If there is one thing that biblical scholar Brevard Childs teaches us, it is that in interpretation we must keep together what others drive asunder.
That which from a structural perspective is joined together and no man should put asunder are the multiple senses of a text, in this case Scripture. See Phil Sumpter’s most recent post, and supplied links. For more, go here.
Exegesis, whenever it proposes a meta-sense of text as a replacement of one of its more foundational senses, is no longer in authentic alignment with the practice of Torah, the fundamental dynamic of which is the accumulation of meanings and the holding in tension of diverse meanings, not the effacement of one meaning by another. Michael Fishbane’s commentary on the Haftarot, which interweaves insights from traditional and modern historical exegesis, is an instructive example of interpretation which is not purely traditional and not purely historical.
Ultra-traditional forms of Judaism resist an integration of the study of the historical senses of text modern scholarship seeks to recover into the traditional curriculum (Talmud Torah) and into religious explanation (Darshanut) – except insofar as they support traditional exegetical conclusions. To be clear, a careful reading of explanations of text produced by traditionalists demonstrates that results and conclusions of modern historical scholarship “creep in” at various places, usually without acknowledgement.
Christianity is not a different ball of wax.
Traditional exegesis of the church, whenever it has proposed a meta-sense of text as a replacement of one of its more foundational senses, has ultimately done a disservice to the Church's witness to the Gospel. Smart traditionalists are cognizant thereof. For example, an eastern Orthodox blogger, Esteban Vasquez, is surely right to lift up the example of St. Cyril who, at least occasionally, paused to consider the historical sense of the Old Testament before going on to re-read it in light of another history, that of the incarnate Son of God Jesus Christ, and in terms of a rule of faith of a redemptive-historical nature.
Still, it must be said: in traditional exegesis the historical sense of the Old Testament is often buried to the point of being eclipsed by the meta-sense the Church finds within the Old Testament based on its experience of salvation through Christ. The unity of the history of salvation is thereby obscured. The possibility that the text in its full-orbed historicity speaks to tradition for the sake of tradition disappears. The result is unhealthy.
Does that mean exegesis as now taught in tradition-neglecting Protestant, Anglican, Catholic, and Orthodox centers of learning is a spiritually healthy operation? Nothing could be further from the truth. Said exegesis tends to be “atheological” (Esteban’s description, which is on target, and equals Child’s insistence on a theocentric reading of scripture). It misses the point of the texts it studies. It ignores the Sache of Scripture (its res, or subject matter). It babbles on about some other Sache.
Historical-critical exegesis, insofar as it proposes a foundational sense in replacement of the meta-sense the text has within Judaism and/or Christianity, has severed the text from the text’s history of reception in Synagogue and Church, and runs the risk of sterile polemics.
If, on the other hand, the historical-critical exegete understands her work as that of elucidating the foundational senses of the text and defending them from occlusion by tradition, in the expectation that tradition is capable of further enrichment with meaning of historical depth, then tradition is honored as a living organism capable of metabolizing much more roughage as it were, than strict traditionalists – of ye of little faith – are willing to countenance.
The position which understands historical-critical exegesis to be an apostate enterprise, a beast from hell so to speak, betokens unbelief in tradition in the positive sense as underwritten at all times by the promise of – to speak in Christian terms – the gift of the Holy Spirit. Even and especially with respect to tradition’s engagement with modern exegesis and the modern world.
The limits that strict traditionalists place on traditional exegesis as a living discipline are unacceptable.
A Note on Canonical Exegesis
Jewish scholar Michael Fishbane’s exegesis has a "triune" focus: Torah, God, and Israel. He draws on Jewist tradition of every century. He is canon-conscious, tradition-conscious, and liturgy-conscious in a way Christians might emulate. Fishbane doesn’t major on theory and minor on exegesis. He doesn’t bother using terms like theology, canon, tradition, and liturgy. He just goes about doing exegesis in a canonical fashion.
In a review, Benjamin Sommer, now of JTS, makes the point well:
Fishbane provides what I think is a paradigm for a new (Jewish?) form of canon criticism. If, as Brevard Childs teaches us, the essential concern of canon critics is to understand how biblical tradition is received and hence shaped by the community of faith, then commenting on the haftarot is the quintessential canon critical project. Indeed, I venture to propose that this commentary is one of the few genuine works of canon criticism that any modern biblical scholar has ever written.
Michael Fishbane, Haftarot: The Traditional Hebrew Text with the New JPS Translation (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2002), xxxix, 593 pp. Hardcover. ISBN 0-8276-0691-5. Order here.