Saturday, 28 November 2009

I'm doing fine!

An explanation of my last blog post is required, as some have worried that my doctorate is not going well. Nothing could be further from the truth, so please, so worries! I said I was exhausted, but being exhausted isn't necessarily a bad thing ... it just means I've been very busy over the past few months. I mentioned that my doctorate was "sucking out my energy," but that is not because I'm not making any progress but because the subject matter is huge and its demanding me to think in a number of fields in which I have little experience. I recently discussed my overall thesis (which I do have) with my supervisor and have received very positive feedback. So, a lack of blogging due to being überfordert is not a sign that things aren't working out in life in Bonn. Rather the opposite, it means that things are demanding and I have to set priorities.

Here's the kind of thing I'm trying to achieve in the second half of my thesis (the first being about Childs' "canonical approach"):

I'm wanting to get to the "substance" of Psalm 24, which for me means reading it not only in the context of the canon, but also in the context of Christian theology in general. As such, I'm looking at its diachronic development, its poetics, the final form, its position within the structure of the Psalter, its relation to the theology of the Psalter, is relation to the rest of OT, possible connections with the NT, its history of interpretation, and finally, its position within the context of dogmatic theology. I should add that I already have an overarching thesis, one which tries to uncover something of the "ontological unity" behind this mass of material.

If that sounds like a lot, then it explains (amongst other things), why I'm a tad exhausted. Trying to be actively involved in my church also robs me of blogging time and energy. I do intend, however, to keep letting the odd post through.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

This blog is not dead

... it's just resting a bit. The various obligations of life here in Bonn and the strains of a thesis that is sucking out most of my energy have left me somewhat überfordert (I love that word; I wish there was an adequate English translation).

But worry not - when the muse takes me (and carries me) I will put fingertip to keyboard and rattle out something profound, moving, or simply confused.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

A great German-English translation resource

Seeing that German is the sacred language of Biblical studies, I thought I'd alert people to a great translation resource, ( It's particularly useful for translating German into English or vice-versa. In contrast to the excellent online dictionary LEO (, you can type in entire phrases (in inverted "commas") and the whole web is searched for examples of the various ways this phrase is translated. I find in invaluable.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

H.-J. Kraus on Biblical scholarship and theology

There has been a brief exchange on Jim West's Biblical-Studies List on the value of a "secular" Biblical scholarship, in contrast to ... something else (it is not clear what). I may post the elements of the exchange between myself and another (who, out of respect for Jim's rules, will remain anonymous). The initiator of the movement has a blog: Jim's Thinking Shop & Tea Room (which has some very amusing content; I also happen to think his project could produce some fruitful dialogue, and so welcome it). Until then, here is a fitting quote H.-J. Kraus:
Es ist erschreckend, wie stark der historisch-verobjektivierende Distanzierungseffekt einer der Phänomene registrierenden ‘Theologie’ die alttestamentlicheWissenschaft isoliert und sie im Gefüge theologischer Forschungs- und Lehrinstitutionen zu einer unwirksamen historischen Disziplin prägt. Diese Bemerkung sei verstanden als ein weiterer Beitrag zu der von B.S. Childs und R.E. Clements ins Gespräch geworfenen Behauptung einer Krise der Biblischen Theologie [*].
I should add that Kraus was one of the few Old Testament scholars who managed to hold a chair in Old Testament and Systematic Theology at the same time. Kudos. Something to emulate. There is a fascinating seminar going on at the University of Bonn at the moment on the (possible) relationship(s) between Old Testament scholarship and Systematic Theology. Though Bonn currently has both feet firmly in the tradition of consensus German critical scholarship (as did Kraus), Prof. Graupner (who did his PhD on the "theology of E," I believe) stated: "Der Alttestamentler ist zuerst immer ein Historiker. Zu einem Theologen wird er durch den Gegenstand." A bit naive, perhaps, but better than some of the other proposals out there.

[*]Kraus, Geschichteウ, 559, cf. 557.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Jonathan Sacks on "witness" and "substance"

I recently posted Brevard Childs' suggestion concerning the way forward for a Christian multiple-level interpretation of Scripture. John Hobbins of Ancient Hebrew Poetry gave his own two-part summary in the comments:
What Childs seeks to do is to keep together what others drive asunder. The traditional exegesis of the church, whenever it has proposed a meta-sense of the text as a replacement of one of its more foundational senses, has ultimately done a disservice to the church's witness to the Gospel.
Modern, historical-critical exegesis, whenever it has proposed a foundational sense in replacement of the meta-sense a text has within Judaism and/or Christianity, has severed the text from its own "Nachleben," a self-defeating operation.
An Orthodox Jewish friend of mine asked via e-mail what John was talking about. I tried to clarify both the content of my post as well as John's comments in terms of Rabbi Jonathan Sack's interesting introduction to the newly published Koren Siddur (John warmly recommends it here, and so do I, though I can't comment on ArtScroll]). My concern is simply to argue that, theologically speaking, one ought to go beyond plain sense of the text to a "deeper meaning", and then back again, in a dialectical movement.

Here it is:

In his introduction to the Koren Siddur, Sacks states that the whole of the Siddur, despite all it's diverse sources, creates a "calibrated symphony." The implication is that beyond the diversity of the parts, there is an inner harmony, a harmony that is not particularly visible when one just reads one of those parts. One needs the whole in order to grasp the full implications of the part, one needs to read the canon (of Scripture and of Tradition) in relation to itself (which for a Jew includes Scripture's liturgical use, and the oral torah, both of which constitute the Bible's Nachleben, to use Hobbin's phrase). Reading the part in light of the whole helps us grasp something of the transcendent beyond. As Sacks says:
The Jewish people ... have ... been singled out for the most exalted mission ever entrusted to mankind: to be witnesses, in ourselves, to something beyond ourselves: to be God's "signal of transcendence" in a world in which his presence is often hidden (p. xxiv).
Part of this Jewish witness is in the body of tradition it has handed down to us. Again, Sacks puts it thus:
The siddur is ... the book of Jewish faith. Scholars of Judaism, noting that it contains little systematic theology, have sometimes concluded that it is a religion of deeds not creeds, acts not beliefs. They were wrong because they were looking in the wrong place. They were looking for a library of works like Moses Maimonides' Guide for the Perplexed. They should have looked instead at the siddur. The home of Jewish belief is the siddur.
So, it would seem (to me at least, do correct!), that in order to grasp something of this theological reality, one has to immerse oneself, not only in an exegesis of the particular texts of the Bible, but in the whole of the tradition which it has spawned. Only then is our vision adjusted to be able to "perceive the mystery" (as the Eastern Orthodox theologican Andrew Louth put it) that is hidden within the fragmented parts.

This assumption only works, of course, if we believe that God has been guiding the Jewish people through their history. Again, Sacks not only has this assumption, he also draws hermeneutical implications from it. In regard to the composition of the siddur he says:
The siddur as it exists today is the result of some forty centuries of Jewish history. Yet the result is not mere bricolage, a patchwork of random additions. It is as if the composition of the prayer book has been shaped by an "invisible hand," a Divine inspiration that transcends the intentions of any particular author. Specifically, form mirrors substance. The shape of the prayers reveals the basic shape of the Jewish spirit as it has been molded by its encounter with God (p. xxii).
He then goes on to discuss some of the structural features of the prayers (where, again, he points out that "form mirrors substance.")

