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Are Africans Hard Wired to Read the Old Testament?

A story is making the rounds in religious news about a recent address by Phillip Jenkins of Pennsylvania State University to the Evangelical Theological Society in November. Jenkins argued that Africans are often able to read the Old Testament in a more productive way because of close connections between the culture of ancient Israel and their own present cultures.

I hope that Jenkins is successful in bringing evangelical, fundamentalist scholars to this table, even if it is a bit late. The publication of this assertion goes back at least 30 years to the first appearance of an article by Kwesi Dickson called “Continuity and Discontinuity Between the Old Testament and African Life and Thought.” Soon after, the possibilities of an African approach were brilliantly demonstrated in Modupe Oduyoye’s 1984 work, The Sons of God and the Daughters of Men: An Afro-Asiatic Interpretation of Genesis 1-11.

If this claim about African biblical interpreters is accepted as true, then several important implications need to be clarified.

First, it is easy to oversimplify such a view. African cultures vary widely in their assumptions and practices, so thinking of a single “African culture” is misguided. As the title of Dickson’s essay reveals, African cultures sometimes share much with the cultures from which the Old Testament emerged, but sometimes they are “discontinuous.”

A romantic notion of Africans as pristine readers of the Old Testament, unhindered by any cultural barriers to understanding, threatens to short-circuit the many advantages that African perspectives on the text may provide. Africans are no more or no less prone than any other interpreters to read the Bible poorly when they make incorrect assumptions based on their own cultural background. The discontinuities are fewer, but are still present.

In his address, Jenkins argued that African readers can understand the atonement better because of their own experience with animal sacrifice. This specific argument, for example, has some serious shortcomings. Most contemporary Africans have no experience with animal sacrifice, and even those who do have encountered this practice in cultural contexts where it may have meaning significantly different from the concepts of atonement present in various parts of the Bible.

Because there are both continuities and discontinuities between the cultures of the
Bible and the cultures of modern Africa, as Dickson described in his essay, African biblical scholars need to develop the critical awareness that will allow them to use their cultural awareness with care.

The education of African biblical scholars needs to include exposure to the history of biblical interpretation, including Western traditions of critical scholarship, not so they can mimic Western scholarship, but so they can participate fully in the global conversation of biblical interpretation, rather than act merely as naïve cultural informants for other, critical readers. African readers, like any others, are influenced in their reading by a variety of forces, which can lead to either productive or problematic interpretive choices.

I attempted to demonstrate this situation in an essay called “Cain and Abel in Africa: A Case Study in Competing Hermeneutics (published in The Bible in Africa: Transaction, Trajectories and Trends, ed. Gerald O. West and Muse W. Dube [Leiden: Brill Publishing, 2000]).

Second, for this global conversation to benefit fully from the participation of African readers, they need to gain direct access to the Bible. This means learning biblical languages.

If Africans are capable of this unique approach to the Old Testament, then this capability is severely diminished if their access to the Bible comes through an English translation produced by Westerners. To this date, most translations of the Bible into African languages have been produced using English translations as their source document.

Unfortunately, exposure to critical scholarship and the learning of Hebrew and Greek have often been withheld from young African theologians. Theological education in Africa has been dominated by missionaries who tend toward fundamentalist approaches.

The typical argument is that African seminarians only need “ministerial training,” not a thorough theological education. As a theological educator in Africa, I was told by fundamentalists that I was wasting time teaching Africans Hebrew and Greek and threatening their faith by exposing them to critical scholarship.

African theologians are rapidly overcoming this and other barriers to advanced academic training, though. The next century is going to witness a new wave of Bible translation in Africa. Existing translations, produced mostly by Western missionaries translating English versions into African target languages, will be replaced by direct translations from biblical languages into African languages by African scholars. This movement needs the full support of worldwide Christians with the resources to assist it.

If it is true that Africans possess a unique capability to read and understand the Old Testament, what will be done with that capability? Will Westerners seek to keep it under control, and harness it for their own use within a Western theological context, or will they help enable Africans to take this capability and run with it, developing their own traditions of biblical translation, interpretation, and theology which they can bring to a worldwide dialogue of what it means to live a life of faith informed by these ancient texts.

Mark McEntire is associate professor of religion at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn.