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REPORT FROM A RESEARCH PROJECT ON
AFRICANIZATION OF OLD TESTAMENT STUDIES
By Knut Holter
School of Mission and Theology, Misjonsveien 34, N-4024 Stavanger, Norway. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
From 2002 to 2006 I served as Project Director for a multinational and multi-institutional research project on Africanization of Old Testament studies, and the following text is a report from that project. The report is a slightly revised version of the introductory article found in two publications based on the project: (1) A project volume: K. Holter (ed.), Let My People Stay! Researching the Old Testament in Africa. Nairobi: Acton 2006, thirteen articles based on the project; introductory article pp. 1-18. (2) A special section of the South African journal Old Testament Essays vol. 19, no. 2, in which all the same thirteen articles are published, pp. 377-557; introductory article pp. 377-392.
The Africanization of Old Testament Studies Project was initiated by Professor Serapio Kabazzi-Kisirinya, Makerere University (Uganda) and Professor Knut Holter (School of Mission and Theology (Norway), and it was funded by NUFU (Norwegian Council for Higher Education’s Programme for Development Research and Education). The project included three research associates, all linked up to University of South Africa as Ph.D. students: Georges Razafindrakoto (Lutheran Graduate School of Theology, Madagascar), Philip Lokel (Makerere University, Uganda), and Peter Kimilike (Tumaini University, Tanzania). In addition the project included five senior researchers: Professor Madipoane Masenya, Dr Magdel LeRoux and Professor Willie van Heerden (all from University of South Africa), and then Professor Serapio Kabazzi-Kisirinya (Makerere University, Uganda) and Professor Knut Holter (School of Mission and Theology, Norway).
The present report will present the Africanization project from three perspectives: (1) Introduction: surveying the background and context, (2) Institutional aspects: presenting the project as part of the ongoing efforts at building of institutional structures for Old Testament research in Africa, and (3) Hermeneutical aspects: presenting the project in relation to the current development of an Old Testament studies that proceeds from and reflect African experiences and concerns.
Now and then the Old Testament narrative about Israel’s sojourn in Egypt leaves its stereotypically negative imagery and portrays the African nation along the northern riversides of the Nile in quite positive images. Egypt is not only, negatively, remembered as an ‘iron-smelting furnace’ (Deut 4:20), she is also positively remembered for her pots of meat (Exod 16:2), and even for other culinary delicacies (Num 11:5):
We remember the fish we used to eat without cost in Egypt, and also the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions and the garlic.
In spite of this abundance of the Nile Delta, the narrative tells us that the Israelites eventually experienced suffering and oppression, when a new Pharaoh who did not know about Joseph came to power. The Israelites, however, cried to the Lord, who sent Moses to Pharaoh to convey the word of God: Let my people go!
1.1. Africanization: Let my people stay!
The narrative about the Israelites who, due to famine in the promised land, had to seek refuge in abundant Africa, has been read for a hundred generations or so in Africa. In the first centuries it was read by people inhabiting the northern riversides of the Nile. Eventually, it was also read by ‘people tall and smooth-skinned’ (cf Isa 18), living one or two cataracts further south along the Nile. And finally, in the last couple of generations this narrative – and the Old Testament as a whole – has been read and embraced, not only along the Nile, from Cairo to Khartoum, or even up to Lake Victoria, but throughout the whole continent of Africa. The twentieth century made the Old Testament an African book, in the sense that the ancient texts were translated into numerous languages and cultures throughout the continent. And the book has indeed been read. Grass-root readers have found the ancient texts to reflect their own experiences of life. And among the growing number of African Old Testament scholars there is an increasing tendency of relating the texts of the Old Testament more systematically to African religo-cultural and socio-cultural experiences and concerns, thereby creating a room for Old Testament studies that are rooted in African soil.
