Disputed Questions: Books on the Bible

In the biblical field (as in other disciplines) there are matters of debate that remain unsettled, at least for now. The volumes in this year’s survey of books on the Bible represent areas in which there are disputes about fundamental issues.

The most disputed and basic question concerns the nature of the Bible itself: Is it merely an interesting book about persons and events of 2,000 years ago? Or can it help people today to encounter the living God? In her Chasing Mystery: A Catholic Biblical Theology (Liturgical Press), Carey E. Walsh, associate professor of Old Testament at Villanova University, enthusiastically and often brilliantly defends the second position, provided that the Bible is read with an eye to both the presence and the absence of God.

Advertisement

She begins with the question, “Where did God go?” and develops her biblical theology against the background of the recent phenomena of rampant secularization and the “new atheism.” Focusing primarily on Old Testament passages where mystical experiences of holiness occur, she explores how the Bible negotiates the presence and absence of God. She insists that the God of the Bible is not the omnipotent and omniscient God of the philosophers. She contends that, according to the Bible, the real presence of God cannot be staid, fixed into certainty, but rather has instead pockets of perceived absence, of opaqueness and of uncertainty that enable divine liveliness to blow through. Her lens for reading the Bible results in some fresh readings of texts like Job and Qoheleth, and fresh insights into the problems of suffering and theodicy. Walsh writes in a way that many Catholic readers will find both supportive and challenging. For those wishing to recharge their spiritual batteries during Lent with regard to the Bible, this is an excellent starting point.

When asked to recommend a new book on the history of ancient Israel, I have often said in recent years that the discipline is “in the shop for repairs.” Why that is so is well reported by Megan Bishop Moore and Brad E. Kelle in Biblical History and Israel’s Past: The Changing Study of the Bible and History (Eerdmans). Their goal is to describe the changing study of Israelite and Judean history, and the relationship of biblical literature to that history since the 1970s, when the idea began to be widespread that the story of Israel’s past might at times be quite different from the Bible’s description of ancient Israel. The question is whether the ancient Israel of history and the religious Israel of the Bible are one and the same.

What they describe is the struggle between the older “maximalist” perspectives of William Foxwell Albright (1891-1971) and his student John Bright, and the newer “minimalist” perspectives that have emerged since Albright’s passing. Whereas Albright found neat correlations between the Bible and archaeology, the minimalists claim that his approach was largely wishful thinking and that recent archaeological research and the use of social-scientific models tend to show that the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible is the product of movements in Persian or even Hellenistic times. While tilting toward the minimalist position, the authors are fair enough in delineating what the issues are, why the maximalists and the minimalists argue as they do and what the current impasse may mean for Old Testament study in the future.

The German New Testament scholar, Ernst Käsemann (1906-98), famously asserted that Jewish apocalyptic was the mother of early Christian theology. To see what that claim means, there is now no better guide available than Frederick J. Murphy’s Apocalypticism in the Bible and Its World: A Comprehensive Introduction (Baker Academic). Murphy (1949-2011) was professor of New Testament at the College of the Holy Cross for over 20 years. There he proved himself to be a beloved teacher and a respected scholar. The esteem in which he was held by his peers is evident from the foreword contributed by three of his long-time colleagues at Holy Cross. The goal of this book is to aid modern readers to understand the context of ancient Jewish and Christian apocalypticism and so to make sense of it for themselves.

In doing so Murphy treats the pertinent Old Testament (Daniel) and extrabiblical texts (including the Dead Sea scrolls and 1 Enoch) and devotes almost half his chapters to the presence of apocalypticism in various parts of the New Testament. Ever the effective pedagogue, he makes clear what these often difficult ancient texts were saying to people in their own time and the challenges for readers today to see what sense they can take from them. The presence of abundant summaries, text boxes, photographs, charts and bibliographical suggestions makes this an ideal textbook and a helpful tool for private study. It is a fitting memorial to its author.

