Judaism, Christianity, and the Hebrew Bible

By Poirier, John C. | Journal of Ecumenical Studies, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

Judaism, Christianity, and the Hebrew Bible


Poirier, John C., Journal of Ecumenical Studies


In Sinai and Zion (1985), Jon Levenson made the case that rabbinic Judaism has more in common with its forebears in the Hebrew Bible than scholars have customarily granted. Although the rabbis are often derided as gross innovators, bending their religious expression too readily to expediency and the demands of culture, Levenson argued that the rabbinic system, with its principled disregard for the historical aspect of the biblical text, is consistent with the perspective of the biblical religion centered on the Sinaitic covenant. In fact, Levenson argued, there is more continuity between the Bible and its rabbinic interpretation than between the Bible and its early Christian interpretation. He admitted, however, that neither of those religious experiments provides anything like a pure reading of the Bible:

   I make no claim that Rabbinic Judaism offers the correct
   understanding of the Hebrew Bible. One need not subscribe to the
   regnant prejudice to see that Talmudic religion is different from
   its biblical ancestor, one of the major differences being the
   presence in it of a Bible. But the change seems more evolutionary
   than revolutionary; it lacks the "quantum leap" apparent in the
   Christian claim of a new Israel and, ultimately, a New
   Testament.... My claim is that because Judaism lacks an
   overwhelming motivation to deny the pluriform character of the
   Hebrew Bible in behalf of a uniform reading--such as the
   christological reading--Jewish exegesis evidences a certain breadth
   and a certain relaxed posture, both of which are necessary if the
   Hebrew Bible is to receive a fair hearing. (1)

Levenson makes repeated use of the terms "synchronic" and "diachronic," the former referring to a feature of (or an approach to) a text that ignores its historical-contextual aspects (including the historicity of what the text relates), and the latter referring to features/approaches that embrace or depend upon historical-contextual aspects. The key to understanding the Hebrew Bible, according to Levenson, lies in its dependence on the covenantal form of expression. Ancient Near Eastern covenantal formularies, he tells us, typically began with a historical prologue. The more one explains the Israelite faith in terms of covenant, therefore, the more one should subsume the diachronic components of the Hebrew Bible within the synchronic elements (rather than vice versa). In this way, Levenson takes an explicit stand within the well-known debate between Brevard Childs and James Barr: He basically argues that cues from the Bible itself support Childs's so-called "canonical approach."

Levenson's overall argument involves comparisons among four distinct approaches to the biblical material: (1) that embodied within the biblical material itself, (2) the rabbinic approach, (3) the Christian approach, and (4) the "modern critical" approach. In the passage already quoted, Levenson gives an indication of how the first three relate to one another. On the facing page in his book, he provides an indication of where the fourth one fits in: "There is ... a quantum leap between the traditional rabbinic approach to the Hebrew Bible and modern critical study." (2) His repeated use of "quantum leap" provides a handy guide to his associations and dissociations: (1) There is no quantum leap between the Bible and the rabbinic approach, but (2) there is a quantum leap between the (Hebrew) Bible and the Christian approach, as well as (3) between the rabbinic and the modern critical approaches. In what follows, I concede that Levenson has given convincing arguments for the first point, and that the third point goes without saying, but I seek to challenge the second point. I also intend to discuss Levenson's somewhat misguided analysis of how the Christian approach correlates with the modern critical approach.

How Rabbinic Judaism and New Testament Christianity Read the Bible

The claim that the rabbinic approach does not embody a quantum leap might surprise those most familiar with scholarship on the Hebrew Bible and the rabbinic religion: If we believe what scholars have said, there would appear to be a rather sharp divergence between these two entities, amounting to a bold innovation on the part of the rabbis. …

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