The ‘Africanization of Old Testament Studies Project’, a multi-institutional research project which from 2002 to 2006 has focused on the potential of Africanizing Old Testament studies (Holter 2003), is both an exponent of this development and a critical investigation of its presuppositions and consequences. The Africanization project has included researchers – among them three doctoral students – from Uganda, Tanzania, Madagascar, South Africa and Norway, and it was completed with the submission of three doctoral theses at the University of South Africa, and with two publications (Holter 2006a, Holter 2006b).
The idea of ‘Africanizing Old Testament studies’ is of course part of the more general search for an Africanizing of theology and of the humanities as a whole, and the project is, therefore, part of the ongoing process of rooting biblical studies in African soil. The project has a pragmatic approach to the basic question of what it means to interpret the Old Testament in Africa today. Still, it reflects and expresses a conviction that two things are of basic importance here: one is a development of institutional structures for Old Testament interpretation in Africa, the other is a development of a hermeneutics that reflects and serves the African context. I will therefore organize my presentation of the project by a rephrasing of the famous words of Moses, from ‘Let my people go’ to ‘Let my people stay’. First, from an institutional perspective I will argue that African Old Testament studies is called to stayin Africa; that is, the increasing establishing of institutional structures for academic studies of the Old Testament in Africa reflects the strategy of an institutional Africanization. Second, from a hermeneutical perspective I will argue that African study of the Old Testament is called to stayAfrican. That is, the increasing focus on African experiences and concerns as interpretive resources will continue to reflect the strategy of an African hermeneutics.
Before I go into the material, I would like to say a few words about the definition of the geographical and indeed ideological term ‘Africa’. Generally speaking, I very much subscribe to a geographical and not to a racial or cultural definition of ‘Africa’. I generally use the term ‘Africa’ to refer to the African continent, and I use ‘African’ to relate to someone or something from the African continent. From this follows that the Arab communities in the North and the white communities in the South, in my view, certainly are ‘African’. Nevertheless, in my analysis of African Old Testament studies, I mainly focus on Old Testament studies in tropical Africa, that is between the Sahara and the Limpopo. Accordingly, for pragmatic reasons I do not go into Egyptian, Ethiopian or South African Old Testament studies (cf Holter 2002:15-16; for an analysis of South African Old Testament studies, cf Le Roux 1993).
1.2. Africanization of Old Testament Studies Project
The ‘Africanization of Old Testament Studies Project’ grew out of the collaboration within the ‘Network of Theology and Religious Studies’, an academic network established in 2000 by seven universities, university colleges and theological seminaries in Cameroon, Ethiopia, Madagascar, Norway, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda (cf. the website of the network: /?187, and the website of Network Newsletter: /studies?2). Three key areas of collaboration within the network were identified from the beginning: to promote exchange of students and teaching staff, to promote research collaboration, and to promote collaboration with regard to development of infrastructure.
As far as research collaboration is concerned, the network partners soon realized that the network offers potential both for ‘small scale’ and ‘large scale’ projects. The former are projects without a need for substantial, extraordinary funding, such as projects where scholars within the network institutions write an article or two together and communicate through e-mail or occasional meetings. The latter are projects over several years, involving travel and salary expenses and, therefore, with a need for extraordinary funding. The ‘Africanization of Old Testament Studies Project’ is an example of the latter. The network leadership realized in 2001 that a Norwegian funding agency for research collaboration between Norway and the so-called two-thirds world – NUFU: Norwegian Council for Higher Education’s Programme for Development Research and Education – announced a call for project proposals for the period 2002 to 2006. In response to this announcement, the School of Mission and Theology (Norway) and Makerere University (Uganda) developed a project proposal on Africanization of Old Testament Studies, a proposal which eventually was approved by the funding agency (50 out of a total number of 141 applications were approved).
