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A Review of ‘The Hebrew Bible: A Critical Companion’, Edited by John Barton


The Hebrew Bible: A Critical Companion

Edited by John Barton

Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016.

632pp. hb. £34.95, ISBN 978-0-691-15471-8



At the outset of this review I need to declare one presupposition and a potential source of bias—I read the Hebrew Bible as Christian Scripture and I was supplied with a review copy of this book by the publisher.

John Barton’s The Hebrew Bible is a guide, or as its subtitle indicates, a companion to the Hebrew Bible. Like its namesake it has diverse contributors, with each chapter having a different function within the whole. It differs from the Hebrew Bible in an important way—the religious presuppositions of the authors are diverse. The diversity of the twenty-three authors was an editorial choice. Barton explains this choice of contributors in the very short Introduction: ‘some are Jews, some are Christians of various kinds, some have no religious commitment at all’ (p.x). Any reader wanting a consistent authorial stance should look elsewhere, but those wanting to be challenged and enriched would do well to choose this volume.

The book is divided into four major sections:

I. The Hebrew Bible and Its Historical and Social Context

II. Major Genres of Biblical Literature

III. Major Religious Themes

IV. The Study and Reception of the Hebrew Bible

I have used these four section headings below to facilitate navigation of this review.

I. The Hebrew Bible and Its Historical and Social Context

John Barton’s opening chapter, The Hebrew Bible and the Old Testament, covers some thorny and complex issues of definition in an engaging and even-handed manner. He not only covers the obvious challenge of what we should call the ‘Hebrew Bible’, but also explores the presence of Aramaic sections in the Hebrew Bible. The diverse textual traditions in Hebrew, Greek and Latin are outlined and finally Christianity’s understanding of the nature of the Hebrew Bible is considered.

Francesca Stavrakopoulou’s The Historical Framework: Biblical and Scholarly Portrayals of the Past which is the second chapter is an engaging and stimulating exploration of what can be established about the voracity, or otherwise, of the Hebrew Bible’s historical claims. As Stavrakopoulou points out the reader of the Hebrew Bible makes a choice about the relative privilege given to the text itself or extra-biblical data such as other texts and archaeology. Stavrakopoulou clearly privileges nonbiblical sources and provides a challenging analysis for readers who have greater confidence in the historicity of the Hebrew Bible’s account of the pre-monarchical period.

Katherine Southwood explores the use of social sciences in biblical studies in The Social and Cultural History of Ancient Israel. Her essay considers the potential gains and pitfalls of such approaches. The potential value of these methods is demonstrated by reviewing recent work on key themes such as ethnicity and kinship. Anthony J. Frendo’s Israel in the Context of the Ancient Near East lacks the narrative clarity of the other three contributions in this opening section. This essay is essentially an appeal for the need for both a diachronic and a synchronic analysis of ancient texts in order to better understand the Hebrew Bible, but this is far from obvious from the chapter’s title.

II. Major Genres of Biblical Literature

A reference work of this type will often be used by those wanting an up-to-date introduction to the specific types of literature in the Hebrew Bible. Part II divides the Hebrew Bible’s content into (i) narrative books, (ii) prophetic literature, (iii) legal texts, (iv) Wisdom Literature and (v) psalms and poems. Whilst other ways of classifying the Hebrew Bible could have been chosen this five-fold division works rather well, with a small but helpful degree of overlap in the contributions. Thomas Römer’s exploration of the narrative books provides an appropriate opening chapter. He helpfully, brings the idea of the ‘Enneateuch’ as a narrative unit to the fore—the Enneateuch comprising Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings. The clear narrative coherence of this large unit forms the basis for a diverse exploration of the implied editing processes that produced the Hebrew Bible. He concludes with a tantalizing glimpse at recent scholarship on the emergence of Jewish novellas.

G. Kratz’s The Prophetic Literature focuses on the question of how oral prophetic activity produced literary products such as the three major prophetic books and the twelve Minor Prophets. Kratz makes much of the complex editing process, or Fortschreibung, and concludes with what he labels a ‘costly business of interpretation’ in which a text is continually re-shaped and added to by later interpreters. I was surprised that Kratz did not make more of the textual journey which gave rise to The Book of the Twelve. Despite his conviction regarding the massive distance between historical prophet and biblical text, Kratz does not see this as a closed door to understanding the prophetic books as scripture.

Assnat Bartor’s exploration of Legal Texts was refreshing because of its breadth and scope. Throughout the essay, the role of legal texts, both within and beyond the Pentateuch, is made clear. The suggested inter-relationship between some of these texts and wisdom literature is shown to be fruitful in making sense of the final form and content of much of the legal material in the Hebrew Bible. Jennie Grillo’ article follows with chapter 8’s The Wisdom Literature with an opening statement that this category ‘has no currency in the Old Testament or, . . . any ancient Near Eastern literary culture’. This opening salvo and the chapter as a whole provide a refreshing reminder that scholarly categories (and indeed popular ones) can constrain understanding and hinder seeing an object of scrutiny on its own terms. Grillo goes on to look at Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes and then the trajectory of ‘wisdom literature’ elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, in the later books of Ben Sirach and the Wisdom of Solomon and finally Qumran.

