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

scholars

Finding Contemporary Value in Old Theories

Returning to the classroom after sabbatical is always a shock.  After months of focusing on my own interests and communing with others primarily via a computer screen, I’m now face-to-face with real people, responsible for helping them understand and respond to diverse perspectives on the Bible.

In the Introduction to Hebrew Bible/Old Testament class, that includes making sure folks have heard and can think about some of the “standards” of biblical scholarship: the Documentary Hypothesis, what it means to call Genesis 1-11 “myth,” and the difference between a timeline based on the biblical narrative and one constructed by modern historians.

After having spent so much time this spring reflecting on the value of Hebrew narratives as literature, I’m struck by how important and relevant these older attempts at historical reconstruction still are to me. This week, I saw again how the Documentary Hypothesis, for all its anti-Jewish and modernist assumptions, still “works” for much of the material.  It’s a decent explanation of inconsistencies, and its linking of textual features with particular sociological settings makes sense.

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But mostly, I saw how it trains readers to look at biblical materials as dialogic rather than monologic–as an anthology of diverse points of view.

Such an attitude toward biblical texts in general and the Pentateuch in particular is foundational for sociological and ideological analysis of biblical texts.  When Carol Meyers or Ronald Simkins track the changes in Israelite family structures, they are discerning the differences between biblical accounts as well as how those accounts match up with extra-biblical findings.  They might not accept the Documentary Hypothesis as Julius Wellhausen framed it, but they are following a path he helped clear.

In today’s political and ecclesial climate, I applaud any approach to the Bible that underscores the diversity of its perspectives, especially in the realms of marriage, gender roles, and sexuality.  Whether or not you assign Gen 1:1-2:4a to “P,” it does underscore procreation as the purpose of human partnership; whether or not you assign Gen 2:4b-25 to “J,” it does stress companionship instead.  Whether or not you believe Deuteronomy was written during the reign of King Josiah, it does prioritize the nuclear family, while Leviticus prioritizes the extended family. And whether or not you accept the Documentary Hypothesis as articulated by nineteenth century German scholars, the differences are significant.  (See also my blog post entitled, “It’s the (Biblical) Economy, Stupid.”)

When those of us who call for new definitions of human partnership are accused of being “unbiblical,”  the diversity of the Bible (especially the creation narratives) is worth shouting about.  Calling for family structures to adapt in response to economic and political changes is actually following a very “biblical” path.

 

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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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In the First Person

There’s an interesting article this week in The Chronicle Review about the role of first person in writings in the Humanities.  It’s primarily a review of Cynthia Franklin’s Academic Lives: Memoir, Cultural Theory, and the University Today (University of Georgia Press) and a reiteration of her belief that scholars talking about their own experiences “may help to rehumanize the ailing humanities.”

Franklin’s claim is one that I’ve been reflecting on myself, as I think about the best style for my Reading the Bible as an Adult project.  If I really want to engage people in conversation about how literature, including the Bible, encourages them to think about their lives, shouldn’t I spend at least some time modeling the process–showing how reading the Bible encourages me to think about my life? 

What role should autobiography/memoir have in biblical studies?

I had mixed reactions to some of what came out of the Autobiographical Criticism phase of biblical scholarship in the1990’s and 2000’s. Some was really interesting and helped me think in new ways about biblical texts and about myself.  Some was just TMI (too much information) about the author and TLI (too little insight) into what in the text provoked such musings. I also had mixed feelings about my first foray into the genre:  “On Saying ‘No’ to a Prophet” in Semeia 72 (1995) and I thought the criticism of one of the responses was on target. I’ve gotten better responses to my autobiographical examples in Challenging Prophetic Metaphor (WJK 2008); several people have told me that the book primarily works because of them.

Autobiography–in writing, in preaching, in scholarship–is a tricky business. Done poorly, it is self-indulgent exhibitionism.  Look at me!  Look at how important/tragic/interesting/pathetic my life is!  Autobiography for the sake of self-exposure or catharsis might work for celebrities, but few people go to church or read biblical scholarship primarily to learn about the childhood of its speakers. Done well, self-disclosure can provide a window into the topic and bring writers and readers closer together.  The writer becomes human; the passions become more understandable. When done well, the autobiographical style is an invitation for the reader to reflect on her own experiences, to consider how her own life compares with that of the author.

So, my real questions become these:

  • what kind of autobiography invites others to share their own experiences?  how can monologue encourage dialogue?
  • how can autobiography aid in political and social analysis?
  • how can autobiography allow/demand that readers not take what authors say about themselves as the last word?

 

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Choosing the Conversation

There’s an argument/debate going on among those who blog on the Bible (bibliobloggers) about why women haven’t been making it into the top 50 list.  April DeConick has taken on the quest of promoting the work of female bloggers and is encouraging others to do the same.

I appreciate April’s zeal and encourage support of all blogs that have something interesting to say.

But the popularity of my blog doesn’t motivate me to write. Of course I want readers, but what I really want is to find out if anyone cares about the questions I’m asking and wants to join me in conversation.  What I’m talking about matters to me.  And I want to spend my time here talking with other people for whom it matters rather than having debates with other bloggers about the justice of our rankings.

While I teach and speak on diverse aspects of biblical texts, what I’m interested in right now is the literary/ideological dimensions of texts and how paying attention to those dimensions can help people talk about their own experiences.  I respect people who talk about historical dimensions of the Bible, and I carry out historical work myself.  But, in my blog, I’m interested in how the Bible is playing out in the public square and hoping (maybe naively) that I can get some public discussion started about the Bible as meaningful literature.

 

 

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On Being an Adult (Woman)

My daughter turns 21 today. In contemporary American culture, that’s a significant milestone. As of today, she can drink alcohol legally and the cost of her car insurance decreases significantly. She’s very excited about the former and I about the latter, but I’m sure there are other legal dimensions of turning 21 that neither of us has thought about yet.

birthday

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Reading Novels, Reading the Bible

I love to read. I read non-fiction for my professional work as a biblical scholar, and the information and new perspectives transform the way I understand the biblical text.  Learning about the pervasive malnutrition of ancient diets and the infant mortality rate in ancient Israel (1 out of 2 children died before the age of 5) changed the way I approach Genesis, the prophets—indeed all of the Bible.  I occasionally read popular non-fiction, too–related to the Bible (The Year of Living Biblically) or to issues that I care about (The Way we Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap).  Non-fiction changes my thinking in useful ways.

But I am passionate about novels.  I read them whenever I can.

novels

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Eat Like an Israelite?

This summer has not been kind to my backyard garden.  After a few weeks of prolific production, my squash and cucumber plants succumbed to powdery mildew.  Now, just as they are supposed to ripen in full glory, my tomatoes (the bread and butter of my garden) are waging war with late blight.  It’s been too wet here in south central Pennsylvania.  Not hot enough.

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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?

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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.

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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)

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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.