Apply Your Whole Self: New Books on the Bible

Johannes Albrecht Bengel (1687-1752), the scholar generally regarded as the founder of New Testament textual criticism, had a wonderful Latin saying about reading Scripture: Te totum applica ad textum; rem totam applica ad te (“Apply your whole self to the text; apply the whole thing to yourself”). All the books discussed in this year’s survey can make us more careful and appreciative readers of the Bible, and some of them illustrate how careless and biased reading has sometimes distorted the meaning of Scripture with disastrous social and historical consequences.

You don’t have to be Jewish to like The Jewish Study Bible (Oxford Univ. Press, 2181p, $40; 0195297512). And you don’t have to be Christian to like The New Interpreter’s Study Bible (Abingdon, 2322p, $45; 0687278325). The Jewish Study Bible presents the Jewish Publication Society’s translation of the Hebrew Bible with introductions and explanatory annotations, as well as essays on various topics leading the reader into the world of the biblical text. The books are arranged according to the traditional Jewish order: Torah (“Teaching”), Neviim (“Prophets”) and Kethuvim (“Writings”). The commentators and essayists view the Hebrew Bible as complete in itself, take seriously the traditional Hebrew (Masoretic) text, take cognizance of and draw upon traditional Jewish interpretations, point out where biblical passages have influenced Jewish practice and call attention to biblical passages that are especially meaningful in the life of the Jewish community. Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler served as editors, with Michael Fishbane as consulting editor.


The contributors include many well-known Jewish biblical scholars (e.g., Jon D. Levenson, Carol and Eric Meyers, Michael V. Fox, Peter Machinist and Adele Reinhartz). Also included are various tables and charts, as well as a glossary.

The New Interpreter’s Study Bible provides the complete text of the New Revised Standard Version, including the Old Testament, the so-called Apocrypha (widely construed) and the New Testament, along with introductions, commentaries and excursuses for each book. It too contains general essays, a glossary, chronologies and maps. The books are arranged according to the traditional Protestant order (Pentateuch, Historical Books, Wisdom Books, Prophets), with the Old Testament Apocrypha between the Old and New Testaments. The commentators and essayists include a few Jewish contributors, though the overwhelming majority are Christian scholars representing a wide spectrum of denominational and academic positions. The general editor, Walter Harrelson, worked with four associate editors: Donald Senior, C.P. (now a member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission), Abraham Smith, Phyllis Trible and James C. VanderKam. The Catholic contributors include Raymond F. Collins, John R. Donahue, Frank J. Matera, Roland Murphy, Irene Nowell, Carolyn Osiek, Pheme Perkins and Barbara E. Reid.

Both of these study Bibles contain excellent translations of the biblical texts and an enormous amount of reliable information, produced by many of the best biblical scholars of our age, and either one would make an excellent gift. Christian and Jewish libraries should have both books, to allow comparisons between the contributions and to see where they are the same and where they differ.

On many social issues today the Bible has a bad reputation. The “curse of Ham” (see Gn 9:18-27) tradition is a tragic example of what happens when the biblical text is not read carefully and correctly. The “curse of Ham” is the assumed biblical justification for a curse of eternal slavery upon black peoples. It was supposedly imposed on Ham for looking upon the nakedness of his father, Lot. But the only relevant biblical text places the curse on Canaan (one of Ham’s sons) and says nothing about slavery. What is the origin of this lethal tradition?

In The Curse of Ham: Race and Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam  (Princeton Univ. Press, 448p, $35; 069111465X), David M. Goldenberg, former president of Dropsie College and director of the Annenberg Research Institute for Judaic and Near Eastern Studies in Philadelphia, examines how Jews from around 800 B.C. until the eighth century A.D. perceived black Africans. He seeks not only to uncover the origins of the “curse of Ham” tradition but also to explore the development of anti-black sentiment in Western civilization as supposedly based on the Bible and how biblical exegesis was used to justify black slavery.

Goldenberg first investigates images of the land of Kush and the people of Kush in the Bible, and of black Africa and black Africans in postbiblical Israel. Next he moves from blacks as an ethnic group to black as a person’s color, and examines Jewish views of and attitudes toward dark skin color. Then he explores the phenomemon of black slavery in the ancient world and in Israel in particular. Finally, he focuses on the reinterpretation of the Bible that occurred as a result of the identification of blacks with slaves.

