Posted by: Ken Brown | June 13, 2009

Levenson on the Uniqueness of the Bible

Jon Levenson, “The Temple and the World,” Journal of Religion 64 (1984):

[T]he quest for the distinctive in Israel is a wild-goose chase…. [T]hose who apply a purist or nativist approach are obliged to overlook the implications of their method for the parts of the legacy of ancient Israel of which they approve…. Was not King Kirta of the Ugaritic epic indicted by his son for his lack of solicitude for widows, orphans, and the poor?[1] Under nativist assumptions, must we not conclude that the injunction to uphold widows, orphans, and other oppressed people was “an invasion of Canaanite culture,” “a Canaanite-Yahwistic hybrid”? (pg. 281)

Levenson’s comments are equally applicable to the Bible as a whole and Christian theology generally. Most of what is most important in Christianity can be found elsewhere in one form or another. Love and compassion, self-sacrifice and piety, miracles, revelation, even gods becoming men and gods dying and rising–all of these can be found elsewhere. That there are precedents for such things should be no more surprising than that there are good people outside Christianity. Indeed, if the Christian God really is the creator of the whole world, we should expect as much, or is God’s grace limited to one people only? There are distinctives, some of which are vital, but it is not their uniqueness that makes them so:

The problem with this is that it assumes, in an uncritical way, that the defensible part of the Scripture, in effect, dropped one day fully formed from heaven. (pg. 278)

It is not the uniqueness of Christianity’s claims that makes them significant–all Christian theology, like all other human knowledge, reflects the particular cultural contexts in which it has been formulated–their significance lies rather in their relation to the whole. What matters in comparing worldviews is not which parts are unique, but which total system makes better sense of the whole of reality as we know it.

Answering that question is never a simple matter, but asking it reminds us that connections between religious and ethical traditions should be seen as something to be celebrated, not condemned. They are not proof of idolatry, but hints that we are on the right track.

[1] Cf. Context of Scripture 1.102 vi 25-53:

When raiders lead raids,
and creditors detain (debtors),
You let your hands fall slack:
you do not judge the widow’s case,
you do not make a decision regarding the oppressed,
you do not cast out those who prey upon the poor.
Before you, you do not feed the orphan,
behind your back the widow” (vi 49-51).

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