New Light From Biblical Scholarship
What do today’s biblical scholars do? What should they do? In The Nature of Biblical Criticism (Westminster John Knox), John Barton, professor of the interpretation of holy Scripture at Oxford University, contends that the main task of biblical criticism is to read texts carefully and establish their “plain sense.” He views biblical criticism as first and foremost a semantic or linguistic and literary operation, concerned with the recognition of genre and with what follows from this about the possible meaning of the texts.
Barton makes many sound and sensible comments about biblical interpretation today. He notes that most “historical” interpretations have arisen out of real difficulties in the texts, that in its essence biblical criticism is neither historical nor a method, that the plain sense can contain within itself possibilities for finding meaning well beyond the literal (or original or intended or historical) sense, that biblical criticism owes as much to the Renaissance as it does to the Reformation or the Enlightenment and that biblical criticism need not be regarded as hostile to theology or the church.
Barton regards biblical criticism as a rich and profound way of taking the Bible seriously, of which ordinary Christians should not be kept in ignorance. Most of his examples are taken from the Old Testament, and he is an engaging and amiable guide to the history and current state of biblical scholarship. He enjoys challenging and overturning false polarities and misleading judgments, and views the biblical scholar’s task as serving as an enlightened and helpful guide to the meaning and significance of sacred Scripture.
In How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now (Free Press), James L. Kugel offers a more critical view of modern biblical criticism. His book is neither a manual of exegetical methodology nor a standard introduction to the Bible. Rather, he explores how selected parts of the Hebrew Bible were interpreted by Jews and Christians around the turn of the Common Era, and how these interpreters have shaped our traditional approach to the Bible. He also examines how these same texts are now understood according to the methods and concerns of modern critical scholarship.
Kugel, who taught for many years at Harvard and now teaches at Bar Ilan University in Israel, identifies himself as an observant Orthodox Jew and regards the Hebrew Bible as the beginning of a manual entitled How to Serve God. He is equally at home in both the traditional and the critical approaches to the Bible. While not dismissing or ignoring the critical approach, he favors the traditional approach as more appropriate to what the Bible became in antiquity, and regards this approach as ultimately irreconcilable with the modern critical approach. His intellectual heroes are such early interpreters as Philo, Josephus, Ben Sira, Paul, the rabbis and Augustine, who were instrumental in making the Bible what it has become for Jews and Christians and in shaping how we read it.
Whether or not one agrees with Kugel (I don’t) that the two approaches are irreconcilable, one must admire his great learning, intellectual curiosity, spiritual honesty and ability to write clear and engaging prose. The real brilliance of his work resides in the short essays on various parts of the Hebrew Bible, in which he uncovers problems in the biblical texts and juxtaposes the two approaches to them. Here he illustrates beautifully how to read the Bible both respectfully and critically, without losing a sense of the Bible’s continuing significance.
What Kugel does for the Hebrew Bible on a grand scale, Frances M. Young, in Brokenness and Blessing: Towards a Biblical Spirituality (Baker Academic), does on a smaller scale and in a more personal way, by exploring how the Church Fathers have shaped our reading of the Christian Bible. Young, who recently retired as professor of theology at the University of Birmingham (U.K.), is best known as a patrologist with a special interest in how the fathers interpreted and applied Scripture. But she also writes regularly and well on biblical interpretation and on spirituality. In this short work she brings together her several interests by focusing on five biblical themes—the desert experience, Jacob’s wrestling with God, the way of Jesus, strangers and exiles, and desire frustrated and fulfilled in the Song of Songs—and examines how the Church Fathers developed these biblical topics and what significance they might have for Christian spirituality today.
Young promises a biblical spirituality that challenges our current culture while offering both a realistic view of the human condition and the wonderful gift of grace that brings hope of transformation. She refers frequently to her developmentally disabled adult son, Arthur, from whom she has learned much about being a Christian. She characterizes the biblical spirituality that emerges from her five essays as “never achieved, never self-satisfied, never comfortable, always longing” and yet “always grace received, the fulfillment of promises, the acceptance of Christ.” If you are seeking substantive, readable and challenging spiritual reading, this is a book for you.
