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Judaism, Christianity, and the Hebrew Bible.

In Sinai and Zion (1985), Jon Levenson made the case that rabbinic Judaism has more in common with its forebears in the Hebrew Bible than scholars have customarily granted. Although the rabbis are often derided as gross innovators, bending their religious expression too readily to expediency and the demands of culture, Levenson argued that the rabbinic system, with its principled disregard for the historical aspect of the biblical text, is consistent with the perspective of the biblical religion centered on the Sinaitic covenant. In fact, Levenson argued, there is more continuity between the Bible and its rabbinic interpretation than between the Bible and its early Christian interpretation. He admitted, however, that neither of those religious experiments provides anything like a pure reading of the Bible:
 I make no claim that Rabbinic Judaism offers the correct
 understanding of the Hebrew Bible. One need not subscribe to the
 regnant prejudice to see that Talmudic religion is different from
 its biblical ancestor, one of the major differences being the
 presence in it of a Bible. But the change seems more evolutionary
 than revolutionary; it lacks the "quantum leap" apparent in the
 Christian claim of a new Israel and, ultimately, a New
 Testament.... My claim is that because Judaism lacks an
 overwhelming motivation to deny the pluriform character of the
 Hebrew Bible in behalf of a uniform reading--such as the
 christological reading--Jewish exegesis evidences a certain breadth
 and a certain relaxed posture, both of which are necessary if the
 Hebrew Bible is to receive a fair hearing. (1)

Levenson makes repeated use of the terms "synchronic" and "diachronic," the former referring to a feature of (or an approach to) a text that ignores its historical-contextual aspects (including the historicity of what the text relates), and the latter referring to features/approaches that embrace or depend upon historical-contextual aspects. The key to understanding the Hebrew Bible, according to Levenson, lies in its dependence on the covenantal form of expression. Ancient Near Eastern covenantal formularies, he tells us, typically began with a historical prologue. The more one explains the Israelite faith in terms of covenant, therefore, the more one should subsume the diachronic components of the Hebrew Bible within the synchronic elements (rather than vice versa). In this way, Levenson takes an explicit stand within the well-known debate between Brevard Childs and James Barr: He basically argues that cues from the Bible itself support Childs's so-called "canonical approach."

Levenson's overall argument involves comparisons among four distinct approaches to the biblical material: (1) that embodied within the biblical material itself, (2) the rabbinic approach, (3) the Christian approach, and (4) the "modern critical" approach. In the passage already quoted, Levenson gives an indication of how the first three relate to one another. On the facing page in his book, he provides an indication of where the fourth one fits in: "There is ... a quantum leap between the traditional rabbinic approach to the Hebrew Bible and modern critical study." (2) His repeated use of "quantum leap" provides a handy guide to his associations and dissociations: (1) There is no quantum leap between the Bible and the rabbinic approach, but (2) there is a quantum leap between the (Hebrew) Bible and the Christian approach, as well as (3) between the rabbinic and the modern critical approaches. In what follows, I concede that Levenson has given convincing arguments for the first point, and that the third point goes without saying, but I seek to challenge the second point. I also intend to discuss Levenson's somewhat misguided analysis of how the Christian approach correlates with the modern critical approach.

How Rabbinic Judaism and New Testament Christianity Read the Bible

The claim that the rabbinic approach does not embody a quantum leap might surprise those most familiar with scholarship on the Hebrew Bible and the rabbinic religion: If we believe what scholars have said, there would appear to be a rather sharp divergence between these two entities, amounting to a bold innovation on the part of the rabbis. Levenson's point, of course, is that we should not believe the reports of scholarship on this issue, and his arguments regarding the Sinaitic component of the broad biblical tradition are convincing enough to suggest that his suspicions are well placed. He does not deny an element of innovation in the rabbis' belief system, but he does deny that this element strikes at the core of the Bible's belief system, particularly its understanding of the role of synchronic exegesis for the practice of religion. While the field of First Testament theology has yielded a great number of diachronic treatments, Levenson argues, the Sinaitic covenant itself renders a synchronic understanding of religious truth that is fundamentally at odds with these treatments but at home within the rabbinic system. This is because rabbinic Judaism reads the Hebrew Bible as canon, which, by Levenson's (Childsian) definition, is "a synchronic statement" in which "every book ..., every chapter, every verse is contemporaneous with every other one." (3) This reading strategy opposes that of historical, diachronic reading (the latter being "a film-strip rather than a snapshot"). This division of approaches into synchronic and diachronic provides a basic unpacking of what Levenson calls a "quantum leap."

