Wednesday, 30 June 2010
Monday, 28 June 2010
Saturday, 26 June 2010
In light of the recent debates on the relation of faith and critical Biblical scholarship (see espeically the long dialogues on John Hobbins' blog here, as well as on mine here), I thought I'd provide an exegetical example for how it is possible to be one - critical (in the sense of "analytical" and not "cynical") - as well as the other - religiously committed (in the sense of subscribing to the basic theological truth claims of the Bible). Whether the result is successful or not I leave for you to judge. I don't want to claim that the relation is easy (contra this simplistic view)[*], but I do claim that with humility and the capacity to "eschatologically" suspend one's judgement ("one day this will come together - at some level, somehow"), the dialectic between reason and revelation can be fruitful.
My case study is Childs' analysis of the plague traditions in Exodus. I've already given a detailed overview of the "kerygmatic" nature of these traditions here. Today I focus on the question of the theological reality lying behind these witnesses (a question systematically ignored in Biblical studies as being, somehow, and yet inconceivably to me, "irrelevant").
Childs holds that the literary sources in Exodus grew out of a response to a prior tradition which was religiously authoritative for them. Exegetically more significant, however, is the question of the nature of this response. Childs holds that they are a theological response to a theological problem present within that ancient tradition.
For example, Childs notes the presence of a “strange atmosphere” of “historical distance” that pervades the combined testimony of the final edited form of the text.1 His search for the original Sitz im Leben of these traditions has led him through the history of transmission to “a primary, non-derivable stage.” There is, prior to the construals of J, P, and E (etc.), a level of tradition in which Moses is universally seen to be a man “possessed of power to perform miracles.” Yet, despite this power, he was unable to force the king of Egypt to release the Israelites.
In fact, this fundamental failure of the miracles to subdue Pharaoh accounts for the variety of reflections which sought an explanation. Pharaoh's heart was hardened; Pharaoh continued to renege on his promise; the magicians used magic to copy Moses. Only in the plague stories was a tradition retained in which such great miracles, constantly repeated, continued to fail. The fact that ultimately plague X did not accomplish its end, did not remove the difficulty of the earlier one, nor explain the failure.2
the sense of the mystery of Pharaoh's resistance lies at the root of the tradition. Now it is apparent that the essential problem with which we began is not ultimately form-critical in nature, but profoundly theological. The interpreter is still faced with the task of penetrating the mystery of God's power before human pride.3
Indeed, within the body of the commentary itself (i.e. interpretation of the final form rather than the prolegomena of form and literary criticism), Childs notes that despite the presence of different sources, in the final form there is no real tension.
Rather, they contribute to the richness of the narrative and vary the pattern of the series to prevent the threat of monotony in recounting the long series. Because the concessions reach an impasse, in the final analysis there is no real conflict in terms of content between the ... approaches to Pharaoh's resistance.4
What Childs has done here isn't in itself full-blown theological exegesis (which, given that the Bible is theological, is the most legitimate form of exegesis). That comes when one starts to think about the nature of the historical experience, and the nature of the responses to that experience. As I showed in my last post, a significant element of that response was the canonical shaping of Scripture itself. We thus move from "diachronic" to "synchronic" yet all the while with an eye to that one reality that (who) evoked the tradition, the source, the redaction, the interpretation in the first place.
What is the content of the Bible and how can we perceive it? Does a commitment to a dichotomy between faith and reason, the latter being compartmented to the sphere of private piety, really help us to understand the Bible itself? I think Hendel's claims will result in a methodological and thus exegetical catastrophe of the first order.
[*] "Der Konflikt von persönlichem Glauben und kritischer Bibelwissenschaft ist nichts Ungewöhnliches. Er tritt meist schon im Studium und bevorzugt bei Studenten mit pietistischem Hintergrund auf, die allerdings bald ergreifen, dass nicht die Geschichte den Glauben, sondern der Glaube Geschichte macht." (p. 45). [for translation see comments]Wie bitte? Is this supposed self-evident? The fact that it contradicts 2000 years of Jewish and Christian theology and the very substance of the Bible itself would imply that this is at best a personal decision on the part of the author. And as far as conservative students are concerned, I don't have the statistics but I can tell you that a large number don't simply "get" this "fact," they lose their faith altogether and leave the church (or stay in the church but abandon the creed to become sociologists of religion, cultural analysts, or social workers).
1Childs, Exodus, 142.
2Childs, Exodus, 149.
3Childs, Exodus, 149.
4Childs, Exodus, 155. Emphasis mine.