In recent years the publicity surrounding Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code and Mel Gibson’s film “The Passion of the Christ,” as well as exaggerated claims by scholars about the importance of apocryphal and Gnostic gospels outside the canon have left many of us intrigued, confused and puzzled. Pheme Perkins’s Introduction to the Synoptic Gospels (Eerdmans) provides not only a knowledgeable overview of the three canonical Gospels attributed to Mark, Matthew and Luke, but also a sound evaluation of the significance of those other “gospels” from antiquity.
After explaining what a gospel is and how we came to have the traditional four-gospel canon, Perkins describes how the gospels were written and used in the early church, and what sources were available to the evangelists. The core of her work is a comprehensive and well-informed discussion of each Synoptic Gospel, with regard to its distinctive narrative or plot, literary features, characterization, presentation of Jesus, community background and influence. The final chapter is a systematic treatment of the extracanonical gospels, with particular attention to their relationship to the canonical traditions and to their significance for understanding developments in second- and third-century Christianity.
Perkins has published widely in the area of early Christian apocryphal writings and the Gnostic texts from Nag Hammadi, and knows very well what these texts say and do not say. Moreover, she has drawn on her many years of teaching the canonical Gospels to undergraduates and graduate students at Boston College and on her longstanding involvement in parish adult education programs to produce a remarkably clear and balanced treatment of some very complicated material. The author’s long experience as a teacher, her knowledge and love of the ancient texts, sound judgment and clarity of thought and expression make this introduction to the Synoptic Gospels a trustworthy guide for all who are perplexed about Christian origins. It can serve as a fine textbook for college and seminary courses, as well as a reliable survey for all those who want to know where Gospel studies are today.
In The Pastoral Epistles: First Timothy, Second Timothy, Titus (Liturgical Press), Benjamin Fiore, S.J., who taught for many years at Canisius College in Buffalo and is now president and professor of religious studies at Campion College at the University of Regina in Canada, seeks both to show how these very influential New Testament writings reflect the world of the ancient Greco-Roman moralists and rhetoricians and to find in them teachings of relevance beyond their original context that may be applicable to church audiences of any age. These two concerns have animated Fiore’s teaching and writing for over 25 years. His 20-page introduction deals with methodology and interpretive approach, the literary character of these letters, their historical background and hortatory strategy and context. Then he provides for 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy and Titus, respectively, a brief introduction and for each passage a translation, notes on the text and an interpretation. Fiore observes that their pastoral strategy in bringing the Gospel message to the world is twofold: teaching the true tradition and demonstrating it in virtuous actions. With this volume, the Sacra Pagina series—the first modern, full-scale, English-language Catholic commentary on the New Testament—is complete (disclosure: I edited and contributed to the series). The individual volumes are being reprinted in paperback format, with updated bibliographies.
New Testament theology is an irresistible but ambiguous undertaking. It has been understood variously as the history of early Christian thought or religion, a description of diverse theologies, a thematic or systematic synthesis, or a theological interpretation engaging contemporary believers. In New Testament Theology: Exploring Diversity and Unity (Westminster John Knox), Frank J. Matera, professor of biblical studies at The Catholic University of America, brings to the task many years of productive research and publication as well as much experience as a teacher and preacher. As far as I know, his is the first full-scale New Testament theological treatment by an American Catholic biblical scholar.
Matera sets two goals for himself: to describe the distinctive ways in which the various New Testament writings express the experience of salvation that God has effected in Christ, and to identify the underlying unity of the diverse theologies in the New Testament. The four major parts of his book deal, respectively, with the theologies in the Synoptic Gospels, the Pauline tradition, the Johannine tradition and the other parts of the New Testament. Under those headings he treats the individual documents, with particular attention to their major theological concerns and themes. By way of conclusion, Matera sketches the “diverse unity” running through the New Testament in five basic themes: humankind in need of salvation (anthropology and soteriology); Christ the bringer of salvation (Christology); the community of the sanctified (ecclesiology); the life of the sanctified (ethics); and the hope of the sanctified (eschatology). He observes that the term “diverse unity” is appropriate to the New Testament, since no one way can fully capture the mystery that is God in Christ.
