A Glimpse into Ian Stackhouse’s “Praying Psalms: A Personal Journey through the Psalter”

Ian Stackhouse, Praying Psalms: A Personal Journey through the Psalter, Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2018

This brief post is not really a review, more of a preview, of this book. I know Ian, and I find it difficult to be certain of impartiality regarding a book written by someone I count as a friend.

There are so many books on the psalms; even narrowing the field to the more personal, devotional and reflective genres means there are still tens of rivals to this volume. So it is natural to ask: Does this book offer something fresh? A second sensible question is: Just who are the intended audience? I hope to answer both questions below by describing the form of this book.


After a very brief Preface and some intriguing Acknowledgements, the book opens with a four-page introduction. Short though this is, it provides a helpful explanation of Stackhouse’s presuppositions and personal context for this personal journey with the Psalms. Despite the brevity of the Introduction, it becomes clear that two paradigms will inform the interpretation of the Psalms in this volume.

The first is something akin to Brueggemann’s typology of function approach which finds that psalms tend to fall into three categories; psalms of orientation, disorientation and reorientation. Whilst Brueggemann formalised this interpretive model in terms of modern hermeneutical theory, it is the testimony of psalm readers across three millennia that these poems come to life as the disciple’s life experience fuses with the ‘function’ of the composition. Later in Stackhouse’s book we catch glimpses of the challenging realities of the life of faith which motivated this book’s creation.

The second interpretive approach is less obvious in the book itself but will be important to Stackhouse’s readers. He testifies to the value of engaging with the psalms in canonical order, or seriatim. Anyone who has done just this can echo Stackhouse’s satisfaction with this discipline. Rather oddly, psalms scholars have rediscovered this afresh only in the last thirty years or so—of course the monastic orders never forgot this most natural of approaches.

A third interpretive method emerges in the body of the book, where from-time-to-time, Stackhouse uses David’s life as a lens through which to engage with a psalm—although this approach is only adopted for the small number of psalms that have biographical Davidic headings.

The bulk of the book follows a delightfully simple form. Each psalm has a single page entry. On each page the psalm’s numerical designation is given, along with the form-critical category as per Brueggemann and Bellinger. A selection of one to four verses are quoted from the NIV, although Stackhouse makes it clear he hopes the reader will read the whole of each psalm. This is followed by the real meat of the book, a reflection, typically around 200 words in length. Each reflection is rounded off with a very short prayer.

Once this form is appreciated it becomes apparent how the book is likely to be used. It is not designed to be read in large chunks, but to be savoured like the psalms themselves. In this way, it lends itself to supporting a personal devotional practice of reading one to five psalms per day. I have found it helpful in supporting my personal practice of one psalm per day.

An unexpected aspect of this book’s straightforward personal engagement with the psalms is the invitation to do something similar. These reflections offered by Stackhouse set the bar high for heartfelt articulate testimony to the life-changing ‘grappling in prayer’ that the psalms offer all disciplined disciples of Jesus of Nazareth.


Book Review: ‘Psalms Old and New’ by Ben Witherington III

Witherington, Ben III, Psalms Old and New: Exegesis, Intertextuality and Hermeneutics, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017.

I came to this book with great expectations, having benefited over the years from a number of Witherington’s New Testament commentaries—in particular his The Acts of the Apostles and Letters and Homilies for Hellenized Christians (3 volumes). I also found the subtitle full of promise as the subject of how the New Testament authors use the psalms is a fascinating and complicated mass of interpretative issues.

At the outset of this volume, Witherington implies that there is a straightforward continuity in scholarship on the psalms with the trajectory initiated by Gunkel and Mowinckel (p.2). In a short paragraph he glosses over nothing less than a paradigm shift in psalms scholarship initiated by Wilson’s 1985 The Editing of the Hebrew Psalter. This work is not mentioned in Witherington’s bibliography nor are any other works by Wilson. A more thorough examination of the bibliography reveals very little of the recent work on what some term the canonical approach. This approach is important not least because it is now the scholarly consensus with regard to both the formation of the Psalter and the form of the Book of Psalms.

This sidelining of the canonical approach is puzzling for a number of reasons, two of which are worth noting here. Firstly, the canonical approach is enormously rich in its broader implications for intertextuality. The intertextuality within the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) itself would surely have formed a promising point of departure for this study—as a minimum the New Testament writers stand in continuity with a community of faith that had continued to reread the psalms. Secondly, Witherington structures his book around the five-fold structure of the Psalter which implicitly affirms the recent paradigm shift. At the outset there is very little justification for why the five books of the Psalter are each treated in a separate chapter. The impression is that this is just to provide manageable ‘chunks’ of material.

By page 4, Witherington affirms by use of italics that “the Psalms, unlike various other parts of the OT, served four functions at once: . . .”. Whilst the four functions he goes on to state are sensible, this bold statement mutes important interpretive nuance and diversity in early praxis. The complex processes of writing, editing, forming of collections, combining collections and further editing over something like a millennium means that the fourfold functionality of the psalms is prone to oversimplifying the psalms. Such developments mean that psalms were used differently over time and by different parts of the Israelite, Judahite and Jewish communities, between the Monarchical period and the early Rabbinic period. Just how anachronistic this implied uniformity of fourfold function is, is revealed a few pages later, where Witherington identifies a fourfold Christian pattern where the four functions are alternatives and are not viewed as being simultaneously operative.

The second chapter is titled The Psalter in Early Judaism, and at this point the reader realises that there will be no space given to the shape and shaping of the Psalter despite the hermeneutical promise of such an endeavour. This short chapter rehearses some generic comments about the importance, or lack thereof, of the biblical psalms in the Qumran literature, the Apochrypha, etc. Witherington is at pains to dismiss Brooke’s rather unusual claims about a movement from poetry to history during the evolution of the Psalter. The best way to show how such an approach fails to account for the Psalter would, in my view, have been a thorough exploration of the one thousand year history of the psalms (the interested reader can find such exploration in, for example, Holladay’s The Psalms through Three Thousand Years and DeClaisse-Walford’s Reading from the Beginning).

Chapters three to seven consider the five books of the Psalter. Here Witherington is in his element as he explores how the New Testament picks up on specific psalms directly and exhibits more subtle intertextual dependence on the Psalter. These five core chapters contain a wealth of detail and Witherington explains carefully how he has built on the work of others as well as carried out his own extensive work (writing major commentaries on every book of the New Testament, for example). This near exhaustive re-examination of the use of the Psalms by the New Testament writers makes this volume essential for anyone wanting to understand this intertextual and inter-testament interpretive issue.

A key strength of all five main chapters is the careful exploration of the different ways in which the New Testament writers use the psalms. Sometimes the New Testament authors have been given hard time for not abiding by modern interpretive approaches and playing fast-and-loose with the Psalter. Witherington helpful considers the variety of approaches used by the New Testament authors and notes that much of their usage relies on a homiletical approach (see p.251, for example). This is the key element of the work which can be said to be new and it represents a genuinely useful insight.

Witherington helpfully points out that some of the usage of the Psalms relates to the identity of the resurrected Jesus as the Messiah and other usage is far more general, reflecting the life of Jesus’ followers in a world where following Jesus means experiencing suffering. On this latter point, Witherington seems to be advocating something like Brueggemann’s Typology of Function Approach although this is not considered. Throughout the book, the psalms are consistently viewed as poetry and the New Testament writers are judged to have appropriately developed and interpreted them in the light of the Jesus Event. Witherington’s exploration of the nuances of such interpretation heads of some of some dangerously naive approaches of reading the psalms. In a similar vein the appropriation of the imprecatory psalms is handled with care as Witherington explores these psalms as the words of those struggling in prayer and at times voicing prayers at odds with Jesus’ teaching.

