Palestinian Christians and the Old Testament: History, Hermeneutics, and Ideology

By Brueggemann, Walter | The Christian Century, March 16, 2016 | Go to article overview

Palestinian Christians and the Old Testament: History, Hermeneutics, and Ideology


Brueggemann, Walter, The Christian Century


Palestinian Christians and the Old Testament: History, Hermeneutics, and Ideology

By Will Stalder

Augsburg Fortress, 446 pp., $44.00 paperback

Palestinian Christians almost disappear amid the seemingly endless brutalizing occupation by the state of Israel and counterviolence of the Palestinians. Will Stalder's Palestinian Christians and the Old Testament is a revised dissertation from the University of Aberdeen that takes up the difficult and important question of how Palestinian Christians are to read the Old Testament when the insistent ideology of Zionism preempts the text with its claims concerning the divine promise of land to the Jews.

Stalder, a parish minister in Scotland, divides the history of interpretation by Palestinian Christians into three periods, each of which has offered possible postures of reading for the Palestinian Christian community--a community that Stalder characterizes as small, diverse, and declining. From the outset, the community was propelled by a variety of missionary initiatives in the Holy Land, notably by the Orthodox, the Church of England, and the Lutherans.

In the first period, to 1917, Palestinians very much trusted and embraced the views and practices of the missionary communities, all of which had a very high view of scripture. The missionary impetus was highly complex, given the readiness of Western powers both to challenge the Ottoman Empire and to nurture and protect independent Palestinian communities. The missionaries' accent on the "Bible alone" caused people to read the Old Testament as part of "the history of redemption," which, of course, culminated in the New Testament with claims for the gospel of Christ. In this early period the Old Testament was taken as unproblematic.

Everything changed in 1917 with the establishment of the British Mandate over Palestine and issuance of the Balfour Declaration. The period from 1917 to the founding of the state of Israel in 1948 was a time of vigorous contestation as political Zionism gained momentum and Zionist claims began to appeal intensely to the Old Testament and its divine promise of land for the Jews. Stalder concludes that in the face of Zionist pressure, "most Arab Christians during this time found more and more affinity with the Arab Muslim majority than with the mandatory power [Britain] with whom they were coreligionists."

Zionist claims were highly contested. As Anglican bishop George Francis Graham Brown declared: "The establishment of a 'National Home' [for Jews] in Palestine cannot be made to depend on the prophecies of the Old Testament." He asserted that such claims had been "abrogated" by the declaration of the New Testament. Lutheran commentators echoed that verdict, identified such Jewish uses of the Old Testament as "abusive," and insisted that they carried no weight.

Stalder's third period begins with the founding of the state of Israel in 1948, which he characterizes as a catastrophe for Palestinian Christians. The book traces a variety of scripturally based ecumenical declarations against the claims of Zionism. This third period, which continues until now, presents very difficult questions for Palestinian Christians. On the one hand, they have compelling reasons to maintain critical distance from biblical texts used as justification for Israel's absolute monopoly of the land. On the other hand, they want to take the Old Testament seriously in order to avoid falling into Marcionism.

Having set the table in this way, Stalder turns to strategies for reading the Old Testament under current circumstances. He reviews the work of three authors. One may surely quibble with his selection of all three.

First, Michael Prior has proposed reading the Old Testament through "the eyes of the Canaanite" in order to see that biblical affirmations used by Zionists are sheer ideology and cannot rightly be claimed as authoritative for current issues. …

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