Parables for Our Time: Rereading New Testament Scholarship after the Holocaust

Parables for Our Time: Rereading New Testament Scholarship after the Holocaust

Parables for Our Time: Rereading New Testament Scholarship after the Holocaust

Parables for Our Time: Rereading New Testament Scholarship after the Holocaust

Synopsis

Over the centuries, New Testament texts have often been read in ways that reflect and encourage anti-Semitism. For example, the parable of the "wicked husbandmen," who kill the son of their landlord in order to seize the land, has been used to blame the Jews for the death of Christ. Since the Holocaust, Christian scholars have increasingly recognized and rejected this inheritance. In Parables for Our Time Tania Oldenhage seeks to fashion a biblical hermeneutics that consciously works with memories of the Holocaust. New Testament scholars have not directly confronted the horror of Nazi crimes, Oldenhage argues, but their work has nonetheless been deeply affected by the events of the Holocaust. By placing twentieth-century biblical scholarship within its specific historical and cultural contexts, she is able to trace the process by which the Holocaust gradually moved into the collective consciousness of New Testament scholars, both in Germany and in the United States. Her focus is on the scholarly interpretation of the parables of Jesus. She sets the stage with the work of Wolfgang Harnisch who exemplifies the problems surrounding Holocaust remembrance in the Germany of the 1980s and 1990s. She then turns to Joachim Jeremias's eminent work on the parables, first published in 1947. Jeremias's anti-Jewish rhetoric, she argues, should be understood not only as a perpetuation of an age-old interpretive pattern, but as representative of German difficulties in responding to the Holocaust immediately after the war. Oldenhage goes on to explore the way in which Jeremias's approach was challenged by biblical scholars in the U.S. during the 1970s. In particular, she examines the turn to literature and literary theory exemplified in the works of John Dominic Crossan and Paul Ricoeur. Nazi atrocities became part of the cultural reservoir from which Crossan and Ricoeur drew, she shows, although they never engaged with the historical facts of the Holocaust. In conclusion, Oldenhage offers her own reading of the parable of the wicked husbandmen, demonstrating how the turn from historical to literary criticism opens up the text to interpretation in light of the Holocaust. If the parables are to be meaningful in our time, she contends, we must take account of the troubling resonances between these ancient Christian stories and the atrocities of Auschwitz.

Excerpt

What makes biblical interpretation possible is radical detachment, emotional, intellectual, and political distanciation. Disinterested and dispassionate scholarship enables biblical critics to enter the minds and world of historical people, to step out of their own time and to study history on its own terms, unencumbered by contemporary questions, values, and interests.

With these words Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza critically summarized the dominant “ethos” of biblical scholarship in America since World War II. Her audience was the Society of Biblical Literature, the year was 1987, the place was the annual meeting of this academic society in Boston. Schüssler Fiorenza spoke as the first woman president. Her address was a passionate call for a “rhetorical-ethical turn” (4) and a strong appeal against the posture of value-free detachment in biblical studies: “Biblical interpretation, like all scholarly inquiry, is a communicative practice that involves interests, values, and visions” (4).

Schüssler Fiorenza enacted this shift in her address. In an effort to clarify her own rhetorical situation as presidential speaker, she recapitulated the history of the organization in two steps. First, she described the conflicting participation of women in the Society. She pointed to the first presentations and publications by women in the beginning of the century, to the decline of women's membership until 1970, and to the gradual increase in the representation of female members on the Society's boards, councils, and committees that led to her own appointment as president in 1987. However, Schüssler Fiorenza emphasized that she was speaking not simply as the first female president but as a feminist scholar committed to promoting work “in the interest of women” (8). Feminist scholarship on the Bible, according to Schüssler Fiorenza, went beyond the focus on womenrelated issues in biblical interpretation. It sought “to change our methods of reading and reconstruction, as well as our hermeneutical perspectives and scholarly assumptions” (8). At stake in feminist biblical scholarship, for Schüssler Fiorenza, was a new paradigm.

In a second step, Schüssler Fiorenza described the scholarly ethos that had dominated the Society up to that time. To do so, she examined the rhetoric of the presidential addresses given by her (male) predecessors in the twentieth century. She pointed . . .

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