According to Levenson, the modern preoccupation with history has imposed a diachronic lens upon a corpus whose own internal workings suggest a synchronic approach. (4) He cites G. Ernest Wright's construal of First Testament theology as a theology of recital (one whose "key term is event") as an example of how historical criticism has misrepresented the shape of Israel's religion. (5) In light of his (Levenson's) contention that history should be nested within the "covenant formulary," he suggests that "Wright's formulation is backwards":
 The revelation of God in history is not, according to covenant
 theology, a goal in and of itself, but rather, the prologue to a
 new kind of relationship, one in which the vassal will show
 fidelity in the future by acknowledgement of the suzerain's grace
 towards him in the past, in history.... To be sure, the recital of
 the acts of God which Wright emphasizes is indeed central to
 Israel's religious life. But the purpose of recital was to evoke
 anew an affirmation, namely the affirmation of the suzerainty of
 YHWH. (6)

Although Levenson connects this misappropriation of the Hebrew Bible's historical elements with the "sad fact" that the field of First Testament theology is "an almost exclusively Gentile affair," (7) he can also accuse modern Jewish interpreters of making the same basic mistake as Christian scholars. When the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain writes that Judaism "stands and falls with its belief in the historic actuality of the Revelation at Sinai," (8) Levenson charges him with a basic misunderstanding of how history relates to faith within the Jewish religion. The question, as formulated in the title of one of Levenson's sections, is whether the organizing principle for the Israelite religion is "the Sinaitic experience or [alternatively] the traditions about it." (9) By arguing for the latter, Levenson contends that the historicity of the events depicted in the Bible does not impinge on the religious truth of the text, fully aware that such a scheme promotes fiction into a "mode of knowledge": "Can it not be the case that the literary form of the Torah conveys a truth which is not historical in nature? Is not fiction a valid mode of knowledge, a mode of which God himself may have made use?" (10)

The typical understanding of these matters (namely, that "the mitsvot are subordinate to history"), Levenson argues, is borne of commitments native to the New Testament rather than to the Hebrew Bible: It is "a secularization of the Christian concept of an 'economy of salvation' which enables one to inherit the status of Israel without the obligation to fulfill the Mosaic law." (11) It should be pointed out, however, that while there is a prioritization of history in the New Testament, it would be wrong to take this as a distinctive feature of "the Pauline theology of Galatians 3 and Romans 4" vis-a-vis other early Christian formulations, as Levenson seems to suggest. (12) In point of fact, the prioritization of history is foundational to the primitive Christian kerygma and is just as widespread within the pre-Pauline components of early Christian tradition as it is in the Pauline components. Levenson therefore clouds the issue by discussing it in imprecise terms as one of "subordinating law to soteriology," for even those Christian expressions that maintained an ongoing role for the law can hardly be characterized as subordinating soteriology to law, since they too order reality according to the apocalyptic notion that the Christ event (rather than the law) comprises the ground of Christian existence. In fact, it would be wrong even to suppose that the idea of subordinating the law to soteriology was a distinctively Christian development, since that way of ordering reality characterized a great many non-Christian Jewish writings as well. Christianity began as one among several expressions of Jewish piety for whom the law was, in fact, subordinated to soteriology. The apocalyptic hope of deliverance/redemption/new creation comprised the ground of religious existence for many (perhaps most) Jews in Second Temple times.

It may well be that rabbinic Judaism has a stronger philosophical connection with its biblical heritage than is usually credited, but that does not mean that the more apocalyptic streams of Judaism that crowded the scene in the first century C E. were interlopers in their use of this heritage. Not only does Levenson fail to acknowledge the existence of these apocalyptic streams, but he does not sufficiently acknowledge the amount of apocalyptic material in the Hebrew Bible. In one place, he even argues that to confuse the Christian understanding of salvation with the Hebrew Bible's understanding of deliverance "is to read apocalyptic notions very evident in primitive Christianity (much less so in Rabbinic Judaism) back into the Hebrew Bible," which makes the mistake of identifying the apocalyptic aspect of Christianity solely with its christological content and of suggesting that apocalyptic itself is not native to the Hebrew Bible. (13) The point of noting that apocalyptic is fully at home in the Hebrew Bible, however, is not to suggest that the Christian understanding of salvation as deliverance from the powers of sin and death is authorized by scripture but, rather, to show that the apocalyptic worldview of Christianity is fully congruent with scripture. (14) It should also be pointed out that the realist conceits of the "apocalyptic" worldview take in not only struggles between cosmic powers but also political struggles that might be involved in a given act of "deliverance." In whatever sense the hope of deliverance in a text is intended to be "real," that understanding of reality becomes the philosophical ground of the theology authorized by that text.

