Receiving Scripture: Archaeology, art and faith: Books on the Bible

One recent and important development in biblical studies is called reception history, the study of the influences or effects that specific biblical texts have exercised on later interpreters. Many of the books described in this annual survey of books on the Bible show how various artists and writers have taken biblical texts as starting points for their own creative works.

Conceived and overseen by the Benedictine monks of Saint John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minn., The Saint John’s Bible project is a most ambitious undertaking pertaining to the Scriptures. Its seven volumes contain the text of the New Revised Standard Version in beautiful calligraphic script. The project was intended as a sample of the medieval tradition of illuminated manuscripts of the Bible. It has now appeared in both deluxe and popular editions. The English text is perfectly clear, as one would expect from an international team of skilled calligraphers. But the illustrations (or illuminations) may still puzzle many readers. In The Art of The Saint John’s Bible: The Complete Reader’s Guide (Liturgical Press), Susan Sink, a poet and writer associated with Saint John’s Abbey and Liturgical Press, provides help in her explanations of the images accompanying the biblical texts. She offers not only basic information about the illuminations and their place in the Bible’s story but also helps us to understand the intentions of the various artists. She writes in an engaging style, ever challenging readers to enter into both the texts and the artwork. She often reminds readers of the three great Benedictine themes that run through the project: hospitality, transformation and justice. If you have access to any of the seven volumes, Sink’s fine work will serve as the perfect guide. She shows that there are many more spiritual and artistic treasures in The Saint John’s Bible than may first meet the eye.

Advertisement

The Sistine Chapel: A Biblical Tour (Paulist), by Christine M. Panyard, brings together key texts from the Bible and the artistic interpretations given them by the Renaissance artist Michelangelo. After explaining how Michelangelo the sculptor came to execute the paintings, Panyard, a professor of psychology at the University of Detroit Mercy, presents on facing pages beautiful photographs of them and expositions of their biblical roots. What emerges is what Michelangelo conceived as a spiritual pilgrimage from creation to the last judgment, with Jesus’ death and resurrection at the center. To tourists who have rushed through the Sistine Chapel, this volume allows a better appreciation of the skill of a great biblical interpreter.

The book of Sirach is one of the longest and most wide-ranging writings in the Catholic and Orthodox canons of Scripture. It is a synthesis of teachings from “Yeshua Ben Eleazar Ben Sira,” who in the early second century B.C. conducted a wisdom school for young scribes in Jerusalem. His Hebrew manuscript was then translated into Greek by his grandson in Egypt. Its author has opinions on almost any topic one can imagine, and they are all put forward with artistry and often breathtaking certainty. While conservative by nature, Ben Sira made a monumental theological innovation by integrating the biblical and the ancient Near Eastern wisdom traditions. I have often described it as my favorite book of the Old Testament. With the discovery of parts of the original Hebrew version in recent times, the book of Sirach has become a magnet for the work of an international band of very learned and productive scholars. Prominent among them has been the Rev. Jeremy Corley, who teaches at St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth, Ireland. His contribution, entitled Sirach: The New Collegeville Bible Commentary (Liturgical Press), contains a brief introduction, the text according to revised version in the New American Bible, and an exposition of each pericope in the book of Sirach. There he brings to bear not only the results of recent scholarship, but also his skill as a keen literary analyst, theological sensitivity and ability to place Ben Sira’s teachings in the wider contexts of both the Old and New Testaments.

Students of early Christianity and early Judaism have long sought an up-to-date, comprehensive and reliable synthesis of the results of archaeological excavations in the Holy Land around the time of Jesus. Now we have two! In Alexander to Constantine: Archaeology of the Land of the Bible (Yale University Press), Eric M. Meyers, professor of Jewish studies and archaeology at Duke University, and Mark A. Chancey, professor of religious studies at Southern Methodist University, synthesize archaeological evidence and ancient literary sources (including the Bible) to provide an overview of the intellectual and religious changes during the Greco-Roman period and their impact on world history. Thus they treat the following topics: the Persian period and the transition to Hellenism; the advent of Hellenism under the Greek kingdoms and the Hasmoneans (140-37 B.C.); Herod the Great and the introduction of Roman architecture; Khirbet Qumran and the Dead Sea scrolls; from Herod to the Great Revolt; the Great Revolt and the Bar Kokhba Rebellion; the emergence of Christianity; early Judaism and the rise of the synagogue; the archaeology of paganism; the growth of Greco-Roman culture and the case of Sepphoris; and after Constantine—beyond the Roman period. Meyers is a veteran in the field of Second Temple archaeology, having directed several excavations and followed the scholarship closely for many years. Chancey has focused especially on the history of Galilee and its relevance for Jesus and his movement. In constructing their archaeological-historical synthesis, they rely heavily not only on the major structures revealed by excavations but also on coins, inscriptions and pottery. Although they make their own views clear, they are fair in presenting other interpretations. Their timely work is a great achievement, just the kind of work we have needed for many years.