The institutional and hermeneutical aspects of the Africanization project will be presented below, but three introductory matters should be noted. First, the decision to develop a project in Old Testament studies was mainly due to two things. One was the immediate need in some of the network institutions for increased competence in Old Testament studies. The other was the focus on African interpretation of the Old Testament in the School of Mission and Theology, through its ‘Africa and Old Testament Program’ (cf /?60). Second, the project was designed as a staff development project offering doctoral studies to one staff member from three of the network institutions: Department of Religious Studies, Makerere University (Uganda), Department of Biblical Studies, Makumira University College (Tanzania) and Department of Biblical Studies, Lutheran Graduate School of Theology (Madagascar). And third, the project was structured according to a sandwich model in the sense that the doctoral students were linked up to – and spent time in – three institutions. One was their home institutions in Uganda, Tanzania or Madagascar, where they spent one semester per year. Another was the School of Mission and Theology, where the three doctoral students spent a total of three semesters for supervision and bibliographical research. And a third was the Department of Old Testament in the University of South Africa (UNISA), where the three were enrolled as doctoral students and had their main promoters. The decision to include UNISA, which is an institution that is outside the Network of Theology and Religious Studies, was based on UNISA’s capacity (probably the largest department of Old Testament studies in the world), its institutional infrastructure (a distance teaching and learning institution that fits such a sandwich modelled project), and not least the opportunity of letting the project be concluded with doctoral degrees issued on African soil.
2. Institutional aspect: Let my people stay – in Africa!
Under the heading ‘Let my people stay – in Africa’, the following section will survey the increasing establishment of institutional structures for academic studies of the Old Testament in Africa, and then relate this development to the ‘Africanization of Old Testament Studies Project’.
2.1. Institutional structures
A prime example of the increasing establishment of institutional structures for academic studies of the Old Testament in Africa is the development of academic institutions for research and training (cf Holter 2002:62-75).
Old Testament studies, in the modern sense of the word, has been taught in Africa for more than a century. Throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, various missionary societies, and, eventually, more or less independent churches established theological seminaries for the training of African clergy. Old Testament studies – in traditional western fashion, of course, though probably somewhat more conservative than what was taught in progressive western universities and seminaries – was among the compulsory subjects in these seminaries.
Throughout the recent three or four decades Africa has witnessed an almost explosive growth with regard to the number of academic institutions offering possibilities for Old Testament studies, that is state universities and various kinds of church-related universities and theological seminaries. As far as state universities are concerned, tropical Africa had, in 1960, at the dawn of independence, only six, whereas the number now, four and a half decades later, has passed 150 (Teferra 2003; Domatob 1998; Ade Ajayi 1996). There are, however, great variations with regard to the possibilities for Old Testament studies within this system of state universities, variations that often reflect former colonial connections. It seems that francophone Africa, generally speaking, follows the French tradition of not allowing departments of religious studies or theology in universities controlled by the state, whereas anglophone Africa follows the more open tradition of British universities, with departments of religious studies, and, in a few cases, even faculties of theology in state universities (Platvoet 1989). Consequently, there are few, if any, possibilities for Old Testament studies in the state universities of francophone Africa for Old Testament studies, whereas the opposite is the case in anglophone Africa. As for the church-related institutions, there is a parallel growth in number; there are now probably between one and two thousand institutions. Although the great majority of these are of the Bible school type, there are some few that manage to keep a high academic level. The church-related institutions are, for obvious reasons, quite open toward Old Testament scholarship, and a handful have developed postgraduate programs that encourage research related to the Old Testament.
A second example of the institutional structures for academic studies of the Old Testament in Africa is academic networking in the form of professional organizations (cf Holter 2002:75-81). The 1960s and 70s saw the establishing of a number of organizations for African churches and theologians. However, a need was eventually also felt for organizations with a more specific biblical or exegetical focus. An early response to this need was the establishment in the early 1980s of the Panafrican Association of Catholic Exegetes (PACE). PACE operates through biennial conferences and publication of conference papers (Kabasele Mukenge 2000). Whereas PACE is the only organization focusing on biblical studies on a pan-African level, there are a few non-denominational organizations that operate on a regional or national level. An important example is the Nigerian Association for Biblical Studies (NABIS), which was established in 1985 (Akao 2000). NABIS operates through annual meetings and a journal, African Journal of Biblical Studies. Concerns similar to those of NABIS have more recently led to the establishing of other regional and national organizations too, such as the Association for Biblical Scholarship in Eastern Africa (ABSEA) and the Ghana Association of Biblical Exegetes (GABES), both established in 2000 (Zinkuratire 2000; Ntreh 2000). These recent organizations, together with the ones dating back to the 1980s, all have a broad membership profile: they aim at organizing all biblical scholars within their respective denominational (PACE) or regional and national (NABIS, ABSEA, GABES) constituencies. Some African Old Testament scholars also join the Old Testament Society of South Africa (OTSSA) (van Rooy 2000), and others join organizations based in the West, such as the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) and the International Organization for the Study of the Old Testament (IOSOT).
