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

Fresh Foci in the 1970s

By the 1970s, with the widespread abandonment of the dominant paradigm of the mid-century—the affirmation of ‘God's mighty deeds in history’—we are able to identify emerging new accents in the field, of which I shall mention four.

1. The ‘crisis’ of ‘the historical’. We have seen that the paradigm of von Rad and G. Ernest Wright depended upon an uneasy combination of ‘real history’ and ‘salvation history’. That uneasy combination pertained to a ‘recital’ of saving miracles that had happened in Israel's past, transformative interventions in the life of the world that were credited to YHWH and that were given normative liturgical and literary form. Indeed, one of Wright's most important books was entitled, God Who Act (Wright 1952). ‘Real history’, conversely, referred to a more-or-less scientific reconstruction of what ‘actually happened’ in the ancient world. This sort of research through mid-century was especially important in the United States under the leadership of William Foxwell Albright and his influential students (Albright 1957). The outcome of such research—reflected in John Bright's A History of Israel (1959)—confirmed the deep and broad ‘historical reliability’ of Israel's reportage on the past. Even so, of course, what the archaeologists meant by ‘history’ and what von Rad meant by ‘saving history’ were not at all the same.

In the 1970s, beginning with the work of Thomas Thompson and John van Seters, scholarly judgements began to accumulate toward the conclusion that the Old Testament presentation of ‘history’ was, especially in the early period, not reflective of what ‘actually happened’ (Thompson 1992, 1999; van Seters 1975). A new impetus in scholarship led a number of scholars to argue that ‘Old Testament memory’ is in fact an ideological construct, and not reliable reportage (see Dever 2003: 245). Up until today, it is generally held that the Old Testament is rooted in Near Eastern culture and social history, but the connections are not at all precise and one-to-one, as had been earlier assumed. While Old Testament theology is inescapably drawn to an ancient Near Eastern linkage, the nature of that linkage is now uncertain, and cannot be counted upon in any simple or innocent way, as had been assumed heretofore.

2. A counter-move that seeks freedom from such a cultural connection is the new appreciation of ‘confessional’ reading that had been precluded in the ‘objective’, ‘foundationalist’ approaches prior to Karl Barth. While the older scholarship had been committed to objective claims that were universally credible, one new mode of interpretation recognizes that the Bible is formed and is to be read as a confessional statement of faith by a concrete community of worship and practice that intentionally advocates a certain set of ‘truth claims’ that are insisted upon in the face of other, competing truth claims. This mode of partisan advocacy is already implicit in von Rad's notion of ‘credo’, but by the 1970s had taken on new significance in the field.

We may divide this subject of confessional readings into two quite distinct parts. First, a number of scholars—of whom Brevard Childs, Ronald Clements, and James A. Sanders are the foremost—saw that the Old Testament itself was shaped by an intentional ‘canonizing’ interpretive activity that over time took random memories and religious resources far from Near Eastern culture and formed them into a coherent traditioning process (Childs 1979; Sanders 1972; Clements 1996). That process eventuated in a canon, that is, a normative teaching literature for an intentional community of faith, namely, Israel. It is agreed that the work toward a canon is essentially a product of emerging Judaism in the sixth and fifth centuries BCE, whereby the dominant teachers and interpreters among the Jews in exile and just after the exile transposed the residue of the faith of pre-exilic Israel into an authoritative platform for a Judaism that was now without the conventional supports that had been offered by city, king, and temple. (There were in this period, of course, the re-established city of Jerusalem and the rebuilt temple, but neither of these refounded institutions exercised the powerful supportive force and symbolic authority that had been the case prior to the destruction of 587 BCE.) What became the Old Testament is thus a self-conscious reconstruction of the past (a reconstruction featured in the ‘documentary hypothesis’ of the nineteenth century) that was bound to ‘what happened’, but committed to a new theological construal on which the community was to stake its life.

