Scriptural Reasoning and Depth Historiography
Peter Ochs terms “depth historiography” one of the ways in which Scriptural Reasoning practices its redemption of modernity (ii) . Depth historiography posits, in Ochs’ words, that “ancient authors’ reference to God may bear some identifiable relationship to our references to God, and if deep speaks unto deep, we may read . . . the ancient author in order to help us disclose our own A-reasonings” (ii) . In other words, we may find in the traces of God’s presence in scripture a clue to those unseen, infallible, and vague A-reasonings which both illuminate the flaws of modernity’s failed “B-reasonings” and inspire us to create new language to express healing truths (E) . In this essay on Scriptural Reasoning, I want to explore SR mostly in the context of depth historiography.
My own study and teaching has been primarily as a text scholar and historian of religion (mostly of Rabbinic Judaism, but also of New Testament and Second Temple Judaism). I am influenced as well by knowledge of folklore studies I acquired in writing my dissertation on Elijah legends in the Talmud, and my experience as a Christian in the pews of several churches. Finally, much of this essay is inspired by what I learned while teaching a course at Drew Theological School on Jesus in Judaism and the Jewish roots of the Gospel of Matthew. In part because of this course, I am choosing to focus more on the NT, especially the Synoptic Gospels, than on the Hebrew Bible. Another reason for this choice is that, because I am a Christian, the relationship between historical and religious truth in the NT concerns me particularly personally. Last but not least, the Gospels, as texts based on community oral tradition and redacted in Late Antiquity, are more like the Rabbinic legends I study than is most of the Hebrew Bible.
Modern, Anti-modern, Pre-modern:
Teaching seminary students brought home to me that the conflict between recent pre-modern approaches to scripture and modern historical study, both textual and redactional, is not even remotely over. In part, this conflict is a component of the arguments between modern historical study of scripture and those who react against it. The contemporary anti-modern reaction of orthodoxy or fundamentalism retains much that is valuable of pre-modern approaches: it is often, to paraphrase H. Richard Niebuhr, right in what it affirms and wrong in what it denies. Scriptural Reasoning, as a practice which seeks truth, has a potential for healing the divide between modern and pre-modern, between those who, for example, take form criticism for granted, and those who find it repellent or bewildering. This conflict between pre-modern and modern interpretation does not neatly follow the divide between “fundamentalist” and “liberal” denominations or movements. I have seen this conflict at Jewish Theological Seminary, the flagship of the Conservative Movement; I have seen it in my class at the Methodist Drew Theological School; and at times I experience it within myself.
At JTS, it sometimes appeared that Bible professors were content to dissect the Pentateuch into J, E, P, and D, without necessarily discussing the witness to the God of Israel found in each, and that they considered dislike of this as a sign of a naive faith that the brighter students would grow out of. Some students, for their part, joked about the irreligiosity of Bible professors. At my class at Drew, I found that the divinity students, while mostly skeptical about miracle stories such as Jesus’ walking on water, were sometimes troubled when form or redaction criticism suggested that Jesus did not say the words attributed to him.
In Christianity, as in other scriptural faiths, there is a historical focus to our piety; many of us need to know that the events of our sacred story really happened. This need, however, takes varying forms. I know, for example, that while some Christians do not need to believe in Jesus’ resurrection in order to be Christian, for others belief in a literal physical resurrection is indispensable for faith. How do we all talk to one another without using words like naive, skeptical, fundamentalist, or liberal as slurs? And how do we relate to very different faith claims made by the other scriptural faiths without watering down our own beliefs or disrespecting theirs? As I hope to show, SR is part of the solution.
Different ways of Understanding scripture as true;
Part of the pre-modern view of scripture is a strong but vague belief in its truth. The modern fundamentalist reaction to modernism rejects that vagueness and insists that scripture is literally, “scientifically” true, and furthermore that scripture is effectively a self-interpreting document when read through the eyes of correct faith. However, there are ordinary believers (including students I have taught and myself) who still consider scripture a true source of faith and belief in the vaguer sense. Without having a fundamentalist belief in inerrancy, we are not fully satisfied with, or do not fully understand the widely held view that scriptural myths express their own special kind of truth – is mythic truth, we wonder, different from ‘true’ truth? So, in encountering Biblical history, form criticism, feminist analysis, etc., we want to know whether each nourishes the truth of scripture. Does it give us a richer, more nuanced, more powerful understanding of scripture’s message? Or does it alienate us from that message by contradicting the beliefs we consider necessary for faith or simply making the world of scripture too obscure and remote to be meaningful? As I discussed with my students, people will answer these questions differently, but each person needs to ask them openly and answer them thoughtfully.
