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The Oxford Illustrated History of the Bible A richly illustrated account of the story of the Bible written by leading scholars.

Liberation Theology and the Biblical Text

A full presentation of liberationist hermeneutics must move beyond a discussion of its basic hermeneutical commitments to an analysis of the actual study of the biblical text itself and its appropriation (if at all) of scholarly methods. On the one hand, a reading of liberation theology biblical work makes it clear that a variety of textual methods are utilized. At the same time, critical methodology is not eschewed, but rather is re-evaluated and then applied with a set of criteria not normally considered within traditional Western academic circles.

In an echo of Boff's first level of reflection, Mesters describes the nature of popular readings of the Bible among the base ecclesial communities. He posits three features of the interaction of the Bible which characterize the reading by the poor. Mesters holds that they sense a ‘freedom with the biblical text’—it truly becomes alive and accessible—once it is seen to engage with the difficult realities of social life. Accordingly, the poor can enjoy a ‘familiarity’ with its stories and poems, because in its pages they perceive many parallels with today's world. The Bible is a mirror of their experiences, a source of analogies which enriches faith. It becomes truly theirs. Thirdly, this appropriation of the Bible generates a ‘fidelity’ in its application, as they attempt to live in a manner consistent with the meaning they glean for their own lives.

Mesters also distinguishes between the pre-text, the context, and text. The first term refers to the situation of the people that will affect the handling of the Bible. A full awareness of their circumstances, however, cannot be limited to just the immediate personal emotional and physical needs of the poor but also must extend to include the social and systemic dimensions. Only then can scripture be read for all its worth and power. For Mesters the proper context for this sort of study and incarnation of the Bible is the church community. These believers must exemplify the quality of life and relationships that they hope to see someday when society itself is transformed. A realistic pre-text without this context can lead to a strident ideological stance with an inadequate orientation from the Christian faith; on the other hand, to remain solely within a limited contextual reading without the insights of the pre-text can result in an apologetic perspective. Ideally, a reading by the oppressed moves from the pre-text to the text and into the context.

What might be the role of the professional exegete in this process? Mesters in no way wants to discount the importance of scholarship, but he does point out that the particular logic and argumentation of the academy are far removed from the interest that the poor have in the Bible. They are not concerned with the details of hypothetical textual reconstructions and philological and historical debates. Exegetes who truly desire to be a part of this way of reading scripture must now learn to listen to the concerns of the people and endeavour to put their expertise at their service. This commitment might entail redirecting energies and research, but Mesters would insist that scholarly input, correctly utilized, can help popular readings from becoming overly subjective and arbitrary.

While Mesters and others have dedicated themselves to working with the base communities and developing an appropriate approach to the Bible for that setting, for the last three decades other liberationists have written an impressive array of scholarly works for a wider audience. These can be considered of at least two types. To begin with, there are the professional theologians, who appeal to biblical research as they elaborate their themes. In addition, there are also a number of prolific exegetes trained in both Old and New Testament scholarship.

Gutiérrez is arguably the best-known liberation theologian from Latin America. His works are replete with references to particular texts and biblical motifs. Though he tends to cite the Bible in a precritical manner, Gutiérrez on occasion does refer to certain critical positions in his argumentation and in footnotes. He has written on Job, but his is not a commentary in the classical sense. As his subtitle, God-talk and the Suffering of the Innocent, indicates, this work is more of an extended reflection on the difficult task of discerning how one might speak about God and reality from within a context of oppression and extreme poverty. In his exposition he contrasts a prophetic posture from the contemplative mode of doing theology and living out a life of faith. The former identifies with God's solidarity with the poor; the latter is grounded in the mystical discovery of the grace of God within adverse circumstances. Both kinds of God-talk were necessary for Job's struggles. They also prefigure the ministry of Jesus and what is found among the poor today.

