Magazine article Salmagundi

The Fate of Ideas: Moses

Magazine article Salmagundi

The Fate of Ideas: Moses

Article excerpt

There is an outpouring these days of scholarly-looking books about the Bible. They might appear to depart from more traditional works on this venerable subject in their tone of condescension toward biblical texts and narratives, toward the culture that produced them, toward God. But these books in fact continue, however unwittingly, a tradition which is both long and unsavory.

We are culturally predisposed to sheltering criticism from criticism; we have enshrined the iconoclast. If our feelings register some minor shock, or if we suppose the public might be somewhat irked, or even if we think we can discern some earnest hope on the part of a writer to irk or to offend ourselves or our neighbors, then a book is praised as a creditable effort and excused from the kind of attention that might raise questions about its actual novelty or merit.

The intention behind these books seems to be only the one that is usual just now, to discredit in the course of laying blame. This is the purpose and method of much contemporary scholarship. Debunking exhausts its subjects, which must have some remnant of respectability about them to give meaning, or at least frisson, to the enterprise. And since the Bible does have a certain aura of sanctity about it yet, it offers the hope that there is discrediting still to be done, and this makes it an attractive subject. The value of this critical project in general is not a question of great importance. But as a method of approach to the Bible it draws at- tention to issues that are of a high order of significance by reproducing in exaggerated forms attitudes that have affected the reading of these texts for centuries.

These grave and interesting problems arise because of the special history of the Bible and of the polemics that have always surrounded it. More specifically, they arise from the complex and uneasy relation of the Old to the New Testament. This is an important aspect of the problem of Christian attitudes toward Judaism. (I will speak of the Old Testament rather than the Hebrew Bible because they have very different cultural histories, the order of books is different, Hebrew and Aramaic hover around the latter in any form whereas Latin and vernacular translations have very much conditioned the reading of the former, and so on.) It has been orthodox through most of Christian history to treat the Old Testament as rigid, benighted, greatly inferior to the Gospels. Thus was established, in the Christian mind, the nature and the degree of difference between Christianity and Judaism. This error has never been truly rectified. The Old Testament is very difficult to read, and the churches seem to do little now in the way of making its hard texts accessible, so it is known largely by reputation, and its reputation is daunting. It is generally thought of as a tribal epic which includes the compendium of strange laws and fierce prohibitions Jesus of Nazareth put aside when he established the dominion of grace.

Since its prophets and poets can be read for texts that seem to promise the Christian Messiah, and since the Gospels and epistles allude freely to Adam and Moses and Abraham, the significance of the Old Testament cannot be denied. And yet Christianity has tended to define itself by implied or direct disparagement of the Old Testament. The unloveliness of appropriating the sacred literature of another religion in order to put it to such use is hard to overstate. Worse, where Christianity itself has been rejected, very frequently it is the Old Testament which bears the brunt of disparagement, Jesus being allowed to escape on grounds of pathos and harmlessness. These lamentable habits are visibly at work in most of these new books. The historical consequences of such thinking forbid that impressive evidence of its continuing vigor should go unremarked.

The Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong has just published a book called Why Christianity Must Change or Die. It is a commonplace among churchmen that great institutional and doctrinal change is needed urgently to bring the faith abreast of changes that have already occurred in the culture. …

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