The reliability of the historical sources for Second Temple Judaism remains a matter of dispute. The Hermeneia series, now about 40 years old, long ago established itself as the “Cadillac” of biblical commentaries. Its highly technical volumes aim to be strictly historical, with little or no interest in homiletical application. One of its most recent publications is Robert Doran’s 2 Maccabees: A Critical Commentary (Fortress), in which the author contends that Second Maccabees purports to give the background of the Maccabean revolt in the 2nd century B.C. and to tell the story of the early days of the revolt under Judas Maccabeus. In particular, it explains in vivid and entertaining ways how God repeatedly prevented the desecration of the Jerusalem Temple. Doran, who has taught at Amherst College in Massachusetts for many years, describes the work as a highly rhetorical narrative that sets out not to give a blow-by-blow description of events, but to move its audience to commit themselves to follow faithfully the ancestral traditions of Judaism. His mastery of the ancient text and modern scholarship on it, as well as his ability to integrate several recent important archaeological discoveries, make his commentary the best available guide to a fascinating but neglected book of the Bible.

For many years the figure of Jesus has been a source of great debate. Gerhard Lohfink, a Catholic priest and New Testament scholar, has written many learned and stimulating books in the area of biblical theology. He is the brother of the well known Old Testament scholar, Norbert Lohfink, S.J. He is notable for resigning his professorship at the University of Tübingen in 1987 and entering the Catholic Integrated Community in Germany, where he has lived and worked ever since. His Jesus of Nazareth: What He Wanted, Who He Was (Liturgical Press) is surely his magnum opus. In fact, it is the best Jesus book I know. It is based on sound biblical scholarship, full of fresh theological insights, respectful of the Gospels and their portraits of Jesus, and beautifully expressed. It has been expertly translated by Linda Mahoney, his former student and a distinguished biblical scholar, translator and editor in her own right. It merits more consideration in America than this short notice can give. Lohfink is especially effective in highlighting the centrality of the reign of God and Israel as the people of God in Jesus’ life and work. These themes have run through his publications for many years, and now they come to fullness in this magnificent undertaking.

The first half of the book is primarily concerned with what Jesus wanted; the second half concerns who Jesus was. The Jesus who emerges is based squarely on the Gospels, not on some idiosyncratic modern reconstruction. He does not shy away from hard questions and shows how they can be answered in keeping with the Christian theological tradition and yet challenge people today. His last few words capture that dimension and the passion with which he writes: “Jesus’ proclamation and practice of the reign of God is more radical than any utopia. It is more realistic, it is more critical, it knows more about human beings. It is the only hope for the wounds and sicknesses of our planet.”

Recent research on John’s Gospel has been dominated by historical and literary studies. In Hallowed in Truth and Love: Spirituality in the Johannine Literature (Wipf & Stock), Dorothy A. Lee, lecturer in biblical studies and dean of Trinity College Theological School within the Melbourne College of Divinity, takes a fresh look at the theology and spirituality manifest in John’s Gospel, the Johannine epistles and Revelation. She contends that these books are pervaded by the conviction that is found on the spiritual path for believers and for the community of faith: the hallowing of their lives before God in truth and love. In treating John’s Gospel, Lee gives special attention to its use of symbolism and how it communicates spirituality with regard to the word, worship, the Spirit-Paraclete, absence, discipleship and the senses. She then shows how Johannine spirituality extends beyond the Gospel to the Epistles, and boldly proceeds to deal with the unusual and complex spirituality of Revelation. She concludes that Johannine spirituality in all three texts is grounded in the life of God, the dynamic presence of the Spirit, the gracious love of the Father, and the incarnate presence of Jesus, crucified and risen. This outstanding book is well worth reading and rereading. It shows that spirituality is deep within the Johannine texts, not just something we bring to them.

As with John, so with Paul, the focus of recent scholarship has been the subject’s relationship to Judaism and his rhetorical skills. But what about Paul the theologian and the influence of his theological thoughts? While not neglecting the contributions of other scholarship, Frank J. Matera in God’s Saving Grace: A Pauline Theology (Eerdmans), seeks to develop a comprehensive Pauline theology in terms of the theme of God’s saving grace. This is what Paul experienced at his call and conversion, and this theme runs through the narratives of God’s saving grace in Paul’s life, in Christ and in the lives of those who are “in Christ.”

Matera then manages to use this theme to illumine the great concerns of Pauline theology: Paul’s experience of saving grace, Christ as the embodiment of God’s saving grace, the saving grace of Jesus, living in the community of God’s saving grace, living according to God’s saving grace, waiting for the final appearance of God’s saving grace and the God revealed through the saving grace of Jesus Christ. This work is marked by the same virtues—deep learning, good judgment, orderliness, clarity and pastoral sensitivity—that characterize Matera’s classic New Testament Theology: Exploring Diversity and Unity (2007) and his many other publications.