Levenson on "Hermeneutical Dualism"

Levenson's inaccuracies extend beyond his viewing the Hebrew Bible and post-biblical Judaism in monolithic terms: (1) He also dismisses any sharp distinction between realist (propositionalist) and constructivist hermeneutics--that is, between those approaches in which meaning lies in the author's intended references and those in which it is constructed during the act of reading--as a sort of hermeneutical "dualism" that unnecessarily separates synchronic from diachronic elements; and (2) he fundamentally misunderstands the nature of truth in Christian theology.

As for (1), Levenson denies that there is any significant conflict (on a conceptual level) between realist and constructivist theories of reading. To Roland Murphy's complaint that Levenson "cannot admit the time-conditioned character of Scripture [and therefore] favor[s] a synchronic approach over the diachronic," he responds:
 What is curious here is the unspoken assumption of dualism: the
 recognition of a synchronic dimension to the received text must
 mean that the diachronic dimension is without much substance or
 relevance to the interpretive process. The refusal to eliminate
 either dimension, the determination to recognize the limitations of
 both, is seen as ambivalence. This notion that one must engage in
 one set of procedures or the other, but not both, warms the cockles
 of the hearts of two sets of biblical scholars otherwise opposed:
 historicists and fundamentalists. My own approach, however, which
 has won the approbation of neither group of absolutists, is
 formulated in explicit opposition to the underlying dualism itself
 and seeks to understand the contribution and the limitations of
 each perspective and also how it might credibly interact with
 others. (15)

Levenson seems to miss the fact that the "dualistic" nature of the synchronic/diachronic dichotomy is a direct reflection of conceptual necessity itself. It is true that a purely literary reading of a text can trade equally on synchronic and diachronic elements, but religious texts are not read as purely literary texts; in some way they are held to embody truth, which begs the question of whether truth is linguistic (as the constructivist paradigm supposes) or prelinguistic (as the realist paradigm supposes). The self-rendering of conceptuality itself does not permit one to have it both ways, which means that a certain "hermeneutical dualism" is an inevitable result of any logically consistent program of reading for religious truth. Any attempt to avoid this "dualism" can only result in what one scholar aptly calls "an ontologically split universe." (16) Levenson's argument against a hard separation between synchronic and diachronic approaches fails to make a very necessary distinction: There is a huge difference between, on the one hand, the reader's dependence upon a mix of synchronic and diachronic textual elements within those stages of the reading process that are merely preparatory for the task of judging a writing's relation to truth, and, on the other hand, attempting to recover the truth aspect of a writing by appealing to both synchronic and diachronic understandings of how it mediates truth. It is one thing to observe that a writer uses narrative techniques to make his or her point. It is quite another to say that the use of those techniques somehow spells trouble for a realist understanding of truth or for the insistence that our understanding of truth (religious or otherwise) must be internally consistent. (17)

As for (2), it should be noted that Levenson begins from the assumption that Christianity is a book religion:
 [T]he essential challenge of historical criticism to book-religions
 lies in its development of a context of interpretation, the
 historical context, which is different from the literary (or
 canonical) contexts that underlie Judaism and Christianity, in
 their different ways. In one fashion or another, these religions
 presuppose the coherence and self-referentiality of their
 foundational book. These things are what make it possible to derive
 a coherent religion, one religion (one's own), from the Book. (18)

