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The Cambridge Companion to the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, edited by Stephen B. Chapman and Marvin A. Sweeney

15 June 2018

John Barton on study of what Christians call the Old Testament

THIS reasonably priced general guide to the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament comes from Cambridge University Press in New York. All but one of the contributors work in the United States; so British and Continental biblical scholarship is not represented to any serious extent, let alone any from further afield. The editors are respectively Christian and Jewish, and both perspectives can be found within the volume.

The intended readership, as generally for Cambridge Companions, is serious students of the Bible from any, or no, religious background; and the volume succeeds well as a guide for such people.

There are five parts. Part I, “Text and canon”, addresses textual criticism and the canonisation of the Old Testament — both chapters admirably clear and usable, and both fully up to date, as is true of the volume as a whole.

Part II, “Historical background”, comprises chapters on the ancient Near Eastern context of the Bible, the history of Israelite religion, and the relations between the Hebrew Bible and history. In part III, “Methods and approaches”, three types of criticism are described: historical-critical methods, in a characteristically lucid and straightforward, but also incisive and original, chapter by John J. Collins; social-scientific models; and literary approaches to the Hebrew Bible.

Part IV, “Subcollections and genres”, and consists of the kind of survey of the contents of the Hebrew Bible which might be expected: Pentateuch, historical books, Former Prophets, Latter Prophets, Psalms, Wisdom, late historical books (such as Chronicles), short stories (such as Esther and Ruth), apocalyptic, and the deuterocanonical or apocryphal books.

These chapters concentrate on giving the reader a sense for the main discussions in modern biblical scholarship, and generally include material from both Anglo-American and Continental perspectives. The reader will get a clear idea of where there is consensus, where dispute.

In part V, “Reception and use”, more contemporary concerns surface, with chapters on the Hebrew Bible in Judaism and the Old Testament in Christianity, the Hebrew Bible in Islam (something of a novelty in such a volume, but a welcome one), the Hebrew Bible in art and literature, “The Old Testament in public” — concerned exclusively with the American scene — and, finally, the theology of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament.

This is a rather miscellaneous section, but all touching on current concerns for how the Bible has been received, not just for what it originally meant on its own terms.

The contributors are well-known and expert scholars. I would single out particularly the two chapters on the Bible in Judaism (Frederick Greenspahn) and in Christianity (Walter Moberly of Durham, the only contributor working in Britain) as raising issues often not on the agenda of courses in biblical studies.

Taken together, they show just how facile is the suggestion that Judaism and Christianity “share” these books: strictly speaking, they do, but they read them so differently that they could almost be different books. Greenspahn highlights, too, that Judaism is not derived directly from the Bible in the way that Protestant Christianity sometimes claims to be, but consciously incorporates much post-biblical tradition.

Also of note is the chapter on literary approaches by Adele Berlin — one of only three women contributors out of the overall 23, surely surprising nowadays. She introduces the complex relations between “modern” and “post-modern” criticism with great skill, shining a clear light into obscure places.

Anyone who imagines that Old Testament study is static, or has reached a kind of stalemate, will be enlightened by Thomas Dozeman on the Pentateuch, summarising recent trends in both American and European scholarship, though mostly the latter. And survey volumes such as this rarely include much on the Dead Sea Scrolls rewritings of the Bible, or on the Apocrypha; so the chapters by Ehud Ben Zvi and Sharon Pace are valuable contributions.

This is not a ground-breaking book: that is not what one wants from this genre. It is a very sound guide to the current state of play in the study of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, and should be widely welcomed.

John Barton is Emeritus Oriel and Laing Professor of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture in the University of Oxford, a Senior Research Fellow at Campion Hall, and an Anglican priest.

The Cambridge Companion to the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament
Stephen B. Chapman and Marvin A. Sweeney, editors
Cambridge University Press £31.99
Church Times Bookshop £28.79

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