The Changing Face of Old Testament Studies

by Christopher Seitz

Christopher R. Seitz teaches Old Testament at Yale Divinity School.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, October 21, 1992, pps. 932-935. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at Article prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


It should remain possible for an interpretive community to make a conscious decision to hear the Bible as scripture, to believe in the coercive and constraining force of the Bibles’ own unique literary construction, and to regard itself as trying to live out the demands of a word and a God that stand over it, in continuity with communities of faith within the Bible and in the church’s ongoing history of interpretation.

Reading Gabe Fackre's essay "What Theology Professors Are Teaching" in these pages last year evoked in me a great deal of envy. In a day of diversity and hypercontextualization, he was able to spot areas of common concern in the teaching of systematic theology. And he supported his claim with empirical fact: a survey of 115 syllabi.

I have no access to anything like empirical fact, but I hazard the guess that the teaching of Old Testament is not so unified. To begin with, the term "Old Testament" itself is suspect in some quarters in a way that even "systematic theology" is not. Terms like "Hebrew Scriptures," "Hebrew Bible," "Tanak," "First Testament," and even "Older" or "Former Testament" have been proposed. I was confronted by a prominent ethicist the other day who wasted no time in asking, "Is the Old Testament Christian scripture or not?" with something of the same gravity associated with old doctrinal inquiry. Terminology matters. What one calls the field says a lot about what one believes about it.

Proper terminology is not just a matter of Jewish versus Christian sensibilities. It has to do with the wide variety of institutional contexts in which biblical study takes place. The contrast with systematic theology is striking. The fact that the Old Testament may be an object of investigation in 1) church seminaries and divinity schools; 2) undergraduate departments of religion; 3) Near Eastern language and civilization programs; 4) archaeological institutes; 5) comparative literature studies; 6) English classes; or 7) anthropology departments makes for a considerably diverse angle of vision on the subject. A specific discipline for the theological study of the Old Testament is asked to meet the special challenge of defining itself and the terms under which it operates— challenged, ironically, by the very disciplines it has spawned.

The ability to narrow the field of inquiry is, in my view, an enviable thing, given the very wide range of service into which an introductory course in Old Testament is now being pressed. A comparison with the European setting—where so much of Old Testament method was developed—is revealing. In German universities the "introduction" is but one limited segment of Old Testament study. It is distinguished by being (frequently) the most tedious and least interesting course, but also the most indispensable for studying other areas such as "the history of Israel," "the theology of the Old Testament" and "the history of interpretation." In our system "Introduction to the Old Testament/Hebrew Scriptures" is generally expected to cover all these things: literary introduction, exegesis, history, theology, and history of interpretation.

There are other constraints on adequately "introducing" the Old Testament, constraints that cannot be remedied by being sure other electives will later be offered. The two semester basic course can no longer do all it is asked to do because students simply don't have the sort of general familiarity with the content of the Bible they once had. This leads to a further complication. Most critical method was predicated on students possessing a working knowledge of—if not a confessional commitment to—the Bible in its present form, a form that was then deconstructed by means of historical tools. The goal was to recast the Bible's narrative into new and different bins involving hypothetical authors, editors and communities. This made for a challenging, sometimes threatening, always critically imaginative two-semester journey through the Old Testament, beginning with the rudimentary antecedents of the Jahwist and continuing through to portions of Daniel and the last chapters of Zechariah.

But if one takes away a working knowledge of the present form of the text, a different effect is achieved. One gets all the critical conclusions, but the genuine push-pull of movement from confessed text to historical reconstruction is differently transmitted and received. If one tries to move from the present text to a historical-critical reconstruction and then to a "postmodern" or "second naïve" reading, the results may be even more mixed. Why are we doing this at all? Students lack a command of the general content of the Bible, and yet at the same time they are restless with gaining familiarity with this basic content for its own sake. They are also restless with critical method or with newer literary alternatives—unless, of course, they are accessible and directly relevant to modern issues. Fackre spoke of the commendable concern to link systematics to modem issues; my sense of biblical studies is that the greatest danger is the opposite: not appreciating the simple foreignness of the Bible and its world. I don't mean its historical distance or its cultural distinctiveness only, but its theological edge—what Barth meant when he once referred to the "strange world" of the Bible.

