Jan Alberto Soggin (1926-2010)

Jan Alberto Soggin died on Thursday. He was one of those scholars who had important things to say to all students of the Bible, professional or amateur, pious or secular. Four of his books grace my library. I still consult them, particularly his commentary on Judges, from time to time. Scholarly understanding of Judges has developed since its first publication in 1981 but the fact that it and several other of his works remain in print is testimony to his continuing influence and value.
John Hobbins has fond memories of Soggin as a teacher, “Alberto Soggin was an old school Alttestamentler, and I loved him for it.” After sharing a very instructive memory, John elaborates, “. . . Soggin was old-school. He did not cotton to canonical approaches to the biblical text.”
I think John is correct in saying that Soggin was old-school and that that is very visible in his avoidance of “canonical approaches to the biblical text.” In this respect, I am also “old-school.” As Soggin’s Introduction to the Old Testament, illustrates, he didn’t neglect canonization. But he saw it for what it was, largely a post-compositional selection process, even if selected material became embedded in still larger blocks of literature.
Speaking for myself, the latter day canonical approaches are really studies of something other the texts, give or take the hand of the ongoing tradition here and there, something later than the texts. To be sure, such studies are legitimate, even important, and sometimes, as in the case of several blocks of material, extend back into earlier strata of sill larger blocks of material. While it is true that many old-school approaches have failed to live up to their 19th century promises and some of the not so assured results had negative origins and consequences, (I’m thinking here, for example, of what is sometimes called the “higher Antisemitism” of some aspects of the source criticism.), there is a danger in canonical approaches when taken up in the near absence of those old-school approaches. Those dangers include the resultant exegetical and, even worse, hermeneutical trends that tend to mask the tensions and down right contradictions within and between the various books of the Bible. Canonical approaches as they are often applied to the Hebrew Bible as a whole or the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament taken together move the supposed relevant interpretive historical and cultural contexts for the individual works of the Hebrew Bible and their composite parts into the Hellenistic period or even beyond. In some cases, they completely ignore any cultural or historical context. In so doing, they encourage theological maximalism in company with historical minimalism. Such canonical approaches may reduce the necessity, not to mention the difficulty, of understanding and pinpointing older historical and cultural contexts but I think they do so at a very great cost.
I suppose this is the reason that I still turn to wonderful old-school scholars like Jan Alberto Soggin. As long as there are those who share my views in this regard, his memory cannot help but be a blessing.