GLOBAL BIBLE COMMENTARY

Pros and Cons of Contextual Biblical Interpretation:
Critical Reviews of Global Bible Commentary (Abingdon, 2004). 

Methodological and Pedagogical Issues

 

Reviews presented at Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature Philadelphia, 2005 in the Consultation on Contextual Biblical Interpretation by

 

Randall Charles Bailey, Interdenominational Theological CenterMercedes L. García Bachmann,  Instituto Superior Evangélico de Estudios Teológicos (ISEDET) Buenos Aires, ArgentinaJames Crenshaw, Duke UniversityUriah Kim,  Hartford Seminary • Elaine Wainwright, University of AuklandRichard Horsley, University of Massachusetts, Boston  William C. Placher, Wabash CollegeAbraham Smith, Perkins School of Theology • Gale Yee, Episcopal Divinity School 


 

 

Randall C. Bailey

 

“What Ever Happened to the Good Old White Boys?”

Review of Global Bible Commentary, Daniel Patte, Gen. Ed., Abingdon, 2004

by

Randall C. Bailey

Interdenominational Theological Center

Atlanta, GA

               

                What a formidable task to just collect such an array of biblical scholars, from such a variety of contexts.  I am amazed, awed, and thankful for the work of the editorial board of this most important project for the work they did in gifting us with such a variety of scholars and scholarship.  Being able to read the works of scholars from across the globe, many of whom I knew, and many of whom I met in the course of reading this work, is a major contribution that this volume presents to the guild of biblical scholars and to the ecclesiastical structures who have nurtured them.  No longer can the guild say with integrity that they do not know of any biblical scholars other than white men and a few white women.  No longer can the guild say with integrity that there is only one way of reading a text or that there is only one context from which “REAL QUESTIONS” can arise.  No longer with integrity can the guild continue to practice intellectual dishonesty by ignoring the works of those who come from outside the mainline networks.  Now, be clear, I am not saying that they can no longer do these things.  Rather I am saying that no longer WITH INTEGRITY can they continue these practices.  And for this I am most grateful to the editorial team of this volume.

                One of the major contributions of this work is giving to us dialogue partners from across the globe.  It makes us aware of new works and writings which we have missed.  It makes us aware of new writers whose careers we need to follow.  I know Amazon.com is happy with the acquisitions I’ve made over the past few months as I came across works cited in this volume which help me in my own research.  The inclusion of biographical materials and bibliographies by the writers as footers to the front of each article in this book has made a significant contribution to my own library and I’m sure to those of many of us in this room today.

                The format of the volume, by foregrounding the social context from which the writer speaks is most helpful to readers and a revolutionary move on the part of the writers.  While it is not new, since womanist, feminist, and other scholars have been trying to teach us the importance of social location in the scholarly endeavor and the importance of foregrounding this in our work, many of us trained in the “myth of objectivity” also know of codification of Eurocentrism, have resisted this way of speaking and writing.  Such materials in this volume help to broaden one’s understanding of the Christian journey/trek across the globe and its impact.  I would have to say Christian, since most of the authors with the exception of Brenner and Cooper, in this volume profess Christian beliefs, and also since the ordering of the chapters in the book follow Luther’s Canon, thus giving a decided Christian flavor to even the Hebrew Bible section of the book, to which I shall confine my remarks. 

                Learning of the ways in which the biblical text was introduced into various parts of the world, was most intriguing.  To hear of the use of the text as a counter-cultural force in places like pre-WWII Korea (Wong) and current day India (Melanchthon) was most helpful in seeing the power of this text.  Learning of the ways in which continental Africans have conformed themselves to the text, sometimes to the exclusion of traditional religious elements (Kwasi), sometimes to the syncretism of the same (Adamo), has been challenging and eye-opening for me personally as a biblical scholar and believer.  Uncovering the roles that class, gender, ethnicity and sexuality play in the readings of the writers of this volume has been illuminating.  It is to these dimensions of “contextuality” that I would like to address my remarks.

                As “contextuality” is used in this book, there are two different main subcategories of the term.  The second is the “context” in which the biblical text is presumed to have been produced.  For some authors this is primarily an historical critical construct in line with source criticism, giving authorship and date information for the writing of the biblical book to the reader.  For others this is an opportunity to raise ideological questions regarding the text, its production, and commitments in ancient Israel.  For others this endeavor is to situate the biblical book within a social matrix which can intersect positively with the social context of the writer.  These ways of dealing with contextualizing of the biblical texts is the first signal to what has happened to the good old white boys.  For while very few of the writers in this volume fit into that category, without exception, it is to the good old white boys, and in a few instances, the good old white girls, to whom the writers in this volume turn to answer the contextual questions.  The bibliographical listings at the end of each chapter are dominated by the writings of the “good old white boys.”  Their ways of dividing up the biblical book generally predominate the ways in which the book gets treated by the authors in this collection.  Their arguments over genres and which passages are significant still steer the discussion in the commentaries.  So, while they are not listed in the “Table of Contents”, the good old white boys are alive and well in their grip on the discipline and in our own contextual readings of the biblical text.  For many of the writers in this volume these were their teachers.  For some the listing of these works becomes the stamp of academic integrity.  For others these ultimately are the authorities by whom we must pay homage.  Interesting, there is little critiquing or taking these approaches to dividing up the books to task, though there are some examples of this, such as in Sampaio’s treatment of Hosea. 

                Let me hasten to state that the writers of this volume often cite works by biblical scholars who are not white and male.  Most of the times, however, these are references to scholars from their own geographical contexts or their own racial/ethnic identities, a point to which we shall have to return later in this review.  The one place where there is some crossover is among women scholars.

                By the same token, though very seldom is it acknowledged in the articles, the context of “being in the bible” as the “authoritative Word of God” is most important to the writers of this work.  If there is a problem to be explored regarding the oppressive use of the text, it is generally to the interpreters that these writers turn for blame.  It is not the biblical text itself which is the culprit.  Rather it is the ways in which the text has been so called “misused.”  Thus, the deity as character is out of bounds for analysis in most instances by these writers, either in regard to the ethics of this character or in regards to the complexity of this character.  While this may be a result of the social context of the writer and the way the writer’s community views the biblical text, it greatly impacts the “contextualization” treatment of the biblical book itself in the works in this volume.  As Adamo informs us it is the potency of the words, which come from God, which prove efficacious in the African context.  Thus, the contextuality of the biblical books is inscribed in canonization and its meanings for the writers in this volume.  Again, though this is not spoken of directly, “being in the bible” a major contextualizer in the readings that are given to the commentaries in this volume.  While this may also be attributable to the desire that this book serve both the academy and the church, it is deeply imbedded in the views of the writers themselves.  As Weems states these “texts are simultaneously to be submitted to and struggled against (212).”   Thus, the Context of the biblical text is defined by what prevailing biblical scholarship and ecclesiastical authorities have claimed it to be, and to these altars many of these writers bow.  I am not pointing this out here to problematize this work, rather to be descriptive of how it works in the volume.

                The first and foremost way “contextuality” works in this volume is the social location of the writer of the article.  The varieties of ways this happens is most fascinating.  For some, such as Cooper and Scholz’s treatment in Leviticus, religious affiliation and nationality predominate.  For some the political situation in their countries predominates in the definition of context, such as for Kwasi, Pixley, and Wong, in their respective treatments of Judges, Exodus, and Esther.  For some it is their racial and cultural identities which predominate in their self-contextualizing, such as for Havea, Lee, and Weems in Numbers, Lamentations and Jeremiah respectively.  For others it is gender concerns as they impact either themselves or women and children in their contexts, such as for Sampaio, Melanchthon, and Fewell in Hosea, Song, and Ezra-Nehemiah respectively.  For others it is the geographical location in which they are located and its impact on others, such as for Amos and West in Genesis and Samuel respectively.  Still for others it is their religion which defines their context, as with the dialogue of Cooper and Scholz.   In other words, the freedom of these writers to determine what they mean by context and what context means to them is part of the genius of this book.  The varieties in the ways in which context gets defined, both from an historical to a contemporary construct, helps us to see that not only for this writer, but for all writers, contextuality functions in our writings.  The conscious attempt to explore this dimension of scholarship and to foreground it in each article helps the reader to look not only at these articles but articles in other books and to deduce how contextualized all scholarship is.  This learning in fact runs contrary to the notions which many writers in this collection claim, namely that Eurocentric research is non-contextual.  The questions which scholars raise grow out of one’s context and one’s relation to that dimension of life.  All scholarship is contextual. In my reading  Noth’s argument for amphyctiony and Alt’s Stammes grow out of their mythic understandings of the development of Germany as a nation.  Similarly Bultmann’s embrace of existentialism grows out of the struggle and inner conflicts of surviving Nazi Germany without being part of the resistance.  It appears to me that Gottwald’s reading of early ancient Israel as egalitarian grows out of his socialist leanings and context.  By the same token Trible’s listing of texts of terror grows out of her commitment to struggling for equality for woman and reverence for the text as “Word of God.”  All writers are contextual.  Whether we share the information with the reader or pretend to being objective, we are all contextual and write contextually.  Reading the Global Bible Commentary we learn how to decipher the contextual leanings of and influences upon the writer.

                Archie Lee, Adamo and Havea raise an alternative ways of doing contextual readings, which seems to differ from most of the writers in this volume.  While most of the writers take ancient Israel’s context and see how it relates to their own, even to the point of using it as the norm by which to judge their own contexts, the above mentioned use their context to filter the biblical writings.  In other words, these writers use their own cultural understandings as the lens through which to read the biblical text.  They raise the question of privileging one’s own context as reader.  Adamo raises the problem that the missionaries took so much away from African religious expressions and expectations, but replaced it with nothing to address these concerns.  He then argues that the African Independent churches place these religious understands back at the center and read the Psalms as incantations within this framework.  Thus, the number of times the name of the deity is called in a Psalm speaks to the ways in which it will be seen as addressing a problem of the reader.  Similarly, Havea and Lee take their peoples’ literature and proverbs and use them to assess the strengths and weakness of ancient Israel’s literary attempts to address analogous situations. 

                It is intriguing that this method of contextualizing is such a minority expression in this collection.  Most of the other writers see themselves and their people in the role of Israel in the text, even when this is not the most appropriate analogy given historical experiences.  Thus, Mbuwayesango can on the one hand say that the invasions and colonization in southern Africa make Joshua 1-12 problematic, but she then turns around and advocates the principles of division of the land proposed in Joshua 13-20 as applicable to the context.  How can the principles of the invader-colonizer be useful to the actions of the indigenous people, I wonder?  Similarly, Kwasi’s claim that the problems in post-colonial Congo were attributable to the abandonment of the “God of the Ancestors” caught me off guard.  I first thought he was stating that the abandonment of traditional African religion in favor of Christianity was the problem, which made sense to me.  In reading further, however, he calls YHWH the God of the Ancestors.  I was taken aback.  By the same token he is oblivious to the misogyny in the book of Judges.  While Wong sees the killing of the indigenous people in the end of Esther as reason to question the usefulness of the book for her people, Massenya in advocating both Ruth and Naomi as role models for African Southern African women, must ignore totally the sexual actions depicted in the book, and cannot center on Ruth as the convert.  Similarly Pixley’s concentration on Exodus 1-24 as the model and not the integral relation of the 26-40 on the liberation message is intriguing.  What makes this all the more intriguing is that Robert Allen Warrior’s challenge to such readings seems to have gone unheeded.   There appears in this contextual approach a tendency to see our experiences as valid only in so far as we can see them modeled by ancient Israel and their god or gods, depending on one’s readings of the text.

                As a person of African descent I am intrigued by this collection and its implications for us on the continent and in the Diaspora.   What has happened to us that we feel confined to pushing our story and our understandings of deity into someone else’s story.  What has happened to us that even when we see the ideological problems in the text that we contort ourselves into reconciling ourselves with such texts?  In most of the Latin American writers it appears that the tendency in dealing with such texts is similar to the African and African Diasporan readers, namely to protect the deity, or should I say the depiction of the deity, as it appears in the text.  Why is it that some Asians are able to resist this tendency?  What a happened in the process of globalization of this religion and in the missionary efforts, which caused such upheaval.  Was there more respect among the missionaries for the Asian religions and traditions, that their efforts made way for differing readings?  Was the missionary dissing of African and so called Aboriginal peoples and religions so vicious that we capitulated to their demands in ways that resulted in our giving up our selves to the venture.  And as Adamo asks, to what purpose?  And are the psychological scars so devastating and deep for us, that we cannot recover and will continue capitulating to these texts, to be submissive to them in the service of what?  In the African Diasporan traditions in the US there is evidence of our rejecting the text, rewriting it in lines of our own religious experiences, as presented in the Spirituals.  In the African continental context, there are traditions of rejection of the text and now reclamation of constructs such as ancestral veneration as integral to the religious experience of the people, but these are minority possibilities for today.  Why, I ask, do we submerge and subjugate our stories to these in the text?  And will that continue forever?  This collection has pushed me to explore these questions more deeply than ever before, and for that I am grateful.

                Another side of the contextualized scenario is seen in the works of the some of the Euro-descended writers in this volume.  It is most interesting to me that West doesn’t read Samuel from the standpoint of a descendant of the colonizers who felt God had given them a Jerusalem royal theology to control the land forever, subjugating the local Ammonites, Moabites, Edomites, Sea Peoples, etc.  Rather he shares the reading of the subjugated people.  I often wonder, are there no ordinary white South African readers.  Similarly Amos reads Genesis through the eyes of the so-called “Middle Easterners” in Lebanon and Palestine, with whom she lived and worked.  What would happen to a reading of Genesis from the standpoint of the Brits who saw God having given them dominion over all and the imperative to subdue the whole land?  I guess I am wondering if this approach to contextuality is within the framework that is only the darker people who are contextual?  Is this colonization of knowledge?  While it is clear by their commitments to this project and inclusion in this volume, that this is not their intent.  We have to ask, when will the “WHITE VOICE” become contextualized and put on the level playing field with the other contextual voices?  Fewell attempts this in her opening statements, but follows through primarily in terms of gender.  It appears to me, that in order for this project to go to the next level, such contextualizing of Eurocentric approaches and exploring of this variable’s impact on the reading will need to be placed in dialogue.

                Finally, while this project has most successfully put before us varieties of ways of reading and interpreting the text, it also shows us some short falls which need to be addressed, three of which will be mentioned here.  First, as noted above, the major dialogue partners for these writers is the canon of Eurocentric male writers, with a smattering of writers from their own national and or racial context.  Given this collection and its richness of authors and citations of their writings, the next move is to see how these groups and individuals dialogue across their boarders.  In other words, at what point will the Asians cite the Latin Americans?  When will the Latin Americans cite the Africans?  And when will the Africans cite the African-Diasporans?  It is clear that the work that has been done to open the subject of context now needs to be opened further to our dialoguing also with each other and not just with the guild doorkeepers.  With all the work that has been done on African backgrounds for the Hebrew text, it is disappointing to see that not even the African writers engage this material.  Writers are still talking about Mesopotamea as the primary influence on ancient Israel and not ancient Africa.

                Secondly, the men HAVE TO START READING THE WOMEN.  Engagement of and resistance to misogyny in the text cannot be only the charge of women.  When one writes from a context, if the context is patriarchal, one must critique the context and the text.  The same goes for class and sexuality.  The heterosexual bias in this collection and the non-engagement of queer theory shows that it is really only one part of the guild that will be privileged.  Again, in speaking from our contexts, when there is theory which shows biases in our contexts, we must in integrity engage the dilemma.

                Thirdly, writing for the ecclesial institutions does not mean that we in the academy do not have a charge to push them on issues.  Engaging the ecclesial institutions means respecting their approaches and readings, but also challenging them on their centrisms, which are not necessarily liberatory for their followers nor their communities.

                Again, I thank the contributors to this volume for the ways in which they have expanded my horizons for biblical interpretation and for the honor to enter into dialogue with them around these issues.


Mercedes L. García Bachmann

           

           

            Latin American Biblical Interpretations

in Global Bible Commentary

Mercedes L. García Bachmann

ISEDET,

Buenos Aires, Argentina

 

This is not an easy task for me. There are blind spots in my vision, which have to do, precisely, with where I do stand. Rather than speaking about myself, I try to outline how do I see my own and my colleagues’ work as Latin American biblical scholars. In this way, I try to acknowledge other people who have treaded this path along with me and mostly ahead of me. I do believe this hermeneutical contextual approach is a valid one. Through the seven points of my first part (called “Main Issues”) and my conclusions, I try to show why.

I. Main Issues

I scrutinized all GBC articles written from the LA experience. They are nineteen.[1] Overall, I find two key terms. The first one, “(economic) system,” is often mentioned explicitly; the second one does not appear so often, but is nevertheless acknowledged with names such as “conflict,” “death,” “injustice,” “poverty,” and others. Perhaps an example will help. In his article on Matthew, Duarte states that

Jesus’ messianic identity is defined by places of death: the cross where he dies and Bethlehem where his people (the children of his people) die (2:16).

... In the beginning of the gospel, the identity of the Messiah and his function contradict each other; the hope of the poor is ‘fulfilled’ in the death of the poor.[2]

From these nineteen articles, the main issues I find significant (besides those specifically raised by the biblical text discussed) are the following ones: 1.socio-economic matters, including especially 2.imperialism; 3.concern for the weakest members of society, 4.refusal to take every text as normative; 5.confidence in people’s ability to read texts and reality; 6.a community-oriented, rather than individual-oriented reading of the Bible, and 7.a sense of responsibility to share hope despite everything.