A third example of the institutional structures for academic studies of the Old Testament in Africa is academic publishing (cf Holter 2002:81-85). The dissemination of scholarly work through various publishing genres is of obvious importance for all research, and the number of scholarly publications related to Old Testament studies in Africa increases rapidly (cf Holter 1996, LeMarquand 2000, Holter 2002). Let me demonstrate my point by commenting on one particular publishing genre, the journal article, which generally speaking is the most important genre as far as research dissemination is concerned in African Old Testament studies. From the 1960s on a number of academic articles in Old Testament studies have come from African scholars. An important factor here was the launching of several academic journals, of which Orita (Nigeria, 1967) and Africa Theological Journal (Tanzania, 1968) should be particularly mentioned. Both managed to find a wide readership, and both included articles related to Old Testament studies right from the beginning. The 1980s and 90s saw a significant increase in the number of articles, and also the launching of more journals; African Journal of Biblical Studies (Nigeria, 1986) and Bulletin for Old Testament Studies in Africa (/?86, /?89) should be particularly mentioned. The former is the first biblical journal in tropical Africa, and it has made a significant contribution to the development of Old Testament scholarship in Africa. The latter defines itself as a ‘meta-journal’, focusing on networking, documentation, and methodological and research political discussion within African Old Testament scholarship. Also Old Testament Essays (South Africa, 1988) should be mentioned, not only because it is published on African soil, but even more because for nearly twenty years it has published a number of articles on the relationship between Old Testament studies and Africa, although its general concept of Old Testament studies follows more traditional western patterns.
2.2. Ideological context
As far as the numeric growth of universities and seminaries are concerned, it coincides with the national independence of post-colonial Africa (cf Holter 2000:44-47). It should therefore not come as a surprise that it also reflects and, actually, is a central part of the efforts of national development of the recent decades. Not least during the 1960s and 70s, characterized by their optimism and enthusiasm, the mission of the state universities was seen as part of the more general efforts of national development, and the need for an Africanization was strongly emphasized (Domatob 1998). In the humanities this led to a focus on African culture and languages, and those universities that had structures allowing for religious studies tended to emphasize the study of African traditional religion.
The consequences of this for Old Testament studies were mainly two. One is a focus on comparative studies, analyzing various kinds of religio- and socio-cultural parallels between traditional Africa and the Old Testament (Anum 2000). Another is the quest for relevance to church and society. In the state universities this is part of a more general demand for a scholarship that contributes to national development. In the church-related universities and theological seminaries the quest for relevance obviously reflects their primary raison d’être, that is to foster a Christian nation, through research and education. An illustration of this is the first chief objectives of the Faculty of Theology, Catholic Higher Institute (now: Catholic University) of Eastern Africa, Nairobi (Kenya), which explicitly relates biblical studies to the study of traditional African culture, thereby envisioning Africanized biblical studies:
With special reference to African cultures, CHIEA [Catholic Higher Institute of Eastern Africa] provides a profound understanding of Christian revelation as found in the Scriptures [...].
Similar ideas are also reflected in the establishing of networking structures for biblical studies in Africa. They all, of course, aim at promoting biblical studies. But then they also focus on the relationship between ancient text and traditional or contemporary African context. This can be seen in two ways. One is their statements of mission. The denominational example, PACE, was established to promote biblical studies within the Roman Catholic Church in Africa, and in particular biblical studies relating to the African context. Also the major non-denominational example, NABIS, emphasizes the aspect of contextual biblical studies. It aims, according to its statement of mission, to:
[relate] interpretation of the Bible to the life situation in Africa and African societal problems, [and to encourage] biblical scholars to look afresh at the Bible with an African insight, relating their inspiration to the past and the prevailing situation of the church in Africa. (Aims 2004).
