A Hebrew Bible/Old Testament scholar looks at the Bible and culture…


Returning from the West Bank and Israel

I’ve recently returned from co-leading a group of seminarians on a 17-day trip to the West Bank and Israel.  It was an intense experience, and I’ll soon start blogging and uploading photos.

For now, you might want to read my first written response,  published over at Bible and Interpretation:  “Biblical Scholarship and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.”

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Finding Value in Biblical Law

Why bother reading the laws of the Bible if you’re not going to live by them?

That’s the question that comes up–explicitly and implicitly–every year in teaching the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament.  Students, especially those from more progressive-to-liberal traditions, can’t figure out what to do with the laws in Exodus 20-23 (commonly called the Covenant Code or the Book of the Covenant).  They are shocked to learn that Exodus 20 softens rather than condemns slavery and recognizes but doesn’t protest the sexual vulnerability of female slaves. They interpret “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” literally as a barbaric approach to justice.  I can see the cultural and religious superiority kick in:  aren’t we glad we’re more sophisticated than this?

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Scary Gender Roles

Over at the Lingamish blog, David Ker has been talking about marriage and about gender roles within it.

He describes his own position as complementarian, though to read his description of complementarianism you wouldn’t know he’s talking about the same thing as many other folks.  Traditionally, complementarianism has argued that women and men have natural, God-given roles that complement one another:  women are designed by God to bear and raise children and to accept the authority of their husbands, while men are designed by God to lead–in home, church, and society.  Men and women may be equal in God’s eyes, say complementarians, but their roles are determined by God and are not the same.  Complementarianism offers a way to claim that scripture treats women and men equally while still denying to women roles of authority over men. The Visionary Daughters, for example, espouse this understanding of gender roles.  (see my blog post)

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When Challenging the Factuality of the Bible Serves the Faithful

In a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, Karen Armstrong and Richard Dawkins respond to the question, “Where does evolution leave God?”   Not surprisingly, Armstrong answers in a way that respects religious belief, while Dawkins uses the opportunity to further disparage religion.

Armstrong argues that evolution challenges only one understanding of religion, one in which truth is reduced to facts and the meaning of the Bible is limited to the information it can provide.  She insists that this is not the only or even the most historic understanding of religion.  Instead, much of the Bible is myth and story– poetic and imaginative rather than informational.

“In the ancient world, a cosmology was not regarded as factual but was primarily therapeutic; it was recited when people needed an infusion of that mysterious power that had—somehow—brought something out of primal nothingness: at a sickbed, a coronation or during a political crisis. Some cosmologies taught people how to unlock their own creativity, others made them aware of the struggle required to maintain social and political order. The Genesis creation hymn, written during the Israelites’ exile in Babylonia in the 6th century BC, was a gentle polemic against Babylonian religion. Its vision of an ordered universe where everything had its place was probably consoling to a displaced people, though—as we can see in the Bible—some of the exiles preferred a more aggressive cosmology.”

“The best theology is a spiritual exercise, akin to poetry. Religion is not an exact science but a kind of art form that, like music or painting, introduces us to a mode of knowledge that is different from the purely rational and which cannot easily be put into words. At its best, it holds us in an attitude of wonder, which is, perhaps, not unlike the awe that Mr. Dawkins experiences—and has helped me to appreciate —when he contemplates the marvels of natural selection.”

I share Armstrong’s conviction that debating the factuality of Genesis 1 misses its point.  I don’t believe is a transcript of how the universe was formed, but the story is incredibly important to me for what it says about the human condition and how it challenges me to understand the world and the humans in it as gifts.  As a professor of mine once said, it’s a whole lot easier to believe that the world was created in six days than to really believe that every person who encounter is created in the image of God.

At the same time, I recognize how all stories, including Genesis 1, can inscribe the power of particular groups, how what is consoling to the teller can work against the interests of others.  What Armstrong calls the “gentle polemic” against Babylonian deities didn’t comfort those who worshipped Marduk.  And it often serves in the present to privilege heterosexual relations and set procreation as the basis for human bonding.  Moving into Genesis 2 and 3 and onward, the stories of the Bible do all sorts of things to the imagination–some that I celebrate and others that I resist.  Claims about families and gender and land and whose story is worth following.

I find conversations about how Genesis sparks and restrains the imagination far more interesting and important than how it relates to fossil remains and flood deposits.  Biblical stories are far too important–for good and ill–to quit talking about them just because they don’t answer questions of science.


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Claims about the Bible Work Best if You Don't Actually Read It

Last weekend, two biblical scholar friends and I visited the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore and spent time in an exhibit entitled “Shrunken Treasures:  Miniaturization in Books and Art.” It features tiny books and objects from the museum’s permanent collection.


In case after case, we saw all things small.  There were small mosaics, small sculptures, small shipping guides, but mostly small religious texts.  Small Psalters.  Small Qurans.  And small Bibles.

