Teach the Text in Contexts

By Jon D. Levenson

I am principally a specialist in the Hebrew Bible; my doctoral work lay in biblical studies. The training I received was very much in the Albright School, named for the dean of biblical and ancient Near Eastern scholars in America, William Foxwell Albright, who developed an extraordinarily influential doctoral program at Johns Hopkins University. Fully four of my six professors in my graduate program at Harvard had gotten their own doctorates at Hopkins in those days, including my own brilliant and generous mentor, Frank Moore Cross. The Albright School stressed archaeology and philology, fields that in the middle decades of the twentieth century were full of the excitement of discovery, as more and more sites were excavated scientifically and more and more texts with striking relevance to the Bible came to light, some of them in languages previously unknown. The goal was to place the Hebrew Bible in its historical context, and we could do that only if we could reconstruct the cultural world in which its many documents were written—an arduous task but one that bore, and continues to bear, much good fruit.

Almost from the beginning, though, I felt there was a certain problem with this. What the biblical texts meant in the world of their authors is in considerable tension with what they mean today—including what they mean personally to the professors and students who devote themselves to that historical task. But the very method rendered that question of what they mean today one that could not be asked. It belonged somewhere else, to the theologians, for example, or to the preachers. Of course, when the theologians or preachers interpreted the book in light of ongoing tradition and contemporary experience, the historical-critical scholars were none too reluctant to accuse them of taking the Bible out of context.

As a practicing Jew, I found this very problematic. To me, it was clear that the Hebrew Bible has more than one context, and the meaning of a textual unit changes with the other textual units with which it comes into relationship—not just other biblical texts written by authors in other cultural contexts, but also postbiblical documents that the tradition has given us—in the Jewish case, the vast amount of rabbinic literature known as the torah shebbe’al peh, “the Oral Torah.” My problem was not the standard problem Jewish traditionalists have with the proposition that the Torah, the Pentateuch, has a complicated compositional history and is not a unitary composition of Moses. That I readily accepted. I had never been a fundamentalist. My problem, rather, was that by assigning meaning only to the intention of the original authors, the whole into which the antecedent texts had come to be woven became meaningless, and the interaction of the parts with that whole became at best a matter of secondary importance. The closest we could come to giving a holistic reading was through what is called “redaction criticism,” which studies the way the compositions came to be combined. The problem, though, is that when the whole text currently in our hands says something larger than what any author or redactor, in any period, intended, we can no longer say who the author is. With that, we have reached the limits of the author-centered method of interpretation to which all this research is devoted.

It is not that the Albright School is wrong; it is only limited, as all methods are. There are dimensions of the text that it cannot help us understand very much, because a text can say more than any individual author meant; the whole is larger than the sum of the parts. When I say this, I am not talking as a mystic or even as a believer. I am talking as a student of literature (I majored in English in college). But I think what I am saying ought to be of great interest to all who see in scripture something more than what was on the mind of the human authors who wrote it, with all their human limitations.

The torah shebbe’al peh, the Oral Torah, consisting principally of Talmud and midrash, is an essential—and, I would add, an endlessly fascinating and enriching—component of Judaism. It does not have, so far as I know, a good analogue in Protestantism, which often speaks instead of sola scriptura, “scripture alone,” but there is an analogy of sorts with the Roman Catholic ideas of apostolic succession and the magisterium, the teaching authority of the Church. Although historical-critical scholars often see Protestant fundamentalism as their principal enemy (and with good reason), they have historically shared with the fundamentalists a conviction that tradition must be bracketed or even ignored altogether if we are to uncover the meaning of scripture. As historical method, this is very sound and very responsible, but as time passed I became increasingly concerned that there was a hidden danger in this neglect of ongoing tradition (hidden usually from the critical scholars themselves, too). It implies that one can become a perfectly adequate biblical scholar without locating the Bible within any larger religious framework or seeing oneself as a generational link in any ongoing tradition. And indeed, after a quarter of a century training doctoral students in Hebrew Bible, I can tell you that nowadays more than a few of them have no religious framework and no theological education at all. Given the thoroughgoing secularity of most of the academic world (including, I have heard, many church-related universities), is anyone surprised at this? But quite a challenge awaits those secular students of the Bible when they find themselves teaching college students whose main motivation for pursuing the subject is deeply involved with their religious commitments. The more thoughtful of them may come to suspect that there is something parasitical about a field of scholarship that travels on the residual momentum of religious traditions that it studiously keeps out of view, or even disparages.