Brevard Childs most conspicuously has insisted that it is impossible and inappropriate to try to ‘go behind’ this intentionally constructed textual tradition to ‘what happened’ (Childs 1970). Such a manoeuvre is impossible and inappropriate, because the makers of the canon were engaged not in reportage but in confessional construction. Thus the proper goal of Old Testament theology is to try to understand this theological intentionality and its impact upon the ongoing community of faith and practice. A case in point is the remarkable article of Ronald Clements (1977) concerning the prophetic books. While the prophetic books consist in collections of oracles uttered by spectacular personalities, and while the prophetic books are witnesses to a long, complicated traditioning process, the important point to ‘the final form of the text’—whatever the initiating persons may have said—is characteristically a document organized in judgement and hope, the themes that correlate with Israel's descent into exile and Jerusalem's emergence as a new community of hope. The canonizing process characteristically overrides the claims of older material with this powerful interpretive intentionality. It is the merit of Sanders (1976) to insist that while there was indeed such a propensity in the canonizing process, it was not a fully comprehensive achievement. Consequently, even the canonically constructed theological statement of the text is not free of older, quite odd residues of earlier sources that continue to be present in the text alongside, and sometimes in tension with, more obvious gains of canonical intentionality.

It is to be noticed that while this identification of intentionally constituted canonical claims serves Old Testament theology well, the same data in the traditioning process can well be read in another way. Thus scholars who affirm and appreciate the canonical process tend to be committed to ‘church theology’. Conversely, scholars who look askance at ‘church theology’, and who for personal and/or intellectual reasons read ‘against the grain’, tend to view this canonical intentionality as ideological imposition upon the text that distorts it in order to serve power élites who control the canonizing process. While a commitment to Old Testament theology inclines scholars to appreciate this canonizing process, there is no obvious reason why a positive assessment of canon has any privilege over a negative assessment of ideology. Or conversely, there is no obvious reason why a negative assessment of ideology has any privilege over a positive assessment of canon. This matter of canon and ideology, a major enterprise in the field since the 1970s, is of particular interest, because it evidences the decisive impact of a scholar's location and predilection upon interpretive outcomes. Neither an appreciation of canon nor a critique of ideology can be said to be innocent and neutral; in each case the judgement is a committed and often passionate advocacy. ‘Canonists’ characteristically insist that they are echoing the advocacy of the text itself, and so ‘canonical interpretation’ is congruent with the text. Critics of ideology tend to view the canonizing process suspiciously, and so sense themselves obligated as critical scholars to ‘expose’ such canonizing imposition. It is important to recognize, in my judgement, that neither passionate verdict can claim ‘a free ride’; in each case, rather, attention must be paid to the axe that the scholar wants to grind. I suggest that in every case the ‘grinding’ that yields interpretive passion is likely to be found in quite personal history. It may be noted that the context between fideists who affirm the canonical and skeptics who find ideological imposition likely replicate the old seventeenth century dispute between orthodox church theologians and academics who rallied to ‘history’ as a zone of emancipated scholarship.