Problems which Pre-moderns have with Modern Study of Scripture:
Towards the end of his paper, Peter Ochs had kind words for the “plain sense historians” as opposed to the “hermeneutical historians,” because the former make more modest claims about what history can tell us of the world in which scripture was written. I discovered, however, that many of my students found E.P. Sanders’s Jesus and Judaism off-putting or troubling precisely because of the modesty of his claims. Sanders’s fervently millenialist Jesus, as sketched out with appropriate historical reservations, seemed a remote and unattractive figure. Some were also troubled by Sanders’s assumption that his readers already took for granted the basic postulates behind modern critical study of the NT, postulates such as Markan priority, the Sayings Source (Q), and especially the concept that few or no of Jesus’ sayings were preserved with word-for-word exactness by the earliest church, and that numerous sayings Jesus never said were ascribed to him. Some of these students were encountering such postulates for the first time. They found them anything but obvious, and needed me to prove them, which I did to the satisfaction of most but not all. The source of much of their hesitation, I think, was the way in which these postulates of modern NT study detract from the authority of the Gospels, or at least seem to.
Hermeneutical historians, as Ochs mentions, have troubles of their own. E.P. Sanders himself is particularly good at showing how the Jesus of so many liberal Protestant professors ends up being uncannily like a liberal Protestant professor himself. He is kind, thoughtful, not the sort of person to radically offend the rich and powerful. How unlike the Gospels’ vision of a fiery prophet who hardly opens his mouth without challenging religious and secular authority, as well as his mother and relations, his disciples, and Christians today!
Finally, the most troubling manifestation of modern scripture study is embodied by radically suspicious readers of scripture, both inside and outside of the academy, who simply pick and choose which scriptural texts to regard as holy and authoritative, in other words, as scripture. They deny the religious value of passages or entire books that they consider contaminated by patriarchy, prejudice, or authoritarianism, or which seem irrelevant to modern life. More should probably be done by Christians to explore the ways in which the NT, like the “Old Testament”, can be religiously valuable as bad example as well as good. People, however, who can conclude without hesitation, pain, or regret that any part of scripture is irrelevant place themselves outside the traditional orbit of Biblical faith. They are no longer taking full part in one of the historical communities that considers all of scripture the word of God in one sense or another. Such radical skepticism can alienate other believers, including many who are not fundamentalist but who sometimes sound fundamentalist in their objections because they lack a better language.
More Problems with Modern, Anti-modern, Vaguely Pre-modern ways of Reading:
SR has the potential to bridge the gaps among modern, anti-modern, and vaguely pre-modern ways of encountering scripture. Most modern historical approaches to scripture tend to analyze it as a Freudian psychologist might analyze the life of a Nobel Peace Prize winner, looking for the obscure, personal and often self-interested motives, many beginning in the pre-history of childhood, which underlie his or her admirable behavior and his or her flaws. Anti-modern approaches to scripture treat it as an unusually clear oracle, a voice direct from God which, if interpreted in correct traditional ways, states unambiguously exactly how believers should behave and believe. Numbering myself among those with a vaguely pre-modern approach to scripture, I would say that we often end up trying to combine anti-modern and modern approaches. We accept traditional interpretations preserved by anti-modernism if we are comfortable with them, and use historical interpretations to analyze passages of scripture which seem antithetical to our modern values. This approach is vague in the colloquial as well as the philosophical sense; it is unsatisfyingly imprecise in its intellectual aims, without the clear agendas of modernism or anti-modernism. SR, in my experience, is giving me a third way to relate to scripture.
Scriptural Reasoning as a Solution:
One of the ways in which Scriptural Reasoning approaches scripture is as a revered spiritual teacher, who is, nevertheless, human and potentially fallible. In comparison to modernism and anti-modernism, the human analogy to SR’s relationship with scripture is to a relationship between human beings that is vibrant, unpredictable, and life-giving. Another way to characterize SR’s relationship to holy text is that it emphatically sees it as God’s word, but recognizes that it is God’s word translated into the human language of various times and places. Thus it may need re-translation, for as the apostle Paul said, “now [in his time as well as ours] we see through a glass darkly, but then we will see face to face” (1Cor. 13:12). This way of seeing scripture affirms its holiness but avoids treating it idolatrously.