The relationship between the Bible and ethics has long been a disputed question. It has gained greater urgency in light of the Second Vatican Council’s directive that Catholic moral theology “should draw more fully on the teaching of Holy Scripture” (“Decree on Priestly Training”). But this has proved to be easier said than done. In The Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes: Biblical Studies and Ethics for Real Life (Rowman & Littlefield), Yiu Sing Lúcás Chan, a Jesuit from Hong Kong who trained at Boston College, seeks to build bridges between the two disciplines with the help of Christian virtue ethics. The key questions of virtue ethics are, Who am I? What is my goal? and How do I achieve that goal? Done in the Christian key, we are children of God in search of eternal happiness with God through Christ. The cultivation of the appropriate virtues, attitudes and dispositions is the major task of Christian virtue ethics.

In order to illustrate his approach in a concrete way, Chan focuses on two of the most important biblical texts: the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20 and the Beatitudes in Matthew. For each verse he provides an exegesis of the text in its original context and an interpretation of its significance for people today, with particular attention to the concerns of virtue ethics. At the end of the book Chan discusses the possible reception of the core Christian virtues in the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes in Confucian society, out of his conviction that interfaith or cross-cultural ethics should begin with specific texts and must be both text-based and interpretive. This remarkably rich work is something of a milestone in the history of the relationship between biblical exegesis and Catholic moral theology.

The development of early Christianity in general and Christian theology in particular from Jesus to Augustine has been the subject of lively debates in recent years. In Sin: The Early History of an Idea (Princeton University Press), Paula Fredriksen, professor emerita at Boston University and now visiting professor of comparative religion at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, uses the concept of “sin” as a way of charting some of the most important developments in early Christian theology. Her thesis is that as the concept of sin changed, so did many of the other elements in Christian theology; and that much in these changes was due both to the changing historical and cultural circumstances and to the ongoing attempt to interpret the Bible. She takes as representative figures first John the Baptist, Jesus and Paul (the New Testament); then Valentinus, Marcion and Justin Martyr (2nd century); and Origen and Augustine (“a rivalry of genius”). In her selection, she is more interested in flashpoints and “disjunctures” than in continuities and orthodoxies. She concludes that ancient ideas of sin—like modern ideas of sin—are, like all human products, culturally conditioned. More a stimulating sketch than a comprehensive monograph, Fredriksen’s work illustrates well how some academics today approach diversity and change in early Christianity.

Sexuality is certainly a disputed question in today’s world. In The New Testament on Sexuality (Eerdmans), William Loader, emeritus professor of New Testament at Murdoch University in Perth, Australia, provides an objective and exhaustive description of attitudes toward sexuality not only in the Jewish and Greco-Roman world, but also considers sexuality in the Gospel tradition and in Paul’s writings. Then he deals separately with the issues of divorce, same-sex intercourse, men and women in community and leadership and celibacy, respectively. This book is the last of five volumes presenting the findings of Loader’s research into attitudes toward sexuality in Judaism and Christianity in the Hellenistic Greco-Roman era. Loader’s mastery of the relevant primary sources and modern scholarship on them is amazing. He looks at all the pertinent texts, reviews the various possible interpretations, and offers his own opinions. He concludes that on the spectrum from leniency to strictness regarding sexual matters Jesus is to be found on the strict end. He also notes, however, that belief in the goodness of creation, including sexual desire and expression, appears to have remained a constant and stabilizing influence throughout the New Testament.

Biblical scholarship in our times is neither static nor finished. New discoveries raise new questions; new times bring new challenges; and new generations of Bible readers and scholars seek and find new perspectives in their texts. The disputed questions covered in this article show once more that “the word of God is living and active” (Heb 4:12).

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.

Advertisement

Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

A strong vision and mission are two keys to a distinctive university.
Jeffrey von ArxMay 18, 2018
Pat Conroy shares his inner self.
Jay HooksMay 18, 2018
Liam Callanan explores Paris, but also explores the existential anxieties of the writer’s life as well as the consolations that come from a life of reading.
Mark Bosco, S.J. May 17, 2018
In a new book, Helen Alvaré argues that a just society defends and protects its children from harms of all kinds.
Christopher KaczorMay 04, 2018