In the final chapter of this section of the book, Susan Gillingham examines The Psalms and Poems of the Hebrew Bible. This contribution is something of a tour de force of the current scholarly consensus on the Psalms. In this sense the title of the chapter is a little misleading as little attention is given to ‘other poems’ and these are very much in the shadow of the psalms. What I found especially helpful was the clarity with which Gillingham explores what we do know about these ancient songs/poems and, just as importantly, what we do not know.

III. Major Religious Themes

Perhaps the most unconventional but welcome feature of this volume is its strong emphasis on the major themes found in the Hebrew Bible. Whether the Hebrew Bible is approached from a ‘descriptive perspective’ or with a religious commitment the weight given to these broad topics works equally well. Benjamin D. Sommer’s exploration of Monotheism (chapter 10) is the first of these seven thematic chapters. Sommer argues that this subject has often been oversimplified. He argues that while the Hebrew Bible exhorts Israelites to exclusive loyalty to Yahweh, it is less clear whether Yahweh is understood to be a unique god or one of many deities. His essay concludes that the terms monotheist and polytheist are only a starting point for discussing this theme in the Hebrew Bible.

Hermann Spieckermann’s task is to unfold what the Hebrew Bible says about Creation. In this contribution Spieckermann leads the reader through the full breadth of Hebrew texts which deal with creation with verve and passion. The two features that make this contribution especially helpful are the discussion of divine rest in Mesopotamian culture and the attention given to wisdom theology. This chapter is scholarly work at its best—the Hebrew text is freed so as to allow it to speak afresh. In this case providing an ample basis for an appropriate doctrine of creation, something to which Spieckermann provides a small pointer by way of conclusion.

Hilary Marlow considers what the Hebrew Bible implies about The Human Condition. In doing this she outlines the rich claims made about the nature of human beings and their relationships with each other and with God. As Marlow does this the reader can appreciate how this theme provides insight into the Hebrew Bible’s worldview. Marlow closes her contribution with a brief glimpse at how the values that emerge from this worldview can stimulate insight into the current impact of human beings on the world.

Dominik Markl’s God’s Covenants with Humanity and Israel is a helpful assessment of just how central covenants are in the Hebrew Bible. In some Protestant church traditions the series of covenants that God makes in the Hebrew Bible are used as a rigid interpretational matrix. Markl writes without this preconception but ably demonstrates the importance of the covenants with Noah, Abraham, Israel, David, etc. The wider Ancient Near-Eastern cultural importance of covenants provides the point of departure and Markl shows that the concept is important not just at key junctures in the biblical narrative but throughout the writings of the Hebrew Bible.

C. L. Crouch examines Ethics in the Old Testament and starts by pointing out the distinction between the goals of understanding the biblical text, on the one hand, and informing contemporary ethics on the other. The role of genre is explored before the essay concludes with a brief explanation of the different answers to the question of where ethical thinking and prescribed praxis come from.

Stephen C. Russell considers the witness of the Hebrew Bible to the function of Religious Space and Structures in Ancient Israel and Judah. In this account archaeological evidence is used throughout to enrich what the biblical texts say about structures and religious observance. Russell argues that it is instructive to consider the scale of the structures in which religious practice occurred. He considers the household, and here the archaeological evidence is especially constructive, explaining how religious activities were permed there on an occasional basis. The role of larger scale structures, which are the result of larger social structures, such as clan and tribe, are shown to be more focused on religious activities at the city gates and altars. Temple worship is explored with surprising brevity before ‘space’ in the religious imagination is explored. This contribution is, however, an important one precisely because of its emphasis on religious praxis at the level of domicile and town—scales that can be so easily missed in the text as they often implied rather overtly considered.

Seth D. Kunin’s contribution on Ritual provides the concluding chapter of this section. Lévi-Strauss’ structuralist analysis is used to discern the overarching structural system that underpins the rituals portrayed in the ‘editorial present of the text’. The areas explored in some depth are food rules, purity rules and the ritual practice of the sacrificial cult. Whilst these contributions are shown to fit into a coherent whole, little attention is given to temple worship in terms of psalmody, apart from a brief section on pilgrimage. This is problematic for the stated goal of the essay—surely this is a major aspect of the ‘final’ text of the Hebrew Bible.

