Not a lot. And that is what disappointed me.
I’m reviewing Marvin A. Sweeney‘s TANAK: A Theological and Critical Introduction to the Jewish Bible (Fortress, 2012) for BBR so my full reflection will appear there, however, there is an aspect of this book that I’d like to explore here.
I think Sweeney is a fantastic and insightful scholar and I always relish the opportunity to read his latest work. Naturally, I came out of my skin when I heard that he was producing an introduction to the Jewish Bible. There are few people more qualified than him to it and I thought that this book would make a tremendous addition to the reading list for my Old Testament classes.
The first chapter (Part I: Introduction) was classic Sweeney, that is, it blew my socks off. Particularly, the section “The Task of Jewish Biblical Theology” is one of the best reflections that I have ever read that outlines how to engage in constructing a biblical theology from within a particular faith tradition while staying in full conversation with other religious and non-religious communities. Sweeney then goes on to describe a distinctly Jewish approach. In defining what Jewish biblical theology is Sweeney helpfully demarcates it apart from the dominant Christian formulations:
Whereas the Christian Old Testament is read first in relation to the New Testament and then in relation to subsequent Christian tradition with an eye to defining the dogmatic or systematic theological principles that define Christian faith and practice, the Tanak is read in relation to the entirety of Jewish tradition with an eye to defining both the identity of Jews as a distinctive and holy people and the halakhic practices and religious perspectives that are pertinent to Judaism (25).
He goes on to further differentiate Jewish approaches from Christian ones:
Thus Judaism does not find itself based in dogmatic or systematic theological principles as Christianity attempts to do; instead, Judaism emerges as a religion of continuous dialog, both with the traditions and among contemporaries through time, as it seeks to understand the divine will as expressed in Torah and subsequent Jewish tradition (33).
Sweeney outlines many other things but I think these two quotes reflect Sweeney’s vision for Jewish biblical theology: study the text well according to contemporary critical standards and then bring these insights into conversation with Jewish tradition both ancient and modern. My disappointment with the volume stems from the fact that Sweeney doesn’t seem to follow his own advice. He does the former (critical study of the text) very well but the latter (conversation with Jewish tradition) hardly at all. After the introduction the entire balance of the book (save 2 pages of summary conclusion at the very end) is a detailed discussion of the content of Hebrew Bible that works sequentially, and in some cases, textual unit to textual unit, from Gen to Chron.
Looking through this discussion of the content of the biblical text it seems like it could have been the product of pretty much any critical scholar like, say, a Joseph Blenkinsopp (9 entries in the index). Sure, there is a little sprinkling of references to Jewish tradition here and there but practically no more than one would expect from a responsible Protestant, Catholic, or agnostic scholar. For example, Tremper Longman is cited more often than Martin Buber, Anthony Campbell, S.J. makes more appearances than Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Ronald Clements is quoted more than Michael Fishbane. Maimonides and Rabbi Akiba appear one time in the index, RaDaK twice, and Rashi not at all. “Systematic Theology” has three references, the same as ibn Ezra and “Heilsgeschichte” appears just as often (2x) as “Pardes.”
What is missing from this book is a deep and sustained conversation between contemporary critical consensus and Jewish tradition. Sweeney never seems to get very deep into the theological part of this introduction, much less the distincitvely Jewish part. But this is what I deeply wanted. I wanted a deeply critical *and* Jewish approach to the Hebrew Bible. I think that people who engage in biblical and theological studies must remain in conversation–real deep and substantive conversation–with perspectives different than their own. These perspectives should cross all boundaries: ideological, temporal, areas of specialization, etc. Among many other benefits, this stimulates creativity, deepens an understanding of the strengths and weakness of one’s own perspective, and it fosters mutual respect and civil dialog with those that we may disagree with.
Sweeney has produced a great critical introduction to the Hebrew Bible but I am less sure that it is an introduction to the Jewish Bible. Yet, this is what I think Sweeney was in the perfection position to provide and it would have been something that we all would have benefited greatly from.
What are your thoughts on this book in particular or on the bigger topic of inter-religious scholarly study?