The world’s most famous, and bestselling, book is also one of the most perplexing. Rank-and-file Christians, clergy, and scholars offer wildly disparate interpretations of the Bible’s collection of texts: some foster engagement, while others ignite passionate debates. This fall’s new biblical studies titles continue that tradition, though without any big books leading the pack. This time last year, HarperOne—known for its luminaries in the field—led with three major books: Bart Ehrmans’s How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher, Peter Enns’s The Bible Tells Me So…Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It, and Amy-Jill Levine’s Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi. This season, HarperOne’s sole entry is the paperback version of Levine’s book.
Baylor University Press’s director Carey C. Newman says, “The trends in biblical studies publishing haven’t really changed over the past five years.” Still, fall titles once again cover diverse topics, including methods of biblical interpretation and close readings of biblical characters, as well as the intersection of biblical studies with popular culture. While perhaps not as innovative or controversial as in some seasons past, these books keep the conversation about Western civilization’s seminal texts going.
The Bible’s Best Man
If, as the Gospel of John declares, Jesus is the bridegroom, then Paul is his best man. And every year, without fail, there are new books about the apostle who once persecuted the followers of Jesus, only to become Jesus’s most vocal supporter. SBL Press director Bob Buller confirms Paul’s stature: “Out of the 1,000 reviews published this past year in SBL’s Review of Biblical Literature, 11.8% were on Paul,” almost twice as many as on the second-place Synoptic Gospels (6.3%).
Two years ago, acclaimed New Testament scholar N.T. Wright published Paul and the Faithfulness of God and Pauline Perspectives: Essays on Paul, 1978–2013 (both from Fortress Press), letting Paul speak for himself by looking closely at Paul’s letters and his cultural context. Now, Wright has followed up with Paul and His Recent Interpreters (Fortress, Sept.), a critical survey of Pauline studies over the past 50 years. In the book, Wright poses two questions to the Pauline scholars he challenges: Can Paul best be understood through his Jewish or non-Jewish background? And which was central to his thought—“justification,” or “being in Christ”? Wright has his own critics, and he answers them in The Paul Debate: Critical Questions for Understanding the Apostle (Baylor Univ., Nov.) by focusing on Paul’s Jewish context, his understanding of Jesus (did Paul believe he was the Messiah?), and of time and the natural world.
A number of books explore Paul’s theology, especially as the Church has interpreted it over the years. In Paul & the Gift (Eerdmans, Aug.), John M.G. Barclay situates Paul in his ancient Jewish context by exploring the importance of the gift of hospitality in Jewish culture. Barclay writes that Paul’s explanation of Christ as a gift of grace from God grows out of Paul’s Jewish roots. In Christ’s First Theologian: The Shape of Paul’s Thought (Baylor Univ., Sept.), Leander E. Keck explores Paul’s central task as a theologian—telling the world why Christ matters—in chapters with titles such as “What to Do with Paul?” and “What if Paul Is Right?” Wesley Hill’s Paul and the Trinity: Persons, Relations, and the Pauline Letters (Eerdmans, Sept.) explains that when Paul mentions any member of the Trinity (God, Jesus, or Spirit) he implies all three together—an insight that Hill says many contemporary Pauline scholars miss. Eerdmans v-p and editor-in-chief James D. Ernest suggests that the sustained interest in Paul arises from the fact that his interpreters challenge each other, and from the ongoing ecumenical debate about the role of Paul in Christianity.
The Quest for Jesus
Was Jesus a Jewish Messiah who preached the end of time and the coming of a new world? Or was he a Greek philosopher? The early 1990s brought a wave of books by members of the Jesus Seminar, a group of maverick scholars founded in 1985 to find the Jesus of history as opposed to the Jesus of faith (the so-called third quest, since Ernest Renan’s Life of Jesus in 1863) by determining which were the authentic sayings of Jesus in the Bible and which had been added by the earliest Christian communities. Out of the seminar emerged books such as John Dominic Crossan’s The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (HarperSanFrancisco, 1991) and Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (HSF, 1994); Marcus Borg’s Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time (HSF, 1994); Jesus Seminar founder Robert W. Funk’s Honest to Jesus: Jesus for a New Millennium (HSF, 1994); and the Jesus Seminar’s own The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say? (Scribner, 1993).
Books on the historical Jesus once dominated many religion publishers’ lists, but there are fewer this fall. In Why Christ Matters: Toward a New Testament Christology (Baylor Univ., Sept.), Leander Keck offers an overview of the quest for the historical Jesus, as well as reflections on the ways the earliest Christian communities developed around the memory of Jesus. One of Jesus’s most famous acts, memorialized in Da Vinci’s painting of the same name, was presiding over the Last Supper. In Jesus and the Last Supper (Eerdmans, Nov.), Brant Pitre asks, “Who did Jesus of Nazareth claim to be?” And, “What was his relationship with early Judaism?” Pitre finds answers in the role of meals in early Judaism and the interpretation of the Last Supper in early Christianity.
In 1991, John Paul Meier, a New Testament professor at Notre Dame, launched a series called A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, using methods of modern historical research to “recover, recapture, or reconstruct the historical Jesus,” according to Yale executive editor Jennifer Banks. Banks says that in the newest installment, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, Vol. V: Probing the Authenticity of the Parables (Yale Univ., Jan. 2016), Meier turns his attention to the parables, challenging scholarly consensus by arguing that, of the parables usually attributed to Jesus, only four can actually be attributed with any certitude to the historical Jesus.
Looking Beyond Jesus
Some new titles probe other aspects of the New Testament. In Conversion in Luke-Acts: Divine Action, Human Cognition, and the People of God (Baker, Dec.), Joel Green argues that current neuroscientific research—focused on how human existence is embodied, and how our minds and bodies interact with and influence each other—provides a fresh understanding of Christian conversion in the New Testament.
The many symbols—the seven seals, the seven trumpets, the whore of Babylon—in Revelation, the final book of the Bible, often baffle readers. Craig Koester’s detailed textual and literary commentary, Revelation (Yale Univ., Sept.), offers guidance for the perplexed. In Intrusive God, Disruptive Gospel: Encountering the Divine in the Book of Acts (Brazos, Sept.), Matthew L. Skinner describes Acts as depicting a God who upsets the status quo, changing people’s lives and overturning their expectations about society.
Robert H. Gundry’s Peter: False Disciple and Apostate According to Saint Matthew (Eerdmans, Sept.) digs into the life and work of one of Jesus’s most challenging followers. Gundry locates Matthew’s portrayal of Peter within the framework of two themes in the Gospel: the Church as a mixed body of true and false disciples, and persecution as a way of exposing false discipleship. In Matthew’s view, Peter turns his back on the faith, and Peter’s denials of Jesus exclude him from God’s kingdom.
Back to the First Testament
A range of fall books examines the many facets of the Hebrew Bible and Old Testament. Joel Kaminsky and Joel Lohr’s The Hebrew Bible for Beginners: A Jewish and Christian Introduction (Abingdon, Sept.) introduces a broad spectrum of readers to the complex ancient texts and shows how the Hebrew Bible has influenced Western culture. In The Responsive Self: Personal Religion in Biblical Literature of the Neo-Babylonian and Persian Periods (Yale Univ., Sept.), Susan Niditch draws from biblical literature to explore religion as it was lived during the period from the Babylonian conquest until imperial Persian rule. She argues that far from simply offering rules about the practice of temple worship, the texts also guided people in practicing their religion outside of community worship.
Peter Enns urges taking the human dimension of the Old Testament seriously in Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament (Baker, Sept.), the second edition of his book that was originally published in 2005. In A Chorus of Prophetic Voices: Introducing the Prophetic Literature of Ancient Israel (WJK, Sept.), Mark McEntire focuses on Ezekiel, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and the Book of the Twelve, attending to the prophets as characters in an unfolding story recorded after the destruction of Israel in 587 B.C.E.
Apocalyptic literature depicts a cataclysmic battle between the forces of light and good, and the forces of darkness and evil. It is often written by oppressed, persecuted communities in symbolic language only they can understand, as in the books of Ezekiel and Daniel. When modern readers try to interpret these apocalyptic books, they often view them as predictions of things to come, turning it into prophetic literature. In Apocalyptic, Prophecy, and Pseudepigraphy: On Jewish Apocalyptic Literature (Eerdmans, Oct.), John J. Collins examines the relationship of apocalyptic and prophetic literature, the ethical issues raised by apocalyptic literature, and themes such as election and the afterlife found in noncanonical apocalyptic literature.
And examining at the biblical texts from Jewish, Islamic, and Christian points of view is Robert Gregg’s Shared Stories, Rival Tellings: Early Encounters of Jews, Christians, and Muslims (Oxford Univ., Sept.), a look at how the three faiths developed competing versions of the same narratives as they sought to distinguish themselves from each other and achieve religious primacy.
An American Bible?
Three fall books illuminate the relationship of the Bible and American culture. In A Political History of the Bible in America (WJK, Sept.), Paul Hanson explains how, since colonial times, the Bible has been used and misused in American history and politics, and proposes ways it can speak to diverse populations today. Hanson writes, “Biblical history, enriched by many religious and cultural traditions, flows into and is intertwined with our nations epic, both for better and for worse.”
Church historian Mark Noll’s In the Beginning Was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life, 1492–1783 (Oxford Univ., Oct.) examines how the Bible featured in American public life during the formative years of the United States. First available in Spanish, Latin, and Native-American languages, the Bible was introduced in English in America in the 17th century, as Protestant Christianity came to America with the Bible-centered Puritans.
And finally, in The Bible in the Contemporary World: Hermeneutical Ventures (Eerdmans, Nov.), Richard Bauckham brings the Bible into the here-and-now and shows its applications for the future, writing that biblical texts can be used to engage with current social issues such as globalization, poverty, and environmental destruction.
Whether focusing on texts, interpretive methods, theological readings, or social contexts, publishing books that plumb the mysteries of the Bible is a thriving enterprise. Baylor’s Newman says, “That’s because there’s a primary text that remains simultaneously as generative as it is elusive.”