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

Contemporary Problems

The short sketch of the history of interpretation has made the problem of ‘biblical theology’ clear in so far as the unity not only of the Bible but also of the Old and of the New Testaments has become questionable (Ebeling 1955: 82–7). Since the oft-quoted concluding section to the second volume of Gerhard von Rad's Theology of the Old Testament, this problem has become ever more burdensome and at the same time an attempt at solving it has been undertaken (Barth 1998: 384). According to von Rad,

a much further aim of our concern is whether a ‘biblical theology’ is possible in which the dualism between a limited and particular theology of the Old and of the New Testament can be overcome. How such a biblical theology would then be presented is very difficult to conceive. It is, however, encouraging that today the need for it is ever more stressed. (von Rad 1993: 447).

That was more than forty years ago. In view of the continuing task of a biblical theology which makes possible the investigation of the diversity of the biblical traditions in their context, as well as ‘an understanding of the Bible as a whole’ (Dohmen 1995), four aspects of the problem need to be examined and in what follows will be sketched: the question of the ‘centre’ of Scripture, the question of the continuum of revelation, the fact that the Christian Bible is divided into two, and the meaning of biblical canon.

3.1 The ‘Centre’ of Scripture

The search for a ‘centre’ of Scripture is currently (again) in discredit, because it allegedly follows an apologetic need to lay out an overarching unity which diminishes the diversity of the biblical traditions and flattens their contradictions (Janowski 1999a: 251–5, 273–81). The difficulty in determining from a particular term such as ‘covenant’, ‘justice’, or the ‘kingship of God’ the centre of the Old Testament lies in its execution. This played a central role in the related controversy between Gerhard von Rad and Walther Zimmerli (see Reventlow 1982: 138–47; Preuss 1991: 25–7; Levenson 1991; Albertz 1995, 2001: 11–12; Janowski 1999a). It can, however, be met with a reference to the difference between text and subject. Not the terminologically fixable centre of a pluriform collection of texts (the Old Testament), but the fact of a happening (the relationship between Israel and YHWH) is to be seen as the centre of the Old Testament. This can be explained with the help of the so-called covenant formula, locus classicus in Deut. 26: 17–19 (YHWH the God of Israel—Israel the people of God; see Smend 1986a and Janowski 1999a: 278 n. 135) or with the help of the understanding of Torah (Kaiser 1993: 329–53, on which see Spieckermann, 1997). In spite of the problematic relationship of the Old and New Testaments, it can also be used in the New Testament and precisely so that ‘YHWH the God of Israel, Israel the people of God’ is the internal, and ‘Jesus Christ’ the external, centre of the Old Testament, whereby ‘the external centre may not be separated from the internal, because “Jesus Christ” in his meaning cannot come to expression without the relationship of YHWH and Israel’ (Hermisson 1997: 232; somewhat differently, Merk 1980: 471–2). Thus the question of the connection between the Old and the New Testaments is posed afresh.

3.2 The Continuum of Revelation

The question of how the continuum of the revelatory happening which is testified to in the canonical unity of the Old and New Testaments can be made precise has been answered in recent times either in terms of tradition history or revelation history (Hartmut Gese, Peter Stuhlmacher) or in terms of canonical history (Brevard S. Childs). The relationship of the two Testaments, which are bound together through their witness to the one God and his saving action vis-à-vis Israel and the world, does not come in the form of an unbroken continuity that springs over historical and theological tensions, but as a ‘contrastive unity’ (Zenger 2004). In the horizon of a complete biblical theology, this event, which finds its complete outworking in the self-disclosure of God in Jesus Christ, takes the form of an eschatologically directed and, in its dynamic, essentially open history of salvation (Haag 1994; Hermisson 1997: 227–33; Kertelge 1994: 433). The unity of the revelation of God, which wins its eschatological clarity in Jesus Christ, includes the diversity of the words which previously went ‘to the fathers through the prophets’ (Heb. 1: 1–2) and integrates these in the expectation of a coming judging and saving action of God vis-à-vis Israel and the world.