Levenson's main points against historical criticism all go back, in circular fashion, to the presumption that Christian theology should be shaped by a canonical hermeneutic. But, in point of fact, Second Testament Christianity does not "presuppose ... the self-referentiality of [its] foundational book." Instead, it presupposes that when the Bible appears to refer to such-and-such event behind the text, it really does refer to such-and-such an event, and that its religious moment resides there, in the work of referring. For Christian theology, the truth aspect of the Bible does not lie within the narrative itself (as narrative theology supposes) but within the referent behind the text. As Adolf Harnack correctly observed, "Christianity, unlike Islam, never was and never came to be the religion of a book in the strict sense of the term (not until a much later period, that of rigid Calvinism, did the consequences of its formation as the religion of a book become really dangerous, and even then the rule of faith remained at the helm)." (19) Or, as Guy Stroumsa more succinctly put it: "Christianity was from the beginning, rather than a religion of the book, one of the 'paperback.'" (20)

Despite Levenson's assumption that Christianity is a book religion, the early Christian understanding of the truth aspect of the Bible was altogether different from that of rabbinic Judaism. As Barr has written, "It is in [the Gospels] that something is narrated of which one may say that, broadly speaking, if this did not happen, then there is no salvation and faith is vain. In Judaism the Torah, although absolutely central, does not necessarily work in that way." (21) In other words, Second Testament Christianity operates with an understanding of truth as actuality in spacetime, while rabbinic Judaism operates with an understanding of truth as actuality in storytime. I can see no way of avoiding this "dualism" without tabling the all-important question of how truth relates to spacetime reality.

It is not that Levenson does not give reasons for treating Christianity as a book religion. He writes:
 The fact of canon ... challenges the most basic presupposition of
 historical criticism, that a book must be understood only within
 the context in which it was produced. The very existence of a canon
 testifies to the reality of recontextualization: an artifact may
 survive the circumstances that brought it into being, including the
 social and political circumstances to which so much attention is
 currently devoted. Indeed, it can outlive the culture in which it
 was produced. (22)

Unfortunately for Levenson, the factic content of the "fact" of canon is not nearly as impressive as he represents it to be: The (Christian) canon is both late and perpetually unsettled. (The Second Testament canon did not begin to emerge until at least 100 years after the writings were penned, and complete agreement has never been reached by the whole church.) While "the very existence of a canon testifies to the reality of recontextualization," that is true only in an artifactual way. Just because a writing has a posthistory does not mean that that posthistory comprises the proper context for understanding it. Levenson, however, does not seem to see it this way:
 All religious use of past literature is, to some extent, at
 cross-purposes with historical criticism, if only because the world
 of the contemporary religious person is not the world of the
 author. It is a world into which the author's work arrives only
 after it has been recontextualized through redaction, canonization,
 and other forms of tradition. Without these recontextualizations it
 is unavailable. (23)

There are plenty of "religious uses of past literature" that have nothing to do with the recontextualizing aspect of that literature. To name the one at the center of Christianity, in what way is a faith affirmation of the kerygma at "cross-purposes with historical criticism"? Levenson asks, "How can the classic historical-critical method, with its concentration on 'one meaning' (the author's), do justice to a text that, as it stands, has no author, so that its meanings are ones 'that no one ever meant'?" (24) But that question wrongly supposes that the text "as it stands," with meanings "that no one ever meant," comprises the appropriate semantic unit, a claim that is neither made by the text nor implied by "the fact of canon." While the world of the author will always be to some extent "unavailable" within the "recontextualizations" of canon, it is the task of historical criticism to mitigate that unavailability as far as possible.

As living faith traditions, neither modern rabbinic Judaism nor modern Christianity is reducible to its view of its canonized scriptures. Yet, how those traditions approach the Bible is more than a mere undercurrent: It provides the operating principle for each religion's understanding of truth and how it relates to historical actuality. As such, it is a matter of fair importance that we understand the principles behind these religions' respective hermeneutics, and of how those principles impinge upon the concept of truth. Thus, when Levenson calls for an end to a "dualistic" hermeneutic, we must ask whether he has chanced upon a metaphysics that can transcend the dualism that he finds so objectionable. It does not appear that he has. Rather, he simply avoids metaphysical language altogether, even to the point of describing the opposition between the synchronic and diachronic elements as "dimensions," an acceptable term as far as a literary appreciation of the text goes, but one that sheds its usefulness as soon as the text is embraced as a deposit of religious truth. (25)

Is the Historical-Critical Lens Inherently Un-Christian?

