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The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies Provides a comprehensive survey of Biblical scholarship in a variety of disciplines.

Beyond the Mid-Century ‘Settlement’

The uneasy combination of historical criticism and normative claim dominated the field through the 1960s, but was then rendered largely ineffective in the 1970s. The collapse of that synthesis made Old Testament study exceedingly complex and somewhat amorphous. As a consequence, a variety of contextual factors, some of which are perhaps not visible to us yet today, impacted study in the 1970s and evoked quite fresh initiatives. In general, this decade of reformulation featured a move away from the single-minded, completely accepted dominance of historical-critical methods that offered not only a consensus in method, but along with the method something of a consensus in substantive interpretation. The outcome of this move away from a single, dominant perspective resulted in a much more diverse, pluralistic, and variegated field of study that still pertains today. Among the factors that caused this change are the following:

  • • A remarkably abrupt awareness that the formulation of ‘the acts of God’ that had been central in von Rad's approach was recognized as an exceedingly problematic notion, the content and claim of which were not clear (Brueggemann 1997: 120–6).

  • • The move of Claus Westermann, close associate of von Rad, and Frank Cross, a close associate of G. Ernest Wright, to recover the theme of creation that had been squeezed out in a focus on ‘history’ (Westermann 1971, 1978, 1982; Cross 1973). Westermann articulated a theology of blessing that was grounded in the fecundity of creation, and Cross suggested that even ‘historical narratives’ were shaped by antecedent ‘myths’ of cosmic order. It is more than a little ironic that in both cases, of von Rad and of Wright, it was a near associate and colleague (Westermann and Cross respectively) who opened new vistas of interpretation alongside the foremost advocates of a ‘historical’ approach.

  • • The emergence of newer methods, which challenged the complete domination of historical-critical methods. The newer methods that quickly gained broad usage included especially rhetorical criticism, as advocated by Phyllis Trible (1978, 1994), and sociological analysis, as advocated by Norman Gottwald (1979). These methods suggested that there is more than one legitimate way in which to read texts, so ‘historical questions’ need not be the only questions to which scholarship attended. These newer perspectives, in turn, quickly generated new journals in the field that provided rich alternative interpretive possibilities. These included the Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, Horizons in Biblical Theology, and Biblical Interpretation.

  • • New voices joining the interpretive enterprise outside the standard scope of academic, Western, white, mostly male interpreters (Felder 1991; Dube 2000). These emerging voices represented especially a fresh feminist hermeneutic and Third World articulations of a liberation hermeneutic. It is clear in these latter cases that such interpretive enterprises were, in quite explicit ways, acts of advocacy that arose from quite particular social contexts. This new acknowledgement and recognition of contextual impact upon interpretation, moreover, had the effect of making clear that even the older, more ‘scientific’, and more ‘objective’ scholarship that had dominated the field was to some extent advocacy, and therefore less ‘scientific’ and ‘objective’ than had been claimed or imagined. The new environment of interpretation thus created a much more open picture of contestation in the field, so that the old ‘assured results’ in the discipline have had to be reconsidered and renegotiated. This new recognition pertains not simply to theological interpretation, but also to the long assumed ‘historical’ backgrounds upon which theological interpretation was said to be based (Dever 2001; Finkelstein and Silberman 2000).

  • • The recognition that, because scholarship never happens in a vacuum but always in a funding environment, these newly emergent realities in the study of the Old Testament arose as a part of a larger social reality in the 1970s. This is the period that dramatically began 1968 with the assassinations of Martin Luther King Junior and Bobby Kennedy, the Democratic Convention in Chicago, and, most spectacularly, the student revolts in Paris that required a startling response from the French government. These events were harbingers of what was to come in terms of the Vietnam War protests, Watergate, and the Civil Rights Movement, all of which together constituted a systemic upheaval in social relationships. In my judgement, there can be little doubt that the broadly based challenge to historical criticism in Old Testament study with its rather one-dimensional approach to texts was part of this larger critique of old, established certitudes. Thus, by the end of the 1970s, much of the perspective that had dominated Old Testament study since the initial contribution of von Rad had now been placed deeply in question.

It is to the astonishing credit of von Rad himself that in 1970, just prior to his death, he published his remarkable book Wisdom in Israel. That book shows von Rad himself moving beyond the ‘historical’ issues that long preoccupied him, now addressing new issues of creation and cosmic order. It is as though that book is a harbinger of what is to happen in the coming period of Old Testament theology. It is fair to say that with the demise of the consensus of the mid-century—a consensus that had established an uneasy settlement between historical-critical methods and confessional claims—the task of Old Testament theology became exceedingly problematic, as the field became diffuse and without a consensus picture of critical assumptions that heretofore had served theological interpretation so well. Thus with the 1970s we witness a considerable reorientation in the field, a reorientation nicely chronicled in 1994 by Leo Perdue (1994). The ‘collapse’ of the synthesis led to a move away from the old foundationalism that appealed to ‘universal’ presuppositions and a new emergence of contextual approaches and confessional presentations that were content to make interpretative claims without the necessity of bringing the entire field of study along with them. The loss of ‘universal objectivity’ in such interpretative claims was of course severely felt in some quarters. For the most part, however, interpreters came to recognize the legitimacy and appropriateness of interpretation that belonged to and served a sub-community of interpretation, confessional or contextual.

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