Older critical method, for all its deficiencies, raised the stakes in proper biblical interpretation in ways that were threatening and immediately felt by most students. I'm not sure that's true any more. For many the Old Testament is simply old, and therefore "out of touch." Older critical attempts to illustrate the relevance of the past by means of historical analogy require too much recasting of the narrative and simple speculation, and may presume too great a curiosity about these matters to begin with. One senses that today readers are confronting the world of the Old Testament (that is, the world presented by the text in its present form) for the first time and not being altogether sure they like what they see; or, if they like what they see, not being sure what all the historical-critical commotion is about to begin with. In short, today's readership is very different from the one teachers confronted at midcentury. Looking back at Brevard Childs's 1970 essay on biblical theology (Biblical Theology in Crisis), one finds it hard to comprehend how powerful the Biblical Theology Movement was in the 1940s and '50s—and how one could have spoken of a crisis of truly momentous importance, one that concentrated so much energy and debate. What we now have is a more mundane affair: a crisis in approach and method of the most basic sort. Its effects are more immediate in terms of curriculum, institutional context, and the teaching of Old Testament. 

In a recent essay Phyllis Trible suggested that Childs's end point in his survey of the Biblical Theology Movement (a date she pinpoints as 1963) was not fortuitous. "The timing is uncanny," she says. "That same year Betty Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique" ('Five Loaves and Two Fishes: Feminist Hermeneutics and Biblical Theology," Theological Studies [1989]). It's undoubtably true that cultural factors led to the demise of the Biblical Theology Movement and, more generally, a certain historical-critical way of reading the Old Testament. One thinks not just of feminism but also of the Vietnam war, changes in sexual values, and the decline of mainstream Protestantism and the strong pulpit associated with it. Childs had already mentioned many of these cultural factors and the role they played in what he called the "cracking of the walls" of the Biblical Theology Movement in the U.S. Childs, of course, described both the movement and its decline in order to pave the way for his own proposal: a biblical theology tied to canon. 

One of the chief problems with Childs's approach—not usually discussed by scholars—is pedagogical and has to do with the present climate of Old Testament teaching. Childs's 1979 Introduction to the Old Testament demands that the student participate fully in the older historical-critical discussion. Ideally, the student should move from a basic grasp of the contents and narrative of the Bible, into a critical mode informed by source, form and redaction criticism, and then come to see the limitations of this movement so as finally to appreciate the insights of Childs's canonical approach. The movement is from precritical to critical to a canonical reading that is neither of these forebears, but demands a sensitivity to them both. And yet what is lacking among most students is any deep-seated, long-nurtured, instinctive, prerational commitment to the Old Testament in its present form. What happened to Sunday school, Bible reading at home or knowing a thing by heart? Episodes of 'Mash" or "Cheers" are much better known—and loved—in their synchronic order than is the Old Testament. Without a thorough knowledge of the biblical text, OT introductions threaten to become, as James Barr once said in another context, OT conclusions.

In the waning years of the Biblical Theology Movement, the walls with the most stress-cracks were those involving historical inquiry. The stated end point of Childs's survey of that movement was associated with the work of Langdon Gilkey (not Betty Friedan) and specifically with essays written by Gilkey in 1965-66. Gilkey's famous 1961 savaging of revelation in history delivered one of the more damaging tremors ("Cosmology, Ontology, and the Travail of Biblical Language," Journal of Religion). The Biblical Theology Movement had sought to retrieve, in stripped-down form, a dimension of the old cohesion between natural world and biblical world by positing points of contact between the crafted narrative and the real world of cause and effect: the Mighty Acts of God. Gilkey rightly saw both that these Mighty Acts of God were in fact not so mighty (a strong east wind parting the Red Sea) and that if they were, a dilemma was created for modern men and women who were left to wonder how God was acting in their lives in a way at all comparable to the way God was active in the Old Testament—where people witnessed hills of foreskins, the sun standing still, meals with angels, the parting of the Red Sea and the like. Not so mighty and not so able to produce the wanted cohesion, the acts upon which the Biblical Theology Movement were built vanished, taking with them the Biblical Theology Movement itself. 

I wonder if Old Testament study ever fully recovered from Gilkey's essay. If one is not searching for the core historical events that triggered the growth of tradition, then why should one engage in the source/form/redaction criticism meant to uncover these matters? Childs used critical approaches in order to gain a purchase on the final form of the text and the theological complexity it represents as the consummation of all previous interpretive efforts. His canonical approach was not simply a new form of redaction criticism. It now appears clear, however, that the distance that separates Childs from his historical-critical forebears is not so great as that which separates him from more recent readings of the OT, whether literary, neomidrashic, formalist, artifactual, New Critical or deconstructionist. This is because Childs never abandoned one matter close to the heart of historical-critical inquiry: the intentionality of the text, the notion that this is a deliberately crafted narrative.

