Gregory MobleyProtestant and Jewish Approaches to the Scripture

(Or What I Learned . . . from Inter-faith Bible Study)

Gregory Mobley

May 26, 2004

The following remarks are a revised form of a presentation given at the May 19, 2004 meeting of the Jewish-Christian Dialogue sponsored by the American Jewish Committee and the Massachusetts Council of Churches at Temple Mishkan Tefila in Newton, MA.  The author is Associate Professor of Old Testament at Andover Newton Theological School, and an ordained American Baptist minister.


This past Spring term, Andover Newton Theological School and Hebrew College, which share Institution Hill in Newton Centre, Ma., offered our first joint course, “The Book of Ruth in Jewish and Christian Interpretation,” taught by Judith Kates of Hebrew College and Yours Truly from Andover Newton. 


1.  There are varieties of Jewish and Christian interpretation, so from the first I must say that, as with the writing of history, “with every breath I take, I lie.”  I cannot speak for all Jewish or Christian interpreters.  The Bible, for better or for worse, belongs to all human beings on the planet Earth.  Serial killers read the Bible and cite it in threatening notes reassembled from cut-out newspaper copy; saints read it and it inspires in them heroic virtue and humanitarianism.  I exercise no control over the dynamics of how human individuals and groups interact with the Bible.  The Bible has inspired virtue and beauty; it has also inspired cruelty.


All the above is to say:  I will commit great sins of generalization and overstatement in my remarks.


2.  Let’s start with how Christians read the Bible, and, more specifically, with how Protestant Christians read the Bible.


Ever since the Protestant Reformation in 16th-century Europe, Protestant Christian biblical interpretation has been characterized by the conceit that interpreters had entered a Time Machine.  It is imagined that the interpreter has left his or her age and has returned to the biblical era.  Bible study begins with the biblical text, and is animated by the idea, however false, that the reader reads without any intervening authority or tradition.


As a result, when denominations proliferate in Protestantism, reformers almost always argue that their new group is more biblical, more New Testament, more like Jesus, more primal, closer to the pure Water of Life.  Never mind what every pilgrim to the Holy Land knows:  the Jordan is always muddy. 


So Protestant biblical study, whether it is done well or poorly, is intensely or myopically focused on the biblical text.  Roman Catholic and Orthodox biblical interpretations are far more respectful of tradition, and in these confessions, biblical study is guided both by fresh readings of the Bible but also by the historic traditions within each communion.


As for traditional Jewish interpretation, the picture is different, or so it seems to me, based on the experience of studying the Bible in an interfaith context.  The biblical text, as I observe, is obviously important but it is no more important than the accumulated conversation about the Bible that has taken place among the rabbis whose writings have been granted authoritative status.


In other words, take the example of the book of Ruth.  Protestants want to know, and only know, about the Ruth and Boaz and Naomi in the biblical book.  Jewish readers want to know about Ruth and Naomi and Boaz but they are equally interested in the midrashim and traditions about them as they are in the story in the canonical book of Ruth.  The book of Ruth is their starting point, but it simply opens a door into a centuries-old conversation among Jewish people about the book of Ruth.  And all elements, all participants in that conversation, are important.


3.  Another thing:  the primary Christian media of interpretation have been formulaic, issued in theological statements and creeds.  The Jewish media have been primarily narratival and disputational.


Christians, in each generation, have imagined that they are uncovering the real story, the truth.  Jewish readers have imagined that they are entering a debate and listening to stories.


The American Protestant Christian mode produces winners and losers.  Our faith is very volunteeristic, and we are competing against each other to convert souls to our version of the story. We need to get it right, and uncover the Real Truth because we have got to be a little better than the competition.


The Jewish mode, in contrast, produces solidarity, of faith and of peoplehood.  Biblical interpretation is about how to live and how to understand God and the world but it also produces an ages-old culture of folks in dialogue and debate with each other.  The goal is not so much to uncover the truth as it is to be part of this conversation, in solidarity with the Jewish people through the ages.


4.  This is the genius of Jewish midrash:  that by packaging biblical interpretation in story and anecdotes about the rabbis, human imagination and creativity are honored.  There is a playfulness to Jewish biblical interpretation.


I think about a motif in some of the Second Temple biblical books, that emerged in the Persian period, when Jewish people in the East lived under the Persian empire.  In Daniel and in Esther specifically, the biblical writers refer to “the law of the Medes and Persians.”  By that they mean an idea about law that is inflexible and absolute.  These laws of Medes and Persians create plot complications in these Diaspora folktales, as some befuddled tyrant is manipulated into issuing a Draconian edict by some conniving vizier, and now the story must find some way around this legal roadblock.  The way the biblical writers use this motif, you can tell that such a philosophy is foreign to them.  For them, for the Judahites in Yehud and in the eastern Diaspora, the Torah, the law, was never inflexible.  It was not flimsy and disposable but it was malleable to humanitarian reinterpretation in every age.  The Torah isn’t like the laws of the Medes and Persians, these ancient authors imply.  The Torah has some give in it.  It can be reinterpreted.  It cannot be discarded but it can be adjusted.


So from the beginning, the genius of the Jewish conception of scripture, of Torah, or law, has been that it was never, even five minutes after Moses spoke it, set in concrete, even though, according to the story, it was etched in stone.  The law as given in Exodus and Leviticus, in story time at the beginning of the wilderness experience, already sounds different in Deuteronomy, set a mere 40 years later. 


5.  Now, just so it doesn’t sound like I am romantically idealizing Jewish tradition . . .


There is, in traditional Jewish interpretation, certain respect accorded to certain interpreters.  Who picks those interpreters?  Who’s to say that Rashi, of blessed memory, had it right?  What about Rashi’s wife?  We don’t hear from her.


