Bringing the Bible to Life

"Actualizing” Scripture, or bringing it to life, is based on the conviction that “the word of God is living and active” (Heb 4:12) and speaks anew to believers in different times and places. This process is carried out by theologians, preachers, teachers, artists, those who pray with Scripture and many others. The recently published books discussed in this article can help us to understand its precedents and practice better. The actualization of Scripture is not a new concern. The Jewish writings produced between 300 B.C. and A.D. 100 constitute the earliest attempts at the actualization of the Old Testament. They include the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, the Dead Sea Scrolls and the works of Philo and Josephus. Most of them took parts of the Hebrew Bible as their explicit or implicit starting points.

A reliable, accessible and up-to-date introduction to these writings can be found in George W. E. Nickelsburg’s Jewish Literature Between the Bible and the Mishnah: A Historical and Literary Introduction (Fortress). The author, professor emeritus of religion at Iowa University, is a learned scholar who has devoted over 40 years to their study and has been at the forefront of research on them. His presentation is structured chronologically from the beginning of the Hellenistic period to the aftermath of the Jewish War. The treatments of the individual works appear under nine major headings: tales of the dispersion; Palestine in the wake of Alexander the Great; reform, repression, revolt; the Hasmoneans and their opponents; the people at Qumran and their predecessors; Israel in Egypt; the Romans and the house of Herod; revolt, destruction, reconstruction; and texts of disputed provenance.


These texts are important for all those who are interested in the formative stages of Judaism and Christianity. They can acclimate us to the literary genres in which Jews during the Second Temple period expressed themselves, illustrate the twists and turns that marked Jewish history in this period and provide precedents and parallels for the great themes of the New Testament and the rabbinic writings.

Much of Jewish rabbinic literature is an attempt to actualize the Hebrew Scriptures. Most rabbinic debates either begin from Scripture or are settled by appeals to Scripture texts. For those who wish to enter the world of rabbinic exegesis and theology, Abraham J. Heschel’s Heavenly Torah: As Refracted Through the Generations (Continuum), is a fine introduction.

Heschel (1907-72), professor of ethics and mysticism at Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, was well known as a biblical and rabbinic scholar, spiritual writer and social activist. The Hebrew original of his theology of ancient Judaism was published in the early 1960’s. His masterwork now appears in English for the first time. It is by any measure an astonishing accomplishment of historical and theological scholarship. Gordon Tucker, a distinguished Jewish scholar in his own right, has edited the main text, overseen and completed the translation, corrected and added footnotes and provided introductions to nearly all 41 chapters.

Heschel contended that the world of early rabbinic thought can be divided into two types of schools named after two second-century A.D. Jewish teachers (Rabbi Aqiba and Rabbi Ishmael) and that the historic disputes between them were based on fundamental differences over the nature of revelation and religion. Ishmael stressed the transcendence of God, the value of rational explanation where possible and the plain sense of Scripture. Aqiba emphasized the immanence of God, the importance of mystical experience and the esoteric interpretation of Scripture.

Heschel, who generally favored Aqiba’s approach, places their teachings in the context of rabbinic sources from the second to the fifth centuries, as well as (in some cases) from medieval and modern times. The topics he treats include miracles, sacrifices, the presence of God, suffering, Torah and life, the duties of the heart and others. Heschel knew and loved these ancient texts, and his expositions of them can help non-Jews to catch the spirit of rabbinic Judaism and to appreciate the rabbis’ reverence for Scripture, their mental sharpness and their sense for issues that continue to engage both Jewish and Christian theologians today.

Does the New Testament have anything to say today regarding religion and politics? In Render to Caesar: Jesus, the Early Church, and the Roman Superpower (Oxford Univ. Press), Christopher Bryan, professor of New Testament at the School of Theology, University of the South, in Sewanee, Tenn., covers a wide range of ancient texts pertaining to the topic and clarifies in what sense the biblical tradition is and is not political. He resists efforts to read the New Testament either as politically irrelevant or as entirely political.

Bryan contends that Jesus and the early Christians offered a critique of the Roman superpower that was broadly in line with the entire biblical and prophetic tradition. The biblical tradition challenges human power structures not by attempting to dismantle or replace them but by consistently confronting them with the truth about their origin and purpose. Their origin is the fact that God permits them and can use them. Their purpose is to serve God’s glory by promoting peace and justice for the good of humankind. But when the state makes itself God and seeks to serve only its own purposes, then Christians must resist.

This thesis covers a remarkably large number of “political” texts in both Testaments. Bryan is a clear thinker. While he often criticizes the views of other scholars, he is invariably polite to them. He takes the ancient texts seriously and treats them with respect. With regard to the New Testament authors, at several points he quotes with relish the remark made by the classicist George Kennedy: “Ancient writers sometimes meant what they said and occasionally even knew what they were talking about.”

