Cultures Ancient and Modern: Books on the Bible
Among the several dictionary definitions of culture, the one that best expresses the word’s use in this annual survey of books on the Bible involves the beliefs, attitudes, goals, social forms and material traits of a group or a people. Throughout its long history, the Bible has been both a reflection of the cultures in which it was produced and an influence on the cultures in which it has functioned.
The book of Ruth is one of the most attractive stories in the Bible. Set in the time of the Judges (1200-1000 B.C.), it was most likely composed in the Persian period (538-333 B.C.) and reflects the agrarian culture of ancient Israel. Ruth is a gleaner, one who follows the harvesters, picking up what they leave behind. In Gleaning Ruth: A Biblical Heroine and Her Afterlives (Univ. of South Carolina Press), Jennifer L. Koosed brings to the biblical book the historian’s respect for its original contexts (imagined and real) and the 21st-century interpreter’s tool kit of new literary methods and hermeneutical perspectives (postcolonial, feminist, social-scientific, etc.), supplemented by her personal experiences and references to films and novels. Moving between the distant past and the present, Koosed gleans from many different sources and brings out the complexity and subtlety of this much loved book. She is particularly effective in showing the ambiguity of the various characters and even the figure of God in the narrative.
One of the great achievements of recent biblical scholarship has been the discovery and publication of many Jewish works from the period between 300 B.C. and A.D. 200 and the development of early Judaism as an academic field and as the cultural matrix of Jesus and early Christianity. The Eerdmans Dictionary of Early Judaism (Eerdmans), edited by John J. Collins and Daniel C. Harlow, brings together the fruits of recent research on this phenomenon in one large and handsome volume. It contains 13 major essays synthesizing significant aspects of Judaism in this period, as well as 520 alphabetical entries written by 270 scholars from 20 countries. The work not only synthesizes the results of large amounts of technical scholarship but also points the way forward to further research in what has been one of the most lively areas of biblical studies over the past 50 years. In organizing this project and bringing it to fulfillment, the editors and the publisher have made a significant contribution to understanding the culture of the New Testament world.
Another important contribution to the study of Early Judaism is Anathea E. Portier-Young’s Apo-calypse Against Em-pire: Theologies of Resistance in Early Judaism (Eerdmans). An assistant professor of Old Testament at Duke Divinity School, she argues that the first Jewish apocalypses emerged from Judea’s elite in the 2nd century B.C. and were a literature of resistance to empire, especially to King Antiochus IV Epiphanes in his effort to rebuild his Seleucid empire. After establishing a conceptual framework for understanding resistance in the earliest apocalypses, she examines the historical events and conditions in Judea from the beginning of Hellenistic rule through the period of Antiochus’ persecutions (167-64 B.C.). Then she shows how the book of Daniel, as well as the Apocalypse of Weeks and the Book of Dreams (incorporated in 1 Enoch) are best understood as resistance literature composed in response to the terror visited upon Jews by Antiochus. Not only does she provide a scholarly and plausible account of one of the most important periods in Jewish history (the events leading up to the Maccabean Revolt); she also offers a sympathetic account of the earliest apocalyptists’ ability to look beyond their present dire situation and to apprehend God’s providential ordering of space, time and created life.
Not long ago biblical scholars customarily said that archaeology was not thought to be of much help in studying the New Testament. They reasoned that the time period was too narrow, the excavations were too few and the New Testament writers were not much interested in the information that archaeology could provide. In Stone and Dung, Oil and Spit: Jewish Daily Life in the Time of Jesus (Eerdmans), Jodi Magness, an archaeologist-historian and professor of early Judaism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, shows how wrong those scholars were. To do so she brings together the results of extensive archaeological work done recently in Israel and the literary evidence found in Jewish (Hebrew Bible, Qumran, early Jewish and rabbinic) and early Christian texts (especially the Synoptic Gospels). In placing Jesus in the context of everyday Jewish life, she provides a graphic picture of the world in which he lived and worked. Her topics include rituals of bodily purification, edible creatures considered as clean or unclean, household vessels, dining customs and communal meals, Sabbath observance and fasting, coins and taxes, clothing and religious garb, oil and spit, toilets and toilet habits, and tombs and burial customs. The effect of her work is to remind us that Jesus had more in common with first-century Palestinian Jews than with 19th and 20th-century European philosophers and theologians. While not a theologian, she does illuminate many obscure passages in the Gospels and illustrates nicely the implications of the Incarnation.