There is still a question in my mind about the use of the five-fold structure of the Psalter. At one point (p.319), Witherington sounds either disappointed or surprised that he has not really found any clear difference in the use made of the psalms in the five books by the New Testament authors. I would have liked to have seen some clearer conclusions about Witherington’s findings in the light of different interpretive paradigms of the psalms but this is perhaps unfair given the scope of this book and the series to which it belongs.



Exodus: Apollos Old Testament Commentary

Exodus: Apollos Old Testament Commentary, Desmond Alexander, London: Apollos, 2017. xxpp. 764pp. hb, £39.99, ISBN 978-1-78359-434-4 / $45.00, ISBN 978-0-8308-2502-8

IVP kindly supplied a copy of this book for review. For those unfamiliar with the Apollos Old Testament Commentary series, its stated aim is to combine rigorous academic commentary with interpretation for the contemporary evangelical church. In this specific volume ahead of the commentary proper, is a 32 page introduction to the Book of Exodus. The opening section on ‘the exodus story’ (pp.1–4) provides a helpful and insightful statement of the theological purpose of the Book of Exodus. For Alexander, Exodus 15:17 is an especially important verse. He understands it as crystallising the idea that the exodus of the people of God from Egypt is a preparation of Israel at one mountain (Sinai) in anticipation of dwelling with God before another (Zion) in the Promised Land. Alexander helpfully stresses the breadth of the nature of salvation portrayed in Exodus. He outlines its motifs of redemption from slavery, purification, ransom from death and sanctification. Three short sections orientate Exodus within (i) its literary context, i.e. Genesis to Kings, (ii) the rest of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible, (iii) the New Testament. The differences of opinion as to the structure of the book are usefully outlined and the author concludes that chapter 18 (Jethro’s visit to Moses) is a ‘hinge’ between chapters 1–17 (Israel’s escape from captivity) and 19–40 (Israel’s covenants with Yahweh).

A large section of the Introduction is concerned with the relationship between the Book of Exodus and history. Alexander outlines the archaeological evidence for an exodus of people from Egypt with regard to its correspondence with the Book of Exodus. Alexander does not advocate a definite date for the events described in Exodus, pointing to the lack of evidence, especially with regard to the conquest of Canaan. Some readers, even those of an Evangelical stance, might feel that Alexander has been too accepting of even the finest details of the account of Exodus—his approach is not especially sympathetic too approaches that privilege literary form over historicity.  Alexander appears to favour an early date for the events described in the book of Exodus but he recognises that certainty is not possible based on the limits of both text and archaeology. The Introduction concludes with a postponement of any decision about the route of the Exodus until the commentary proper and some comments on the text of the book.

I found navigating the main body of the commentary frustrating at times as the major section headings and occasional excurses are not listed in the contents page. Each of the smaller textual units is examined in five sections:

  • Translation: Alexander’s own translation of the verses is presented. This translation is fluent and engaging.
  • Notes on the text: The rationale behind the choice of key words and phrases made in the translation is presented and important textual variants are discussed. All of the Hebrew is transliterated and important matters of grammar explained at length.
  • Form and structure: The textual unit is explored at length. Here Alexander is especially helpful in justifying the reason for the identification of the specific verses as a unit and the relationship of the unit to other parts of Exodus. A key strength is the thorough exploration of intertextual relationships of the unit with the rest of Scripture, especially the Book of Genesis.
  • Comment: It is here that the passage in unfolded in detail in a verse-by-verse manner. The focus remains tightly upon the passage in its original context.
  • Explanation: In this section, Alexander helps the reader start the interpretive journey from ‘then’ to ‘now’. It is here that the passage is engaged with theologically and Alexander puts the passage into New Testament perspective. This step is helpful for the preacher and is the most distinctive feature of this commentary (and indeed the series) compared to some other full-length technical commentaries. This reader found these sections to be helpful ‘points of departure’.

In its entirety this commentary makes two theses as to how the Book of Exodus should be handled. The first thesis is methodological and is, perhaps surprisingly, not made readily apparent in the Introduction. The second is theological and central to Alexander’s understanding of the whole book. In turn these two theses are:

  1. The enterprise of source criticism in its documentary and fragmentary forms has been rather unfruitful. This is not because Alexander rules out complex textual development per se, but rather classic source criticism has not found anything like scholarly consensus. Indeed, time-and-again Alexander shows that literary units are just that, units, and programmatic efforts to dissect them are sterile exercises which are unwarranted. The commentary would have been a lot shorter without the consideration of the possibilities afforded by source critical approaches and some more conservative readers might have welcomed their omission. However, these sections taken together provide a thoroughgoing challenge to anyone pursuing the source critical approach for understanding the Pentateuch.
  2. At the outset (pp.1–2) points out the role of Mount Sinai in Exodus as a preparation for living with Mount Zion in the, to quote Alexander, the ‘land flowing with milk and syrup’. This approach is both nuanced and compelling.

To conclude, the identification of these two theses makes this commentary not only a very good technical commentary on the Book of Exodus but ensures it makes specific methodological and theological contributions to the scholarship on what is a pivotal text of the Hebrew Bible. In summary, anyone wanting a rigorous and thoroughgoing examination of Exodus from a stance of Christian faith will find what they need in this latest addition to the Apollos Commentary series.



Book Review, Part 2—The Psalter as Witness: Theology, Poetry and Genre

This is the second, and final, part of this review of The Psalter as Witness: Theology, Poetry and Genre, Dennis Tucker, Jr. and W. H. Bellinger, Jr. (editors), Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2017. 216pp. hb. $49.95, ISBN 978-1-4813-0556-3

Part 2: Theological Themes in the Psalms

Human Transience, Justice and Mercy: Psalm 103, Johannes Schnocks

In this contribution Schnocks uses a combination of approaches which consider both the shape of the Psalter (synchronic methods) and the shaping of the psalms (diachronic approaches) to explore the nature of divine mercy in Psalm 103. He does this by considering the theme of human transience raised in Psalm 90 (the first psalm of Book 4). Psalms 102 and 103 are seen to deepen the intermediate position proposed in Psalm 92. This ongoing dialogue provides a firm context within which Psalm 103 articulates the nature of the forgiveness of sins offered by YHWH. Schnocks shows how the three strophes (vv.6–10, vv.11–13 and vv.14–18), at the heart of the psalm, present a theology of divine mercy which is a rich reflection on God’s nature and his covenant relationship with Israel. This chapter is not only interesting in its own right but it also provides a helpful illustration of the potential for exploring the dialogue between the psalms made visible by synchronic approaches which recognise the shape of the Psalter.


The God of Heaven in Book 5 of the Psalter, W. Dennis Tucker Jr.

Zion Theology has long been recognised as a central theme of the Psalter. Zion Theology is explored helpfully in terms of its key motifs and with awareness that it underwent a shift in emphasis, albeit not a straightforward linear one. The spatial nature of the language in Book 5 which refers to YHWH is explored. Tucker also examines the fivefold use of the phrase ‘maker of heaven and earth’ in Book 5, noting that it is not found in the other four books. The use of this term, almost an appellation, is part of a shift in Zion Theology necessitated by the destruction of the First Temple. The evidence in Book 5 is shown to point to the term ‘God of Heaven’ becoming increasingly important in the light of defending the inviolability of Zion. Interestingly, despite YWHW’s identification as ‘God of Heaven’ the psalmists who wrote and edited Book 5 testify to the nearness of God. Indeed the motif of ‘God of Heaven’ is used in a manner consistent with YHWH as ‘Divine King [who] will intervene into the history of his threatened people’ [pp.98–9).