The “curse of Ham” tradition emerged as the result of a combination of factors that came together around the seventh century A.D. in connection with the rise of Islam: the mistaken assumption that the word Ham meant “black, dark”; a racial theory that identified black Africans as Hamites; a social structure in which black people had become increasingly identified as slaves; and a confusion between Ham and his son Canaan. Goldenberg concludes that Jews in antiquity and in late antiquity did not politically dominate people of markedly different skin color, that their literature does not reflect attitudes of contempt or disdain toward black Africans, and that only in later periods, when Jews were part of larger cultures that dominated physically distinct peoples, did their literature begin to equate ethnicity with skin color and to exhibit the anti-black sentiment of the surrounding cultures.

Goldenberg’s study is clearly a work of mature scholarship on an important theme. His specialization is rabbinic literature, and he provides a good example of how modern rabbinic scholarship works. He also ranges widely in biblical, Greco-Roman and Islamic literature. He writes in an accessible style and makes complex matters intelligible to nonspecialists. In fact, I often became so engrossed in his argument that I thought I was reading a detective story. For those who wish to pursue the main topic and related matters in even greater depth, he presents technical discussions and bibliography in the endnotes that comprise almost half the volume.

Over the past 50 years an academic revolution has taken place in the study of Judaism and its relation to Christian origins. In the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, Christian descriptions of early Judaism (from the ancient Israelites’ return from exile in the late 6th century B.C. to A.D. 70) emphasized the differences between Second Temple Judaism and early Christianity. But scholarship in the last half of the 20th century has shown that both movements, while remarkably diverse in their religious expressions, nevertheless had many more points of continuity than were previously recognized or imagined. This revolution has been made possible through the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the importation of new literary-critical methods and social-science perspectives into biblical studies, and the patient re-study of all the available textual and material evidence.

One of the major figures nurturing this academic revolution has been George W. E. Nickelsburg, professor emeritus of religion at the University of Iowa and a specialist in the study of First Enoch. In Ancient Judaism and Christian Origins: Diversity, Continuity, and Transformation (Fortress, 264p, $23, paper; 0800636120), he presents a broad and synthetic picture of some of the results of modern scholarship on early Judaism. The work is organized mainly around traditional theological and historical topics: Scripture and tradition, the Torah and the righteous life, God’s activity on behalf of humankind, the agents of God’s activity, eschatology, and contexts and settings. His usual procedure is first to discuss the findings of contemporary research on early Judaism, and then sketch some of the implications for a possible reinterpretation of Christian origins. He concludes with general observations on diversity within early Judaism and early Christianity.

Nickelsburg has provided a well-informed and reliable synthesis of scholarship on early Judaism over the past 50 years. Drawing on his own research and that of many other scholars, he leads the reader through the textual evidence as it pertains to important theological and historical issues. His extensive collection of endnotes enables the reader to consult the pertinent primary sources and the best scholarship on them.

Two themes run through Nickelsburg’s presentation at almost every point: the remarkable diversity within Second Temple Judaism is reflected in the New Testament; and Jesus of Nazareth makes all the difference. In the process of defining itself vis-à-vis other kinds of Judaism, the small Jewish sect that we call early Christianity absorbed, adapted and transmitted many perspectives from other Jewish movements. To understand what the first Christians said about Jesus, it is necessary to understand early Judaism.

Recent research on early Judaism has enabled us to break through many of the stereotypes that have haunted Christian-Jewish relations for centuries, and now makes it possible for theological dialogue between Christians and Jews to proceed on the basis of greater historical accuracy. Nickelsburg’s work is made all the more personal and poignant by his discovery (while writing this book) of a Jewish great-grandfather who was prominent in the local synagogue in Germany and of a side of his ancestry about which he knew little or nothing.

In recent years the reading of the Gospels has been enriched by the use of various literary and social-scientific/historical methods. InJohn the Baptist: Prophet of Purity for a New Age (Liturgical Press, 185p, $14.95, paper; 0814659330), Catherine M. Murphy, who teaches in the department of religious studies at Santa Clara University, uses the ancient texts about John the Baptist as “a focal point around which to adjust our critical lenses.” She describes John as a window for us onto first-century Judea, a mirror for us as readers and a way for us into the study of the Gospels and the first-century world. Her book is an excellent introduction to the critical reading of the Gospels.