For those interested in religion and politics (and who is not?), Bryan can help us grasp the clarity of the perspective that runs through the whole Bible. He invites us to appreciate both the limits and the profundity of the biblical viewpoint on these matters. This kind of New Testament theology illumines both historical context and theological signficance.

Paul’s Letter to the Romans is one of the most important and influential documents in the Christian Bible. Because of the theological vistas it opens up and the tensions within it, Romans has attracted the attention of the greatest theologians in the Christian tradition. In Romans in Full Circle: A History of Interpretation (Westminster/John Knox), Mark Reasoner, associate professor of biblical and theological studies at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minn., seeks to help readers understand better how their questions about Romans have been framed, asked and considered by interpreters from Origen (mid-third century) to the present.

Reasoner’s strategy is to focus on 12 major topics and texts in Romans that have attracted attention from the great interpreters: Jews and Gentiles (1:16-17), natural theology (1:19-21), justification by faith (3:21-28), original sin (5:12) and others. His cast of interpreters includes Origen, Augustine, Pelagius, Abelard, Thomas Aquinas, Luther, Erasmus, Calvin and Karl Barth. He has also included representatives of the modern “new perspective on Paul” (concerned with relations between Jews and Gentiles) and “narrative approach” (concerned with Christ’s place in Israel’s story).

Reasoner succeeds nicely in situating the interpretations and insights of these theological giants in their proper historical contexts and in showing how they actualized Paul’s letter to the Romans. What emerges most dramatically is the pre-eminence of Origen as the most perceptive reader of Romans. Origen recognized that Paul’s major concern in Romans was the place of Christ in the relationship between Jews and Gentiles. The “full circle” in the book’s title refers to the fact that many of the best insights in modern scholarship on Romans were anticipated by Origen. These include the themes of faith in Christ and the faith of Christ, openness to universalism, the “I” of Romans 7 as humankind apart from Christ, free will, the salvation of ethnic Israel and the need for exercising the hermeneutics of suspicion toward Rom 13:1-7. Reasoner’s history of the interpretation of Romans reminds us that in biblical exposition, what is old can and does become new again.

In Junia: The First Woman Apostle (Fortress), Eldon J. Epp, professor emeritus of biblical literature at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, shows how Paul’s reference to Junia as an apostle (Rom 16:7) came to be distorted in modern editions and translations of the New Testament.

In his technical yet accessible argument, Epp shows that the person named by Paul in Rom 16:7 must have been a woman (Junia was a common female name), and that she and Andronicus (probably her husband) were regarded by Paul as apostles. Of course, the New Testament does not restrict the title “apostle” to the Twelve. He explains how modern scholars have invented Junias as a male name, or treated it (with no evidence) as a contraction of Iounianus, or have excluded Junia from the apostles mainly on the basis of their cultural and theological assumptions that in early Christianity a woman could not be called an apostle. Epp contends that Junia deserves the encomium granted to her by no less an authority than John Chrysostom (who certainly knew Greek and Christian theology very well): “How great the wisdom of this woman that she was even deemed worthy of the apostle’s title.” Through his meticulous research, Epp has restored Junia to her rightful place among the apostles.

An important but somewhat neglected chapter in the actualization of Scripture has been the history of biblical interpretation from the Renaissance to the early 20th century. That gap has been filled admirably by John Sandys-Wunsch in What Have They Done to the Bible? A History of Modern Biblical Interpretation (Liturgical Press). Two reasons for the neglect of this topic are the large amount of pertinent material and the fact that in this period biblical interpretation intersected with practically everything else (politics, science, culture, and so on).

Sandys-Wunsch, a research fellow at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, is a learned and amiable guide. His focus is developments in European intellectual history, especially in France, Germany and England. At each point he takes account of external factors or backgrounds that influenced biblical interpretation and then explains the major trends in biblical studies during the period. He gives particular attention to what he calls the progressive dethronement of the Bible in scientific and historical matters. He contends that the most important changes took place between 1700 and 1800, when the Bible lost its cultural pre-eminence in Europe.

Sandys-Wunsch presents in a concise and witty manner an enormous amount of information drawn from often obscure and difficult texts. He explains in large part how biblical interpretation got to where it is today, liberates us from false opinions and expectations about the Bible and provides a sound historical basis on which to proceed with actualizing the Scriptures today.

Philip F. Esler, professor of biblical criticism at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, is convinced that historical investigation of the New Testament can and should have theological significance when these texts are read in a Christian context today. In New Testament Theology: Communion and Community (Fortress) he seeks to reconceive the discipline of New Testament theology in a way that respects both the historical circumstances in which the New Testament came to be (the Mediterranean world of the first century) and the desires of readers today around the world to interact with those texts and apply them in their lives. He wants to move beyond viewing New Testament theology as simply providing material for systematic theologians or as mere historical description of the theological thoughts of the writers. His major concern is how historical criticism might enrich and enliven Christian life today.