There are many voices speaking out for this kind of reading. Three who come to mind are Hans Frei, of blessed memory, Moshe Greenberg, and David Halivni. I hope that SR will be able to draw together those who listen to such voices and also to challenge others to consider joining them. Modern historical interpreters of scripture can be inspired by SR to consider their own religious relationship to the sacred texts they study. Is there perhaps something unsatisfying for them in habitually trying to divide their life of faith from their academic study of the scripture of their faith? On the other hand, I suspect that some fundamentalists might begin to question their anti-modernism’s rigid distinction between acceptable and unacceptable interpretive questions, and yet find modernism unacceptable. SR can offer them an alternative to modernism which approaches scripture seriously and reverently but not in pre-determined ways.
For both moderns and anti-moderns I hope that SR can also provide a model of interpreting communities in which readers do not have to agree in order to get along. SR invites people to explore both intellectual and spiritual aspects of their interpretations, and to do so both as individuals and as members of faith communities. Finally, SR has from its outset demonstrated that people of different faiths and different degrees of traditionalism can start and end study with prayer. This not only manifests good will and potential for trust among participants, but also serves as an outward and visible sign that all who enter the circle of discussion are open to the unpredictable grace that moves through the act of coming together to study scripture.
SR’s Approach to Historical/Textual Study:
SR can make historical study alive, perhaps infused with spirit, perhaps even reverence. Once the paradigms of modernism are set aside, it becomes apparent that good historical study of scripture need not be secular or take secular study as its model. Here are some examples. On one level closely allied to modern scholarship, SR can be informed by the growing understanding among historians of oral tradition that most miracle stories contain no non-miraculous “kernel of truth” predating their miraculous details. For Biblical authors and their traditional sources, as for many people today, miracles are part of reality, and most miracle stories contained miracles from their earliest telling. Thus if a reader of scripture has modernist inclinations, s/he is forced to confront her or his understanding of God’s ability to perform miracles without the comfort of reconstructing any “real historical” non-miraculous reality underlying a miracle story. This is not to say that SR is to have a particular theology of miracles, only that someone doing SR must seriously consider questions of the miraculous in each instance.
Another key historical point often neglected by modern historical study of scripture is the spiritual power of scripture’s protagonists. Many believers (I speak from experience) have met one or more holy individuals who have changed their lives by example, or in the course of a few weeks, or even in a brief conversation. Modern historical study often simply ignores this. They take, for example, the descriptions of the crowds who flocked around Jesus as either an exaggeration or a sign that people were hungry for physical healing or sensationalism. However, leaving aside precisely what claims for Jesus were made in his lifetime, and leaving aside which of those claims are true, the historical fact is that any such claims flow from the lived experience of his Jewish contemporaries that Jesus was a person of awesome spiritual power, as were the Biblical prophets and Muhammad. If I may presume to say so, the idea of a human being who could change peoples’ lives by walking into their village and asking for a drink of water is simply too alien for most modern professors of NT to consider, and thus they miss an important historical truth.
Finally, SR understands that history can be guided by faith and vice versa. The two modes of thought interact, not only in second Samuel or the Acts of the Apostles, but also whenever any believing historian analyzes a scriptural text. Furthermore, as Ochs suggests, deep can call to deep, and believers today should not discount their spiritual insights on how the creators of scripture were touched by God. Since God is beyond history, it follows that different historical ages experience the same God, each in its own appropriate way. (Nor is God limited to any one religion’s theological formulations. And in doing SR with people of different faiths, we recognize the sometimes frightening fact that God may speak to us in a holy text not our own.)
We also have the experience of our own age’s fear, falsehood, and cruelty, including the fear, falsehood and cruelty within ourselves, to help us understand the struggles of those who wrote our holy texts. If they were sometimes both survivors and perpetrators of injustice (or, in traditional language, sinners), this makes us more akin to them. How does the 20th century, mother of countless new atrocities, manage to stand arrogantly in judgment over the undoubted sexism and spiritual elitism of the 1st? The only way in which I can understand this attitude is by comparing it to the bitter arrogance of adolescents who have been taught exceedingly high ideals by authoritarian means and then discover how their parents and teachers do not live up their own teaching. The notion, however, that the Bible is a perfect production by and for sinless people is not found in the Bible, but rather in traditional pre-modern interpretation and even more in anti-modern thought.