Some of these minatures were functional, actually used by readers even before the days of bifocals. They allowed people to have words that were portable and private– pocket editions.

But many were clearly too small to be read.  It’s hard to imagine how they were even produced.  These texts weren’t reading material; they functioned atropaically–as amulets , talismans, good luck pieces.  These Bibles were owned, touched, tucked away, treasured.  But not read. The idea of the Bible mattered more than its content.

From my vantage point, that attitude toward the Bible is ubiquitous, even for folks whose Bibles are big.  A lot of verbage gets thrown around about the Bible  (its perfection, its authority, its goodness) that makes sense only if you don’t read it–or read it seriously.  I’m a firm believer that you shouldn’t say something about the Bible that isn’t true about all of it.  If you’re going to talk about the Bible as the only rule of faith and practice, then you should be prepared to explain why you don’t live your life by all of it.

I spend my energies trying to get people to spend less time spouting claims about the Bible and more time actually reading it, being honest about it, and valuing it for what it actually is.

The exhibit runs through Nov. 8, 2009.


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Beyond the Flannel Board

My “What’s your Earliest Memory of a Bible Story?” poll has been up for 6 weeks.  As of today 75 people voted.  Thanks for all who joined in.

Since I’m not a trained poll-crafter, I’m not sure if the results really provide fresh data or are skewed by my selection of stories. But the winners of the poll didn’t surprise me. Continue reading

Hebrew Bible, Old Testament: What's in a Name?

My title at the seminary recently changed:  instead of “Professor of Old Testament,” my business card now reads “Professor of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament.”   This was my idea. Why did I ask for such a long, cumbersome title?

For years now, I’ve been willing to stick with “Professor of Old Testament,” the title I was given upon hiring even though, as I’ll explain, I wasn’t totally happy with the title. The matter was raised again for me when my new colleague, Valerie Bridgeman, asked that her title include the label “Hebrew Bible.”  Valerie, a scholar of diverse gifts, joins Lancaster Theological Seminary this fall with responsibilities for teaching worship, preaching, and biblical studies.  Her title is even longer than mine: Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible/Homiletics and Worship.

Old Hebrew. Hebrew Bible.  What’s the difference?  And why did I finally choose both?


Old Testament is a distinctively Christian designation.   It signals that the collection does not stand alone but in relationship with a collection that the church calls New Testament.

One of the early controversies of the church was how to define its relationship with the Jewish faith from which it emerged.   The theologian Marcion of Sinope (on what is now the northern coast of Turkey) advocated a full break, insisting that the wrathful God of Jewish documents was not the same loving God of Jesus.  Other theologians such as Melito of Sardis and Tertullian of Carthage argued to the contrary:  they advocated keeping the old documents alongside new documents about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  The second group won.

That is not to say, however, that these latter “church fathers” embraced Jewish documents or Jewish people.  They kept books like Genesis and Leviticus on very non-Jewish terms, insisting that the writings matter because they point forward to the coming of Jesus as Messiah.  They ranted that that Jews who deny christological meanings of biblical texts are willfully blind.  The early church’s stance on the Old Testament, then, is a mixed legacy:  the church did insist on the continuing validity of these books but limited that validity to Christian interpretation.   The unequal status of the two collections is reflected in their respective titles–Old and New.  (see, too, an article by Brooks Schramm of Lutheran Theological Seminary)

Christian anti-Judaism was not a passing fad of the patristic period.  Quite the contrary, it has thrived throughout all stages of Christian history.  Multiple times and places reveal anti-Jewish rhetoric, legal rulings, art, music, and overt violence.  Visitors to European cathedrals can still see images of the Church Triumphant and the Blind Synagogue and Jews portrayed as monkeys.


Most of the world also knows about the Holocaust, the systematic annihilation of 6 million Jews.   In the decades after the Holocaust, scholars struggled to understand not only Hitler as an individual but also the community mentality that made the extermination of Jews possible.   While a range of factors has been named, many Christian theologians have acknowledged that the church’s negative teachings about Jews helped create the groundwork for this horror. (see my earlier blog post on Holocaust Remembrance Day and Easter)


In light of this recognition, there has been a concerted effort in the past 30 years or so to counter Christian anti-Judaism.  In a wide array of churches, new emphasis has been placed on the Jewishness of Jesus, and study guides for Holy Week now blame Jesus’ death on selected Jewish leaders and/or the Roman empire rather than the Jewish people has a whole.

Post-Holocaust Christian theology also has challenged the church’s continuing use of the term Old Testament.  If the origins of the label are less-than-affirming of Jews and sounds negative to modern ears (the opposite of new and improved), shouldn’t the church give up the label in the interest of econciliation?   Shouldn’t secular settings for biblical studies, like universities, seek the most neutral term possible for this collection of documents?

In the academy, the change has been widespread.  Ph.D.s in this field are regularly named Hebrew Bible (including my own, from Duke University), and Introduction to the Hebrew Bible is the usual nomer for undergraduate classes and textbooks.  It would be hard an institution that is not church-related offering classes in “Old Testament.