The Theology of the Poor in the Psalter, Johannes Bremer

Bremer opens by identifying what he sees as five threads of thought that run through the Psalter from a synchronic perspective. One of these is a theology of the poor. It would have been helpful at the outset for more to be said concerning what features of the psalms can be said to constitute a theology of the poor. Notwithstanding this point, Bremer shows that a theology of the poor is a key concept within the first David Psalter (Pss.3–41) in that each of the recently recognised four sections concludes with a psalm (Pss. 14, 24, 34 and 41) within which various elements constitute a theology of the poor. With reference to the work of Hossfeld he argues that the second Davidic Psalter mirrors this theology of the poor. He also points out that all of these Davidic psalms are from a perspective of close familiarity with the poor. This is not the case, however, with the Asaphite psalms in which there is a clear distance between the psalmist and the poor. The theology of the poor in Book 5 is rather uneven. The theme is all but absent from the Psalms of Ascents but important in the various Hallelujah/Hallel psalms (Pss. 104–106, 111–113, 115–117 and 146–150). The chapter closes with a brief outline of the diachronic explanation of the synchronic whole with which the chapter has been largely concerned.


The Elohistic Psalter: Formation and Purpose, Frank-Lothar Hossfeld

The chapter commences with a helpful reminder that Herman Gunkel was not only concerned with form criticism but devoted some attention to the formation of the Psalter. In particular he attempted to explain the existence and nature of the Elohistic Psalter (Pss. 42–83) with which Hossfeld is concerned. Hossfeld suggests that Gunkel was unwise to attempt to account for the shape of the Psalter by giving so much attention to its middle. Hossfeld briefly sketches the legacy of Gunkel’s account of the Elohistic Psalter before favouring some recent studies that have provided alternative explanations for the use of divine names in the Elohistic Psalter. He concludes that the Elohistic Psalter is part of the middle of the story of the shaping of the psalms as well as the middle of the Psalter. More specifically he suggests that its origin lies with the activities of the Asaphites who edited the second Davidic Psalter, as well as some of the Korahite psalms, namely Pss. 42–49. The chapter concludes by building on this with the very specific evidence from (i) two parallel psalm pairs: Pss. 14/53 and 40:14–18/70 , (ii) the inclusion of the second David Psalter (Pss. 69–71), (iii) the content of the second part of the Korahite Psalter (Pss. 84–85, 86–89). By way of conclusion the argument is drawn together with regard to the implications for an understanding of the formation of the Psalter.


The Elohistic Psalter: History and Theology, Joel S. Burnett

This chapter functions as something like a sequel to the previous one. Burnett considers three theological emphases of the Elohistic Psalter. The first, and most obvious, is the preference for the divine name Elohim which seeks to shroud YHWH in mystery whilst simultaneously identifying him as the deity behind other divine names. The second is the clear presentation of the supremacy of Israel’s God among the other gods. Burnett argues that this is not just a static theme, but one that culminates climatically in the penultimate Elohistic psalm (Psalm 82), in the portrayal of the divine council and Elohim’s superiority over its members. The third emphasis is the portrayal of divine judgement on earth as in heaven. In this way a hope is described whereby the calamitous events of Exile can be reversed. With these three themes in mind, Burnett considers how the first Korahite collection (Pss. 42–49) provides a lead-in to the Elohisitc Asaph-David collection and the second Korahite collection (Pss. 84–85, 87–88) cogently follows this literary unit. At a later stage he suggests that Psalms 2 and 89 were added to foster the joining of  the first Davidic Psalter to the Elohistic Psalter.


Part 3: Genre and Theology

The Psalter as a Book: Genre as Key to its Theology, Egbert Ballhorn

Ballhorn starts by recognising both the innovation, and yet also the limits, of Gunkel’s form criticism (Gattungskritik). In particular he laments the effort of some commentators in the 1920s to reorder the psalms. The revolution created by the recognition of the literary character of the psalms as a Psalter is celebrated before he moves on to consider the Psalter’s ouverture. Psalms 1–3 are explored as this ouverture, although rather surprisingly there is no mention of Robert Cole’s 2013 monograph on these psalms: Psalms 1–2: Gateway to the Psalter. Ballhorn helpfully adds further insight as to how these first psalms function as a hermeneutical lens by recognising how Psalms 1 and 2 connect with the language of the Pentateuch (Psalm 1) and that of the Latter Prophets (Psalm 2). Psalm 3 is also singled out as the first of the psalms that conforms to the expectation of what constitutes a typical psalm. In this way Ballhorn sees the first three psalms as teaching readers that addressing God in prayer is only possible by building on the twin pillars of torah and trust in the promise of God’s anointed seated in Zion.


Genre, Theology, and the God of the Psalms, Rolf Jacobson

This final chapter, rather appropriately, considers what sort of God it is that the psalms testify to. More specifically the ‘prayers of help’ (individual laments) and Royal Psalms are used to answer this question. Jacobson is aware that some scholars, such as Gerstenberger, view such an enterprise as impossible; decrying the possibility of a singular theology of the psalms—Gerstenberger famously speaks of theologies of the psalms, in no small measure because for him the pursuit of Sitz im Leben eclipses more recent canonical endeavours. In examining the ‘prayers for help’, God’s impassibility and immutability in terms of his being, character and election of Israel is first recognised. At the same time the psalms also assert, however, that when it comes to  more specific actions for Israel and for the individual, God ‘is far from impassible’ [p.175]. The election of Israel in the Royal Psalms is considered by first noting the rich semantic field within the Hebrew Bible which is not fully echoed in the psalms. What the psalms do is rather more specific. They focus on the election of specific people, most notably David. These two threads come together in witnessing that YHWH is a God of  relationships—he hears the cries of the weak and is in covenant with Israel, releasing his people’s divine purpose.


Final Comments

Edited books of this type can often feel rather haphazard but here the twelve contributions have been shaped together well. This results in a sense of common endeavour among the twelve contributors to collectively advance the canonical approach. For me two of the contributions stand out because they not only make the most of the new canonical consensus but they have wider theological promise too. The first is Brack Reid’s paper which offers some interesting possibilities and potential for reading the psalms Davidically in terms of a theology of suffering. The second is Bremer’s contribution on a theology of suffering. These two also cohere in terms of their focus. Several other contributions remind the reader that a theology of the poor is a key concern of the Psalter.

So to conclude this volume is highly recommended to advanced students and scholars with either an interest in the Psalter or the interplay between synchronic and diachronic approaches to the Hebrew Bible / Old Testament. A knowledge of Hebrew is necessary to get the best from most of the contributions and the collection. This contribution indicates that the synchronic approach has reached a level of genuine maturity and consensus. Undoubtedly scholars still have much to explore. There is also a vital need to ensure that the broad insights of the new consensus can be appropriated within the Church to enable the Psalter to function fully as life-transforming Scripture.



Book Review, Part 1—The Psalter as Witness: Theology, Poetry and Genre

The Psalter as Witness: Theology, Poetry and Genre, Dennis Tucker, Jr. and W. H. Bellinger, Jr. (editors), Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2017. 216pp. hb. $49.95, ISBN 978-1-4813-0556-3

At the outset I would like to thank Baylor Press for their willingness to not only supply a review copy of this book but to send it across the Atlantic to the UK.

