What Is Old Testament Theology?

If it were possible to ask the author of a book on Old Testament theology written during the first half of the twentieth century the question, “What is Old Testament theology?” I suspect the answer would come in the form of a noun. For example, the work of Walther Eichrodt answers this question with the word “covenant” while the work of Gerhard von Rad appeals to the German term heilsgeschichte, or “the history of salvation.” Thus understood, Old Testament theology is a thing—an idea, concept, or motif—something that one can discover in one’s reading the Old Testament.

The ability for the theology of the Old Testament to be discovered results in an either/or battle between proposals like that of Eichrodt and von Rad. It is possible to find the one more persuasive than the other, but it is not possible to conclude that both are “right.” In the final analysis, it is necessary to choose between the candidates.

The second half of the twentieth century marked a period of transition for the discipline of Old Testament theology. For those who belonged to this period, what they were transitioning to—whether they were transitioning to anything—was the prevailing question. It was only near the end of this century when a true alternative to the question “What is Old Testament theology” began to emerge among those who wrote on the subject. A decade into the twenty-first century, I believe it is becoming more apparent that a new age is dawning in the now more complex discipline of Old Testament/Tanak (Jewish)/Hebrew Bible Theology.

The question “What is Old Testament (or Tanak) Theology” receives a new answer in the twenty-first century, one that distinguishes itself from the biblical theology movement of the first half of the twentieth century—Old Testament/Tanak theology is a verb, not a noun. Contrary to the answers that emerge in the history of this discipline, it is not possible to “discover” the theology of the Old Testament/Tanak, as though one stumbles across it in the pages of the text where others before have been negligent or ignorant. Those who have come before have not “failed” in the task, otherwise we would not find their work stimulating nor continue to consult and draw upon it.

Old Testament theology is a kind of activity in which one engages the Old Testament, and this is why books on Old Testament/Tanak theology will continue to be written for the foreseeable future. Moberly captures it best when he says,

There is something intrinsically contextual and provisional about theological use of the biblical text. Theology is not a once-for-all exercise in finding right words and/or deeds, but rather a continuing and ever-repeated attempt to articulate what a faithful understanding and use of the biblical text might look like in the changing circumstances of life (Moberly 2009: 19).

Bibliography of works on Old Testament/Tanak theology that, to varying degrees, captures the spirit of this post:

Brueggemann, W. Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997. Barr, J. The Concept of Biblical Theology: An Old Testament Perspective. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999. Moberly, R. W. L. The Theology of the Book of Genesis. Old Testament Theology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Sommer, B. D. “Dialogical Biblical Theology: A Jewish Approach to Reading Scripture Theologically.” In Biblical Theology: Introducing the Conversation, 1–53. Library of Biblical Theology. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2009. Rogerson, J. W. A Theology of the Old Testament: Cultural Memory, Communication, and Being Human. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010. Sweeney, M. A. Tanak: A Theological and Critical Introduction to the Jewish Bible. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011. Briggs, R. S., and J. N. Lohr, eds. A Theological Introduction to the Pentateuch: Interpreting the Torah as Christian Scripture. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012. Kalimi, I., ed. Jewish Bible Theology: Perspectives and Case Studies. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2012.


9 thoughts on “What Is Old Testament Theology?

  1. Hi Joseph,

    The discipline is changing and being enriched from a number of directions.

    At the same time, there is a great deal of continuity with earlier quests, including the quest of the biblical theology movement. It still makes sense to construe the discipline in such a way that it seeks to accurately *describe* the theologies found in biblical and cognate literatures. There is also a renewed sense in which many, both Jews and Christians, assign critical value to theologoumena found in the pages of the Hebrew Bible.

    New and renewed directions are legion.

    First of all, there has been a serious effort, on the part of Jewish scholars as various as Moshe Greenberg, Abraham Heschel, Michael Fishbane, and Benjamin Sommer to restore the Hebrew Bible, in its theological dimensions, to a place of honor such that it is able to act as a critical norm of later and contemporary Jewish discourse about God and the world, not just the other way around (James Kugel is the most influential spokesman for the traditional supersessionist stance that considers the corpora or a subset of the corpora the Sages produced as encompassing and superseding that of the Tanakh).

    Secondly, there are collaborative efforts between Jews and Christians which do not limit themselves to the Tanakh/OT, a limitation which can be stultifying. The volume authored by Kevin Madigan and Jon Levinson comes to mind, as well as the volume entitled Christianity in Jewish Terms.

    Thirdly, there have been creative and well-grounded attempts at writing a theology of the two part Bible. The dialogical skill necessary to pull this off is considerable The best example of which I am aware: Reinhard Feldmeier and Hermann Spieckermann. Der Gott der Lebendigen: Eine biblische Gottslehre. Topoi Biblischer Theologie 1. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2011 / Reinhard Feldmeier and Hermann Spieckermann. God of the Living: A Biblical Theology. Translated by Mark E. Biddle. Waco: Baylor University Press, 2011.

