Jewish Theologians and Biblical Polyphony

Jewish theologians often emphasize the polyphonic nature of the Hebrew Bible. Marc Zvi Brettler notes that numerous Christian theologians have come to the conclusion that the biblical texts are polyphonic and states,

“Jewish theological work reaches conclusions similar to those reached by these scholars [i.e., Christian scholars] but for different reasons—reasons connected to the premise that the Bible is a polyphonic book and that the Psalms, as a microcosm of the Bible is equally polyphonic. … Classical Jewish texts reflect what I have called a davar acher (“another opinion”) culture —where alternative views, especially in the area of theology, are juxtaposed, and there is no arbitrator.”[1]

Brettler insists that as a result of the polyphonic nature precludes the Christian theological proclivity to “harmonize divergent biblical traditions.”[2] In a positive summary, Brettler along with Amy-Jill Levine state, “In our view, the biblical story is a marvelous tapestry created by many weavers of tales over many centuries, each with a different understanding of history, of the relationship of God to the covenant community, and of how people in that community should believe and act. We celebrate the various perspectives rather than try to harmonize them.”[3]

         Marvin Sweeney is a Jewish theologian who notes that the polyphonic and, thus, dialogic, fabric of the Tanakh is Jewish in nature and is mirrored in other literature considered authoritative in Judaism, including the Mishnah and the Talmuds. He notes how numerous Jewish theologians “point to the diversity of viewpoints expressed by the prophets” and how the “many voices evident in the Bible indicate that it is a pluralistic work in which the many voices engage in debate with one another if only by virtue of their inclusion in the Bible.” The consequence is that “the Bible cannot be reduced to a single theme.”[4] He goes on to positively assert that “the Bible represents a dialog on major issues that takes place among the books of the Bible and with the readers of those books, in whatever historical and cultural context in which they might reside. Such a model of dialog is classic Jewish form.”[5]

[1] Marc Zvi Brettler, “Jewish Theology of the Psalms,” in The Oxford Handbook on the Psalms, edited by William P. Brown (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 493.

[2] Brettler, “Jewish Theology,” 487.

[3] Marc Zvi Brettler and Amy-Jill Levine, The Bible With and Without Jesus: How Jews and Christians Read the Same Stories Differently (New York: HarperOne, 2020), 15.

[4] Marvin A. Sweeney, Tanak: A Theological and Critical Introduction to the Jewish Bible (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2012), 19.

[5] Sweeney, Tanak, 32.

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