The ideology of the statements of mission is then followed up in practice in the conventions and publications of the respective organizations. PACE’s biennial conferences focus on challenges facing church and society in contemporary Africa. NABIS has a long list of annual meetings, where biblical studies have been related to contextual topics, stretching from aspects of African traditional religion to aspects of contemporary social-ethical challenges.
These examples of the increasing establishment of institutional structures for academic studies of the Old Testament in Africa should suffice to demonstrate that the academic discipline of Old Testament studies has now been institutionally rooted in African soil. The Old Testament has eventually become an African book, and it is therefore to be read in African academia. Let us then turn to the ‘Africanization of Old Testament Studies Project’, which is part of this development.
2.3. Africanization of Old Testament Studies Project
The institutional emphasis of the ‘Africanization of Old Testament Studies Project’ is that it is organized as a staff development project, aiming to train staff members for senior positions through a doctorate in Old Testament studies. Three aspects should be noted here.
First, the need for an Africanization of the academic staff still deserves attention. The word ‘still’ reflects that this is a question of time. In the 1960s and 70s it was a problem facing more or less all African institutions of higher education. Today most state institutions have managed to solve the problem, whereas quite a number of church-related institutions still have a number of expatriates – mainly western – serving in ordinary positions. The benefits of this are obvious; it creates interaction with western academic contexts and it keeps alive certain links to western funding agencies. Nevertheless, it is generally acknowledged that the ordinary academic staff should be local, and that expatriates should serve extraordinary functions. An explicit exponent of this view is found in the standards for accreditation of post-graduate programs by the Accrediting Council for Theological Education in Africa, which is one of the major accrediting agencies as far as theological and biblical studies in Africa is concerned:
African staff should constitute more than half of the total teaching staff. Where this is not yet the case, the institution must have in operation a realistic plan for achieving this by a reasonably early date (http://www.theoledafrica.org/ACTEA/Standards/PostGraduate_EN.pdf, p. 8).
Second, Old Testament studies proves to be one of the most difficult disciplines as far as Africanization of staff is concerned. In spite of the often assumed ‘African predilection for the Old Testament’ (Dickson 1973), the chair of Old Testament studies is often the last position to be filled by an African faculty member. I am not aware of any scientific investigation of this phenomenon, but it is my impression that the percentage of students doing Old Testament studies in Africa falls dramatically from Bachelor’s degree to Master’s degree, and even more from Master’s to Ph.D. There are at least two reasons for this situation. One is the high number of undergraduate students wanting to do some Old Testament studies, a tendency probably reflecting the so-called ‘predilection’ referred to above. The other is the high demands for linguistic competence for postgraduate Old Testament studies – Hebrew, of course, but also German – and the lack of such competence among most postgraduate students.
And third, this general need for staff members with a doctorate in Old Testament studies is indeed reflected in the three network institutions participating with doctoral students in the present project. As far as Makumira University College (Tanzania) is concerned, its Faculty of Theology has an academic staff of 15 to 20 members, of which an expatriate (American) was the only one with a doctorate in Old Testament studies when the project started. The project’s doctoral candidate from Makumira is P L Kimilike. Even more difficult is the situation in the Lutheran Graduate School of Theology (Madagascar), whose academic staff consists of six or seven members and where Old Testament studies is the only academic discipline without a senior staff member with a doctorate. The doctoral candidate here is G Razafindrakoto. And when it comes to Makerere University (Uganda), its Department of Religious Studies has an academic staff of approximately twenty, of which no-one holds a doctorate in Old Testament studies. The department serves a community with a large Christian majority, and it wants to offer exegesis of the Hebrew text of the Old Testament in the same way as it has been offering exegesis of the Arabic text of the Quran. The doctoral candidate here is P Lokel.