    Fourthly, Ellen F. Davis has issued a clarion call, in her appreciative yet trenchant critique of Brueggemann’s volume which you reference, for theology that is not afraid to be doctrinal and foreclose some interpretive options even as it remains open to a variety of other interpretive options.


    Fifthly, in the work of scholars as various as John Collins, Carleen Mandolfo, and John Anderson, there is a willingness to offer a vigorous critique of biblical theologoumena on the basis of a felt truth of modern or post-modern provenance.

    Sixthly, the value of writing biblical theological in a canonical key along a path pioneered by Brevard Childs continues to bear impressive fruit. It is no accident that Jewish scholars like Levenson and Sommer regard Childs’ approach as less antithetical to that of Judaism than that of Brueggemann.

    I would not want to set to one side any of the new directions. I imagine that you may agree. It is a very exciting time to do theology, biblical theology included.

    1. John,

      Your comment is an appreciated addendum to my post. I have two other posts written and slated to be published over the next two days further exploring Old Testament theology alongside the thesis in Harold Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Writing. I hope you will chime on those posts as well.

      A few comments. Yes, descriptive biblical theology is important. I just delivered a paper at the Central States regional SBL meeting in which I describe the foundational principles that inform Hebrew Bible ethics, challenging the assumed consensus that Obedience to the declared will of God is the most prevalent and prominent basis therein. I make no attempts in this paper to address the implications of my research for contemporary communities of faith. My project, therefore, is the first fruits of a Hebrew Bible theological approach to ethics, but only insofar as it paves the way for and contributes to a discussion that engages contemporary communities of faith. If my work never engages the reader beyond providing information about “the past,” I am hardly engaged in Old Testament/Tanak/Hebrew Bible/Biblical theology. If all we ever do is stumble across some long forgotten “center” of the Old Testament (assuming such a center exists, which I do not), we aren’t really engaged in that activity of Old Testament theology.

      The two collaborative books sound interesting and relevant to my own interests. I will certainly check them out. My review for Feldmeier and Spieckermann’s God of the Living should be coming out soon in the Journal of Hebrew Scriptures. I was very impressed by their project, and agree that it marks a new path forward for a Christian Biblical theology.

      While there are many new directions, I think they are united by their interest in moving beyond finding something hidden in the text. Old Testament/Tanak/Hebrew Bible/Biblical theology is also concerned about what we are doing with the text.

  2. One of my great loves, OT/HB/Tanakh theology. My thanks, John, on citing my work, and it is an honor to be mentioned alongside some seminal scholars as Mandolfo and Collins. Thank you.

    I agree with you both as to the current state of OT theology studies. Plurality or focusing on a particular theological element (as I have done) abound. Attempts to articulte THE center are, indeed, not only doomed to fail but severely reductionist.

    That the discipline has moved beyond the particulars of the Biblical Theology Movement is a wonderful blessing indeed, though I am pleased and energized in various new ways of envisioning and appropriating ‘history’ in the task of OT theology (Rogerson’s most recent volume employing cultural memory standing as a fine example). But I think what I am most apreciative of right now is precisely what John points out: that there is no longer a single, accepted, standarized way of doing theology or what constitutes OT theology. For me, the most basic and obvious criterion (though one I think a great many end up ignoring!) is that it must center upon God in some particlar way. Earlier in this century I think the word theology get thrown about rather loosely. But that theology of the first Testament now has exploded in approaches, methods, faith communities, and questions asked is a great gift. It is indeed an exciting time to be at the task!

  3. Joseph,

    Thanks for citing Kalimi’s volume. It’s a truly interesting collection; some are great, and some not so great—but a truly worthwhile collection. You might find Schlimm’s From Fratricide to Forgiveness (http://www.eisenbrauns.com/item/SCHFROMFR) interesting. He spends most of his time on methodology and points out some of the same issues you mention.


    1. I’ve reviewed Schlimm’s volume for BBR. I suspect it will come out in the next volume. I’m slated to review Kalimi’s volume for JHS. Just waiting for Eisenbrauns to send me the review copy. Last I heard, they still hadn’t decided where they wanted to send the review copies.

  4. Hi Joseph,
    The communal, dialogical, and active features intrinsic to Tanakh theology came up in a Talmud reading class today while reading through some classic Shammai vs. Hillel (Shabbat 30-31). When asked by a gentile to be made a proselyte on the condition that the Torah instruction occur while he stands on one foot, Hillel offers a resounding response: “Don’t do to your friend what’s hateful to you. That is the whole Torah–the rest is commentary! (Now) go learn!” Whereas Shammai repulsed the gentile with a measuring stick, Hillel actually entertained the gentile’s petition, but the price was steep. It would be a lifelong commitment to study “the commentary,” not in isolation, but in concert with a host of different interpreters and perspectives, past and present.
    Thanks for the thought-provoking discussion!

    1. I continually find myself impressed with the ability for many Jewish traditions to embody the dialogical in a way never captured by many Christian traditions (I am not a scholar of Jewish or Christian history, so I hesitate to speak absolutely here). Things are, however, beginning to change for Christian theological interpretation!

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