As far as I can see, the conclusion one must draw from this is the following: God wishes the world to know him, and to this end he has elected for himself a people who must witness to him. Scripture and siddur are the literary products of this people, borne out of an active relationship with this God, and their function is to point beyond themselves to their substance, which is God himself (as the prayers themselves plead: "make the words of Your Torah sweet in our mouths ... so that we ... may all know your name ... " (check out this post on the goal of God's self-revelation). Yet, getting to know this "substance," the God of the text, involves being part of the community, in it's life and practice, and not just being a Biblical scholar. The sum of the Bible is greater than its parts.

There are only two differences here between what Sack's is saying and what Hobbins is saying: the substance of the Scripture is the Gospel, and the elected witnesses are the church (mysteriously grafted into Israel, not replacing it ... though I still need to work on understanding the relation). Sack's "symphony" is Hobbin's "traditional exegesis of the church"/Nachleben; Sack's "substance" is Hobbins' "gospel" or "meta-sense."

Hobbins adds, however, an extra element that I don't see in Sacks or even in Judaism (though I remember from past conversations that I may be wrong here). For Hobbins, the plain sense of the text not only functions as a witness to the substance (it's "spiritual sense," if you will), it also functions as a critical norm over against church tradition. In other words, if the church does too much allegorizing it runs the risk of drowning out the voice of Scripture and subjecting it to foreign ideology. There has to be a constant tension, or dialectic: on the one hand, the plain sense of the text has to be understood in relation to our broader understanding of the substance; on the other hand, our understanding of the substance has to be mediated by the plain sense of the Scriptural witness. The community of faith (church or synagogue) is not allowed to make the text say what it wants it to say, and so must always be willing to critique itself in light of the text.

As for historical criticism, it's main problem is ideological. Though it pretends to objectivity, in reality it has its own presuppositions concerning the nature of the "substance" of the text (I've also made similar comments in a post here on clarfiying the Bible's subject matter. Also, cf. my post of Medieval allegory and historical criticism). By jettisoning Christian tradition, it has adopted another one (modernism, for example).

I'd appreciate any feed back pointing out where I'm misrepresenting either Christianity or Judaism, or simply not thinking logically enough!

Update: Tzvee, of Tvee's Talmudic Blog, has a number of interesting and critical posts, gathered here, on Sack's understanding of the Siddur. Of particular relevance to this post is his post Welcome to the great Jewish assembly.

Monday, 26 October 2009

Barth's "canonical theory"

I have already posted a quote by Martin Buber which shows strong affinities to Childs' "canonical theory," followed by another quote by the Protestant scholar Jörg Jeremias. Today I add a quote by Karl Barth. It is a response to the question of the legitimacy of the churchly practice of "theology," given that the Bible itself seems to nowhere have a fully developed form of reflective theology. The Dutch Reformed scholar Frans Breukelman frames the issue as follows:
Nirgends ... sehen wir es geschehen ... , daß die biblischen Zeugen ... , ... außer ... was sie uns ... direkt zu sagen haben, .... nun auch noch einmal um der Deutlichkeit willen so etwas wie ein Stück "Theologie" als Erläuterung eigens dazugeben, wie etwa[]: "Seht, das sind nun unsere Motive und Argumente gewesen, es so zu sagen, wie wir es taten, die und die Absicht haben wir dabei gehabt, als wir uns mit der Formgebung unserer Texte beschäftigten, dies und das war es, was wir vor allem möglichst kräftig agen wollte[n], um damit zugleich gegen bestimmte Mißverständnisse und Abweichungen und Irrtümer möglichst effektive anzugehen (1986: 18).
My first thought was "wait a minute ... Canonical process?" I was thus relieved to hear him later say:
Und doch haben wir es in dem sermo de Deo des biblischen Zeugnisses mit "Theologie" zu tun. Bei der Exegese biblischer Texte spüren wir nämlich von Mal zu Mal, daß der Formgebung dieser Texte mit einer großen Mannigfaltigkeit von Tendenzen theologische Reflexion zugrunde liegt (p. 20).
He backs this up with a the following great quote from Barth:
Die Sache [nämlich theología] war der neutestamentlichen Gemeinde sehr wohl bekannt ... als die Frage nach der Gestaltung des christlichen Denkens, Redens, Handelns und Lebens im Licht seines Ursprungs, Gegenstands und Inhalts. Nicht nur die paulinischen und johanneischen, sondern alle Schriten des NTs sind offenkundig auch Dokumente mannigfaltiger, in diesem Sinn 'theologisher' Besinnung und Arbeit, die ihre Autoren damit auch ihren Lesern zugemutet haben. In den Tatsachenberichten wie in den Lehren der Apostel und der Evangelisten steckt ein nicht zu unterschätzendes Maß solcher Reflexion: sie haben sich - das bezeugen die erhaltenen Texte auf der ganzen Linie - die Frage nach dem Sinn und Recht ihres Sprechens, gemessen and dem ihnen vorgegebenen Objekt, gestellt, haben sie, Jeder in seiner Weise (immer im Blick auf die sie umgebende Gemeinde und in Auseinandersetzung mit allerlei besserer oder schlechterer Theologie, die auch in deren Mitte getrieben wurde) beantwortet, und, wie im besonderen die Pastoralbreife zeigen, auch an ihre Nachfolger weitergegeben ... ." (KD IV/3, pp. 1008; cited in Breukelman, p. 35).
Bibliography: F.-W. Breukelman, Umschreibung des Begriffs einer "Biblischen Theologie" (orig. niederl. 1980): Texte und Kontext Nr. 31/32 (1986) 13-39.
P.S. I haven't read this yet, but here is a fascinating-looking article on Breukelman, who really comes very close to Childs's canonical approach in the essay above, which includes anecdotes about a debate he had with Eberhard Jüngel in the presence of Karl Barth on the role of the Old Testament in the Church. If I've glanced through the article correctly, it looks as if Barth was with Breukelman.

Saturday, 24 October 2009

Jörg Jeremias' "canonical theory"

I posted a quote by Martin Buber the other day from the 60's, though its seems he had had such ideas already in the 30's, concerning the nature of the process which gave birth to the final form of the Bible. This process was, in other words, "canonical." Here is another quote, again by a German, though this time a Christian, a historical critic, and one living in our day and age: Jörg Jeremias (on the right in the photo). It was originally part of his Abschiedsvorlesung, and was published in 2006 as part of his essay, "Das Wesen der alttestamentlichen Prophetie." Can you spot any differences to Buber's account?
So sehen wir die Propheten der spätpersischen und hellenistischen Zeit mit der Suche nach einem Gesamtwillen Jahwes beschäftigt. Zu diesem Zweck beziehen sie die mannigfachen überlieferten Einzelworte bzw. -texte der vorausgehenden Propheten aufeinander, um das eine Wort hinter den vielen Wörtern aufzudecken und insbesondere das Verhältnis von göttlichem Gerichts- und Heilswillen zu klären. Sie machen dabei, wie oben an Joel 2 gezeigt, keineswegs an der Grenze der prophetischen Schriften Halt, sondern beziehen die großen Texte des Pentateuchs mit ein. Die kanonische Funktion der Prophetie ist weit älter als der faktische Abschluss des prophetischen Kanonteils.
And again:
[Am Ende der prophetischen Überlieferung im Alten Testament] steht das Bemühen, die vielfältigen schriftlichen Zeugnisse von einem Reden Gottes durch Propheten zusammenzufassen, aufeinander zu beziehen und nach dem einen übergreifenden Willen Gottes zu fragen. Die Disziplin einer 'Theologie der Prophetie' ist keine moderne Erfindung, sondern längst schon in der späten Prophetie selbst angelegt. Die kanonische Funktion der Prophetie ist weit älter als der faktische Übergang der Prophetie in kanonische Dignität.
J. Jeremias, Das Wesen der alttestamentlichen Prophetie, in: ThLZ 131 (2006) 3-14, hier 13f (Hervorhebung im Original).

