Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 12 (2012) - Review

Kalimi, Isaac (ed.), Jewish Bible Theology: Perspectives and Case Studies (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2012). Pp. xii + 276. Hardcover. US$49.50. ISBN 978-1-57506-231-0.

The publication of Jewish Bible Theology serves as an important directional marker in the academic dialogue surrounding Jewish interest in and influence on the discipline of biblical theology. While the book consists of fifteen essays written by different Jewish authors who do not approach Jewish biblical theology with the same assumptions or perspectives in every respect, the collection as a whole indicates an active interest and influence among Jewish thinkers past and present. In the wake of this book, the familiar maxim that Jews are not interested in biblical theology is a contested if not endangered perspective.[1]

The book begins with a helpful introductory chapter penned by the editor in which each contributor's essay is thoroughly summarized. In what follows, I will summarize the contours of the book and assess its value for the ongoing questions concerning Jewish biblical theology, as well as for the more general discipline of biblical theology. The subtitle, Perspectives and Case Studies, essentially captures the two parts of the book. In Part 1, “Jewish Bible Theology,” Frederick E. Greenspahn provides a historical survey of the (Hebrew) Bible's role and status within the various streams and traditions of Judaism, while Ehud Ben Zvi critically evaluates recent discourses that preclude the possibility or reality of a Jewish biblical theology. Together, these two essays argue that Jewish biblical theology is viable as a perspective for understanding the past and as a posture for engaging the future. The thirteen essays in Part 2, “Case Studies,” provide concrete examples of ways in which Jewish biblical theology has existed and/or might yet be understood.[2]

A number of common features unite many of these essays and suggest possible contours for Jewish biblical theology. First, Jewish biblical theology is not merely the exegesis of biblical texts, even though it undoubtedly involves careful and critical exegesis. Most of these essays demonstrate that Jewish biblical theology can be conversant with the expansive corpus of early post-biblical Jewish (and Christian) literature. This conversation can be one in which the Bible is informed by (e.g. Sommer's essay) and/or informing (e.g. Kaminsky's essay) post-biblical traditions. I find it peculiar and unfortunate that the volume contains an Index of Scripture listing deuterocanonical literature and New Testament passages but omitting the more frequently cited and arguably more relevant post-biblical Jewish literature. The inclusion of this material in the index of a book on Jewish biblical theology would correspond to the inclusion of New Testament passages in the Scripture index of Christian Old Testament Theologies. This is one area where Jewish biblical theology may yet frame and adapt their own discipline in the light of conventions established in Christian Old Testament theology. As it stands, this index adopts the latter discipline's conventions without adapting them to a distinctively Jewish perspective on biblical theology that is otherwise characteristic of the general tenor and argument of the book.[3]

Second, Jewish biblical theology is not limited to bringing the Bible into conversation with early post-biblical literature; rather, contemporary Jewish and/or secular concerns are equally legitimate conversation partners. Once again, influence in this conversation is multi-directional. Just as the biblical text may influence how contemporary and/or secular issues are understood (e.g. Novak's essay), contemporary and/or secular concerns may impact how the biblical text is understood (e.g. the first of Greenberg's two essays). In this respect, the relevance of this book is not limited to those interested in the nature of biblical theology and the relationship between Jewish and Christian theology. The book is also relevant to a wide audience of Jewish, Christian, and secular readers and students interested in the intersection of religion, sacred texts, and contemporary society.

Third, Jewish biblical theology does not merely engage the Bible in dialogue with post-biblical texts and contemporary issues; rather, it investigates the dialogues that take place within the Bible itself (see pp. 27–28 and the essays by Sweeney, Brettler, Sommer, and the second essay by Greenberg).

As these three observations indicate, this volume contributes to a growing trend in the larger discipline of biblical theology to adopt a dialogical approach to biblical theology. As Brettler observes in the conclusion to his essay, “what I and others believe to be a core element of Jewish biblical theology is not uniquely Jewish, and may indeed reflect the direction in which general biblical theology is moving” (p. 197). [4] He goes on to affirm that Jewish biblical theology can retain its distinctiveness through its “interest in showing continuity with postbiblical Jewish tradition” (p. 197).

Jewish Bible Theology is the first of its kind, a collection of essays written by Jewish biblical scholars self-consciously reflecting on the nature of biblical theology from a Jewish perspective, yet within the framework of biblical theology as a general discipline. The publication of this volume follows the first instance of a Jewish scholar publishing a comprehensive volume on the theology of the Tanak.[5] All of this reinforces the argument in Ben Zvi's essay that “recent efforts have led to the development of a hyper-area of biblical theological discourse in which Christian and Jewish biblical theologies enter into dialogue and shed light on each other” (pp. 39–40). Thus, while Jewish biblical theology betrays the influence of Christian scholarship in biblical theology, this book promises to stimulate and provoke Christian Old and New Testament theological reflection (see especially the essay by Kaminsky).

This volume is a constructive contribution to the discipline of biblical theology, a welcome resource which those involved in biblical theology would do well to acquire and engage.

Joseph Ryan Kelly, Southern Seminary

[1] I am alluding to the well known article by Jon Levenson, “Why Jews Are Not Interested in Biblical Theology?,” in J. Neusner, B. A. Levine, and E. S. Frerichs (eds.), Judaic Perspectives on Ancient Israel (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987), 281–307; republished in his collection The Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament and Historical Criticism: Jews and Christians in Biblical Studies (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1993), 33–61. reference

[2] While the past reality of Jewish biblical theology is a topic of reflection in the first part of the book, the inclusion of two previously published essays by Moshe Greenberg is an instantiation of such a reality. That Greenberg's essays are no more or less unique to the collection than any other contributor's suggests that what this book identifies as Jewish biblical theology has existed in the recent past despite certain claims to the contrary. reference

[3] Such adaptation stemming from Jewish engagement with Christian biblical theology is positively endorsed in Ben Zvi's essay (pp. 39–41). reference

[4] The core element to which Brettler is referring is a “Mitte-less theology,” though this apophatic descriptor is a part of his general argument that “any Jewish biblical theology needs to be attuned to polydoxy or polyphony” (p. 189), terms that otherwise belong to discussions of dialogism. reference

[5] Marvin Sweeney, TANAK: A Theological and Critical Introduction to the Jewish Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2011). reference