One of the puzzling aspects of Levenson's discussion of the respective hermeneutics of rabbinic Judaism and Christianity is that he distances them from each other when he compares them to the self-aware approach of the Hebrew Bible, yet he turns the Christian approach into a mirror image of the rabbinic approach in his efforts to defend Childs's canonical approach. How he harmonizes these two positions in his own mind is not clear, but it may be that the interplay of synchronic and diachronic elements in a literary reading has acted as a sort of screen, falsely promoting, within Levenson's mind, a simultaneous embrace of both the linguistic and prelinguistic theories of truth. (26)

Levenson believes that Christian readers of the Bible have been misled by the religiously neutral approach of modern historical criticism:
 All interpretation must take place within a community. By
 dispensing with the need for "a personal faith-commitment," Barr
 casts his lot not with traditional religious communities of
 interpretation, but that community of interpretation that is the
 modern pluralistic university. Yet the very concept of a "Bible"
 implies a delimited canon and a particularistic community, reading
 according to its own transcendentally based conventions and in
 accordance with its own identity-conferring structures. That
 context is, to say the least, in tension with the self-styled
 universalism of the modern secular academy and its humanistic
 understanding of the Bible. (27)

Levenson here wrongly assumes that there is a material difference between the approach of "the modern pluralistic university" and the Christian "religious community." In point of fact, if we identify the former approach with historical criticism (as Levenson intends) and the latter with the referential hermeneutic implicit within the structure of the Second Testament kerygma, it will be seen that, in terms of their tacit understandings of truth's relation to reality, these approaches are one and the same. Levenson attempts to distance the Christian approach from a general approach, but the fact of the matter is that the Second Testament embraces the alethiology (understanding of truth) and rationality of a general approach. The only "transcendentally based convention" in the Second Testament's implied understanding of truth is the transcendence of the referring effect. There is certainly nothing in the fact that Christianity operates with a delimited set of authoritative writings (namely, a "canon" in a broader sense than Childs allows) that implies that this set of writings embraces a special type of rationality or contains its own referents. I have always been fascinated by that rhetorical trick with which postliberals disguise a purely history-of-religions definition of canon (as the expression of a given religious people) as an insider's description of the carton's theological role.

Levenson seems to assume that scholarly challenges to the canonical approach are motivated by modernist conventions. In this connection, we find him painting Barr with the same brush that Childs had used earlier:
 Whereas Childs is a Presbyterian committed to reformulating the
 classical Calvinist doctrine of sola scriptura in response to the
 challenge of historical criticism, Barr's more modernistic
 position, as we have seen, awards a much smaller role to the Bible
 in the ascertainment of truth and a large role to post-biblical
 tradition, which he often sees as a corrective and an improvement
 over the Bible. Their differences on matters of biblical theology
 go back to more fundamental differences of religious identity of
 which neither scholar seems sufficiently cognizant. Their debates
 over method are mostly the old religious arguments carried on in a
 new idiom. One wishes that Barr had addressed this more fundamental
 point head-on, and without all the captiousness. (28)

This represents a total misunderstanding of Barr's basic argument against Childs, which has nothing to do with a "modernistic position" but, rather, is based squarely on the philosophical implications of the Second Testament kerygma. Barr's arguments against the canonical approach do not stem from liberal or "modernistic" commitments: Barr has shown, in no uncertain terms, that it is the structure of Second Testament soteriology more than anything else that stands in the way of the canonical approach. According to Barr,
 Salvation belongs not to the networks of meaning within a text, not
 even the text of the Bible, but to a set of people and events. In
 other words, it is not probable that we can get out of our dilemmas
 by opting for any mode of reading which would systematically bypass
 the historical questions. Even if the Bible as a book could be
 studied in a non-referential way, paying no attention to anything
 outside the text itself, the structure of Christian faith does not
 work in that way; and if it did so, our faith would become a faith
 in a book to an extent hitherto scarcely dreamed of even in the
 most biblicist sort of circles. (29)

This invocation of the realist understanding of truth that underpins Second Testament theology has been a staple throughout Barr's many challenges to Childs, but, in every case, the point has apparently gone over Childs's head. (30) It is not clear whether Levenson is inheriting Childs's misunderstanding or merely duplicating it, but the similarity in their arguments is striking.

