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The Great Shift and the Hebrew Bible (REVIEW ESSAY)

By       Message Thomas Farrell       (Page 1 of 4 pages)     Permalink

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) January 15, 2018: The American Jesuit polymath Walter J. Ong (1912-2003; Ph.D. in English, Harvard University, 1955) devoted much of his mature scholarly life to writing about the great shift that the prolific biblical scholar James L. Kugel (born in 1945), in effect, writes about in his new book The Great Shift: Encountering God in Biblical Times (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017).

Kugel's accessible book includes detailed scholarly notes (pages 347-412), a bibliography of works cited (pages 413-441), a subject index (pages 443-467, including references to authors who are discussed in the detailed notes), and a very useful index of verses cited (pages 469-476). In the accessible text of his book, Kugel does assume that the reader will be familiar with the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament.

Because Kugel explicitly claims to be exploring the manifestations of ancient Jews encountering God in biblical times, I want to mention here the Canadian Jesuit New Testament scholar David M. Stanley's book "I Encountered God": The Spiritual Exercises [of St. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits] with the Gospel of Saint John (Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1986). Stanley translated the Gospel According to John in the New English Bible (now known as the Revised English Bible). Stanley explicitly says that John's Gospel is "an autobiography of the evangelist" -- that is, of the evangelist's inner experience (page 273). For all practical purposes, Kugel is, in effect, claiming that various expressions in the Hebrew Bible are autobiographical expressions of the inner experiences of various people.

So is there a great shift manifested in the Hebrew Bible, or is there not a great shift manifested in the Hebrew Bible? This is the two-fold question that Kugel raises.

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Unfortunately, Kugel does not happen to advert to Ong's thought about the great shift in Western cultural history. This is unfortunate because Ong has described to the best of his ability the great shift that interests Kugel. Therefore, Ong's thought stands as a resource and potentially as a guiding heuristic for Kugel and other scholars to use in their own scholarly investigations and explorations.

Now, the prolific Jewish scholar Jacob Neusner (1932-2016) was familiar with Ong's thought. Rabbi Neusner raised the money for the book series in which four volumes of Father Ong's essays were published under the title of Faith and Contexts (Scholars Press, 1992-1999). Nevertheless, Neusner himself does not explicitly advert to Ong's thought, not even in his book The Transformation of Judaism: From Philosophy to Religion (University of Illinois Press, 1992) -- or, as far as I know, in any of his other books. But I single out Neusner's 1992 book to mention here because it strikes me that the transformation he discusses involves, at least in part, a wee bit stronger orientation toward the world-as-view sense of life that Ong discusses -- a wee bit stronger, that is, than the slowly emerging world-as-view sense of life involved in writing down the texts that eventually were collected together in the anthology known as the Hebrew Bible. For all practical purposes, the texts in the Hebrew Bible manifest what Ong describes as the world-as-event sense of life. For a study of early strands of written narrative texts in the Hebrew Bible, see the biblical scholar Richard Elliott Friedman's book The Hidden Book in the Bible (HarperSanFrancisco, 1998). For an account of how later biblical writers, in effect, proceeded in the spirit of oral singers of tales as the writers re-worked earlier texts in their own versions, see Friedman's book Who Wrote the Bible?, 2nd ed. (HarperSanFrancisco, 1997). In effect, Friedman also illustrates how what Ong refers to as the agonistic spirit was manifested in various writers of certain texts in the Hebrew Bible.

In my estimate, Ong published his fair share of publications, but I would not describe him as a prolific author -- at least he was not as prolific as Neusner and perhaps not as prolific as Kugel. For example, Kugel published more book-length studies than Ong did. For a bibliography of Ong's 400 or so publications, including information about translations and reprinted items, see Thomas M. Walsh's "Walter J. Ong, S.J.: A Bibliography 1929-2006" in the book Language, Culture, and Identity: The Legacy of Walter J. Ong, S.J., edited by Sara van den Berg and Thomas M. Walsh (Hampton Press, 2011, pages 185-245). Also see Ong's posthumously published sixth book-length study Language as Hermeneutic: A Primer on the Word and Digitization, edited by Thomas D. Zlatic and Sara van den Berg (Cornell University Press, 2017). To celebrate Ong's posthumously published book, I published my OEN review essay "Celebrating Walter J. Ong's Thought":

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Now, Ong adumbrates the great shift in our Western cultural history in his massively researched doctoral dissertation, published, slightly revised, as the book Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue: From the Art of Discourse to the Art of Reason (Harvard University Press, 1958). In it, Ong credits the French philosopher Louis Lavelle with alerting him to the central importance of visual versus aural cognitive processing (page 338, note 54).

Then Albert B. Lord published his book The Singer of Tales (Harvard University Press, 1960), which Kugel mentions in passing, along with some related scholarly literature (page 369, note 3).

Then Eric A. Havelock published his book Preface to Plato (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1963). But also see Havelock's book The Greek Concept of Justice: From Its Shadow in Homer to Its Substance in Plato (Harvard University Press, 1978).

Ong never tired of mentioning Lord' 1960 book and Havelock's 1963 book. For a fair-minded review of the Parry-Lord theory of oral composition with respect to the Homeric epics, see John Miles Foley's book Homer's Traditional Art (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999). With reference to the Hebrew Bible, see Frank Moore Cross' two classic books, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of the Religion of Ancient Israel (Harvard University Press, 1973) and From Epic to Canon: History and Literature in Ancient Israel (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998).

Arguably Ong's book The Presence of the Word: Some Prolegomena for Cultural and Religious History, the expanded version of his 1964 Terry Lectures at Yale University, is most relevant to Kugel's interest in the great shift in Western cultural history.

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The Protestant New Testament scholar Werner H. Kelber draws on selected points from Ong's thought in his book The Oral and Written Gospel: The Hermeneutics of Speaking and Writing in the Synoptic Tradition, Mark, Paul, and Q (Fortress Press, 1983). Also see Imprints, Voiceprints, and Footprints of Memory: Collected Essays of Werner H. Kelber (Society of Biblical Literature, 2013).

As commendable as Kelber's exploration of Ong's thought with reference to the New Testament is, he surely has not exhausted all the possible ways in which Ong's thought could be explored with reference to the New Testament. Unfortunately, as far as I know, no Hebrew Bible scholar has explored Ong's thought with reference to the Hebrew Bible.

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; Ph.D.in higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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