The title of this volume bears testimony to the new scholarly consensus on the nature of the biblical psalms. Probably the majority of scholars now recognise the biblical psalms as a Psalter—that is they comprise a book shaped with intent and purpose. All twelve contributions in this edited volume, to a greater or lesser extent, explore the implications of such a canonical approach. This book is also the proceedings from the Baylor University‒University of Bonn Symposium on the Psalter. This origin signals that this is a technical work which will appeal largely to advanced students and scholars of the Hebrew Bible.

The volume starts with a rather brief introduction which explains the rationale behind the book and the purpose of the symposium from which it originated. The twelve contributions that follow are organised into three groups. The rest of this two-part review records these three headings and the chapter headings so as to aid the interested reader in assessing the scope and content of the book.

Part 1: Theological Approaches to the Psalms

Poetry and Theology in the Psalms: Psalm 133, W. H. Bellinger Jr.

Despite its focus on just one of the Psalter’s very shortest psalms, this chapter provides an excellent point of departure for the volume. Bellinger follows Zenger’s articulation of Psalm 133’s structure. This structure is helpful from the outset in showing how the individual elements come together to make a whole which is greater than the sum of its parts. Bellinger’s exegesis and theological reflection make a compelling case for Psalm 133’s rich claims about community as a place for divine blessing. This nuanced meaning which arises from the psalm’s structure is all the more poignant when compared to the thin interpretations that can arise if verse 1 is allowed to eclipse the rich imagery and the closing blessing of the psalm.

Feminine Imagery and Theology in the Psalter: Psalms 90, 91, and 92, Nancy DeClaissé-Walford

This second chapter also focuses on the rich imagery of the Psalter. With the purpose of ensuring the psalms speak to all, DeClaissé-Walford examines the imagery for God which challenges the all too common absolutizing use of the central image of Yahweh as king. The role of imagery which concerns wombs, mother hens and weaning is considered along with the centrality of wisdom—the Hebrew Bible of course conceives Wisdom as feminine. More specifically it is argued that Psalms 90‒92 are not only a literary whole, but that there is a feminine voice which can be heard in these three psalms.

“Who is Like the Lord Our-God?”: Theology and Ethics in the Psalms, Harry P. Nasuti

The rich possibilities afforded by the canonical approach come to the fore in this contribution. Psalm 113 is examined from different canonical perspectives, as part of the Hallelujah triad, Pss.111‒113, and as the opening psalm of the Hallel Psalms (Pss.113‒118). Nasuti also considers wider intertextual connections with the Book of Job and with Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel chapter 2. In this way the potential of the canonical approach to enable individual psalms to come to life with theological and ethical challenge in the present is showcased. For Psalm 113 this is specifically ‘a full-bodied act of praise’ [p.45] which goes beyond praise and is a call to imitate God.

David and the Political Theology of the Psalter, Stephen Breck Reid

Like the previous chapter this fourth contribution makes much of the possibilities enabled by a canonical approach. The underlying presupposition here is that the shaping of the Psalter by the Yahwistic community reflected a ‘dangerous memory of David’. Breck Reid argues that this memory was ‘an anti-imperial metaphor for political agency’. This is helpfully acknowledged as essentially a working hypothesis. Most of this contribution is concerned with examining various Royal Psalms and paying careful attention to their position within the fivefold Psalter. This approach makes sense of the David who is ‘both the architect and patron of the Jerusalem temple and liturgy as well as the exemplar of the suffering penitent’ [p.49]. His proposal concerning David as cipher is certainly richer than Gerald Wilson’s rather rigid role for David which was a key part of the initial canonical movement.

Spatial Theory and Theology in Psalms 46‒48, Till Magnus Steiner

This chapter commences with an exploration of Psalm 48 where Magnus Steiner makes the case for the existence of a dominant pre-exilic base to which vv. 8, 10‒12 and 14b (versification as per the Hebrew text) have been added at a later date. This opening typifies the approach adopted in this chapter in which though the explanation is rational, but it is difficult to entertain that it is the most likely of many possibilities that might explain the final form of these three psalms. There seems little doubt that Psalms 46, 47 and 48 were intentionally placed together because of their Zion Theology. It is also quite possible that they were edited to make their connection clearer. The tendentious application of spatial theory proposed here demonstrates that the canonical approach does not escape from one of the frustrations of the more traditional historical critical methods, namely the seemingly endless proposal of rival theories.


Part 2, in which chapters 6–12 are reviewed and some final comments are made, will follow soon.

Book Review: The Spy, the Rat and the Bed of Nails

Mark Roques, The Spy, the Rat and the Bed of Nails: Creative Ways of Talking about Christian Faith, Leeds: Thinking Faith 2017.

ISBN 978-0-9957572-0-2, 182pp., £8.99

Many books are available on Christian apologetics but very few focus on communicating faith. Mark Roques recognises this and encourages us to try something that we might just be able to do. His project is no intellectual programme to out-think militant atheism nor is it an unrealistically intensive evangelistic programme—this is human-centred and culture-centred storytelling. It focuses on the act of storytelling that people do every day, the need for narrative that Jesus shows to be the way that human beings communicate. Few people will ever be persuaded to undergo the paradigm shift to Christian faith on the basis of intellectual apologetics. The drip feed of new ways to look at reality that comes from storytelling, on the other hand, has a hope of penetrating the wall that modern Westerners build around themselves.

Mark Roques Book

This book not only promotes a great way forward in how we can share our faith it does it in a highly engaging fashion. Despite being a short book it has a solid underpinning intellectual depth and rigour. This necessary background is however put over as engagingly as the stories Roques encourages us to share. The core call of this book is to see the culture we live in as a resource, a common language for us to use in creative dialogue with others. In this way James Bond can become an ally as we talk about our faith and show others they too have a faith, albeit in things other than Jesus. Roques knows that Bond won’t work for everyone and to this end the variety of ideas to inform our storytelling is remarkable. Who would have thought that Ivan the Terrible, Glenn Hoddle, Anna Nicole Smith and the Duke of Edinburgh would be such vital assets to our endeavours in personal evangelism?

The Spy, the Rat and the Bed of Nails can be purchased here: http://thinkfaith.net/realitybites/spy-rat-nails

The Cambridge Companion to The Hebrew Bible/Old Testament: A Review, Part 3

This is the third and final part of my review of the Cambridge Companion to the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. The fifth and final part of the book which looks at the reception and use of the HB/OT is the most uneven part of this volume. The first three chapters sit together well, although all three authors are tightly constrained in their respective efforts to capture the significance of the HB/OT to a major world religion. The next two essays, which focus on two aspects of cultural reception, are even more limited by the required chapter length. Despite this, all five of these contributions are engaging and highly informative. It is, in my view, Goldingay’s closing chapter which is the real gem in this section—this essay is excellent in its own right as well as providing an appropriate conclusion to the volume.

Each of the final six chapters is reviewed below. By way of conclusion some final comments are made about the book as a whole.