 

1. Socio-Economic Matters

One common trend I perceive is that of correlating biblical concerns with socio-economic matters. From its beginnings, Latin American liberation theology has made use of the tools provided by Marxist analysis of social class and surplus appropriation of goods. Class and economy are powerful components in everyone’s life; a fact that usually goes unacknowledged until our interests are touched –or until life puts us in contact with other realities, opening our eyes. Most of us writing in the GBC are engaged in grassroots movements, where it is but impossible to be blind to class issues.[3]

This awareness may be seen very clearly in Krüger’s article on Luke’s God and Mammon:

By telling the story (or stories) of Jesus, this author addresses some very serious problems in his communities: the increasing social and economic differences between the rich and the poor, the total disregard and contempt of certain social groups by others, the self-centeredness of some individuals. ... He shows the link between Jesus and a group of people who were poor, disregarded, and sinners. Simultaneously he shows Jesus’ opposition to the selfish rich, who disregard others and imagine themselves to be self-sufficient people, and his call to them for sincere repentance and a changed life.[4]

 

2. Imperialism

Analysis of these death-dealing economic aspects of past-times and present-day life would not be accurate without analysing imperialism. I find in my region’s scholarship a harsh critique of imperial systems, which crush counter-economies and counter-cultures. This can be seen very clearly in Míguez’s article on Galatians:

The market is a mechanism created by human beings as a place where both material and nonmaterial goods are exchanged and work contracts circulate. ...because it is total, it seeks to establish itself as the arbiter of all human activity, to occupy every space of creation and exclude anything or anyone who does not submit to its rules. ...

Paul wrote his letters against the backdrop of the Pax Romana as an ideology, an enslaving economy, and imperialistic politics. It is with the backdrop of the Pax Americana, the neoliberal economy, and imperialistic power that we read Pauline literature today.[5]

In the case of some Roman Catholic scholars, there is also an especially harsh critique of the instrumental role of the Church in its setting and continuation. I quote:

.. the proclamation of Christian monotheism often became the mirror image and the legitimization of the European monarchies and the carbon copy of a theocratic, imperialist church. This church was more anxious to expand its frontiers and power than to announce the gospel of life, grace, and liberty.[6]

3. Taking Sides With The Weakest Members of Society

Although not all writers surveyed identify themselves as “liberation theologians,” most writings show first-hand awareness of social class tensions and people’s struggles to ensure basic human rights. This awareness may come from work with landless peasants, shantytowns, children and youth, women’s groups, Native American communities, homeless city-dwellers, and others. When writers go to a biblical text with those experiences on their shoulders, they discover in the text insights and clues previously unnoticed. This preference for a reading from the poor can be seen very clearly in da Silva’s article on Nahum:

In this context, the prophecy of Nahum represents a cry of freedom by people who suffer from injustice, as they witness the destruction of their oppressors. ... “Nahum’s prophecy is a forceful appeal to people and communities who live in situations of oppression. It presents its readers with a challenge: remain a silent accomplice of injustice, or cry our and tear down the tyrannical powers. Nahum invites its readers to denounce injustice, to restore the usurped rights, and to proclaim the just judgments of God.[7]

 

4. Refusal to Take Every Text as Normative

Here we are getting into the touchy field of biblical canon and authority, which is, certainly, a very complicated matter. Yet, writers (I have the suspicion that this applies especially to women) sometimes are bold in their refusal to take every text as normative. This can be seen very clearly in Tamez’s article on 1 Timothy:

We women must understand the struggle for power and affirm the author’s rejection of any authority that derives from social status. Yet, on the basis of this teaching, we must also reject the other part of the author’s teaching according to which women should be excluded from positions of authority because of their gender.[8]

 Tamez’s refusal comes from confronting a biblical text that coerces women into silence both with other biblical texts and with reality. For poor women, used to being single parents, the only financial providers for their homes and the ones carrying on the neighbourhood’s activities, a text that calls them to silence is not acceptable, even if put under Paul’s authority.[9]

I would add that, not only is it not acceptable, but in some circumstances keeping silent might be deadly, because speaking up in defence of their rights might be their only way for women and others in a dangerous situation, to survive.

5. Community-Oriented, Rather than Individual-Oriented Reading

Without going so far as to compare Latin American scholars to Mediterranean societies –however much we have inherited from those peoples– I notice in the writings by my colleagues a perception of reality largely determined by community readings of the Word, rather than individual readings. This means not only that their experience with local communities determines their focus, but also that they see in the texts more than individual heroes (the Hollywood type, winning alone against the whole world, is not their favourite model). I quote:

The Magnificat begins with the individual and personal in the choice of the virgin Mary as mother of Jesus (Luke 1:48) and expands to the community of the poor in (Luke 1:53) (sic).”[10]

Or, speaking of the Servant poems in Deutero-Isaiah,

“At the textual level, the Servant can only be Israel ... The Servant is the symbol of a community, not an individual. The ‘we-speech’ of 53:1-6 confirms this statement.”[11]

Of course, this community-orientation does not dilute personal responsibility; it is not a “we” that hides a “me,” but it reminds that no reading is absolutely personal, for there are always several communities and contacts behind each one of us.

6. Trust in the Community’s Ability to Interpret the Word

This is an important point in most if not all scholars researched. Sometimes it is explicitly stated; other times, it is more an attitude on the part of the writer. Academic study of the Bible is accompanied by its interpretation within a community of believers. In most cases, these communities belong to the lower social classes living in shantytowns or very poor neighbourhoods. Its members are usually migrants, Native-Americans, Afro-Americans; often, they are overworked or unemployed, many are single mothers with several children, and many are illiterate.

Yet, they are wise! They have learnt to read below smokescreens set up by politicians, advertisement, and all kinds of sermons. I quote:

Behind the scholars of the First World, there is a library. Behind the scholars of the Third World there are continents of poor and marginalized peoples.[12]

 

This sentence makes use of the rhetorical device of hyperbole! We use libraries as well, although often ours are not so well provided. The point the author tries to make is, rather, that we read our libraries set in our back as we sit in our desk, but we take as many insights from people standing, sitting or walking on our side in the communities we belong to. The following quotation is a little long, but the last sentence may help see the point more clearly:

It does not take much reflection to see that this kind of accumulation [i.e., the achievement of profits as financial transactions, without further increase in the production of goods] must take away from many in order for some to enrich themselves. This is possible in large measure by a merciless extraction of wealth from impoverished countries, an extraction that is only possible through a policing network of financial organizations controlled by U.S. financial interests: principally, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Trade Organization (WTO), and the World Bank (WB). In our Bible study groups and church reflections, these mechanisms are understood by ordinary people.[13]

7. Hope Despite Everything!

Financial and political crises, old and new, lighter or heavier, can be easily sensed when perusing the LA writers of the GBC As I read, what called my attention is the need to offer hope in the midst of those crises. Hope despite everything! I perceive a sense of responsibility toward society; responsibility that is more based on prophetic faith than on scholarship:

The church and the people of God should have a message of hope to proclaim in the seemingly hopeless situation of a lot of impoverished people in Uruguay. Such a message –unlike the position of some charismatic churches –must not be perceived as escapism that drives deprived people into a magic present realm and a purely eschatological expectation.[14]

On the other hand, I sense in the biblical scholars surveyed the joy and gratitude of having learned lots from the people’s reading of the Bible; it is a circle in which everybody teaches and everybody learns. I quote:

Hearing the question of these women who are marked by the stigma of marginalization, we addressed their questions by reading the Bible in dialogue with them. We paid attention to certain texts that the mainline churches had stopped reading both in community worship and in theological reflection.[15]

Perhaps a way to envision this sensation is by the image of a mother mediating between two quarrelling siblings. These two are the Bible and the people who read it. This mediating figure would intercede defending the people from certain biblical claims, for example, by refusing to take every text as normative (as already discussed), but on the other hand “redeeming” the Bible, i.e., making it available and meaningful for today’s crazy world.

II. Some Conclusions Derived from These Observations

All Argentineans writing in this commentary are, to a major or lesser degree, Severino Croatto’s children -we have been influenced by his teachings, writings and “table talk.” Duarte makes this explicit in his article, when he states, “Severino Croatto always taught us that biblical hermeneutics is a reflection on the text within our own context and with those with whom we share our reflections.”[16] Starting with this presupposition, perhaps there is no way to answer questions such as “Is this a hermeneutically possible interpretation?” but from within the same hermeneutical conditions –or at least, being very familiar with them. This standpoint raises, of course, the problem of how to assess other positions. Perhaps the best way is in occasions like the present one, in which different positions can introduce themselves and enter in dialogue with each other.

As I tried to assess contributions from my region and the ethical and hermeneutical questions they pose, this image came to my mind: when you break an ice cube with a needle, the needle’s strength is not in its comparative size, but in its capability of opening up a breach, of producing a weakness in the surface one wants to break. 

The image of the needle and the ice cube applies in that these writers, aware of the conflicts that afflict our personal lives, our communities, our churches, our schools, our countries, and our region, look for conflict within the text, for internal disagreements, breaches through which to recover suppressed or forgotten liberating readings. (Of course, other people are doing so too, this is not specifically Latin American). It derives from the need the oppressed feel to counter-balance other readings presented as “the Word of God,” which have adorned oppression with a sacred varnish.

Some writers make this approach explicit. Gallazzi, for instance, would (I quote) “use ‘conflict’ as the interpretive key to the text and read these pages [Ezekiel 40-48] ‘from the margin,’ from the perspective of oppressed peoples, in order to see how the text takes sides” and to “open our eyes to recognize when and how power inside our churches follows the logic of oppression and exclusion.”[17]

I try now to concentrate my conclusions around the issues of contextuality, concerns, and methodology.

1. Contextuality

The more I reflect on these issues, the more I remember the tale of three blind men who had never seen an elephant and tried to describe one from what they touched. According to their position in relation to the animal, an elephant would be all tooth, like a wall or a long tail. We all read from our position, which might be broad or narrow, diversified or not, in solidarity with, or blind to less privileged positions.

There are at least class, ethnic, gender, and age factors, which determine our context and which should be considered when making it explicit. Thus, before we can discuss the use of these contextual methodological approaches and their validation, we should discuss whether there is a way of interpreting a text that is not contextual. I don’t think there is -but perhaps this should also be discussed.

  2. Concerns

As I read and read those nineteen authors, I realized one characteristic is that of looking at issues from a broader, a panoramic view, rather than an individual view; systemic manoeuvrings rather than personal accidents. Let me give you an example. One may look at poverty and even assess that someone is poor because he or she does not want to work, prefers a more relaxed life, and so on. While there might be people who think in this way (curiously those who want a more relaxed life are the rich enough to afford not to work!), in our present-day world it is no longer possible to make such a naïve analysis without considering increasing unemployment rates even in the North-Atlantic countries, drainage of resources from the underdeveloped nations to the developed ones, financial speculation, high concentration of capitals in ever fewer hands, exhaustion of natural resources in large areas, war, and so on.

I also notice that those who have written in this commentary share in common an engagement with non-academic communities, which determine our readings and also the concerns with which we read. 

3. Methodology

Regarding methodologies, here I would like to state that, to my knowledge, Latin American writers do not abjure de the historical-critical methods, which most of us have diligently learned in our seminaries and schools. Sometimes I have the feeling that our scholarship is second-class because it does not remain with those purely academic questions, but it goes further into –and makes it explicitly– those social, economic, political, and cultural issues that affect our continent.

And because of this feeling, I chose two quotations to end up.

It is important to clarify that Galatians –or any other biblical text, for that matter– does not directly refer to our present-day situation. Its language, questions, and metaphors occurred in a specific historical situation. The validity of the exegetical and hermeneutical task is in trying to find guiding principles from the text that, in light of faith, will allow us to analyse the new issues of our contemporary context and to assess how the text addresses these issues.[18]

And the second one,

My primary goal as I read Matthew is to discover how to formulate the critical questions we need to address to biblical texts in such multicultural, social, economic, political, and religious situations.[19]

Both are definitions of what is the hermeneutical task as envisioned by these writers. The first one states clearly what the historical-critical methods have taught as, namely, the gap between the biblical text and ours, and the specific characteristics of the biblical world. Both state clearly why study these old texts. One puts it in terms of “guiding principles” and the other, of critical questions. Both seek answers for today’s world.


Jim Crenshaw

           

Global Bible Commentary:  Wisdom Literature

Jim Crenshaw

Duke University

 

                In forty-one years of teaching the Hebrew Bible I have never thought it necessary to dwell on the particular context within which my ideas are framed.  I have always believed that my words should be judged in the international court of opinion on the basis of their logical cogency.  In this respect, I have followed the lead of an intellectual giant in the twentieth century, Gerhard von Rad, who was content to fight national socialism with the potency of words rather than opting for the more heralded “in your face” approach of Karl Barth.  I am not sure which method, overt or covert, is more effective.  I do know, however, that my personal psyche is more inclined toward the latter method, one that demands quiet resolve rather than public display.

                Reluctantly, therefore, I concede that I am a white heterosexual male who was trained as a form critic in a secular university; that I am most interested in the Bible as literature, but that the injustices of human existence compel me to ask theological questions; that I embody a hermeneutic of suspicion toward all texts; that the cultural context of ancient Israel is the best commentary on the Bible; that I am liberal in viewpoint, Western in cultural orientation; and that I do not subscribe to the belief that we have experienced a shift in paradigm from the historical to the literary, despite the widespread acknowledgment of the role of readers in modern discourse.  History is still very much with us, as the several interpreters of the Global Bible Commentary painfully remind us.

                That statement rings true even if one concentrates on the literature from below, the wisdom literature and other texts like Psalms, Lamentations, and Song of Songs which begin with the human situation rather than divine revelation.  In formulating the social contexts in which the writers of the commentary find themselves, they isolate certain systemic evils that threaten to overwhelm society itself.  Two authors, Brenner and Melanchthon, focus on the plight of women and religion’s lamentable role in suppressing females and robbing them of self-esteem.  Two more, Adamo and Lee, accuse Western textual methods of devaluing the special contributions of Asian scholars in a fruitless quest for universals.  Two additional interpreters, Ntreh and Prior, emphasize the transforming negative power of colonialism and corrupt bureaucracy that created a dependent populace that is prone to resignation and dreamlike fantasy.  In short, particular histories shape theological discourse in every instance, contributing both pathos and protest.  Only Prior views the collapse of civility as a catalyst for creative activity, but this hopeful sign is left unexplored.

                These probes into the different writers’ social settings reveal astute self-awareness and admirable empathy, over and above the abhorrence for corrupt regimes that have created a huge gulf between rich and poor.  In a few cases, disdain for the oppressors has obscured the raw fact that things are rarely so simple.  Imputing greed and ulterior motives to others even when they clearly possess benevolent intentions goes hand in hand with a lack of self-criticism, particularly in Ntreh’s remarks about the church’s practice of hiring Africans to work in timber and farming and about the salvific potential of strategic investors and foreign direct investors.  One suspects that such investment strategies, like the International Monetary Fund, will soon be rife with corruption.  Similarly, the charge of laziness should be seen as a call for self-examination and perhaps a little honesty that goes beyond pointing a finger at those who are responsible for the situation.

                From my perspective, the most glaring omission in this section of the commentary is integration of the present context with that of biblical authors.  The one exception is Brenner, whose brilliant analysis of the social setting of Proverbs is nicely woven into the discussion of modern understandings of the place of women in society.  For her, the Bible cannot be normative, for it deprives women of their dignity and turns them into useful items at the disposal of men.  To her credit, she names the offensive features of the Bible for what they are and refuses to accept their authority.  To be sure, her stance as a-religious gives her freedom to reject biblical authority, and her predilection toward literary merit leaves a seriously truncated canon.  If only two texts in Proverbs merit one’s consideration--the imagery about the way of a man in a woman, that is, the mystery of sex, and an emended text yielding a rejection of hypocrisy--I wonder why Brenner considers the task of biblical elucidation worth her time.  This criticism aside, I find her treatment of Proverbs exemplary, perhaps because I share so much with her hermeneutically.

                Therefore, I admire the clarity with which Brenner challenges the universality of wisdom literature by exposing its class orientation, although I think she downplays the importance of the family in formulating the oldest collections in Proverbs.  Furthermore, I believe that she has universalized the negative treatment of the other, or female, in Proverbs, despite positive assessments of wives that do not always require an assumption of a utilitarian criterion.  Brenner’s view in this regard lacks sufficient nuancing, as least as I see things.  An urban elite may well have produced the books of Job and Qoheleth, and without a doubt Sirach and Wisdom of Solomon, but that assessment applies only to some parts of Proverbs (1-9; 22:17-24:22; 30:1-14; and 31).  I also agree with Brenner that the speaking voice in some parts of Proverbs may be female, as in the instruction by Lemuel’s mother in Prov 31:1-9, and that the religion presented in the book reinforces societal norms, thereby stifling individuality, particularly among women, the other in Brenner’s language.  Religion in Proverbs fosters obedience while emphasizing authority--but of both father and mother, unless I am mistaken.  Success-oriented, the book links nicely with modern materialism.  Small wonder Brenner looks elsewhere for spiritual food, for Job and Qoheleth stretch the intellect with unresolved and perhaps unresolvable questions.  I note in passing that Brenner is the only Westernized interpreter of the six whom I am studying here.

