Leslie Houlden

There can be useful argument whether a treatment of Christian thought should begin with the Bible or with the tradition. The issue is commonly and sometimes crudely thought of as that which fundamentally divides the Protestant element in the Christian world on the one hand from the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox elements on the other. It is of course not as simple as that: no Christian community considers itself to be other than dependent on the authority and pervasive influence of Scripture or to be independent of what it conceives to be authentic tradition. The fact that, with this common basis, they can disagree so profoundly merely shows how varied is the interpretation to which both Scripture and tradition are susceptible. These massive entities, the one in literary bulk, the other in temporal, conceptual and human expanse, cannot reasonably be expected to yield simple and clear directives to those who would base themselves upon them.

What is undeniable is that there has always been a complex interaction between the Bible and tradition. From one point of view, the Bible as Christians have received it is itself the product of tradition, one (albeit towering) element in the Christian story. Though much of it (the Old Testament) was inherited from Judaism, those books were arranged—in early Christian tradition—in a Christianly significant order rather than a Jewish order, and the original Christian writings (the New Testament) were as much deposits of, as formative of, early Christianity, that is they were a fruit of the tradition. In that basic sense, tradition has priority.

But from another point of view, Scripture has occupied a normative place in Christianity that has been unrivalled. In realistic terms, it is arguable that the creeds or the eucharistic liturgies, both of them succinct and, by their repeated use, deeply influential embodiments and formers of faith, have, as it were, largely carried Christianity along on the tide of history. But, despite the tenacious reverence accorded to these formulas by most Christian communities, they have never received the deference and devotion given to the Bible. In however strange (to us) or partial the manner of its use, Scripturehas been the court of appeal to which upholders of doctrine have turned and the source from which they have reckoned to derive their tenets. It has been Scripture whose terms have had to be met and it has been to Scripture that, directly or obliquely, Christians have chiefly turned for religious nourishment and guidance.

Here in our present context, however, it is not only the massive, public and 'up-front' role played by the Bible in Christianity as a matter of sheer fact that leads to its appearing first in this volume. Nor does that position reflect a decision between the Bible and tradition as claimants to primacy in authority: such a decision would, in the constraints of this brief chapter, be rash or crude, and in any case is inappropriate in an academic work such as this. What is involved is more straightforwardly the plain historical datum that the Bible, in the shape of the Old Testament, is the primary surviving bond linking Christianity to its ancient Jewish antecedents and, indeed, its ever-present Jewish contemporaries, with whom its relationship has been always so complex, problematic, and often so tumultuous or catastrophically scandalous. In that perspective at the very least, the Bible pushes itself to the front in any orderly survey of Christian thought.

In part, it is also an obstacle to be circumnavigated, or at any rate treated with caution. For much else in Christian thought has been couched so commonly (and so early, and even when Scripture was ostensibly the source) in abstract or philosophical patterns that, whatever the claims and appearances, the Bible, with its quite different idioms, chiefly narrative and poetry, has been left far behind, as far as its own thought worlds are concerned. Historical approaches to the Bible, developed in recent centuries, have made that so utterly plain that the Bible has become, despite the profligate and even fanatical use of it in many Christian circles, in many ways an alien work—all too clearly mishandled when too readily handled, yet often also in practice treated like a precious icon, revered from afar but not closely examined, lest its native language should prove largely beyond our capactiy to absorb and use, even when understood intellectually.

It is in this perspective that the chapters that follow should be read. They begin with an account of the make-up of the Hebrew Bible in the complicated and drawn-out context of its assemblage as a normative body of sacred writings. But John Barton provides more than this. In drawing attention to the vast range and diversity of the background of this literature, he draws our attention implicitly to its alienness as far as all subsequent readers and users are concerned—all those, that is, who, in whatever precise spirit, lump it together as a canonical whole and make it authoritative, as God-given words. We cannot help but feel the (unwitting) audacity of that step.

It is a step which two major inheritors have taken, or rather a step which is at the start of two different paths. The second chapter traces the movement, from the beginnings that Barton described, down the initial stretches of the

Jewish path, that is, in the period when Judaism and Christianity, bothreckoning Scripture as their major authority and each unabashedly confident in their favoured way of interpreting it, were establishing the camps from which they would henceforward stare at each other, from time to time launching missiles—and, until very recently, being largely without comprehension of or even respect for each other's readings of their common sacred literary inheritance. 'Neutral' academic scholarship has in recent years at least given some Jews and some Christians a fruitful common land.