Part V: Reception and use

Chapter 18: The Hebrew Bible in Judaism (Frederick E. Greenspahn, Florida Atlantic University)

The centrality of the Hebrew Bible to Jewish liturgy and the key annual Jewish festivals is outlined. The centrality of the HB in everyday life is also helpfully unpacked. Greenspahn goes on to argue that despite this centrality many Jewish practices are not derived from the Bible. Because much Jewish practice originated with rabbinic traditions that took shape centuries after the writing of the HB texts, the ‘relationship between Judaism and the Bible is therefore more complicated than we usually acknowledge’ [p.377]. Interestingly Goldingay explores a similar point in the final chapter. The rabbis explained the origin of much of their praxis with reference to an ‘Oral Torah’ which existed in parallel with the Pentateuch (the written Torah). This ‘Oral Torah’ is identified as the source of some of the Talmud (comprising the Mishna and discussions of the Mishna). Greenspahn explores the changing understanding of the nature of the authority of the HB and traditions surrounding the origin and nature of the Torah. The chapter concludes with the recognition that in recent decades many Jewish scholars have joined the academic field of biblical studies. This development is central to the core aim of collaboration stated at the outset of this volume.


Chapter 19: The Old Testament in Christianity (R. W. L. Moberly, Durham University)

Moberly opens by recognising the impossibility of the task to resolve the precise role of the OT within Christianity. This difficulty is, according to Moberly, all the more reason to wrestle with the complex issues which converge on interpreting the very nature of these texts, as well as their relationship to the New Testament. Much of the complexity arises because of the need to account for the difference that Jesus’ death and resurrection makes to appropriating the OT. Over two millennia, Christian interpreters have had very different approaches. Harnack, for example, wanted the OT to be given the same status as the Apocrypha. This has never been a major view—most churches and theologians have favoured a more nuanced relationship which preserves the OT’s canonical status. It is noted that some more programmatic solutions, such as Bultmann’s, produce a very ‘thin’ Christianity.

Moberly helpfully points out that the consequences of re-reading the OT were a central development of Christianity from the outset. This is helpfully illustrated in the very distinct way that Matthew reports Jesus words about the OT compared with his own ideas regarding the Hebrew Scriptures. In a similar way, early Christians appropriated the Shema as a central text as it is in Judaism but made it their own by focusing on its theological claim (Deut. 6:4‒5) rather than the praxis which it promotes (Deut. 6:6‒9). Moberly concludes with a sensitive and constructive reflection on Jesus-centred hermeneutics.


Chapter 20: The Hebrew Bible in Islam (Walid A. Saleh, University of Toronto)

Saleh’s point of departure is the earliest Islamic creed preserved in the Qur’an which asks Muslims to uphold the Scripture of Judaism. What this upholding might mean in detail proves to be a complex story. An initial complication is just how much of the Hebrew Bible might be in mind—the Torah and beyond? Only the Torah? Part of the Torah? There is also something of a duality in that the Qur’an also claims that the Jews have tampered with their Scripture. The Qur’an is frequently delimited with reference to the Torah (and the gospels)—Jews have the Torah, Christians have the Gospel and in the Qur’an Arabs have their Scripture [p.410]. The whole picture is, however, more complex given the Qur’an’s doubt about veracity of the HB—an example is the claim that the HB foretold Mohammad but these references have been tampered with.

In the medieval period, four positions emerged as to the nature and extent of this tampering with the Torah. One extreme is that the whole Torah is falsified and it has nothing of its divine character left. The opposite view is that it is only the hermeneutical lens through which the Torah is interpreted which is the problem. Despite this debate, the HB became very much part of the Islamic tradition as the Qur’an contains stories of key figures such as Adam, Noah, Abraham and Moses. Islam has traditionally looked to the HB’s accounts, for example the ‘Israelite material’ filled in background matters with reference to the Torah. Saleh refers to the work of al-Biqa’i c.1457 CE who demonstrated critical textual skills ahead of his time in using the Hebrew original to inform criticism of three Arabic versions. This is an example of a highly positive approach to the HB in which the Muslim scholar can use it, albeit under the authority of the Qur’an. More recent scholarship has sometimes taken Christian higher criticism and used it to cast doubt on the integrity of the HB.


Chapter 21: The Hebrew Bible in art and literature (David Lyle Jeffrey, Baylor University)

The point of departure for this essay is the tension between the prohibition concerning ‘graven’ images (Exodus 20:4) and the positive recognition of various artistic endeavours as God-inspired (Exodus 31:1‒5). The implications have been felt in the cultures influenced by Jewish and Christian thought. Although nothing survives of the earliest synagogues, from the fourth century ornate mosaic floors are known and from later still manuscripts survive which are highly ornate. These testify to the importance of aesthetics in Jewish worship, although the detail is informed by a mixing of both the HB and other cultures. The extent of medieval Christian art is so large that if defies succinct summary but numerous scenes from the HB are used extensively, often in a distinctively Christian manner. For example, Abraham’s three visitors frequently echo the doctrine of the Trinity.

The HB has had a major influence on poetry from the medieval period onwards. In the medieval period many poems retold classic biblical narratives. Later poetry, such as that of Milton, went further in developing not just the biblical stories but supplying new narrative to more fully develop a theology. The HB was very prominent in Renaissance painting onwards. Over the centuries the artist’s use of the subject matter of the HB has shifted. For example, paintings of Bathsheba bathing can make any number of theological or moral points and can result in pieces of work which are beautiful (Rembrandt’s 1654 Bathsheba) or plainly erotic (Rubens 1635 Bathsheba at the Fountain). The chapter rounds off with an appropriate celebration of the work of Marc Chagall.


Chapter 22: The Old Testament in public: the Ten Commandments. Evolution, and Sabbath closing laws (Nancy J. Duff, Princeton Theological Seminary)

This chapter is especially focused on the USA. Whilst some of the issues surrounding the use of the OT in public are generic to other countries, much of the argument is concerned with the specific role of the US constitution in this regard. This essay has a limited appeal to those whose primary concern lies outside the US.

The essay opens with a concern about how well known the detailed content of either the OT or the US constitution is among the general populace. The First Amendment of the Constitution is outlined as key to understanding the three issues examined in this chapter. In particular the prohibition against the enactment of any law that seeks to establish a particular religion (The Establishment Clause) and the right for any citizen to exercise any religion freely (The Free Exercise Clause). The posting of the Ten Commandments in public is considered first. Duff urges caution about the value of the public display of the Ten Commandments in isolation from the prologue (Exodus 20:2) that makes their origin clear. The 1925 Scopes trial is used illustrate the way in which evolution has been handled in public debate in the US. The danger of seeing God primarily as an explanation for the scientifically inexplicable—the so-called god of the gaps—is lamented. There is a very real risk that this approach relegates God to the margins of life rather than showing his centrality to life. In the final section, Duff argues that Sabbath regulation risks undermining the spirit of freedom and joy which should accompany Sabbath. In fact strict Sabbath regulation makes people US citizens first and foremost and Christians second. Duff suggests that there should be greater emphasis on the issues of social justice; that all have a right to rest, and worship, if and when they wish.


Chapter 23: The Theology of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament (John Goldingay, Fuller Theological Seminary)

This final chapter provides an appropriate conclusion to this volume. Goldingay’s effortless narrative introduces the theology of the HB/OT via key theologians of the past century but cuts to the chase about the challenge of handling the HB/OT with the care it deserves. Walter Eichrodt’s work is eloquently captured in terms of its promise but also its pitfalls. In this way a key element is established for the rest of the chapter—unlike Eichrodt we will look to view the big picture that emerges from the OT rather than any singular system which underlies it. Goldingay steps from Eichrodt to introduce YHWH, Israel and the World as a triptych within the OT narrative. Von Rad is introduced as the theologian who both emphasised the diversity of Israel’s faith and highlighted the gap between the OT and history. Goldingay then introduces two theologians who have handled von Rad’s legacy in distinctly different ways. Childs’ canonical approach is outlined—Childs not only wants to focus on the final form of the biblical books but wants their present religious value to be central to the hermeneutical endeavour. Brueggemann sees things differently, wanting to avoid any tendency of Christian assimilation of the OT. He does this by developing a thoroughgoing literary and rhetorical approach which pays special attention to the sociological implications of the HB/OT texts.