Part of a new series called “Interfaces,” this study of texts about John the Baptist provides undergraduates and others with relevant information and a level of critical sophistication about how the Gospels are read today by biblical scholars. Instead of stating general principles, Murphy keeps her focus narrow and enables readers to see why these principles have been developed and what they can contribute to our appreciation of the Gospels.

In the literary part of her presentation, Murphy illustrates redaction criticism (analysis of the Evangelist’s editorial activity), source criticism (what the Evangelist had to work with) and historical criticism (what probably happened to generate these texts). In the social-scientific part she develops a communication model, explains the passages about John the Baptist in terms of sociological concepts (cognitive dissonance, and purity and pollution) and compares the Essenes of the Dead Sea Scrolls and John’s followers as first-century Jewish purification movements. Those who follow Murphy’s presentation will surely make progress in reading the Gospels with critical care and spiritual profit.

The commentary has been one of the oldest and most lasting genres for providing guidance toward the careful reading of biblical texts. While over the centuries there have been many changes in the focus and format of commentaries, in every age they have provided readers with help from “masters of the sacred page” to understand better and appreciate the riches of biblical texts.

Among the New Testament writings, Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians is one of the books most in need of a commentary. This letter is quite elliptical in its language; it presupposes information on both sides that is not readily apparent to readers today; and its emotional tone shifts dramatically from one section to another. Among New Testament scholars the hypothesis that 2 Corinthians is not one letter but rather a collection of four or more letters has been widely accepted. In recent years, however, there has been a return among commentators to the traditional view that it is best read as a single letter from Paul to the Corinthians that presupposes a fairly long (and often rocky) relationship through personal visits and other correspondence.

In 2 Corinthians: A Commentary (Westminster John Knox, 332p, $39.95; 0664221173), Frank J. Matera, professor of New Testament at The Catholic University of America and author of many fine books on Paul and other biblical topics, describes 2 Corinthians as the most personal and revealing of Paul’s letters, argues for its literary unity and integrity and suggests that Paul wrote it for three reasons: to bring to a close the crisis over his “painful visit,” to encourage the Corinthians to resume the collection for the church in Jerusalem and to resolve a second crisis caused by intruding apostles and unrepentant Christians at Corinth.

Matera’s work is part of the “New Testament Library” series launched recently by Westminster as a complement to its well-known and long established “Old Testament Library” project. The new series will contain commentaries on all the books in the New Testament, as well as reprints of some classic studies and new general studies on methodology, backgrounds, history and theology. Matera’s commentary on 2 Corinthians consists of an eight-page general bibliography, a 32-page introduction to the letter (argument and structure, theology, etc.) and a section-by-section exposition. Besides treating the salutation and benediction (1:1-11) and the letter’s closing (13:11-13), he discusses the main text in three major parts: the crisis over Paul’s apostolic integrity (1:12-7:16), his appeal to the Corinthians to complete the collection for the Christians in Jerusalem (8:1-9:15) and Paul’s further defense of his apostleship and his warnings to the Corinthians in preparation for his third visit there (10:1-13:10).

For each passage in 2 Corinthians Matera provides a fresh translation, textual and philological notes, a literary analysis (structure, genre, rhetorical techniques, etc.), verse-by-verse comments and a summary. He shows a keen eye for the basic theological concerns, reads this letter in the light of other texts in the Pauline corpus, places it in its historical context with reference to the Old Testament and Greco-Roman writings, takes account of the views of other scholars, provides clear and reliable interpretations of what is an often difficult text and writes in a way that is accessible to pastors and religious educators. In short, he does everything a good commentator should do. He discerns six major theological themes in the letter: the God who raises the dead, Christ as the agent of God’s salvation, the Spirit of the living God, the ministry of the new covenant, the community of the new covenant and the paradox of the Gospel in which affliction leads to comfort and power is perfected in weakness.

All these books, each in its own way, open up the riches of God’s word, help us to apply ourselves more seriously to the biblical text and facilitate the process of applying the text to ourselves.

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