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Buber's "canonical theory"

I was surprised to read the following thoughts from Martin Buber, written in 1964 and yet inspired by a Bible course he had held in Germany between 1934 and 1935. They seem to pretty well prepare the way for Childs' canonical approach:
Biblische text sind als Texte der Bibel zu behandeln, das heißt: einer Einheit, die, wenn auch geworden, aus vielen und vielfältigen, ganzen und fragmentarischen Elementen zusammengewachsen, doch eine echte organische Einheit und nur als solche wahrhaft zu begreifen ist. Das bibelstiftende Bewußtsein, das aus der Fülle eines vermutlich weit größeren Schrifttums das aufnahm, was sich in die Einheit fügte, und in den Fassungen, die dieser Genüge taten, ist nicht erst mit der eigentlichen Zusammenstellung des Kanons, sondern schon lange voher, in allmählichem Zusammenschluß des Zusammengehörigen, wirksam gewesen. Die Kompositionsarbeit war bereits "biblisch", ehe die erste Vorstellung einer bibelartigen Struktur erwachte; sie ging auf eine jeweilige Zusammenschau der verschiedenen Teile aus, sie stiftete Bezüge zwischen Abschnitt und Abschnitt, zwischen Buch und Buh, sie ließ den tragenden Begriff durch Stelle um Stelle klären, ließ die heimliche Bedeutung eines Vorgangs, die sich in der einen Erzählung nur eben leicht auftat, in einer andern sich voll erschließen, ließ Bild durch Bild und Symbol durch Symbol erleuchten. Manches von dem, was man "Midrasch" nennt, ist schon in der Bibel selbst, in diesen Zeugnissen einer zur biblischen Einheit strebenden Auslese- und Koordinationsarbeit zu finden, deren stärkstes Werkzeug eine diskret folgerichtige Verwendung von Wiederholungen, Motivworten, Assonanzen war. Wir stehen hier erst am Anfang einer methodischen Erkenntnis. Es gilt den Blick für diese Entsprechungen und Verknüpfungen und überhaupt für die Einheitsfunktion in der Bibel zu schärfen. Dann ergeben sich uns ganz andre Gebilde als die der "Quellenschriften", auf die die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft der letzten Jahrhunderte den Bau der Schrift zurückzuführen sucht; es ergibt sich größere Verschiedenheit und größere Gemeinsamkeit und das in seiner Dynamik erkennbare Werden dieser aus jener. Damit soll nicht gesagt sein, daß man sich nicht mit den Thesen der modernen Wissenschaft vertraut machen solle. Man soll es tun; man soll nur auch wissen, was es ist, das man durch sie erfährt. Thesen kommen und gehen; die Texte bleiben. [*]
It could do with a bit of refinement, but it's a great start. I'd love to know where he got these ideas from ...

[*]M. Buber, "Ein Hinweis für Bibelkurse," in Werke: zweite Band: Schriften zur Bibel (Kösel-Verlang, Munich), 1964, pp. 1185-1186.

Monday, 19 October 2009

Foreign languages and Biblical scholarship

I honestly didn't marry my wife in order to keep up to date with German scholarship, but I have to say, doing so was really a great move as far as my doctorate is concerned. For one thing, two doctorates have already been published on my thesis (Psalm 24), and they are both in German! I may well have been able to learn the language well enough to plough through the languages with a dictionary, but living here and speaking the language on a daily basis has made reading in German a pleasure rather than a chore (well, most of the time. Barth was a bit of a headache at first).

Which brings me to my Bockmuehl quote:
A generation ago, lip service was still paid to “keeping up” with scholarship in other languages, even if it was already a custom more honored in the breach than in the observance. For anyone inclined to the old-fashioned view (still widely held in the natural sciences) that serious scholarly inquiry is at least in principle a global enterprise, it can only be disheartening to observe how ofen footnotes in English remain remarkably untouched by directly pertinent recent publications in German, French, or Spanish—and vice versa. Rare is the scholar who bothers comprehensively with the key international publications (Bockmuehl, Seeing, 35)
Bockmuehl finds some comfort in the fact that
at least an Anglophone dialogue continues despite the accelerating continental drift separating Europe and America in religious, cultural and geopolitical respects (36).

Saturday, 17 October 2009

A canonical Paul?

One of the things that astounds me about the scholarly career of Brevard Childs is his ability to push boundaries in scholarship in the most diverse (Biblical) fields. In his lifetime he published groundbreaking work in the following areas: concrete exegetical analyses of Old Testament texts and themes, historical overviews of the discipline along with proposals for ways forward, Old Testament introduction, New Testament introduction, Biblical theology, dogmatic theology, hermeneutics, and the history of interpretation. Luckily his final book, published after he died, seems to continue this trend, this time in the realm of Pauline studies. I haven't gotten round to reading it yet, but Paul e-. Trainor has done a handy review for the Review of Biblical Literature. The book is called The Church's Guide for Reading Paul: The Canonical Shaping of the Pauline Corpus. Read the review here, and if you have time, tell me what you think (you can also peek into it at google books).

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Assessing Biblical Law: A division of labour

I posted yesterday on the need for a multiple level interpretation of Scripture. Such an interpretation, however, is an arduous task, as it requires knowledge from all theological fields (Church History, Dogmatics, History of Interpretation, Exegesis, Biblical Theology ... ). How many scholars today can live up to such a challenge? One of the first scholars to pose the challenge was Brevard Childs, in his 1979 Exodus commentary. He divided his commentary up into various stages: diachronic analysis, synchronic analysis, the history of interpretation, and theology. Yet even here, he felt that the dialogue needed to go on, and so he proposes a kind of division of labour. Here's what he has to say on Christian appropriation of Biblical law:
Although the need to provide a far more adequate theological interpretation of biblical law remains primarily the task of the theologian and ethicist, the modern Old Testament scholar can aid in making available pertinent information from his discipline. [*]
According to Childs, then, the theologian needs the exegete, yet given the importance of "correct context," the exegete also needs the theologian. In the context of a discussion of the Christian appropriation of Biblical law, here is an example of what Childs thinks the exegete has to offer the theologian as part of the broader dialogue (he calls them "points that must be taken into consideration"):
  1. The historically conditioned nature of the Old Testament law, which includes the Decalogue, has emerged with an even greater clarity on the basis of close study of Ancient Near Eastern material.

  2. The Old Testament laws give evidence of having arisen in different historical periods and often performed different functions; there is, however, no clear patter of 'ethical progress' which can be established on the basis of Old Testament texts.

  3. Most modern New Testament scholars would seriously question whether Jesus ever intended to present 'a higher ethic'. Certainly his relation to the Old Testament was a different one entirely from that represented by the evolutionist.

  4. Jewish interpretation of the Mosaic law cannot be dismissed by Christians as 'rigid' or 'legalistic' but it must be understood, first of all, on its own terms before engaging in a theological debate with Christian theology.

Again, several points should be made which affect the constructive task of developing an adequate theology of biblical law:

  1. The idealistic categories which admit divine inspiration only to what is regarded as 'eternally valid' or 'perfect' for all contexts must be firmly rejected in handling the Bible.The theological data of Old Testament law cannot be restricted by an a priori schema of values, symbols, ontology or the like.

  2. A theology of biblical law must relate specifically to the structuring of the concrete historical life of the people of God, who in ancient Israel, in the first-century church, and today continue to participate both in the kingdom of God and in the world.

