Brichto's Bible

By Wolf, Arnold Jacob | Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, Fall 1998 | Go to article overview

Brichto's Bible


Wolf, Arnold Jacob, Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought


When I submitted my (not especially learned) rabbinic thesis on Jeremiah's theology, it was accepted with critical reservations by my advisor. At that point and most unexpectedly, the President of the Hebrew Union College, himself a prominent expert in Biblical criticism, intervened and tried, unsuccessfully, to reject the work and to disqualify me from ordination. The reason he specified was that my work was "not scientific." It was, in fact, a halting, preliminary attempt at what was then beginning to be called "the Biblical Theology Movement." I had been deeply impressed by a work of Paul Minear, "Eyes of Faith," in which the New Testament scholar from Yale tried to go beyond then regnant "scientific" source - criticism to discover the themes and projects of Scripture itself.

Behind my immature attempts lay the profound legacy of Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig, who, long before 1948, the year of my ordination, had created a powerful body of work on the meaning and authority of the Hebrew Bible. They neither accepted wholeheartedly nor rejected on principle the existing methodology. They simply finessed it, attempting to focus rather on key words and ideas rather than on a putative development of the text confidently described by (particularly German) Biblical critics. I was a mere epigone in the attempt to recover Biblical themes and salvage Biblical faith. But even my probe was enough to bring down the wrath of my illustrious teacher, who was one of the last and most dogmatic followers of the school of Wellhausen. My notions of the integrity of Biblical narrative violated the very dogma which supported his extensive work and his claim to know precisely how the Bible came to be. Source analysis and historiography were the methods of study by which the Bible could be understood, the only way it could ever be understood.

The late Herbert Chanan Brichto, Julian Morgenstern's heir in the chair of Bible at H.U.C. in Cincinnati, was expertly trained by Biblical scholars at the University of Pennsylvania, Ephraim Speiser and Moshe Greenberg. He mastered the skills of comparative Semitics and source analysis and wrote persuasively about the Bible from the point of view classically described in Speiser's Anchor Bible Genesis, published in 1964. In a series of essays in the Hebrew Union College Annual, Brichto expanded his understanding to produce impressive studies of Biblical narrative in the spirit of Meir Sternberg's "The Poetics of Biblical Narrative," which appeared in English (after many Hebrew essays had been published in Israeli journals) in 1987.

Brichto both anticipated and elaborated on the new, sometimes so-called "narrative theology" in two superb books, published before and just after his tragic death, Toward a Grammar of Biblical Poetics (afterwards, Poetics) and The Names of God (afterwards, Names). These two seminal books marked a decisive turning point in Brichto's analysis of the Hebrew Bible and, I believe, in describing a methodology for re-discovering uniquely Biblical thinking in our own time. He wrote about his own developing, radical sense of the unity of Scripture:

The interpretive essays that constitute the bulk of this volume (and a companion one to follow) were originally written or sketched in outline as explications du texte, employing the tools and techniques exercised in the enterprise that is normally called literary criticism. Upon presentation of these essays to fellow biblicists, I soon learned that a number of factors made it difficult for these colleagues and friends to accord them a sympathetic address. For one, fine scholars who are essentially philologists may only rarely have recourse to fiction, for recreation; and the recourse to the conventions of the composition of fiction (or the exposition of these conventions, literary criticism) may involve for them a language or mode of discourse foreign and incomprehensible. This factor is intensified in the case of biblicists for whom literary criticism means source analysis, which has become the keystone for methodologies that have become synonymous with "scientific Bible study. …

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