The Anxiety of Old Testament Theology: A Theory of Writing – Part Two

. . . continued from previous post.

Theological influence—when it involves two strong, authentic theologians,—always proceeds by a re-envisioning of the prior theologian, an act of creative reorientation that is actually and necessarily a reinterpretation. The history of fruitful theological influence, which is to say the main tradition of Israelite literature since the pre-exilic age, is a history of re-contextualization and reorientation without which modern theology as such could not exist.

This revision of Bloom’s thesis from The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry captures the fundamental portrait of how contemporary scholarship understands the theological dynamics of inner-biblical interpretation and of an approach to Old Testament theology that emphasizes activity (verb) over a particular idea, concept, or motif (noun). There is an organic continuity that exists between the kind of theological activity that takes place within the pages of Scripture and that which takes place among contemporary practitioners of Old Testament theology. Michael Fishbane first hinted at this continuity in his book, Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel where he suggests that rabbinical methods of interpretation are an extension of the kind of interpretive activity already taking place within the Hebrew Bible. Despite some legitimate criticisms, the fundamental connection between ancient and contemporary biblical interpretation has taken root and is beginning to blossom in Old Testament theology.

This can be further developed by another quote from Bloom,

Every poem is a misinterpretation of a parent poem. A poem is not an overcoming of anxiety, but is that anxiety. Poets’ misinterpretations or poems are more drastic than critics’ misinterpretations or criticism, but this is only a difference in degree and not at all in kind. There are no interpretations but only misinterpretations, and so all criticism is prose poetry (94-95).

It is illogical for Bloom to categorically dismiss the idea of “interpretation,” to argue that every interpretive activity is unavoidably and necessarily a misinterpretation. However, if we ignore this idiosyncratic and grandiloquent use of terminology, Bloom essentially suggests that every poem is both dependent upon yet different/more than those poems that precede and influence it. Old Testament theology is a variation of the activity of inner-biblical interpretation, just as “all criticism is prose poetry.” The way in which the Chronicler responds to certain concerns unique to their situation is both dependent upon yet different/more than the concerns that occupied those who wrote the books of Kings.

Likewise, when contemporary scholars and laypeople engage in Old Testament theology, we are dependent upon the text, but what we are saying is unavoidably and necessarily a “misinterpretation.” An “interpretation” would prove to be nothing more than a reproduction of the text itself, and we cannot reproduce the text. As John Rogerson observes, “However hard scholars may strive for objectivity, however hard they may try not to read their own interests and assumptions into the way they organize their work, they will not be able to avoid the fact that they are situated in times and circumstances that inescapably affect and shape what they do” (Rogerson, A Theology of the Old Testament, 10).

The anxiety of Old Testament theology is not an Oedipal-like struggle to overcome the influence of the text but rather emerges from a concern that the influence of the text would indeed impose itself on our own times and circumstances. This explains the proliferation of volumes entitled Old Testament Theology—not the need to “discover” the theology of the Old Testament (noun) but the need to engage in the activity of it (verb)! John Goldingay captures this well when he cites Bloom in his Old Testament Theology: Israel’s Gospel:

‘Giving account’ [i.e. evaluating oneself and passing judgment—to oneself, to God, to other people, to future generations] thus presupposes selection and reworking. In this sense, history is an inherently critical enterprise. It involves reflecting critically on traditions and narratives. It is not bound to the content and vision of the traditions and narratives it receives. Indeed, it characteristically involves working at a new vision on the basis of theses and/or justifying the way in which a new vision has emerged. Civilizations change. History presupposes the reality of change and tells its story in such a way as to claim that the new form of the culture is the valid descendant of the old. Strong historians have to rewrite boldly, like strong poets (864).

Strong theologians, likewise, must rewrite boldly.

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4 thoughts on “The Anxiety of Old Testament Theology: A Theory of Writing – Part Two

  1. Hi Joseph,

    It is only natural that the controversies which invest the field of general hermeneutics impact the way theologians understand their craft. Harold Bloom, Mikhail Bakhtin, and others like them consciously and forthrightly seek to dethrone the author and the meaning he/she intended and replace it with their own. Even and perhaps especially from a psychoanalytical point of view, the approach is not only suspect insofar as it takes a disorder like the Oedipus/Electra complex and makes it the basis of an approach to reading, but unhealthy. These hermeneuts are bold, that’s for sure. The best way I know to honor them is to be bold right back.