3.3 The Christian Bible as Two-Part Scripture

An attempt at a biblical theology has thus to begin from the existence and the recognition of a Christian biblical canon that arises from both Testaments. The extent to which the fact of the canon is relevant for a whole biblical theology follows from the fact that a distinctive theological relationship of both Testaments together was the presupposition for the origin of the Christian canon. By looking back to the Bible that came into existence in Israel (Tanach/Old Testament), on which the form of the Christian Bible was based, the authors of the New Testament proceeded from an understanding of the Christ event as an ‘ultimate and decisive act of God in accordance with the scriptures’ (Zenger 2004: 14)—that is, that the God of Israel had revealed himself anew in Jesus Christ and, at the same time, had remained true to his promise. The primitive Christian hermeneutic of the Old Testament belongs thus to the origin of Christian theology, and is not something that was later attached to it (examples in Kertelge 1994: 432–3 and Janowski 1999a: 261–4). In this connection it becomes clear that the New Testament, which sets out from its own hermeneutic of Scripture, is not a reading of the Old Testament as an independent canon that is then added on to a complete Old Testament, but that together with that first part, which is later and indeed on the grounds of this procedure called the Old Testament, becomes the one, two-part Christian Bible.

3.4 The Meaning of the Canon

Decisive for the growth of the Christian biblical canon is finally the fact that Old Testament texts are the multi-vocal expression of experiences of God, which first of all entered into the communicative memory of Israel and Judah in a weakly developed form (Mündlichkeit), before they were consolidated into the context of more complex processes of decision and selection and institutionalized mnemonics (Schriftlichkeit), and finally constituted as fixed elements of the identity of the biblical and post-biblical beliefs in YHWH (Kanonbildung; see Schwienhorst-Schönberger 2000: 362). To the relevant aspects for the growth of the Old Testament as canon belong, thus, the discursive character of the tradition, the synthesis of what has come into being, and the coherence of the canon.

3.4.1 The Discursive Character of the Tradition

In the Old Testament, the coming into being of the tradition forms itself as an explication of speaking about God which is an essential function of theology. This explication of speaking about God is an explanation of faith which, since Deuteronomy (seventh century BCE) increasingly adopted a discursive form and used technical terms, building didactic sentences, tended towards argumentation, and used scribally informed interpretations (Janowski 2003: 337). In accord with this definition, I agree with the formulation of Christof Hardmeier in terms of ‘the discursive character of biblical tradition’ (Hardmeier 1995, 2001, esp. 113; on Old Testament ‘discourse hermeneutics’ see Zenger 2002)—that is, from the fact that the various and in part contradictory statements about YHWH and Israel are to be understood as aspects of a ‘systematic of speech utterances’ which ‘concentrate attention on the various addresses about and to God in the transmitted texts themselves, and which thinks through these speeches as symbolic interactive relational events’ (Hardmeier 1995, 2001: 112–13).

This variety of speech about God has its ground in the structure of the Old Testament experience of God and its significant various forms rooted in everyday reality. If one understands a description of God as a culturally minted explication of experiences of transcendence, these explications appear in the Old Testament in great polyphony and rich metaphoric. YHWH is, to name only one example, the creative, the hallowing, the rescuing, the besought, the judging, the forgiving, or the almighty God, and he is the shepherd, the king, the father, the mother, the warrior, the lion, or the physician. This polyphony of Old Testament speech about God is a mirror of the unity of God in the manifold of his expressions, and indeed expressions which are always culturally formed. To understand the biblical revelation thus means to understand a culturally minted connection of forms.

3.4.2 The Synthesis of What has Come into Being

Decisive for the process of building the canon is the further observation that the biblical texts were not simply collected, but were chosen, commented upon, and supplemented. Because this process of redaction is of theological significance for the growth of the Old Testament as a collection of scripture, it is necessary to pay particular and careful attention to those ‘interfaces’3 On the term ‘interface’ (German Schnittstellen) see Waschke 2001: 257. The period of the seventh/sixth century BCE was probably such an ‘interface’ for the growth of the Old Testament, and with it for the formation of Old Testament theology in the sense of a theology of the Old Testament. See Smend 1986b: 111–15; Janowski 2003: 343; and Jeremias 2003: 30–1. which, like Deuteronomy, the Deuteronomistic History, or the Priestly writing, have become decisive for the redaction of the Old Testament as well as the process of becoming canon.