I fully share post-Holocaust commitments and strive to help students see that the Christian interpretation of Old Testament texts is not the only or even obvious one.   I find it arrogant to assume that the problems of ancient people mattered any less to the divine one than our own:  if Isaiah 7:14 is only the prediction of Jesus’ birth through a virgin, then what hope was being offered to the people in the text who were staring into the faces of the Assyrian armies?   If the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 52-53 is only a prediction of Jesus, is everyone else who has ever found meaning in the text just deluded?    I count myself among post-Holocaust biblical interpreters who work to fight anti-Judaism at every turn, and I also try to fight the self-centeredness of most biblical interpretation.  So, I don’t teach these documents as relying on the New Testament for their value.  In that regard, I don’t really teach “Old Testament.”

But then again, I’m not completely comfortable with “Hebrew Bible.”

First, the term isn’t  the term isn’t inherently Jewish-friendly.  It’s certainly not a Jewish term. In Judaism, the books that make up Genesis through Chronicles are called simply “Bible” or “Tanak,” an acronym for the three major sections of the collection:  Torah, Nevi’im (Prophets) and Ketuvim (Writings).

Second, the term implies that Christians and Jews are reading the same documents but calling them by different names.  That’s not really true. The Old Testament and the Tanak are similar collections, but they aren’t identical.  In Roman Catholic Christianity, the Old Testament has more books than the Tanak, including books like Tobit and Maccabees. The Protestant Christian Old Testament includes the same roster of books as the Tanak, but the books come in a different order.  In the Protestant Old Testament, the collection ends with prophets, while Chronicles is the last book in the Tanak. (See chart comparing canons) These differences signal differences in the way these books are understood.  Do prophets point forward, as they do in the Christian Bible (from the Old Testament to Jesus), or do they point back to the Torah, as they do in the Jewish Bible?

Third and of even greater importance, the term obscures the fact that the text itself isn’t all that matters to interpretation. Neither Judaism nor Christianity read these books “straight.”   Even if they don’t go as far as the church fathers in seeing every verse as pointing forward to Jesus, Christians read with some attention to the New Testament.   Jews read Tanak in light of Mishnah, Talmud, and other rabbinic writings. (a great introduction to Jewish readings of the Bible can be found at the Kolel center site)  That is, even when Jews and Christians read the same books, they don’t read them in the same way.  Simply changing the name of the Old Testament to Hebrew Bible won’t mean that a Christian will read like a Jew or necessarily respect Judaism. In a Christian worship service, as long as “a reading from the Hebrew Bible” is followed by “a reading from the New Testament,” traditional understandings of the relationship between the testaments likely will remain.

There are smaller problems, too. For instance, if “Hebrew” is understood to refer to the language of the documents, then the label isn’t totally accurate. While scholars do believe much of the writing was composed in Hebrew, some books also contain Aramaic and the longer Roman Catholic Old Testament contains materials first composed in Greek.  Few modern people who read the “Hebrew Bible” are reading it in Hebrew, and few are clamoring to rename the New Testament the “Greek Bible.”

As I sorted through the options, then neither title seemed totally accurate. On the one hand, I resist the anti-Judaism implied in “Old Testament.”  On the other, I can’t deny that my teaching stands apart from Christian perspectives. Even if I  don’t teach the Old Testament as predicting Jesus (which I don’t) and don’t treat the Old Testament  as the background of the New (which I don’t), I still teach in a Christian seminary that privileges claims about Jesus Christ.   Moreover, as much as I invite students to appreciate these writings on their own terms, my own thinking has been shaped by my own heritage.  I have been profoundly shaped by liberal Christianity’s values of inclusion, diversity, non-violence. Of course, these aren’t distinctively Christian values, but  I encountered them via Christianity.  To use a neutral term for these writings seemed like trying to pretend that I read the texts apart from my context.  (I never seriously considered a third term, since one of my own creation wouldn’t recognize the faith communities that preserved the book and since I couldn’t with good conscience claim that I’m teaching Tanak. As much as I want students to appreciate Jewish understandings, I don’t spend enough time teachng Mishnah, Talmud, Rashi, and responsa to claim that students can “do” Jewish interpretation on their own.)

For a long time I’ve been willing to keep the Professor of Old Testament title because the alternative didn’t seem any better.  But I also have lamented that my title didn’t signal my commitments.

After sorting through all of this again, I concluded that a hybrid title would come closer to honestly reflecting my hybrid teaching of this collection: situated within a Christian context but insisting that these documents witness to multiple ways in which humans experienced God in the past and continue to do so in the present.  I believe that such an approach is not only important in disarming anti-Judaism but also in helping people appreciate the diverse ways in these powerful texts resonate with their lives and experiences of God. 

The title is long.  It’s cumbersome.  And it’s not perfect.  But it’s the closest I can come to honestly naming what and how I teach.