So I still believe that the Protestant mode, that has dominated Western intellectual and academic life since the Enlightenment, has its place.  The historical study of scripture offers the possibility of enlarging the conversation so that it does not merely include our revered ancestors but others too:  the Mesopotamians, the Egyptians, the Canaanites.  Say what you want but a conversation about Noah’s ark that includes what Rabbis and Church Fathers wrote through the centuries but doesn’t include the Enuma Elish and the Atrahasis Epic, both from ancient Iraq, rings a little bit hollow to me.


Contemporary Jewish scholars are at the forefront of this kind of historical study and have been since Spinoza. And some Christian scholars, like Brevard Childs at Yale, do their Protestant scholarship in a Jewish way, asking about what Augustine and Luther said about a text.  So I am generalizing.


A related anecdote:  one Jewish student in the class was mystified by my approach to the Bible.  She assumed that Christian biblical interpretation would be more Jewish in style, that I would talk about Thomas Aquinas and Luther and Calvin, as she was talking about Rabbi Akiba and Rambam.  It makes me think that the real dialogue would be between traditional Jewish interpretation and Christian historical theology.


Let me put it this way:  biblical interpretation always involves a conversation.  When fundamentalist Christians from the Bible Belt read the Bible (and I know this because this is my tribe), there are people gathered around the table:  the preacher at their church, the millennialist author with a gleam in his eye who composed the study notes at the margins of the edition of the Bible they read, the oral traditions—the hymns and choruses and Sunday School narratives—they have heard about the Bible.  When Jewish readers study the Bible, the table is filled with Rabbi-this and Rabbi-that.  When Catholic readers study the Bible, the teaching office of the Papacy has a place at the table.  When crazy scholars like me read the Bible, we leave some chairs for the writers of lots of ancient texts, in dead languages, who speak for the cultures surrounding the biblical world.


In an ideal world, all of these participants are valuable contributors.  But no one ensemble of office furniture can accommodate so many different arses, and no one conversation can accommodate so many different voices.  So each of us chooses who is at our table.  The great thing about the course we just finished is that Judith Kates of Hebrew College could make her guest list and host her banquet; then I could do mine.


Another thing I learned about midrash and Jewish interpretation that is both wonderful and confounding to this Protestant Christian:  midrash, like the Torah it grows from, is flexible.  I was often amazed to hear Judith uncover the brilliant insight of rabbi so-and-so,  because when I read the same rabbinic text, it seemed dated and clichéd.  I often thought:  don’t kid yourself, Judith.  That brilliant insight you just credited the rabbi with is your brilliant insight, not his.  The rabbi never dreamed that his text meant what you just said it meant. 


But there is a beautiful, subtle game here, and it has something to do with paying respect to tradition and to the ancestors while at the same time updating it.  It is a game played in the Bible itself, between, for example, Exodus and Deuteronomy, and Deuteronomy and Jeremiah, and Jeremiah and Ezra, and Ezra and Hillel, and Hillel and Maimonides, and Maimonides and Rashi, and Rashi and Judith Kates.


Protestants like me, for better or for worse, don’t pay the same respect to our ancestors.  We say, cut the crap; they had it wrong.  Here’s the truth of the matter.


Here’s another way I thought about it:  pretend biblical interpretation is a basketball game.  Protestant interpreters, essentially, record only points scored on the stat sheet.  Jewish interpreters keep track of assists.


6. In the end, the joint study of the Bible among Christians and Jews is, I see now, indispensable.  I have learned more about my Christian faith in the past five years as a partner in interfaith dialogue than I did in the previous twenty.  Hearing Jewish interpreters love their tradition, and the urgency with which they unapologetically seek to transmit that heritage to their children, leaves me ashamed for well-meaning progressive Christians who in their zeal to atone for centuries of anti-Semitism in their tradition have neglected to prize and pass on the virtues of their faith and tradition.


You see, at one time, I was confused and imagined that the goal of dialogue among Jews and Christians was to agree, and to harmonize our teachings and traditions.  I now see something different, namely that knowing Judaism might make me a better Christian and that knowing Christianity might make my sisters and brothers better Jews.


For I absolutely believe that we, Judaism and Christianity, are like biological twins.  And that we each needed to individuate in our childhood and adolescence.  I’m a twin so I know about this.  If Jeff put on blue jeans that morning, I put on corduroys.  Because I had to, and he had to, establish our own identities.  But now that we are more settled and know who we are, we can see that there were parts of our respective identities that we each suppressed merely to be different.


The Christians grabbed eschatology; the rabbis downplayed it.  The Pharisees took the practice of faith into homes and family Seders and kitchen holiness once the temple was destroyed by the Romans; they decentralized it.  The Christians eventually said they didn’t need a temple—Jesus made the final sacrifice—but then built great cathedrals, new temples, and re-centralized it.  Jewish culture, perennially in danger, de-emphasized conversion but prized neighborliness and righteous living among others.  Christians pronounced that their faith was for everyone, and sought to convert, but then used tenets of that faith to oppress those who were different.


Has the world changed all that much since those first centuries of the Common Era when Christians and Jews differentiated and individuated in polemical ways?  In many places, Jewish culture remains vulnerable and I don’t know how productive dialogue can be without trust.  But where we can trust each other, and this room seems to be such a place, and I’d like to think that Institution Hill in Newton Centre, home to Hebrew College and Andover Newton, is such a place, maybe we can find the lost themes of our respective faiths by talking to each other.


Interfaith dialogue, then, can be a tikkun, as we recover lost fragments of our respective faiths that the sibling faith preserved, for them, but also, it turns out, for us too.