Matera’s work is a remarkable synthesis of biblical scholarship and theological sensitivity. He allows the diverse theological voices in the New Testament to speak and at the same time leads readers to discern connections and correlations. Those interested in theology, from beginners to professors, can profit greatly from reading and consulting this excellent work.
Jerome H. Neyrey, S.J., emeritus professor of New Testament at the University of Notre Dame and current president of the Catholic Biblical Association of America, has been one of the pioneers in applying social science concepts and models to the interpretation of biblical texts. In Give God the Glory: Ancient Prayer and Worship in Cultural Perspective (Eerdmans), he illustrates this approach with reference to prayers found in the New Testament and other ancient texts. Using the tag “in other words,” he seeks to bring new light to ancient texts with the help of methods developed in cultural anthropology.
Neyrey treats the ancient prayer passages from the perspective of communication between the one who prays and God. In analyzing these texts he considers their sender or speaker, message, medium, receiver and purpose. He also takes account of the cultural assumptions that persons in antiquity would have brought to prayer, especially regarding honor, reciprocity, patron-client relationships, social stratification and so on. With these analytical tools he offers fresh readings of the Lord’s Prayer, the Magnificat, the doxologies and Jesus’ “high priestly prayer” in John 17. He also explores prayers in praise of God’s uniqueness, the nature of worship as communication, and worship in the fourth Gospel, in the Didache and Justin’s First Apology. Neyrey’s work places old and familiar texts in a new framework and brings them alive again. He also challenges us to rethink what we do when we pray and why we do it.
The collection of Gnostic writings discovered at Nag Hammadi in Egypt over 60 years ago has provided scholars with access to a philosophical and religious literature that had been only vaguely known through the polemical descriptions of some Church Fathers and a few scraps of ancient texts. Birger Pearson, emeritus professor of religious studies at the University of California in Santa Barbara, has proved himself to be one of the foremost experts in the translation and interpretation of these very difficult texts. In his Ancient Gnosticism: Traditions and Literature (Fortress), he presents for a general audience an accessible, comprehensive and balanced description and assessment of the Nag Hammadi texts and related works, as well as the relevant testimonies by the patristic writers. He regards the Gospel of Thomas as gnostic only to the extent that its central concern is self-knowledge and was the product of a long and complex process of transmission. He also discusses related ancient movements such as Hermetism, Manichaeism and Mandaeism, as well as some modern varieties of gnosticism.
Pearson recognizes and illustrates the wide variety of ancient movements that have been placed under the heading of “gnosticism.” Nevertheless, he offers this overarching definition: In gnosticism saving gnosis (knowledge) comes by revelation from a transcendent realm, mediated by a revealer who has come from that realm in order to awaken people to a knowledge of God and a knowledge of the true nature of the human self. He traces the origins of gnosticism to Neoplatonic interpretations of Plato’s Timaeus filtered through Jewish exegetical and apocalyptic traditions, and “Christianized” to varying degrees in some early Christian circles. The key deviation from biblical Judaism and orthodox Christianity was the split between the transcendent God above creation and a lower creator responsible for the world as we know it. He attributes the attraction of ancient gnosticism to the age-old problems of explaining the presence of evil in the world and how God could create a flawed world. For those confused by competing claims about gnosticism in the popular media, Pearson provides a readable and reliable introduction to the topic.
All these books are models of sound biblical scholarship by authors who have honed their skills over many years and who are willing and eager to share their learning with the general public and especially with those who stand in the biblical tradition. They offer a very rich harvest of scholarship, indeed.