Jodi Magness’s The Archaeology of the Holy Land: From the Destruction of Solomon’s Temple to the Muslim Conquest (Cambridge University Press) is written in the classic textbook format. Professor of early Judaism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, she covers roughly the same historical periods as Meyers and Chancey do, and also provides abundant historical and literary context while explaining the archaeological materials. Her extensive and masterful treatment of the archaeology of Qumran and the Dead Sea scrolls is perhaps the centerpiece of the book. She discusses in fitting detail the ambitious building program launched by Herod the Great in Jerusalem and elsewhere. She devotes a short chapter to the archaeology of Bethlehem and Galilee, which the Gospels describe as the setting for Jesus’ birth and ministry. Her focus on Jerusalem throughout and especially her chapter on Jewish tombs and burial customs provide important background information for the biblical passion narratives. And her chapters on Jewish and Christian artifacts in the early centuries of the Common Era show how the two religions coexisted and developed in the Holy Land. Either book (or both) could serve not only as a textbook for university students but also as a guidebook for pilgrims to the Holy Land.

Early Chris-tianity had its greatest success in the urban environments of the Roman empire. One way to get a concrete sense of life in that context is through Paul Roberts’s marvelous Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum (Oxford University Press). In A.D. 79 Mount Vesuvius in the Bay of Naples erupted, and the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum were completely buried and thus “frozen” in time. Designed to accompany a British Museum exhibition in 2013, this lavishly illustrated volume looks at the daily lives of ordinary Romans through the lens of an extended and relatively wealthy familia. Thus it treats the streets, the atrium, sleeping quarters, the garden, living rooms and interior design, dining, and kitchens, toilets and baths. This is social history at its best. The 400 color photographs are spectacular, and the accompanying text is concise and illuminating. Many fine books have been written about Pompeii, but it is hard to imagine a better one than this. Indeed it is the book bargain of the year. Roberts is a curator at the British Museum, specializing in Roman art and archaeology.

If you want a comprehensive history of New Testament scholarship in the 20th century, William Baird’s History of New Testament Research. Volume 3, From C. H. Dodd to Hans Dieter Betz (Fortress) is the book for you. In its almost 800 pages it covers a vast array of topics like the new biblical theology, the Bultmann school, new discoveries in archaeology, the development of scholarly societies, theological and hermeneutical developments, the necessity for historical criticism and so forth. Baird considers major works by major scholars; he is objective and courteous in his summaries, and respectful in his judgments. He focuses mainly on British, German, and North American male Protestant scholars. His coverage of Catholic scholarship is fair but somewhat thin. This third and final volume in the project caps off a great achievement on Baird’s part.

Another great achievement in modern biblical studies is the completion of the English version of François Bovon’s multivolume commentary on Luke’s Gospel, titled Luke 3: A Commentary on the Gospel of Luke 19:28–24:53 (Fortress). Born and raised in Switzerland, Bovon (1938-2013) taught for many years first at the University of Geneva and then at Harvard Divinity School. A man of many scholarly interests, he specialized in Luke’s Gospel and Acts, as well as the noncanonical apocryphal Acts of the Apostles. His commentary on Luke’s Gospel appears now in the prestigious “Hermeneia” series. German and French editions have previously appeared. For each passage, he provides a full bibliography, a fresh translation, textual notes, synchronic and diachronic analyses and detailed comments, all supported by extensive footnotes to primary sources and modern scholarship. A distinctive and welcome feature is a sketch of the history of the interpretation of each pericope, from patristic times to the present (with a special fondness for the work of Calvin). Its inclusion is a sign of the current interest in how specific biblical texts have been read throughout the centuries. While a technical commentary, it also contains homiletic nuggets that preachers and teachers can develop. Bovon was not only a brilliant teacher and scholar but also a gentleman widely admired by his colleagues and students. His commentary on Luke is a fitting memorial to the career of an extraordinary scholar and human being.

Not all receptions of biblical texts are good, as Mary C. Boys’s Redeeming Our Sacred Story: The Death of Jesus and Relations between Jews and Christians (Paulist) shows. Boys, a member of the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary, and professor of practical theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, has lectured and written extensively on the history and present state of Christian-Jewish relations. In the first part of what is her magnum opus, she shows how the New Testament’s emphasis on Jewish responsibility for Jesus’ death has led throughout history to the image of Jews as “Christ killers” and as deserving persecution, climaxing with the Holocaust. In the second part she calls on three recent developments in biblical scholarship to help Christians redeem their sacred story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection: the Roman empire as the critical backstory of Jesus’ passion and death, the “new perspective on Paul” and his place within Judaism, and the reassessment of “Judaism” and “Christianity” as distinctive religions in the first three centuries A.D. Though focused on exegesis and history, Boys also provides practical pastoral suggestions about the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius and the seven last words of Jesus.

The “new evangelization” did not end with the Year of Faith in November. As conceived by the recent synod and recent popes, it is an ongoing program for proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ. There is no better guide for this than Ronald D. Witherup, S.S.’s Saint Paul and the New Evangelization (Liturgical Press). In it he explores the theme with information from official Catholic church documents and pertinent observations from the letters of Paul. His thesis is that it is worth looking at Paul as a model for the new evangelization on the grounds that there has never been a more visionary, wide-ranging evangelizer than “the Apostle.” An accomplished biblical scholar and current superior general of the Sulpicians, Witherup is the perfect guide to understanding a concept that many have found puzzling.

The New Testament books were written primarily to be performed orally. In fact, most other books in the Greco-Roman world of the time were intended to be read aloud by either the author or a trained reader before an audience (many of whom were illiterate). In Bringing the Word to Life: Engaging the New Testament through Performing It (Eerdmans), Richard F. Ward, a professor of homiletics, and David J. Trobisch, a New Testament scholar, have joined forces to explain clearly and concisely what we know about the culture of oral performance in the first and second centuries, to show what it takes to perform a biblical text, to suggest the benefits of performance for teaching and learning, and to offer practical suggestions for exploring biblical texts through performance. They first gather the evidence from various Greek and Latin texts that oral performance was a major mode for communicating the content of literary material. Next they explain some of the difficulties involved in reading aloud an early New Testament manuscript: no word divisions, no punctuation, all capital letters, abbreviations and so on. Then they indicate how the act of performance today can deepen understanding of the text on the part of both the performer and the audience, and offer practical suggestions about engaging in biblical performance today. They conclude that when we internalize and perform Scripture, the word comes to life and “becomes flesh” in our own existence.

Yiu Sing Lúcás Chan, a Jesuit from Hong Kong, has established his reputation as a pioneer in bridging the gap between modern biblical studies and theological ethics by his The Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes: Biblical Studies and Ethics for Real Life. In his new volume, Biblical Ethics for the 21st Century: Developments, Emerging Consensus, and Future Directions (Paulist), he places his own work in the context of other scholarly efforts to bring together the two disciplines. Seeking to build on and update William C. Spohn’s What Are They Saying about Scripture and Ethics? (1984; rev. ed., 1995), he contends that truly biblical ethics needs to include both the exegetical work of biblical theologians and the interpretive work of theological ethicists; and that a hermeneutic of virtue ethics (Who am I? Who ought I become? And what ought I do?) is a worthy method of bringing their findings to ethical expression. In dealing with the works of other scholars, Chan is admirably objective, critically perceptive, and invariably polite. In defending his own positions, he is informed, clear and persuasive.

Editor’s note: The first essay by Daniel J. Harrington, S.J., in America’s annual Books on the Bible roundup appeared in the issue of Feb. 9, 1991. This issue, 23 years later, brings his last. Father Harrington passed away on Feb. 7. Father Harrington had something good to say about everyone, an occasional twist included—e.g., “Though I sometimes find de la Potterrie unconvincing, I always find him stimulating and immensely learned.” That spirit of intellectual integrity and charity stayed with him to the end. 

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Bernard Campbell
3 years 9 months ago
It was June of 2009 at the 46th Annual Georgetown University Institute on Sacred Scripture that I benefitted once again from Fr. Harrington's erudition as a biblical scholar. He was a Jesuit committed to the gift of Wisdom. In honor of the Pauline Year, the title of his course was, "Paul and the Old Testament." One day during this week, at the class break, Fr. Dan agreed to have his picture taken with myself and three other Capuchin friars. He was a pleasure to be with both inside of and outside of the classroom. Almost ten years before, in 1997, at Boston College, I had the good fortune to attend his two week class on the "Book of Revelation." Immediately following the last class of this two week class, Fr. Harrington boarded a plane. He was flying to Israel. He was scheduled to present a paper at an International Institute Commemorating the Discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Many of us have benefited from Fr. Harrington's dedication to the study of Sacred Scriptures. Our era has lost a great scholar!

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

Homeless people are seen in Washington June 22. Bishop Frank J. Dewane of Venice, Fla., chair of the U.S. bishops' domestic policy committee, released a statement Nov. 17 proclaiming that the House of Representatives "ignored impacts to the poor and families" in passing the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act the previous day. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)
The United States is thwarting the advancement of millions of its citizens, a UN rapporteur says.
Kevin ClarkeDecember 16, 2017
Why not tax individuals for what they take out of society instead of what they contribute?
Paul D. McNelis, S.J.December 15, 2017
Pope Francis will renew the mandate of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors for another three years, informed sources told America this week.
Gerard O’ConnellDecember 15, 2017
Worshippers recite the Lord's Prayer during Mass at Corpus Christi Church in Mineola, N.Y., on Oct. 13. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz, Long Island Catholic)
Making ancient Scripture sensible in contemporary languages will always prove a hazard-heavy challenge.
Kevin ClarkeDecember 15, 2017