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Midwest Jewish Studies Association - Shofar Book Reviews

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TANAK: A Theological and Critical Introduction to the Jewish Bible, by Marvin A. Sweeney. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012.  544 pp.  $59.00.


In this book, Sweeney, who identifies himself as Jewish, encourages Jews to engage in the discipline of biblical theology. He himself models a theological approach to the tanakh by providing theological analysis of every book of the Bible from his perspective as a response to biblical theologies that have been constructed from Christian perspectives.

              The Biblical Theology movement had its heyday in the 1950s and 60s primarily in moderate and conservative Protestant Christian seminaries and colleges. The original goal of the movement was to find a theological center or key or theme that connects all of the biblical material including the New Testament. German scholars such as Gerhard Von Rad (Heilsgeschichte—salvation history) and Walter Eichrodt (covenant) became leading scholars in the field. Biblical Theology ebbed in the 1970s as it became apparent that the Bible is far too eclectic to be reduced to a theological monism. Moreover, influences from post-modern thinking brought about the realization that the Bible is never read objectively but always is informed by the contemporary context of those who read and interpret it.

              Although Christians and Jews share a common body of material, Sweeney contends, their theological approaches to that material are quite different. This is true as visibly represented in the organization of the books of the Bible in ways that reflect the theological commitments of the different communities. The tanakh ends with the book of Chronicles and the promised return of the Jewish exiles to the land of Israel. The Christian Old Testament ends with Malachi and the promise of one to come, thereby preparing for a transition to the Gospel narratives that follow. However, internally, there are distinct theological approaches to the biblical materials and interpretations of the same within both the Jewish and Christian communities.

              Sweeney is to be applauded for having undertaken the very challenging task of reflecting theologically on the entire tanakh in order to identify not one but several theological ideas that were critical to the formation of the Jewish people and their sacred texts. He has undertaken this task in order to demonstrate that “biblical theology is a valid means for Jews to employ in an effort to interpret the Tanak” (p. 487). Sweeney notes that already the dialogical character of the Bible has provided a model for continuing Jewish engagement with it. He writes “the study of Torah is an ongoing process of revelation” (p. 33).

              The book begins with a concise review of the biblical theology movement and the question of how to interpret the Bible after the Holocaust. Then in very readable language that students will appreciate, Sweeney systematically summarizes the material in the entire tanakh with his own theological reflections inserted as well as insights derived from archaeological excavations, the historical/critical analysis of Jewish and Christian scholars, and a sprinkling of traditional rabbinic commentary. Sweeney asserts that theologically the tripartite division of the Jewish Bible moves from presenting an ideal relationship between God and Israel to its disruption and finally a restoration of that relationship. Sweeney’s ultimate purpose in writing this book seems to be to convince contemporary Jews that the tanakh is still relevant for Jewish life and that it can function as a catalyst for discussions that engage contemporary theological concerns, such as the character of God, God’s relationship to the people of Israel in the contemporary context, creation, and dialogue with other religions (see p. 488–489).

              Most of Sweeney’s exegetical and theological analysis of texts will be very familiar to scholars. However, because Sweeney goes into a lot of detail about particular texts, inevitably a reader will raise questions about some of his contentions. For example, after thoroughly reviewing the first three books of the Bible from a Wellhausean framework based on his Documentary Hypothesis, Sweeney rejects a key claim—that the priestly material is post exilic. He bases this on his contention that Wellhausen was antisemitic and anti-Catholic. This sounds more like name calling than a cogent argument. It is not clear how a late dating of P is automatically to be understood as antisemitic, as many scholars date many of the materials in their final form to the exilic and post-exilic period. After making the statement, Sweeney affirms that the “P redactional framework with its literary structure” dates to the Persian period (p. 120). This is confusing and would merit further discussion.

Wilma Ann Bailey

Christian Theological Seminary

Indianapolis, Indiana