I hope that the reasons for maintaining a hermeneutical "dualism" are clear and that I have adequately explained why we must identify the Christian approach with a realist (propositionalist) hermeneutic. The discussion of whether these things are really so must proceed on the terms of tacit philosophical commitments and at the level of a general metaphysics. The postliberal penchant for dancing around these matters (even to the point of dismissing metaphysics altogether) hardly represents a responsible way to do theology.


Jon Levenson's Sinai and Zion establishes, more firmly and straightforwardly than other attempts, that the rabbinic approach to the Hebrew Bible is consonant with the conceptual underpinning of the biblical tradition. As such, the book is a valuable contribution to ecumenical debate. Unfortunately, the book quickly leads into other matters on which its judgments are less secure, and this failing is exacerbated by some of Levenson's other writings. His elision of conceptual aporias is a serious problem, as is his rather facile identification of an authentic Christian approach with the Childsian canonical approach.

It should be said that Levenson's denunciation of a prospective pluralistic hermeneutic is on target: The differences between the rabbinic Jewish and Christian approach to the Bible really are too different for these religions to share a common understanding. In fact, they are even more hermeneutically incompatible than Levenson suggests. One may also fully agree with the claim that "the Christian Bible includes within it a book of an alien religion," (31) and that, in this sense, Judaism's claim to the Bible is comparatively greater. But, it should also be said that Christianity has more continuity with the Hebrew Bible than Levenson allows. In point of fact, rabbinic Judaism and Second Testament Christianity can each claim the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament as its authority for the philosophical structure of its faith. Each religion concentrates on a different set of passages, and Christianity draws the First Testament in the train of the Second Testament's theological claims.

(1) Jon D. Levenson, Sinai and Zion: An Entry into the Jewish Bible, New Voices in Biblical Studies, A Seabury Book (Minneapolis, MN: Winston Press, 1985), p. 4. Cf. John Dominic Crossan: "Each [tradition] claimed exclusive continuity with the past, but in truth each was as great a leap and as valid a development from that common ancestry as was the other" (John Dominic Crossan, The Birth of Christianity: Discovering What Happened in the Years Immediately after the Execution of Jesus [San Francisco: Harper SanFrancisco, 1998], p. xxxiii).

(2) Levenson, Sinai and Zion, p. 5.

(3) Ibid., p. 1. Rabbinic Judaism's coolness toward historical questions was not always as well known as it is today. E.g., going back a generation, one finds Ninian Smart emphasizing the supposed dearness of historical investigation to the "Jewish experience's" approach to the Bible (Ninian Smart, The Religious Experience of Mankind, 2nd ed. [New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1970], pp. 285-286).

(4) For a defense of the diachronic approach from the standpoint of practical considerations (viz., the inevitability of diachronic dimensions within a purportedly synchronic reading), see Suzanne Boorer, "The Importance of a Diachronic Approach: The Case of Genesis-Kings." Catholic Biblical Quarterly 51 (April, 1989): 195-208.

(5) Levenson, Sinai and Zion, p. 42, emphasis in original.

(6) Ibid., p. 43.

(7) Ibid., p. 1.

(8) Ibid., p. 5, citing J. H. Hertz, The Pentateuch and Haftorahs (London: Oxford University, 5695/1935) 2: Exodus, p. 234.

(9) Levenson, Sinai and Zion, p. 15.

(10) Ibid., p. 8.

(11) Ibid., p. 44.

(12) Ibid.

(13) Ibid., p. 45 Levenson is not the only biblical scholar to understate the presence of apocalyptic in the Hebrew Bible; his colleague Paul Hanson applies the label "apocalyptic" only to those books that support his relative-deprivation theory of the rise of apocalyptic. See especially Paul D. Hanson, The Dawn of Apocalyptic (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975). For a corrective to Hanson, sec Stephen L Cook, Prophecy and Apocalypticism: The Postexilic Social Setting (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1995)

(14) The reader should note that this investment in the apocalyptic elements of the Bible is something altogether different from mining the Bible for christological proof texts. Although the early Christian reading of many Hebrew Bible passages was overtly christological, the realist understanding of truth rendered by the Second Testament kerygma demands that a more adult form of Christianity should return those passages to their original intended meanings. In other words, Christians should accept the Second Testament's theological commitments, but that does not entail following its writers in their exegesis of the First Testament. Two points follow from this: (1) Second Testament Christianity stands or falls with the historicity of the events outlined in the kerygma, not with the early church's christological reading of scripture; and (2) Christians should deal with the metaphoric or figural nature of much of what we find in the both testaments according to how those passages were intended to be read. A completely different set of rules, of course, follows from the starting point of rabbinic Judaism.

