Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Jon D. Levenson, The Hebrew Bible, The Old Testament, and Historical Criticism: A Review

Jon D. Levenson, The Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, and Historical Criticism. Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 1993).

Levenson is the Albert A. List Professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard Divinity School and has authored numerous insightful books and articles.

It is no secret that modern biblical critics have parted ways with traditional methods of interpreting the Bible. Levenson argues that modern biblical criticism has used this information, largely, in an attempt to dislodge traditional views within Judaism and Christianity. The thinking has been that if one moves the question of divine authorship to the realm of historical evaluation, then the humanness of the text can be pitted against more unsavory teachings of the Bible. Hence, modern liberals can pick which texts are likely divine and which are just human by observing the human element of the text in its historical evolution and many contradictions.

He cites some of the biggest names in the history of modern biblical criticism, as those who dismiss the Hebrew Bible as the "Old Testament" that is largely a product of primitive humanity, in order to emphasize the more enlightened New Testament. Among these titans are none other than Wellhausen, Eichrodt, and von Rad. He also critiques Barr as falling into this tradition, as one who emphasizes the original intent of an author. "Original intent," however, has much to do with identifying the situation and source texts in a diachronic investigation of the Bible that fails to reassemble the text into a coherent literary and canonical unit, and as such, it remains not only speculative, but unconcerned about its context as we have presently received it. In fact, Levenson remarks that, in its earlier days, the Jewish Theological Seminary once referred to "Higher Criticism" as "Higher Anti-Semitism" (83).

Levenson’s proposal is that the Bible should be understood primarily within various religious communities that interpret it. Since the Bible has meanings that no one ever intended, a quote he marshals from Barton, and a variety of traditions are recorded from a historical perspective, then the Bible, as canon, whatever canon that may be, is more legitimately interpreted within a religious setting that gives sense to its teachings. As he argues against Barr’s claim that we are not given which law is to be dominant over which, and thus, have contradictions, Levenson argues that within a canonical framework, neither is meant to be dominant. Both exist to be interpreted within the religious community, whatever community that may be. Hence, Levenson, while maintaining the validity of historical and sociological analyses of the Bible, relativises its meaning to whatever interpretive community makes of it.

It is here that he makes use of Child's canonical criticism that takes a unit, its literary use, and it interpretation within the larger canon into consideration when looking for the meaning of any given text.

Hence, everyone, both Jewish and Christian interpreters (and I suppose atheists as well), can agree when it comes to the sensus literalis in historical investigation of a text, but it is when these texts are placed within the literary context of a book, a section of books, or canon that we must part ways. This is particularly true when it comes to Jewish people and Christians, as their canons are different once the New Testament and ecclesiastical tradition versus Jewish traditions are added to the Hebrew Bible (79-81).

However, the fact that Levenson argues that only those faith traditions that take the unity of the Torah (and by extension the Hebrew Bible for Jewish people and the Old and New Testaments for Christians) seriously are capable of interpreting the Bible for those traditions (sorry secularists and liberals). Historical observations are welcome, but are not determinative for traditional communities simply because they fall short in considering the larger contexts in which smaller units of language must be interpreted.

Hence, Jewish interpreters will separate themselves from Christian colleagues and from anyone doing Biblical Theology from a Christian perspective (and even a Jewish one that sees the Bible as a collection of situationally-driven commands), which is why Levenson argues we see so few works that look anything like Biblical Theologies from a Jewish perspective. Any attempt at theological agreement based upon an interpretation of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament is marked, not by dispute and what divides us, but by compromising both positions. Hence, Jewish-Christian dialogue can never be one where the two traditions come into theological agreement, since their texts and traditions are forever at odds. Agreement can only exist in the historical questions that merely provide the seed of an idea, but saying nothing as to how far the tree will ascend into the sky, or in what direction it will ultimately grow.

It is here that Levenson brings out his deadly argument, however, by arguing that Protestant assumptions are not only unnecessary to the critical method but are also contradictory toward its assumptions. The assumptions and intent of the historical method, says Levenson, has always been to undermine tradition and to, indeed, replace religious tradition with a secular one. Levenson relates the fact that when young fundamentalist scholars enter secular programs, they often turn liberal within two weeks. In fact, Levenson argues, that has been the primary intent of the historical investigation of the text from its inception. This does not invalidate the historical methods, but it should cause Jewish and Christian conservatives to ask, Why should I trade your tradition for my mine? Levenson argues that there has been no answer to this question, simply because most critical scholars are oblivious to their own tradition in the first place.


I really appreciated Levenson spanking modern criticism in its slight of hand to change the criteria in determining divine authorship from theological to historical/sociological. I completely agree that these two categories are not necessarily at odds. I have attempted, for years, to explain to people that the theological question of divine authorship simply does not hinge on when the text was written, how many sources are used, what those sources may have originally said in their pre-canonical context, whether the individual books or texts originally contradicted one another, etc. If the Bible is an anthology, it is a divine anthology. If it is not, it is a human anthology. Either way, such a question cannot be answered by anything but faith in a metaphysic that has nothing to do with historical questions and the level of human involvement regarding the text. As Levenson argues, "the truth of a method must be logically distinguished from the uses to which it is put" (88).

I also appreciated the admission that Jewish people and Christians cannot just agree about the ultimate meaning to a given text through exegetical observation alone. As Levenson argues, we do not agree on what the canon is, and since the canon is ultimately the source to be interpreted, we will have no theological agreement upon what the text ultimately means for us. Each community must do this on its own. However, as I say below, this does not necessarily legitimize all interpretations, as we are left with faith in divine intent when we evaluate whether contradictory interpretations are equally valid, depending upon the identity of the community.

Hence, even in studying together, or with liberals and secularists, Levenson proposes that "to the extant that Jews and Christians bracket their religious commitments in the pursuit of biblical studies, they meet not as Jews and Christians, but as something else . . ." (84).

Even in the belief that one meets together in neutrality when investigating historical claims, for that matter, needs to be held in check. Levenson here quotes Kugel's observation that scholarship itself is entrenched in the Protestant tradition of pietism (i.e., liberalism), where man meets God unmediated by Church hierachies and human means of intervention.

The fact that he takes critical scholarship to task and exalts Childs' canonical approach as normative for scholars, whether Jewish or Christian, in today's situation is also a great step forward. He takes certain scholars like John Collins to task when Collins attempts to argue in a way that assumes autonomy from tradition, even while admitting that it is not. 


My problem with the proposals, both of higher criticism, as seen in Barr, and in the postmodern hermeneutic, as seen in Levenson here, is that it all must continue this pretense of scholarship, as though committing linguistic fallacies are academic. Levenson often has the right idea here, often making spot on observations, but these observations lend themselves to a wholistic, literary reading of the text that reveals authorial intent, the very thing Levenson wants to now suggest is impossible to recover in the smaller units. Levenson admits this when he says that such sounds like the premodern Bible of the rabbis. However, because he wishes to maintain the validity of the historical criticism in which academia is so entrenched, all contexts must be considered valid in determining some aspect of a text's meaning.