The ‘confessional dimension’ of Old Testament theology may be traced a step further, as we acknowledge that this scholarly venture now removes the Old Testament text from its originary environment of the ancient Near East and treats the Old Testament text in more recent venues of interpretation. On the one hand, Brevard Childs in his more recent work, as he seeks to break the connection of the Old Testament to ancient Near Eastern history, draws the Old Testament decisively toward the New Testament (Childs 1992). (Of course, the connection of Old Testament to New Testament is a long-standing issue for Christian Old Testament scholars.) Thus Childs, in his important book of 1992, proposes that the Old Testament and the New Testament are ‘two witnesses to Jesus Christ’. In this articulation Childs, of course, intends to situate interpretation in the Church and to treat the Old Testament as a resource singularly pertinent to the life and faith of the Church. Indeed, Childs goes further than any conventional connection between the Old Testament and the New Testament to insist that the Old Testament must be read according to the Christian ‘rule of faith’ (Childs 1992: 63–8). This is an immense interpretative leap away from all preoccupation with historical matters and with any ancient Near Eastern context. The notion of a ‘rule of faith’ is, it seems likely, a second-century Christian formulation that subsequently came to refer to the Christian dogmatic articulation of the doctrines of the Trinity and the Church's Christology of incarnation (but see the qualifications in Polk 1997). In Childs's most advanced argument, the Old Testament text is to be read and interpreted according to the most foundational affirmations of the Church, affirmations that were not fully formulated until the third and fourth centuries of the Christian era. Thus Childs intends Old Testament theology to be in the direct service of the Church's dogmatic tradition; in this, he has of course deliberately moved well beyond whatever might have been meant by the ‘canonizing tendency’ of the Old Testament, for such doctrinal commitments in the Church could not have been on the horizon of the canon-makers. The implication of Childs's work is to undo the entire project of modern historical criticism, even though Childs himself is a most skilful practitioner of those disciplines. In his recent Isaiah commentary, moreover, Childs goes so far as to judge that Old Testament texts ‘coerce’ readings toward the new (Childs 2001: 5, 58, 94, 102, 216, 422). It is clear that Childs's work is an immense contribution to the field, but one that is in some quarters judged as deeply problematic.

On the other hand, alongside the confessional perspective of ‘canonical’ approaches, the emancipation of scholarship from the domination of ‘the historical project’ has permitted and legitimated a good deal of contextual theological interpretation. That is, particular communities of faith and practice read the text as though its proper matrix for meaning were not the ancient Near East nor even the canonizing process of emerging Judaism, nor even the large claims of Christian doctrine, but rather the immediate circumstances of a particular community of faith in all of its contemporary reality. This contextual contemporaneity has been particularly important in the oppressed communities of the Third World and, to a lesser extent, also in a feminist hermeneutic (see Branson and Padilla 1986; Ukpong et al. 2002). Thus, for example, the ancient narrative text of the exodus has been taken up by George Pixley (1983) as a warrant for contemporary social analysis and a social environment of extreme and oppressive wealth and its accompanying poverty and disempowerment. A more recent example is the interpretation of Luke 2: 1–20 by Elsa Tamez (2002), who contrasts the ‘peace of Augustus Caesar’ and the ‘peace of Jesus of Nazareth’. In her exposition she understands the ‘peace of Augustus Caesar’ to be the tyrannical dictatorships that are faced throughout Central and South America, and understands the promise of the gospel to be a public social alternative to those exploitative regimes. Thus Tamez is an excellent example of the way in which the text becomes immediately contemporary.

Such immediately contextual readings, of course, have little interest in ancient Near Eastern settings and little more interest in the great dogmatic claims of the Church. These readings, rather, in their urgent need and passion, move past whatever ‘historical distance’ may be suggested by the ancient text, and take the text with immediate and poignant contemporaneity. Such contextualism is not at all what Childs has in mind in his canonical-confessional proposal, but such readings in their own way do indeed treat the text as canonical: that is, as authoritative and defining for the truth of life in urgent contemporary practice. On both counts, the confessional- canonical and the immediately contextual, it is breathtaking to notice how far our reading practices have moved in a short time from the older ‘objective’ stance that was preoccupied with historical questions and that relegated contemporaneity of interpretation to other disciplines, as though contemporaneity was not at all the mark of Old Testament theology. The new interpretative possibilities introduced in the 1970s have opened up the field of Old Testament theology in a lively and disputatious way, for the Old Testament is now a venue for vigorously contested readings without many ‘assured results’ of critical perspective.

