How someone can make three thousand year old texts seem like they were written yesterday.
Ever wonder where The Bible came from? Well…people wrote it. That much is certain. But which people? Over what period of time and for what purposes? From a modern historical perspective, the answer to these questions was fairly uncertain until rather recently. The Bible is most obviously the foundational document of the Jewish and Christian faiths. It has also been the inspiration for countless other forms of literature, not the least of which is the commentaries on its contents. People made and continue to make entire careers from writing about it and giving it meaning beyond a literal understanding of its words. In sheer volume, the totality of the commentary far exceeds by many times what is found in The Bible itself. Works of this nature are meant as interpretation. They give substance and a practical value to a book that to modern readers might be difficult to take at face value. To be sure, much of The Bible should not be taken as literal fact. So says Amy-Jill Levine.
Professor Levine is a biblical scholar at the Vanderbilt University School of Divinity and one of the most widely sought after speakers on the subjects of the Old and New Testament. Her audiences include people with academic interest in the subject and people of faith. Those two audiences are not mutually exclusive. Modern scholarship has given a new life to biblical studies. What was once taken at face value and at face value alone, academic methods such as literary textual interpretation, archaeology, and historical investigation have made fresh again. These methods are used to enhance interpretation of the text, not to undermine its meaning. And by the way, Dr. Levine reads ancient Hebrew and Aramaic; a useful skill to have when reading the 3000 year old parchment scrolls which eventually became The Bible.
If you are anything like this writer, you may have some familiarity with The Bible from being exposed to the stories as a child. As an adult, I made attempts to read The Bible but was frustrated by a difficult text written in an unfamiliar style. But to understand something, really understand it…you have to read it yourself. That’s where Professor Levine shows her style. She brings the text alive. She animates it. She breathes dramatic life into a text that is dry and difficult for those unfamiliar with its contents. And she does it in a way recognizable to modern audiences.
Daily life 3000 years ago contained elements that are far removed from the familiar; slavery, human and animal sacrifice, the fate of entire communities at the mercy of the elements, tribal warfare. To understand this ancient world and its practices, you have to get into the minds of the individuals who lived it. To do that you have to read what they wrote and understand why they wrote it. To the modern academic, this is what comprises a career of reading, writing and quiet contemplation. And then, to be able to convey your scholarly understanding in an effective manner is the hallmark of a great teacher. Amy-Jill Levine is a great teacher (1).
(1) The Great Courses Lecture Series: ‘Introduction to the Old Testament’, released 2/2001