Saturday, 22 November 2008

F. Watson on reading and re-reading the Old Testament

The following is an eloquent quote by Francis Watson in response to Christopher Seitz's rather stinging critique of his Text and Truth: Redefining Biblical Theology (which I haven't read yet). I have to say, I find the exchange in the Scottish Journal of Theology rather odd, as Watson's response seems to simply affirm all of Seitz's points and claims that they were there all along. It seemed fairly Childsian to me, though Seitz's summary of Watson's take on Childs would have led me to think otherwise. Watson makes one comment on von Rad which I would critique, but that is for another post.

Here's a quote I like:
Despite its one-sidedness, the 'discrete witness' model is a serious attempt to articulate an important element in the phenomenon of the Christian canon. As the Lucan Emmaus Road story shows, the Christian reading of Jewish scripture as 'Old Testament' is a re-reading of a scripture that is already read and known, in the light of the completed event of Jesus' life, death and resurrection. (The story also shows that the risen Jesus cannot be recognized as such except on the basis of a scripture re-read as testimony to the suffering and vindication of the Christ; so there is no question of any one-way, undialectical movement from the New Testament to the Old.) In the light of Easter Day, the law and the prophets can be seen as preparing the way for what has now come to pass. But this only becomes apparent retrospectively: the prophets themselves had only the haziest knowledge of the future event to which, for Christian hindsight, they bore witness (1 Pet.1.10-12). Christian Old Testament interpretation is therefore a re-reading, a second reading that clarifies and re-orders the first reading. A re-read text (a novel, for example) is a text read in the light of a prior knowledge of the whole - a knowledge as yet unavailable to the first-time reader. The second reading does not simply repeat the first reading, but neither does it erase it; it preserves within itself the knowledge that, although the end or goal is now known, that was not the case at first. Old Testament texts should therefore initially be interpreted within a pruely Old Testament context, with distinctively Christian concerns temporarily bracketed out. The 'discrete witness' that emerges in this way is only a preliminary and provisional witness whose scope will be clarified and expanded by the second, explicitly Christian reading. But the initial preliminary and provisional witness remains an indispensable foundation for the re-reading. (220-230)
I couldn't agree more, and neither could Brevard Childs (the jab about the "discrete witness" of the Old Testament is aimed at Childs). This review was written in 1999, so perhaps Watson has changed his mind now, having read Childs' later work and articles. Though having said that, there is nothing here that isn't already in his Biblical Theology ...


Anonymous said...

I find this idea of reading for different understanding-goals fascinating. I wonder if some parallels could be made to the work of the rabbis over time, who were and are studying the torah for instructions on how to live in their time(s), and perhaps reading in a kind of "retrospective" way, in that even though the torah doesn't talk about things like, z.B. electric lights, it's assumed that the torah does have something to say about it because there is talk of when one should or should not use fire or oil.

Phil Sumpter said...

Hi Diana,

it's nice to meet someone who shares my passion! In my reading of Biblical Theologian Brevard Childs, I've come to see that there are key differences in the way in which Judaism and Christianity have appropriated scripture. Jews use midrash, Christians use allegory, or perhaps better figurative interpretation (yes, even Protestants, whether they like it or not). The basic distinctions are theological. I've posted on this in the following posts:

Jewish and Christian appropriation of the law of Moses
Jesus and Jewish tradition
thoughts on the nature of midrash and aggada.

One of the best places to see the two approaches side by side is Brevard Childs' Exodus commentary.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the references!