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Reading the Prophets as Christian Scripture by Eric J. Tully

by
21 October 2022

Richard S. Briggs looks at a firm steer on the reading of the prophets

“INTRODUCTION” has long named a somewhat pedestrian approach to the Bible: the elucidation of who wrote what, when, to what end, and all accompanied by an overview of content. Rarely exciting; very much textbook-like; thorough without probing in depth . . . and all that is exactly what Eric Tully’s “introduction” to the prophets provides.

Admittedly, there is some creative rethinking afoot in biblical studies today as regards the difference that one’s reading context makes, though beyond being “Christian” that is not a feature here. And since Brevard Childs’s 1979 “Introduction” — which read the text “as scripture” — there has been much debate about what sort of theological questions best engage the subject matter of the text(s), and what difference their canonical framing makes. Here, Tully’s title and subtitle may promise much, but the book as a whole delivers little.

What matters to Tully is theological and historical context, and these turn out to be — respectively — a sure grasp of the sequence of biblical covenants, and a steady attention to history read straight off the biblical text. As for “canonical” in the subtitle, this seems to mean attending to the final form of the text by making an end-run around historical and compositional critical questions.

“Critical”, it turns out, is a negative term. Tully occasionally rehearses standard critical questions, but usually ends up setting them aside for what he finds more compelling conservative options. We are firmly in the world of a single Isaiah, a sixth-century-BCE Daniel writing the whole book, and a historical Jonah accurately reported in the book of that name. Meanwhile, readers for whom “critical” might instead point to wrestling with moral complexity in the awkward dynamics of angular texts (one thinks of Ezekiel or Hosea) will find little to help them.

The textbook feature is evidenced in genuinely excellent production values, strikingly clear layout, side-bar features, maps, timelines (in which only Joel, it appears, is undatable), and “Christian Reading Questions” that end every chapter. That could work, and in principle is surely a worthwhile idea. But questions range from the expansive “Explain how Jesus fulfils each covenant” — if you can do that, you probably do not need this textbook — through to oddities such as asking readers whether they can think of their own reasons that Greek and Hebrew Jeremiah are different.

Tully knows his material. He is the expert cited several times in the Hosea chapter, his own name reserved only for the endnotes. This review intends neither to bury nor to praise his theological position. But one desirable feature of a textbook is to show the options, and to resource students for their own mature reflection, and, instead, here the preferred interpretation is stitched tightly into the reading of the text. Let the reader (even the Christian reader) understand.

 

The Revd Dr Richard S. Briggs is Visiting Research Fellow in Old Testament at Cranmer Hall, Durham.

 

Reading the Prophets as Christian Scripture: A literary, canonical, and theological introduction
Eric J. Tully
Baker Academic £34.99
(978-0-8010-9973-1)
Church Times Bookshop £31.49

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