IV. The Study and Reception of the Hebrew Bible

Anyone reading this volume from cover to cover has been prepared for this section by the wealth of questions raised throughout the first three sections. Of course others might choose to start here depending on their purpose in reading this book. The first contribution, Alison Gray’s Reception of the Old Testament, is a timely piece in its own right as well as providing a useful opening essay for Part IV. As she explains, the ‘reception’ of the Hebrew Bible is very much at the centre of current biblical studies. She provides a welcome guide to the various approaches, clarifying key terminology along the way. The essay helpfully demonstrates how the Hebrew Bible owes its existence to the reception of texts and how this ongoing cycle of generative reception continued in later Jewish Midrash. In this way Gray crystallises a key challenge which has been continually in the background and oft times in the foreground of this book—the clearest conclusion of critical scholarship is that the Hebrew Bible owes its origin to a plethora of contributors through a complex process of authorship, selection and editing. This has profound consequences for some traditional conceptions of scripture.

Christoph Bultmann picks up on this in his contribution Historical-Critical Inquiry. Whilst this essay is informative, its focus on the origins of historical-critical enquiry in the sixteenth to the early nineteenth century does not fit well with the rest of the contributions. It feels rather like a follow-up to this chapter is missing. David Jasper’s Literary Approaches commences with the various mid-twentieth century impulses that led to a new wave of scholarship concerned with the Bible as literature. He uses some pithy insights from T. S. Eliot to frame developments such as cultural criticism, narrative criticism, ‘political’ readings and deconstruction so as to showcase the potential of literary approaches.

W. L. Moberly’s Theological Approaches to the Old Testament builds directly on the previous three chapters. He succinctly highlights the inevitable choice of making Old Testament Theology either primarily a descriptive or a prescriptive task. This contribution is a model of clarity and it sympathetically explores the divergence between the two approaches. The rich possibilities afforded by theological approaches are illustrated with the various proposals and insights of key figures such as Walter Brueggemann, Brevard Childs, David Clines, Jon Levenson and Karl Rahner.

Eryl W. Davies continues the ‘prescriptive agenda’ in the next chapter titled Political and Advocacy Approaches. He explains how advocacy approaches arose, at least in part, as an answer to the observation that traditional critical methods do little to disturb the status quo—a status quo which is blighted by the experiences and struggles of the marginalised. Feminist, Liberation, Postcolonial and Queer approaches are each briefly outlined. The book of Ruth is used to showcase some of these specific advocacy readings.

Carmel McCarthy’s Textual Criticism and Biblical Translation examines the complexity of the history of textual transmission by explaining the nature of the sources: the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Masoretic Text, the Septuagint and other versions. In the short space available McCarthy ably communicates the challenge of deciding on which textual variants are to be preferred. The three current major projects, each producing critical editions of the Hebrew Bible, are explained along with the different presuppositions employed by each. The chapter concludes helpfully with a selection of challenging short textual units and a comparison of how these are handled in four English translations.

The volume is rounded off rather appropriately with Adrian Curtis’ To Map or Not to Map? This contribution considers whether supporting maps are an aid to biblical interpretation. Curtis concludes with a ‘yes’, although along the way he points to some potential pitfalls and challenges. This final chapter, like Chapter 1, highlights the difficulty of selecting appropriate terminology when terms like Palestine and Israel bring with them religious and political freight.


The twenty-three contributions that make up this volume do, on the whole, work well together. As with all multi-contributor works of this kind the reader experiences some inevitable unevenness, but in the spirit of this work this probably has as much to do with the reader as with the contributors. The contributions of Stavrakopoulou, Gillingham, Spiekermann and Moberly stand out, despite their very different presuppositions, as exemplars of both academic form and content.

I would have liked to have seen a longer introduction which put each of the contributions in the wider context of the project, but John Barton has presumably resisted this by way of respecting the diverse background of the chosen contributors. Two further chapters might have been helpful, one on the Hebrew language and another on historical-critical approaches in the period c.1850–1960 CE.

This volume sets a high bar for the suggested ‘non specialist reader’. It will work very well as a refresher for those who studied the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament in the past, or for those in the later stages of a degree who have already encountered some material on the Hebrew Bible, historical-critical approaches and hermeneutics.

2 responses to “A Review of ‘The Hebrew Bible: A Critical Companion’, Edited by John Barton”

  1. […] might also be interested in my earlier review of John Barton’s (ed.) The Hebrew Bible: A Critical Companion. This edited volume which is in many ways covering similar ground has a broader range of […]


  2. […] for example, John Barton, ‘The Hebrew Bible and the Old Testament’, pp.2‒23 in The Hebrew Bible: A Critical Companion (ed: John Barton), Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016 and Stephen B. Chapman, […]


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About Me

This blog’s central aim is to explore all aspects of how the Psalter (the biblical psalms) functions as Scripture today.

To this end it will also include book reviews on the Book of Psalms and related topics.

Some posts will reflect more broadly on biblical interpretation or hermeneutics.

If you like what you see here and want to arrange for me to give a lecture, run a teaching event or a short retreat based around The Psalms then contact me so we can discuss how this might work.

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