(15) Jon D. Levenson, "Is Brueggemann Really a Pluralist?" Harvard Theological Review 93 (July, 2000): 280, emphasis in original.

(16) Hal Childs, The Myth of the Historical Jesus and the Evolution of Consciousness, Society of Biblical Literature Dissertation Series 179 (Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 2000), p. 54, with reference to John Dominic Crossan.

(17) Part of the reason narrative theologians and others have difficulty seeing this point is that there is a widespread contusion, within hermeneutic theory, between the categories of truth and knowing. Writing, as a form of communication, is primarily an epistemic activity. Religious reading, as a variety of reading-for-truth, is a two-part activity, in which the first part is purely epistemic, while the second part seeks a connection with truth (an ontic [not epistemic] category). See John C. Poirier, "The Epistemology/Alethiology Double Switch in Antifoundationalist Hermeneutics," Stone-Campbell Journal 9 (Spring, 2006): 19-28.

(18) Jon D. Levenson, The Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, and Historical Criticism: Jews and Christians in Biblical Studies (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox, 1993), p. 28.

(19) Adolf Harnack, The Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries, Theological Translation Library 19-20, 2 vols. (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1904-05), vol. 1, p. 353. (Harnack had more in mind here than the simple point I am making.) Cf. James Barr: "New Testament Christianity, as it was within the time of the growth of the New Testament itself, was not really a scriptural religion, a religion of the Book" (James Barr, Holy Scripture: Canon, Authority, Criticism [Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1983], p. 19). See James Barr, The Scope and Authority of the Bible, Explorations in Theology 7 (London: SCM Press; Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1980), pp. 116-117; Hans von Campenhausen, The Formation of the Christian Bible (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1972), p. 1; E. P. Sanders, "Taking It All for Gospel" (review essay of Brevard Childs, The New Testament as Canon." An Introduction), Times Literary Supplement, December 13, 1985, p. 1431; Guy G. Stroumsa, "Early Christianity--A Religion of the Book?" in Margalit Finkelberg and Guy G. Stroumsa, eds., Homer, the Bible, and Beyond. Literary and Religious Canons in the Ancient World, Jerusalem Studies in Religion and Culture 2 (Leiden and Boston, MA: Brill, 2003), pp. 153-173; and John C. Poirier, "The Canonical Approach and the Idea of 'Scripture,'" Expository Times 116 (August, 2005): 366-370. For a more general discussion of these issues in Judaism and Christianity, see Bernhard Lang, "Buchreligion," in Hubert Cancik, Burkhard Gladigow, and Matthias Laubscher, eds., Handbuch religionsvissenschaftlicher Grundbegriffe, 5 vols. (Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1988-2002), vol. 2, pp. 143-165.

(20) Stroumsa, "Early Christianity," p. 173. As John Barton has written, "[For] most Christian writers in the second century ... 'Scripture' ... meant what we call the Old Testament ... The Christian books were merely memory-joggers, not independently existing scriptural oracles.... Even though in practice it might be from a book that a given Christian learned something about Jesus, it was not a book considered as 'scripture,' a kind of Torah, but a book considered as a historical record" (John Barton, "Marcion Revisited," in Lee Martin McDonald and James A. Sanders, eds., The Canon Debate [Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2002], p. 345).

(21) Barr, Holy Scripture, p. 99.

(22) Levenson, The Hebrew Bible, pp. 122-123.

(23) Ibid., p. 30.

(24) Ibid., p. 78.

(25) In his Hebrew Bible. Levenson nearly brushes against Second Testament theology's implicit deconstruction of the canonical approach: "Without attention to post-biblical tradition, Scripture vanishes before our eyes, for the basis of religion in biblical times was not a Bible: the religion in the Book is not the religion of the Book. The prophets did not preach a book or show any awareness that God had revealed one to Moses on Mount Sinai, and when early Christian documents mention the 'Scriptures,' they are referring not to the gospels and epistles but only to what Christians would later come to call the 'Old Testament.' That in which the earliest Christian communities put their faith was not a book, but a person. The Book remained the Jewish Scriptures, there being in what some Christians call 'New Testament times' no New Testament" (Levenson, Hebrew Bible, p. 107). Unfortunately, Levenson regards the canonical principle to be so foundational to Christianity that its latecomer status actually poses a problem for the very notion of privileging the oldest commitments (rather than vice versa). This shows just how ingrained the canonical principle has become within the consciousness of postliberal theology. Apart from this principle, Levenson's observation can be read as a successful deconstruction of the role of canon.