Several prominent theologians, such as Leonardo Boff, Sobrino, and Segundo, have produced impressive Christological studies. For centuries in Latin American Roman Catholicism the two most powerful images of Jesus have been ‘el niño Jesús’ (the Baby Jesus) of Christmas and the bloodied crucified Jesus of Good Friday. In contrast to these traditional figures, which engender sympathy and compassion but who are defenceless and powerless, liberation scholars claim the historical Jesus as foundational for any effective Christology for their context. They tend to interact, however, with studies done years ago and not the most recent research on Jesus that is subsumed under what is now called the ‘Third Quest’. This is explainable, in part, because several of the liberation works appeared before these newer trends. Nevertheless, it could be said that what is actually offered in some of these Christologies as the ‘historical Jesus’ is a certain portrait constructed from the gospel narratives that highlights the practices and experiences of Jesus which seem to cohere with the social realities of today's poor. ‘Historical’ in this sense would mean realistic and plausible from the perspective of the oppressed.

Among liberationist technical biblical scholars several deserve special mention. In an early exegetical study spanning both testaments, Miranda sought to identify the basic message of the Bible. This, he proposed, is the constant divine demand for interhuman social justice, a stance with much in common with Marxism. Miranda makes extensive use of classical source and tradition criticism, yet he is critical of how such approaches have willingly ignored or misrepresented the pertinent biblical data.

Pixley has also based much of his work on critical theory, but he has appealed to sociological approaches. In both his commentary on Exodus and his history of Israel he has utilized Gottwald's explanation of the emergence of Israel as a peasant rebellion against Canaanite overlords. The proper theological framework for this Old Testament scholar is the Exodus, which defines the God of Israel as a deity of liberation and establishes that the ideal for this people was an egalitarian society.

Taking a very different methodological tack, the Old Testament scholar J. S. Croatto traces the reappropriation of the ‘foundational event’ of the Exodus throughout the biblical material in order to demonstrate its ongoing relevance for the diverse communities that produced the Bible and for today. He also has suggested that it is necessary to consider how this reappropriation can be ascertained not only by a careful reading of the received text of the Bible, but also from a certain notion of canon formation through redactional stages. For instance, in consonance with many critical scholars, Croatto separates Amos 9: 11–15 from the rest of that prophetic book as a post-exilic addition. The subsequent attachment of this new ending, he asserts, would show that the later community reinterpreted the earlier message in the light of its new circumstances. This redactional process would illustrate how a text can take on new meaning. Of course, today one works with the completed canon, but the dynamic of an ever-living word from God would still apply.

Baker Library, Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH/Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes y Literatura/© Orozco Valladares Family/Bridgeman Art Library.

Not all liberationist exegetes, of course, focus on the Old Testament. Even though in 1981 Tamez did publish a piece which was composed of word studies of Old Testament terms for oppression, more recently she has produced two significant New Testament works. A commentary on James highlights the letter's condemnation of the oppression of peasants by the rich and attempts to read it from the perspective of the poor. In the published version of her doctoral work at the University of Lausanne she attempts to reformulate the doctrine of justification in terms of the theology of liberation. From her point of view, this classic belief, as reread today from a continent lacking in socio-economic justice, should now be understood as offering good news to the poor and all those who suffer discrimination. Tamez criticizes how the doctrine has been disconnected from the social realities of Latin America to the detriment of the masses of its violated poor. Justification should affirm the dignity of those exploited by the systemic sins of modern society and empower all excluded persons to transform their context for the possibility of enjoying the gift of life in all of its dimensions. This orientation suggests new ways of appreciating the significance of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

Technical biblical studies of these and other scholars continue to appear. One valuable source for a wide variety of authors is the journal RIBLA (Revista de interpretación bíblica latinoamericana). All of these diverse manners of studying the Bible, whether from precritical or more scholarly perspectives, however, are expressions of a militant mode of reading within the struggle for liberation. For liberation theology no reading should be simply for intellectual stimulation or personal edification.

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