Hence, where Levenson has decried the historical investigation of the text as primary, he has not dethroned it from that position simply because by admitting that his hermeneutic must take it into account, he has thus adopted it as primary. If it was not primary, there would be only a need to acknowledge the validity of some observations that have nothing to do with hermeneutics, but that is not where he ended in his book. He ended with the idea that, since these observations do collide with traditional hermeneutics, which see the canon as ultimately complimentary rather than ultimately contradictory, one must adjust his hermeneutic to meet the new consensus. Yet, this is precisely what he just critiqued liberals of doing earlier on, chastising them for confusing historical development with theological and ethical teachings one gets from his exegesis in canonical context.
Instead, what makes more sense to argue, built upon Levenson’s very observations, is that the traditional forms of exegesis are far more sophisticated in their goals, even if their methods were not fine tuned for the task, than is the modern historical and sociological study of Scripture that lands on diachronic  observations as controlling of what  now calls for a synchronic approach (i.e., using individual sources that are broken off from the text in order to deny the text’s literary arguments and contextual uses of the sources).
In essence, what Levenson should have argued is that Barr was committing the same fallacy with texts that those who Barr built his entire reputation and career decrying were doing when it came to word studies.  This is perhaps Barr’s, and modern scholarship’s, biggest failure in terms of applying linguistic integrity to biblical interpretation as a whole. Hence, Levenson should have simply argued that the traditional hermeneutic that saw the text as ultimately complementary within its literary context was, and is, more scholarly than what is often postured and puffed up as scholarship, even though lacking any linguistic responsibility in these areas.
Beyond this, Levenson’s argument tended to stray into an apologetic for Judaism against Christianity at times (and, indeed, seemed to read into everything a Protestant bias that did not consider, or even was antagonistic toward, Judaism). To be sure, there are real examples from which he draws, and of course, some of this was necessary for his argument, as he intended to show that modern higher criticism, even if accurate in some of its observations, is a liberal Christian attempt to dismantle the Hebrew Bible as God’s relevant Word to humanity, and instead, render it as obsolete in an attempt to show that Jesus’ purpose is to displace the Hebrew Bible as the Old Testament. Of course, this conflicts with what Jesus Himself taught, but Levenson seems to tie in this ultra-liberal German Lutheran idea with Pauline Christianity. Of course, the main tension here is due to the fact that if Christianity is true then Judaism cannot be. And that is why this conflict really exists. However, Levenson's primary target focuses in on German Lutheran piety, and often does not distinguish between this and other forms of Protestant Christianity.

Levenson, with his postmodern hermeneutic that seeks to deny authorial intent, is really attempting to argue that the Bible can legitimately be used to validate both, given their respective contexts. Of course, that is true in a sense, but does not take into account that this does not make any religious community legitimate in terms of the divine purpose of the text. That all comes down to what is really metaphysically true, and the means by which we come to that knowledge (i.e., by faith). Hence, rather than a "right text" to determine meaning, we are left with needing the "right people" to do so. Levenson's proposal that attempts to make them all legitimate either assumes the humanness of the text over the divine (and we're all just worshiping God in our own way), or it assumes divine intent (i.e., God's people include both of these communities and therefore intends to say different things to both of them).

The fact that Levenson's suggestion is conditioned by our present pluralistic and relativistic context is likely fitting to his argument that the Bible can be interpreted within various contexts. However, it does seem to beg the question in the sense that one must first assume the modern postmodern context as determinative for all other traditions that would be more exclusive and premodern. In other words, one must assume the guiding hermeneutic of our present context as primary in order to advance the idea that the Bible itself is doing this. In the end the argument just becomes circular and an exaltation of the very modern context that Levenson sought to humble with more traditional voices.

In the end, I appreciated Levenson’s arguments against higher criticism as the primary guide to understanding the Bible in terms of its desire to redirect and reinterpret its theological and ethical teachings. Although I think he took it in the wrong direction, and ended up confirming what he sought to deny, the book is a must read for the many observations and arguments he does make that are spot on in terms of putting higher criticism and sociological/anthropological interpretive grids in their place. I definitely recommend Levenson’s book for those purposes. In fact, I wish it were recommended reading for everyone entering Bible programs, as it would help illumine the influences and working assumptions everyone is making when approaching biblical interpretation. For that reason, even when I disagree with Levenson's ultimate solution, I wholeheartedly agree with the approach.

On a final note, Levenson takes issue with most Christian seminaries giving the cold shoulder to languages such as Mishnaic Hebrew as evidence that there is a purely Christian bias in the seminaries. He would be happy to learn, I suppose, that, although my seminaries did not teach Mishnaic Hebrew, I did learn the Hebrew of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Targumic Aramaic well enough to read the Mishna and Talmud to some degree (if that's any consolation).

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