Levenson & the Task of Old Testament Theology – Part 3


So now we know why Levenson isn’t a fan of OTT, but at this point some accuse Levenson of speaking out of both sides of his mouth; he’s not a fan of OTT and yet theologizes about the text Christians call the Old Testament. However, there seems to be an equivocation of terms. For Levenson there is a difference between the technical field of Old Testament Theology and doing theology with the text of the Hebrew Bible. The former, as seen in the other posts, is unable to accomplish its task of being historically contextual, creating a unifying theology out the entire Hebrew Bible, alongside the emphasis on the practice being done only by those of the faith. The latter has no such methodological baggage. “Instead, Jewish biblical theology is likely to be, as it always has been, a matter of piecemeal observations appended to the text and subordinate to its particularity. As Gershom Scholem put it, “not system but commentary is the legitimate form through which truth is approached.””

This is a very helpful explanation by Levenson of the differences he sees between “Old Testament Theology” and “Old Testament theology” (if I can distinguish the two with lowering the case of theology in the latter). Because of this explanation, Levenson actually does what he sets out to do and his works do in fact follow from the methodology he has laid out. “To be sure, Jews have contributed studies of theological themes in various texts of the Hebrew Bible.” Again, this is exactly what Levenson does in most of his major works and he does it fairly consistently. He does trace themes throughout the Hebrew Bible.

This post will be concerned with an interesting qualification on how Levenson plans on doing theology, namely, it’s being synchronic. I am taking this qualification from his introduction to Sinai & Zion: An Entry Into the Jewish Bible.

Levenson’s explicit concern is to make this book a synchronic study rather than diachronic (page 12). While at first agreeing with Christopher Seitz who argued, “Although the author suggests in the introduction that his approach would favor synchronic analysis (p. 12), the bulk of his work remains at the diachronic level. This is not to say that Levenson is disinterested in generating stimulating theological positions based upon the present text. Far form it…but the spadework which produces these proposals is still predominantly diachronic…” I have come to nuance this view somewhat. Levenson’s view of synchronicity is in opposition to the type of historical criticism proposed by Wellhausen’s extreme source criticism. In this case, Levenson is showing that although he makes use of historical-criticism as a tool he is not interested in canonizing history as Wellhausen did. “In short, Wellhausen decomposed the Torah into its constituent documents, reconstructed history from those components, and then endowed history with the normativity and canonicity that more traditional Protestants reserve for scripture.” This is the sort of diachronic analysis he is avoiding when he calls Sinai & Zion a work of synchronicity. Importantly, what Seitz calls the diachronic spadework, is probably better described as tradition-history, a task Levenson is heavily involved in. Of course, to engage in tradition-history is in some sense diachronic, so I don’t want to dismiss Seitz’s observation outright, only show that Levenson’s definitions of synchronic and diachronic are not the same as Seitz’s and therefore shouldn’t be considered to be contradicting himself by declaring to do one thing while actually doing another. But there will be much more on how Levenson actually utilizes tradition-history in later posts.

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