My own work is fully appreciative of the canonical thrust of the work of Childs, Sanders, and Clements, which represents a decisive move away from historical-critical retrieval and from any assured bases in ‘history’. At the same time, my intention is to pay more attention than the ‘canonists’ do to the way in which the ‘utterance’ of the text itself—in its canonical intentionality that only partly succeeded in its passionate intentional advocacy—participates in immense contestation in the text itself that in turn funds the contestation of contemporary interpreters among various interpretative communities (Brueggemann 1997: 317–403). My own work tries to find a way to attend to the disputes that are present in the canon itself and, consequently, to allow for the funding of contestation as a characteristic way in which this text functions in particular communities of faith and practice. To that end, I have tried to explore the rhetorical practice of the Old Testament in its vigorous contestation without allowing the edge of the rhetoric to be shaved or toned down by what is judged to be historically possible or dogmatically acceptable. My presentation seeks, in the best way I know, to take seriously non-foundational commitments, refusing censorship of either a certain view of history or a certain view of doctrine (Thiel 1994; Grenz and Franke 2001). The outcome of such a reading, of course, shows the text to be openly ended disputatious, more open-ended than is tolerable for most settled interpretations when the text is measured by ‘history’, or by ‘reason’, or by ‘canon’ (Brueggemann 2002).

3. It will have been noticed that the course of Old Testament study since the seventeenth century that I have traced is largely a Protestant enterprise, and almost exclusively a Christian enterprise. Roman Catholics, for the most part, were not able to enter the critical discussion until after Vatican II, but since then have made important contributions. The matter has been much more complex concerning Jewish scholarship in a field dominated by Christian questions and a Christian agenda.

It is important to remember that modern critical study of the Bible arose in ‘Christian Europe’, and specifically ‘Christian Germany’, at a time when Jews were distinctly ‘outsiders’ to the dominant cultural enterprise of scholarship and interpretation, even though the Jewish community in its own rabbinic modes continued vigorous interpretative work. Thus the horizon of church and even university interpretation was decisively Christian and unchecked by the presence of any ‘other’ who would expose the interests and limits of partisan interpretative interest. In Old Testament studies, the dominant Enlightenment hypothesis of interpretation was an evolutionary notion of the religion of Israel that presented the Torah preoccupation with purity—a primary accent of Jewish faith—as ignoble and inferior to Christian ethical concerns. The dominant evolutionary hypothesis, moreover, hurried along to the New Testament, where was found a ‘superior’ religion (Soulen 1996). Thus the dominant assumptions of Old Testament theological interpretation were supersessionist—that is, the governing assumption was that Judaism has been superseded by a superior Christian faith—and therefore intrinsically anti-Jewish in articulation. Jon Levenson has traced the way in which Old Testament theology—an exclusively Christian project—was vigorously anti-Semitic well into the twentieth century. The evidence Levenson (1993) cites is beyond refutation for scholarship of that period.

Given such an exposé, it is fair to conclude that the end of the twentieth century has seen a change in these dynamics of interpretation, and has seen the entry of Jewish interpreters into the mainstream of biblical theological interpretation (Levenson 1988; Goshen-Gottstein 1987; Barr 1999: 286–311). Consequently, the new situation has permitted and required Christian interpretation to proceed with greater awareness of confessional assumptions that heretofore had passed as ‘objective’. Thus the new circumstance of Christian interpretation in the presence of and alongside Jewish interpreters has permitted Christian interpreters themselves to see how confessionally motivated much interpretation characteristically has been.

The move from ‘objective’ historical-critical study to confessional, contextual study has been, as Levenson (1993) has shown, an immense gain. It is a gain because confessional, contextual self-awareness has lured many scholars away from the unexamined practice of treating Christian interpretation—so long hegemonic—as objective and neutral. That is, Jews have no objection to biblical interpretation by Christians that is validly and manifestly done in a Christian community according to Christian categories. Such a stance, of course, acknowledges the legitimacy of parallel work in the Jewish interpretation done in Jewish community, so that Jewish and Christian interpreters—with much in common, together with decisive differences—can proceed in parallel fashion as legitimate twinned readings of Scripture (Brueggemann 2001). Such a stance, relatively new in mainstream interpretation, is very different from the older conventional interpretation that was totalizing and that proceeded as though it had a monopoly upon interpretation. Thus the move from historical-critical methods is not only a change in method; it is also a recognition that interpretation is situated in something of an immediate context that makes interpretation partial and likely partisan, never objective and never interpretatively neutral. The turn to the twenty-first century has seen an opening to the possibility of Jewish biblical theology that is validly Jewish, an interpretative enterprise alongside Christian biblical theology that is validly Christian. Such an approach precludes any hegemonic claims on the part of Christian scholarship and is the reason why Levenson, a determinedly Jewish interpreter, can welcome the Christian project of Childs (Levenson 1993: 79–81).

