schooling any more than I do already, I replied the latter.  In earnest, though, this would not be my usual move.  But this exchange got me thinking yet again about a topic that has been at the forefront for me recently: as biblical scholars, for whom do we write?  There are two possible answers: other academics, or the church?

Much of what we do as biblical scholars is of interest only to other biblical scholars, and that even is not always the case!  But many of us write and submit to academic journals that will be read by other academics or students of the discipline.  The layperson in the pew will likely not hear our detailed lexical argument, nor care much about ancient Near Eastern parallels to the Genesis creation story or to Job and how they might inform the text.   Put simply, biblical scholars will often, obviously, write at a level beyond what a layperson should be expected to understand.  A former professor of mine once asked whether we, as biblical scholars, were the “elite” (his term).  In a way, the answer is yes.  But I’m not so sure that is the way it should be.

Yet, if we write for the edification of the church, how is that message to be disseminated responsibly?  Pastors?  Perhaps.  But at the same time, much of biblical scholarship is seen (a priori, mind you) as inimical to the vision and mission of the church.  I have said elsewhere that the church and the academy are, I think, asking quite different questions.  That is fine.  But I do think much of what we do is important for the edification of those who worship, be they Christians or Jews.  The difficulty then lies in how one shares that information.

In my judgment, the biblical scholar plays dual yet complementary roles: in academia, and in the church.  If one is a member and attends church or synagogue, I feel it is important for that person to take a proactive approach towards incorporating the task of biblical studies into the church, hopefully inculcating in those who attend a deeper understanding of various matters that may be of interest.  For instance, my teacher Bill Bellinger leads an adult sunday school class weekly at his church.  In the past he has addressed the Jacob cycle (which actually, he tells me, involved some parishioners noting God’s seeming complicity in deception . . . . that’s a smart church!) and the entire gospel of Mark, including the complexity with the ending.  I know other bloggers out there, Chris Heard and Bryan Bibb among them, have taught special sessions at churches on various academically suited topics.  This, to me, is imperative.

Now, I am not suggesting a church be led through a rigorous grammatical analysis of Habakkuk 3’s poetry (which, if you haven’t worked through it, is quite complex, and the suggestions in BHS’ critical apparatus don’t lessen the difficulty) or even be forced to tackle questions of Pentateuchal authorship.  What I do suggest, though, is the necessity of grounding in the text, and the issues that accompany the text.  So how does reading, for instance, Job, affect your view of God?  Of humanity?  Creation?  What do Jeremiah’s ‘laments’ say, again, about God?  About prophecy?  These are issues a congregation can wrestle with, and which can only serve to enhance their understanding of worship and of the biblical text. 

In the future, when I (hopefully soon) find a teaching position, this is something I very much want to take part in.  My role as a biblical scholar extends beyond simply churning out articles for tenure (although that is a vital component of success and sustainability!); if that work is not in service in some way, implicitly or explicitly, to the life of faith, it is worth little. 

One final clarification: I do not mean to imply by the previous sentence that one’s scholarship must be governed by the norms and doctrines of the church.  In fact, quite the opposite; biblical scholarship should seek to inform the church.  Any good and responsible theology is, at bottom, biblically based.  For instance, while some may not accept it, I view my work on YHWH as divine trickster to be in service to the life of faith by pointing to a realistic portrayal of God as seen in the biblical text elsewhere (Deuteronomistic History, Psalms, Job, etc.) and also a portrayal of God that, in a way, speaks to the reality, tensions, and absurdities of life.  The church and/or the synagogue may accept this word or it may not.  But it is a word that is worthy of being shared.  What good, then, is biblical scholarship if it stays within a particular, “elite” circle?  If we are indeed the “elite” in this regard–and we may indeed be–then does that not all the more imbue us with a responsibility to not only our own faith community, but any faith community who will hear us?

Hebrew Bible or Old Testament? What’s the Difference, and Does it Matter?

The topic has tangentially been raised in the comments between Roy and myself on this post (Review of Routledge’s OT Theology) on the distinction between Hebrew Bible and Old Testament, more applicably, which is the basis for ‘OT’ theology (the name itself perhaps being a dead giveaway, but I don’t know that it is so clear).

Old Testament is obviously the Christian designation for the first collection of books in the canon.  It is a (purely?) confessional designation that speaks of a particular ordering of books (ending with Malachi) that bears a relationship, of some sort depending upon who you are reading, to the NT.

Hebrew Bible is the attempt to be more neutral, the idea being that “Old” in “Old Testament” belies some level of antiquated ethics, thoughts, morals, and texts that have been replaced and/or fulfilled in Jesus, and are thus of little, or less, relevance for informing Christian faith and thought.  The label “Hebrew Bible” also seeks to be more appreciative not only of the obvious Jewish roots of Christianity but of the contemporary Jewish community, to whom these Scriptures still serve as the foundation for Jewish faith and identity.  It is, in a way, an attempt to move beyond supersessionism/triumphalism.

