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  • JQR, Wissenschaft, and Biblical Theology
  • Benjamin D. Sommer (bio)

It is a common place that until recently Jews were not interested in biblical theology. That field was long the exclusive bailiwick of Christian scholars. When the Wissenschaft des Judentums emerged, scholars of Judaica limited themselves to historical and philological description; constructive theological claims were outside the Pale. (One can imagine some of these scholars speaking more literally: constructive claims might have been at home inside the Pale, but they were unwelcome farther west.) As one who traverses the line separating descriptive claims from constructive ones, I was curious to see how this journal patrolled that boundary in its earliest years. What I found surprised me.

Throughout its first decades, JQR was open to constructive work. Essays discussing how modern religious Jews might relate to the Bible as Scripture were common, and these essays frequently anticipated the work of biblical theologians that appeared decades later. These tendencies appear especially in essays by JQR's cofounder, Claude Goldsmid Montefiore.

It will be helpful to sketch out some characteristics of biblical theology and its Jewish manifestations before turning to forerunners in JQR.1 Biblical theology involves, first, a description of the teachings of biblical texts. Given Christian theology's emphasis on systematics, it is understandable that Christian biblical theologians produce lengthy tomes that summarize main ideas of the whole biblical canon, usually organized under the "God-Man-Salvation" triad fundamental to Christian theology. Jews are less committed to laying out theological structures systematically, so Jewish biblicists who treat theological topics often examine particular ideas or texts: one thinks of work on divine retribution by Meir Weiss, Yochanan [End Page 613] Muffs, and Joel Kaminsky, or the treatment of monotheism by Yehezkel Kaufmann, or studies of revelation by scholars who could be described as theologians, biblicists, or both.2

Early contributors to JQR attend to precisely these topics. Montefiore collaborated with J. Edwin Odgers (principal of the Unitarian College in Manchester) and Solomon Schechter on the essay "The Doctrine of Divine Retribution in the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the Rabbinical Literature" (JQR 3.1 o.s. [1890]: 1–51).3 Multiple essays on monotheism appeared in these early years, including several focusing on the relationship between biblical or Jewish monotheism and Unitarian Christianity.4 Montefiore insisted that scholars and preachers should [End Page 614] confront the effects of biblical criticism on the authority of Jewish law and the status of Scripture.5 He protested against the assumption that Scripture must be either entirely heavenly or entirely mundane in origin.6 Having written on what I call "the participatory theology of revelation,"7 I was delighted to find that Montefiore preceded me in putting forth a perspective that mitigates the damage biblical criticism does to Jewish religiosity.

Discussing Scripture as sacred yet humanly authored, Montefiore approvingly quotes the German rabbi Felix Coblenz, who maintains that a non-Mosaic Pentateuch is no less meaningful for religious Jews than one written by Moses. As the collective wisdom of the entire nation developed over centuries, Coblenz avers, the Pentateuch understood in light of the Documentary Hypothesis is of even greater value:

If we wish to understand correctly and respect the Bible, we must endeavor to appreciate it through the developmental processes that created it, through its history of composition […] [The Pentateuch] is not a work by a single individual. It did not come into being over the course of just a few years. Rather, it gives expression to developments that Israelite [End Page 615] society experienced over the course of many centuries. It is the book of Israel's history; the voice of the entire nation speaks through it […] Israel itself fashioned its teachings and subsequently set them into the Book of Books! Not Moses but the national spirit of the Jewish people shaped its thinking about the oneness of God […] What we read in our Torah is the Israelite national consciousness that became a living thing; it is the manifestation of what was practiced by the nation for centuries; it is something in whose shaping each individual participated.8

Precisely the same argument was made recently (though with reference to David and the Psalter...