Biblical Theology: Is It Good for the Jews?

By Wolf, Arnold Jacob | Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, Summer 2000 | Go to article overview

Biblical Theology: Is It Good for the Jews?


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


OUR CENTURY HAS SEEN THE RISE AND FALL AND APPARENT rebirth of Biblical theology as a movement and as a discipline. After the heady days of Barth, von Rad, and Yehezkel Kaufman, all of whom tried to crystallize the teaching of the Hebrew Bible, the whole project was cast in doubt by its enemies and detractors who preferred the old critical-historical method or a newer, largely literary approach. Now, finally, the appearance of two massive volumes--James Barr, The Concept of Biblical Theology (Fortress, 1999) and Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament (Fortress, 1997) (and a number of others in Germany, the U.K. and even in Israel)--seems to suggest that a recovery and new initiatives will bring the project back to life.

These volumes are immensely learned and undogmatic, in the case of Brueggemann even anti-foundational. They are also sprawling and diffuse, more a series of critical reviews than a single central system idea, like that of von Rad, for example. One of their chief concerns is the Jewish nature of the "Old Testament" (an opprobrium that some Jews, like Daniel Boyarin, prefer to the now more common "Hebrew Bible" or "First Testament"). Clearly and without any equivocation, these authors believe that the book (or library of books) belongs to the Jewish people who wrote it and decisively interpreted it for centuries. But, for Christians, it can not be only a Jewish book but must be theirs as well. How can the OT be both?

The traditional Christian answer was typology. The OT served to prophesy and to foreshadow the New Testament. Each narrative in the Hebrew Bible was essentially a way of preparing for Jesus and Christianity. The Old Testament was written in a code which the NT broke. What once was Jewish now became Christian, since the Jews had rejected the true significance of their own book. This clearly antisemitic view is anathema to our newer interpreters, but the question of who owns the OT remains on their agenda.

One new solution is to claim that the OT is neither Christian nor Jewish, but Israelite, pre-Jewish. In a review of Brueggemann, (Review of Biblical Literature I, 1990), Bob Becker puts it this way:

On the level of the history of religions a distinction has to be made between Yahwism and Judaism, Judaism being the form that the ancient Yahwistic religion adopted in the Hellenistic period. It is not the place here to relate continuity and discontinuity between Yahwism and Judaism. What I want to remark is that the Hebrew Bible is a document of Yahwism and not of Judaism. Aside, it is interesting to note that this distinction is of importance in the discussion with the Copenhagen school who is willing to date the Hebrew Bible in the Hellenistic period. It is unclear in Brueggemann's concept whether his depiction of the Hebrew Bible as a Jewish document is only a phrase to be gentle toward the living Jewish community or a theological programme. Notably, the supposed Jewishness of the texts plays hardly a role in the composition of his theology. Curiously at some instances of his discourse he is referring to New Testament texts to clarify issues. This is done, for instance, when the concept of the Crucified God is brought in to explain the dialectics between YHWH's consoling and punishing justice (329-33). In my view a model should be elaborated in which the Hebrew Bible is seen as a document of ancient Israel that served both Judaism and Christianity, in all their different forms.

For Brueggemann himself the answer is different. The OT remains an entirely Jewish book:

The Old Testament text is resiliently Jewish. In some ways, of course, that is a truism, but it is a truism that is too readily neglected. It is not possible to argue that the Jewish community is the only community to conduct a disputatious literature, nor the only community that has exile at its center, nor the only community to practice intertextuality with a passion. …

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