Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 6 (2006) - Review

Leo Perdue, Reconstructing Old Testament Theology: After the Collapse of History (Overtures to Biblical Theology; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005). Pp. xvi + 399. Paper, US$20.00, CAN$26.00. ISBN 0-80060-3716-X.

The author published a monograph on the “collapse” of history as a framework for OT theology in 1994; this is a follow-up on new directions taken by Biblical theologians in the decade since. The most important directions noted by the author are various forms of liberation theology—Latin American and African-American, feminist and womanist, and post-colonialist. He also considers Jewish Biblical theology, Biblical theology that takes its cue from the history of (ancient Near Eastern) religion, and post-modern Biblical theology.

When Perdue speaks of the collapse of history, he means not only those theological schemes that focused on the deeds of YHWH, but also those which relied heavily on critical analysis of the texts of Scriptures. However, the history of (ancient Near East) religion differs from the other histories by stressing the common theological horizon of the ancient Near East. Rainer Albertz is identified as the most vocal spokesman for an objective, disinterested study of Israel's religious development instead of a canonical Old Testament theology. Perdue welcomes the contributions of history of (ancient Near Eastern) religion, but challenges practitioners to identify what is true in the Biblical articulation of the common religion.

Liberation theology has been articulating a theology with a significant exegetical foundation for a third of a century. For this movement, history has not collapsed, but is now read from the underside. God's salvation of slaves becomes a promise to the poor and oppressed everywhere. Exegetes from the margins bring sensitivity to outsiders in the text and the experience of exile.

Perdue devotes two chapters to feminists, according to their use of scientific or literary methods. Feminist theology not only seeks to recover perspectives missed by male interpreters, but subjects Biblical writings to a critique of male bias. Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza and Sallie McFague, neither of whom is an Old Testament specialist, adopt a modern version of a canon within the canon.

Perdue adds a chapter on post-colonial theology at the end of the book, but it has most of the marks of a liberation theology—at least a liberation of the mind from colonial ways of thinking. This project is still in its infancy.

In the case of Jewish Biblical theology, it is a matter of an ancient religious tradition adopting a new mode of articulating the meaning of sacred texts. Biblical theology seemed foreign and unnecessary to Jewish Biblical scholars: classical Judaism did not distinguish between what the texts of Hebrew Scripture taught and what the community is to believe. But that problem has emerged as Jewish scholars have accepted critical methods of Biblical interpretation. There have been some very promising forays into Biblical theology by Jewish thinkers in the last decade or so. The one who stands out is M. Fishbane, who has honed a distinctive method of studying textual tradition, intertextual exegesis, and more recently has begun to explore the mythical imagination.

In recent decades, a generation of French phenomenologists have caught the attention of philosophical circles in the world at large. This “post-modern” skepticism has brought the intellectual traditions since the Enlightenment into question. Post-modernism challenges the objectivity of knowledge and the universality of ethical principles. It would seem impossible to think theologically when all “meta-narratives” are condemned and all foundations for knowledge are eschewed. Perdue discusses Walter Brueggemann under this heading, though he admits that Brueggemann only shares some concepts with post-modernism. Mieke Bal is also located here, but she is neither a post-modernist nor a theologian.

It seems to me that Perdue's book is really a rather arbitrarily constructed ideal typology. Many of his categories are not filled, or at least not filled by an Old Testament theologian. A few of those who do fit the category, like Phyllis Trible, wrote their major contributions before the decade Perdue purports to report on. Perdue, I think, believes someone should fill each category.

Moreover, Perdue dismisses or diminishes several significant Old Testament or Biblical theologies. Brevard Childs because his canonical principle has no appeal to author; Rolf Rendtorff both because he has adopted Childs' canonical principle and adheres to von Rad's theology of historical deeds. Neither Paul Hanson nor Terry Fretheim get so much as a mention. If it were not for the Jewish theologian Jon Levenson, the history of religions school deriving from Frank Cross would be reduced to a few furtive footnotes. So this is a book about the ways Old Testament theology should be done rather than the ways it is being done.

Perdue surprised me in the conclusion by stating that “the power of imagination to create narrative worlds of meaning…provides the greatest potential for conversation between these developing ways of doing Old Testament theology and historical criticism” (p. 342) because he has not given those of us who have been exploring the mimetic imagination in Biblical theology the time of day.

Dale Patrick, Drake University, Des Moines, Iowa