Personally, I will more often than not employ “Hebrew Bible” for many of the reasons offered above.  But, I also see myself using Hebrew Bible because I am reading the Hebrew canon of books, which ends with 2 Chronicles and not with Malachi, and which belongs to the Hebrew people.  Of course, most scholarship reads the Hebrew text but assumes the Christian canonical order.  This is fine, but a bit untruthful to the reality of what one is reading.  Regardless, the canonical ordering often has little bearing on my scholarship to this point . . . . I am not a canonical interpreter.  I also find it amusing that when I do say “Old Testament,” some of my colleagues will immediately say “Ha!” and point out my apparent faux pas in uttering such a phrase.  I still don’t really know what they’re getting at there, beyond the simple idea of affirming for themselves that someone who knows the text better than they can still say “Old Testament,” affirming their own a priori methods of reading (I know that sounds terribly arrogant, but I do wonder if it is part of the issue).

“Hebrew Bible” has its problems.  Among the main arguments (and a silly one, if you ask me) is that it also includes Aramaic.  Ok, that’s fine, but the Aramaic also contains various loan words from other languages . . . . so should we call it the Semitic Bible?  Ridiculous.  And the Greek New Testament contains Aramaic (for instance, Jesus’ words talitha cum or eli eli lema . . . . , albeit in Greek characters).  This is a silly argument to me.  As an attempt to remedy this issue, some have proffered “Jewish Scriptures” or “First Testament.”  For reasons that should be obvious, these titles are also not without their difficulties. 

In the end, does such a difference truly matter?  What difference does it make?  The first footnote to Walter Brueggemann’s Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy discusses this issue in a responsible way.  This brings up the attendant question of what is OT theology?  In the comments to the post cited above, I note that there is a dearth of Hebrew Bible theology, and much Old Testament theologyends up being almost entirely Christian.  Is this a problem?  Is there such a thing as Hebrew Bible theology?  Should there be?  Can there be?  And if so, is it–like OT theology–a purely confessional discipline that only Jews can do successfully?

A closing thought: in my Ph.D. admissions interview at Baylor, I was asked whether it was possible for a Christian to read the Hebrew Bible, or whether they are always reading the Old Testament.  This question bears significantly on the present discussion.  At bottom, my answer was a resounding yes . . . . as an empathetic, sympathetic, and intimate part of Israel (see Rom 9-11, as well as Boccacini, Segal, and Boyarin on the origins of early [Jewish]-Christianity), it was possible for Christians to read the Hebrew Bible.  I firmly believe this–indeed, I am trying to do it!   

What are your thoughts?  Which do you use/prefer, and why: Hebrew Bible or Old Testament?  How do you understand the difference?  And how might the decision bear on a theology of the TANAK (see how I evaded the issue there?!).


On the Task of Old Testament Theology: (a)historical?

In re-reading through Walter Brueggemann’s magisterial Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy, I must admit I am quite taken still by his theology of rhetoric.  Brueggemann writes:

I shall insist, as consistently as I can, tha the God of Old Testament theology as such lives in, with, and under the rhetorical enterprise of this text, and nowhere else and in no other way.  This rhetorical enterprise operates with ontological assumptions, but these assumptions are open to dispute and revision in the ongoing rhetorical enterprise of Israel.” (66)

For Brueggemann, and for myself, the locus of ancient Israel’s theological reflection and meaning lies solely in the text, more particularly, how the text narrates what it does about God.  What is said is far more important for Brueggemann than attempting to reconstruct either what happened or how the text came to be.  On the so-called historical task of OT theology, Brueggemann says:

“Note well that in focusing ons peech, we tend to bracket out all querstions of historicity.  We are not asking: ‘what happened?’ but ‘What is said?’ To inquire into the historicity of the text is a legitimate enterprise, but it does not, I suggest, belong to the work of Old Testament theology.  In like manner, we bracket out all questions of ontology, which ask about the ‘really real.’ It may well be, in the end, that there is no historicity to Israel’s faith claim, but that is not a position taken here.  And it may well be that there is no ‘being’ behind Israel’s faith assertion, but that is not a claim made here.  We have, however, few tools for recovering ‘what happened’ and even fewer for recovering ‘what is,’ and therefore those issues must be held in abeyance, pending the credibility and persuasiveness of Israel’s testimony, on which everything depends” (118).

What do you make of Brueggemann’s insistence on rhetoric as the means of approaching Old Testament theology?  What of his ahistorical approach?  As you may suspect, I am quite on board.  But for a variety of reasons.

The task of OT theology has long been seen as an historical one.  Eichrodt’s seminal two volume theology stressed a “double aspect”: 1) investigate and analyze a given text agains the backdrop of ancient Near Eastern religion; 2) trace out how this text has been fulfilled in Jesus and the NT [a terribly reductionist and triumphalist reading the way Eichrodt presents it].  Similarly, von Rad’s two volumes–from which I still learn very much–see OT theology through the lens of tradition history.  For von Rad, the task of the OT theologian is to trace the development of these traditions, thus emphasizing the diversity of the task.  Erhard Gerstenberger’s more recent Theologies of the Old Testament seems to carry this strand forward, arguing (correctly) that there are multiple theologies in the OT (although he and I would disagree on what these multiple theologies are).  Gerstenberger, though, is also purely historical, discussing the theology of various institutions within ancient Israel.  And there are countless others who have seen the task of OT theology as an utterly historical one.  In fact, reading some of these early OT theologies is quite similar to reading early introductions on the OT for me.  Both were largely doing excavative work and writing history, with theology peppered in.

