Tuesday, June 08, 2004

THE SBL FORUM has published its crop of articles for June and, as always, they look very interesting. I haven't had the chance to look at everything yet, but for now let me just highlight David H. Aaron's article "Pre-Modern Biblical Interpretation and the Challenge of New Historicism" as a must-read. Excerpt:
Determinations as to what constitutes "significant" or "less worthy" documents are more complicated than at first apparent. It is not simply a matter of recognizing truth in the old adage that the winners of history have been those most able to dominate the writing of history. Especially when it comes to pre-printing press eras, it is also a matter of recognizing that the winners of history had extraordinary power over which documents would be preserved and which would perish (a trend that continues into our own day, albeit, with somewhat different economic causes). My concern here is quite specifically the portrayal of the history of biblical interpretation as it pertains to critical questions of composition and authenticity. To write this history based on the highly selective exegetical canon of a given era is essentially to privilege the partisan perspective of those who influenced the selection process. Can we not do better?

Even where opportunities to bring about "social rebellion on the study" of Bible interpretation avail themselves, scholars have been reticent to explore the possibilities (albeit, with some noteworthy exceptions). Despite some remarkable "new" old texts, the dominant portrait of biblical hermeneutics has remained rather static for some time. A barometer of this stasis emerges when we contrast the enthusiasm with which the Dead Sea Scrolls literature has been (legitimately) championed by biblical scholars in contrast to the relative (illegitimate) apathy toward Cairo Geniza manuscripts.

He goes on to discuss two little-know works from the Cairo Geniza (I'd never heard of them) which raise historical-critical questions about the Bible many centuries before the Enlightenment.

The problem Aaron discusses is very real. Once � in a job interview, no less � a prominent Patristics scholar who shall remain nameless suggested to me that we shouldn't be working on noncanonical and heterodox ancient literature when there were so many canonical and orthodox texts that still needed basic study. I ventured to disagree. I also didn't get the job.

Still, the situation is improving steadily. Cairo Geniza texts are being edited, translated, and studied, as are Jewish incantation bowls, Merkavah mystical texts and Kabbalah, and ancient Jewish and Christian pseudepigrapha. Our understanding of ancient Judaism, early Christianity, and the history of Western religion in general is all the richer for our better knowledge of the writings and beliefs of those whose ideas didn't win � or at least didn't become mainstream.

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