My Experience with The Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, and Historical Criticism

I’m reading Jon Levenson’s The Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, and Historical Criticism.

If I wanted my friends and relatives outside of the realm of academic biblical studies to understand me better, I’d give them this book—or some variation of it, since this book may require some background information.  I know that I didn’t really understand it the first time that I read it!

I find that being a student of religion at an academic institution is not particularly easy.  My friends and many of my relatives have a conception of what it means to study the Bible: it means to know and to understand God’s will.  They may see what I’m doing as valuable (before they read my blog posts on historical criticism, that is) because they think that, in learning more about the Bible, I’m coming to understand the mind of God, and I’m making myself into someone who can help others to learn more about the Bible, and thus understand the mind of God.

But, within the academic community, the presupposition is different.  Ideas that are taken for granted by many of my friends and relatives are not taken for granted at school.  Does the Hebrew Bible foreshadow the New Testament, for example?  That is not presupposed at my school.  Is the Hebrew Bible considered to be inerrant?  No.  Is what I learn in academia about the Bible spiritually edifying?  In many cases, it is not.  Is the Hebrew Bible the univocal word of God, or a record of different voices that often contradict each other?  Usually, the latter is the view that I hear or read in academia.

Don’t get me wrong.  There are conservative scholars.  At my school, most of the graduate students are conservative Christians—in some capacity, for some are more conservative than others.  Many of them are able to do good scholarship without violating their religious beliefs on biblical inerrancy, or infallibility.  They may focus on languages, or on text criticism.  They may approach a biblical text from a literary standpoint, or see how the Hebrew Bible and the ancient Near East address a topic.  Or they may go on an apologetics route of countering liberal biblical scholarship.  One does not have to split the biblical text into numerous pieces to do good scholarship.  (I should note, however, that there are many Christian colleagues at my school who do not bypass historical-criticism, since they’re not bound to a belief in biblical inerrancy.)

But there are many times when I wonder something about biblical scholarship: What’s the point?  There was a time when biblical scholarship inspired me, and I desired to learn more about the Bible because I’d then have greater access to the mind of God.  I’d receive inspiration and clarity on how I could better live my life.  But is that what I have gotten from biblical scholarship?  Some of you have read my posts on my readings.  I’ve learned that the biblical writings contain concepts that are also present in other parts of the ancient Near East, even as far as Greece!  I’ve encountered ideas—some plausible, and some that appear rather arbitrary—about biblical authorship, as the biblical text is believed to manifest editorial and redactional layers, or sources, or fragments.  And then, even when I come across an idea that is inspiring—such as John Van Seters’ notion that the Yahwist was encouraging Israel that God still loved her, even though she had broken his law—I wonder what that has to do with me, since the Hebrew Bible appears to be somebody else’s mail.  And another thought goes through my mind: Why should I accept the Yahwist’s theology, when he is one theological voice among others?

I’ve wished that my wrestling with the biblical text would actually go somewhere, but there are times when I wonder if it actually is.

There was a time when my approach was to attempt to refute what I considered to be liberal approaches to the Hebrew Bible.  Whereas historical-criticism split the text into different pieces—or, if you wish, identified the different pieces—I opted for Brevard Childs’ canonical approach, which had a more holistic view of the biblical text.  I thought that historical-criticism was just another school of thought, with its own presuppositions, and that its presuppositions were no more authoritative than my own.

And, believe it or not, I saw Jon Levenson’s book here as ammunition.  Against Paul Hanson, who said that we should go with the liberating parts of Scripture rather than the oppressive parts, Levenson upheld a concept of “literary simultaneity” and criticized cherry-picking from Scripture.  Whereas some viewed historical-criticism as a way to bring Jews and Christians together by offering them neutral territory for biblical exegesis, Levenson contended that historical-criticism was not neutral but undercut Judaism and Christianity.  Levenson even presented the academic community as if it were similar to religious communities—with the desire to convert people (into liberals) and the power to marginalize voices that it did not deem acceptable.  He said that the academic study of the Bible and the languages got support because of the importance that religious people ascribe to the Bible—and I enjoyed seeing this swipe at the academic community, part of which appeared to have a disdain for the religious.  And, as a political conservative during my Harvard days (which was when I first read parts of Levenson’s book), I applauded Levenson’s critique of Marxism and liberation theology in his last chapter.

But I differed with Levenson on a significant issue: Whereas he did not believe that the Hebrew Bible foreshadowed the New Testament, I did.  I thought that my belief could be supported.  How did I feel about Levenson’s treatment of supersessionism—the notion that the church replaced the Jewish people as God’s chosen?  I agreed with Levenson that Christian scholars tended to mis-characterize Judaism—viewing it as primarily legalistic when there was another dimension to it.  I also appreciated Levenson’s swipes at Wellhausen, for, as a conservative Christian, I did not care for Wellhausen’s historical-criticism.  But I didn’t really accept Levenson’s critique of supersessionism, for it seemed to me that he was portraying a belief in Christianity as supersessionist.  I did not think that supersessionism had to lead to the persecution of the Jewish people—even though there were prominent Christians in history who certainly took it in that direction—for the New Testament commanded love for everybody.

