Why Jews Are Not Interested in Biblical Theology

Recently, Charles Halton and Claude Mariottini have drawn attention to a book by Marvin Sweeney recently published by Fortress Press, Tanak: A Theological and Critical Introduction to the Jewish Bible. I encourage you to click over to their sites and read their comments, and if you are at all interested in ANE/Old Testament studies, respectively, these are blogs you should be reading! This has motivated me to broach the topic of Jewish Biblical Theology.

The title of my post, “Why Jews Are Not Interested in Biblical Theology,” comes from the title of a chapter in Jon Levenson’s insightful The Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, and Historical Criticism (Westminster/John Knox, 1993: 33-61). In this chapter, Levenson lays out why he believes Jews do not engage Christians in the enterprise known as “Old Testament theology.” For example:

If Old Testament theology is “a preparatory exercise for the study of the New Testament,” then an Old Testament theology that did not demonstrate the compatibility of the theologies of the two Testaments would have to be judged a failure. . . . If this be a criterion for success in the field, then by definition no Jew could ever succeed in it, and the absence of Jewish interest is hardly mysterious. One could, in the spirit of a somewhat obsolescent ecumenism, expect Jews to make the same sort of connection with the Talmud and Midrash that the Christians makes with the New Testament. . . . Nonetheless, the Jew will feel far less compulsion to make such connections, not least because the Talmud and Midrash do not present themselves as the teleological consummation of the Tanakh but only as the rightful continuation and implementation of biblical teaching. Indeed, since rabbinic Judaism lacks the apocalyptic urgency of apostolic Christianity, the rabbis were not generally disposed to identify events or institutions from their own time as the definitive fulfillment of biblical texts. Their attitude toward the Hebrew Bible and theology in general was more relaxed and more pluriform. As a consequence, the endless discussion among biblical theologians as to the relationship between the Testaments has not found and is unlikely to find a parallel among Jewish scholars. (39)

Levenson goes on to provide a number of more focused critiques on the matter. He highlights what he identifies as anti-semitism in the classic Old Testament theologies as a deterrent to Jewish involvement, and even more specifically a protestant rationale behind the project. A final sticking point for Levenson is the systematic nature of the discipline:

The effort to construct a systematic, harmonious theological statement out of the unsystematic and polydox materials in the Hebrew Bible fits Christianity better than Judaism because systematic theology in general is more prominent and more at home in the church than in the bet midrash (study house) and the synagogue. The impulse to systematize among Christians tends to find its outlet in theology. Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, Tillich, and Rahner, to name only a few, have no really close parallels in Jewry—figures such as Maimonides and Hermann Cohen notwithstanding. (51)

Ironically, somewhat, Levenson recognizes that Judaism might be a better candidate than Christianity for handling the Hebrew Bible theologically:

I suspect that Judaism is somewhat better suited to deal with the polydox of biblical theology than is Christianity. Whereas in the church the sacred text tends to be seen as a word (the singular is telling) demanding to be proclaimed magisterially, in Judaism it tends to be seen as a problem with many facets, each of which deserves attention and debate. . . . A tradition [like those in Judaism] whose sacred texts are internally argumentative will have a far higher tolerance for theological polydoxy (within limits) and far less motivation to flatten out the polyphony of the sources into a monotony. (56)

Levenson is writing this critique in response to the biblical theology movement of the first half of the twentieth century. While some of the issues Levenson raises are still issues that complicate Jewish/Christian interaction in biblical theology, he is writing at a time when the discipline of biblical theology is undergoing a revival still underway today, and the discipline that has emerged has addressed some of Levenson’s concerns, no doubt in part to his criticism. While his essay can seem somewhat dated, particularly when contemporary Jewish scholars like Marvin Sweeney are writing overtly theological textbooks on the Tanak, it is a landmark in understanding Jewish/Christian dialogue in biblical theology.

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