It is the lack of a clear and persuasive understanding of the role of "the author" and of intentionality in texts that most troubles Old Testament study at present. The notion of authorial intention was not abandoned with the rise of historical-critical method. Rather, the concept was enriched, multiplied and extended as a host of anonymous authors and editors, ranging far and wide in terms of circumstance, setting and purpose, began to populate the biblical landscape. The difficulty was with overcoming authorial diversity and a complex picture of historical change. Childs has sought to make a claim for the stability of the final form of the text that respects the critical insight into authorial diversity, yet presses beyond this toward an appreciation of the normative claims of the text in its received form. In his subtle formulation, there is an intentionality that derives from critically reconstructed authors, editors and prior receivers of revelation. This intentionality as reflected in the final text also has its own special integrity as it participates in but also brings to consummation earlier levels of intentionality.

Whatever else might be said about Childs's approach, he clearly has an enlarged and sophisticated notion of authorial intention. He depends upon a view of revelation in history that begins with events and their immediate interpretation but also looks to the divine word as received by the community of faith, reheard and reshaped, continuing to call forth new theological insight, obedience, and a life of faith congruent with the divine will.

But we can now list alternatives to Childs's subtle version of authorial intention: 1) The text has an intentionality that transcends and is not strictly derivative of any authorial intention; such intentionality is supple and pluriform (New Criticism). 2) The various intentionalities revealed by critical method must not be correlated in such a way as to give undue priority to the final form of the text, which is only one of many, either enriching or distorting, points of view (redaction criticism). 3) The search for intentionality is a deception—readers alone supply intentionality, not texts (deconstruction). 4) What intentionality we can discover in the Old Testament is culturally bound and must therefore be run through a critical sieve to determine its political usefulness; to do otherwise would be to distort the Bible's essentially political and materialist handling of God and reality (various forms of materialist demythologizing).

We have come full circle. The reason for such wide diversity in Old Testament studies has to do with basic disagreements over the genre of the material in the first place and the divided convictions of interpretive communities. An older generation believed that if it simply described the genre of the Old Testament—more in its parts than as a whole—readers would conform themselves to the genres discovered. Interpretation would be "actualization," "re-presentation." To a degree, this is what took place. What was true and could be discovered about the Bible as a historical document would also be true of an interpretive community seeking to model itself after the Bible and its world. But with the widespread failure of the field to come to any agreement about the Bible's own categories of discourse, its special modes of literary expression and intentionality, and especially those social and religious factors that handed the Old Testament over to us, we have simply been thrown back on ourselves and the deeply felt convictions with which we began the process of interpretation. The focus has shifted from the text and its background to the reader and the community that interprets. 

Yet even on these terms it should remain possible for an interpretive community to make a conscious decision to hear the Bible as scripture, to believe in the coercive and constraining force of the Bible's own unique literary construction, and to regard itself as trying to live out the demands of a word and a God that stand over it, in continuity with communities of faith within the Bible and in the church's ongoing history of interpretation. Such a community can also argue that in so doing it is seeking to hear a word truly external to itself, is straining to hear intended acts of communication, and is involved in a process of faithful reception—one in which accurate and inaccurate hearings both happen and matter theologically. Let the debate rage over whether a particular reception is right or appropriately critical. But let there be no delusion about the willful decisions of all interpreters and the prior commitments they bring to the reading process.

Yet a final question remains: Does one willful decision to read the Bible better conform to the intentions of the literature than another? That is, what of the genre of the Bible as a whole, and of the Old Testament within it? No matter how much the golfer with a sand wedge and cleated shoes wants to play squash, the squash court expects something else: rubber-soled shoes, a squash racket and a player who's come to play squash. Does the Bible also expect a certain sort of reader? Is the OT both an open book for all to read, and in some sense a closed book, with a distinct readership in mind? Does the Old Testament conform to a genre that has been externally imposed by coercive readers and hard misreadings, or is its genre a reflection of the will of communities that produced it, assented to its ongoing word of address and handed it over to new communities of faith of which we are one? One answer that has been given makes a strong case for the genre, canon" or "scripture." Do we need more precision here? Are other alternatives more convincing? It is to this sort of form-critical question that the field must now turn if it is to understand both its curricular obligations and the constraints that shape and define its various institutional situations.

What is a theological handling of the Old Testament? In what sort of context—curricular and institutional—will it exist and thrive? Is the proper legacy of the historical-critical method a continued concern for intentionality in biblical texts not so much in precanonical but rather in final scriptural form? These three questions have been my concern here. In the passage from Michael Malone's Foolscap quoted above1, Theo is right to worry that a text's intentions may be regarded as irrelevant and the concept of an author "absolutely a goner." More troubling perhaps was his association of these two matters with the death of God in the modern world. But that is a topic for another day.