At one level Goldingay suggests that both Christian and Jewish interpreters have shared something in their respective use of the HB/OT—Christians see it through the lens of the New Testament and Jews see it through the Mishnah and Talmud. On the smaller scale of the individual too, even the most faithful interpreters have much to learn from others. How else can we hope to perceive our own all too prevalent myopia?


Final Comments on the Whole Volume

The twenty-three contributions in this volume come together well to provide a thoroughgoing introduction to the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. I would have liked to have seen a broader and more balanced range of contributors in terms of both gender and cultural background—and like all books of this type it has the typical expected unevenness. This said all of the contributions broadly do what is expected from their respective titles and their place in the volume. As with all multivolume works some chapters stand out, but this can be in part due to the taste and interests of the reader. I have singled out what I judge to be the highlights.

Anyone using this volume as an ongoing reference will be pleased to known that the Index is highly comprehensive, running to some 43 pages. For many the faith stances of its authors will also make it attractive—virtually all of the contributors seem sympathetic to the ongoing religious role of the HB/OT rather than seeing it as only a cultural artefact. The quality and scope of this volume at what is a reasonable price make this hard to beat.

You might also be interested in my earlier review of John Barton’s (ed.) The Hebrew Bible: A Critical Companion. This edited volume which in many ways covers very similar ground has a broader range of contributors than he Cambridge Companion.


The Cambridge Companion to The Hebrew Bible/Old Testament: A Review, Part 2

This is the second part of a three-part review of the Cambridge Companion to The Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, the first part can be found here.

This post covers the nine chapters which cover the key subcollections and genres of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament (HB/OT).

Part IV: Subcollections and genres

Chapter 9: The Pentateuch and Israelite law (Thomas B. Dozeman, United Theological Seminary)

Dozeman begins by demarcating Genesis’ distinctiveness from the other four books of the Pentateuch and also noting the differences between Genesis 1‒11 and 12‒50. Deuteronomy is also distinguished from Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers—the latter three concerning the first generation of Israelites and Deuteronomy the second generation. This provides a helpful orientation ahead of a survey of approaches to the Pentateuch which occupies most of this chapter. The need for critical interpretation to explain the repetition of narrative episodes and laws is flagged as a key goal.

The emergence of Wellhausen’s documentary hypothesis is sensitively traced through Calvin, Spinoza, Astruc and de Wette. Challenges to the documentary hypothesis are examined and include a variety of issues such as the likely role of oral tradition and the antiquity of ancient Near Eastern legal traditions. Alternatives to the documentary hypothesis which can account for repetitions of narratives and laws in terms of literary devices are outlined. These include the idea that competing laws are actually placed in dialogue with each other. The chapter concludes with the emerging consensus that redactors, rather than identifiable sources, are the basis for an appropriate understanding the origin of the Pentateuch, or perhaps better still the Enneateuch—i.e. Genesis through to Kings).

Chapter 10: The Former Prophets and historiography (Richard D. Nelson, Southern Methodist University)

The point of departure for this chapter is a brief summary of the intertextuality between the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings with the book of Deuteronomy. Nelson explains that the interconnections reveal an overall unification between these books whilst at the same time each book still is very much a self-contained literary unit. This leads into a clear concise explanation of how scholars have explained the intertextuality of the Former Prophets and Deuteronomy in terms of a Deuteronomistic History. How this idea has evolved over some 80 years, or so, is sketched. This is done well, with a wealth of detailed information presented with a clarity that avoids overwhelming the reader. This chapter picks up on key aspects of earlier contributions regarding literary approaches and the nature of history. Nelson sketches four aspects of historiography which he argues mean that modern historians should use the former prophets with care. The chapter rounds off with a brief sketch of each of the four former prophets and Nelson’s judgement about each one’s veracity as a historical source. This chapter avoids discussion concerning the religious value of these texts.

Chapter 11: The Latter Prophets and prophecy (Marvin A. Sweeney, Claremont School of Theology)

The Latter Prophets—Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and The Twelve—are set in the context of the ancient Near East where prophets function by attempting ‘to persuade people to follow the divine will’ [p.233]. The ubiquity of prophets in this cultural milieu is outlined along with the various means by which they claimed to discern the divine will. Little is said of the relationship between the named prophets and the literary pieces that bear their names. Sweeney points out that recent scholarship has emphasised treating these texts synchronically, after earlier work which focused on their diachronic development. An example of the significance of this seed change is the different reading which arises from seeing Isaiah as a coherent piece rather than as three separate texts. A synchronic focus does not deny a complex textual series of events but seeks to give priority to the final form. In a similar way Sweeney argues for a synchronic reading of Ezekiel showing that attempts to separate chapters 40‒48 are ill conceived. Notwithstanding the challenge of the different order of The Twelve in the Masoretic Text and the Septuagint, Sweeney argues for the value of seeing The Twelve as a single text. In this way intertextual features take on greater depth, an example being Isaiah’s oracle from Isaiah 2:2‒4 which is echoed at the start (Joel 3:9‒11), the middle (Micah 4:1‒5) and end (Zechariah 8:20‒23) of The Twelve. This chapter concludes by recognising the importance of the Latter Prophets in sustaining both Jews and Christians in a world which serves up plenty of exile-like experiences.

Chapter 12: The Psalms and Hebrew poetry (William P. Brown, Columbia Theological Seminary)

After a brief nod to the magnitude of the challenge of exploring the Psalter in a short chapter, let alone all Hebrew poetry, Brown captures the key features of Hebrew verse. He helpfully rehearses the immense challenge of (i) The Psalms’ preference for terseness, and (ii) the difficulty that scholars have had in defining the nature of the parallelism of Hebrew poetry. Brown uses Lowth’s three-fold terminology of synonymous, antithetical and synthetic parallelism, but concludes with today’s consensus that there is more artistry and beauty to parallelism that this system can capture. Brown is judicious in his treatment of the various scholarly shifts that have taken place in how best to handle the psalms. He points to the value and limits of form-critical work and neatly captures the important performative nature of the psalms by sketching Mowinckel’s and Brueggemann’s very different but monumental contributions to scholarship on the function of the psalms. This is followed by a similarly concise but highly instructive presentation of the collections of psalms found within the Psalter. This is a prelude to asking about the shape and shaping of the final Book of Psalms. The final sections look at the anthropological and theological dimensions of the Psalter.

Chapter 13: Wisdom (Samuel E. Balentine, Union Presbyterian Seminary, Richmond, VA)

Wisdom is defined as the effort of Israel’s sages to pursue a ‘pragmatic quest for knowledge through rational inquiry and human reason’ [p.274]. Proverbs is chosen as an appropriate starting point. Its development over time is outlined. Whilst the details of this process are the subject of conjecture there can be little doubt about the length and complexity of the process—unlike much of the NB/OT this book is open about its composite nature. Lowth’s three-fold terminology of parallelism, introduced in the previous chapter, is shown to be at work in different parts of the Proverbs—for example, antithetical parallelism dominates Proverbs 10‒15. The twin settings of family and royal court are examined as backgrounds for the origin of various sayings and collections. These two settings cohere with the conservative nature of the book of Proverbs.