                The author whose perspective is farthest from mine is in many ways the most akin to the popular culture underlying the biblical books.  I refer to Adamo’s remarkable commentary on Psalms.  He pleads for the therapeutic use of specific psalms to cure stomach problems, gynecological difficulties, coughs, and other physical diseases.  Adamo goes on to argue for the ritual use of psalms to ward off demons, to protect travelers, men on military assignments, and hunters.  He also promotes the use of charms and amulets to assist in intellectual tasks as well as amorous ones.  The obvious affinities between the Nigerian cultures he represents and the biblical one make this defense of performative linguistic acts especially compelling, while at the same time raising eyebrows over the prominence of magic in such religion.  More than anyone else, Adamo exposes the fundamental problem confronting Western interpreters--the vast chasm separating biblical society and the modern industrialized post-Enlightenment one.  Which hermeneutic best elucidates the Bible?  Adamo’s magical/ritual or Brenner’s feminist apologia?  Both, it seems to me, address existential issues, and in that respect fail to support Adamo’s judgment that Westerners seek universals, unless Brenner’s Israeli ties place her at arms length from Western critics.

                What, then shall we say about Melanchthon?  Her experience in India where the caste system relegates women to an item to be sold and demands obedience to a husband, even when the pleasure in sex is wholly one-sided, has elicited a summons to women that they throw off caution and act unconventionally.  The invitation, she assures us, is issued to female seminarians, who may rue the consequences of such defiance of social rules.  The marriage of biblical text and Melanchthon’s cry for assertive sexual agency could hardly be more harmonious.  She is not blind to this potential within Song of Songs, but she rightly wonders whether this book, like so much in the Bible, represents male fantasy.  Moreover, she recognizes the important function of natural imagery in the biblical book, which highlights the innate quality of sexual energy.

                The subversive nature of Song of Songs is undeniable, as is the counterbalance where males set norms for female conduct and imbue it with divine sanction.  Melanchthon moves back and forth between two oppressive societies, biblical and modern, ever alert to ironies such as the Kamasutra and subjection of women from childhood.  How can one explain this utter freedom in a literary classic but diminished self esteem by women in the society that produced the masterpiece?  The ominous warning with which Melanchthon concludes her analysis of Song of Songs matches that being voiced by gays and lesbians in the U.S.  Consciousness is being raised, and societal foment will inevitably follow, as well as considerable suffering by reformers and conservative resistance by the masses.

                The selection of Prior as interpreter of Qoheleth was a stroke of genius, for the social chaos in Indonesia has generated resignation comparable to the biblical author’s futility.  Three decades of the Sohaerto regime have produced a corrupt bureaucracy comparable to the Ptolemaic system under which the people of Yehud chafed.  At the same time, economic opportunism abounds in an uncivil society, where risk is encouraged and sometimes richly rewarded.  The “me-first” mentality that characterizes such societies is exposed for what it is, wholly meaningless in the face of death.  So also is divine silence in a secular society.  Prior sees the correspondences between then and now, but he fails to acknowledge one important difference.  Whereas Qoheleth adopts a resigned stance without more than a mild verbal protest, the people of Indonesia are torn between passivity and outright fanaticism that easily manifests itself in terrorist acts on behalf of ethnicity.

                While admiring Prior’s description of Qoheleth’s ideas, I confess that I cannot fully grasp the import of his comments about the need for a prophetic demarcation of boundaries, unless he refers to the gulf between rich and poor.  Similarly, his remark that Qoheleth invites modern readers to view reality without any narrative is not self-evident.  I cannot imagine anyone trying to grasp reality devoid of narrative, even if it be the minimal one attributed to Anatole France:  Born, suffered, died.  No myth this--just the facts, sergeant Friday-like.  Qoheleth reduced reality to these three verbs.  All else is speculation. 

                The West African context from which Ntreh looks at the book of Job is rife with disease, like Job.  The devastating HIV/AIDS virus has destroyed Africa’s children, just as God and nature combined to take Job’s ten offspring from their parents.  Colonialists deprived a rich nation of its resources in the same way the deity emptied Job of all his possessions.  Impoverished and sick Africans complain of Colonialism’s abuse of power, and Job charged God with the same offense.  Inadequate knowledge about the nature and cause of the deadly virus, plus suspicion that it is of Western origin for the sole purpose of eradicating African people, leave a vulnerable populace at odds even with friends who wish to help, especially the church and generous investors.  Similarly, Job’s insufficient knowledge, dictated by the plot, rendered him powerless and threatened his value system.

                For the most part, Ntreh recognizes these analogies between West Africa and first millennium Yehud.  What he fails to see, I think, are the wider similarities throughout industrialized countries.  Farmers in the U.S.A. have also see the value of their land and the cash profit plummet while the rich use their political influence to obtain mineral rights and to gain control over the best land when the cost of machinery rises to prices beyond the reach of ordinary farmers.  Economic exploitation, that is, extends far beyond colonialists, in West Africa.  The poor everywhere are forced to work for a pittance and are frequently accused of laziness, Urbanization encourages sexual laxity to the extent that family control is relaxed and access to multiple partners is eased.  Talented youth look for greener pastures, whether they live in West Africa, in the farmlands of North America, or in countless other places across the globe.  For Ntreh, the book of Job exonerates West African people and challenges them to come to their own assistance.  This self-help is necessary because God will not provide any relief.  Ntreh’s refusal to rest his hope in a salvific deity is both sobering and realistic, but it departs radically from the biblical story where God restores Job in the end.  Perhaps we have moved beyond the ancient myth of divine solicitude, but the loss is profound indeed.  “West Africans cannot hope for such an appearance.”  These sad words imply that Ntreh has given up on the God of biblical revelation.  He is hardly alone in that sentiment.

                The choice of the Tiananmen Square Massacre as the privotal event for comprehending the impact of Jerusalem’s destruction as recorded in Lamentations enables Lee to demonstrate the utility of a cross-textual approach to the Bible.  His rich use of poetic responses to the modern massacre serve as a permanent reminder that atrocities did not cease with the closing of the canon.  The poetic imagination has always pondered the depth of human depravity, just as it has explored the heights of human majesty.  Murder is murder, whether in Zion or in China, and loved ones grieve deeply.  The pathos of lost sons and daughters, wives and husbands, parents and friends is universal.  We do not need to read the Lament over the city of Ur or the book of Lamentations to know that, but the reading of them links past and present in an unbreakable bond of sadness and vanished hope of the future.

                Lee’s complaint that western hermeneutics is too heavy-handed in that it devalues alternative approaches stands as a powerful incentive for self-examination on our part.  To the extent that historical-critical methods relegate others to a subordinate role devoid of substance, it has become imperialistic and badly in need of correction.  I find Lee’s additional point intriguing.  He writes that western hermeneutics gives precedence to particular (or special) revelation whereas Asian approaches emphasize general revelation.  At issue, too, is the biblical claim to constitute final revelation and the Asian recognition of ongoing revelation.  Because I think the Bible also has a view of natural, or general revelation, and that wisdom literature champions this broader understanding of revelation, Lee’s remarks deserve wider dissemination.  I also believe that his cross-textual approach to the Bible has much to commend it, for the task of biblical analysis is to bring together two cultures, the biblical and the modern.  The latter is far from monolithic, as illustrated by the authors whom I have discussed today.    

                I have always thought the various exegetical approaches were complementary, the interpreter’s task being to select the most compelling method for a given text.  It follows that I do not believe that every method throws light on all texts.  I therefore applaud the application of various approaches to the Bible.  For this reason, I hesitate to pronounce judgment on any method so long as it practices a hermeneutic of suspicion; however, it follows that I cannot endorse a fundamentalist approach that presupposes an inerrant text.  In my view, the approaches represented by the six authors under scrutiny are legitimate, plausible, and valid to the extent that they harbor a concern to link past and present in a productive manner.


Uriah Kim

 

Inter(con)textual Interpretations of the Deuteronomistic History

in the Global Bible Commentary

Uriah Kim

Hartford Seminary

 

After examining the Global Bible Commentary (henceforth GBC), I knew immediately that I wanted to use it in the fall semester for my introduction to the Hebrew Bible at Hartford Seminary.  In my class my primary goal is to have the students become informed and responsible interpreters of the Hebrew Bible through critical engagement with the Hebrew Bible, biblical scholarship and their contexts.  I decided to use the GBC for two simple reasons.  One, I was looking for a commentary that would help the students understand that one’s context matters in one’s interpretation of the Bible.  My second reason was a practical one.  It was reasonably priced for a hefty book that has a collection of commentators representing all corners of the world.  I thought it was a bargain.  

The GBC proved to a better buy than I thought.  I want to mention just one more important reason for using it at this point.  The GBC forces the readers to think outside of one’s own immediate context and engage with other contexts around the globe.  Issues and concerns we wouldn’t have normally thought of become issues and concerns we need to think of seriously.  Interpretations based on biblical texts and scholarship we have taken for granted from our own context become problematic and provocative in other contexts.  The readers are also exposed to different contextual methodological approaches practiced around the world.  The GBC exemplifies, describes and advocates global contextual interpretation that is needed in our troubled and contentious world.

The importance of contextual interpretation needs to be recognized, and biblical scholars need to make a conscious effort to embrace it as part of critical biblical studies.  Contextual interpretation helps to connect the world of biblical scholarship to the world at large and makes explicit the connection between the interpretation and identity of the reader that has gone unexamined in biblical studies for so long.  Without engaging in contextual interpretation, biblical scholars are in danger of being caught up in their own world, debating over the text and the world and history behind the text, albeit important, detached from the complexity of the global community in front of the text.  

In my contextual interpretation of King Josiah and the Deuteronomistic History,   I have not only engaged critically with the text and biblical scholarship but also with my context as well.  In my dissertation, now a book, I interpret King Josiah and the Deuteronomistic History inter(con)textually with the experience and history of Asian Americans in North America; “inter(con)textualization” is the contextual methodological approach often emphasized in Asian and Asian American interpretations.  I examine how domain assumptions in biblical studies that are rooted in the discourse of nationalism engender colonialist reading of the Deuteronomistic History that reinforces the culture and identity of the West at the expense of those who are viewed as others in North America.  There is no way to avoid the identity discourse of the West as long as one reads from within Christian culture and text.  But to Asians living in Asia and outside of Asia proper there are texts and cultures available to them that can compete with Christian culture and text.  Using the inter(con)textual approach, I was able put Asian and Asian American cultures and texts in dialogue with Christian culture and text as equal partners in articulating an identity discourse for Asian Americans.  

A.  Kyung Sook Lee’s Contextual Interpretation of 1 & 2 Kings

 

                Due to my interest in the Deuteronomistic History I have chosen to comment on four readings in it.  I will start with Kyung Sook Lee’s contextual interpretation of 1 & 2 Kings.  Lee is a native of South Korea, received her doctorate in Germany, and currently teaches in South Korea.  South Korea experienced a spectacular economic success since gaining its independence from the imperial Japan in 1945, developing into the eleventh largest economy in the world.  Korean churches also experienced a spectacular growth in membership, wealth and power during the same period.  However, Lee argues that Korean churches have embraced the “gospel of prosperity,” which rewards those who have succeeded in the free market economy, but turned their back on the “gospel of justice” for the poor and the marginalized. In reading 1 & 2 Kings, she acknowledges that the theology of the Deuteronomistic Historians—namely, the exclusivist theology of “one nation, one God, one temple”—was appropriate to their context when they needed to reformulate their group identity in a time of crisis, but this same theology when appropriated uncritically reinforces the “gospel of prosperity” and supports the authoritative and exclusivist attitudes that have become prevalent in Korean churches and have exacerbated the conflicts between classes, sexes, and religions in Korea.

To counter these tendencies in Korean Christianity Lee uplifts the multiple voices of the sources incorporated in the Deuteronomistic History that are potentially empowering to the poor and the marginalized, especially to the women, but have been muted by the Deuteronomistic Historians in their effort to formulate their exclusivist group identity.  In particular, Lee argues that the Deuteronomistic Historians have undervalued the role of women and vilified powerful women, especially foreign women, and this mirrors the way Korean churches have undervalued women and vilified women of power.  Lee does not dismiss the contextual theology of the Deuteronomistic Historians, but she takes the side of the poor and the marginalized and invites the readers to use the theology of the Deuteronomistic Historians critically and develop a contextual theology based on the voices of the sources and the experience of the marginalized that will support the “gospel of justice.” 

Lee’s reading is closer to the contextual methodological approach emphasized in Latin American interpretations—namely, reading the Bible for “liberation” and justice for the poor and the marginalized—than the inter(con)textual approach often emphasized in Asian interpretations as I already noted above.  She is reading the Bible for liberation within Korean Christian culture without putting the Bible and Christian culture in conversation with Asian cultures and texts.  This is not a critique but just an observation explaining the difference between these two methodological approaches. 

 

B.  Dora Mbuwayesango and Fidele Ugira Kwasi

                The context of the next three commentators is Africa where many nations still struggle to meet the basic needs of their citizens since their independence from the European colonialism and where Africans must deal with the colonial legacy that continues to influence the way the Bible is read.  The fact that indigenous cultures and texts have been overwritten by Western Christianity means that there are a limited number of indigenous texts available to compete with the Christian text.  The “inculturation” approach, which is the contextual methodological approach often emphasized in African interpretations, tries to read the Bible as Africa’s own book without accepting the Christian culture that came with it.  This approach turns the Bible, the book of the colonizer, into “our own book” and often emphasizes liberation as well.      

Dora Mbuwayesango is a native of Zimbabwe and currently teaches in the United States.  In light of the fact that the indigenous people of southern Africa suffered greatly at the hand of white settlers who used the Bible to justify the killing of the indigenous people and dispossession of their lands, Mbuwayesango asks, “What can the book of Joshua say to the Canaanites, the dispossessed, and the exterminated?  Can the God of the dispossessor be the God of the Dispossessed?”  (p. 64)  The book of Joshua depicts God as God of Israel and not of others, and the identity of Israel is based on its exclusive relationship to God and the land.  This is problematic for southern Africa where people of different ethnicities and religions live together.  Such a religious exclusivism promotes intolerant attitude toward others, making the “other inhabitants” of the land, as Homi Bhabha would put it, “unhomely” in their own land.  Mbuwayesango rejects religious exclusivism and suggests that the book of Joshua should serve only as a warning against such intolerant attitude against those who are different.     

                Fidele Ugira Kwasi, however, suggests a different response to the Deuteronomistic Historians’ call to exclusivism.  Kwasi is a native of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, received his doctorate in Belgium, and currently teaches in Congo.  Kwasi is frustrated with the economic and political mismanagement of the leadership that has left the people of Congo without basic individual and social needs.  So, he asks: “Can we find a dependable model of management and leadership to help us recognize the actual needs of our people and to meet those needs?” (p. 74)  He embraces the message of the book of Judges—namely, “all the people did what was right in their own eyes because there was no king”—and blames Congo’s problems on the lack of leadership and of faith in God.  He identifies the situation of Congo as a transitional period similar to Israel’s situation at the time of Judges when the misfortunes and successes of Israel are correlated to Israel’s unfaithfulness and faithfulness to God.  Therefore, he calls for a religious exclusivism for the Congolese and believes that exclusive faith in the God of Judges is the only way to overcome the loss of their community identity and of ethical grounding.    

                Kwasi’s recommendation opposes Lee and Mbuwayesango’s argument that a religious exclusivism is detrimental to a society in which there are people of different ethnicities and/or religions.  Kwasi follows the theology of the Deuteronomistic Historians rather uncritically and ignores the muted voices of the sources.  His solution to the problems of Congo seemed naïve in my opinion.  However, is Kwasi’s recommendation appropriate for his context just as one can argue that the theology of the Deuteronomistic Historians was appropriate to their context?  And who decides? 

The guild of biblical scholars has some responsibility of limiting misuse and abuse of any interpretation of the Bible, including contextual interpretation.  A given contextual interpretation needs to be in a critical dialogue with—that is, to challenge as well as to be informed by—the text, the context of the readers, and biblical scholarship.  As trained interpreters of the Bible, biblical scholars have a role that requires the responsibility of evaluating and sometimes challenging a given contextual interpretation even when an interpreter holds up a “context card”—which says “Your critique is wrong or invalid because you don’t understand my context!”—to justify sloppiness in one’s reading of the text, context, and biblical scholarship.  We need to acknowledge that a call to read with us must entail the willingness to listen to others (the willingness to listen to criticisms as well as praises) for a genuine dialogue to take place among contextual interpretations. 

 

C.  Gerald West’s reading of 1 & 2 Samuel

                Now I want to respond to Gerald West’s contextual reading of 1 & 2 Samuel, which raises an important issue I haven’t thought about until I read the GBC.  West teaches in South Africa and his reading includes what he has heard when he read with groups of ordinary readers, including groups of African women.  He informs us that reading the stories of abused women in 2 Samuel in a group was helpful to ordinary women, who often find themselves doubly oppressed by Christianity and their indigenous culture, when they were allowed to ask questions of interest to them rather than questions of interest to biblical scholars.  The contextual bible study process developed by African biblical scholarship is committed “to read the Bible from the perspective of the organized poor and marginalized, to read the Bible communally, to read the Bible critically, and to read the Bible for social and individual transformation.”  (p. 101)  Trained biblical scholars become part of the contextual bible study process in which the questions, concerns and insights of ordinary, untrained readers inform their interpretations and vice versa.  This process exemplifies how biblical scholars can connect their scholarship to the world in front of the text.        

In my class I have repeatedly told my students that a critical introduction to the Hebrew Bible is not a course on bible study, but now I have my doubts.  Biblical scholars in the West must think about how we are training the students in seminaries who will end up reading with untrained readers.  Do we want the graduates to have some expertise in the world behind the text without any training in the contextual bible study process?  Are we training readers who will impose questions and concerns of biblical scholarship while neglecting the world in front of the text? 