In sum, therefore, the ‘Africanization of Old Testament Studies project’ is part of a process whose aim is to root African Old Testament studies institutionally in African soil. Accordingly, the message of the phrase ‘Let my people stay – in Africa’ has here found a concrete expression.
3. Hermeneutical aspects: Let my people stay – African!
Under the heading ‘Let my people stay – African’, the following section will survey the increasing focus on African experiences and concerns as interpretive resources for academic studies of the Old Testament in Africa, and then relate it to the ‘Africanization of Old Testament Studies Project’.
3.1. Thematic and methodological preferences
African Old Testament research contributions – from journal articles (cf Holter 1996) to doctoral dissertations (cf Holter 2002) – can roughly be placed in one of two groups; comparative studies or exegetical studies.
Comparative studies can roughly be defined as studies whose major approach is a comparative methodology that facilitates a parallel interpretation of certain Old Testament texts or motifs and supposed African parallels, letting the two illuminate one another (cf Holter 2002:88-100). Traditional exegetical methodology may also be used in this approach, but the Old Testament is approached from a perspective where African comparative material is the major dialogue partner and traditional exegetical methodology is subordinated to this perspective.
From a thematic point of view, the scholarly production of African Old Testament research demonstrates how a wide spectrum of Old Testament motifs may be compared with corresponding African experiences and concerns, and also that the enterprise of comparing the two may serve various interpretive purposes. In some research contributions, especially – but not only – the older ones, the mere establishing of certain similarities between Africa and the Old Testament is a major interpretive purpose. However, in general the scholarly production approaches the questions from one or both of the following two perspectives: first, comparisons with an historical focus on the Old Testament, where African experiences are used as a key to an exegetical interpretation of the texts; and second, comparisons with a more contemporary focus on Africa, where the Old Testament is used as a key to an interpretation of contemporary African experiences and concerns. It should be emphasized that these two perspectives do not mutually exclude one another; still, they may serve as a means of organizing the material.
The point of the first comparative perspective can be described as using Africa to interpret the Old Testament, that is to do an analysis with an historical focus on the Old Testament, using African experiences as a key to an exegetical interpretation of the text. What underlies this approach is the assumption that the supposed cultural and religious parallels between ancient Israel (to which we no longer have direct access) and traditional or even modern Africa (to which we have direct access), may enable biblical scholars to find material in the latter that can shed some light on the historical meaning of the textual remains of the former. Illustrative examples are here L Naré’s (Burkina Faso) and P D Nzambi’s (DR Congo) studies of Old Testament proverbs in the light of African proverbial material (Naré 1986; Nzambi 1991). The point of the second comparative perspective can be described as using the Old Testament to interpret Africa, that is to do an analysis with a more contemporary focus on Africa, using the Old Testament as a key to an interpretation of contemporary African experiences and concerns. What underlies this approach is the assumption that religious and cultural parallels between ancient Israel and traditional or even modern Africa may enable biblical scholars to let their scholarship contribute to the interpretation of religion and culture in contemporary Africa. Illustrative examples are here J S Ukpong’s (Nigeria) comparison of Ibibio and Levitical sacrificial concepts (Ukpong 1987) and S S Simbandumwe (Zimbabwe) comparison of Old Testament and African prophet movements (Simbandumwe 1992).
