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Marvin Sweeney argues for Jewish biblical theology

November 19, 2011

I have begun reading Marvin Sweeney’s Tanak:  A Theological and Critical Introduction to the Jewish Bible, which appeared today.  (I previously mentioned this book here).  In it, Sweeney argues for something quite subversive, a Jewish biblical theology.  Judaism usually views itself as having no theology at all; and further Sweeney (correctly) acknowledges Christianity as the originator of the field of biblical theology.

Sweeney is directly taking aim at Jon Levenson’s famous thesis, expressed in his essay “Why Jews are Not Interested in Biblical Theology” (printed here and here).  Levenson argues biblical theology is inherently Christian and further that much of its teaching is antithetical to Judaism (if not outright anti-Jewish.)  In contrast, Sweeney argues

To a certain degree, [Levenson] 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….  for Jews, biblical theology provides the means to incorporate the interpretation of 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.

I am skeptical but the book looks interesting regardless of whether Sweeney can demonstrate his thesis or not.  Perhaps I will post some thoughts as I work through Sweeney’s book.


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