Final Remark

Whether these contextual interpretations matter to biblical studies—another way of phrasing the issues we have been asked to address—is to a certain extent a moot point.  Contextual interpretations are happening on the ground level, around the world, whether biblical scholars accept them as part of critical scholarship or not.  They are exegetically legitimate, hermeneutically plausible, and ethically valid from their perspective regardless of whether they receive the blessing from the Western biblical studies.  Biblical scholars need the courage to enter the world in front of the text, which may look like a mess, chaos from the perspective of critical biblical studies, in order to play vital roles in the process of interpretation of the Bible.  Practically speaking, in order for contextual methodologies to become part of critical biblical scholarship, there needs to be a critical mass of biblical scholars and institutional sites in the West for doing contextual interpretation at the highest level.  The Global Bible Commentary is a significant contribution to the legitimization of contextual methodologies as part of critical biblical studies, and finally, I would like to thank the editorial team for putting together this significant volume.  


Elaine Wainwright

Spiraling Back and Forth from Context to Text

Global Bible Commentary – Response

Elaine Wainwright

University of Aukland

 

 

At the outset, I would like to acknowledge and thank Daniel, Nicole, Teresa and Archie [and bring to mind Severino Croatto] who have conceived of and brought into being this extraordinary volume – Global Bible Commentary. It allows no excuse now for any of us as biblical readers and biblical teachers to exclude interpretations from other places and other cultures than our own because of inaccessibility. Just in this you have done a great service enabling us to listen with bible readers, bible interpreters from around the globe. There will be other aspects which I will acknowledge as this paper unfolds but I wanted my first words to be ones of thanks to you, the editorial team.

 

My initial comment will be in relation to the word global in the commentary's title and the challenge I'm sure the editors must have faced in relation to that word global. On opening the volume, my first reaction was to run down the list of contributors and to be amazed at the spread of contexts represented. I was very pleased to see Jione Havea's commentary on Numbers and to read with him and the Tongan Kau pakipaki folofola with whom he reads. Jione's work belongs, I think, at the crest of a growing wave of contextual theologizing, contextual biblical interpretations emerging from Oceania. He himself represents the diasporic or cross cultural quality of the region which is spilling over into biblical interpretations as islanders [from Tonga, Samoa, Fiji, Aotearoa New Zealand, Australia, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and many other islands of Oceania] cross oceans and cultures.[20] Jione is Tongan living and interpreting in Sydney Australia. I am Australian living and interpreting in a bi-cultural and multi-cultural Auckland, New Zealand and we both work with students who live and move between and across cultures, who indeed live in the hyphen.[21] The richness of what is happening theologically and biblically in the region is too great for Jione's work to represent and perhaps the GBC demonstrates the still near invisibility of Oceania, of the lands down under on the global stage of biblical interpretation. The wave itself, is however, turning toward the shore and will soon demand greater attention. Perhaps in the next edition of the GBC biblical interpreters from Oceania will not only be more numerous among contributors but also will appear on the editorial board. 

 

Let me turn now to the contributions, especially in the New Testament section and to the issues we have been asked to address. The first five articles on Jesus begin to raise some of the significant challenges within contextual biblical interpretation. I immediately wanted to bring Carlos Abesamis and Anne Nasimiyu Wasike into dialogue as I heard Abesamis claim to be using "valid exegetical methods of historical criticism and sociological analysis" thus attempting to "avoid imposing any private, eisegetical reading upon the text".[22] Would he see Wasike's life context of interpretation as shaping an "eisegetical reading" as she, together with other African women, reads Jesus as nurturer of life or mother, a metaphor not readily available through historical critical or sociological exegesis. Both read Jesus as liberator of the poor but Wasike makes the categories of the poor more explicit as women and children and especially those suffering from HIV/AIDS. Does this become an eisegetical reading or does not a contextual reading enable contemporary readers to read for liberation and justice for those categories of 'poor' that were either invisible in first century society or not present there at all but are present in today's context into which the gospel speaks.  

 

If contextual readings are truly contextual, reading categories will emerge from those contexts that are not and could not have been those of the context of the Jesus movement or of the context of inception of the text. They challenge us to re-think the charge of eisegesis/eisegetical.  

Pablo Richard's challenge to a Fourth Quest for the historical Jesus from the perspective of the poor of the "Third world" could be seen as exegetical in that the poor were a central category of the Jesus movement and the historical apostolic churches. I have, however, just read an essay of a Samoan PhD candidate who is bringing new challenging questions to the historical Jesus quest from the perspective of a Samoan understanding of history. Perhaps there are not three or even four but many quests raising questions as to how history or historical is defined and whose definition prevails: that of Western von Rankian positivistic historians, the much more fluid new historicism or the multiple contextual and cultural understandings. And who decides? 

 

Contextual biblical interpretation is challenging the paradigm of one valid and legitimate interpretation with the prospect of multiple meanings, a position that can be supported by the changing philosophical paradigms of interpretation, changing methodological approaches that are postmodern and the recognition that ethical values are likewise not single but complex and multiple as the voices of women and other dispossessed marginal groups are demanding new ethical considerations.

 

Nicole Duran's radical contextual question, can we imagine the possibility of Jesus the Roman prison being raped, demonstrates how a starting point outside the text, from perspectives absent from or invisible in the text, enable a reading of the text that allows new and challenging meanings to emerge. Such readings may not be able to be established historically or sociologically but they open up a world in front of the text that is both ethically and hermeneutically valid and plausible. Interestingly, in the opening group of articles on Jesus, I found myself struggling most with Vasile Mihoc's Orthodox perspective that seemed to be reading fourth century theological perspectives back into the biblical text and claiming them historically, collapsing, I would suggest, the historical and trans-historical in the process.[23] This raises significant questions too in terms of exegetically legitimate interpretations and authorized or 'orthodox' theological claims.       

 

As I turned to the commentaries on the gospels, I found what seemed like two different contextual approaches or at least two differently nuanced contextual approaches. While Alejandro Duarte begins with the complexity of the multicultural and multireligious situations of his life, he looks to the text of Matthew's gospel to help him to "formulate the critical questions" needed to address the biblical texts in "multicultural social, economic, political and religious situations".[24] His overview of Matthew seemed to offer little that was shaped by his unique context, and methodologically, his approach to the text was traditional using the historical and literary tools with which biblical scholars would be familiar. His reading of Matthew 2 in the literary context of Matthew's gospel does, however, provide him with the "analytical tool/s" that he sought to address violence. These tools turned him then to not only his but also other contemporary societies with an "appropriate social critique" which included questions about how our living on the planet might destroy the future of innocent children as does violence and all forms of oppression and marginalization. Such contextual reading needs, however, to spiral back from context to the text of Matthew addressing further questions about violence to the later parables of the gospel in which violence and burning of cities and casting out into darkness seem to be condoned and even predicated of the divine.   

 

Hisako Kinukawa, on the other hand brings questions of power relationships from her Japanese context very explicitly to her reading of the Markan text.     Questions arising from her Imperial Japanese context lead to a socio-political reading of the gospel of Mark in the socio-political and cultural context of occupied Palestine of the Roman Empire of the First Century. Her reading spirals back onto her Japanese church context with new questions. The dialogue between biblical text in its first century context and contemporary context is much more explicit in her commentary than in that of Duarte. I would suggest that it is this spiraling movement between text-context-text or context-text-context which provides one of the most significant challenges to the dominant perspective of Western critical biblical studies with its still central claims to objectivity especially in the use of historical and social scientific methodologies. Kinukawa's category of 'power' does not provide us with an example of a new contemporary cultural category but Nicole Duran's question of 'rape' does.[25] The rape of women and men in contexts of wars, on streets and in homes in our world make this an urgent category or question to bring to the biblical text and the story of Jesus which over centuries have been displaced from their context in the struggles of sexualized power in their worlds and replaced in sanctuaries and churches where such words are not mentioned. Contextual questions allow new possibilities to emerge in reading both the text and its ancient context. They open up a new world in front of the text that can be brought into dialogue ethically with varieties of contemporary contexts. Such readings, however, while emerging from one context challenge other contexts e.g. Ukpong's reading of Luke's perspective on 'gentiles' challenges many Western and non-Western contexts in relation to how we construct the 'other' or the 'outsider'.[26]

 

While I have just affirmed the significance of contemporary contextual lenses, issues or values being brought to the interpretation of biblical texts because of the way in which they open up a new world in front of the text for various contexts, it is this very strength which can also be a weakness. This is not obvious in the GBC, at least in those sections that I read carefully but it is hinted at by Jean Kim in her Korean interpretation of the Letter to Philemon. She indicates that the mainstream Korean evangelical churches read the Bible very differently to the Minjung theologians. We don't hear the voice of those mainstream churches in the GBC but Kim raises the question for me: are all contextual interpretations ethically valid because they are contextual which can often mean not of the West    or do we not need a key category like that proposed by Krüger: what are the consequences that the given system has for human life and….what does life become for the weakest in the social body as a result of a particular interpretation. In other words, does a proposed interpretation open up a world in front of the text that impels social and cultural transformation on behalf of the most dispossessed? This may mean in inculturation hermeneutics, in contextual hermeneutics, that as well as affirming certain cultural values that have been historically devalued, there may also need to be a critical engagement with culture. I found this recently when I had two Samoan students from very different points in the cultural hierarchy in a classroom. The one from the chiefly class was reading through his cultural lens in a way that continued to affirm the social structure while the other who was not from the chiefly class was bringing a critical perspective to bear on similar cultural categories. Both are seeking to develop a contextual hermeneutic in the context of Oceania. Culture and context are not innocent as the biblical text and its history of interpretation are not innocent.

 

Biblical interpretation captures us, therefore, as biblical scholars in a hermeneutical circle or rather what I would prefer to call a hermeneutical spiral. Contextual approaches are bringing new categories of analysis from context to the text in a way which is opening up a new world of meaning in front of the text so that society is shaped and lived differently for the sake of the potential of life for all. As communities of interpretation, however, biblical readers and biblical scholars need to critically discern those values, historical, cultural and political or economic categories that have potential to open up new biblical perspectives for their context. We also need to test new interpretations for their potential to shape new religious imaginations and new religious praxis that will bring possibilities of hope and life for the most marginalized. This, however, needs a community of ethical discernment that is contextual. Contextual hermeneutics does not offer us a panacea.

 

Current biblical hermeneutics and biblical methodological approaches provide paradigms and tools which can guide contextual biblical interpretation so that it is exegetically legitimate, hermeneutically plausible and ethically valid. As interpreters, from whatever our context, we need to be open to the critique of others who will see some of the deep-seated unethical perspectives that lurk in the religious  consciousness of  most of us: the patriarchy that has informed most cultures, the anti-Judaism inherent in the history of Christianity and its interpretation of the gospels in particular, the homophobia that creates 'the other' as sexually deviant, the homocentrism which fails to read with and for Earth and the Earth community; and the racism or classism that besets many of us.

 

While the Global Bible Commentary is an achievement of which the editorial team and their co-writers can be proud, the contextual hermeneutics which it lays out before its readers and before biblical interpreters is a cause for humility. None of us can offer the meaning of the text which historical criticism promised. What we can do individually and through reading with others, is to offer meanings which hopefully will shape a better world for the human community and for the planet.


Richard Horsley

 

Thoughts on Global Bible Commentary

from the Belly of the Imperial Beast

Contextual Bible Interpretation Consultation, SBL 2005 Annual Meeting

Richard Horsley

University of Massachusetts Boston

 

                We all want to express great appreciation to the editors and the many contributors for this volume that is brimming with distinctive and suggestive interpretations of Biblical books and passages. The interface between the readers’ life-contexts and the texts that structures the commentary is particularly important at this historical moment as it dawns on both peoples of the two-thirds world and, perhaps more closely, of western countries, that established scholarly biblical interpretation need not remain dominant.

                Following the pattern of the Commentary I suppose we “commentators” should mention our own reading-contexts, including pedagogical contexts. As a North American academic, of course, I live, learn, and teach in the belly of the imperial beast. The students from whom I learn, however, are a highly diverse mix of poor, working class, often immigrant, self-supporting students who keep a critical distance from the policies and practices of the US government and the corporations that to a considerable degree control their lives. These students nourish my spirit as one who has always identified with people who have been subordinated by the dominant forces and institutions. And they regularly push me to question the standard assumptions, approaches, and constructs into which I have been socialized by established (theologically determined) training in biblical studies.

 

The Bible: Oral as well as Written; History as well as Text

                The focus of the volume is largely on reading the written text of the canonical Biblical books, working on assumptions of print-culture. That is the way we usually proceed in academia. But there were and are other possibilities which we can at least note briefly.

                First: Biblical material as oral-aural messages (stories, prophecies, teachings) is surely the way biblical material has functioned for most people in most times and places. Most of us are familiar with the stories of African-American slaves who, when allowed to hold a copy of the Bible, held it to their ear to hear what its messages might be.

                Second: We should note the corresponding oral and popular origins of much of the material in many books. The Hebrew biblical books as we have them were, produced by a scribal elite in the interests of the Jerusalem monarchy or high priesthood. But many of the stories, songs, covenantal traditions, and prophetic oracles included in books such as Exodus, Joshua, Judges, Amos, Micah, etc. originated in oral communication among the people. Similarly, most of the Gospel materials originated in a popular movement led by Jesus. So it may be possible to “read between the lines” of the official scribal editing and overwriting, to “listen” for the tales and interests and protests of the people, or at least clues to them, through and behind the text.  Something like this seems to be happening in the basic Christian communities in Central America that Jorge Pixley refers to and in groups that Gerald West and others have been working with in Southern Africa. My students at the University of Massachusetts are grateful to Renita Weems for having led them to “hear different voices” in a given text.

                Third, biblical texts could also be approached, not as texts to be interpreted and applied to our contexts, but as sources for history, e.g., history of the people of God in wider historical context. This is a principal way that earlier figures, events, prophecies, and actions are appropriated in many of the later biblical books. In 1 Corinthians 10, for example, Paul calls attention to the wilderness generation’s lapses from an exclusive loyalty to God’s purpose. So we today could take Paul’s letters not as sacred texts but rather as ad hoc arguments that give us one side of on-going communications, often very contentious; i.e., as sources for or windows onto formative struggles to establish new communities in a long history of a people that has special significance to us as their successors.

                Nearly all the essays in the GBC focus on a biblical book as a text to be interpreted and compared with or applied to our own life-context, so my main line of comments will explore some of the pedagogical implications of this approach. My exploration of the essays, starting where they all start, with the sketches of the contributors respective life-contexts, led to one implication after another. That the contemporary life-contexts all fit together into a web of a global system in which local contexts are integrally related led to the question of a corresponding global system in the ancient context in which the biblical books originated. That ancient system turns out to have been held together by the divinized civilizational forces that ancient peoples served with tithes and labor, suggesting that there might be a corresponding divinized Force in our contemporary reading contexts. And the correspondence of an ancient and modern theologies or gods that hold together the respective global systems set up broader contextual analogies in which contemporary readers can critically evaluate biblical and contemporary options of resistance or accommodation to global systems of domination and their gods.

 

Contemporary Life Contexts of Interpretation and How they are Integrally Related:

                The life-contexts sketched by the contributors are remarkably interrelated, either implicitly or explicitly. Some are primarily local:

- How victims, families, and whole societies such as Botswana can deal with the pain and devastation of AIDS; 

- How impoverished and abandoned women in the barrios of San Jose Costa Rica can find God as a liberator who hears the cry of poor people who struggling to survive; 

- How the small Chinese minority can become more accepted and integrated into mainstream U S society

- How land might be re-distributed in Southern Africa after the British and Boer settlers took it away with brutal violence

Yet even when their focal concern is local, virtually all include the global dimension. Most authors from both the two-thirds world and the first world emphasize earlier colonial domination and/or the current power of political-economic globalization that is impoverishing and dehumanizing peoples’ lives. 

                Even though the constraints of the volume’s format did not allow the contributors to elaborate on the complexities of how they focused their context, their respective contexts fit together rather remarkably. In fact, the contexts and concerns are interrelated like multiple dimensions -- some more local, others more global, some more historical, other current -- of a complex global web of power-relations. Behind the AIDS crisis in Africa in particular and the struggles of impoverished women in Mesoamerica, for example, stands the breakdown of social and family fabric under the impact of European colonialism and the systematic way that globalization undermines local and regional economies and social cohesion through the finance mechanisms managed by the World Bank, IMF and WTO.

 

The Match between Contexts and Texts

                The match between life-contexts and the biblical books (which I assume were assigned) display some remarkable analogies in a few cases. In other cases the analogies can be stretched a bit and still be suggestive. And in some cases the contributors perhaps focused the concern of their (group’s) context to match the text assigned as much as possible.

                The asymmetry between ancient text and modern context is striking in at least one major respect. Most of the Hebrew Bible scholars and some of the NT scholars recognize that religion was not separate from political-economic life in the biblical text and the history to which it refers, but many of them then draw the analogy or lesson with regard only to the church understood as religion structurally differentiated from capitalist economy and imperial politics, and not to the general political-economic-religious situation today. And that also stands in an interesting asymmetry with how most of the contributors define their context as including the political-economic situation.

 

The Ancient “Global” Context in which Biblical Books originated:

                That most of the articles proceed by looking for an analogy relevant to their life context today and that the contexts they sketch seem to fit together in an interwoven web of western imperialism and global capitalism make us wonder if there was a corresponding web in the ancient contexts in which biblical books originated. Because of the design of the volume, this is not explicitly addressed in most essays. Yet there are some indications in some of the essays of just such an imperial political-economic-religious system evident in some biblical books.

                The most illuminating match-up of contemporary life context and biblical book is Central Americans’ acute awareness of U S imperialism and capitalist globalization with the book of Exodus. In one of his three hermeneutical principles Pixley carries out a structural analysis of what in the ancient context seems to correspond to global capitalism. The story of the Hebrews’ struggle to escape their bondage under Pharaoh in Egypt offers a number of indications of a “tributary” system. In a tributary system the vast majority of the populace, peasants in village communities, are required to “serve” the Pharaoh as the divine symbol of the whole society by rendering up a percentage of their crops and by supplying “forced labor” to build palaces, tombs, and other monuments for the gods and the ruling class. Mesopotamia and Ugarit and other ancient Near Eastern civilizations had a similar structure.

                Had she had more space, Kyung Sook Lee, situated in Korea, which lived successively under Chinese, Japanese, and US imperialism, could have explained how Deuteronomistic narrative displays the imperial tributary structure of Solomon’s monarchy. If we read the sustained narrative, it is quite clear that this increasingly oppressive hierarchical system (patterned after the ancient NE religiously authorized tributary political-economy) is what underlies the problematic relationships between David, Bathsheba, and Solomon, or Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, etc., that Lee focuses on. The narrative does not directly criticize the system, but rather blames all those foreign women for turning Solomon’s head. 1 Kings 4-10 lays out in vivid detail, for example, how Solomon constructed huge military fortresses, lavish royal palaces, and a somewhat smaller palace for Yahweh, my means of forced labor, the necessary material basis of the Near Eastern theology that, as Archie Lee notes, Solomon adopted as the official legitimating ideology of the tributary system he imposed on Israel.

                And Danna Nolan Fewell, if she had more space and perhaps a conversation or two with Croatto and Pixley, would not even have to “read between the lines” to lay out how Ezra and Nehemiah were sent as officials of the Persian imperial regime, with military escorts, to tighten the discipline of the Judean elite that the Persians had restored to power in Judah, as the local rulers to control the territory and generate the tributary revenues to support themselves in the Temple and render tribute to “the Great King.” The order for the colonists whom the Persians had returned from Babylon to put away their indigenous wives and children in order to strengthen the colonists’ claim to the land was a device designed to strengthen the imperial tributary system of which Yehud was now merely a tiny province.

                What was already an efficient “tributary” system of extraction of surplus production beyond the subsistence necessary for reproduction of the productive peasantry became heavily oppressive in the advanced stage of its “development,” by systematic exploitation of the debt mechanism – just as global capitalism has vastly escalated extraction of resources from subject peoples and countries through the modern-day equivalent, finance mechanisms that get countries in debt and force reduction of resources devoted to public purposes. Had Pixley been assigned Genesis 41 and 47 he could have provided an even more explicit description of how the tributary system ratcheted up the extraction of peasant resources from the story of how Joseph, that brilliant young resident alien intellectual who rose to become prime minister, used Pharaoh’s dream of the seven fat cows and the seven lean cows to show how the rulers of the tributary system could manipulate the peasantry into surrendering ever greater percentages of their crops, becoming ever more oppressed and impoverished themselves (similar to what Pixley, Croatto, and the other Latin American contributors see happening under global capitalism).

                Some of the essays on NT books also offer hints about the religiously legitimated tributary political-economy that constituted the Roman empire. Kinukawa is perhaps the most structurally aware of how the Romans had established a hierarchical imperial society that benefited a small elite group at the expense of the vast and impoverished majority which, in areas such as Palestine was still maintained by heavy occupation, symbolized by “Legion” or “Roman troops” that is the identity of the force that had possessed the Gadarene demoniac in Mark 5. Yeo Khiok-khng is aware that behind the brutal military conquests was “the Roman ideology of conquest and domination” (500) and that 1 Thessalonians is a response to the Roman imperial ideology of “peace and prosperity” established by military dominance. Rowland (566) notes some indications in the book of Revelation of one key aspect of the complex tributary imperial economy, as luxury goods flowed on trading ships into the imperial metropolis. And Duarte gives glimpses of how Herod, as the Roman client kings put in control of Judea, exploited the Judean and Galilean villagers in order to enhance the life of the Herodian and imperial elite and embellish the temple as a continuing institution integral to the operation of the overall imperial system.

                With a fuller appreciation of the overall tributary imperial system that provided the context for Jesus and his followers and Paul and his assemblies, etc. we can better appreciate how particular aspects fit into the overall picture. For example, Elsa Tamez (513) notes how the Roman imperial ideology extended down to the level of the patriarchal family -- the slave-holding patriarchal family -- which was understood as the basis of the whole imperial order.

 

What held the tributary system together: Service of the Gods

                The pedagogical implications of the ancient global context in which biblical books originated are strongly theological. What held the whole tributary system together, whether in the ANE or the Roman empire, was the religious dimension, the gods. It is understandable that we Christian commentators rooted in the churches, when we mention the divine, focus on the God of Israel and the God of Jesus, Paul, etc. But there were other gods, the gods of the dominant tributary system. As Pixley points out, in the ancient Egyptian tributary system, Pharaoh was not only the political monarch, but the central divinity of the pantheon that the tributary political-economy served. As Krueger mentions, Luke’s Jesus sees Mammon, that is, social-material wealth, as a rival god that people might serve. And several commentators hint that in the Roman empire, Caesar was honored as “Savior,” that is as a divine figure who brings peace and prosperity. 

                Presumably there is a pedagogical role in these contextual studies of biblical books for academically trained specialists. Those in the Hebrew Bible field can explain to the rest of us that the gods of ancient Mesopotamia were natural-civilizational forces such as River, Sea, Sky-Authority, Storm-Kingship, and Irrigation. The people brought their tithes and offerings to the “houses” of these gods in order to appease them, to ward off their dreadful wrath.  The people did not just worship, but served, with their produce and their labor, the fearsome natural and civilizational forces that determined their lives. The critique of this in the Hebrew Bible is that they were ironically serving the very forces that they themselves had in effect created through their previous service in the form of labor on the irrigation dikes and houses of the gods. Moreover, their payment of tithes and offerings supported in power the very religious-political elite who ruled them with the threat of violent divine anger.

                This same service of the gods continued into the Roman empire, as conquered people were compelled to render tribute to the gods Roma and Caesar, and as the ruling elites of the Greek and other cities built temples and shrines and festivals to honor Caesar as the Savior and (son of) god who had become the central and most powerful force on which they lives (and position in life) depended.

 

Service of the divine Force that Determines our lives under Global Capitalism

                This religious/theological dimension of the system that constituted the context of biblical history and literature, may have pedagogical implications for today’s reading contexts. Perhaps we should not so easily assume the separation of religion and political-economic life our own context, i.e., in the broader context of global capitalist domination. That is, the separation of church and state may not mean the separation of religion and political economy. We might explore a more complete analogy to the political-economic-religious system that underlies the Bible in our own contemporary situation.

                The ancients were not just worshipping but serving, with their labor and its produce, the powers that determined their lives, the civilizational forces that, so long as they were appeased with tithes and offerings, kept the system productive so that people had at least a subsistence living and a certain degree of security. Aren’t people today, under the global capitalist system, doing something analogous, with some variation. Willingly or not, we are all serving the Force that keeps the system producing, at least with a subsistence living and stability for most, that is, Capital. The religious dimension is inseparable from the economic. Indeed, Capital, with its demand to be fed, its need to expand through profits is divine, private property is sacred, hedged about by legal safeguards, to speak against which is tantamount to blasphemy. Nut the global capitalist system is more complex than the ancient tributary system. Whereas the ancients served the divinized forces and the over-all system with their labor and its products, we today serve the system with our consumption as well as with our labor and its products, such that we are rendering profits to Capital, at both ends, production and consumption. So isn’t this theological-religious dimension, this very concrete material service of the great Power that determines our lives a preeminent factor in the interwoven web of contexts from which we all read biblical books?

 

Biblical Opposition to Serving the Gods and Models of an Alternative Society

                As we explore still further, the pedagogical implications become political. At least some biblical texts take a stance diametrically opposed to the service of divinized civilizational forces, or tell stories about people who resisted. The God who gives the Covenant through Moses, who is not one of the divinized forces of ANE civilization, is identified again and again by what s/he had done: “who brought you up out of slavery in Egypt. ” That is, this force liberated the people from service of the natural and civilizational forces on which the tributary system depended. When Solomon re-imposed the system on the Israelites, they revolted. Forced labor was “against their religion,” contrary to the service of their God which meant freedom from such exploitation by the ruling elite in the name of the gods of civilizational order. In the Gospels, when Jesus is faced with entrapment via the question about tribute to Caesar (to whose divinity sacrifices were offered daily in the Jerusalem temple, as in other cities temples), he skillfully plays to what the Judean crowd knows that the Pharisees and high priests also know, that it is indeed against the Mosaic covenantal Law to pay the tribute: “Give to God the things of God – i.e., everything – and to Caesar the things of Caesar – i.e., nothing, since all belongs to God. In Luke’s infancy story, when Caesar, the acknowledged Savior of the Roman world, decrees that all the world shall pay tribute, Mary gives birth to a baby laid in a manger, whom the poverty-stricken shepherds come to greet as the real Savior of the people. When Paul writes to the Corinthians, he insists that God has now outsmarted the Roman “rulers of this age,” who fell for the bait and crucified the Lord of Glory, who has now been exalted into the heavenly position of the true Lord, the true emperor of the world, and is in the process of subjecting all rulers and other powers to his authority (1 Cor 2:6-8; 15:24-28).

                As noted by several contributors, some texts in the Hebrew Bible and NT even go so far as to advocate, or even offer a model for, an alternative society. As Pixley notes, the book of Exodus portrays not only the origin of a people in a great escape from the dominant tributary system, but the formation of a new political-economic-religious order in which God was the exclusive king and which included mechanisms designed to prevent the rise of people with inordinate power over other people that might lead to the reestablishment of an exploitative monarchy. Kinukawa notes in passing that a section of Mark’s narrative concerns a new social-political-economic order. If we cut through standard western middle-class Christian assumptions through which Mark has previously been read, however, Mark’s story appears an even stronger challenge to the imperial tributary system. Mark portrays Jesus as leading a movement of renewal of Israel, including the Mosaic covenantal order, against the rulers, both the Romans and their clients in Jerusalem. Duarte (351) suggests that Matthew presents a way of constructing community that is alternative to the global and totalizing reality of our present world. But that is because Matthew, following Mark, is a charter of a community/ movement that formed an alternative society in but not of the Roman imperial order. Nestor Oscar Miguez (467) suggests that in Galatians Paul is advocating “a community of solidarity based on justice.” So if we can just get out from under the standard old western Protestant reading of Galatians merely as an argument against Judaizers, it suddenly appears that Paul, over against the Roman imperial order, not over against Judaism, was trying to catalyze an international alternative society based in local assemblies that could retain their own distinctive cultural features.

 

Implications for Today’s Global Context

                Such biblical books may have not only pedagogical implications but political and ecclesial implication as well in certain contexts today. It will surely seem utterly unrealistic today, under the globalized capitalist system, to try to establish a completely independent society, as early Israel purportedly accomplished before the technological advance into iron weapons facilitated military invasion of the then wooded uplands. But the Gospels of Mark and Matthew and some letters of Paul may be suggestive to churches in some contexts today. If they refuse to accept the modern western reduction/ confinement of the church to a mere religious organization, some church communities might well re-envision themselves as more of an alternative society in social-economic life and even somewhat aggressive in political as well as economic and religious opposition to the ways that the great divinized force global capital determined our personal and collective lives.

                (A minimal experimental step for churches in the US might be to aggressively constitute themselves into an alternative society at Christmas, which now extends from before Thanksgiving to New Years Day and after. American consumer-capitalist Christmas, in which 40% of annual retailing occurs, 40% of the retaining in which people in the US consumer 75% of the world’s resources, has nothing to do with Christ. It is more like the Bread and Circus in ancient Rome, in which grain grown by and needed to feed peoples subjected by Rome was shipped to the imperial Metropolis for the enjoyment of Roman citizens who already had a good living. American Christmas is diametrically opposed to the stories of Jesus’ birth in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Those stories vividly dramatize the opposition between Caesar, who decrees that all the world be taxed to support the imperial system, and his client king Herod who orders military massacres against any potential threat to the system, and subject peoples, who still sing songs of hope for a Savior who will lead the way toward a common life independent of such domination.)

 

Realistic Accommodation and Compromise: A Range of Biblical Options

                The Bible, however, is a diverse anthology of literature. Most biblical books express some sort of compromise with (or even advocacy for) the tributary system under which they were produced. Biblical texts thus offer a range of models and options for today’s readers struggling to cope with the ways in which recent western imperialism and now global capitalism have affected their lives in various contexts. And it may be these texts from which contextual appropriation of the Bible will be able to work more realistically in most contexts today. There is time to deal with only a few examples, selected for their pedagogical implications.

                In some contexts it may be possible to hear the different voices in certain texts, especially texts where earlier, perhaps oral, stories or prophecies have been overwritten and incorporated into books by intellectuals working for the monarchy or the temple-state. And that hearing of different voices might well involve the interaction of ordinary readers or ordinary students and those with critical academic learning. For example, as Dora Mbuwayesango has laid out, the book of Joshua, particularly its editorial summary passages, presents the Israelites taking control of land as a conquest in which the Canaanites were virtually exterminated. Moreover, the dominant English translations, beginning with the King James Version sponsored by the English monarchy in the early 1600s, presents those Canaanites living in the fortified cities as “the inhabitants.” And, as Mbuwayesango and others speaking from colonized contexts have pointed out, this story of conquest and slaughter ordered by God to enable the chosen people to take over the land has been used by the Boers and British to take over southern Africa and the English, Dutch, and European Americans to take over North America, in every case displacing and killing the indigenous inhabitants.

                Underneath the editorial overwriting by Deuteronomic historians and the imperially-oriented translations by early-modern and modern western intellectuals, however, other voices may be heard in the component stories included in the book of Joshua. An interesting thing happened in my Hebrew Bible classes at U Mass Boston where the students are largely working class, minorities, and immigrants or the children of immigrants after we did a little simple historical sociology about who lived in fortified cities in traditional agrarian societies and walked through a little analysis of the Hebrew word yashav, which means to sit, and its construct in connection with a city, yosheve-X-city, i.e., “those-who-sit-in Jericho, Jerusalem, Megiddo, etc.” And we looked at some prophetic poetry and the early Israelite victory song of Miriam, in which yosheve of a given city stood in parallelism with “rulers, kings, chieftans, nobles, etc.” For example,

Pangs seized the yosheve-Philistia

Then the chiefs of Edom were dismayed;

Trembling seized the officers of Moab;

All the yosheve-Canaan melted away. (Exodus 15:14-15)

“Oh,” said the suddenly suspicious U Mass students, in contrast to the Harvard Divinity students with whom I went through the same process, “so why does the RSV and the NRSV translate “those who sit” in a city as the “rulers” in prophetic poetry but as “inhabitants” in the Song of Miriam and the stories in Joshua?” Then they noticed that most of the stories in Joshua 3-12 concern battles against kings and are stories of clever guerrilla warfare tactics by those with simple weapons against kings with war chariots (the tanks of the day). And then they noticed that if they substituted “rulers” everywhere they found “inhabitants” (behind which stands yosheve- in the Hebrew text, the stories suddenly made much more sense. The Song of Deborah in Judges 5 and stories in the early chapters of Joshua are not about genocide, the slaughter of all inhabitants, but about an apparent set of local revolts by those peasant inhabitants against the kings, chariot warriors, and others who lived in fortified cities precisely because they were afraid of such attacks. The Deuteronomistic composers of Joshua and subsequent books and especially the modern European translators have done their best to coopt stories of revolt against kings and their chariot warriors into a grand narrative of conquest and elimination of the indigenous inhabitants. But with little or no critical leverage on the text, subordinated people/ students can discern other voices underneath that official editing and translation. As Renita Weems and others have been explaining, isn’t that what African-American slaves did with the “talking book” and, more recently, what Basic Christian communities among Central American campesinos did when they heard biblical stories read.

                In other contexts it may be possible for readers to find their own ambivalent stance mirrored in the ambivalence of certain biblical texts. Such might happen in a contextual reading of the Gospel of Luke. This might involve some critical comparisons with the Gospel of Mark or the letters of Paul. I have the impression that the Gospel of Luke has become the most comfortable Gospel for readers in mainline U S churches. This may be because Luke has clearly made certain adjustments between the radical implications of Jesus’ speeches and his audience that seems to involve some people who are relatively well-off. Justin Ukpong has clearly exposed some of the inadequacies of Luke, brought to colonized Africa by missionaries working hand in hand with European colonization, for contemporary mission practice in

Nigeria and elsewhere. Jane Schaberg, speaking from a different context as a woman in US society, warned a few years back that Luke is even a dangerous book. Despite his social location being a bit more upscale than Mark’s, however, the Luke was bringing his Gospel not from the imperial metropolis, as were the English missionaries to the peoples in Nigeria, but from one subjected people to others at a time when the movement was apparently recruiting people like Luke himself (or: like us). Luke presents a Gospel that offers a programmatic basis for an alterative society that is in but not of the imperial order. And, as Krueger explains, his Gospel challenges its more comfortable readers, who might be in a position to take advantage of the material resources that might accrue to people of their station in life from the imperial order, to give at least half their resources to the poor, to serve God by sharing the material resources as their disposal rather than Mammon.

                The book of Acts, more clearly than Luke’s Gospel, has made significant accommodations to the Roman imperial order. In a way that has been disastrous for subsequent generations of Jews, Acts blames “the Jews” and not the Romans for persecuting the expanding movement of Christ-believers, insists that the apostles spreading the movement were not subversive to the Roman imperial order, portrays Roman magistrates as relatively protective at times, and represents Paul as a Roman citizen who can appeal directly to Caesar over the head of misguided local Roman and Judean rulers. Acts presents an expanding movement with features that imitate features of imperial life. As in Paul’s letters, however, the movement of Christ believers is an alternative society, developed on the basis of history running through Israel and now become international, over against Rome’s claim to be the climax of previous world history (the successor of Troy via Aeneas). As the movement had moved beyond Israel and become international, Acts deals with the difficulties of the relations between the movement’s roots in Israel and its spread primarily among other peoples, as explored by Benny Liew. Insofar as its main agenda is bringing various subject peoples around the eastern Mediterranean and even in the imperial metropolis Roma into an international society that is loyal to an alternative king, Jesus Christ, contrary to the decrees of Caesar (in the Thessalonica episode, Acts 17:7), the accommodation to the Roman imperial order appears to be at least in part strategic, keeping an unthreateningly low profile, so that the movement can spread all the more effectively. Might that history be suggestive for those living under the Pax Americana or Global Capital, whether in the imperial metropolis of the new Rome or among subject peoples who correspond to ancient peoples of Ethiopia, Asia Minor, and Greece (the expansion of the movement “to the ends of the earth,” Acts 1:8, was realized in the baptism of the Ethiopian, Acts 8:26-38).

                Like many of the contributors to the GBC I find the biblical models of resistance to the tributary system and its gods the most compelling and challenging. But, like most contributors, I am deeply compromised by accommodation to that system. Because of that accommodation, the “compromised” biblical books may provide the most illuminating analogies to our own contexts of compromise. My students, however, keep reminding me to listen for the multiple voices that may be submerged, but not completly, under the editorial overwriting in many of those compromised biblical books.

 

Addendum: A Different Way of Reading

                Finally, let’s look at a match between text and today’s context that involves a significant shift from the assumptions and procedure of most essays in the volume and my response so far. In accord with established academic biblical studies most of the essays in this volume thus look for analogies from biblical text understood in their historical context.  But there are other ways of appropriating biblical texts. One would be not to worry at all about the historical or literary context of the text. That is what happens in the group readings and discussion that Gerald West presents – and those popular group readings discern messages and meanings in discrete texts that established biblical scholars have failed to see.

                Another such example is from the Rastafarian movement and the Reggae music rooted in it. Psalm 137 was, in the context of its origins, sung by the Jerusalem ruling elite that had been defeated and deported to Babylon. The descendants of enslaved Africans deported to Jamaica who became Rastas, however, made this psalm their own, whence it was adapted by Reggae singer Jimmy Cliff: “By the rivers of Babylon, where we sat down; and we remembered there the song of Zion. But the wicked carried us away, captivity required of us a song. How can we sing King Alpha’s song in a strange land.” For those with an acute awareness of the historical difference between original context and Rastafarian context, here is the reverse of the usual cooptation in which the elite co-opt stories or songs of the oppressed and marginalized.

                Now unless I misunderstood Archie Lee’s essay, I see him doing something similar, only now complexified by a suggestive intercultural reading. Aware that the book of Lamentations presents lamentations of the exiled Jerusalem elite over their devastated city, he refused to let that determine reading in today’s context of Chinese mothers need to lament the loss of their children in Tiananmen Square. These biblical laments have potential expressive significance not dependent on or limited by their historical context, the potential of which can be evoked in comparison and combination laments over those killed at Tiananmen Square that are deeply rooted in the classical Chinese tradition of laments.  (I guess the only question I have for Archie Lee is whether, if he had not been assigned the book of Lamentations, he would have worked instead or in addition with laments or the lament-like “confessions” in Jeremiah and other prophets where the focus falls on fallen figures and/or the rulers’ violence more analogous to the Tiananmen martyrs and/or the Chinese rulers who ordered the repressive violence.)

 


William C. Placher

 

Consultation on Contextual Biblical Interpretation

William C. Placher

Wabash College

 

 

                It is a great honor for a mere theologian to be invited to speak among biblical scholars concerning this wonderful book, the Global Bible Commentary.  I want to reflect a bit on the concrete realities of teaching the Bible in North American colleges and seminaries today, and then on that basis draw some tentative conclusions about how a superb book might be even better.

                Those of us who took our first academic work in Bible thirty or forty years ago, whether in college or seminary, generally encountered a course whose primary purpose was to introduce us to the critical historical method.  Most of us had grown up going to church and Sunday School, and we knew a good many Bible stories.  Some of us had even won prizes for being able to recite the names of all the books in the Bible, in order. 

                Our instructor took some such basic knowledge for granted and then introduced us to a new method of Bible study.  In addition to Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, andDeuteronomy, we now learned about J, E, P, and D.  I was spared the experience of one of my friends, who took a course where the required purchases from the college bookstore were a Bible and a set of four colored pencils, so that every passage could be appropriately underlined according to the source it represented, but the spirit of that course pervaded much of the world of biblical studies.

                Many of these classes were gracious in every sense of the word.  Instructors worked gently and liberated their students from narrow literalism, giving them a richer and more complex biblical world to inhabit.  Other such courses were, to tell the truth, kind of mean.  Take those fundamentalists and shake them up, leaving them with…well, sometimes it was hard to say how seminary students were supposed to preach on the basis of what they had learned in their Bible courses.  But whatever the tone, the basic strategy was clear enough—introduce students to a new method of thinking about the Bible based on historical criticism.

                Both our own experience at Wabash and conversation with the new faculty members who attend our workshops at the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion constantly remind me of how much has changed. 

                To start with, even in seminaries, there’s a problem of biblical illiteracy.  It’s easy to make fun of the teachers who back in the day made some of us memorize the names of all the books in the Bible.  What did that feat of memorization really provide by way of insight into biblical texts?   And yet, confronted with a seminary student who doesn’t know whether a given book is in the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament, one could grow nostalgic.  Instructors in Bible at any level now have to decide how much just information about the Bible needs to be part of their courses.  How much time should be spent on just learning stories, and names, and a rough chronology?

                Then there’s the question of methods—most definitely in the plural.   We can apply narrative criticism, or canonical criticism, or structuralist approaches, or deconstruction, or reader-response theory—the list goes on, and it’s not a list I offer ironically.  Each of those methods seems to me at least sometimes significantly illuminating, for the scholar and for the preacher as well.  But if they’re truly to illumine, and not just become academic gimmicks—farmland, wilderness, binary opposition—then each method deserves some time, time to explain its theoretical foundations and to apply it with some care to at least a couple of passages. 

                I think, moreover, that if we have moved beyond the methodological hegemony (I figured I should use the word “hegemony” at least once) of historical-critical method, that doesn’t mean we’ve abandoned it.  It remains indeed the foundation for many other methodological approaches.  And for many of our students the historical-critical method still comes as a shock.  Nobody told them until college or seminary that Matthew didn’t write down what Jesus said to give us the Sermon on the Mount.  Or, even, maybe someone has told them to mistrust college or seminary teachers who tell them that Matthew didn’t write down what Jesus said.  So if we are not simply to impose this method—you should believe this because I’m the authority, and I’m telling you—it will take time to help them see both the reasons for applying such a method and the ways in which it can deepen understanding rather than undercutting faith. 

                And then, of course, most relevant to the reason we are gathered here, we have learned that we can’t talk about what the Bible means because it means different things to different readers, depending on their particular circumstances as to gender, race, class, nationality, sexual orientation, and so on.  The Global Bible Commentary gives us an immensely rich resource for helping to see how different perspectives, different readings, can enrich understanding for all of us.

                Still—fourteen week course on the Hebrew Bible.  Only course required on it in the new curriculum.  Three fifty minute classes a week.  Some of the students are on tight budgets, and can’t afford to buy too many books.  What is the poor teacher to do?  We used to ask, “What do you cover in this course?” but I think we need to free ourselves from the metaphor of “coverage,” for down that road lies despair.  But merely getting rid of the metaphor doesn’t solve the problem.

                I wanted the Global Bible Commentary to be the perfect book, and in the pedagogical context I’ve described I’m not quite sure that it is.  Perhaps there’s already an ambiguity in the title.   “Global” might mean “all-inclusive.”  “The global AIDS crisis,” or “the global shortage of flu vaccine,” doesn’t mean part of the crisis or part of the shortage but the whole thing.  So one might read the title as promising an all-inclusive work.  But the aims seem in fact more limited.  The scholars writing here show, Daniel Patte says in his introduction, “the significance of aspects of the biblical text that readers in other contexts have often taken for granted or overlooked.” The offer to teachers and students seems to be, not all-inclusiveness but one approach among others, namely an approach, or rather a collection of approaches, that focus on reading the Bible in particular contexts.  For a lot of North American readers—and one has to be realistic about the principal market for a $39.00 book published in English by a North American publisher—the implicit message seems to be, “Here are ways in which people from other parts of the world, especially the two-thirds world, read various biblical texts.”

                Nothing wrong with that.  Indeed, lots of things wonderfully right with it.  This marvelous volume really ought to be on the shelves of every pastor and church educator, for instance.  But when we focus our pedagogical questions on the classroom, I worry that a book that so easily allows itself to be defined as presenting one more approach—narrative readings, and feminist readings, structuralist readings, and now global readings—exacerbates the problem of that introductory course rather than helping to move toward the sort of solution that we so desperately need.  To put the matter bluntly, I couldn’t escape a feeling that the Global Bible Commentary assumed something like Harper’s Bible Commentary there on the shelf first, to be supplemented and enriched by the Global Bible Commentary.  Maybe that’s realistic.  But at worst I worry that implicit self-categorization as supplemental risks unintentional self-marginalization.  I dream of a slightly revised book that intends to be the student’s first commentary. 

                Suppose we start, as Daniel Patte’s introduction does, with the conviction that every interpretation is multiply contextual.  Then this book is not introducing the practice of contextual interpretation but being more honest and explicit about it, and drawing on authors from more diverse contexts.  But if we Christians are one body of Christ, then how can we not aspire, as readers of scripture, to be one interpretive community (a community that can learn from our non-Christian neighbors as well)?  And therefore what could be more natural than to be guided in our reading of scripture by the most diverse group?  And not as a supplement.

                How would the commentary of which I am dreaming differ from the one we hold in our hands?  First, I think it would have a longer introduction.  Whatever their other contexts, all of the authors seemed to me also the inheritors of that initially Germanic scholarly historical approach, so could one explain it a bit to students, right at the start, with a little reflection on what it means to be somewhere else in the world yet still also a child of that scholarly tradition?  In his introduction to the Harper’s Bible Commentary, John Barton summarizes various contemporary methods of biblical interpretation in a few pages; I think Daniel Patte could do it better.

                Second, one might provide different sorts of maps for readings this book.  For instance, someone thinking about different ways of reading scripture might learn from comparing Andre LaCocque’s literary approach to Daniel to Dana Fewell’s more historical approach to Ezra-Nehemiah and then to Daniel Patte’s rhetorical approach to Romans and then to Teresa Okure’s sociological approach to Hebrews, and so on.  But do students need a little help in seeing such patterns?

                Third and finally, with great hesitation, I’m in the odd position of wondering about the value of a few more North American authors.  This is complicated, and I may be wrong.  I certainly don’t mean to say something stupid like, “White North Americans are underrepresented.”  We have enough books of our own.  But there’s always the danger that the less intelligent white North American students will come away with the lesson, “Gee isn’t it interesting that other people read the Bible contextually?”  Do we need to give those who are likely to be the book’s largest audience more examples of how people sociologically like them also read the Bible contextually?

                William Shawn, the legendary editor of the New Yorker magazine, used to send articles back to authors for one more rewrite with the comment, “This is too good not to be perfect.”  It is in that spirit that I have tried to comment on the Global Bible Commentary.          

 


Abraham Smith

 

Context Matters: The Claim, Contribution, and Challenges of 

The Global Bible Commentary

by

Abraham Smith

 

 

Introduction

                It is by now a given that context matters in interpretation.  As I will note soon, this claim is a theme advanced by a variety of scholars.  It is in fact one of the distinguishing features of what one might call the rise of  Cultural Studies (aka cultural criticism) within the evolution of biblical criticism.  So, what is the contribution of the Global Bible Commentary, especially with respect to the practices of contextual interpretations and to the issue of pedagogy (i.e., the pedagogical implications of these contextual interpretations)?  And what are the challenges for biblical scholars who are looking for future directions for their scholarship, directions which seem to be intimated by the Global Bible Commentary, though not always explicitly so.  Before taking up each of these matters (the claim, the contribution and challenges of the Global Bible Commentary), let me first acknowledge my deep appreciation to the general editor, Daniel Patte, the associate editors (J. Severino Croatta, Nicole Wilkinson Duran, Teresa Okure, and Archie Chi Chung Lee), and all of the writers of the Global Bible Commentary.  This work of scholarship is a singular work that will find broad appeal for scholars, pastors, religious educators, and those who are simply curious about the continuing effective history of biblical texts on human kind.

 

I. The Claim

                The editors and writers of the GBC are not only saying that biblical interpretation matters (xxvi), which is a claim worthy of pressing itself because biblical interpretations potentially  can inspire or wreak havoc on the peoples of the earth or on the earth itself).  The editors and writers of the GBC are also saying that context matters, or that biblical interpretation matters because context matters.  In some ways, this claim is not new, though the GBC, as I will shortly mention, does represent a shift.

                Yet, others (and these editors and writers themselves) have advanced the claim that context matters.  That is, a number of scholars in feminist, postmodernist and postcolonial circles have pressed for readings of texts that avoid hiding the interpreter's identity behind the veil of the "general critic," with little acknowledgment of the critic's social location.[27] The present posture in many textual explorations then is to locate one's positions within a variety of interpretive communities.  As Elizabeth Schuessler Fiorenza puts it: "If what one sees depends on where one stands, social-ideological location and rhetorical context are as decisive as text for how one reconstructs historical reality or interprets biblical texts."[28]  This emphasis on context, at least within the context of this guild, moreover, reflects the changing dynamics of the guild, in accordance with the evolution of the professional practice of biblical criticism.  In recent years, the face of biblical criticism has changed.  Biblical studies is in a state of  “radical plurality”, with multiple voices and directions, largely because of the growth of non-male and non-Western individuals in the biblical studies profession.[29]

                The GBC’s claim that context matters, of course, moves us away from an observation of the guild alone.  It reminds us of everyday people who read the bible (in all countries) and that most of the bible’s readers/auditors hail from “Africa, Asia, Latin America and Oceania,” not from either Europe or North America.[30] The GBC’s claim that context matters also forces us to think about the concept of context broadly. On the one hand, the commentary acknowledges the need for and benefits of contextual interpretations (how  such readings reveal the multiple entrance points for biblical interpretation, how such readings expose the unwritten intertexts or governing discourses that shape our readings, how such readings give insight to various features seen by some readers and yet overlooked by others).  On the other hand, the various practices of contextual readings suggest that the context of the text, writer (or redactors) must also be explored.  Justin Ukpong, for example not only examines the context of 19th and 20th century Christian missionaries in Nigeria, but he also notes how Luke’s missiology, like that of  19th and 20th century Christian missionaries in Nigeria, failed directly to confront colonial powers (385-393).  Likewise, Benny Tat-siong Liew not only explores Acts as informed by the context of  Chinese Americans [who must contend with this nation’s acceleration of economic globalization on the one hand and its global “(inter)relation and (inter)penetration on the other,” 419]. Benny also critiques the context of Acts, which   can be compared to other ancient propagandist texts that supported imperialist (conquest) projects (426).

 

II. The Contribution

                Yet, the GBC is not solely interested in the claim that context matters.  The GBC, appears to make a contribution in three ways. First, it offers a broad, accessible array of contextual interpretations, with an accentuation on readers/auditors throughout the world, not (as in the past) on those from the West.  I found particularly  helpful the four initial readings of Jesus (from African, Asian, Latin American, and Orthodox perspectives) because they were attempts to appreciate difference, though there are likely multiple variations on what constitutes an Asian perspective.  Various readings from a particular geopolitical area also clarified the struggles of the peoples of that area, as did all of the commentaries on Latin America (e.g., the commentaries by Duarte, Richard and Míguez), commentaries which seemed consistently to highlight the problems of (neo)liberalism, though these commentaries highlighted as well the common plights that their countries share with others affected by (neo)liberalism throughout the world.  Second, given the various methods of textual exploration employed by its writers, the GBC provides some categories that might help us to see the distinctive (though not necessarily mutually exclusive) goals of certain contextual practices.[31]  Third, the GBC has valuable and multiple pedagogical implications, implications about what is learned and practiced in biblical criticism.  Let me mention just a few of these. 

 

1. Shifting from Hero-Worship to People’s Histories

                Pablo Richard’s reading of Jesus moves beyond the hero-worship that gives short shrift to the whole Jesus movement in a way similar to the shift in historical studies of the Civil Rights movement beyond Martin Luther King, Jr. to the entire movement and the struggles of ordinary people.  What if a commentary were produced that highlighted not a singular figure but whole communities?  What if  our investigations of biblical texts gave a hearing to suppressed or discordant voices (beyond historical criticism’s exposure of a text’s sources), to the work of various communities, as some scholars now are beginning to do?  How would that reshape biblical interpretation and empower ordinary biblical interpreters?

 

2. Viewing Texts as Sites of Power

                Hisako Kinukawa’s reading of Mark in the light of her Japanese context both appreciates my aforementioned emphasis on appreciating a type of “people’s history” and she highlights the importance of investigating texts in order to understand the attendant  power dynamics they invoke.  This approach means though that we may need to move from simply seeing these texts as Scripture toward seeing them as sites of power struggles, which is not always easy to do if one is influenced by a doctrine of biblical authority. Is it the case then that I found so few deliberately resistant readings (a few  exceptions being Ukpong and Tat-siong Liew) because of this stance?

 

3. Viewing Texts as Sites of Contextualization by the Writers Themselves

                Viewing texts as sites is not only helpful for understanding power dynamics but for understanding how the ancient writers themselves were influenced by their contextual interpretation of what they regarded as Scripture.  This point is made clear in Duarte’s reading of Matthew.  Duarte reads Matthew in the light of  the violence done against the “little ones” (“Rachel’s children,” Mt 2:18) of Argentina during the military dictatorship (1976-1983) and the present context of neoliberalism, and in the light of his own experience of social uprootedness.  Yet, these contexts help Duarte to see how Matthew reads biblical traditions (Scripture) to negotiate a space of resistance against Empire (350-351).   Thus, the text of Matthew becomes a site for exposing the contextual character of Matthew’s reading of Scripture and for showing how context matters.  

 

III. The Challenges

                Finally, I think the GBC lays the groundwork for some future directions in biblical interpretation in general and within our guild in particular.  Some of  these challenges, though implicit in the GBC, are now lifted up for explicit exposure. First, as the GBC seems to acknowledge, the practices of contextual interpretation compel us to broaden our understanding of textuality.  That seems to be the import of Musa Dube’s reading of the healing accounts in Mark.  Musa W. Dube’s reading with others in Botswana, in the light of the pandemic of HIV/AIDS,  reminds us of the importance of reading the social text (i.e., the unwritten social subtext that informs how any given culture understands and interacts with this pandemic) along with the biblical text (379). The general editor Daniel Patte seems to be treating the same issue when he poses the question: “What are the intertexts—religious or secular-in terms of which I read the biblical texts?” (xxxi).  A broadening of “textuality” could also mean that more analysis is needed of other texts that convey biblical themes and concepts such as visual art, drama, music.  Such a broadening of textuality would also help us to conceptualize multiple ways that people learn or multiple intelligences.  This broadening of textuality would also reveal how reading itself is a text.  That is, patterns of reading strategies at least in this country largely teach readers to read in ways approved by the dominant voices in a given society.[32] Reinforcing these reading strategies are the benefits and rewards of scholarly endeavor.[33]

 

Second, even if it is necessary to highlight the great value of contextual interpretations as manifested outside of  Europe and North America, one must  equally acknowledge that interpretation in Europe and North America is no less contextual interpretation.  I sense that is what the general editor was doing in his commentary on Romans.  Patte’s reading of Romans in part emphasizes his own cultural context (that of being both a  “French Huguenot and a white male”  (429). But his reading also exposes the contextual character of  three types of readings in Roman scholarship, typically of white male readers: 1) the forensic readings (which focus on the theological issue of guilt); 2) the new covenant readings (which focuses on the rhetorical issue of  how Paul seeks to change the attitudes of his readers/auditors toward each other; and 3) the apocalyptic readings (which features Paul’s convictions about God’s powerful interventions in the world (432).  Nicole Wilkin Duran seems to make the same point. That is, her “Jesus: A Western Perspective”  exposes the character of the Quest for the historical Jesus (it is largely a Western male quest), the predominant tension in the quest (whether Jesus was simply religious or also radical),  and some of the factors shaping it (e.g., the western [American] ideal self, which  portrays Jesus as innocent, and not as an arrested, beaten, powerless, and ridiculed criminal).  Without this equal stress on all interpretations being contextual in some sense (even if there are varying criteria for what constitutes a valid interpretation), a hierarchy of readings will develop with some readings being regarded as universal.[34]

 

Third, as open as the GBC is to divergent interpretations, it seems to make us think about the potential danger of essentialism.  As I have noted before, it is difficult to speak of an “Asian perspective” that could be accepted by all. I am particularly aware of this danger even as I reflect on what is sometimes called African American biblical scholarship.  Not all African Americans are alike.[35]  Thus, African American biblical reception  cannot be reduced to the historical experiences of a single group of blacks.  So, while it is possible to describe the biblical hermeneutics that occurs in the black church, one of the  principal venues for black biblical reception, not all African Americans are a part of the black church.[36]  Accordingly, even if one agrees with Peter Paris that the black church has one key hermeneutic (“the universal parenthood of God and kinship of humankind,” 135) but several possible social implications emanating from that hermeneutic (a pastoral strand, a prophetic one, a reformist strand and a nationalist one), black biblical interpretation extends beyond the black church.[37]  Nor can black biblical reception be reduced to the perspective of a single, essentialist view of the self, a perspective that naturalizes and identifies only with the self in the text that highlights one aspect of one’s identity.  In the nineteenth century, as noted by Clarice Martin, an essentialist view of the self led many African Americans to advance a spirited protest against the Haustafeln "slave" regulations (in, e.g., Colossians 3:18-4:1 and Ephesians 5:21-6:9), but paradoxically to fail to protest the "wives" regulations,[38] thus adopting "a socialization that tolerates and accepts the patriarchal model of male control and supremacy."[39]  The failure to protest the "wives" regulation as an "outmoded social ethos" was possible because some enslaved African Americans--though certainly not all--only viewed themselves essentially as "black slaves."[40]  Attention must be given then to the particular and variegated historical experiences of any given interpretive community in Afro-America—whether that community be composed of black women, black gays or lesbians, or the black poor—in order to trace the regularizing effects on biblical reception.  Attention must be given, moreover, to the “relations of power” that inhere in the “intragroup social relations” of these various interpretive communities.[41]

                Thus, there exists a tension between giving voice to a perspective that has not yet been appreciated as it ought and yet not reducing the people represented by that perspective to a reductionistic set of givens. I am not sure how to resolve this tension but it is a dilemma no less.

 

Finally, I suspect that any reading (by whatever name is called) has an implicit hermeneutics of human beings. How does one’s reading of biblical texts reveal something about one’s view of the individual? And what are the implications of a clash of views for biblical interpretation?  By way of example, let me return to the matter of the intertext and explore how that intertext might play itself out among interpreters influenced by American liberalism.  As noted by Benjamin Valentin, American liberalism has some value, for “this conception helped Western societies to deal with the crisis of authority and the sectarian strife engendered by the religious wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.”[42] It also “has served invaluably to emancipate human and social thought from the chains of uncritical submission to tradition.”[43] What Valentin finds problematic, however,  is that this conception “has also served to generate a radical individualism, an enchantment with private life, and an ahistorical understanding of reason that has eventually served to constrict the meaning of public life”[44]  That is, if a human being is defined as “ontologically prior to society” and construed as self-made, the need for others becomes only a “matter of protecting and maximizing individual interests.”[45] Hence, this view “has served to weaken the sense of and desire for connection between the self and the other. . .; it has encouraged a one-sided enchantment with private life that values being in private—alone with ourselves, family, and intimate friends—as an end in itself, and  . . . [it] has weakened the desire to value those bonds of association in the respublica, where we must live in the ‘company of strangers’.”[46]

                Dare I say that there are competing views of the self and its relationship to society that must be tapped if we are to see not only just that there are multiple and competing contextual interpretations but if we are to wrestle with the larger goal of respecting each other without imposing our “textual” values (as a sort of universal) on others.  To put the matter another way in words that approximate Patte’s commentary on Romans (cf. GBC, 437), is not it the height of arrogance to think that we in the U.S. have the right to give “the gift of freedom and democracy to Afghanistan and Iraq”? (GBC, 437). 

 

Conclusion

                In closing let me thank the general editor, the associate editors and the writers for this timely treasure-house of voices.  The GBC says more than just the claim that Context Matters.  It provides a valuable contribution in helping us as we practice biblical criticism, and it leads us forth in seeing some important challenges about biblical interpretation.  He or she that has hears to hear, let her or him hear.

 


Gale A. Yee

The Global Bible Commentary

Practices of Contextual Interpretations and

Their Pedagogical Implications

Gale A. Yee

Episcopal Divinity School

 

                First of all, I wish to thank Dr. Daniel Patte for this invitation to review The Global Bible Commentary, and how its contextual interpretations have ramifications for our teaching. I was unable to contribute to the commentary myself, and am glad for this opportunity to have some role in promoting contextual interpretations of the bible. I foresee that The Global Bible Commentary will become an important classroom resource in our biblical courses. It is already a required text for the Introduction to Hebrew Bible course for my colleague, Angela Bauer-Levesque, at Episcopal Divinity School. And after working through the Old Testament entries of the GBC, I too will require it when my turn to teach the Intro HB comes up. Its short, concise entries, representative of a wide variety of international contexts, and relatively inexpensive paperback format provide an excellent entrée for students to encounter the social, political, economic, and religious diversity that exemplify the contexts in which the Bible is read, preached, and lived.

                My review of The Global Bible Commentary will be as a teacher, one who strives to make the bible come alive for her students in three major ways. First, by helping them to understand the multiple contexts in which the text itself was written, by opening my students’ eyes to the multifaceted socio-cultural worlds of the biblical texts and the historical periods in which they were produced.  Second, by making students aware of their own social locations and how these locations affect their interpretation of the bible; that it matters deeply that one is a gendered, raced person of a particular class who interprets the bible. And third, by making them cognizant of the wider social contexts in which they interpret the text, forcing them to answer the questions, “Whom does my interpretation of the bible benefit? Whom does my interpretation of the bible harm?

According to post-colonial theorist, Gayatri Spivak, “The practice of criticism begins with a historical critique of [one’s] position as the investigating person.” Because I see my pedagogical task as helping my students to interpret the Hebrew Bible critically, I have my students begin, as Spivak enjoins, with an exploration of themselves as interpreters of the text. I have every class complete the “Self-Inventory on Biblical Hermeneutics” in Norman K. Gottwald’s "Framing Biblical Interpretation at New York Theological Seminary: A Student Self-Inventory on Biblical Hermeneutics."[47] For many years this questionnaire has been given to all students at New York Theological Seminary, a very diverse institution, having an ethnic mix of African Americans, whites, Hispanics, and Asians who hail from over thirty denominations. Even among the ethnic groups themselves there exists significant diversity. Blacks of the diverse Caribbean nations join the African American population. The Hispanics have different Latin American backgrounds, and the international Korean students are quite culturally distinct from the various American-born Asians.

                The intent of the questionnaire is to encourage student self-reflection on the ways they frame their biblical interpretation, with the hope that once they realize the hermeneutical factors at work in themselves, they can become more self-aware in their interpretation of the biblical text. There are the eighteen different categories in the “Self-Inventory” that students reflect upon to determine how each affects their understanding of the biblical text: gender, race/ethnicity, class background, working theology, explicit or implicit political stance, and so forth. After each category are questions that help to clarify each category. For example, under “Church History/Tradition” (1) it asks “What is my denominational history and tradition regarding interpretation of the Bible?” Under “Gender” (5) it asks “How do my gender history, culture, and consciousness influence my interpretation of the Bible? With the rise of feminist consciousness, this may be an easier question for women to confront, but it is also an important question for men.” Under “Education” (7) it asks “How does my level and type of education influence by interpretation of the Bible?”

Reflecting upon eighteen different categories involves considerable contemplation on the part of students. After the students complete the inventory, they process and discuss it in small groups led by teaching assistants. At the end of the scripture course, students return to the self-inventory and describe any modification or transformations in their hermeneutics that were generated by the course. Their learning experiences thus do not simply consist of knowledge about the biblical text, but of themselves as interpreters of that text.

The editors of The Global Bible Commentary asked each of the contributors to respond to these open-ended questions: “What is the teaching of the given biblical book for believers in your specific social, economic, cultural, and religious context? What does this given biblical book say regarding the relationship of the people of God to the world” (p. xxi). The GBC singles out four of the eighteen categories the Self-Inventory used at New York Theological Seminary. Such questions model what we as teachers should ask our students, helping them turn away from the mere words of the text and upon their own social location as they encounter the text.

What I particularly found interesting in my survey of the Old Testament contributors (I only read the OT entries J.) was how they interpreted “social” context. Most were able to identify very successfully the external context in which they were situated. This is one of the strengths of the commentary. Students are able to see in capsule form the social, political, and economic problems in various places in the globe where the bible is proclaimed.  The commentary opens up a much wider, international world in which biblical interpretation takes place.

Nevertheless, I noticed that the contributors were less explicit about their own social locations as interpreters, particularly with respect to gender. This blind spot regarding gender affected the interpretation of the biblical book in certain cases. Predictably, the female scholars more easily saw issues of gender at work in the biblical text and their own social contexts. However, with some notable exceptions,[48] male scholars, while keenly aware of the political and economic issues of their contexts, often overlooked gender issues in their biblical books and in their social contexts. The most glaring examples were the commentary on Judges, a book that is studded through and through with stories about women, and the commentaries on Ecclesiastes and Nahum. The commentary on Zechariah 5:5-11, where Wickedness is embodied as a woman who pollutes Babylon, notes that the text links economic and religious corruption, but fails to see where sexism interconnects with this representation. The Editors of The Global Bible Commentary had to insert a note: “Regarding the gender bias in this text, see the commentaries on Jeremiah and on Hosea in this volume” (p. 322). Not surprisingly, the excellent commentaries on Jeremiah and Hosea were penned by women (Renita Weems and Tania Sampaio).

I was thus acutely reminded of the debate Marxist feminists had with male Marxist theorists, who argued that women’s issues were less important than economic class conflicts, and that women’s issues divided the working classes. Male Marxists failed to understand that men’s and women’s experiences under capitalism differ qualitatively. Oftentimes, women under capitalism are oppressed as women, not simply as workers. Male Marxists thus did not recognize the vested social and economic interests men had in women’s continued subordination.[49] Similarly, economic issues were primarily foregrounded in many of the OT entries, at the expense of gender issues in both the texts and contexts. While I definitely acknowledge the horrendous economic hardships and inequities in the different countries, women under capitalism and imperialism experience poverty and destitution qualitatively differently than men, and these differences must be reckoned with and negotiated in our interpretations of the biblical text.

Each entry in The Global Bible Commentary is structured in three parts. The first is the “Life Context of the Interpretation.” Hailing from different parts of the globe and belonging to different religious traditions, each contributor here in this first part lays out the specific life situation, social location and concerns from which he or she reads the bible. The second part of each entry involves “The Contextual Comment.” What is intriguing about this second part is that each contributor deliberately chooses the passages in their biblical book for comment that were most pertinent to the context in which he or she lived. The introduction to the volume asserts: “Picking and choosing what is particularly relevant for our life context or what is most significant for us is what all interpreters do” (p. xxv). Just as the contributors of the well-known Woman’s Bible Commentary[50] choose texts that particularly relate to women and their issues, the contributors of The Global Bible Commentary make deliberate choices from the biblical text that are most important for their particular contexts. I should add that the religious right also picks and chooses the biblical texts it thinks important, especially in matter of (homo)sexuality. The Global Bible Commentary is explicit about this choosing, while the religious right is not. The third section of each entry involved the concluding remarks of each commentary that anchor the interpretation in its specific context.

I approached each entry with great expectations to learn more about the particular context of the interpreter and what biblical passages he or she chose that related to this context. The most successful entries in The Global Bible Commentary were those who integrated their social context with their interpretations of the specific texts of their choosing. These entries provide wonderful paradigms of contextual exegesis for students.

But before I talk about these entries, let me dwell on those entries that were not, in my opinion, successful. While practically all the Old Testament entries were quite good in laying out for students the specific social, political, and economic contexts from which he or she construes the text, sometimes this context was not taken over into the “Contextual Comment” itself. I would read an exceptionally fine analysis of context, but would find in the “Contextual Comment” the “same old, same old” standard exegesis that was no different from an ordinary Western commentary. With all due respect to the memory of the deceased J. Severino Croatto, to whom this volume is dedicated, I found his commentaries on Second, Third, and Fourth Isaiah guilty in this regard. I saw very little connection between his excellent socio-economic dissection of Argentinean society and the elaborate chiasms and structural units that he lays out for Isaiah. Croatto returns to the Argentinean situation in his conclusion, as if a bracket around the “Contextual Comment” makes the integration between his location and interpretation self-evident. It does not.

I have the same complaint with the commentaries on Obadiah and Zephaniah. These commentaries also find chiasms in their respective works, but how these chiasms relate to their respective Argentinean and Brazilian contexts are not particularly clear, except for vague references to “the poor and humble.”[51] I have nothing against chiasms per se, but they seemed to be dropped into these commentaries for their own sake, a-historically and a-contextually. The chiasms, in and of themselves, did not address the significant questions, “So What?” and “How are they relevant to the context?” They worked against the grain of the mission of The Global Bible Commentary and detracted from it.

Let us now turn to entries in the volume that, I think, are successful in making this bridge between context and interpretation. The first is Gerald West’s treatment of 1 & 2 Samuel. Acknowledging that the Bible has played a significant role in colonization and apartheid in South Africa, West also finds in 1 Samuel much that is empowering to South African readers. West provides a model for bible study in his context with African Christian women in particular. West guides us through workshops he has done through the Institute for the Study of the Bible and Worker Ministry Project, in which African women in small groups discuss the stories of Bathsheba, Tamar, and Rizpah in 2 Samuel. For example, in discussing Tamar, the African women deal with standard literary questions of the story, e.g. who are the main characters and what role do they have in the rape of Tamar? These women then deal with more contextual questions: Are there women like Tamar in your church and/or community? Tell their stories. What is the theology of women who have been raped? What resources are there in your area for survivors of rape? The women are encouraged to report back to the plenary group in creative ways through drama, poetry and song.

