Jon Levenson & The Task of Old Testament Theology – Part 2


The last post was Levenson’s argument that the task of Old Testament Theology is an untenable task. It cannot be both historical and create a unifying theology out of the entire Old Testament.

Levenson’s argument is furthered by his look at the insistence of many biblical theologians on the faith commitment of biblical theologians. Citing Moshe Goshen-Gottstein and Gerhard Hasel, he contends that Old Testament theologians believe Old Testament Theology is an enterprise only for those of faith. But Levenson determines that a person of faith actually is not able existentially, that is, as a practicing Christian, to do theology without post-biblical elements. The practicing Jew of this century cannot isolate the Hebrew Bible from the larger corpus of tradition just as a practicing Christian cannot isolate the Old Testament from its larger corpus of tradition. If s/he does isolate it from the larger corpus it is by definition no longer Jewish or Christian but simply historical.

Levenson’s main point in this discussion is that if “biblical theology is historical in character” as Gabler suggests then “the affiliation of the biblical theologian is of no account for their work.” And if this is the case, then there is no distinction between history of religion and biblical theology methodologically, as it should be, suggests Levenson. As he sees it, “If, however, there are “persistent…principles” or “an overarching unity,” then it would seem that the historian of Israelite religion ought to be able to see them as well as can the Old Testament theologian.”

Levenson goes on to further to bring these two ideas of what he’s getting at together by discussing the importance of context in interpretation, an emphasis he says biblical theologians have largely ignored. “The great flaws of the biblical theologians are their lack of self-awareness on the issue of context and their habit, in the main, of acting as though the change of context made no hermeneutical difference.” Eichrodt is a prime example of this since his goal was to “combine the historical context of the Hebrew Bible (“its religious environment”) and its literary context in Christianity (“its essential coherence with the NT”). The problem with this goal is that it sets the two sides or contexts up as parallel tracks and any historical inquiry that casts any doubt that the two might ever cross in contradiction is disallowed from the beginning. This results in Levenson’s own doubt casting. If the tracks are so parallel and if they indeed never cross in the New Testament’s “Christian recontextualization” then why did the Jewish tradition continue? The opposite is also the case. If the text univocally points to rabbinic Judaism, then why are there non-rabbinic traditions that still exist? The answer for Levenson is a hermeneutical key to almost all of his critiques of Old Testament theology:

In sum, the historical evidence suggests that the Hebrew Bible speaks less univocally than Eichrodt thinks: it is to some degree coherent and to some degree incoherent with all its recontextualizations – Jewish, Christian, and other. The privileging of one of these over the others depends on something very different from dispassionate historical inquiry. It depends upon something more akin to an act of faith. This is not to impugn the act of faith, but only to say that it is highly problematic when it becomes regulative for historical study.

This is Levenson’s main critique of the field of Old Testament theology, tying together the tensions he has pointed out between historical and faith commitments. Now, this is again a good point but here Levenson seems to be making a proscriptive judgment against Old Testament Theology on the basis of his descriptive observance of it. Does Old Testament Theology necessarily have to be done in an apologetic fashion where the Old Testament cannot be seen in direct contradiction to the New Testament, as Levenson’s reading of Eichrodt suggests? Does a Christian’s take on the text necessitate reading it only in light of the New Testament? There does seem to be a way to read a text in its historical context as a “first read” prior to bridging the gap towards the New Testament as a “second read.” When Levenson says that commonality between Jews and Christians is doubtful because “…to the Christian, biblical theology is concerned with Christological issues in a way that excludes the Jew…” this is unfair and doesn’t take into account the importance of this “first read,” that does indeed allow for commonality.

Now that we have what Levenson wants to avoid, we’ll look for the next several weeks at what Levenson actually accomplishes theologically, and, I dare say, it has had no small impact either on the theological world or on my own personal world.

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