Personally, I believe that the danger of projecting the forms of one’s own religious life onto the ancient data, though real, is only half the story. The other half is the impoverished religious imagination that so easily results when those who study the religious literature are themselves a-religious. Secularity does not guarantee objectivity; sometimes it can impede it.

To one who defines himself professionally as a student of Judaism with a specialization in the Tanakh (the Jewish Bible), as I did, this neglect of tradition comes at a steep price. Part of the price involves an impoverished reading of the Bible itself. For one thing that rabbinic midrash does to an exquisite degree is to alert us to the particularities of language and thus to key words and key constructions, so easily missed by those who read only in translation or only for historical information or theological ideas.

It should be no surprise that the new focus on the literary character of the Hebrew Bible that has emerged over the past three decades has gone hand in hand with a new appreciation of midrash, including the midrashim that appear in the Bible itself—not only the Hebrew Bible but also the New Testament. One of the most welcome developments of recent years has been the increased awareness of how deeply rooted in the scriptural interpretation of Second Temple Judaism both early Christianity and rabbinic Judaism are. If we look at Judaism and Christianity from that historical perspective, we see them not as mother and daughter but as two siblings, descended from the common parent that was the Judaism that preceded them both and, more distantly, from the Hebrew Bible, which their common parent had long been reworking, rewriting, and reinterpreting. That insight, which derives from historical criticism but has important implications for the present, is one that I have found to be highly productive. As yet, neither Jews nor Christians have, for the most part, reckoned sufficiently with it.


There are two dangers that threaten the advance in Jewish-Christian relations, however. One is the striking resurgence of the old stereotypes, defamations, and demonizations at the mouths and hands of some liberation theologians, especially in the portrayal of the Israeli- Palestinian conflict (a brilliant exposé of this by my former student Adam Gregerman—a must-read for anyone involved in Jewish-Christian dialogue—appears in a recent issue of the Journal of Ecumenical Studies). What this resurgence of the teaching of contempt suggests, sadly, is that the old paradigm has not been eradicated, but only suppressed or repressed, and when the political and military situation provides it with cover, it surfaces anew, with all its old ugliness and perhaps some brand-new ugliness as well.

On the Jewish side, the danger lies in a major difference between the purposes for which Christians and Jews go into the dialogue in the first place. If I may generalize (with due allowances for the exceptions), Christians go into it because of religious motives, whereas Jews go into the dialogue because of motives of communal self-defense and in pursuit of better intergroup relations—to prevent defamation, persecution, pogroms, and Holocausts. In my judgment, this altogether worthwhile motivation often leads the Jewish participants to minimize too readily the importance of theology, including the theological core of their own tradition, as if the difference between truth claims were no more significant than the difference between “eye-ther” and “ee-ther” or between “tomayto” and “tomahto.” The logical end point is a religious relativism that undermines the whole idea of Jewish-Christian dialogue and ultimately can undermine as well the moral claims on which good intergroup relations depend. Whether the subject is biblical interpretation or interreligious conversation, in my judgment it is imperative to remember how important what we say and do really is.

Jon D. Levenson is the Alfred A. List Professor of Jewish Studies at HDS. His most recent book, Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel, won a National Jewish Book Award. This article is excerpted from an address he presented last June upon being awarded an honorary doctorate in divinity from St. Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore.

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