Second, exegetical studies can roughly be defined as studies whose major approach is an historical-critical or literary methodology that facilitates historical or literary interpretations of various Old Testament texts or topics (cf Holter 2002:100-110). African comparative material may certainly be found here, too. However, the major approach to the Old Testament is traditional, western-based exegetical methods, and the African material is subordinated to this perspective, rather serving a minor role in the form of an appendix or a practical application. It should be acknowledged that western Old Testament studies has gone through no less than a paradigm change throughout the last couple of decades. One aspect of this paradigm change concerns exegetical methodology, where the traditional historical-critical approaches have been challenged, both by more literary and reader-oriented approaches, and by approaches developed within the social sciences. Another, and closely related aspect of the paradigm change, concerns Old Testament epistemology, where the recent decades have challenged the previous optimism with regard to scholarly objectivity. In his mid-1980s survey of African biblical studies, J S Mbiti (Kenya) points out Leonidas Kalugila’s (Tanzania) dissertation on royal wisdom (Kalugila 1980) as ‘[…] one of the very few “pure” biblical works by African scholars’ (Mbiti 1986:49). Twenty years later, one would probably have a different perspective on this. Acknowledging, as we do today, that there is no objective interpretation of the Bible, we have to admit that even the ‘purest’ textual analysis, using traditional western-based exegetical approaches, is biased, in the sense that it reflects and expresses certain (hermeneutical, methodological, economic, political, etc.) concerns.
So is also the case with regard to exegetical studies from African scholars. The choice of research areas often reflect typically contextual concerns. Illustrative examples are here D Mianbé Bétoudji’s (Chad) study of the religio-cultural encounter between Melchizedek/El Elyon and Abram/Yahweh in Gen 14 (Mianbé Bétoudji 1986), and D T Adamo’s (Nigeria) study of Old Testament references to the African nation of Cush (Adamo 1998).
3.2. Ideological context
What is then the ideological context reflected in these aspects of focusing African experiences and concerns as interpretive resources for academic studies of the Old Testament in Africa?
J S Ukpong (Nigeria), who has analyzed African biblical studies for many years, has made an attempt at establishing a chronology of the hermeneutics of African biblical studies, and he argues that three distinctive phases can be identified (Ukpong 1999). (i) A reactive and apologetic phase (1930s-1970s), which legitimizes African religion and culture vis-à-vis the western tradition through comparative studies. (ii) A reactive-proactive phase (1970s-1990s), which more clearly makes use of the African context as a resource for biblical interpretation. And then (iii) a proactive phase (1990s), which makes the African context the explicit subject of the biblical interpretation, and which also emphasizes the role of the so-called ordinary reader.
My own work with African Old Testament studies – and I have worked with literature explicitly relating Africa and the Old Testament (cf Holter 1996), and with doctoral dissertations written by the first generation of African Old Testament scholars (cf Holter 2002) – confirms Ukpong’s basic organizing of the material. I would, however, tend to argue that the chronological framework should be tuned down, and that we should talk about models rather than phases. First, the mere comparison of African and Old Testament motifs and expressions, that is Ukpong’s reactive phase, from the 1930s to the 1970s, certainly has an apologetic function, as noticed by Ukpong. But this ideological concern does not prevent the model from producing valuable comparative material to historical and literary Old Testament studies. I would argue that my own western contexts of Old Testament studies needs comparative material – not least from living sources such as traditional Africa – and that the mere comparison therefore is not something only of the past, the first few decades of African Old Testament studies, but that it certainly is attested today, and that it should be considered a relevant interpretive model even for tomorrow. Second, Ukpong’s proactive phase of the 1990s, characterized by a recognition of the ordinary reader and of the African context as the subject of the Old Testament interpretation, is also more of a model than a chronological phase, and it is hardly correct to say that it dominates that decade. The dominating model throughout the last three or four decades is then Ukpong’s reactive-proactive phase, or model. The use of African material as a resource, without necessarily making it the explicit subject of the interpretation, is the approach (or model) underlying most of what has been written till now – and seems to continue to be written – within African Old Testament studies.
Underlying all three models is a common experience of traditional Old Testament studies as a typical result of the western context. Traditional Old Testament studies has taught us to read the Old Testament through an interpretive grid that was developed in western culture, and the various models reflect attempts at developing interpretive strategies for a biblical hermeneutics that is sensitive to African life and thought.
These various aspects of focusing African experiences and concerns as interpretive resources for academic studies of the Old Testament in Africa reflect a hermeneutical Africanization of Old Testament studies in Africa. The Old Testament has become an African book, and it is therefore to be read from the perspectives of African experiences and concerns.
