THIS is a landmark book charting and summarising the directions in which biblical studies have been moving in the past few decades. Its interest is less in traditional matters such as the form, contents, and social and theological contexts of the Bible, although those issues come in, and more in the process by which the Bible came together.
This is, first of all, in relation to the Bible as a canonical set of books — “the Book of Books” — but, second, how it became sacred scripture for two great world religions, Judaism and Christianity. The span of the book is to cover the “making” of both the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament and the New Testament, but visiting along the way the processes that led to the selection of certain books, but also the many books being left out of various different canons and how different worshipping communities evaluated and read texts in fresh and diverse ways.
The authors of The Making of the Bible — Konrad Schmid and Jens Schröter — are renowned experts in each of the Testaments, and so are well qualified to undertake what was clearly a mammoth task in bringing together this diverse material and the many scholarly views and disagreements that undergird the conclusions reached (mainly found in the footnotes). It is very readable, and makes excellent use of illustrations that helpfully bring to life the points made in the text. Harvard University Press have done a great service in getting this book translated into English so as to reach as wide an audience as possible.
Their treatment of the Hebrew Bible reflects the current preference for starting with the final form of the text (although even discerning that is proved to be slippery) and for pannng the lens in, so to speak, on the increasing antiquity of the traditions that lie behind it. So the interest lies in how a mass of oral traditions came to form the texts over many centuries and how they were in turn redacted, completed, read, and then canonised. Long and transformative journeys lie along the road that these texts and eventually books took to arrive in the canon and to be regarded as sacred scripture.
The authors argue that, contrary to popular conception, the New Testament did not emerge with an Old Testament that was already finalised. Rather, the two evolved in parallel and in conversation, one with another, such that Jewish and Christian traditions influenced each other. Christianity emerged from Judaism, but Judaism was also reshaped in competition with early Christianity.
This leads the authors on to charting early reception issues in both religions, to examining the formation of key translations of sacred scripture from the medieval period to the Reformation, and even to a sampling of cultural interpretation in the arts in the final chapter of the book. They show how the histories of Judaism and Christianity were intertwined by the sharing of scripture and how Western civilisation was shaped by this synthesis.
This is a rich book treating the historical traditions that lie within the texts, the oral traditions that transmitted them down the generations, the processes by which texts were formed and collected within scribal culture, and the way in which this gradually led to the formation of various canons, not just the Jewish Tanak, but also the Hebrew Bible, its key translations such as the Septuagint and Vulgate, and the validation of each within the faith communities that shaped the canons themselves.
Beyond this, the book looks at archaeological discoveries that have shed light on the historical and transmission processes, at how ancient manuscripts were written and preserved in many languages, and at how authoritative books were distinguished from those that formed not only apocrypha and pseudepigrapha in some circles but also those that fed different heresies and opposing interest groups.
This is a really fascinating book: if you have time to read only one book on the Bible this year, make sure that it is this one.
Dr Katharine J. Dell is Director of Studies in Theology and Religious Studies at St Catharine’s College, Cambridge.
The Making of the Bible: From the first fragments to sacred scripture
Konrad Schmid and Jens Schröter
Peter Lewis, translator
Harvard University Press £28.95
Church Times Bookshop £26.05