  3. All forms of law, Old and New Testament alike, must be ultimately judged in the light of the living God himself who has revealed himself in Jesus Christ through a life of complete faithfulness under the law.

I look forward to reading the recently published I am the Lord your God: Christian Reflections on the Ten Commandments, to see in what sense these theologians have responded to Childs' proposals.

[*] Childs, Exodus, 496.

Saturday, 10 October 2009

A multiple level reading of Scripture

I've been posting on the issue of "figural reading" of the Old Testament recently, in particular on the way in which Jesus relates to the OT both "narratively" and "ontologically." I gave an example of the kind of challenge this type of reading can pose here (with an interesting response by Luke). Today I look at a proposal made by Brevard Childs.

Childs defends a multiple level reading of Scripture according to different contexts, but one where the integral contact between text and subject matter is not blurred. What he proposes is
a single method of interpretation which takes seriously both the different dimensions constituting the text as well as distinct contexts in which the text functions (1997:61).
As I mentioned in a thread dealing with the literal and spiritual senses of Scripture, there is no fixed temporal order in the exegesis: we already come to the text with a dogmatic framework, which is then altered in the light of the text. However, for pedagogical reasons Childs illustrates this move by taking us from the more familiar exegetical activity to the more complex reflective enterprise (taken from his essay, "Does the Old Testament Witness to Jesus Christ?" pp. 61-63):

1.The Old Testament's witness must be heard in its own voice (as I pointed out in this thread), which means it must be interpreted within its historical, literary, and canonical context. The genre of story, for example, excludes the possibility of having Jesus Christ read back into it, as in this context promise and fulfilment cannot be fused.

2.This literal/historical reading can be extended by placing it within the context of the two part canon. Structural similarities and dissimilarities between both testaments are analysed in which the aim is to pursue a relationship of content. For example, in terms of an understanding of God, it inquires as to which features the two testaments hold in common respecting the mode, intention, and goal of God's manifestations. This theological relationship is pursued both on the level of the textual witness and on that of the discrete matter (res) of the two collections.

3.The pursuit of the theological relationships between the two testaments provides an avenue towards comprehending the greater theological unity of the Christian Bible. The reality which undergirds the two testaments should not be held apart and left fragmented, but be critically reunited. When this reality is confronted, however, the reverse move takes place, as the interpreter is compelled to understand the biblical text from the context of this fuller horizon. In reference to the Old Testament's witness to Christ, this means moving beyond the unique voice of the prophets' testimony to a coming royal figure. Rather,
in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ in the history of Israel, the texts of both testaments in their fragmentary testimony to God's utterly mysterious purpose of new creation and redemption take on fresh life. Thus, when the interpreter moves from the reality of God manifest in action back to the Scriptures themselves for further illumination, he or she is constrained to listen for a new song break forth from the same ancient, sacred texts. As a result, in spite of generations of scholarly denial, few Christians can read Isaiah 53 without sensing the amazing morphological fit with the passion of Jesus Christ.”
In sum, Childs is proposing
“a text-oriented hearing of Scripture by a Christian community of faith which allows biblical texts to resonate from the force of divine reality gained through an encounter with the entire Christian Bible.”

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

The challenge of figurative interpretation: an example

Before I touch on this, I'd like to refer to the comment section of my last post on The "horizontal" and "vertical" nature of the Old Testament witness. Michael has responded with some excellent questions, to which I have responded in depth.

Now to the title of the post:

The challenge in question is the challenge the concept of "allegorical" or "figural interpretation" poses to the task of theological interpretation itself. As Daniel Treier points out, "Without the practice ... we cannot read Scripture religiously as a unified canon" (Introducing Theological Interpretation of Scripture, p. 50; my own review is forthcoming). Yet, there is still debate as to how one ought to go about doing it. Again, as Treier says: "How to handle the legitimacy of typological and/or allegorical interpretation becomes a major concern for theological interpretation of Scripture" (p. 50). He gives the following examples:
Some once read the number of Abraham's servants - 318 (Gen. 14:14) - in such a way that it pointed to Christ. On the arbitrariness of this, we might think, most theological interpreters today could agree. What, then, about Rahab's scarlet cord? Does it point to the blood of Christ, as Clement of Rome suggested, and if so, how? Many critical scholars might assert that there is no connection at all between the two, for the Old Testament writer could not have had the later event in mind. By contrast, many precritical interpreters would find such an association clearly willed by the divine Author. Is the color of the cord really ingredient to the story in such a a way that we should connect it to Christ? If a mental association based on scarlet is arbitrary, merely symbolic in itself, does that mean that we cannot read the text in a way the prefigures Christ? Or might it point us toward a deeper narrative connection, coherence that is more inherent within the story? In that case, we might consider how the divinely appointed object served as the sign and means of God's deliverance, typifying how God rescues people and brings them into promised blessing (pp. 50-51).
Tomorrow I will post Brevard Childs' thoughts on a multi-level reading of Scripture.

Monday, 5 October 2009

The "horizontal" and "vertical" nature of the Old Testament witness

Old Testament scholars, especially those influenced by Karl Barth (which seems to include most of the German post-war generation, such as von Rad, W.H. Schmidt, Zimmerli, perhaps Otto Kaiser; see this post), often talk of the "witness" of the Old Testament. In other words, they understood a central function of the Bible as being to point beyond itself to some kind of reality. How did the New Testament understand this reality?

On the one hand, this reality was obviously understood to be "the message of the Gospel." Yet how this witness was understood to be rendered is more complex. In the New Testament, this message is related to the Jewish scriptures both in terms of a historical sequence (i.e. Jesus appeared in the “fullness of time”, Gal. 4:4), as well as on an ontological plane. Brevard Childs cites John 1:1, Col. 1:15f, and Rev. 13: 8 as examples of “a mode of speech in relation to a subject matter which disregards or transcends temporal sequence.”[*] As Childs said in one of his first publications: the Old Testament is not just a preparation for Jesus Christ but a manifestation of him. [**] (See his discussion of Wilhelm Vischer's more "vertical" approach in contrast to von Rad's more "horizontal" Heilsgeschichte).

We thus have different ways of understanding the way in which Jesus is related to the Old Testament. On the one hand, we can take the now well-know heilsgeschichtliche approach, and talk about him fulfilling Israel's narrative. On the other hand, one can take a more "vertical" (rather than "horizontal") approach, and talk about Jesus as the ontological reality which the Scriptures point to at each stage of the way (see my post The need for ontological categories in Biblical exegesis). This kind of move leads to that type of move from "text to subject-matter" known as "allegory" (see my post, What is Christian allegory?).

Allegory is, of course, incredibly unfashionable at the moment in Biblical studies (though I sense the tide is changing). One criticism of this type of exegetical move is that when exegesis is loosed from the controls of historical critical exegesis it opens the path to uncontrolled flights of fancy. Another criticism (raised by Rolf Rendtorff, I believe, in response to Childs' Biblical Theology), is that such a hermeneutical approach undermines the canonical function of the Old Testament, which was to preserve Israel's Scripture according to its own integrity. I've responded to this issue already in terms of the hermeneutical circle and the literal sense in a previous thread dealing with Literal and Spiritual Senses of Scripture. In my following posts, I will focus on how a modern Christian interpreter can conscientiously practice a multiple level reading of Scripture.

[*] 1997: 60; i.e. Jesus was the eternal Word who was with God in the beginning, “the image of the invisible God, first-born of all creation”, “the lamb slain from the foundation of the world”.
[**] 1962: 103, Myth and Reality in the Old Testament (SCM Press: London). Here the relationship between Old Testament and church is expressed in terms of the “New Israel” as witness to divine reality.