The third chapter outlines the parallel Christian development in patristic and medieval times, so different from mainline Jewish scriptural interpretation, but, paradoxically, owing much to the Philonic strain in first-century Alexandrian Judaism which Judaism itself so soon lost, ignored or forswore, thus losing the major possibility of a common language in which the two faiths might conceivably (hope against hope) have interpreted their shared writings.

Modern (i.e. post-Enlightenment) historical study of the Old Testament, whose story is told in the fourth chapter, has, in part, operated as a boomerang. It has made available the knowledge of Scripture's past and especially its origins, which the earlier chapters have described. In doing so, it has sabotaged the traditional theological purposes to which both Christians and Jews have put the Scriptures, showing those uses up as anachronistic, arbitrary or, at any rate by historical standards, unjustifiable—for all their ingenious learning. John Rogerson's chapter shows equally, however, that these inevitable challenges to traditional ways of regarding the Old Testament have not led Christian scholars to abandon this literature to the Jews or, more neutrally, to the historical limbo of its own original times. No, Christian scholars have, by a variety of strategies, risen to the challenges and found in the Old Testament a renewed source of edification or formation, whether seeing it in its own right or as giving shape to themes whose further destiny lay ahead in the career of Jesus and early Christian reflection on him. Both the theological thrusts of the Old Testament and its irresistible historical character have given major contributions to Christian thought, recalling it to a neglected Hebrew inheritance.

The next three chapters attend to various aspects of the New Testament, partly in tandem with the treatment already given to the Old Testament writings. The fifth chapter highlights the essential gap, not immediately apparent to the reader of the Bible as a single book, between the two Testaments. At one level, it is a gap of time—that which scholarship labels 'the inter-testamental period', a time whose Jewish literary deposit, so far as it has survived, at Qumran or elsewhere, never achieved canonical, i.e. biblical status; yet, historically, it contributed to the world of thought in which Christianity arose, so that to ignore it is to distort the picture of that world. What is involved is the culture of first-century Judaism—including not only its literary possessions but its methods for interpreting them. This volume, being concerned with the biblical texts, can do no more than draw attention to this factor, so important from a historical point of view.

More importantly, there is a profound conceptual gap. Not only do the New Testament writings fail to follow those of the Old in immediate and uninterrupted temporal sequence; they also arise by what we may describe as a quite different mechanism. From one point of view they are indeed, within their far narrower time-scale, the record of the history, beliefs and practices of a community of faith, just as is the Old Testament. But more significantly, they are, in their diverse literary forms, all responses to and reflections on the figure of Jesus, seen as the decisive and all-embracing agent of God for human salvation. This dominating personal presence and force has no counterpart in the Old Testament—which indeed he was also quickly seen to dominate, for it foreshadowed him and he fulfilled it. In Christian perception, he is more than one character in a long story: he colonizes all of it, from start to finish. More modestly, we may say that the terms and images of the Old Testament, suitably adapted and developed, alone made him intelligible: in the first years, there was no other resource.

In the sixth chapter, John Muddiman shows how richly and diversely the writings of the New Testament served as the 'proofs' for Christian beliefs about God and Christ as they developed, with increasing sophistication, chiefly of a philosophical kind, in the subsequent period—expressed as they were in conceptual idioms that were as foreign to most, if not all, of the New Testament as to the Old.

This process, once brought unavoidably to our attention by candid historical investigation and the use of historicality of imagination, raises questions of great urgency for standard Christian theology, some of whose tenets and much of whose idiom seem undermined by an awareness of its traditional pedigree in New Testament terms and proof texts. These issues, still scarcely absorbed in much of the theological and ecclesiastical establishment, are raised in one dimension by Heikki Raisanen in chapter seven and in a more persistently biblical and literary way by Stephen Prickett's concluding chapter. Here we read of some of the profound questions posed by the presence of a 'holy book', now that we know so much about it and about its functioning.

Thus we end without a closure, with pointers towards a future which theological reflection had better not refuse, for its own health and integrity. As many of these chapters indicate, it is a future in which, on the one hand, the Bible is a fast disappearing cultural force in society at large and even in practice in some major parts of the Christian world; while on the other hand, in the academy it is read and studied by both believers and unbelievers, with unprecedented fertility, as new methods and approaches continually arrive on the scene, some more theological in their bearing than others. It is a perplexing state for the Bible to be in.

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