American Academy of Religion 2016 Book Award
Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion: Textual Studies
David A. Lambert, University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill
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With the publication of James Barr’s book The Semantics of Biblical Language (1961) biblical philology entered a season of deep suspicion toward any attempt to draw sharp lines between the primitive “Hebrew mind” and its later “Greek” counterpart. One of the primary antagonists in Barr’s book was Thorlief Boman, who published his book Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek 1954 (1960 in English). Boman’s book followed the hybrid tradition of armchair anthropology and linguistics that extended back through Johannes Pedersen (Israel: Its Life and Culture) and early anthropologists such as Lévy-Bruhl (How Natives Think and Primitive Mentality). For Boman, the route into the Hebrew mind was grammar. For instance, because Hebrew has only two verb tenses, this suggested to Bowman that the Hebrew mind was less interested in fine details than the whole pattern of reality. Because the Hebrew dabhar could mean “word,” “thing,” or “deed,” he believed that the Israelite mind focused on the concrete actions that were expressed in words, rather than abstractions.
Barr’s critique of Boman was devastating. Not only had Boman mistakenly equated Greek thought with Platonic thought, and radically distinguished Hebrew thought from ancient Near Eastern thought in general, but he had also made a fundamental mistake in moving directly from grammatical structure to thought structure.
But Barr’s Semantics has also introduced a kind of paralysis in the field of philology—or at least, it sent many philologists scrambling to mop up the remaining Hebrew hapax legomena (words only occurring once). As David Lambert writes in his recent article “Refreshing Philology,” “Barr’s thoroughgoing critique of philology’s specious appropriation for theology has left many justifiably skittish about employing it to any significant effect.”1 Lambert positions his work as an attempt to return to a more robust use of philology, but rather than repeating the sins of the past, or walking on eggshells for fear of Barr returning to write one more withering critique, he turns the spotlight on the way that careful diachrony can illuminate the meaning of basic words and expose the theological and philosophical assumptions of ancient authors and modern interpreters.
Lambert’s award-winning book How Repentance Became Biblical thus sits broadly within the philosophical and historical approach introduced by Michel Foucault in The Order of Things, albeit within a single field. Foucault examined the way that historical change brings about shifts in cultural epistemes, or the a priori necessary for knowledge and discourse within a given historical era or context. In an analogous way, Lambert explores the development and eventual emergence of “repentance” in the Hebrew Bible, New Testament, and Rabbinic literature, allowing the historical breadth of his project shine light on the concept of repentance, but even more broadly the conceptions of the “self” that create the conditions for the concept’s very emergence. For much of the biblical period, Lambert suggests, repentance was not an operative category for biblical writers, in part, because the necessary discourse around the self had not yet developed. Lambert’s book thus also shines a light on the Bible’s readers, who because of their own theological commitments and attentiveness to the interior life “find” repentance in Scripture.
Lambert’s book brings a wide range of responses from our panel. Joel Kaminsky responds critically from a literary perspective, arguing that repentance is indeed an appropriate category for many of the texts from which Lambert draws to sustain his argument. Kaminsky and Lambert then engage in a fascinating and fruitful discussion about those specific texts and the cultural assumptions that inform the interpretive task.
Susanne Scholz responds to Lambert’s book by examining its epistemological and methodological assumptions. She questions the book’s commitment to the historical-critical project, and wonders whether it is adequately self-reflective about its attempt to create what she considers “objective, universal, and value-free.” Scholz finds Lambert’s efforts to interrogate modern reading strategies attractive, but not sufficiently critical of modern religious studies.
Reed Carlson focuses on Lambert’s discussions of the self. Drawing on the insights of Carol Newsom and Anja Klein, he suggests that ancient Judaism had a notion of the self, which nonetheless differed from modern conceptions. He questions whether Lambert’s discussions of the ancient sources (especially Second Temple texts) are perhaps overly focused on the lack of interiority that they miss the subtly different ways that the concept of the self exists.
Finally, Jeffrey Stackert draws out the benefits of Lambert’s book for understanding a book like Lamentations. This was a helpful choice on Stackert’s part, and he suggests that Lambert’s work offers a potentially powerful way to reframe Lamentations away from “the penitential lens.” Stackert also raises the important issue of continuity and discontinuity between Israelite religion and Judaism. Stackert finds Lambert’s book to be a helpful critical check against cases for significant continuity—as in Benjamin Sommer’s recent book Revelation & Authority: Sinai in Jewish Scripture and Tradition. While generally appreciative, Stackert also poses some challenging questions for Lambert to address.
Lambert, “Refreshing Philology: James Barr, Supersessionism, and the State of Biblical Words,” Biblical Interpretation 24 (2016): 332–56.↩