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The Bible for the Curious: A brief encounter, by Philip R. Davies

22 February 2019

Anthony Phillips praises a scholar’s invitation to the reading of the Bible

THIS posthumous publication by the distinguished Old Testament scholar Philip Davies deserves serious consideration by all, like the author, concerned with the general lack of interest in the Jewish and Christian scriptures; for Davies does not confine himself to the Old Testament, but covers the New as well, though it is fair to say that the former receives the more in-depth appraisal. For Davies, the Bible is a treasure, “not only as a cultural inheritance, but also as a monumental achievement of thought and imagination”.

The author points out that there is no single Bible, and outlines the way in which different Bibles came into being, and the distinctiveness of the Jewish and Christian approach to scripture. He then sets out to discover the authors in their “real historical and social settings, even if their names will remain unknown to us”.

Starting with the Old Testament, Davies first issues a caveat: the various books were generally not written at a certain date, but evolved through constant re-editing over centuries. Nor was the result uniform, very different concerns arising.

He then considers the relation of the Old Testament to history. That every story has a life setting does not make it “historical”. Indeed, the attempt to prove Old Testament narratives historical can rule out discovering their true meaning and value. Indeed, what people believe about the past is more important than what occurred, because these beliefs influence behaviour more than whatever the facts may have been.

This is particularly true of the exodus, which, curiously, Davies does not consider. Emphasising the importance of archaeology as an independent source from the Old Testament, Davies, while acknowledging that the interpretation of remains is itself open to dispute, comments that David’s “biblical profile is questionable”, and in some detail reconstructs the “history” of the northern and southern kingdoms.

Turning to the New Testament, Davies argues that there is no one historical Jesus that we can confidently reconstruct. Essentially, there are two Gospel portraits, one in the Synoptics and the other in St John. Further, Acts describes theologically rather than historically “the breakout from Jewish to a universal Gospel”.

Moving on to the New Testament Letters, Davies holds that they no longer reflect the expectation of Christ’s imminent return, but, rather, are concerned with the nature of the daily lives of Christians. Identifying the Letters that can safely be attributed to St Paul, Davies notes his lack of interest in Christ’s teaching, and that they are open to different interpretations. Importantly, he comments in discussing Paul’s assertions on “behavioural norms” that, because his Letters are now canonical, this does not mean that they equate with the “word of God”. “Paul is entitled to become obsolete.” Amen say I.

Davies ends his New Testament survey by commenting that Revelation makes an appropriate conclusion to the Christian Bible by “tying together the two Testaments through its integration of Old Testament (and Jewish) imagination into Christian vision”.

In the final two chapters, Davies returns to the Old Testament and examines prophecy and apocalyptic, as well as law, wisdom, and prayer (Psalms). Here I would question his conclusion that “the Bible’s moral teaching is actually not very remarkable.” Further, there is much more to Job than Davies allows.

The importance of this last work of Davies, well illustrated with maps, charts, and photographs, is that it raises for the would-be reader of the scriptures the questions that must be asked. Davies does not provide all the answers, but he does open up a now sadly neglected part of our literary and spiritual heritage, and shows in a neutral but encouraging way how not merely the curious, but the serious enquirer, should embrace it. Given our secular climate, one can only hope that it is not too late.

Canon Anthony Phillips is a former headmaster of The King’s School, Canterbury.


The Bible for the Curious: A brief encounter
Philip R. Davies
Equinox £24.99
Church Times Bookshop £22.50

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