(26) James Barr has argued that Levenson's "alliance" with Childs is a threat to the latter's embrace of biblical theology (in his review of Levenson's Hebrew Bible, in Journal of Theological Studies 47 [October, 1996]: 559-560).

(27) Levenson's review of James Barr's The Concept of Biblical Theology: An Old Testament Perspective, in First Things, no. 100 (February, 2000), p. 60.

(28) Ibid., p. 62.

(29) Barr, Scope and Authority, p. 47.

(30) E.g., when Barr wrote, in 1980, that "there is no question that Jesus 'canonically' rose from the dead, but it is the extrinsic resurrection that matters for faith" (James Barr, "Childs' Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture," Journal for the Study of the OM Testament, vol. 5, no. 16 [1980], p. 21), Childs responded simply by asserting the relevance of "extrinsic reality" for Christian faith, failing to understand that one cannot combine a referential understanding of truth with a nonreferential hermeneutic (Brevard S. Childs, "Response to Reviewers of Introduction to the OT as Scripture," Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, vol. 5, no. 16 [1980], p. 57). In 1999, Ban" explained further his words about Jesus' rising "canonically" from the dead: They were intended to show "that Childs is stuck with two theories, a non-referential one for historical matters and a strongly referential one for theological matters. Failing to reconcile these obviously contradictory stances, or, more correctly, not even trying, he uses one or the other ad hoc for various problems as they come up" (James Barr, The Concept of Biblical Theology: An Old Testament Perspective [Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1999], p. 416). See also Childs's uncomprehending response to Barr's rather clear and precise exposition of this conundrum: He identified Barr's appeal to the propositionalism of the gospel as a reference to the logic of "justification by faith" and, therefore, as a bid to resurrect Bultmann, failing to see that Barr is invoking precisely the part of the gospel that Bultmann threw away (Brevard S. Childs, "Holy Scripture: Canon, Authority, Criticism," Interpretation 38 [January, 1984]: 66-70). While Childs finds it ironic that conservative scholars such as Joachim Jeremias or T. W. Manson "were most radical in rejecting canonical categories" (Brevard S. Childs, The New Testament as Canon. An Introduction [London: SCM Press; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984], p. 151), the point of Barr's argument is that such a radical rejection is precisely where their conservatism should have led them. It should be pointed out that Paul Noble, in his defense of Childs, also missed what Barr was saying: He approvingly repeated Childs's assertions that faith is precisely based on "extrinsic realities" without any clue as to the conundrum that it renders (Paul R. Noble, The Canonical Approach: A Critical Reconstruction of the Hermeneutics of Brevard S. Childs, Biblical Interpretation Series 16 [Leiden: Brill, 1995], pp. 59-60).

(31) Levenson, Sinai and Zion, pp. 21 6-217.

John C. Poirier (Church of God [Anderson, IN]) is Chair of Biblical Studies at the new Kingswell Theological Seminary, Middletown, OH, as well as having worked for two decades in quality-control engineering. His B.S. is from Cumberland College, Williamsburg, KY; he holds M.A.'s in both biblical literature and theological/historical studies from Oral Roberts University, Tulsa, OK, a ThM. in New Testament from Duke Divinity School, Durham, NC; and a D.H.L. in ancient Judaism from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, New York (2005). He was a teaching assistant at both Oral Roberts and Jewish Theological Seminary and was an adjunct professor in 2000 at Xavier University, Cincinnati, OH. He has presented numerous papers at professional meetings and has published more than three dozen articles in German and English theological and biblical journals in biblical studies, early church history, biblical hermeneutics, and biblical theology. He wrote a chapter for Mark Goodacre and Nicholas Perrin, eds., Questioning Q: A Collection of Essays (SPCK, 2004); and he has three entries in Craig A. Evans, ed., Encyclopedia of the Historical Jesus (Routledge, 2008).
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Author:Poirier, John C.
Publication:Journal of Ecumenical Studies
Date:Sep 22, 2008
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