P.S. Considerations such as these inspired the name of my blog: Narrative and Ontology.

Friday, 2 October 2009

Law and Grace in Pss 15-24?

Many scholars consider the Psalms group 15-24 to be a consciously redacted whole. The so-called "torah-entrance" Psalms 15 and 24 frame the whole, forming the outer boundaries of chiasm with 19 in the middle (see the articles by Hossfeld & Zenger and Patrick Miller for the details). Barbiero (in Das erste Psalmbuch als Einheit, 1999) claims that one of the effects of this composition is to give a depth dimension to the concept of "righteousness" before God. In my post Is Ps 15 "softened" by Ps 24? I quoted his claim that the righteousness required as prerequisite for entrance into the sanctuary in Psalm 15 is supplemented by Psalm 19's confession that such righteousness is impossible (Ps 19:12-13): "It is only when YHWH forgives, and not out of one's own strength, that the worshipper can become innocent."

Barbiero goes on to make a similar statement concerning the entire collection of Psalms 15-24 (first in German, than my translation in italics):
Die drei Psalmen 22-23-24 sind darüber hinaus durch das Wort צדק verbunden (22,23; 23, 3; 24,5). In ihnen bekommt das Wort eine andere Betonung als in den Psalmen 15-18 (vgl. 15,2; 17,1.15; 18,21.25). War dort von menschlicher Leistung die Rede (die Gerechtigkeit war die Bedingung, in s Heiligtum Einlaß zu bekommen bzw. von Gott erhört zu werden), so ist hier die Gerechtigkeit vorwiegend eine Gabe Gottes. In 22,32 wird die צדקתו, die Gerechtigkeit Gottes verkündet, die sich durch die Rettungstat als solche erwiesen hat. In 23,3 ist von einer Führung Gottes durch die "Pfade der Gerechtigkeit" die Rede. Sie ist als eine Andeutung auf die Tora zu verstehen (vgl. 19,10). In 24,5 ist nun die צדקה die Gabe, die der (gerechte) Tempelbesucher von dem "Gott seines Heils" bekommt (p. 283).
In addition to this, the three Psalms 22-23-24 are connected by the word צדק (Pss 22:23; 23: 3; 24:5). In these Psalms, the word receives a different emphasis to the the one in Psalms 15-18 (cf. Pss 15:2; 17:1,15; 18:21,25). Whereas there the emphasis is on human accomplishment (righteousness is the condition for either entering the sanctuary or being heard by God), here the righteousness of God is primarily a gift of God. The righteousness of God (צדקתו) is proclaimed in Ps 22:32 as something which has been proved itself by an act of salvation. In Ps 23:3 there is talk of being led by God within the "paths of righteousness." This is to be understood as an allusion to the Torah (cf. Ps 19:10). In Ps 24:5 צדקה is now a gift, which the (righteous) visitor to the temple receives from "the God of his salvation" (p. 283).
What do you think? Does this work?

Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Is Ps 15 "softened" by Ps 19?

Barbiero, in his book Das erste Psalmbuch als Einheit: eine synchrone Analyse von 1-41 (Peter Lang, 1999) seems to think so. After highlighting all kinds of inter-textual links between the two Psalms (such as the terms, תמים [Pss 19:8; 15;2], צדק [Pss 19:10; 15:2]; אמת [Ps 19:10; comp. 8 and 15:2], and כבוד [Pss 19:2 and 15:4]), he adds that there is an Akzentverschiebung ("shift in emphasis"):
Hier ist aber eine wichtige Akzentenverschiebung zu bemerken. Zwischen der Beobachtung der Tora (19,12) und dem Gefallen JHWHs (19,15) steht in 19,13f. das Eingeständnis der eigenen Schuld, was in Ps 15 fehlt. Der Gedanke, daß der Gottesfürchtige schulding ist, ist Ps 15 fremd. Derjenige, der sich schuldig macht, gehört zu einer anderen Gruppe, er verdient nur "Verachtung" (בזה 15,4). Ps 19,13f. ist vom Bewußtsein der eigenen Schuld und der eigenen Unfähigkeit, schuldlos zu leben, geprägt. Der Frevel ist nicht nur bei den "anderen", sondern er ist beim Beter selbst, wie es auch die Geschichte Davids zeigt. Nur wenn JHWH vergibt, nicht aus eigener Kraft kann der Beter schuldlos sein (19, 14 "dann bin ich vollkommen").
Das Gesetz wird nicht aufgehoben, es wird aber durch die Verzeihung ergänzt. Neben das Prinzip der Gerechtigkeit wird deutlich das Prinzip der Gnade gestellt. (pp. 263-264).

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Tillich on Youtube

Paul Raymont of the blog Philosophy, lit, etc. links to a series of interviews with important figures from the past, including Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr.

I don't know too much about Tillich, so really the main thing that stuck out for me in the opening lines of the interview (which is all I have watched so far) is his statement that one of the reasons why he left Germany for the States in 1933 was his express conviction that the Old Testament is an abiding theological witness for the church (to use Chris Seitz's phrase; I think Tillich just said it is "valuable"). This comment stuck out for me, not just because I'm a Christian who studies the Old Testament, but because I do that hand in hand with a hero of mine: Brevard Childs. Childs himself, it seems, was critical of Tillich on just this point. Here's what he had to say, in the context of a broader discussion about the relation of Scripture to the Reality it witnesses to:
P. Tillich speaks freely of the reality of the New Being which conquers existential estrangement and makes faith possible. Jesus as the Christ is the symbolic expression of this New Being, and the biblical portrait of this symbol mediates a knowledge of God. Participation, not historical argument, guarantees the event on which faith is grounded as a sign of the continuing transforming power of this reality once encountered by Jesus' disciples. That the Old Testament plays a minor role here is apparently taken for granted.
Given my ignorance on such matters, I don't want to judge whether Childs has got him right on this matter or not. But it just goes to show that affirming the Old Testament theologically in theory is one thing, but doing this in practice can be another thing altogether.

Saturday, 26 September 2009

What is Christian allegory?

Here's what the Orthodox theologian Andrew Louth has to say from his excellent book Discerning the Mystery:

- "... allegory is a way of holding us before the mystery which is the ultimate 'difficulty' of the Scriptures - a difficulty, a mystery, which challenges us to revise our understanding of what might be meant by meaning; a difficulty, a mystery, which calls on us for a response of metanoia, change of mental perspective, repentance" (p. 110).

- Allegory "is an attempt to respond to the mira profundatis of Scripture, seen as the indespensible witness to the mystery of Christ" (p. 112)

- Allegory is not a technique for solving problems, but an art for discerning mystery (p. 113).

- Allegory is "a way of focusing on the mystery to which the Scriptures bear witness" (p. 114)

Note that on this account, allegory is less a matter of the Christian interpreter playfully exercising his or her interpretative freedom with the text and more a matter of a disciplined penetrating of the text to that which is is really all about. Allegory thus presupposes the existence of an real textual referent.

Louth emphasises this dimension of penetration when he talks about the relation between the allegorical (or mystical) sense of the text and its plain sense (which he, rather misleadingly it seems to me, also calls its historical sense) as being one of movement, a movement through the plain sense to the spiritual sense. Thus he can say:
the movement to allegory is not at all a movement away from history, but we might say a movement into history, into the significance of the sacred events that are the object of our faith. The literal sense is the object of faith: this is what we are to believe, to believe in, in a God who meets us in history, becomes man in Jesus of Nazareth. The allegorical sense represents our attempt to understand the mystery we discern here. It is a move from fides to intelligentia (p. 116)
There is no doubt a move back again, from spiritual sense to literal, but I haven't got that far yet.

