Respecting the Jewishness of the Biblical Texts

What modern readers of the biblical texts—and especially Christians—is that the biblical texts, both in the Hebrew Bible and many in the Christian New Testament, are Jewish literature, produced mostly during the Second Temple Period, with only a few New Testament books written shortly after the Temple’s destruction in 70 CE. It should not be surprising that they have exhibit the qualities characteristic of Jewish literature during that time. Some of these characteristics became even more pronounced in the period leading up to rabbinic period (around 200 CE). Having sat at the feet of some splendid Jewish scholars of the Hebrew Bible and ancient Judaism gave me a perspective on the biblical texts that I did not have before. That is, that in the Jewishness of these texts, they are persistently dialogical and dialectic in nature. However, that runs counter to our modernistic approach to hermeneutics.

As Brueggemann states,

“This dialectical-dialogical character for theological discourse flies in the face of all of our long-established, conventional theological practices. Our propensity is to reason things through to a settlement, to reach conclusions that then stand as certitudes to which appeal can subsequently be made. Israel’s characteristic mode of discourse, however, tends not to claim such destinations for itself, and tends not to grant them to God. There is in Israel’s God-talk a remarkable restlessness and openness, as if each new voice in each new circumstance must undertake the entire process anew. Remarkably, the God of Israel, perhaps so characteristically Jewish, is willing to participate yet again in such an exchange that must be inordinately demanding. For Israel and for Israel’s God, there is no deeper joy, no more serious requirement, no more inescapable burden, than to be reengaged in the process of exchange that never arrives but is always on the way.”[1]

When we refuse to accept the dialectical-dialogical nature of the majority of biblical texts but insist on explaining away the tensions that have been left there by the authors and/or redactors we are not demonstrating hermeneutical humility but rather a type of supersessionist arrogance.  Child’s “canonical approach” as employed by Christian interpreters is anachronistic. Read on their own, the texts of the Hebrew Bible would not lead one to believe Jesus was the Jews expected Messiah.

Christological hermeneutics—which focuses on finding references to Jesus in as many Old Testament passages as possible—and its related Cruciform hermeneutics—which strives to see Christ as the interpretive goal of every passage in the Old Testament (as per Greg Boyd and others)—shows little to no respect for an open-minded historical-grammatical approach. Again, quoting Brueggemann,

“If Christian appropriation of the Old Testament toward Jesus is an act of claiming the elusive tradition toward a Jesus-circumstance, we can recognize that other imaginative appropriations of this elusive tradition are equally legitimate and appropriate. We have yet to decide how christological exclusiveness is to be articulated so that it is not an ideological ground for the dismissal of a co-community of interpretation.22 Thus our most passionate affirmation of Jesus as the “clue” to all of reality must allow for other “clues” found herein by other serious communities of interpretation. And of course this applies to none other so directly as it does to Judaism. Thus Christians are able to say of the Old Testament, “It is ours,” but must also say, “It is not ours alone.””[2]

Now, that’s hermeneutical humility!

[1] Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament, 84.

[2] Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament, 735.

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