The book of Job is shown to reflect the conventional notion that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” whilst also questioning the status quo. Ecclesiastes is shown to go further in its questioning, both more vigorously and with a greater variety of approaches. This highly distinctive dynamic is demonstrated by considering Qoheleth’s terminology of “vanity” and “fate” as well as the language used to refer to the deity that portrays God as veiled and secret. This chapter succeeds in that a reader of any of these three books would be oriented rapidly for a fruitful engagement with these texts.

Chapter 14: Late historical books and rewritten history (Ehud Ben Zvi, University of Alberta)

National histories were apparently a unique feature of ancient Israel. In the two books with which this chapter is concerned—Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah—as well as those considered in earlier chapters, it is Israel and YHWH who are the two central characters. For Ben Zvi this first character is a theologically conceived Israel, with the implied author/s and readers being insiders. Both Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah are explored as national histories which create boundaries between those whose outlook coheres with the implied author/s and those hostile to their worldview. Despite this similarity and others, the two books differ markedly on the issue of boundaries with those outside the ‘lineage of Israel’. Specifically, Ezra-Nehemiah repeatedly invokes an argument centred on a holiness ideal which is hostile to ‘mixed marriage’. Ben Zvi considers why a tiny literate elite would want a second history. Various answers are given although none are especially compelling. What is clear is that scholars of a previous generation had unhelpfully marginalised Chronicles because of misplaced negativity about its inferiority as a historical source, a theological document and as literature. Although much less space is given to Ezra-Nehemiah an intriguing picture is painted of how this singular yet bifurcated text still puzzles scholars.

Chapter 15: The biblical short story (Lawrence M. Wills, Episcopal Divinity School, Cambridge, MA)

This chapter examines Genesis 37‒50 (the story of Joseph), Ruth, Jonah, the prose frame of Job, Esther, Daniel 1‒6, Susanna, Bel and the Dragon, Judith, Tobit and what Wills terms ‘the international Story of Ahikar’ (an Egyptian ‘novella’). To the reader unfamiliar with recent scholarship on biblical short stories this might seem a strangely eclectic mix. Wills quickly illustrates the rationale and value in considering these stories together. He provides a compelling sketch of the themes and the form that unites them. If Wills is correct in his analysis then many readings of these texts, both contemporary and historical, have failed to capture their most fundamental dynamics. The simple observation that they all operate on a theme of ‘innocents abroad’ [p.315] immediately indicates that there is a literary movement here. A key aspect of these novellas for Wills is that they are meant to be taken as fictional. He shows the evidence of this for each story. For Ruth he highlights features such as the artificial time (i.e. when the judges ruled), most names having a meaning critical to the story, coincidence plays a key role and the unusual role for dialogue. The case for the fictional dynamic of most of the other stories is even more compelling. He helpfully argues against the notion that character development is an innovation of the modern novel by showing its clear presence in Esther. For Wills the fictional dynamic is central, as is the downplaying of the direct role of God, to the entire purpose of these texts: ‘divine providence is not apparent in real life but is true nevertheless’ [p.326]. Whatever the reader makes of this chapter they will find it engaging and stimulating.

Chapter 16: Apocalyptic writings (Stephen L. Cook, Virginia Theological Seminary)

Cook opens with a working definition of apocalypticism and quickly moves on to establish the limited extent of such texts in the HB/OT. The texts which can be labelled as such are essentially early apocalyptic or protoapocalyptic. A helpful distinction is made between apocalyptic thinking and more mythological thought. The latter tends to be concerned with explaining the status quo whereas the former is expecting radical change and an ‘invasion by otherness’ [p.332]. Because of the limited corpus with which this contribution is concerned, Cook has more space and freedom than some other contributors in which to explore his specific scholarly insights. In particular he argues that a simplistic two-way connection between millennial groups and apocalyptic is not entirely helpful as apocalyptic thinking can be promoted in many diverse literary ways. He makes a compelling case that some scholars have been too hasty in equating apocalypticism as simply importing Persian thought. He shows that whilst there is an influence, it is a much more nuanced and the biblical authors and editors have made it their own. Building on this, he explores the idea of bodily resurrection at some length. He argues that this idea was present from at least 580 BCE, noting Ezekiel 37’s albeit metaphorical use of the idea. This is presented as a challenge to those who propose that resurrection is a late and foreign idea for the apocalyptic (and prophetic) biblical corpus.

Chapter 17: Deuterocanonical/apocryphal books (Sharon Pace, Marquette University)

This chapter opens with a reminder of the complexity surrounding these books. They have very different designations within Judaism, the Orthodox churches, the Catholic Church and the Protestant churches. The different terms by which these books are known arises from the different roles and level of authority ascribed to them in these four broad religious traditions. The notion of canon is briefly revisited so as to explain the date and relationship of these various texts with the Hebrew Bible main corpus. In detail this is done by revisiting the earliest testimonies to the number of books in the Hebrew Bible. The rest of the chapter paints a brief portrait of each of these various writings. In my view, this chapter will function best as a quick reference guide rather than reading in a single setting.


Together these nine chapters provide an excellent overview of the Subcollections and literary types found in the HB/OT. For me there are three chapters which stand out for the simple reason that they made me want to go and read the respective parts of the HB/OT. These are Brown on The Psalms and Hebrew poetry, Balentine on Wisdom and Wills on The biblical short story.



The Cambridge Companion to The Hebrew Bible/Old Testament: A Review

The Cambridge Companion to the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, Stephen B. Chapman and Marvin A. Sweeney (editors), New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016. 540pp. pb. £21.99, ISBN 978-0-521-70965-1.


I should declare at the outset that I was sent a review copy of this book by the publisher. This post is the first of three which review The Cambridge Companion to The Hebrew Bible/Old Testament at length. Each post looks at around one third of the volume.


This review follows the five-fold structure of this edited volume. Each of the twenty-three contributed chapters is reviewed. In the book’s introduction the two editors sketch the intended nature of the work around two main aims. The first aim is to show how a neutral interpretative stance is impossible given the nature of the object being explored. This explains the book’s title which sets side-by-side two different designations for the object of this study. The second aim, which coheres with the first, is to demonstrate that collaborative possibilities exist between scholars who have different presuppositions.

The editors seem a little defensive regarding this work’s diversity [p.3] and it is rather disappointing to discover that only three of the twenty-three contributors are women. The editors also acknowledge the lack of coverage of advocacy approaches. This deficit seems at odds with the second aim of the work. This said the editors clearly faced a challenge in ensuring the contributions would fit the one-volume format necessitated by the series.

Part I: Text and canon

The two chapters in this short opening Part work well together in laying out the challenges posed by the subject matter: Which texts are the subject of this book? How were they transmitted and preserved? What label should they be given?

Chapter 1: Texts, titles, and translations (James C. Vanderkam, University of Notre Dame)

The outline of textual sources follows the expected survey of the nature, age and veracity of the Masoretic Text (Hebrew), the Septuagint (Greek), the Samaritan Pentateuch (Hebrew consonantal text), the Peshitta (Syriac), the Vulgate (Latin) and the Targums (Aramaic). More recent sources such as the Dead Sea Scrolls and the questions they raise regarding the existence of minor and major textual variants are also explored. The almost universal privileging of the Masoretic Text is outlined by surveying the principles of textual criticism behind five major English language translations. This issue is crystallised in the handling of the two rival textual traditions of the book of Jeremiah—in Church tradition the longer but more recent text is preferred. This contradicts normal text-critical rules which favour age when establishing textual reliability.