Friday, 25 June 2010
Thursday, 24 June 2010
The logic of Brevard Childs' canonical approach flows out of a commitment to understanding the reality testified to by the historical prophets and apostles. He does not start with an a priori commitment to the final form of the text, synchronic exegesis for the sake of it, or a broad thematic approach to Scripture. Rather, he looks to the historical tradents that gave us what was to become Scripture and attempts to understand what they were getting at. From that diachronic analysis his gaze is directed elsewhere, but only after the tradents themselves have redirected him.
An illustration of Childs' understanding of the nature of these tradents can be found in his source critical analysis of the Book of Exodus. Childs finds here a diversity of tradents who were involved in the production of the text. The “Plagues of Egypt” narrative (Ex 7:8-11:10), for example, consists of Priestly and Jahwist sources with small fragments of the Elohist (P, J, E), supplemented by late glosses.1 Each source has its own narrative account of the plague, drawing on a common body of pre-existent oral tradition, and each witness originally stood independent of the others. These authors responded to their authoritative tradition in different ways, yet guided by the common desire to shape that tradition for the next generation of faith.
The Jahwist, for example, “shows tremendous freedom and imagination in fashioning his account,” despite the “traditional forces bearing on the writer which had determined in general the conclusion and general structure of the narrative.”2 J builds in a concession motif, for example, creating a sense of increased tension in which Pharaoh's reneging on a previously granted concession (8:28; 9:28) turns to an impasse created by the inadequacy of Pharoah's later offer, (10:8-11), climaxing in the final breakdown in communication (10:24-29). In addition to this, the Jahwist skilfully portrays Moses and Pharaoh as competing antagonists—despite the roles which tradition had assigned to them—and creates an interesting tension between the LORD's absolute demands for release and his willingness to negotiate.3
The Elohist, on the other hand, is only preserved in fragmentary form, though as a continuous strand nonetheless. The movement of his narrative follows that of the Priestly writer and seems to reflect more the original tradition which was their common source. The plagues come in quick series and have no affect on Pharaoh because of the hardness of his heart.
The editorial integration of E with J results in an expansion of J's basic schema, such as the transition from the Lord's executing the plague in J to Moses' being the agent.
Again, the Priestly source reflects a variant tradition to that of J. For example, there was a distinction between plagues and miracles which originally served to distinguish the traditions of P and J. In P's schema Moses and the magicians compete in the performing of miraculous signs, yet the signs soon take on the characteristic of plagues, whereas the J source speaks initially of plagues, but these shortly function as signs. P also interprets the function of the hardening of Pharaoh differently to E: rather than plagues being a result of Pharaoh's hardness, Pharaoh is hardened so that the Lord can multiply his signs. Another difference to J and E is that for P the killing of the first-born does not belong the the plague tradition but to an originally independent Passover tradition. This plague is neither a plague in a sequence nor a sign, rather in P's account it functions to bring about the release of the Israelites, in fulfilment of the promise of 7:3-5. P also links the plague tradition to the crossing of the sea, in contrast to J, for whom the sea tradition belongs to the tradition of the wanderings in the wilderness.
Not only do these authors actualize their sacred traditions in differing ways, the combination creates an actualization of its own. Both the passover and reed sea traditions are brought into closer proximity to the plague tradition and there is a merging of miracles and plagues so that signs function as plagues and plagues serve as signs. In addition to all this, the various glosses evidence further theological reflection on the content of the tradition, actualizing the text for later generations in various ways. In 9:14-16, God's long-suffering does not represent self-restraint rather than impotence. 9:19-21 evidences a didactic interest to distinguish between “god-fearers” and the unbelievers, providing a testimony that the solidarity of judgement against all Egypt could always be relieved by faith in God's word. 10:1b-2 is a theological expansion, Deuteronomic in character:
The author uses the hardening vocabulary of J, but the theology of P. Any clear-cut distinction between sign and plague has also been lost. The expansion reflects the early interest in the actualization of the plague for a later generation. Here the Deuteronomic interest is more didactic than liturgical (cf. Ex.13.14f.; Josh.4.21). The understanding of the plagues as a testimony to God's great power by which to make sport of mighty Pharaoh is at work.4
In terms of Childs' canonical approach, the following key ideas ought to be borne in mind: 1) there is a dialectical relation between later witness (the sources and their redactors) and prior tradition. Prior witness constrains later interpretation, later interpretation shapes prior tradition. The prior tradition is thus religiously authoritative; 2) this process of interpretation was theological and aimed at identifying God's will for later generations of faith (contra many proposals from contemporary scholars today, who consider the primary force at work in Israel's tradition as political manipulation); 3) the redactional shaping of the sources is an extension of the source's own activity of shaping the tradition. There is thus continuity: the continuity of (dialectical) theological reflection, indeed reflection on the content of the tradition. One could no doubt claim that the tradition prior to these sources also partook of this same process. 4) The final form represents the culmination of a process of theological interpretation within the context of a broader understanding of the will and identity of God.