Thus the central notion of redaction means the ‘editing of a given text in the context of a written tradition and its transformation into a new whole’ (Kratz 1997: 367). As opposed to the reconstruction of preliminary phases, which is typical of the history of religions and the history of traditions approaches, redaction criticism, which is concerned with ‘the process of the growth of the text in its literary and factual dimension’ (Kratz 1997: 367) leads to a synthesis of what has come to be, in that it follows the growth of the text from its beginnings via various literary stages to its final form (Endgestalt), and at every stage asks about the historical, religious, and social-historical implications. None of these possible preliminary stages is transmitted unaltered, and all have been revised from a later, mostly exilic or post-exilic point of view. Redaction means not the deleting of older texts or conceptions, but the reformulation of their original sense under new conditions of understanding (Kratz 1997: 370).

3.4.3 The Coherence of the Canon

If redaction history brings to light the diversity of the biblical traditions in their literary and factual dimensions, the unavoidable question arises as to how this is to be reconciled with the thesis of canon as a coherent construction of sense. Does the canon, and it alone, give rise to this sense, or does it merely present it, in that it makes visible an enrichment of sense and nuances that are either already existing or made apparent through the history of redaction? This question contains several different aspects (Janowski 2003: 345–8), of which the fluid passage from the origin of the canon to its completion is particularly relevant for our enquiry.

The ending of the canon is an act through which texts receive their normative form and function, and from that point on can no longer be added to or revised or interpreted externally (Zenger 2001, following Assmann 1992: 93–7). As a literary and cultural memory, canon is a complex construction. It ‘seals’ a historically grown sense of a pluriform collection of writings, and at the same time newly completes them. It is, of course, closed from outside through the enclosure of what has been chosen and the exclusion of what has been rejected, but it is also open to new sense constructions on the grounds of its inner multi-vocality and the complex architecture of its parts. The old texts or text levels, therefore, do not function simply as presuppositions of understanding for the final forms that have come into being through redactions, but they possess theological significance in themselves (Gross 2001: 139–40). As a collection of texts whose relevant sense can be compared, the canon builds the ‘context in which these different voices can find expression’, but it does not ‘intrude on their place’ (Gross 2001: 129–44; Waschke 2001: 263–5). A leading factor is the insight that the canon is a complex whole, something like a ‘contrastive unity’ (Zenger 2004: 19–20). In this way it corresponds to the polyphony of Old Testament speech about God, which is a mirror of the unity of God in the diversity of his expressions.

If the question of the biblical canon as a coherent construction of senses is discussed, prudent account must be taken of this multiplicity of aspects. This must be done at the level of the individual texts and larger contexts, through the reconstruction of its implications for the history of religion, the history of tradition, and the history of theology, at the level of the books and parts of the canon, through the bold attempt at ‘thinking things together’ (Saebø 1998; Janowski 2003: 344–8), and on the level of the completed canon through the grasping of the polyphonous and contrastive language of God, which is ever afresh the address of God to humankind (Waschke 2001: 261). It must also be followed in situations which are the expression of plurality and which correspondingly make possible a variety of interpretations. The fact that pluralism must not be confused with the post-modern ‘do as you please’, but must be understood much more as a coined connection of forms (Welker 2003), is assisted by the biblical canon and the completion of its inner structure.


3 On the term ‘interface’ (German Schnittstellen) see Waschke 2001: 257. The period of the seventh/sixth century BCE was probably such an ‘interface’ for the growth of the Old Testament, and with it for the formation of Old Testament theology in the sense of a theology of the Old Testament. See Smend 1986b: 111–15; Janowski 2003: 343; and Jeremias 2003: 30–1.

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