In developing his approach to both historical criticism and biblical actualization, Esler makes many fresh and constructive proposals. To objections that there is a great gulf between the New Testament world and our world today, he points to the enormous progress made in recent years regarding intercultural communication. He proposes that we view biblical interpretation today as a conversation or dialogue between persons from different cultures in relation or communion, where the goal is mutual understanding rather than (necessarily) agreement. He develops his model of conversation with the biblical authors in terms of some stimulating reflections about the communion of saints. His proposals about affirming the value of historical criticism and showing how it can contribute to the quality of Christian life today are both timely and welcome.

The actualization of Scripture raises theological questions about the nature and role of the Bible in Christian life, true and false interpretations and communicating the Gospel message today. In The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology (Westminster John Knox), Kevin J. Vanhoozer, research professor of systematic theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Ill., attempts to develop a comprehensive approach to these matters and so provide a solid hermeneutical and theological foundation for thinking about biblical actualization.

Vanhoozer describes his approach as evangelical, catholic and orthodox, and he generally succeeds at being all three. He is respectful of Scripture and tradition, philosophically and hermeneutically sophisticated, conversant with the great theologians, ecumenical in outlook and concerned to convey the Gospel to the church and the world today. (He does need, however, to brush up on his Latin.) At the center of his project is the Bible as the script for the Christian theodrama. For his master concept of theodrama and other key insights, he is indebted to the Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar.

The “canonical-linguistic” approach to the Bible and theology gives particular attention to the turn to practice, the emphasis on wisdom and the creative retrieval of the principle of sola scriptura. It attends both to the drama in the biblical text—what God is doing in the world through Christ—and to the drama that continues in the church as God uses Scripture to address, edify and confront its readers. The drama analogy offers some stimulating metaphors for God’s action in the world (theodrama), the Bible (script), doctrine (stage directions), the theologian (the dramaturge), the Holy Spirit with help from pastors (director), the church (the company) and good theology expressed in Christian life (performance). Vanhoozer contends that doctrine or dogma best serves the church by directing its members in the project of wise living. He regards doctrine as a condensed form of Christian wisdom, rooted in Scripture and accumulated over the centuries, about how rightly to participate in the drama of redemption, that is, in the life of the triune God.

Throughout the centuries the Bible has exercised influence in religious congregations and in the world at large. These fine books explain how and why the living and active word of God continues to speak to all who are willing to listen.

Jewish Literature Between the Bible and the Mishnah
A Historical and Literary Introduction (2nd ed.)

By George W.E. Nickelsburg
Fortress. 445p $45 (cloth), $29 (paper)
ISBN 0800637682 (cloth), 0800637798 (paper)

Heavenly Torah
As Refracted Through the Generations

By Abraham J. Heschel
Continuum. 814p $95
ISBN 082640802

Render to Caesar
Jesus, the Early Church, and the Roman Superpower

By Christopher Bryan
Oxford Univ. Press. 195p $25
ISBN 0195183347

Romans in Full Circle
A History of Interpretation

By Mark Reasoner
Westminster/John Knox. 194p $24.95 (paper)
ISBN 0664228739

The First Woman Apostle

By Eldon J. Epp
Fortress. 138p $16 (paper)
ISBN 0800637712

What Have They Done to the Bible?
A History of Modern Biblical Interpretation

By John Sandys-Wunsch
Liturgical Press. 378p $39.95 (paper)
ISBN 0814650288

New Testament Theology
Communion and Community

By Philip F. Esler
Fortress. 353p $40 (cloth), $25 (paper)
ISBN 0800637194 (cloth), 0800637208 (paper)

The Drama of Doctrine
A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology

By Kevin J. Vanhoozer
Westminster John Knox. 488p $39.95 (paper)
ISBN 0664223273

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
12 years 11 months ago
The correct ISBN for "What Have They Done to the Bible?" by John Sandys-Wunsch is: 0814650287 Just one digit off!

(and as a PhD student at the University of Iowa, I also noted the Nickelsburg error...)

13 years ago
Regarding: "Bringing the Bible to Life" by D.J. Harrington

"professor emeritus of religion at Iowa University ..." should read:

University of Iowa

Thanks very much from sort of a compulsive editor,

Ann C. Kelley

13 years ago
Regarding: "Bringing the Bible to Life" by D.J. Harrington

"professor emeritus of religion at Iowa University ..." should read:

University of Iowa

Thanks very much from sort of a compulsive editor,

Ann C. Kelley

12 years 11 months ago
The correct ISBN for "What Have They Done to the Bible?" by John Sandys-Wunsch is: 0814650287 Just one digit off!

(and as a PhD student at the University of Iowa, I also noted the Nickelsburg error...)


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