I have thought often of late about what it would mean for me to teach the Bible responsibly.
On the one hand, especially because of the descriptive task assigned since Gabler to biblical studies, the subject has a certain integrity: an instructor in Bible would be remiss for not discussing the framework of Genesis or the theology of the Deuteronomistic history etc. On the other hand, education ought not happen in a vacuum, as if the world outside the classroom did not exist.
Of course, as with other disciplines in the humanities such as literature or history, the classical texts themselves open onto deeply human questions: about the good life, about injustice, about God. They carry with them some of their own contemporaneity. At the same time, owning one’s place in our national history – the past and the present! – entails more, I am sure, than calling students into profound texts and then leaving it all up to them to draw lines between their readings and the struggles they know from their families, communities, and the media headlines. There are twin dangers that mark the opposite responses to the question: making classrooms into a bully pulpit for the instructor’s point of view, a political cloning laboratory; and making classrooms into a (baffling) museum tour, an arcane exercise in “enrichment.” Both possibilities are superficial in their own way.
So I looked through old Princeton Seminary catalogues (I work in the library; easy access): to see in what ways course descriptions for Bible classes from the last half of the 20th century ever reflected the crises of their time. This strategy naturally cannot reckon with the unrecorded classroom discussions or untold professorial comments that happened during the semesters in question. But I wanted to see whether addressing current events was ever “built” intentionally into the curriculum.
Bible courses (for example) from the late 1950s and early 1960s characteristically offered plenty of heavy-hitting historical and linguistic classes: Akkadian, Aramaic, Ugaritic, Syriac, Dead Sea Scrolls, “History and Topography of Jerusalem” (1955-1956), etc. Many of the exegesis courses on individual books included a homiletical direction. But from what I saw, one waits until 1970 to see any curricular reflection of cultural turmoil and civil rights movements in the Bible department. In that year, one course appeared under the English Bible heading, entitled “The House of Israel and the Black Experience” and co-taught by Charles Fritsch, an endowed chair in OT, and visiting professor of homiletics and civil rights activist, Wyatt Tee Walker: “a study of selected Old Testament themes and their significance for the Black community today. The preaching value of these themes for the present situation will be explored in sermons prepared by members of the class and criticized by instructors” (emphasis mine). It was not offered the following year. Another Old Testament class called “The Bible and Black Theology” cropped up in 1975-1976 (“an examination of the biblical basis for the emerging discipline of black theology as represented in selected works of James Cone, J. Deotis Roberts, and others”); it was taught by Robert Avon Bennett, another visiting lecturer who was then professor of Old Testament at Episcopal Divinity School. From the mid-1970s onwards, Katherine Doob Sakenfeld, one of the first women faculty at Princeton Seminary, taught feminist courses within the Old Testament department (“Women in the Church: Personal and Political Dimensions”) as well as more widely liberationist classes (“Teaching the Bible as Liberating Word; biblical images as shapers of Christian identity; Bible stories as reinforcers and contradictors of sexism, racism, and classism,” 1983). Ben Ollenburger, a Mennonite professor of OT, taught courses on war and peace in the 1980s – a time of many US military adventures in the Middle East and Latin America.
Besides these examples, I also have been thinking about one of my putative professor heroes from another era of societal crisis: Gerhard von Rad, a member of the confessing church in Nazi Germany, a boyhood friend of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and a professor of Old Testament at a university fully committed to Entjudung, i.e., “de-Jewification.” Given how very…“establishment” Old Testament instruction sounds to me now, it is hard to imagine how subversive teaching about these writings was in that context. German Christian leaders deemed the OT “un-German,” and called for liberation from its “Jewish morality of profit and its stories of cattle traders and pimps” (Reinhold Krause, quoted in Bernard Levinson’s excellent article, “Reading the Bible in Nazi Germany: Gerhard von Rad’s Attempt to Reclaim the Old Testament for the Church”). Von Rad’s university in Jena was the first to eliminate Hebrew language classes. He received no dissertations to supervise – completely dead-ending his career in the German system – and through the war, his Old Testament classes enrolled only two to four students, oftentimes sent to him by the confessing church so that he would have at least those bodies in his classroom. Perhaps unlike in the American situations above, von Rad needed to do very little work to bring his Old Testament instruction into relationship with the political realities of his day. His insistence on the indispensability of the Old Testament was itself a form of dissidence, and his decision to exposit Old Testament texts, polemical. His example is instructive to me because, on the one hand, he penned very detailed and technical works that broke new ground in academic biblical scholarship; on the other, he self-consciously inhabited the contested landscape of his own time, and he continued to care deeply about realities “on the ground.” He wrote popular works advocating for the spiritual value of the Old Testament; he preached from Genesis in a prisoner of war camp alongside Ernst Käsemann. These actions and commitments were all of a piece.