More recently (1985 to be exact, some 12 years prior to Brueggemann’s volume), Brevard Childs sought a paradigm shift.  In his Old Testament Theology in a Canonical Context, he argues (correctly) that OT theology has long been too taken with matters of history.  One must ask precisely what the task itself is, writes Childs.  Is the task to do OT theology, a history of traditions/religion, or some mutation of both?

I don’t believe OT theology should be utterly ahistorical.  But I also don’t think Brueggemann is wholly ahistorical (as Norman Gottwald points out in his essay in God in the Fray: A Tribute to Walter Brueggemann, of which see my review HERE).  But Brueggemann is not historical in the way Eichrodt or von Rad were historical.  Brueggemann is concerned with what ancient Israel says, regardless of any concerns for the authenticity of the utterance or its development into that utterance.  I remain quite agnostic about the historical critical method of reading.  And thus, I think Brueggemann’s discussion outlined above presents a refreshing way forward for how one does OT theology.  One is not writing a history.  One is writing a theology, from ancient Israel’s perspective, about her views on God.  That, I would argue, is the task of OT theology.  It is literally a “word about God.”  And only as such can it be called OT theology proper.

And you?  What do you think of Brueggemann’s method?  How do you see the task of OT theology?

Methodological particularity . . . or pluralism?

One thing I have become increasingly aware of during my time in graduate school is what type of scholar I am, and what type I am not. And while scholarship seems to follow quite particular trends, what is ‘in-vogue’ does not, I would argue–and thankfully so–replace the ‘vogue’ methodological emphasis. But my struggle has always been negotiating these two voices, broadly labeled synchronic and diachronic.

I, myself, as should be evident by my blogger profile, am a synchronic, literary reader of biblical texts. I take many of my hints from Robert Alter, for whose The Art of Biblical Narrative I am tremendously grateful. This methodology has opened up the shear beauty and artistry of the Hebrew language, and I stand now convinced that the ancient Hebrew authors were far more intelligent than they are often given credit for being (which has led me to an increasing frustration when scholarship, commentaries, or the BHS critical apparatus suggests a so-called “better” reading, but cites no corroborating manuscript evidence). And I firmly believe, with this point in mind, that there is great meaning in how the text has been preserved . . . what has become its final form — warts and all. The meaning is in the warts of the text. But how ‘authentic’ is such an interpretation if a responsible diachronic analysis can account for and also make sense of the warts?

Diachronic analysis (transmission history, tradition history, redactional analyses, form criticism) seem to me to have many difficulties, not least of which I would say is often a subjective dismantling of the text. For me, these methodologies themselves are often quite circular, and can be quite jarring when applied in tandem with one another. I thus found Odil Hannes Steck’s Old Testament Exegesis: A Guide to the Methodology, to be quite interesting; he argues (correctly, at points) that these different diachronic methods intersect, inform one another, and cause one to rethink prior conclusions. Steck’s methodology, though, is wholly bound up with the German school of thought, and while I am thankful for his contribution, it has not only helped me to dialogue with those doing diachronic analyses, it has also confirmed for me what type of scholar I am not.

The underlying question here is whether one can successfully integrate diachronic and synchronic analyses together in a single study. To this question, I would venture a modest ‘yes.’ I am mindful here of the work of David Carr in his volume Reading the Fractures of Genesis. He opens the volume very clearly by stating his sentiment that diachronic and synchronic ways of reading are mutually illuminating. Just as synchronic analysis may reveal the “fractures” of the text, so also diachronic analysis may lead to a greater understanding of the text’s wholeness. Of course, Carr is still largely doing genetic work with the Genesis material, but there are helpful literary insights throughout. My teacher, W.H. Bellinger, Jr., argues for what he calls a “hermeneutic of curiosity,” which includes an admixture of diachronic and synchronic analyses. Pertaining to the Psalms specifically, he sees five necessary questions one must ask so as to gain the fulness of interpretation: (1) What is the form of the text; (2) What was its setting in worship/in ancient Israel’s context; (3) Where is the psalm in the Book of Psalms; (4) How does the text use language and rhetoric; (5) What does the reader bring to the text? It is quite easy, I think, to see how this list could be applied to any given biblical text. But I have a question: are each of these questions in harmony with one another? Put another way: does methodological pluralism lead one, potentially, to a text that is ultimately un-interpretable? Is it not likely that these questions would be jarring rather than producing a full, coherent whole? I don’t know.

I lament the divide that exists within scholarship. I also, though, think there is much to be learned from one another. And while diachronic analysis is surely not for me (to put it bluntly, once I see a verse broken down into ‘alpha,’ ‘beta,’ and ‘gamma’ I check out!), I think it has much to commend itself and much to teach. Similarly, synchronic, literary analyses it seems have much to teach scholars of the more diachronic persuasion. But how should one bridge this gap? Can we? And are we in a period of methodological particularity . . . or pluralism?