Academic journal article The Jewish Quarterly Review

Rebuilding the Tower of Babel

Academic journal article The Jewish Quarterly Review

Rebuilding the Tower of Babel

Article excerpt

Rebuilding the Tower of Babel John Collins, The Bible after Babel: Historical Criticism in a Postmodern Age. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2005. Pp. x + 201.

Karel Van der Toorn, Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible. Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard University Press, 2007. Pp. x + 401.

IN AN OBITUARY for Jaques Derrida, the biblical scholar Yvonne Sherwood celebrated the way he stood up for the excluded-the thoughts and the thinkers consigned to the outside of the thinkable. At the time in which she wrote this, though, Derrida himself could not be plausibly thought of as a figure excluded from biblical studies. Two years earlier Sherwood herself had helped to organize a session in honor of Derrida at the annual conference of the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL), and by her account the call for papers for that session yielded more submissions than far-better-established subfields of biblical studies. The Derrida session was one of the best-attended events at the conference, second only to a session on the discovery of a tomb belonging to Jesus's brother. Biblical studies lagged behind the rest of the humanities in recognizing Derrida's importance, but advocates were passionate, and by the time of that conference, the philosopher of the margin was as central to the field as any perspective could hope to be.

But how have other modes of biblical scholarship approaches fared in a postmodern age? Have they been consigned to the margins in turn? Not if the annual Society of Biblical Literature conference is any measure, most participants still acting as if biblical literature had an objective meaning that could be comprehended by the application of the right method or a better understanding of the environment in which the Bible was composed. Postmodernism may no longer be marginal, but only because the field seems to have co-opted it, expanding its structure to include previously excluded perspectives but preserving the structure itself intact.

This process did not happen effortlessly. It took, and is taking, a fair amount of interpretive ingenuity, as illustrated by two books published in the last three years: John Collins's The Bible after Babel and Karel Van der Toorn's Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible. These two works, different from one another in focus and content, would normally never encounter one another in a review essay, but they do share one argument in common that brings them together here: each claims that conventional biblical scholarship is consistent with a putatively postmodern orientation. Neither Collins nor Van der Toorn is the kind of scholar one associates with postmodernism. By Collins's own account, his intellectual development was not shaped by postmodernism and his sympathies tilt toward pre-postmodern approaches. Van der Toorn is known for his As serologically informed work on Israelite and ancient Near Eastern religion. Both are expert practitioners of a historicizing and contextualizing approach to the Hebrew Bible. What is relevant about their recent books here is how their engagement with postmodern figures like Derrida and Roland Barthes, far from triggering a truly radical reassessment of the status quo, serves an effort to co-opt postmodernism, to reinterpret it as a validation for conventional biblical scholarship.

Of the two, Collins's book engages postmodernism in a much more frontal and sustained way. Its title is inspired by an essay written by Derrida, "Des Tours de Babel," that treats the tower of Babel as a symbol for the impossibility of finishing, of totalizing . . . something of the order of edification, architectural construction, system, and architectonics. At one level, The Bible after Babel, originally delivered as the Gunning Lectures at the University of Edinburgh, is simply a mildly critical introduction to Derrida and the various other approaches that Collins associates with postmodernism - Hayden White's Tropics of Discourse, postcolonialism, feminism, and nonfoundationalist theology - but more than a survey, it is really an act of mediation, an effort to explain what postmodernism can contribute to an understanding of the Hebrew Bible, and how it dovetails with what historically minded biblical scholars have been doing all along. …

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