Most of the New Testament was written by and for people outside the Land of Israel, and so it reflects (and/or rejects) to some extent the culture of the Greco-Roman or Mediterranean world. One way to gain an insider’s perspective on that culture is through Seneca: On Benefits (Univ. of Chicago Press), beautifully introduced and translated by Miriam Griffin and Brad Inwood. This culture was very much an honor-and-shame society, in which great emphasis was placed on how you appeared to others and what they thought of you. Lucius Annaeus Seneca (4 B.C.-A.D. 65) was a famous statesman, dramatist and Stoic philosopher. His philosophical treatise concerns doing good (or favors) for someone else and reciprocating when on the receiving end. Thus it reveals much about how elite members of Roman society interacted and what they regarded as important. In some cases Seneca comes close to the Golden Rule: “Let us give benefits in the way in which we would receive them” (2.1.1). However, despite his many sharp insights about gift exchange and civility, for the most part his world and its values are far from those of Jesus and Paul, especially with regard to God’s role in social transactions and to the mystery of the cross.
In Exploring the Spirituality of the Gospels (Liturgical Press), Patrick J. Hartin, a priest of the Diocese of Spokane and professor at Gonzaga University, seeks to meet the hunger for spirituality in today’s culture with the Christian spirituality found in the four Gospels. He defines biblical spirituality as the search by believers to “integrate life through the spiritual vision of those biblical writings that witness to an encounter with God in the person of Jesus and the response required by their transformed life.” After setting the context for exploring biblical spirituality, Hartin examines the spiritual visions of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, respectively, with reference to two questions: Who is Jesus? and What transformative response does this encounter with Jesus invite? Then he gives examples to illustrate how Christians from past and present have modeled their lives and thinking on the spiritual visions of the Gospels.
John’s Gospel reflects a distinctive subculture within early Christianity. In The Riddles of the Fourth Gospel: An Introduction to John (Fortress), Paul N. Anderson, professor of biblical and Quaker studies at George Fox University, focuses on the perplexing “riddles” one runs into when taking John’s Gospel seriously: theological riddles (whether Jesus Christ can be both human and divine; whether Jesus is equal or subordinate to the Father; whether the Son judges; etc.), historical riddles (whether John’s narrative is historical or theological; whether an eyewitness was the source of John’s tradition; the relationship between John and the Synoptic Gospels; etc.) and literary riddles (whether the Prologue was an original introduction or a later add-on; whether the Johannine epilogue is a fresh start or a second ending; whether Jn 7:53–8:11 was originally part of John’s Gospel; etc.). Anderson contends that theologically the Johannine “riddles” are mainly a product of the Evangelist’s own dialectical thinking, that is, his looking at a subject from one side and then another. He contends that historically the Johannine tradition itself also shows evidence of dialectical features that have influenced its development and presentation. That is, the Johannine riddles are due in part to dialogue within the Johannine tradition, engagement with other traditions (Mark’s in particular) and the complex process by which the Gospel reached its final form in the Johannine community.
God has been a surprisingly neglected topic in biblical scholarship. That is no longer so in the light of God of the Living: A Biblical Theology (Baylor Univ. Press). Two professors at Göttingen University—Reinhard Feldmeier (New Testament) and Hermann Spieckermann (Old Testament)—have joined forces to produce a massive treatment of God in the Bible. Their basic thesis is that in the Bible God is always in relationship with persons and the world. This insight (see Mk 12:27) allows them to consider God’s being (six chapters) and God’s doing (12 chapters). They range freely around the Bible, always placing their texts in their historical-cultural context while focusing on their theological significance not only in antiquity but also today. Not always easy reading, the English translation is still a very Germanic book in style, and most of the footnotes are to German sources.
The year 2011 marked the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible, the translation that has most influenced the language and culture of the English-speaking peoples. Of the many fine books produced to commemorate the event, one of the very best is Manifold Greatness: The Making of the King James Bible, edited by Helen Moore and Julian Reid (Bodleian Library, in association with the Folger Shakespeare Library). The volume takes its title from the opening words of the translators’ dedication in the 1611 and subsequent editions (“Great and manifold were the blessings…”). The eight essays that make up the heart of the book concern the English-language predecessors of the King James Bible, the origins of the project, the Oxford translators, their materials and methods, the KJB and its cultural politics, its afterlives from 1611 to 1769, its history in America and early English Bibles in the Folger Shakespeare Library. Written by specialists in various fields and accompanied by splendid photographs, the essays are concise, evenhanded and fascinating. They capture nicely the place of the KJB in its original cultural context and its impact on subsequent cultures throughout the centuries.
That the Bible has exercised enormous influence in American history and culture is beyond dispute. The excellent collection of materials included in the anthology entitled The Bible and American Culture (Routledge), edited by Claudia Setzer and David A. Shefferman, who teach in the department of religious studies at Manhattan College, documents that fact very nicely. After providing a brief framework, they present the pertinent materials, ranging from colonial times to the present, under five major headings: spreading the word, the Bible and the republic, the Bible and America’s great legal social debates, reading the Bible in the margins and the Bible and artistic expression. Besides their wise choices of material, the editors have supplied helpful introductions to each chapter and to each item. Some of the highlights among the selections include the place of the Bible in the Salem witch trials, the uses of Bible in the 19th-century debates over slavery, women and the vote, evolution and creationism, and the struggle for civil rights. The editors also give abundant space to various “marginal” figures, ranging from the prophetic and challenging (Martin Luther King Jr.) to the bizarre (Jim Jones, David Koresh), as well as to paintings, poems, songs and novels. Their fine anthology both informs and entertains.
In The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture (Brazos), Christian Smith, professor of sociology at the University of Notre Dame, defines the culture of “biblicism” as a theory about the Bible that emphasizes together its exclusive authority, infallibility, perspicuity, self-sufficiency, internal consistency, self-evident meaning and universal applicability. He examines how this approach functions in some American evangelical circles and contends that it fails because it does not describe accurately what the Bible really is and because it does not successfully engage the “pervasive interpretive pluralism” inherent in the Bible. Smith first presents a biblical, sociological and historical critique of the American evangelical form of biblicism. Then he makes proposals about how evangelicalism can become more authentically evangelical by making Jesus Christ the center of Christian life (and taking the Bible as a primary witness to him), learning to live with the Bible’s complexity and ambiguity and rethinking the process of understanding the Bible and the authority of biblical texts. Given the importance and influence of evangelicalism in American religion and culture, this book is a both a healthy corrective and a hopeful sign of positive developments within evangelicalism.
James L. Kugel’s In the Valley of the Shadow (Free Press) is an exercise in biblical theology, autobiography and modern culture. Kugel has taught Hebrew Bible at Yale, Harvard and Bar-Ilan in Israel and is the author of important books on the interpretation and effective history of biblical texts. This book is also a cancer survivor’s memoir and a report on and critique of research about the origin of religion, along with forays into anthropology, neuroscience, English poetry, American popular culture and many other fields. Above all, it is a biblical scholar’s effort to try to integrate what he has read and studied with his experience of living with a serious case of cancer. Kugel’s basic thesis is that reaching out to God—and the eerie proximity of the starkness, and its intrusion into everyday reality—is a basic part of what it means, or what it has always meant until recent times, for us to be a religious species. He emphasizes the concepts of human smallness, the “starkness” of the world around us and meeting God “in the valley of the shadow”—a play on Ps 23:4. In this context he treats in fresh and challenging ways the perennial theological problems of suffering, evil, theodicy, justice, monotheism, the supernatural, secularization, death and the self. This is an unusual and stimulating book, well worth careful reading and contemplation.
Recent Catholic documentation on the Bible often refers to it as “the word of God in human language.” The books surveyed here illustrate how much our Scriptures reflect their original cultures and have shaped our subsequent history.