Chapter 2: Collections, canons, and communities (Stephen B. Chapman, Duke University)

The second introductory chapter gives attention to the difficult question of just what the texts in question should be named. The various options—Old Testament, Hebrew Bible, First Testament, Jewish Scripture, Tanakh—are introduced at the outset so as to set out the nature of the challenge. The lack of any consensus on the meaning of terms such as scripture and canon is also rehearsed. After examining the difficulty of establishing anything approaching a consensus regarding the canon’s formation, the question of the name for these writings is considered as fully as space allows. Chapman sensitively outlines the value of the various terms as well as the potential for anachronism and sociological insensitivity. He defends the dual designation reflected in the volumes title. He also advocates faith-based scholarly reading but is aware of the possibility of sectarianism and urges the pursuit of dialogue. This chapter closes with a clear and helpful survey of the differences over which individual literary units are in the Hebrew Bible/The Old Testament (hereafter HB/OT) and the diverse order of these units in the Jewish, Protestant, Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox traditions.

Part II: Historical background

The three chapters in this section have been carefully demarcated so as to provide a clear development from history via religion to text. The clarity of this threefold content is welcome at one level—at another this section seems to continually hint at interpretative complexity and challenges without ever stating them.

Chapter 3: The ancient Near Eastern context (Kenton L. Sparks, Eastern University)

This chapter opens with an explanation of how scholarship has understood the relationship between the HB/OT and Near Eastern cultures, especially those of Mesopotamia. This has changed over two centuries, largely because of the shift in consensus regarding the dating of the writing of the HB/OT. The bulk of the chapter covers five time periods over which the ancient Near Eastern context had different influences upon Israel and the HB/OT:

  • 3000‒1200 BCE
  • 1200‒1000 BCE
  • 1000‒722 BCE
  • 722‒586 BCE
  • 586‒331 BCE.

The year 1200 BCE is around the time that archaeology reveals Israelite settlement in Palestine and the Transjordan and 1000 BCE is around the date of the reigns of Saul and David. The next two key dates are known with precision: 722 BCE is the date of the Assyrian conquest of the north and 586 BCE the date of Jerusalem’s fall to the Babylonians. 331 BCE marks Alexander’s conquest of Palestine and its neighbours. The highlighting of 331 BCE is puzzling as the fifth section also explores the subsequent Maccabean period. Given the considerable differences between the five time periods, this chapter seems to bite off more than it can fully chew.

Chapter 4: The history of Israelite religion (Brent A. Strawn, Emory University)

Strawn opens by unpacking the paradigm shift caused by modern archaeological work—in a few decades there has been a reversal from biblical privilege to a situation in which ‘ancient texts and cultures are now the source and judge of the Hebrew Bible’ [p.89]. Strawn then considers three fundamental questions about Israelite religion: What are its sources? What is its locus? What is its content? He explains that despite the paradigm shift a new consensus on how to handle the sources has not emerged. Much work still can be seen as either archaeological or ‘tradition historical’. He argues that the challenge is to make the ‘or’ an ‘and’. On the matter of content, Strawn explains that increasingly two complementary loci are considered: the ‘official’ religion and ‘popular’ religion. Though framed in different ways as evolutionary (folk to cult) or as a result of societal power play, the modern interpreter faces a complex hermeneutical task. Strawn advocates the recognition of multiple loci which requires even more nuance and care. Closely related to these considerations is the question of the place occupied by theology and practice/ritual in defining the content of Israelite religion. Strawn concludes with a plea to unite belief and practice as an approach coherent with the nature of the Hebrew Bible itself.

Chapter 5: The Hebrew Bible and history (Marc Zvi Brettler, Duke University)

In this contribution history is defined as ‘a depiction of the past’ [p.109]. This helpfully prevents the clash between recent critical definitions of history with the more complex goals of ancient historians. When it comes to the Bible specifically its account of history is, according to Brettler, ‘a narrative that presents a past’ [p.110]. Brettler proceeds to demonstrate the importance of the past to the biblical authors. This interest in how things were different in the past and how this affects the present is shown to be present throughout the whole HB/OT. Although this reflection on the past is pervasive the different types of literature depict the past differently. The challenge of prose accounts of the past is that they differ immensely in nature, and the reason for their preservation is often opaque. Some poetic texts do indicate why they are referring to the past, for example Psalm 78 explains that the Exodus is recounted so that future generations might have confidence in God.

This contribution concludes with an exploration of how the diverse accounts of the past function. These include explaining the present, justifying a specific political position and for religious purposes. Because of the uncertainty of authorial/editorial intention/s and the frequently large distance between events and text, Brettler concludes that caution is needed in using the HB/OT as a historical source. The implications of this for the contemporary religious reader is beyond the scope of this chapter.

Part III: Methods and approaches

In this third Part of the book it is clear that the contributors though experts within a specific methodology, are committed to a broad approach which uses the best historical-critical, sociological and literary approaches in tandem.

Chapter 6: Historical-critical methods (John J. Collins, Yale Divinity School)

The origin and breadth of historical-critical methods are explored at the outset. Much of the chapter then explores the principle of criticism, the principle of analogy and the principle of correlation, after Ernst Troeltsch. The principle of autonomy—assumed in historical-critical enquiry post-Kant—is added as a fourth principle which typifies these methods. The nature of historical-critical enquiry is appraised by considering its limits and its critics. Collins concludes that the rather individualistic principle of autonomy must take account of the social nature of knowledge. More significantly the principle of analogy ‘should be understood as a pragmatic guide rather than a metaphysical dogma’ [p.143]. Collins rounds off his contribution by indicating how literary approaches have enriched historical-critical methods in recent and contemporary scholarship.

Chapter 7: Social science models (Victor H. Matthews, Missouri State University)

Matthews explains the multifaceted nature of such approaches as including sociolinguistic, rhetorical, economic, political and social aspects. He argues that such approaches are an asset to interpretation for recovering what life was like in ancient times. The themes of ‘identity and kinship’ and ‘honor and shame’ are explored with numerous insightful nuggets used to illustrate the meaning and value of sociological approaches. The concept of spatiality, in terms of a culture’s recognised places in which society’s members function or conceptualise things is explored. The brevity of this section is frustrating; although the basic idea is explained well the specific concepts of Firstspace, Secondspace and Thirdspace remain less clearly developed. The chapter ends very abruptly with an outline of the nature of discourse analysis.

Chapter 8: Literary approaches to the Hebrew Bible (Adele Berlin, University of Maryland)

Berlin opens her essay in a lively and engaging way by recapitulating what might now be viewed as three ‘puzzles’. The first puzzle is the peculiar fact that scholars ‘forgot’ that the Bible was literature for such a prolonged period. Berlin points to the convergence of the work of diverse scholars as the foundation for the rediscovery of the Bible as literature. This introduces the second puzzle which is the length of time over which scholars focused almost exclusively on narrative at the expense of other forms, especially poetry and legal texts. Berlin highlights a third puzzle, the initial antipathy between literary and historical critical enquiry. Having established the contemporary acceptance of literary approaches, Berlin helpfully focuses on the events of Genesis 34 for the rest of the chapter. The difficulty in providing a valid title to the events of this chapter hints at the fruitfulness of approaching this text as literature. This fruitfulness is clearly illustrated in the remaining pages.

Of the opening eight chapters, this is the one that contributes to the whole and sparkles in its own right. All of the previous chapters are solid helpful contributions but it is Berlin’s which has a freshness and vitality which takes it beyond the tight constraints of this edited volume.

In the next post the nine chapters which cover Subcollections and genres will be reviewed.


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.