3.3. Africanization of Old Testament Studies Project
The hermeneutical emphasis of the ‘Africanization of Old Testament Studies Project’ has been to develop an overall research project (the Africanization project as a whole) and sub-projects (the three doctoral theses) that relate to the hermeneutical concerns of contemporary Africa.
Based on the thematic and methodological preferences and the ideological context discussed above, the Africanization project has been organized in three sections and with a doctoral project as the core of each section: (i) ‘using Africa to interpret the Old Testament’, (ii) ‘using the Old Testament to interpret Africa’, and (iii) ‘finding Africa in the Old Testament’. In the two project reports (Holter 2006a, 2006b) this subdivision is kept, and each section includes four articles. First, an introductory article by the thesis promoter; then, two articles by the doctoral student built on the research for the thesis; and finally, an article by one of the other two promoters, widening the scope of that section.
First, the section entitled ‘Using Africa to interpret the Old Testament’ is centered around P L Kimilike’s thesis on Old Testament and African poverty proverbs (Kimilike 2006a). Kimilike’s point is that an interpretation of Old Testament proverbial material on poverty, as seen from corresponding African material, may open up for a transformational potential in the interpretation of the Old Testament texts (Kimilike 2006b, Kimilike 2006c). In addition to Kimilike’s two articles, his promoter M Masenya presents an introduction to his thesis (Masenya 2006a), and W van Heerden discusses other aspects of the relationship between African and Old Testament proverbs (van Heerden 2006a).
Second, the section entitled ‘Using the Old Testament to interpret Africa’ is centered around G Razafindrakoto’s thesis on the use of the Old Testament in three religious contexts in Madagascar (Razafindrakoto 2006a). Razafindrakoto’s point is that the Old Testament is being used for legitimizing purposes, partly in church contexts to legitimize certain traditional Malagasy practices in the church, and partly outside church contexts to legitimize Malagasy traditional religion vis-à-vis the Christian context (Razafindrakoto 2006b, Razafindrakoto 2006c). In addition to Razafindrakoto’s two articles, his promoter M Le Roux presents an introduction to his thesis (Le Roux 2006a), and M Masenya discusses other aspects of how religious texts are being used with regard to the AIDS situation in contemporary Africa (Masenya 2006b).
And third, the section entitled ‘Finding Africa in the Old Testament’ is centered around P Lokel’s thesis on the Old Testament Cush passages (Lokel 2006a). Lokel’s point is that the Old Testament references to the African nation of Cush may play some role in the establishing of an African Christian identity (Lokel 2006b, Lokel 2006c). In addition to Lokel’s two articles, his promoter W van Heerden presents an introduction to his thesis (van Heerden 2006b), and M Le Roux discusses another African ‘people of the book’, the Lemba of South Africa (Le Roux 2006b).
In summary, the ‘Africanization of Old Testament Studies project’ is part of a process to root African Old Testament studies hermeneutically in African soil. Accordingly, the message of the phrase ‘Let my people stay – African’ has here found concrete expression.
In this report I have discussed some institutional and hermeneutical aspects of the current interest for rooting African Old Testament studies in African soil. These aspects have then been related to a multi-institutional research project on Africanization of Old Testament studies, a project which is being concluded now in 2006 and which has included researchers from Uganda, Tanzania, Madagascar, South Africa and Norway.
In the introductory paragraphs I referred to the Old Testament narrative about Israel’s sojourn in Egypt, a narrative which culminates in Moses’ message to Pharaoh: Let my people go! The message I hear today, however, from African Old Testament studies to the contemporary Pharaohs of the assumed global guild of Old Testament studies, is rather the opposite: Let my people stay! Let African Old Testament studies stay in Africa and let it stay African! The Africanization project presented in this article – and African Old Testament studies more generally, I believe – acknowledge that there is no promised land outside the African continent for Old Testament studies that are committed to serve church and society in Africa. African Old Testament studies are therefore called to stay and to realize that the delicacies which the ancient Israelites had to leave behind when they left Africa are still here; the pots of meat, certainly, but also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic …
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