    It is certainly necessary to concur with those who emphasize reader-response that everything depends on the reader. Precisely for that reason, then, it is important to be able to distinguish between virtues and vices in a reader, and virtues and vices in the process of reading.

    An instructive test case is the example of history and historians. I don’t know about you, but the historians I admire the most are the ones who restore a personality from the past and a period to a contemporary reader in all of their complexity and weirdness and disagreement with my personality and my period. I have a great need for portraits (to cite some obvious examples, for me) of Paul, Augustine, John Calvin, Giordano Bruni, Thomas Jefferson, Jonathan Edwards, and John Wesley that understand them in terms of their own context. a reading which seeks to avoid the obliteration of the past in the name of a truth of modern or postmodern coinage.

    Harold Bloom refers to as a “strong misreading” in which “the mighty dead return,” but “they return in our colors, and speaking in our voices” (Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), 141. Bloom’s project of devoicing and voicing over is admirable in its explicitness. But I would argue on behalf of the opposing viewpoint. As an exegete and a biblical theologian, my goal is to enable the (so-called) dead to return in their own colors, not mine. I fight to allow them to speak in their own voices. Not mine, not yours, but theirs.

    Put another way, it is worth proposing to a reader a list of virtues with more than just “boldness” or poetic license on it.

    There is also the further question of correctly characterizing approaches to interpretation embodied within biblical literature. In my view, an excellent point of departure is a programmatic essay by Bernard Levinson. I quote there from:

    “Seen from that vantage point [of a corpus that sanctions theory], the canon is radically open. It invites innovation, it demands interpretation, it challenges piety, it questions priority, it sanctifies subversion, it warrants difference, and it embeds critique” (Bernard M. Levinson, Legal Revision and Religious Renewal in Ancient Israel [New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008] 94).

    Nonetheless, I would counterpoint Levinson’s assertions.

    Point 1: “The canon is radically open.” In the Bible, the principle of reality and the principle of justice are one and the same. The maker of all that is, the alef of all that occurs, the giver of all norms and all wisdom, is identified with the judge who promises the tau of justice and reconciliation. Anticipation of the promise’s fulfillment variously understood, more than disenchantment with its non-realization, sets in motion a conflict of interpretations. But the terms of the conflict are established. They are not subject to revision. The canon is radically open and radically closed at the same time.

    Point 2: “It invites innovation.” The canon invites innovation within an established framework. Innovation occurs within a tradition of innovation. Innovation is traditioned, and is designed to preserve tradition.

    Point 3. “It demands interpretation.” At the same time, the Bible is its own interpreter. It contains interpretation, and demands that that interpretation be treated on a par with that which is interpreted. No matter how strident the conflict, the ‘organized contradiction” is the preferred starting point of further interpretation.

    Point 4. “It challenges piety.” It ridicules impiety, lack of pietas – lack of devotion to God, country, and family.

    Point 5. “It questions priority.” It questions priority in the name of more fundamental priorities.

    Point 6. “It sanctifies subversion.” It sanctifies the subversion of one tradition on the basis of another. It sanctifies the subversion of subversion.

    Point 7. “It warrants difference.” It strives for coherence. However tentatively, it harmonizes.

    Point 8. “It embeds critique.” But It resists the critique of the sufferer’s lament from God’s would-be defenders. It also resists impious critique.

    1. John,

      If you are not already familiar with the essay by Steve Moyise, “Intertextuality and Historical Approaches to the Use of Scripture in the New Testament” from Reading the Bible Intertextuality edited by Richard B. Hays, Stefan Alkier, and Leroy A. Huizenga (translation of Die Bibel im Dialog der Schriften: Konzepte intertextueller Bibellektür), I think it resonates with your comment here regarding Bloom and Bakhtin. I think your counterpoints to Levenson are judicious and remind me of Fretheim’s critique of Levenson (Deuteronomy and the Hermeneutics of Legal Innovation) in his God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation (152-53, 337n60). You have similar concerns, though from a different perspective.

      The challenge, as I see it, is in accepting certain theoretical judgements about semiotics and intertextuality (Theory), and circumscribing this theoretical orientation in a way that does not deny it altogether. You and Moyise provide one option. I’m still wrestling with this myself, as it is the topic of my dissertation, preliminarily titled Intertextuality and Influence: Theory and Methodology in Hebrew Bible Criticism and Theology.

  2. Thanks, Joseph, for pointing out Moyise’s article. It is very well-written; moreover, he seems to have a better grasp of what is going on with the Lion/Lamb business in Revelation than Caird does or Beale does.

    Moyise (2005:447-48) points out that

    “Intertextuality suggests that the meaning of a text is not fixed but open to revision as new texts come along and reposition it (Moyise 2002:418-31). The relevance of this to the New Testament and subsequent theology should be obvious. On the one hand, the scriptures of Israel were accepted by the New Testament authors as the “oracles of God” (Rom 3:2). On the other hand, the Christ-event introduced an interpretative lens that led to some texts being set aside and others given new meaning. This phenomenon led to the production of other texts which would eventually sit side by side with the scriptures of Israel to form one canon of Scripture. Henceforth, commentators and interpreters could not define the meaning of one particular text without reference to the other texts in the collection. The canon of Scripture is a mutually interpreting or dialogical collection of texts.”

    Moyise’s takeaway from Kristeva’s understanding of intertextuality well elucidates how the canon works in both Jewish and Christian tradition.

    On the other hand, if Moyise has a limiting principle on what qualifies as credible and responsible interpretation, he does not enunciate it clearly.

    Unless you are writing in a vacuum, you will have stated or unstated criteria you apply. In antiquity, Irenaeus and Athanasius applied one set of criteria, Marcion, Mani, and Bardeisan applied others.

    To this day, new texts come along and/or old texts are rejected or marginalized. Exactly how those things go down, of course, is a question of cultural loyalties. At the same time, it is also a question of truth. Is the Christ of Irenaeus compatible to a greater degree with the (still-emerging) canon of Scripture in both its parts than is, say, one or another of the Nag Hammadi codices? If it is, does that mean the “catholic” Christ is preferable to that of Valentinus, Marcion, or Mani? If one answers “yes” to both questions, as I would and I suspect you would, then not all new texts are created equal and not all reembedments are equally acceptable.

    The same issues come up again with respect to the kind of controversies which roil modern theology. Put another way, I wonder if it is possible to make theological decisions without making decisions about loci of authority, their identification, hierarchization, relative autonomy, and modes of interaction. I doubt it.

    1. I agree wholeheartedly with this, and it undoubtedly represents the most fundamental and enduring questions of our biblicial theological discipline. This is why I lament our failure to grasp what Kristeva means when she speaks of “intertextuality.” When intertextuality succumbs to “the myth of filiation” (Barthes, Image-Music-Text [1977], 160) and is understood in “the banal sense of ‘study of sources'” (Kristeva, Revolution in Poetic Language [1984], 60) or becomes nothing more than “the wearisome industry of source-hunting” (Bloom, Anxiety of Influence, 31), the limiting principle(s) related to your “loci of authority, identification, hierarchization, relative autonomy, and modes of interaction” are eclipsed by mere historical critical methodology. This is what Benjamin Sommer rightly labels pseudo-historicism, the idea that “each idea or event can be adequately understood only by viewing it in terms of a larger process of which it was a phase, or in which it played a part; and that only through understanding the nature of this process can one fully understand or evaluate concrete events. Pseudo-historicism involves a genetic model of explanation that bases all evaluation upon historical processes” (Sommer, “Dating Pentateuchal Texts and the Perils of Pseudo-Historicism,” in The Pentateuch: International Perspectives on Current Research [2011], 103; see further my posts to be published on Monday and Tuesday).

      If the Hebrew Bible (and New Testament) are to function as Scripture for the synagogue and church, we must recognize the intertextuality of canonical, deutero-canonical, and non-canonical, written and unwritten texts. These texts must be “woven entirely with citations, references, echoes, cultural languages . . . antecedent or contemporary, which cut across it through and through in a vast stereophony” (Barthes, 160). Or, as Kristeva argues in her characteristically complex style of argument, “The addressee . . . is included within in a book’s discursive universe only as discourse itself. He thus fuses with this other discourse, this other book, in relation to which the writer has written his own text. Hence horizontal axis (subject-addressee) and vertical axis (text-context) coincide, bringing to light an important fact: each word (text) is an intersection of word (texts) where at least one other word (text) can be read. . . any text is constructed as a mosaic of quotations; any text is the absorption and transformation of another. The notion of intertextuality replaces that of intersubjectivity” (Desire in Language [1980], 66). Without this (or some similar theory of language), your “loci of authority, identification, hierarchization, relative autonomy, and modes of interaction” cannot operate on the texts. There is no canon, and there is no Scripture. We need Kristeva; we need intertextuality, however much we insist on pushing back. Without this to push back against, what would we have? Just some old texts written to dead people, I suppose.

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