We may identify two aspects of the entry of Jews into the practice of biblical theology. First, a number of scholars, of whom Levenson is the most prominent, are now able to contribute to ongoing work of theological interpretation, and may do so with full acknowledgement of a Jewish perspective. Levenson has made major contributions to the ongoing discussion, and I will mention three of his most important essays.

Interpreters are increasingly aware of anti-Semitism in the New Testament, an anti-Jewish polemic that is best understood as an intra-Jewish dispute before Christians left the synagogue and before Christianity was recognized as a distinct religious community. Levenson has with great discernment shown how anti-Canaanite polemic in the Hebrew Bible is of the same ilk as anti-Jewishness in the New Testament (Levenson 1985). I presume that Levenson would be quick to point out, none the less, that while the two are parallel, they are dissimilar in that there is no enduring Canaanite community to receive an endless, echoing textual polemic, as is the case with Jews in the New Testament polemic.

In a quite polemical essay Levenson has railed against ‘liberation theologians’, who have by attentiveness to the exodus narrative disregarded the Jewishness of the tradition and that treated the narrative as a universally applicable narrative of emancipation (Levenson 1993: 127–59). The appropriation of the tradition in a liberation hermeneutic, moreover, has focused on liberation without reference to the sequence that led to Sinai and Torah obedience. Levenson polemicizes against the attempt to take this explicitly Jewish tradition and make it universally applicable in other venues. J. Pixley (2000) has responded vigorously to Levenson and defended his usage. I take this exchange, albeit one with some acrimony, to be an opening for the way in which Jewish and Christian interpreters may disputatiously engage texts that belong in quite different ways to more than one ecclesial reading community.

Levenson (1996) has considered the way in which the explicit theological claims of Israel and other peoples of the world are juxtaposed in the Hebrew Bible. He of course takes as a given the priority of Israel in the theological understanding of the Hebrew Bible. He will not, however, permit that priority to cancel out the abiding attentiveness of the God of the Hebrew Bible to other peoples. Levenson's judicious discussion focuses upon an increasingly urgent issue in Old Testament theology: namely, the relationship of God the creator to those parts of the creation that lie beyond Jewishness.

Second, it should not be imagined that an opening to Jewish biblical theologians is a possibility simply contained in the community of biblical scholars. Rather, it is clear that the matter opens up much larger issues of cultural anti-Semitism, the acute barbarism of the Shoah under National Socialism, and the ongoing life of Judaism with particular reference to the State of Israel. Seen in larger scope, few matters can function as a more encouraging harbinger for the future beyond anti-Semitism in Old Testament theology than the manifesto, Dabru Emet, a statement issued by a number of theologically serious Jewish scholars. That statement urged that there has been an important recent development in Jewish–Christian relations and that it is no longer the case that all Christians are anti-Semitic. Thus it is proposed that Jews may with some confidence approach the whole matter of Jewish–Christian relations with some greater assurance of fair treatment and a fair hearing. Indeed, the statement operates on the assumption that the community of theologically serious Jews and the community of theologically serious Christians are appropriate dialogue partners and have much about which to interact.

This statement is of immense importance, even if greatly disputed by other Jewish interpreters. It suggests that as Christian interpreters are honestly Christian interpreters without assuming long-standing Western hegemonic authority, serious Christian biblical theologians and serious Jewish biblical theologians may read together a great deal of the way; when such common reading reaches a point where it is no longer possible to read together, reading differently with respect and with the possibility of mutual instructiveness is important. Such a stance signifies an immense change from a practice of alienation and fear in the asymmetrical relationship between Christians and Jews that prevailed only a couple of generations ago.