1Cf. Exodus, 131, for Childs' suggested source divisions with glosses.
2Childs, Exodus, 135.
Wednesday, 23 June 2010
facts are facts, and faith has no business dealing in the world of facts.
Tuesday, 22 June 2010
Dealing with anachronism in Exod 16:34
Saturday, 19 June 2010
The essence of the Christian religion consists therein: that the creation of the Father, destroyed by sin, is again restored in the death of the Son of God and recreated by the grace of the Holy Spirit to a Kingdom of God
Friday, 18 June 2010
Barth wants to go through the text, to the reality, that the text becomes a transparency, that the walls that separate the reader are dissolved, and one then begins to confront the reality itself.”1This was his point of difference with Hans Frei, who was also present at the colloquium. In contrast to pure narrative referentiality, Childs believes
One has to keep in mind that the early church, in the controversy with Judaism, took a quite different move. Where the Jews were saying, read the text! read the text!, the Christians said, there's something behind the text. It's what the text points to, namely: Jesus Christ. And there was a dialectic between the reality and the text.”2In a later re-working of the same presentation, Childs notes with admiration how Barth's exbegesis was compatible “with the whole Christian tradition,” that there is a certain “family resemblance.”3
This final term became a key phrase in his look at the history of Christian interpretation of Isaiah.
We will see how this works itself out exegetically in the posts to come.
1Childs, “Karl Barth,” 34.
2Childs, “Karl Barth,” 56.
3Childs, “Karl Barth: The Preacher's Exegete,” unpublished lecture at Yale, 1969 (Thanks to Daniel Driver for providing me with a copy of this paper. He himself received a copy from Christopher Seitz). Childs' last publication before his death, Struggle, makes this phrase and reality programmatic.
Wednesday, 16 June 2010
I feel I should add a caveat: there is something awkward about having claimed to have understood someone else's approach. In fact, there is still much that is difficult for me and I am aware that even in those areas where I think I understand, I could be seriously mistaken. I always appreciate critical feedback.
A final note: I've scattered hyperlinks to the posts I've made over the last few years throughout the text. My selection is, due to time constraints and the limitations of memory, rather ad hoc and I may no longer fully stand behind the views expressed in the links. Feel free comment where you wish.
Our starting point should be Childs' alethiological stance, namely his theological commitment to the content of the testimony of the prophets and apostles, understood to be vehicles of truth. On the one hand, the historical nature of these witnesses requires a thoroughly historical critical analysis of their testimony in all its human particularity. The adequate tools for such an analysis are unlimited, so the exegete should make use of the best of contemporary scholarship. It is important that every dimension of the testimony be taken seriously. No one stage should be prioritized a priori over the other. If an earlier layer of tradition is more decisive for the thrust of the whole, then it should guide an interpretation of the final from.1 This commitment to human proclamation coupled with a recognition of the multi-layered nature of the text raises a particular challenge concerning the significance of intentionality, particularly in assessing types of intertextuality. It is not the case the one can freely garner texts from across the canon in order to observe the creative outcome of their interplay. Rather, just as there are different types of activity within the history of the text, so one must wrestle with different types of intentionality, or “different degrees of consciousness” as Childs put it.2 The juxtaposition of completed blocks of tradition such as the four Gospels or the two Testaments requires a different level of analysis to the citation of an earlier text by a later one or unintentional allusions due to a shared ideological background. Again, in line with current understandings of communicative acts, it would appear that the form of a text or tradition is integrally related to its function, both within the community and within the literary corpus to which it has been assigned.3 Until a better understanding of human communication is developed, it would appear that these two dimensions of the text must be continue to be kept in view.
