Many Voices, One Spirit: Books on the Bible

We have selected books which represent emerging approaches in biblical studies, including the use of models from trauma studies, diaspora studies and migration studies. One thing leading to another, attention to trauma and to migration raises issues of social justice and poverty. Since in many societies, women often suffer from discrimination and poverty, we have also included books that give space to the perspectives of female interpreters, that speak of women in biblical times and in the contemporary world, that pay attention to the issues of social justice, poverty and the use of wealth.

David M. Carr’s Holy Resilience: The Bible’s Traumatic Origins (Yale University Press) offers an intriguing reading of the Bible as the product of reflection on a series of disastrous experiences in the life of the people of Israel and Judea and then early Jewish and Christian communities. Carr shows us how the Bible as we know it derives from traditions born in the wake of a never-ending series of traumas, and then reread, reshaped and reinterpreted in the shadow of the Babylonian exile, the Hellenistic crisis and the crucifixion of Jesus.

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Carr examines ways that trauma influences memory and the ability to retell a story by drawing on personal experiences of physical catastrophe and contemporary studies on the impact of trauma on life. His retelling of Israel’s history moves quickly and engages the reader, who is taught to wonder how and why the biblical writers articulated the journey as they did. Accustomed to reading many Old Testament texts from the perspective of the Babylonian exiles, with Carr’s coaxing we imagine how the traditions about Abraham and Moses proved so therapeutic to the generation of the exile. This book brings together new modes of biblical research and the assistance of trauma studies, with contemporary studies like the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder, to plumb the depths of our life crises and our Scriptures, as they commune with each other.

Juliana M. Claassens’s Mourner, Mother, Midwife (Westminster John Knox) is a reflection on diverse metaphors for God in the Old Testament Scriptures. Critical of the dominant paradigm of a liberator-warrior God full of violence and bloodshed, Claassens strives to uncover marginal, alternative divine imagery in the Old Testament. She chooses three images located in three different text clusters, Jeremiah, Deutero-Isaiah and Psalms: God as mourner, mother and midwife. The central argument of the book focuses on questions of the authority of divine tears as a paradoxical hope, the presence of a mother as compassion and the acting of the midwife as a continuous protest for life. The interest of uncovering these images is located in the question of the relevance of divine imagery in the survival of trauma in exile, in Auschwitz, in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001.

The discourse pays special attention to questions of healing and possibilities of hope in situations of profound pain. In this discourse the creative argument in the biblical elaboration includes references to medical arguments from people like Rachel Naomi Remen or, in its pedagogical expertise, Paulo Freire. Claasssens’s book is an important one for any person interested in reflecting on God imagery from a female perspective and/or from the perspective of people who experience deep suffering and pain, since it ties current political, educational and religious questions to biblical reflection.

Deirdre Cornell’s Jesus Was a Migrant (Orbis) is a collection of 16 reflections on Scriptures inspired by the author’s experience with migrants and with the phenomenon of migration. Cornell’s reflections allow migration stories that abound in biblical narratives to surface: Adam and Eve emigrating from Eden, Abraham leaving his native town, Joseph’s forced migration to Egypt, the Exodus, the exile to Babylon, the Holy Family traveling to Bethlehem and to Egypt, the spread of Christianity in Acts accomplished through migratory movements. These episodes provide interpretive frameworks when telling about stories of contemporary migrants whom Cornell and her husband encountered. Cornell’s texts also flesh out biblical stories by giving them a contemporary human face.

This is a book that can appeal to most North Americans, who were migrants themselves at some point of their family history or who have dealt with migrants. Not only does it tell of contemporary stories of migrants from Latin America, but it also reflects on stories of migration in the 19th and 20th centuries from territories like Ireland, Italy and Eastern Europe. It also includes major figures whose lives were touched by migration and/or migrants: Pierre Toussaint, John Neumann, Frances Cabrini, Dorothy Day, Cesar Chavez and Teresa of Calcutta.

What difference does it make to take seriously that Paul was a Jew from the Diaspora? Ronald Charles, in Paul and the Politics of Diaspora (Fortress), argues that it makes a huge difference. Paul’s identity as a Diaspora Jew would have been a central element of his life, mission, social relationships and interpretation of Christ. The book explores how Jews from the Diaspora negotiated their identity. For this purpose, Charles uses other Jewish texts, including the Letter of Aristeas and Flavius Josephus’s Jewish Antiquities, to gather data and feed his reflection. He also uses Homi K. Bhabha’s work on hybridity as an interpretive lense. Next, Charles focuses on three issues found in Paul’s letters to explore how Paul’s identity as a Diaspora Jew would have played out, namely, the conflict at Antioch in Galatians, his dealings with the Galatians and his collection project for the church of Jerusalem. Charles’s study is thought-provoking. It forces us to rethink some issues that are often conceptualized solely in theological terms, without attention to cultural dimensions. In a global church, where many members navigate several cultures and move among various cultural worlds, this book is relevant by showing an early example of a major figure of early Christianity negotiating cultural identities.

Seek Justice That You May Live: Reflections and Resources on The Bible and Social Justice (Paulist), by John R. Donahue, S.J., offers to the public the crowning work of a 40-year passion for the biblical heritage as it can engage the practice of social justice. Author of many articles on social justice and the Bible and biblical consultant for the U.S. Catholic bishops’ committee that prepared the 1986 pastoral letter, “Economic Justice for All,” Father Donahue has brought together all these previous studies in a learned but accessible volume on nine biblical themes (creation and exodus; covenant and law; prophetic voices; psalms; wisdom and apocalyptic justice; Jesus, prophet of God’s reign; Matthew and James; Luke-Acts; Pauline writings; Johannine writings). For each of them he provides background in biblical studies, significant aspects for social justice and excellent bibliographies for further study and reading. A concluding chapter (“From Text to Life”) provides wise counsel on ways of engaging, appropriating and sharing the fruits of these Scriptures in preaching and all aspects of the life of the church. This book provides rich material for continuing study and reflection on Scripture in this era of Pope Francis, who bids us to attend unceasingly to the actual lives and situations of the poor in our world.

Gary A. Anderson’s Charity: The Place of the Poor in the Biblical Tradition (Yale University Press) offers readers a biblical follow-up to his 2009 study of Sin: A History. As in the earlier work, he brings together incisive and fresh exegetical practice with examples of the historical reception of a biblical notion, all in a writing style that is accessible and occasionally conversational. This examination of the Jewish and Christian practice of almsgiving distinguishes itself by its theological orientation, i.e., what does it say about the identity of God and those who worship God, and charity itself as an act with “a deeply sacramental character”?

At the same time, Anderson has an uncanny ability to uncover a deeper significance in seldom-studied topics like giving loans, providing guarantees for the poor and fasting for petition rather than contrition. He brings the teaching of the books of Tobit and Sirach on almsgiving to the fore in a book that also probes deeply into many of the theological differences between Catholic and Reformation theology on issues like almsgiving and purgatory. Through a host of examples, Anderson demonstrates how the treatment of the poor manifests what a community believes about God, itself as a worshiping body, other human beings and the kingdom of God. This book is as challenging as it is satisfying.

Sheila McGinn, Lai Ling Elizabeth Ngan and Ahida Calderón Pilarski have edited a collection of essays entitled By Bread Alone: The Bible through the Eyes of the Hungry (Fortress). This collaborative work originates from the Feminist Biblical Hermeneutics Task Force of the Catholic Biblical Association of America. Kathleen O’Connor’s presidential address at the 2009 annual meeting of this society introduced the concept of hermeneutics of hunger, which fed the reflection of these biblical scholars. As a whole, the volume aims to help contemporary first-world readers see and hear, in biblical texts and in the present world, those who hunger either physically or spiritually. These 10 essays, written by both seasoned and younger biblical scholars, touch on the books of Genesis, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Sirach, Mark, Luke and Thomas; 1 Corinthians and 2 Thessalonians. In some cases, they began as a communal exegesis done by the members of the group. All these essays keep an eye on the socioeconomic contexts of those who hunger in biblical texts and in present situations. By Bread Alone does not argue that only food is sufficient for biblical understanding of salvation. Rather, it corrects some distortions of the biblical message that claim that the poor need only the Gospel but no bread for the journey.

The Writings and Later Wisdom Books (SBL Press), an important collection of essays in the series The Bible and Women, of the Society of Biblical Literature, has just appeared, edited by Christl M. Maier and Nuria Calduch-Benages. It brings to our attention the work of 13 women and one male scholar, many of them not widely known on the North American scene. All the essays appear in English, divided into four categories: (1) the living conditions of women (lives of women in postexilic era; gender perspectives and names in Chronicles); (2) images of women (“good” and “bad”) in Israel’s Wisdom tradition (personified wisdom, good and evil women in Proverbs and Job, valorization of women in Qoheleth and good and bad wives in Ben Sira); (3) women’s voices and female metaphors in poetic texts (Psalms, Psalms of Lament, Lamentations, Song of Songs and iconographic representations); and (4) ambivalent role models: women in narrative texts (especially Ruth, Esther and Susanna). These essays greatly expand the range of questions raised by women and feminist scholars about the Writings and late Wisdom books, and the volume could prove an excellent supplement in a course on these books of the Bible.

Samuel L. Adams’s Social and Economic Life in Second Temple Judea (Westminster John Knox) explores a neglected field of study while making a subtle yet powerful argument that we cannot easily separate the economic from the religious aspects of the biblical text. No previous study has focused attention on the economic and social conditions of the people of Judea during the era that extends from the end of the Babylonian exile to the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 68 C.E. In five chapters Adams explores important topics: family life and marriage; the status of women and children; work and financial exchanges; taxation and the role of the state; and the ethics of wealth and poverty.

This book offers rich documentation about the roles and status of women and children, wives and widows, marriage and family during this era, which ended with the Jesus movement. Adams argues that we cannot rely on knowledge about these matters from the time of Israel before the Exile; he accomplishes this by examination of numerous later written sources (biblical, post-biblical, apocryphal, etc) and also the information about this era yielded by archaeological excavations. On the last page of the book he asserts that “God stands on the side of the most vulnerable members of the society, even becoming their advocate.” What he asserts he has amply demonstrated in this excellent book.

As Katherine Bain’s Women’s Socioeconomic Status and Religious Leadership in Asia Minor: In the First Two Centuries C.E. (Fortress) reminds us, the writing of history tends to articulate and to legitimate present situations. The socioeconomic conditions of women is one of these situations: Around the world, women experience socioeconomic discrimination based on their gender, to which one should add racial, class, age, religion, sexual preference and ethnicity. Her historical inquiry focuses on religious women (either pagan, Jew or Christian) in western Turkey (Asia Minor) during the first two centuries of the common era. She considers wealthy women, either married or widows, slaves and freedwomen. Her study is original in two regards: first, it examines iconography and inscriptions in addition to texts (e.g., Paul’s Letter to the Romans, Ignatius of Antioch’s letters, the Acts of Thecla, Xenophon’s Economics); second, it considers gender as a fluid category constructed by her various sources in relation with wealth, ethnicity and marital and legal status. Hence, she finds that if certain sources advocate for women a married condition and subordination to a male leader (e.g., Ignatius of Antioch’s letters), other sources (e.g,. inscriptions) indicate that women, wealthy and freed, could exercise leadership roles in virtue of their socioeconomic means, by which they exercised patronage of religious organizations.

Laurel K. Cobb, Mark and Empire: Feminist Reflections (Orbis, with a foreword by Ched Meyers). Trained in social work, public administration and theology, Cobb has served as a social worker and as a public health/social welfare specialist in 35 countries for 30 years. This experience nourishes her commentary on the Gospel of Mark, which opens with three chapters that describe the social conditions of first-century Palestine within the framework of the Roman Empire and the social conditions faced by those who live in today’s global American empire. These chapters clearly describe the various types of power exercised by imperial regimes through the centuries: ideological, economic, political and military. While the book comments on each section of Mark and is solidly rooted in the text of the Gospel, it interweaves that text with a description of situations the author encountered in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the United States. Several of these situations portray women, who often end up being the weakest and the most powerless, along with children. Cobb’s commentary therefore allows the social agenda of Mark to resonate more strongly as it brings it closer to us.

Leif E. Vaage’s Borderline Exegesis (Pennsylvania State Univ. Press) consists of four core essays that take their impetus from the author’s time in Lima, Peru, as an instructor of biblical studies. Each essay deals with a book of the Bible—Job, Matthew, James and Revelation—from an approach called “borderline exegesis,” which explores neglected details or under-explored facts. Vaage’s work is exegetical. It uses conventional methods of modern academic historical criticism, which can remind us that biblical texts display the traces of earlier lives and aspirations that produced them. Not always an easy read, the book takes the reader to an elevation point from which to see interpretive possibilities that can make a real difference in our vision of the world. It is especially effective at weaving together biblical exegesis and contemporary social issues with a touch of poetry. It is highly creative, taking a different approach to each of the biblical books under examination: social perceptions when dealing with Job, economy when dealing with Matthew, self-control and wisdom when dealing with James and utopia when it comes to Revelation.

We end this tour with Mark D. Mathews’s Riches, Poverty, and the Faithful: Perspectives on Wealth in the Second Temple Period and the Apocalypse of John (Cambridge Univ. Press), which focuses on the last book of the Christian biblical canon, i.e., Revelation. While volumes on wealth and poverty in the New Testament abound, there have been up to now no full-scale treatments of this topic in Revelation, in spite of a significant section on wealth and poverty in Revelation 2-3; 4-6. Mathews’s scholarly monograph corrects this lacuna. It puts Revelation in conversation with Jewish apocalyptic texts of the same period (like the Epistle of Enoch) on issues of wealth and poverty. This comparison allows the author to perceive that Revelation shares the views, if not the traditions, of these documents. Revelation views the pursuit of wealth as a quest for false security in a time of tribulation, when the only enduring acquisition is the mark of Satan. By contrast, those who remain loyal to the Lamb may at first be poor, but will receive riches of gold and jewels in the new Jerusalem.

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