Modern Societies and the Science of Religions: Studies in Honour of Lammert Leertouwer

By Gerard Wiegers | Go to book overview

RECENT TRENDS IN THE STUDY OF
ISRAELITE RELIGION

KAREL VAN DER TOORN

Amsterdam University

Considering the nature of its subject, it is unlikely that the study of religion, whether pursued from a historical or a comparative perspective, will ever become the model of dispassionate scholarly enquiry. Those involved in it have always, in one way or another, a personal stake in the matter. That is why studies of religion are not merely windows on the subject under scrutiny; they also mirror the views and fascinations of the researcher and his society.

What holds good for all religious studies, is emphatically true of the study of Israelite religion. Since both Judaism and Christianity claim to be the heirs of the Israelite religion, the latter is often classified as a period in the history of living religions. Its position is perceived as fundamentally different from that of, say, Babylonian religion, which no living religion claims as its ancestor. Whereas the study of other ancient Near Eastern religions takes place predominantly in the Faculty of Arts, the history of ancient Israelite religion is usually the territory of the Faculty of Theology. It is, in the wider sense of the term, a theological discipline. The fact that it flourishes almost exclusively in places with a strong Jewish community or a predominantly Christian (and more especially Protestant) culture Europe, North America, Israel, and South Africa - gives fuel to the idea that the study of Israelite religion serves the ideological interests of people for whom the Jewish, or the Christian, tradition has a personal relevance. In this respect, the history of Israelite religion resembles Church History. Both disciplines, Israelite religion and Church Histoiy, frequently fulfil ideological functions. They produce the past that is called upon to explain and to legitimize current views and practices in Judaism and Christianity.

The histoiy of Israelite religion is a field of study, therefore, that is by nature sensitive to changing ideological needs, styles and fashions. To an outsider, it is somewhat surprising that a subject for which the main sources of information have been the same for many centuries,

-223-

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