Somewhere within the process of me being a conservative to me becoming whatever I am today, I began to feel the impact of criticisms of the Bible that I had earlier dismissed, and I wondered if Levenson actually addressed them adequately.  For example, Paul Hanson said that we should go with the liberating parts of the Hebrew Bible while the more oppressive parts serve as a foil.  Levenson had problems with that picking-and-choosing approach.  Does that mean that we should accept parts of the Hebrew Bible that offend our moral sensitivity—parts that even conservative Christians try to downplay, whitewash, or explain away?  Levenson talks about the defense of slavery prior to the American Civil War, and how it drew from the Bible.  He also says that, within the Exodus story, God’s opposition to slavery was not as much of a motivating factor in God’s deliverance of Israel as God’s commitment to his promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  What exactly am I supposed to do with that?

In my reading this time around, my reaction to Levenson’s book is different in some areas, and it’s the same in other areas.  In my conservative days, I thought Levenson was arguing that historical-criticism is in a community that has its own presuppositions—which are no more authoritative than the presuppositions of Judaism and Christianity.  Nowadays, he does not appear to me to be saying that.  He agrees with the premises of historical-criticism that there are a variety of voices within the Bible, that some of them contradict each other, and that the voices are not always even aware of each other.  These concepts are supported by the evidence, in his opinion.  But he distinguishes between the writings that are within what we now call the Bible, and the religious treatments of the Bible itself.  He refers to the medieval Jewish distinction between the literal sense of the text (the peshat), and the religious application of the Bible, which doesn’t always go with the writings’ literal sense.  There is a difference between the meanings of the various writings within the Bible, and the subsequent interpretation and application of the Bible—which tend to treat the Bible as more than the sum of its parts.  I have two reactions to this.  First, why should I accept the interpretation and application of the biblical writings as authoritative, when they’re not faithful to what the texts actually mean?  Second, how one puts together the different pieces of the Bible into a theology or legal system is a subjective process, for people will prioritize some voices over others.  It’s inevitable!  Even Levenson notes an example in which Talmudic rabbis try to harmonize contradictory laws in the Torah, and they come up with something that is not a law in the Torah, but a different law altogether.

I’m still not completely satisfied with how Levenson handles the objectionable parts of the Bible.  He says that societies have elements that we consider to be liberating and that we deem oppressive.  That was even true of Hammurabi’s Code, so why should we be surprised when we find that sort of thing in the Hebrew Bible?  Levenson says on page 74 that rabbinic Judaism considers certain laws to be inapplicable because Israel is not in her land, and that “the effect of this legal reasoning is to make slavery within the covenant people obsolete in the present epoch.”  But that doesn’t make me feel better, for the implication of this could be that God still tolerated slavery, which could be re-instituted were Israel to get control of her land (which has partly happened) and the Torah were to be made the national constitution.  In his essay, “Exodus and Liberation”, Levenson appeared to be much more sensitive to the humanitarian implications of slavery than I remembered from my previous readings of the essay.  He said that God was moved by his people’s plight and remembered his covenant with the patriarchs—which means that God had humanitarian and covenantal reasons for the Exodus, and that, therefore, God can be moved by the plight of any slave, even a non-Israelite.  Levenson also referred to Maimonides’ statement that a Jewish slavemaster should treat his slave with kindness.  In my opinion, this does not resolve the problem of the Bible sanctioning slavery.  Maybe there is no resolution.  But what I think I may be able to get out of Maimonides is this: Why not just go with kindness?

How about the issue of supersessionism?  I think that it’s important to expose the anti-Jewish elements of the writings of Wellhausen and others.  But I don’t believe that those elements are sufficient reason to dismiss Wellhausen’s scenario on the Hebrew Bible: JE was followed by D, which was followed by P.  And Levenson, to his credit, does talk about other critiques of Wellhausen, such as the criticism that Wellhausen’s model is too linear, and that biblical diversity may be due to different socio-political communities that produced the Bible, not so much chronology.  I have problems with saying that Wellhausen had no right to view P and Judaism as more rigid and legalistic than the Yahwism of pre-exilic Israel, for we’re all entitled to our opinion, and we all prefer some systems of thought over others.  But I do agree with Levenson that criticisms of Judaism from German biblical scholars were not fair, for they did not interact much with the rabbinic sources themselves.  I prefer to critique scholars on whether or not their scholarship is valid and accurate, not on whether or not their thoughts led to atrocities.  Atrocities are wrong, independently of what scholars say.

I’ll close by saying why I think Levenson’s book is important.  There is a tension within many people who study the Bible within an academic setting, as they learn things that either go against their religion, or that appear to have little (or nothing) to do with their religion.  This book highlights that issue.  It also demonstrates that not everyone views the Hebrew Bible in the same way, for Jews and Christians both took the Hebrew Bible in certain directions—some of which overlapped with each other, and some of which differed.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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