The Pilgrim’s Pensieve #28
This is sort of a review of my 2017 in biblical theology. (Yes, I know it is a bit late for this sort of thing but I think it is still worthwhile sharing.) Towards the back half of last year, my passion for the Hebrew scriptures reached an all time high. I mentioned how it was such a pleasant surprise to realise that in that period I had come to love the Hebrew Scriptures as much as the New Testament. What I did not talk about was what I encountered in my deep dive in to the Jewish scriptures. The following is more or less a review of last year in terms of my theology.
I guess what made me enjoy the scriptures so much was that it was very challenging. My views on a lot of things were thoroughly tested and I think I am better for it. Like I found with the New Testament, the gauntlet was laid by scholarship. Scholarship does not discourage me from the Bible. It rather draws me further in because it always shows me there is always so much more to learn. The love of scripture cannot be separated from its study. There were a lot of articles, lectures, academic papers, and other resources that I consumed last year and some were very significant. There were three books that I read which had great impact on me. They were in the order I read them The Prophetic Imagination by Walter Brueggemann, The Liberating Image by J. Richard Middleton, and The Memoirs of God by Mark S. Smith. (I have not read through everything in Memoirs of God but it has been very influential nonetheless.) I do not intend to give a review of each book. You can find excellent ones online. However I will offer some highlights from each book on things that were particularly meaningful to me.
I finally decided to read Brueggemann after having heard so much about him. I listened to and thoroughly enjoyed a podcast interview of him, which was the clincher, so I read his most famous work The Prophetic Imagination and loved it. Now the book is not strictly devoted to the Hebrew Scriptures but it does form the bulk of it and its central thesis is developed from it. I really appreciated how it was sound biblical theology grounded in a careful reading of the scriptures themselves. (I have a certain respect for any thing that brings me back to the text.)
Brueggemann’s work agreed with a lot of my views on the prophetic (which you can find here) and his work is much more developed. While I haven’t talked much about his book on this platform, it has been a great influence. His views on prophetic counterculture have undergirded my understanding of Christian identity and its relationship to culture and politics. His reading of biblical politics led me to reconsider the issue with more care. What I found particular shocking was his critique of “the royal ideology.” He criticised the monarchy, David and especially Solomon. While I disagree with him the most when it comes to that, it was still very helpful and insightful. It was needed pushback against the tendency to totally idealise biblical heroes which says a lot about how we perceive our own heroes and leaders.
Reading The Prophetic Imagination encouraged me to read the next book, that is The Liberating Image. Brueggemann touched on the imago Dei in expositing royal ideology. I read a short paper on the imago Dei by Middleton which was based on the work he had already done on The Liberating Image. I was familiar with his other work and I enjoyed it so I finally decided to read the book. In a different way, he also tackled ideology. He showed how our readings of Genesis affect our view of God, his relationship to humanity and the rest of creation, which in turn has profound real world consequences. Even though Middleton is a great admirer of Brueggemann, he does provide some gentle but firm push back on royal ideology as he explored what the imago Dei meant in its ancient Near Eastern (ANE) context. His work introduced me to other ANE theologies through (ANE mythology) which I was very interested in for my own theological project. (Also I have loved mythologu since I was a child so I really enjoyed learning some new mythologies.) Now in the first half of the year, I had become convinced the best way to do theology is to do it biblically. That requires the appreciation of the cultural milieu of scripture, recognising how people of that era understood “god.” With the introduction Middleton offered I learnt more about the gods of the ANE which readied me for the work of Mark S. Smith.
The Memoirs of God were the most layperson friendly volume by Mark Smith on the history god of the Hebrew scriptures available. This was for me the peak of my exploration into Old Testament scholarship. Smith’s work summarises where scholarship is at on the Old Testament on a level accessible to the general public. My experience with NT scholarship prepared me to fully engage it. I could no longer dismiss it so cavalierly as I had done in the past because I now understood the reasoning behind it and it made a lot of sense. It presented the most significant challenges I had ever encountered to my understanding of God and scripture. This time I was ready for it and I relished the chance to sink my teeth into the tough questions.
In terms of history, Smith’s work prompted me to reevaluate what “history” means and how we relate to the past. Even if you accept the “maximalist” position, scholarship presents a very different and compelling picture of the historicity of the Bible from traditional Christian views. The major paradigm shift for me was accepting the Bible was not a history text book just as the study of Genesis led me a few years ago to realise it was not a scientific document either. This position raises a lot difficulties. The Bible is more grimy and human than I had previously imagined. Yet these things made it even more interesting because it forced me to appreciate it for what it actually is and it is glorious. The theological impact of this earthy, historical, perspective is immediately apparent on monotheism, which has been addressed on this platform. A less obvious avenue it opens are alternative categories to do theology which is grounded in the world of the Bible, instead of one that is based on later philosophical categories.
Another immensely helpful contribution from Smith’s work was alerting me to the importance of sociology. Over the last few years, I had noticed that it did sometimes help the study of the Bible. The first instance of this for me was Rodney Stark’s classic The Rise of Christianity. Smith applied a lot insights from the sociology of group identity formation and cultural memory in particular. All this brought me to the full realisation that sociology is indispensable for holistic biblical studies. (John Barclay’s Paul and the Gift is a recent example of the importance of sociology.) For me recognising it was a significant development since it expanded the disciplinary paradigms through which I evaluate scripture.
Finally, while they are not books that I read last year, they are still wonderful resources on the Hebrew Scriptures I encountered which were greatly beneficial. The teaching of Tim Mackie, an Old Testament scholar and co-creator of The Bible Project, was very helpful. He not only explored the structure of individual books but how the canon developed and fits together as one coherent narrative. He impressed on me the dazzling literary brilliance of the scriptures. Another immensely helpful resource was a lecture by Hebrew Bible scholar Robert Alter which you can find here on The Art of Biblical Narrative. He not only provided the most cogent and articulate reason to take scripture as literature seriously, he elucidated key literary features that unlock the scriptures. Last but not least, the OnScript podcast has provided a variety of resources on the cutting edge of biblical scholarship, which as a layperson has been indispensable. I first encountered the work of Mark S. Smith on that medium which challenged and revolutionised my understanding of divinity.
In terms of biblical theology, 2017 was very productive for me. It was a marquee year. I learnt so much about so many different things. What stands out for me is I gained a more holistic and thorough grasp of scripture because I was now equipped to engage the Tanakh, the largest segment and bedrock of the Bible. I appreciated how wonderfully sophisticated it is, even more than I had thought, which made it more interesting and exciting. The Bible became more challenging but for me that is precisely what makes it fun. It isn’t boring and familiar but demanding, pushing me to give it my best. Knowing the difficulty of the task ahead I know there’s much to do and I say bring it on.