Jon Levenson on the costs and limitations of historical criticism

“Historical criticism has indeed brought about a new situation in biblical studies. The principal novelty lies in the recovery of the Hebrew Bible as opposed to the Tanakh and the Old Testament affirmed by rabbinic Judaism and Christianity, respectively. Jews and Christians can, in fact, meet as equals in the study of this new/old book, but only because the Hebrew Bible is largely foreign to both traditions and precedes them This meeting of Jews and Christians on neutral ground can have great value, for it helps to correct misconceptions each group has of the other and to prevent the grievous consequences of such misconceptions, such as anti-Semitic persecutions. It is also the case that some of the insights into the text that historical criticism generates will be appropriated by the Jews or the church themselves, and they can thereby convert history into tradition and add vitality to an exegetical practice that easily becomes stale and repetitive. But it is also the case that the historical-critical method compels its practitioners to bracket their traditional identities, and this renders its ability to enrich Judaism and Christianity problematic. There is, to be sure, plenty of room in each tradition for such bracketing. There are ample and long-standing precedents for Jews to pursue a plain sense at odds with rabbinic midrashim and even halakhah and for Christians to interpret the Old Testament in a non-Christocentric fashion. But unless historical criticism can learn to interact with other senses of scripture—senses peculiar to the individual traditions and not shared between them—it will either fade or prove to be not a meeting ground of Jews and Christians, but the burial ground of Judaism and Christianity, as each tradition vanishes into the past in which neither had as yet emerged. Western Christians are so used to being in the majority that the danger of vanishing is usually not real to them; after all, the post-Christian era will still be post-Christian, not post-something else. But Jewry, none too numerous before the Holocaust, has now become 'a brand plucked from the fire' (Zech 3:2). And most Jews with an active commitment to their tradition will be suspicious of any allegedly common ground that requires them to suppress or shed their Jewishness.

“Bracketing tradition has its value, but also its limitations. Though fundamentalists will not see the value, nor historicists the limitations, intellectual integrity and spiritual vitality in this new situation demand the careful affirmation of both."

—Jon D. Levenson, The Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, and Historical Criticism (1993), p. 105. That line about Christians in the West not feeling the danger of vanishing, by contrast to Jews after the Shoah, is worth ruminating on. God be praised for Levenson, who is peerless and unflinching in his insights into and critique of historical criticism.


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