Several years ago, John D. Levenson wrote an article, “Why Jews Are Not Interested in Biblical Theology,” published in Judaic Perspectives on Ancient Israel, ed. J. Neusner et al. (Philadelphia: Fortress 1987), 287–307, in which he said that most Jews are not interested in biblical theology because this field of study is a Christian endeavor.
Marvin Sweeney, in his new book Tanak: A Theological and Critical Introduction to the Jewish Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012) says that Old Testament theology provides “a model of systematic interpretation of the Bible from which Jewish biblical interpretation may benefit” (p. 5).
Sweeney is Professor of Hebrew Bible at the Claremont School of Theology and Claremont Graduate University. He is the author of many books, including a commentary on the book of Kings published in the Old Testament Library series.
Below is an excerpt from Tanak:
Jon Levenson argues that Jews are not interested in biblical theology because the field is inherently Christian and because so much of its teaching is antithetical to that of Judaism if not outright anti-Jewish. To a certain degree, he is correct. Biblical and Old Testament theology are quintessentially Christian theological disciplines designed to address questions of Christian theological thought, particularly the interrelationship between the biblical text as read in Christianity and the formulation of dogmatic or systematic Christian theological teachings that play such an important role in Christian life and thought. Judaism does not rely on systematic theology or doctrines in quite the way that Christianity does. Instead, Jewish interpreters pay close attention to the details of the biblical text in an effort to discern the various aspects of its meaning and its impact on Jewish life and thought. Nevertheless, Christian biblical and Old Testament theology provide a model of systematic interpretation of the Bible from which Jewish biblical interpretation may benefit. Although Christian efforts at such systematic interpretation of the whole of the Christian Bible or the Old Testament are not always successful, the question raised by the field—viz., to what degree can the Old Testament as a whole be interpreted?—is a valid question that may be asked by Jews of the Tanak. Biblical theology provides a synthetic overview of the interpretation of the Bible that aids interpreters in understanding the Bible at its most general and overarching levels. That is not to say that detailed exegesis of individual passages is no longer necessary; rather, biblical theology is ideally based on the detailed exegesis of individual passages that contribute to the overall interpretation of the biblical text. For Jews, biblical theology provides the means to incorporate the interpretation of the individual passages of the Tanak into an overarching scheme that will facilitate fuller understanding of the interpretation of the Tanak at large. Such an effort has the potential to provide Judaism with a fuller reading of its foundational scriptures. It also has the potential to provide similar insight to non-Jewish readers via a Jewish reading of the biblical text that is frequently quite distinct from Christian (or Muslim) readings of the same.
A brief and selective survey of the field of Christian biblical or Old Testament theology illustrates both Levenson’s concerns about the field and the possibilities that a Jewish biblical theology might offer.
In his book, Sweeney offers a theological interpretation of each section of the Tanak. His interpretation of the Torah follows the ten toledoth found in the book of Genesis. In addition, Sweeney uses the toledoth of Jacob that appears in Genesis 37:2 to discuss the history of the twelve tribes of Israel and the toledoth of Aaron and Moses in Numbers 3:1 to discuss the history of Israel under the Levites.
Sweeney provides a theological introduction of each book of the Tanak by emphasizing each book’s historical and literary background as well as its message.
I have enjoyed reading Sweeney’s book because it presents a Jewish theological and historical perspective to each book of the Jewish Bible. I highly recommend this book to seminary students and to anyone who desires to gain an advanced theological and historical knowledge of the Jewish Bible.
Fortress Press has made available “Part I: Introduction” in PDF format. In Part I of his book, Sweeney discusses the Christian approach to Old Testament theology and then provides his view of a Jewish approach to biblical theology. This section of the book is the key to understanding Sweeney’s approach to the theology of the Hebrew Bible.
By making Part I available to the general public, Fortress Press offers readers an opportunity to become acquainted with this important book. Those who read this introduction will surely desire to read the book in its entirety.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary