Reading Isaiah as Christian Scripture

Jon Levenson: Historical Criticism as a Tyrant, Parasite or Tradition

Here are few exerpts from Jon Levenson’s book The Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, and Historical Criticism: Jews and Christians in Biblical Studies.  By the way: this book is a must read for anyone trying to read the Bible as Scripture:

“Even the most antireligious among biblical scholars must face this paradoxical reality: the vitality of their rather untraditional discipline has historically depended upon the vitality of traditional religious communities, Jewish and Christian.”  [110]

“The belief that the meaning of religious phenomena is available only to the outside observer is a secular analogue to religious revelation.  If so, then a system of thought like historicism, which “exempts itself from its own verdict”, is a secular equivalent to fundamentalism.  For though it subjects all else to critique, it asserts axiomatically its own inviolability to critique.”  [117]

“Historical criticism will not only have to surrender the positivistic notion of critical autonomy and recognize itself as a tradition.  It will also have to recognize that it corresponds to a community of interpretation.  It is a very special kind, however, one dependent upon other communities of interpretation for the very object of its inquiry and, historically if not necessarily, for its motivation as well.  Historical critics thus constitute a secondary community; they engage in second-order reflection upon the primary language of the religious communities they study.”  [123]

Jon Levenson on Historical Criticism

Posted in Historical Criticsm, Jon Levenson, PhD Research by Bacho on October 5, 2010

JON D. LEVENSON is the Albert A. List Professor of Jewish Studies in the Divinity School and the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations of Harvard University.  Here is an excerpt from his presidential address at the 1992 convention of the New England region of the Society of Biblical Literature published in First Things 30 [1993]:

“The secularity of historical criticism represents not the suppression of commitment, but its relocation. Scholars with religious motivations are thus not out of order in challenging their secular colleagues to make public their own motivations in pursuing biblical studies and to explain how the method fulfills that motivation. In an era of multiculturalism and budgetary constraint, this inevitably entails explaining how the relocation of commitment from a traditional religious sphere can maintain a place of relative privilege for the study of the Bible. Should the answer substitute a cultural for a religious motivation and center on the importance of the Bible in Western civilization, then, in the current climate, a defense of the importance of the West, at least for American students, is imperative. This is, of course, ironic in light of the tendency of historical criticism to think of itself as transcending particularism and debunking claims of privilege. It is doubly ironic because historical critics have usually neglected the modes of biblical interpretation that preceded them, labeling them “precritical” and thus irrelevant to their own task.

Any secular defense of the study of the Bible will also need to account for the canon chosen. Will there be an “Old Testament” or a Tanakh? If the former, then why, if Christological claims are not credited? And if the latter, then why again, if Judaism is also disallowed? Should the response be the classic historicist point that the books should be examined within the limits of their dates of composition, one is compelled again to point out that when they were written, they were not yet biblical and that most do not presuppose a book-religion at all. In short, biblical studies inevitably (indeed by definition) involves the affirmation of certain religious judgments-if not for the present, then at least as a legacy of the past with continuing normative effects. Secularity is no guarantee of religious neutrality.

Historical criticism has long posed a major challenge to people with biblical commitments, and for good reason. What I hope to have shown is that the reverse is also the case: the Bible poses a major challenge to people with historical-critical commitments.”