Prof Eckart Otto het op 20 April 2007 ’n eredoktorsgraad van die Universiteit van Pretoria ontvang. Hy het die graad vir sy enorme bydrae tot die Ou-Testamentiese wetenskap asook sy betrokkenheid by die Departement Ou-Testamentiese Wetenskap en veral Pro Pent ontvang. In 1997 was hy vir die eerste keer hier, maar sedert 2000 het hy jaarliks vir die Pro Pent-seminaar gekom.
Hieronder volg ’n kort onderhoud wat Gerda de Villiers met prof Otto gevoer het. [Prof Otto is Duitssprekend en die onderhoud is in Engels gevoer.]
Q. You are receiving an honorary degree in the Old Testament. What would you say is the value of the Old Testament for today?
A. The Old Testament is the first testament in our Christian Bible. It was one of the very wise decisions of our Christian church to keep the Old Testament as part of our canon. So the question can only be what is the value of the Bible today. I suppose we don’t have to discuss the value of the Bible for our church. We are living by it day by day. But one may ask the question if the Old Testament has any value in a religious pluralistic society beyond the walls of our church. And I think the Old Testament does have a meaning, also as the basis for the three word religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. We all have a common origin that is tied together by Abraham and Moses. So if people are expecting a clash of civilisations between Christian and Muslim countries, then let us remind them of the Old Testament and the common origins of our religions. Modern secularised western recipients should be reminded of the ethics of the Old Testament and the social values of a biblical option for the poor.
Q. What value can a western historical reading of the Bible have for Africa?
A. Modern western people are like the Greek King Midas. Whatever he touched became gold. Whatever we touch becomes history. Midas had to starve because one cannot live by gold. One may ask whether we modern Westerners are also starving spiritually if the Bible becomes only a historical document of antiquity. But I am convinced that we are gaining more than losing. It is true that the outcome of any historical interpretation of the Bible is the fact that we understand those authors who had written religious texts. We see that they had the same basic questions we have, why there is death and suffering in the world, why there is sin in the world and destruction of life. And suddenly we see that there was an interesting debate of these questions within the Bible. Then we ask, if we hear many human voices in the Bible, is there no divine Word of God in it? Asking this question we are at the decision point, and I answer to my students that in this way. I am living by a word of Franciskus: God has no other feet than ours and no other tongue than ours. God is in this world by the voices of the human authors of the Bible. So if we want to understand Him we have to understand them and this means we have to understand their intentions and their historical context. And this is so in Europe and in Africa. It is the one Christian Bible we have to understand here and there.
Q. Can one still maintain that Moses wrote the Pentateuch?
A. If we read the Books of Moses carefully we can detect that they are not of the opinion that Moses wrote down all of the Pentateuch. The Books of Moses have a kind of literary theory of their own. God Himself wrote down the Decalogue, Moses the Sinaitic laws and Deuteronomy in the land of Moab. The motif of history explains the ethical authority of the Torah. The narratives of the Pentateuch function as a frame for the Tenach without direct ethical claims directing our lives. The autors of the Pentateuch had no problem with a narrative of Moses’ death, but this would have been a problem if Moses himself had written about his own death. The Bible itself is more sophisticated than some fundamentalists interpret it. The idea that Moses was the author of all the five books is post-biblical and came up in a hellenistic context when the question raised on the Bible was if Plato or Moses was the elder.
Q. Do you think that there is also a specific African contribution to biblical scholarship?
A. Surely. Working in an African context as a biblical scholar means one has to look at the European Western way of historical critical interpretation from the outside and ask the question if it really helps us for a better understanding of the biblical text. If we really understand what the Bible itself says about its history or origins a lot of western presuppositions of literary criticism are unnecessary. Let me give you one example. The Decalogue in Deuteronomy 5 is not identical with the one in Exodus 20. A simple historical critical appraoch only asks which of them is earlier, and which one is later. But then the decisive message is lost. Why does Moses in Deuteronomy 5 not simply repeat the divine words of Exodus 20 when he reminds Israel in the land of Moab of the Sinaitic Decalogue? The answer lies in Deuteronomy 1:5. Moses explains the Word of God for Israel’s way of living in the promised land. What can we derive from this? First, the Bible itself wants us to actualise the Word of God for new concrete situations. Second, Moses was not a fundamentalist! This kind of synchronic reading of the final text of the Bible overcomes a literary critical splitting off of the text. But if we want to understand the Biblical text as we have it we must also understand how it came about, we must know the history of the text and we must know the historical context of the authors of the final text. These new developments in biblical exegesis overcome European shortcomings in critical methodology and Africa also forces us to overcome these shortcomings. In this way I dream of a kind of African-European synthesis of biblical scholarship.