For parallels between historical criticism and allegorical interpretation, see my post Historical Criticism and Medieval Allegory: Some Parallels.

For my whole thread on the issue of the spiritual and literal sense of Scripture, go here, in particular the post on the relation between the literal and spiritual senses.

Friday, 25 September 2009

Louth drew on Childs (or the "complentarity of tradition and scripture")

Brevard Childs drew on Andrew Louth's Discerning the Mystery in his Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments, especially when talking of the dialectic between the literal and plain sense of the text. I'm reading through Louth's interesting book at the moment and I have just discovered that Louth had already paid Childs the compliment. Here's what he has to say (which, I should add, shows an excellent grasp of what Childs was trying to get at in his Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture):
The tendency of the historical-critical method has been to concentrate on originality and regard what is not original as secondary: but if we see here a process of inspired utterance and reflection on - comment on - inspired utterance within the tradition, itself regarded as inspired, then we have a more complicated, but, I suggest, truer picture. The formation of the Hebrew Scriptures is an object lesson in the kind of complementarity of Scripture and tradition - or inspired utterance and tradition - that I have outlined. The art of understanding is more complicated, and richer, than an attempt to isolate the earliest fragments and to seek to understand them in a conjectured 'original' context: we hear the voice and the echoes and re-echoes, and it is as we hear that harmony that we come to understanding. As I see it, it is this perception that underlies the notion of 'canon criticism' [sic], associated particularly perhaps with the name of Brevard Childs. (Louth, Discerning the Mystery, 108-109).
He mentions in a footnote that some of these concerns had already been raised by A.G. Herbert (especially The Throne of David (London, 1941) and The Authority of the Old Testament (London, 1947) ).

For an more extended quote on the symbiosis of tradition and scripture from the same chapter, check out a post by Ora et Labora.

For an extremely detailed blog thread working through Louth's book section by section, check out Sister Macrina's A Vow of Conversation.

Picking up posting again

Almost precisely a year ago, I posted my last post in a thread that has yet to be finished: my overview of what (I think ought to) constitute Christian theological exegesis, inspired by the work of Brevard Childs. You can see an outline of all posts in my summary: Faithful and Critical Scholarship: Interpretation within Boundaries.

I've decided to pick this thread up again and try to invest more time in blogging. As people may have notice from the dearth of posting, I've been busying myself of late with far too many extra-doctorate-related things (well, extra in the "academic" sense of the word; involvement in Church life is not exactly tangential to theological research, whether Old Testament or not). I've set my priorities and will now hopeful get back into the swing of things.

The next section of my task with be dedicated to "the Christological content of the Christian Bible," as Childs put it. A contentious, complex, and important issue. This will be the subject of my next post. For now, here are some links from the past where I have already attempted to deal with the issue:

Feel free to tell me I'm making a huge mistake (oh, and point out how/why).

Friday, 18 September 2009

The Biblical editors

Editors are often misunderstood and their work despised. It seems intrusive and short of the original literary mark. They may seem pedantic, mediocre, and mean. The misunderstanding generally depends on taking the token for the substance and in supposing that the mark that they made is all that they meant. The mark is meant for the reader, however, and the reader is supposed to know that any text has a beginning, from which it may be read, and an end to which the reading tends. The signs of editing are signals to read on, pay attention, and look for more. Editors generally did not set out to spoil the text they transmitted and preserved, but they regularly made it more complex, meaningful, and difficult to understand. If there is misunderstanding it is the reader who picks and chooses and shuns the task, rather than the editors who understood what they read, who may be at fault.
Brian Peckham, "Writing and Editing," 364-383, here: 383; in Fortunate the Eyes that See (Eerdmans, 1995).

Monday, 14 September 2009

A theological problem with "postmodern" exegesis

I place the word "postmodern" in scare quotes, as I don't think that much of what passes for "postmodern exegesis" is really (necessarily) postmodern. As far as I can see, what Brevard Childs says here could fit very nicely with the theological hermeneutic of the postmodern philosopher/theologian Jean-Luc Marion (see his article "Of the Eucharistic Site of Theology"):
I remain critical of those interpreters who attempt to force exegesis into narrowly defined structuralist categories, or who restrict its only legitimate role to synchronic analysis. The relation of the synchronic and diachronic dimensions is an extremely subtle one in the Bible and both aspects must be retained (cf. Childs, Biblical Theology, 98ff.; 211ff.). Basically, my resistance to much of postmodern literary analysis derives from theological reasons. Although I have learned much from modern literary techniques, I differ in my theological understanding of the nature and function of scripture. I regard the biblical text as a literary vehicle, but its meaning is not self-contained. Its function as scripture is to point to the substance (res) of its witness, to the content of its message, namely, to the ways of God in the world. For this reason I remain highly critical of many modern literary proposals, which are theologically inert at best, and avowedly agnostic at worst.
Childs, Isaiah, 4.

Saturday, 12 September 2009

The need for "Godly exegetical instincts": George Adam Smith as case study

A major implication of the "canonical approach" as conceived by Childs and then developed by Christopher Seitz is that theologically viable exegesis is not just the preserve of practitioners of one tightly defined hermeneutic.

In their conception, the diverse parts of the Bible witness to a single theological reality, a reality which constitutes the "ontological unity" of Scripture. As such, if an interpreter is connected with and focussed on this theological reality, he or she has the ability to develop what Seitz calls “godly exegetical instincts” (243). Equipped with these instincts, one is protected against making exegetical moves which dramatically distort the text.

One such interpreter whose instincts were honed by his acquaintance with the regula fidei of Christian faith is the historical critic George Adam Smith. Smith's commentary on the Minor Prophets (1896) recasts their canonical ordering into a chronological sequence. Seitz notes how this exegetical move poses a theological problem for him: is God really like Amos says? (131) According to Smith's critically reconstructed Amos: God is a god of almost pure judgement. How does this God relate to the God of the prophet Hosea, with his different message?

Seitz continues:
Smith is not content with a simple law-versus-grace distinction, nor will he say that Hosea brings something forward that Amos simply did not know. Amos is a true prophet and his account of God is true; God is as Amos says he is. What Smith is struggling with is a penetrating account of the theological reality of God, spoken of in one way by one prophet and spoken of in another way by a successor, but both men speaking truly. It is the subject matter of prophecy—the God to which the prophets refer—that concerns Smith. Even though the prophets may be distinctive figures to be ranged on a historical grid, they are affiliated at a level deeper than even their own grasp of the matter. Smith is convicted of this, and it is this specific theological gravity that keeps his reading drawn within the orbit of older concerns for affiliation, now in a new model that would threaten this aspect in other hands.
… The question is … : Why does Hosea form the lens through which our understanding of God—in relationship to Israel, the nations, time, and creation—is focussed? Why does his particular, comprehensive witness serve best in introducing first Joel and the Amos? Smith finds persuasive the arguments of historical criticism for the priority of Amos before Hosea. But in the end, it is the theologically expansive witness of Hosea that serves to illuminate the more partial account of Amos, in Smith's conception. In this manner, though he works with a fresh model of historical sequence, Smith has intuitively retained the insights that the canonical form itself sought to enforce (131-132, third emphasis original).
This brings us to the key ingredient of the canonical approach as understood by Childs (see my article “Childs as Critical and Faithful Exegete,” though be careful with what I wrote in section 2! I'm rethinking that bit) : the witness of Scripture to a single divine reality. Seitz puts it thus:
My basic argument here is that the canonical form, when it is appreciated, even on the other side of historical accounts of priority, anteriority, and posteriority, serves to guard these kinds of crucial theological insights. The prophets are related, not in some easily reconstructed historical or sociological sense, but in the nature of their activity as spokesmen for God. … It is God himself who sees to the affiliation proper to his character, mediated through his servants the prophets (134, emphasis mine).

