On the Cutting Edge: Rethinking an Ancient Text
By Sara-Jo Kriedeman
In today's world, the Bible is commonly looked at from two different perspectives. One is that it is a set of religious texts, or sacred scripture, providing a foundation for widespread religious beliefs. The other, from a more secular perspective, is that it is simply an ancient document filled with mythology--leaving us little or nothing to analyze. Both of these views bring challenges to the academic study of the Bible. University of Minnesota professor Bernard M. Levinson takes these challenges head on, showing his students and readers the power and importance of biblical studies.
Levinson, who conducts research in biblical and Near Eastern studies and law, admits that even he wasn't always interested in the Bible. "I actually got pulled into it kicking and screaming," he notes. But as an undergraduate at York University in Toronto, he found himself in a class called Classical and Biblical Backgrounds to Later Western Literature. He became fascinated with the impact of the Bible on literary works and Western intellectual history. Today, with groundbreaking publications focusing on biblical and cuneiform law and inner-biblical exegesis, Levinson has become one of the leading scholars of the Hebrew Bible.
Aware that many of his students have formed opinions of the Bible before they even enter his classroom, Levinson admits he has to get creative to inspire his students: "I have to try to make the Bible, in some ways, strange." One of his larger lecture classes, Bible: Context and Interpretation, for example, was designed so that students not only learn a certain amount of essential content about the Bible, but that they also reflect upon their assumptions of it. "It's only when students see what they are projecting onto the Bible, and how there is a gap between what a text actually says and what they take for granted from the beginning, that they can learn to think," says Levinson. To promote this, he helps students paint a picture of the cultural world from which the Bible comes, emphasizing the fact that the Bible didn't just fall out of the sky. "The major paradigm that I try to get across is that the Bible is a literary canon, that it is the product of authors, of thought, and of labor."
In fact, Levinson's latest acclaimed research concentrates on the intellectual creativity of those responsible for the Bible. In his book Legal Revision and Religious Renewal in Ancient Israel (Cambridge University Press, 2008), Levinson focuses on transgenerational punishment (the idea that God punishes later generations for the sins of prior generations) from Exodus 20:5-6. He uses it as a case study, tracing the way the authors of the Bible interpreted, challenged, and then reworked previous texts and traditions within the Bible.
Levinson's careful research in Legal Revision and Religious Renewal in Ancient Israel challenges modern perspectives on the Bible. It argues that the editors and redactors of the Bible were not trying to promote a single, univocal "truth" or ideology when conducting their work, but instead created a remarkable text that was unusually inclusive. "I think potentially, the editors of the Pentateuch consciously sought to create a text to serve as a compromise document to include different sociological groups within Israel without privileging one voice or one group or one ideology over another." He believes the editors of the Bible chose to weave these texts together into something that valued inclusiveness and debate over one single set of interests. In this way, the limited set of Biblical texts--the canon--allows for critical reflection upon the textual tradition and "invites constant, continuing renewal."
Still, some current religious traditions are opposed to the idea of there being critique and debate within the Bible. Levinson sees the irony in this. "Both the ancient synagogue and the ancient church were much more intellectually open than we now give them credit for.
Certain positions within the past 100 or 150 years present themselves as the traditional religious point of view where, in fact, the early synagogue would have very open debates about these texts," he explains. "From my perspective, some of the contemporary arguments are out of touch with the actual history of the traditions within both the church and the synagogue. The creative nature of the canon is proof of this," he says. "The canon encourages critique and authorizes dissent, authorizes the inclusion of a range of opposing voices."
Levinson has some concerns when it comes to academic study of the Bible. He believes there is as much lack of knowledge about the ancient Near East and about biblical scholarship as there is illiteracy about contemporary developments in science. "I think today people have a tendency within civil society to reject the Bible because of the way certain groups represent religion and associate it with particular political agendas. The public voice of religion in American society is usually not one informed by academic religious studies." Levinson finds this unsatisfactory. He believes that studying the Bible can teach us not only about its authors' values, but also about their creativity when it comes to a stronger model of social inclusion and respect for difference.
Levinson also thinks we can learn something from studying the biblical texts that matter in the American legal context. "I see an analogy with contemporary debates about the role of the Supreme Court relative to the constitution." According to Levinson, issues such as how to understand the role of the Supreme Court in interpreting the American constitution are similar to, and can be illuminated by, the way authors in ancient Israel and early Judaism handled authoritative texts.
Levinson's work is wide-ranging, with topics from neo-Assyrian vassal treaties to the Dead Sea Scrolls. His interests extend into the modern period. He is about to publish the first full English translation of an essay by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) on the Ten Commandments, placing that essay in its cultural context as it constructs a myth of German identity. Another project investigates the transformation of the discipline of theology in Germany under National Socialism during the period 1934-1945. A book on divine revelation examining the role of authors and of editors is underway. No matter what the topic, Levinson's work demonstrates the complex and intellectual nature of the Bible. In the face of popular opinions, Bernard Levinson continues to challenge back, proving that the Bible is more than just an ancient text. In his opinion, if we would only look deeper, the Bible can be quite cutting edge.
Bernard M. Levinson holds the Berman Family Chair in Jewish Studies and Hebrew Bible at the University of Minnesota. His home department is Classical and Near Eastern Studies and he is also appointed to the Law School as an affiliate faculty member. He serves on the steering committee for religious studies and previously directed Jewish Studies. For a complete list of publications visit: http://www.tc.umn.edu/~levinson/.