Working on behalf of the Amazonian peasant, landless, and river folk, Alessandro Gallazzi’s commentary uses “conflict” as the interpretive key for Ezekiel 40-48, to show how this text sides with the elites, who wish to regain the leadership and the land that they lost during the exile. Although filled with wonderful imagery of restoration and healing, and the rebuilding of the temple, the text suppresses the conflicts behind these chapters in order to restore a priestly caste, at the expense of the “people of the land.” Reading against the grain, Gallazzi concludes that the teachings of Ezekiel 40-48

“are totally unacceptable in our (Amazonian) context. A critical study that shows that the teaching of these chapters reflect the interests of the privileged group that produced it helps us recognize that it is precisely the kind of teaching that contributes to the plight of the peoples in the Amazonian regions. This teaching is tragically implemented in our lives through the powerful and oppressive role of the transnational corporations.” (p. 251)

Gallazzi’s conclusions reveal that in his context Ezekiel 40-48 contribute to the oppression of that context, rather than for its healing and restoration. He sees parallel between the church of the temple (found in Ezekiel which favors the elite, official, despotic, and static institution) and the church of the house, the Brazilian base communities for which he is an advocate.

                Renita Weems’ commentary on Jeremiah is a wonderful example of how her multiple identities and shifting loyalties as a woman, descendant of African slaves, a US southerner, Protestant minister, mother, wife, and professor at a black women’s college inform her reading of Jeremiah as a text both to be submitted to and struggled against (p. 212). Pinpointing Jeremiah as an example of survival literature, Weems demonstrates how the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians was Israel’s 9/11. She compares Jeremiah’s struggles with the authorities to modern African American “prophets” for racial justice such a Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X (pp. 216-7). Critical of the exploitation of women’s battered and raped bodies to make a prophetic point, Weems, like Gallazzi, reads the text “against the grain,” revealing that from her context she must reject the patriarchy of the text:

“What does a loving God have in common with a jealous, violent husband who stalks his wife and attacks her? These are the kinds of questions that touch on the ethics of interpretation. We see here that patriarchy makes connections between women’s bodies and men’s fantasies where there are none intrinsically.” (p. 219)

 

The final commentary that models for me the integration between context and text is Archie Lee’s commentary on Lamentations. I do not single out Archie’s contribution simply because he is my friend and is responsible for my spending a wonderful year teaching at his institution in Hong Kong. Archie’s commentary integrates his Asian context with the text of Lamentations on three noteworthy levels. First, Archie makes connections between the lament or dirge form and Chinese laments cross-culturally. He demonstrates that Lamentations and ancient Chinese laments have much in common in trying to capture one’s responses to human tragedy and suffering. Second, Archie relates Lamentations with the poems written on walls and posters in Tiananmen Square after the 1989 massacre of young student protesters. Thus besides connecting Lamentations with ancient lament literature, Archie relates the book to contemporary poetic responses to tragic mourning and loss. Third, just as Lamentations utilizes a female trope of daughter Zion to convey the ruin of the nation, Archie lets us see this same female trope in the poetry of Tiananmen Square. Daughter Zion finds her Asian counterpart in Mother China shedding tears over the suffering of the nation. I appreciated Archie’s sensitivity to gender in both the biblical and his own Asian context.

I was only able to single out four entries of this commentary that I found noteworthy. However, there are many others entries that will provide much fruit for thought for our students. During this intense time of globalization and multinational organizations, our students need to become cognizant of the different ways in which the biblical text is taught and preached throughout the globe. They also need to become more ethically aware of how their own biblical interpretation, formed within the imperialistic American context of their intellectual training in our seminaries, colleges, and universities, have important ramifications, for better or for worse, in the wider global arena. 

 

 

               

 

 



[1]There are altogether 19 writers from this continent. From these, 10 are from Argentina (9 are related to ISEDET as professors or alumni); 6 are from Brazil; 3 from Central America (Nicaragua and Costa Rica); 9 are Roman Catholics and 10 are Evangelical; 6 are female and 13 male. This is the only imbalance, which reflects society. While there is much in the Latin American articles on class and ideologies, including something on ethnic issues, gender is not a strong analytical tool in most articles. It should be, for it is not the same to be a poor male worker or a poor female worker, to take just one example. Vieira Sampaio’s analysis of Hosea’s imagery starting with the questions posited by prostitutes is just one example of what a gender analysis can bring forth.

[2]Duarte, 356.

[3]In 1992, in closing his address to the SBL meeting, Gottwald stated, “In the end, what is probably most exciting and disturbing about trying to do a social class analysis of biblical texts is that to do so adequately we have to acknowledge and take responsibility for our own social class location.” Norman K. Gottwald, “Social Class as an Analytic and Hermeneutical Category in Biblical Studies” JBL 112/1 (1993) 21 (3-22).

[4]René Krüger, “Luke’s God and Mammon, a Latin American Perspective,” 395-396

[5]Néstor Míguez, “Galatians,” 464-465.

[6]Sandro Gallazzi, “Ezekiel 40-48,” 246

[7]Valmor da Silva, “Nahum,” 301-302.

[8]Elsa Tamez, “1 Timothy,” 514-515.

[9]Is this more a female boldness than male?

[10]Krüger, 396

[11]Severino Croatto, “Isaiah 40-55,” 198-199.

[12]Pablo Richard, “Jesus: A Latin American Perspective,” 338.

[13]Jorge Pixley, “Exodus,” 17.

[14]Cristina Conti, “James,” 544. Also Claudia Mendoza (“Malachi,” 325) shows this concern in her question: “As God’s people, what should we do in this context of misery and hunger, where respect is lacking and dignity is violated, and where horizons are obstructed and threatened?” when realizing that the book of Malachi deals with the right worship to God rather than the serious crisis in the midst of which it utters its words.

[15]Tânia Mara Vieira Sampaio, “Hosea,” 262.

[16]Alejandro Duarte, “Matthew,” 350.

[17]Gallazzi, 247.

[18]Míguez, 465.

[19] Duarte, “Matthew,” 351.

[20] This is represented and discussed in Faith in a Hyphen: Cross-Cultural Theologies Down Under (ed. Clive Pearson with a Sub-Version by Jione Havea; Adelaide: Open Book, 2004).

[21] Ibid.

[22] Carlos H. Abesamis, "Jesus: an Asian Perspective," in Global Bible Commentary (ed. Daniel Patte et al.; Nashville: Abingdon, 2004), 333.

[23] See Sandra M. Schneiders, The Revelatory Text: Interpreting the New Testament as Sacred Scripture (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1999), 108-110.

[24] Alejandro Duarte, "Matthew," in GBC, 350.

[25] Kinakawa's perspective on 'power' or Ukpong's on 'the Gentiles' allow such categories in the text to be read through new eyes with new questions.

[26] See Justin Ukpong, "Luke", GBC, 385-394.

[27] So important has social location become that several recent collections of essays give prominence to it.  Two recent volumes bear directly on the role of social location in biblical interpretation.  See Reading from this Place: Volume 1: Social Location and Biblical Interpretation in the United States and Reading from this Place: Volume 2: Social Location and Biblical Interpretation in Global Perspective. The collective group behind The Postmodern Bible hardly begin their essays before acknowledging the importance of social location: "Engaging in self-reflexive reading has meant a heightened sense of our various social locations and speaker-positions, which cannot be reduced to a facile litany of gender, race, class, and institutional locations" (5).

 

[28] Elisabeth Schuessler Fiorenza, "The Rhetoricity of Historical Knowledge: Pauline Discourse and its Contextualizations," in Religious Propaganda and Missionary Competition in the New Testament World: Essays honoring Dieter Georgi, ed. Lukas Bormann, Kelly Del Tredici and Angela Standhartinger (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1994), 456.

 

[29] I owe this term to Fernando Segovia.

 

[30] GBC, xxi.

[31] Here I list only some representative samples for each category.

  A. Reading with Others

 

1. Pablo Richard’s “Jesus: A Latin American Perspective” in part reads with others as he presents the exegetical studies of several Latin American scholars engaged in historical Jesus scholarship (what he calls a “fourth quest for the historical Jesus”). That reading of Jesus is informed by: 1) a context of marginalization (the conditions of poverty and marginalization experienced by “the peoples, cultures, and religions of Latin America, Africa, Asia, and Oceania” (338); 2) a focus on the larger movement of Jesus (not exclusively on Jesus himself, especially as that quest can reveal the rich diversity of early Christianity before christendom); and 3) the present need of biblically-based movements for a re-formation that does not limit Jesus’ importance (as has some creeds) to his birth and death but to the whole of his life and is movement.

2. R.S. Sugirtharajah reads the Sermon on the Mount with other resistant readers, with Raja Rammohun Roy (1774-1833) and Mahatma Ghandi (1869-1948), who read the Sermon on the Mount as: 1) statements of orthopraxis, not orthodoxy; and 2) in the light of their cultural hermeneutical interxtext (e.g., the Bhagavad Gita) , thus finding in the Sermon on the Mount basic ethical practices find in other religious traditions.  They also note the short shrift given to the Sermon on the Mount in India’s postcolonial period, especially as India has faced such stages as nation-building, indigenization, and the creation of liberation manifestos (361-365).

3. Musa W. Dube reads with others in Botswana, to weigh the value of the Synoptic healing accounts in the light of the pandemic of HIV/AIDS.  Her reading reminds us of the importance of reading the social text (i.e., the unwritten social subtext that informs how any given culture understand and interacts with this pandemic) along with the biblical text (379).

 

B. Reading as Resistance

 

1. Nicole Wilkinson Duran’s “Jesus: A Western Perspective” is a resistant reading if not of the texts as least of the prevailing interpretations of the biblical texts.  She reads Jesus as a criminal—arrested, tortured, ridiculed criminal whose life thus radically departs from the “pure and innocent” Jesus that the West likes.

2. Justin Ukpong’s reading of Luke, employing inculturation hermeneutics, critiques both Luke and 19th and 20th century Christian missionaries in Nigeria because both had a missiology that failed directly to confront colonial powers (385-393).

3. Benny Liew’s reading of Acts produces an intercontextual reading.  That is, he is interested both in the context of  Chinese Americans (who must contend with this nation’s acceleration of economic globalization on the one hand and its global “(inter)relation and (inter)penetration on the other,” 419)  and in the context of Acts (“community integration, religious diversity, and colonialism”), as that context (sometimes liberative and sometimes oppressive, 426-427) is illumined by the work of three Chinese-American scholars (Yeo Khiok-khng, David W. Pao, and Timothy Tseng, 420).

 

C. Reading in the light of the interactions between the contexts of texts and interpreters

1. Anne Nasimmiyu Wasike’s “Jesus: an African Perspective”  reads from a post-Vatican II African perspective, with a focus on Jesus as a nurturer (like a mother who nurtures life),  a liberator (a co-sufferer working to restore humanity and the whole of creation), and a healer (whose healing was integral, involving the spiritual and the physical).

2. Carlos H. Abesamis’ “Jesus: An Asian Perspective” reads Jesus’ association with the poor in the light of the poor in the Philippines, as that nation has moved from “four hundred years of Spanish colonization and an ongoing neo-colonization by the United States and the transnational corporations” (333).  With that reading Abesamis sees two essentials: 1) the intimate connection between Jesus and God, the source of Jesus’ ministry; and 2) the comprehensive character of  Jesus’ ministry—both in terms of his total commitment to a ministry of good news and in terms of that ministry being holistic (physical and spiritual and, with the “kingdom of God” not simply focusing on heaven (a distant place or time) but on a new experience of well-being form all forms of oppression.

3. Daniel Patte’s reading of Romans is in part a reading in the light of the interactions between the contexts of texts and interpreters, as his emphasis on cultural context (that of being both a  “French Huguenot and a white male” makes clear (429). But his reading also exposes the contextual character of  three types of readings in Roman scholarship: 1) the forensic readings (which focus on the theological issue of guilt); 2) the new covenant readings (which focuses on the rhetorical issue of  how Paul seeks to change the attitudes of his readers/auditors toward each other; and 3) the apocalyptic readings (which features Paul’s convictions about God’s powerful interventions in the world (432).

 

D. Reading to expose the Contextual Character of Interpretations

 

1. Pablo Richard’s “Jesus: A Latin American Perspective” in part exposes the contextual character of exegetical readings of the historical Jesus, as he, e.g., concludes from Schweitzer’s ruminations on “nineteenth century reconstructions of the historical Jesus” (337), reconstructions that “were more reflections of the individual exegete’s personal interest and culture that historical reconstructions” (337).

2. Nicole Wilkinson Duran’s “Jesus: A Western Perspective”  exposes the character of the Quest for the historical Jesus (it is largely a Western male quest), the predominant tension in the quest (whether Jesus was simply religious or also radical),  and some of the factors shaping it (e.g., the western [American] ideal self, which  portrays Jesus as innocent, and not as an arrested, beaten, powerless, and ridiculed criminal).

3. Daniel Patte’s reading of Romans is in part a reading in the light of the interactions between the contexts of texts and interpreters, as his emphasis on cultural context (that of being both a  “French Huguenot and a white male” makes clear (429). But his reading also exposes the contextual character of  three types of readings in Roman scholarship: 1) the forensic readings (which focus on the theological issue of guilt); 2) the new covenant readings (which focuses on the rhetorical issue of  how Paul seeks to change the attitudes of his readers/auditors toward each other; and 3) the apocalyptic readings (which features Paul’s convictions about God’s powerful interventions in the world (432).

 

 

[32] On the control of reading strategies by "ruling interpretive communities," see Renita J. Weems, "Reading Her Way through the Struggle: African American Women and the Bible," in Stony the Road We Trod: African American Biblical Interpretation, ed. Cain Hope Felder (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991), 67.

 

[33] On the rewards and punishments for certain kinds of readings, see Martindale, Redeeming the Text: Latin Poetry and the Hermeneutics of Reception (Cambridge: University, 1993), 15.

 

[34] Notions of a scientific or factual enterprise continue to confer on some works a cloak of respectability with little thought about the competing claims for what counts as factual or the extent to which "the concept of objective science is itself a theoretical construct."  See Elisabeth Schuessler Fiorenza, "The Rhetoricity of Historical Knowledge: Pauline Discourse and its Contextualizations," in Religious Propaganda and Missionary Competition in the New Testament World: Essays honoring Dieter Georgi, ed. Lukas Bormann, Kelly Del Tredici and Angela Standhartinger (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1994), 456.

 

[35] I seek here to avoid a rigid politics of identity.  With Brad Braxton, I want to avoid the extremist positions that view "race" exclusively either as biologically determined or simplistically socially constructed.   See Brad R. Braxton, No Longer Slaves: Galatians and African American Experience (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2002),  7. Too much concentration on physical features historically was the basis for scientific racism before critical social science (a la the cultural anthropologist Franz Boas) offered correctives (Braxton, 8). Yet, too much concentration on race as simplistically a "social construction" both denies the history of real assaults on the bodies of those politically designated as Black and aids insidious forms of self‑contempt by such persons who deny "robust affirmations of black bodies" in a futile quest for a false universalism (Braxton, 10).

 

[36] On biblical hermeneutics in the black church, see, e.g., Stephen Breck Reid, Experience and Tradition: A Primer in Black Biblical Hermeneutics (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1990).

 

[37] According to Paris, these four strands constitute the black Christian tradition and they are “more basic than the Scriptures themselves because . . .” (152) black people find them meaningful. For each strand, Paris gives a definition, a representative and illustrative statements from the representative.  The Pastoral strand, best represented by J. H., Jackson, uses the bible to console blacks. It takes an admonitory tone--advancing civic responsibility and racial productiveness within a nation deemed to be basically in harmony with the Christian Gospel.  The Prophetic strand, best represented by Martin Luther King Jr., strategically uses Scripture to support political action in the eradication of contemporary problems (143).  The Reform strand, best represented by Adam Clayton Powell, recognizes the inherent imperfection of the church and of America but uses scripture to determine the most effective means for redeeming these institutions.  The Nationalist strand, best represented by Albert Cleage, creates a canon within a canon of biblical texts supporting nation building.  Then, it allegorizes these texts to suggest that these texts actually address the nation building of black people which must seek a separate existence geographically or ideologically because of the history of racism in this country.

 

[38]Clarice J. Martin, “The Haustafeln (Household Codes) in African American Biblical Interpretation: ‘Free Slaves’ and ‘Subordinate Women’,” in Stony the Road We Trod: African American Biblical Interpretation, ed. Cain Hope Felder (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991), 206-31. For a similar argument, see Demetrius K. Williams, An End to This Strife: The Politics of Gender in African American Churches (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2004).

[39] Martin, 227.

[40]In support of women’s rights clearly stood Frederick Douglass.  See James H. Cone, For My People: Black Theology and the Black Church (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1984), 123-25.

[41] The language of “intragroup social relations” here is informed by Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, African- American’s Women’s History and the Metalanguage of Race” Signs 17 (1992) 251-274, esp. 274.

 

[42] Benjamin Valentin, Mapping Public Theology : beyond culture, identity, and difference (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2002), 92.

 

[43] Ibid.

 

[44] Ibid.

 

[45] Ibid., 93.

 

[46] Ibid.

[47] Norman K.Gottwald, "Framing Biblical Interpretation At New York Theological Seminary: A Student Self-Inventory on Biblical Hermeneutics." Pages 251-61 in Reading From This Place. Volume I: Social Location and Biblical Interpretation in the United States. Edited by Fernando F. Segovia, and Mary Ann Tolbert. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995.

 

 

 

[48] Cooper on Leviticus, Havea on Numbers, West on 1 & 2 Samuel, Lee on Lamentations,

[49] Heidi Hartmann,. "The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism: Towards a More Progressive Union." Pages 97-122 in The Second Wave: A Reader in Feminist Theory. Edited by Linda Nicholson. New York: Routledge, 1997.

[50] Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe, eds. The Women's Bible Commentary. Expanded ed. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998.

[51] Other commentaries in which the connection between context and interpretation was rather loose were Lee’s on 1 & 2 Kings

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