Friday, 11 September 2009

Propotional exegesis in the Minor Prophets

In my last post, I claimed that a canonical approach to Biblical exegesis, at least in the sense in which Brevard Childs and Christopher Seitz understand it, does not lead to flat, synchronic reading. Rather, it requires what Seitz called proportional interpretation, "a balancing act."

In relation to the Book of the Twelve (the Twelve Minor Prophets), the example given in my last post was the necessity of distinguishing the different types of juxtaposition found within the Twelve and between the Three (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel). "Proportionality" also needs to be maintained when correlating the general with the particular. Thus, regarding Jonah, Seitz says:

[b]oth the specificity and historicity of Jonah's world of reference, and the larger design within which one is to comprehend that, are guarded in a canonical reading, allowing Jonah to speak from within the witness of the Twelve (148, emphasis mine).
Here is a more detailed quote on Obadiah:
Working simply on the basis of Obadiah as in independent work, Childs and others point to the careful way in which Edom retains a distinctive historical specificity, but at the same time has been brought into explicit association with a larger theme—the day of YHWH—in respect of all national powers.1 Neither side of this association has been blurred in the final form of the book. The Day of YHWH theme, whatever else it may be in Obadiah, and in association with Edom, in prominent in the book of the Twelve as a whole. Indeed, for many it is the chief theme under which any number of different editorial moves have been organized in the final form of the collection. Without endorsing this view, it remains a valuable if partial insight. What may be said about the profile of Edom and the nations within Obadiah as a single witness holds true as well for the theme of the Day of YHWH in Obadiah, on the one hand, and in the surrounding witnesses of the Twelve, and the other. That is, the integrity of both realities must be guarded and not merged. (137, emphasis mine; Seitz references Collins, Mantle of Elijah, 70.).
To play on a term from Karl Barth, we need a Zusammensehen and not a Zusammenklappen (Barth, Einführung).

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

The need for proportional exegesis

What is proportional exegesis? Proportional exegesis is exegesis which takes into account all the dimensions of the text and gives them their proper due. The so-called "canonical approach," as conceived by Brevard Childs and developed by Christopher Seitz, attempts to do this - contrary to many misrepresentations of the approach as pure synchronic method (it's not even a "method"). In his book Prophecy and Hermeneutics, Seitz mentions three dimensions of the Biblical text, especially as they relate to the canonical shape of the Twelve: the historical, literary, and theological. I have commented on this in more detail my post The canonical shape of the twelve Minor Prophets.

Maintaining these three dimensions in proportion (there are no doubt more, feel free to suggest) requires a lot of subtlety on the part of the interpreter, what Seitz calls a "balancing act." For example, the distinction between the collection of the three Major Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel) and the Twelve must be taken seriously. According to Seitz, for the Three, “different orders can exist, and the present arrangement is such that the integrity of the individual books is what matters, not their inner relationships or particular order” (91). The Twelve, on the other hand, have been preserved in a different way. “On the one hand, like the Three, they have their own integrity as a single independent work. Unlike the Three, however, they manifest a twelvefold internal character that is clearly marked and is an essential feature of them/it” (91).
Seitz goes on,

The question now is not one of whether historical particularity is a feature of Israel's prophetic witness in general or of the Minor Prophets in particular; it most surely is, and the superscriptions appear calibrated to make this aspect clear formally. What is at issue is how one handles this dimension of the witness in a proportional way and in accordance with the formal character of the witness (92, emphasis mine).
The implications this should have for the interpretation of the Psalms should be clear. In my interpretation of Psalm 24, I will be attempting to avoid the extremes of traditional form criticism on the one hand, which seeks only to interpret the Psalm within the context grid of some context external to the Psalter (though see Millard, Komposition, for a form critical analysis of the Psalter per se), and so-called "canonical approaches" (different to the one described above), which treat the Psalter as a book like any other, consisting of chapters strung along a plot line.
For similar thoughts by Brevard Childs on the need for proportionality in interpretation, see my post Two Testaments, four Gospels: The theological significance of juxtaposition. See also my post on Diachrony and Synchrony in a "canonical approach."

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Fighting for Torah

Here is one of my favourite lines from Chaim Potok's The Promise. The context seems to be a typical motif in Potok's work: the tension created within the Jewish community by the clash of modern, rationalistic, critical approaches to Bible, Talmud and spirituality with older, traditional certainties and modes of being. For a great quote on "those crazy Hasidim," go here. In this instance, the fiery and almost tragic figure of Rav Kalman embodies something of the latter approach (he's also a holocaust survivor). His counterpart and seeming nemesis is the intelligent, educated, and open-minded rabbinical student, Reuven. Reuven took his rabbinical exam with Kalman and refused to budge on his commitment to the validity of form criticism for Talmudic study. Yet, despite this seeming heresy, Kalman could not get over the intense love Reuven has for his subject matter: the holy Torah. He grants Reuven a position on the yeshiva faculty. Here's what he says to him afterwards:
I will be able to keep my eyes on you here," he said. "I could not have influenced your father. But you I can influence. Why should I give you to Gordon when I can keep you here? I have lost too many students. Too many ... I will take a chance on you, Reuven. I have given you my smicha and will keep my eyes on you to watch how you teach. We will have many fights. But they will be for the sake of Torah (1997: 340).
I love that.

P.S. For a series of quotes from this book, go here.

Friday, 28 August 2009

Review of G. Michael O’Neal. Interpreting Habakkuk as Scripture: An Application of the Canonical Approach of Brevard S. Childs

This is a review of a book that I just have to read, posted by Heath Thomas to a private blog of which I am a member (with his kind permission, of course!). I will have to read it, not only because it is about Brevard Childs - the subject matter of 50% of my doctorate - but also because it attempts to do exactly what I am attempting to do. Reading Heath's review calms me somewhat, as it seems that he has noted weakness that I think are axiomatic. For example, unless one grasps that Childs' approach is not a method one will not have understood Childs. I also think that one cannot grasp Childs without 1) having read his entire corpus (or at least most of it, the most important book being his massively underread Biblical Theology) and 2) without reading Karl Barth. So, without further ado ...

In this post I would like to review a recent monograph dedicated to Childs' canonical approach and Habakkuk.

Brevard Childs stands as a major figure in Old Testament scholarship in the past fifty years, and his influence is felt in a series of recent publications that honour him. Though perhaps not fully understood by those who disagree with or embrace his work, Childs nonetheless evokes strong response, leading some to renounce his general approach (Barr and Barton) and others to adopt it, though with qualifications (Seitz). However one views Childs’ contribution to the academy (or to the church), it is one that should not be ignored. In recognition of his importance as an interpreter of Scripture, the balanced monograph of Interpreting Habakkuk as Scripture is a welcome contribution to the field.

In this revised doctoral dissertation (Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) O’Neal aims to expound upon the initial ‘sketches’ of Brevard Childs’ canonical approach and apply them particularly to a biblical book (Habakkuk). As such, Habakkuk becomes a case-study in canonical interpretation. O’Neal explains Childs’ theological approach to the Old Testament as Scripture, compares Childs’ approach to Habakkuk in Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture (IOS) against the approach of his larger Exodus commentary, and then assesses Habakkuk in light of a close text-critical translation. He then tests Childs’ views on the failure of historical-critical scholarship to read Habakkuk sufficiently (theologically) by surveying this field of scholarship, and then presses further toward a canonical/theological interpretation of Habakkuk both within its own horizons and then within the horizon within the book of the twelve (Minor Prophets). O’Neal rounds out the volume by exploring the theological and hermeneutical implications of Childs’ approach, where his canonical orientation is felicitous and infelicitous, and possible avenues for future research.