If a woman has been taught that scripture justifies the subordination of women, her rejection of traditional faith and scripture is sad but understandable. Her heart-felt sense of betrayal can be met open-heartedly by a believer, who may be able to both learn from her and suggest that she re-consider her rejection. If, however, a believing woman rejects the possibility of truth in some or all of scripture because she has heard second hand, or gathered superficially, that scripture justifies the subordination of women, she is not thinking or even reacting for herself. She is allowing herself to be caught in the crossfire of modernism and anti-modernism. SR, in contrast, proposes wrestling with scripture to find its truths, and if all else fails, is open to a compassionate fellow-feeling with the faults of its creators, rather than the bitterness of an adolescent let down by her teachers.
An additional point:
People of Biblical times were truly different from us. The NT, for example, is far more alien from me as a 20th century woman because it was produced by first century writers than because it was a (mostly?) male product. The large differences between then and now are helpful in several ways. First of all, the blindnesses of people then are sometimes on things that we see clearly. Slavery is one example. In the 19 th and 20 th centuries, for all their troubles, nearly everyone in the world has come to understand that the solution to the problem of slavery is not to treat slaves better. That just doesn’t work; slavery is inherently opposed to God’s will. So there is a blindness of Biblical times that we are not in danger of falling into. Even better, there are truths which people understood back then and which our age does not understand or understands very differently. Humility is a good example. SR’s practice of reading scripture historically accepts the differences between scriptural times and our own. Thus historical SR can learn from scripture itself better ways of reading that do not anachronistically over-domesticate or apply it too facilely to modern theology or modern issues.
To illustrate this idea, I want to touch on a concept very alien to many 20th century believers, whether modern or anti-modern: the fear of God. Some modern explanations go so far in explaining how the Bible does not understand fear as we understand it that I wonder why the explainers think the particular word “fear” was used. We are afraid of violence, poverty, disease, suffering, rejection, aging and death, so we are not unacquainted with fear in the 20th century. Yet we (and I include myself here) find it difficult to understand how the fear of God or the fear of sin might ever be wholesome. We do sometimes understand how painful or problematic emotions and experiences can be consecrated and become ways to grow in the service of God. For example, persecution, sexual desire, despair, and worldly success, all experiences which can separate us from God, all have contemporary advocates to explain how they can actually be paths to the Creator. Why not fear? But when we read Scripture’s testimonies to God’s nature and actions that seem to inspire holy dread, we react with incomprehension, confusion, or dismissal. I am still working on this one myself, in the context of Scriptural Reasoning.
A Final Analogy:
I will end with an analogy that occurred to me while I was thinking about form criticism of the Gospels in relation to SR. Form criticism, in its insight that the Gospels record the oral tradition of the earliest Christian communities, argues that the NT does not provide as true or accurate a picture of Jesus as it is traditionally thought. In some recent scholarship which takes form criticism’s postulates as granted, it appears to me that this insight is distorted into the claim that modern scholarship can easily give a more accurate picture of Jesus than the much closer to contemporaneous witness of the Gospels. This is the attitude in, for example, the Jesus Seminar, which disturbs many vaguely pre-modern believers. However, there are other ways of understanding the insights of form criticism that do not lead to this problem.
An analogy in the spirit of SR is to consider the Gospels as one might consider a story told by a grandson about his grandmother or great-grandmother. The grandmother is a person of deep faith who suffered deeply, endured bravely, and did God’s work in a wonderful way. Possibilities that come to my mind are that she was a Jewish woman who was attacked for opposing racism in the Jim Crow American South; a Christian woman who hid Jews from the Nazis; a Muslim woman who endured persecution for continuing to practice her faith and helped others throughout the Cultural Revolution in China. Now imagine that this grandmother was a good storyteller but not much of writer. She told her grandchildren about what happened to her, and the miracles that kept her alive and enabled her to live as she did. Her account is the product of many years of memory, prayer, and faith. Is what her grandson might tell me true in every detail, and utterly, “scientifically” accurate to the time it happened, without influence from the grandmother’s distillation of experience through ritualized storytelling and the influence of her grandson’s contemporary understanding? Naturally, it is not. Is it a witness to a Truth that saves and heals, one that has changed the lives of the grandmother and grandson and can change the lives of all who listen to him? Yes, it is.
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