Levenson & the Task of Old Testament Theology – Part 1


I want to attempt to review Jon Levenson in his relationship to Old Testament Theology. On the one hand, Levenson is explicitly against Old Testament Theology as he defines it, so this could be interesting. On the other hand, Levenson does do something akin to theology and he does it with respect to a set text that Christians call the Old Testament. So then we also need to account for what Levenson actually does positively in this field of “non-Old Testament Theology” Old Testament theology. For most of you, this second part will actually be the most interesting. Stay tuned…But up first, Levenson’s reasons for doing what he does, his method to his madness (what we’ll call his methodology).

The book, which is actually a collection of essays, that I found most clearly bring out Levenson’s views on the discipline of Old Testament Theology is The Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, and Historical Criticism and the most helpful chapters in that book are the essays, “The Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, and Historical Criticism” and “Why Jews Are Not Interested In Biblical Theology.”

Apart from the charge of Anti-Semitism, the most important disagreements Levenson has with the task of Old Testament Theology in these two works is its relation to history, which is in fact Levenson’s main methodological concern with the task of Old Testament Theology. If you remember, one of the staples of Biblical Theology that originally separated it from dogmatics was its insistence on the historical context of the text. But for Levenson this emphasis on historical context is in opposition to two other defining characteristics of Old Testament Theology, namely, presenting a unifying theology (singular) of the Old Testament and secondly, the role of faith within the discipline.

First up, the tension between taking a text in its historical context and making a unifying theology of the Old Testament. If the theologian truly deals with the text in its historical context, he or she cannot take into account all of the literature Christians call the Old Testament since “the construction of a religion out of all the materials in the Hebrew Bible violates the historian’s commitment to seeing the materials in their historical contexts. The result will correspond to the religion of no historical community, except perhaps some parties very late in the period of the Second Temple.” So then to discuss any unifying theology of the corpus of the entire Old Testament violates the historical context of each individual text, thus rendering the dual goal of Old Testament Theology untenable. This point is well taken. This is an important point that many Christians need to recognize. Levenson is not here saying that tracing unifying themes throughout the Old Testament is illegitimate, just that we need to be honest about what it is we are actually doing when we say we are giving full credence to the historical context.

At this point, Levenson is only arguing that ‘biblical theology’ is never an independent discipline, it is either history of religion or it is dogmatics masked as this unnecessary tertium quid. If only the historical context is taken into account, what makes biblical theology different from history of religion? If the text is looked at ‘canonically,’ what makes biblical theology different than dogmatics? So then, can the theologian construct a religion out of all the materials in the Hebrew Bible? Of course, but this is looking at the Bible in a literary context and hardly ever an historical context, a perennial problem of any religion of the Book. And at this point the scholar is engaged in what Levenson would consider ‘dogmatics,’ and should be willing to call it what it is. Any thoughts on this? I tend to agree with Levenson here on most of what he’s saying. I would appreciate any feedback on how accepting what Levenson is saying here is wrong or makes me a heretic.

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