For those interested in Childs or canonical theology, they will find in O’Neal a sure footed guide that clearly elucidates central tenets of the canonical approach especially laid out in IOS. It is fruitful to see some of the outlines sketched in IOS brought into more robust colour and shape. His analysis of the text of Habakkuk is careful and well documented and will serve as a useful tool in future research whilst his style is amenable and lively. Especially useful are his lucid text critical comments and interaction with the MT. Likewise, O’Neal advances theological thinking in regard to the horizons of both Habakkuk the book and its place and function within the Book of the Twelve, arguing that Habakkuk serves in its canonical context to reorient the reader to adopt God's perspective on human history - suffering may be endured because God is at work redemptively in history.

Nonetheless, some deficiencies detract from the volume. O’Neal does not engage with recent work in the field of canon and biblical interpretation. To be fair, the focus of the volume – to explore Habakkuk as a kind of case-study on Childs’ canonical approach – necessarily draws attention to the discussion on Habakkuk in IOS. Still, greater attention to Childs’ thinking across the spectrum of his publications up to the present would serve to provide depth and nuance to the understanding of his ‘canonical approach’ and how it impinges upon interpreting Habakkuk as Scripture. This may stem from a latent misappropriation of Childs’ programme as a method rather than a general orientation to the Scripture, which comprises another drawback. O’Neal uses ‘method’ interchangeably with ‘approach’ throughout the monograph. Finally, greater attention on the range of Childs’ contributions may have served to sharpen his general understanding of Childs’ own thinking. An area that would have been particularly strengthened, perhaps, lay in his discussion on the canonical shape of Habakkuk the book as well as the book within the Twelve. How do Childs’ conceptions of (the controversial) ‘canonical intentionality’ or elsewhere ‘canon consciousness’ relate to these? Barton has engaged Childs on this very point and offered other alternatives. A focus upon current research in the field would have added to his analysis, particularly those who disagree with Childs, beyond the criticisms of Barr, such as Brueggemann and Barton.

These caveats noted, O’Neal skilfully addresses the difficult book of Habakkuk in light of Childs’ canonical approach. His analysis no doubt will be consulted in future Habakkuk research.


1) The Spring 2008 volume of Princeton Theological Review centred upon ‘theological exegesis’ and its essays ‘give tribute in this issue to one of the 20th century’s most respected and groundbreaking theological exegetes, Brevard Childs. He is for many a model of faithful Christian scholarship and exegesis, and his recent passing in June 2007 provides us with an opportunity to reflect on and commend his important work’. Peter Kline, ‘Prolegomena,’ PTR 38(2008): 5. Note as well the influential volume that arose out of a consultation discussion the implications of Childs’ approach: C. Bartholomew, S. Hahn, R. Parry, C. Seitz, and A. Wolters (eds.) Canon and Biblical Interpretation (SHS 7; Milton Keynes: Paternoster / Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006). Childs contributed an essay to the volume.

2) D.T. Olsen, ‘Seeking the “Inexpressible Texture of Thy Word”: A Practical Guide to Brevard Childs’ Canonical Approach to Theological Exegesis,’ PTR 38(2008): 53-5. And note Childs’ reticence to identify his orientation to the Scriptures as a ‘method’ in Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992), 382.

3) Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1979), 79, 187.

4) Childs, Introduction, 62, 65; Biblical Theology, 70.

5) J. Barton, ‘Unity and Diversity in the Biblical Canon,’ in Die Einheit der Schrift und die Vielfalt des Kanons (BZNW 118; ed. J. Barton and M. Wolter; Berlin: de Gruyter, 2003), 11-26

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Syntax of Ps 20:10 according to the ta'amim

The ta'amim for Ps 20:10 seem to reflect an interesting interpretation of the verse:
יְהוָ֥ה הוֹשִׁ֑יעָה הַ֝מֶּ֗לֶךְ יַעֲנֵ֥נוּ בְיוֹם־קָרְאֵֽנוּ׃
Save, O Lord! The King will answer us when we call him.
This is contra what would seem to be the more obvious meaning, followed by many modern translations:
Save O Lord, the King; may he answer us when we call him.
BHS even suggests moving the atnach to הַ֝מֶּ֗לֶךְ.

Interestingly, the Andersen-Forbes Phrase Marker Analysis goes with the ta'amim (and KJV). I'm not sure why. As far as I can see, the people never call upon a king for help in the Bible (do they?).

So my question: Do people see a Messianic interpretation at work here? Or does the cantillation's syntax fit the flow of the Psalm as it stands? Or, even more interesting, is the LORD himself being called king? This would lead to a blurring of boundaries between the David and divine king.

I should add that the Targum sees God as being addressed as king (go here for online translation). Targum, LXX and many modern translations smooth out the switch in the second colon by translating "answer" as an imperative: "answer us when we call [you]!"

P.S. For an amazing audio resource for the ta'amim, go to www.ta'

Update: I've just read that Delitzsch follows the ta'amim (on euphonic grounds) and reads הַ֝מֶּ֗לֶךְ as a vocative referring to God: "O King, answer us when we call." This, however, requires that we amend the yiqtol יַעֲנֵ֥נוּ to an imperative, something Delitzsch oddly doesn't comment on.

Update 2: I've changed my mind in the comments and explained why.

Monday, 17 August 2009

The "hidden message" of Ps 24?

In his doctroal thesis on Ps 24 (Psalm 24 als Text zwischen den Texten, Peter Lang, 2004; written under N. Lohfink), Jerzy Seremak has a rather esoteric theory about the hidden message (verborgene Botschaft) of Ps 24. It goes like this:
  1. The majority of poetic lines in the Psalm involve ellipsis, in which a key word from one colon is elided in the second. For example, in verse 2 we have: "for he has founded it upon the seas // and established it upon the rivers." For he is elided in the second colon.
  2. This "pattern of ellipsis" can be found in vv. 1, 2, 4b, 5, and 6.
  3. The words which are elided are the following, in order:
  • 24:1 לַיהוה
  • 24:2: כִּי־הוּא
  • 24:4b: אשׁר (note the deletion of vowels)
  • 24:5: יִשָּׂא
  • זֶה דּוֹר 24:6
His next step is to read these isolated words backwards, so that a new sentence is formed:

זה דור ישׂא אשׁר כי הוא ליהוה

Seremak then translates this phrase as follows:

This generation will receive happiness, because it belongs to Yhwh.

This is the hidden message of Ps 24.

I have a number of problems with this:
  1. I've never come across the concept of hidden messages in the Psalms.
  2. I've never heard that one can isolate elided nouns and make new sentences out of them.
  3. Why does Seremak think it OK to change the vocalisation of one word, changing the relative pronoun to the noun אֶשֶׁר (happiness)?
  4. It ignores vv. 7-10, which surely must contribute to the secret message of the whole.
  5. It assumes that the word "generation" in the psalm is in the absolute state, thus separable from "his seekers."
  6. אֶ֫שֶׁר is always in the plural in the context of an exclamation (e.g. Ps 1:1) and does not collocate with "receive" (though it can appear with the relative pronoun, cf. Ps 65:5).
  7. The so-called hidden message seems to be rather lame given 1) the richness of the Psalm and 2) the effort one has to make in order to extract it.
Can anyone else see any reasons to accept or reject this proposal?