On the other hand, it is not the witness himself who should be the focus of our case. He is ultimately only a vehicle to the revelation to which he witnesses. That means that if one wishes to take the intentionality of the prophets and apostles seriously one must move one's gaze from the proclamation itself to its actual substance, its res. We need to move beyond the descriptive task and wrestle with the “content of the witnesses' faith.”4 To stay at the “literal” level of the text would negate its kerygmatic function and lead to the anomaly of an “anthropocentric” interpretation of Holy Scripture. We must thus keep an eye out for talk of the theocentric focus of the text and the nature of the text's substance or content. In particular, it is the effect of the shaping of traditions on the final form that provides access to this reality. Again, the reality is mediated by but distinct from the textual vehicle, so that one can expect talk of the substance to break with the concrete contours of the text under discussion. Rather, it is at the thematic level that one can see how a particular text provides light on a broader reality testified to in the totality of Scripture and in the theological experience of the interpreter. The living nature of this substance who has continued to reveal Himself to his people throughout history requires serious attention to those who have also wrestled with this theological subject matter, responding to His coercion through the text.5 The history of interpretation, or perhaps more theologically adequate the text's Wirkungsgeschichte,6 therefore furnishes us with an invaluable resource for “piercing the text.” Of fundamental significance is the presence of a force. Identifying its movements helps point our gaze in the correct direction.
The move from text to reality takes the interpreter from the the realm of Biblical exegesis (the qualifier “theological” introduces an alien dichotomy) to that of Biblical theology. Though in reality the relationship between text and dogma (reality) is dialectical,7 the task of Biblical theology is a sphere of its own, outside of the domain of a commentary. The Biblical theologian extends the hermeneutical circle to include the relationship between different dimensions of the reality, the interaction of Word and Spirit, and includes a reverse movement from reality back to witness.8 The theological function of a commentary, on the other hand, is to stay close to the sequence of the Biblical text, and wrestle with interpretative questions.9 As far as exegesis is concerned, Biblical theology is an “ancillary discipline that better serves in equipping the exegete for the real task of interpreting the biblical text itself.”10
1Contra many misconceptions of Childs. See his discussion of the book of Judges in his Introduction
2Childs, “Response,” 54. It is for this reason that Childs prefers Thistleton's use of speech-act theory over Wolterstorff's, and Beuken's use of intertextuality over Steins'. See “Speech-act,” “Critique,” and Isaiah.
3Childs' commitment to function—“illocutionary stance” to use speech-act parlance—as a key ingredient to meaning explains his preference for M. Sternberg's literary analysis (for whom narrative is a “functional structure”) over that of J. Barr. See M. Steinberg, The Poetics of Biblical Narrative: Ideology and the Drama of Reading (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985; especially his critique of H. Frei, J. Kugel,and R. Alter , pp. 1-57), J. Barr, “The Bible as Literature,” in The Bible and the Modern World (London: SCM, 1972), 53-74, and Childs' comments in Biblical Theology, 20. In his exegesis of Isaiah 10, therefore, Childs can say: “Although accurate historical dating can at times be of exegetical significance, the crucial interpretative task lies in determining the narrative function to which the texts have been assigned, rather than in supplying a reconstructed setting apart from its present literary (canonical) context.” Childs, Isaiah, 94 (emphasis mine).
4Cf. Childs, “Psalm 8 in the Context of the Christian Canon,” Interpretation 23:1 (1969), 20-31.
5In conclusion to his analysis of the history of Christian interpretation of Isaiah, Childs proposes that “an investigation of this history of interpretation that focusses its analysis on the assumption that various cultural forces (historical, sociological, philosophical) are the controlling factors at work misconstrues the most central components of the church's theological reflections. ... there are theological parameters preserving the church that are continually being shaped by the Spirit's quickening in the understanding of its scriptures toward a faithful witness to Jesus Christ. ... we can derive new confidence in confessing with the creed: I believe in the one holy catholic and apostolic church.” Struggle, 322-333.
6Wirkungsgeschichte denotes the opposite direction of influence. The text exerts a “coercion” on faithful interpreters who submit to this “theocentric force.”
7“One comes to exegesis already with certain theological assumptions and the task of good exegesis is to penetrate so deeply into the Biblical text that even these assumption are called into question, are tested and revised by the subject matter itself.” In Childs, “Does the Old Testament Witness to Jesus Christ?” in Evangelium, Schriftauslegung, Kirche (ed. J. Ådna, S. Hafemann, O. Hofius, and G. Feine; Göttingen: Vandenhoek & Ruprecht, 1997), 57-64; here, 60.
8Cf. Childs, Biblical Theology, 85-88. He draws here on A. Louth, Mystery.
9Cf. Childs, “The Genre of the Biblical Commentary as Problem and Challenge,” in Tehillah le-Moshe (ed. M. Cogan, B. Eichler, and J. Tigay; Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 1997), 185-192.
10Childs, Isaiah, xii.