Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Something I Never Really Ever Planned on Knowing Much About

I once worked in a specialty coffee shop. I know far more about coffee than you`d ever figure. How many things do you have in your life like that?

One of the basic facts of professorial life is that you end up teaching things you never thought you would. Yes, sometimes you have to teach things you don't want to, but mostly the things you are asked to teach are related to your primary fields of interest, and are ,therefore, of interest to you at least in some small way.

I teach "Biblical History." Sure, I wrote two graduate theses on topics related to the Bible - both on Augustine - but I am by no means a 'Scripture Scholar." I don't know a lick of Hebrew, the Greek I know is hardly sufficient for much of anything, nor do I know any other Biblical languages - like Aramaic. I never liked 'modern approaches' to biblical criticism. I fastened upon Patristics because I agree with the general contours of 'Alexandrian' exegesis, which, let me tell you, is very different from what Raymond Brown, Wellhausen, Bultmann and the boys are up to.


Nevertheless, each time I offer this course (this is the fourth time now) I thoroughly enjoy it and learn so much. Each time I learn more about the content of the books I teach: Judges, Ruth, the six books of the kings of Israel, Ezra, Nehemiah, Maccabees, Isaiah, Luke and Acts. I learn more about Ancient Israel and the Ancient World as a whole, and about exegetical theory, upon which I put a heavy emphasis. I had always been drawn to the theory part, but not to the history so much, mainly because of a dislike of Historical Criticism (which is no reason at all). Now, I am thoroughly loving the history, so much so that I have to temper what I inflict the students with. I have to remember that they don't have the basic content of the books down, so I can't get too fancy on them. Are they even interested in cross-cultural comparison? Why not leave that for the history prof.?

The last place I ever thought I'd ever want to go is the Holy Land, but here I am, studying maps for hours on end, wishing I could get a ground-level view of the places the OT describes. The theology of the OT is rich, much richer than I initially took it to be. I operate from the premise that the OT is strange, even weird, and that my job is to show that it is still God's book. But I believe the case can only be made in light of its actual content. I don't easily dismiss problems, and so I believe that the results that the class comes up with are much stronger as a result. The OT is the Church's book, and it is easy to find it so confusing and to just let it go. I like the OT, but I never understood it. Now I am starting to get a foothold on its history and theology, and I feel so much the better for it. I never believed I would ever know it this well, but there you go. Such is God's will.

A great deal of good literature has begun to appear on the topic of Catholic exegesis in light of modern historical criticism, after a long period of being served only by the first person to say anything useful about it - Henri Cardinal De Lubac. A great deal of good stuff is coming out that has begun to properly navigate that area between historicism (i.e. treating the Bible as any other book) and fundamentalism (i.e. treating the Bible like every other natural law and principle needs to be rewritten because of it). Probably the greatest contributor in this change-around has been His Holiness, Pope Benedict, himself. He has a unique and masterful grasp of the issues at stake, and the authority to back it up. He was a genius before he was pope, and now we have a pope-genius who is doing what we need him to do. Especially helpful to this end has been his Jesus of Nazareth, and yet other numerous writings as well. I don't know why Fr. Aiden Nichols, OP fails to account for this in his "The Thought of Benedict XVI." It cannot be because all of his writings on exegesis antedate that book, because they do not. Kung doesn't miss the significance of Benedict's approach to scripture, ironically enough.

Of course, even after the burgeoning of my interest in Ancient Israel, it is still Patristic exegesis that captivates me most. But I hope to learn more and more about the Ancient world, and Ancient Israel most of all. Formerly, had someone suggested I study Hebrew I would have thought that the biggest waste of my time imaginable. But, who know, maybe some day I will.


  1. Very interesting post, Colin. Of course, being a better prof makes for better students, too. Hard to know which comes first. But I'm glad things are working out well this year in any case.

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  3. Ok, the comment above was supposed to go with the post "My Favourite Kind of Student." Sorry!

  4. I kind of figured that. But I have never seen YOU make a mistake before. This is a remarkable day!

  5. Alright, alright. I had that coming to me.