Congruent with the issuance of Dabru Emet, Peter Ochs has emerged as a leader in a new movement of interpretation now termed ‘textual reasoning’ (Ochs 2000; Frymer-Kensky 1998; Kepnes 1996). That interpretive enterprise is currently exploring fresh, imaginative initiatives in Jewish biblical interpretation that may have counterparts in Christian reading, once Christian reading has ceased to be imperialistic and hegemonic. The enterprise is greatly instructed by the contribution of David Weiss Halivni, who has considered the ways in which sub-communities of faith and interpretation, within the framework of consensus teaching, may make specific extrapolations in ‘pragmatic’ ways in the service of a particular sub-community (Halivni 1991, 1998). Such a distinction of sub- communities makes way for the legitimate particularity of communal interpretation, not only Jewish but also Christian; the import of Halivni's argument is important for Christians, for Christian Old Testament theology must now be acknowledged to be the work of a sub-community within the larger interpretative enterprise.

4. The above-named features of recent Old Testament theology—(1) the ‘collapse’ of the hegemony of ‘the historical’, (2) the emergence of confessional and contextual interpretations, and (3) the entry of Jewish interpreters into the ongoing conversation—have all conspired to push Old Testament theology (and its Jewish counterpart, theology of Hebrew Scripture) in the direction of the normative. That is, all of these emergents are enacted in specific communities of faith wherein the Bible is received as a primal teaching, witnessing authority. It is important in light of such a development to notice that there continues to be an important role for descriptive study that takes the form of the history of Israelite religion. The relationship between normative theological interpretation and descriptive presentations of the religion of Israel is not an obvious one. James Barr has suggested that the difference is that history of Israelite religion seeks to take into account all of the textual data, whereas theological interpretation selects certain data that serve the particular community of faith (Barr 1999: 133). While that may be an accurate characterization of bygone practices, it is my expectation that responsible theological interpretation of the Old Testament in time to come must take into account increasing portions of the biblical text. The reason for such an expansive repertoire of texts for theological interpretation is that in order to be credible, theological interpretation must have in purview all of the textual data; clearly a selection of texts that is too careful and limited makes the outcomes of theological interpretation manipulative and consequently inescapably suspect.

In any case, the theological interpretation of the Old Testament has benefited from two recent presentations of the history of Israelite religion. Rainer Albertz (1994), has presented such a history, and has vigorously made the argument that the religion of the Old Testament is profoundly pluralistic. In making this compelling argument, Albertz clearly flies in the face of the older, historical-critical synthesis that imagined Israelite religion to be a singularly, unilaterally evolutionary phenomenon. Such a judgement about pluralism concerning the history of Israelite religion would in turn preclude any theology of the Old Testament that is excessively reductionist and simplistic and inattentive to the complexity of the data. More recently, Erhard Gerstenberger (2002) has published a most interesting and somewhat complex history of the religion of the Old Testament. He has identified five distinct social communities in ancient Israel—family, clan, village, tribe, and state—and has sought to identify the particular articulations of God that arise from and are appropriate to each of these social communities. Thus Gerstenberger's work is a historical-sociological study, but with an opening to theology or, as his thesis requires, ‘theologies’ in the Old Testament. Specifically, Gerstenberger opines that village faith produced an intimate God who was not fierce or strong, but always attentive to the needs of the community; conversely, state religion produced a God who was powerfully sovereign but noticeably short on compassion and tenderness. It may readily be doubted whether one can so closely correlate social community and theological claim, as Gerstenberger has done. In any case, Gerstenberger suggests a way to do descriptive study that in his presentation readily becomes normative. It is clear in my judgement that theological interpretation depends upon, and is informed by, the kind of historical studies that are offered by Albertz and Gerstenberger. No doubt in time to come the twin developments of the history of Israelite religion and theological interpretation will continue to develop in parallel fashion, informing and correcting each other.

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