According to Ecclesiastes, there is nothing new under the sun, but when biblical scholars convene at the 2019 American Academy of Religion/Society of Biblical Literature conference, which runs November 23–26 in San Diego, Calif., they will be looking for new books to add to their libraries. Amid a banquet of choices, there are books that interpret the Bible from many points of view and seek to bring its teachings to bear on a range of current issues.
Biblical studies once were dominated by the historical-critical approach, notes John Kutsko, executive director of the Society of Biblical Literature, but “with the rise of postmodernism, the field literally exploded with what we would call ideological criticism and contextual biblical interpretation, on subjects like gender, sexual identity, race, and class—a major shift from a focus on the historical to a focus on the contemporary, and a swing in scholarship toward relevancy.”
A number of publishers reflect that shift, with books like The Beginning of Difference: Discovering Identity in God’s Diverse World by Theodore Hiebert (Abingdon, out now). “Questions of identity and difference are continually in the air,” Hiebert writes, a professor of the Old Testament at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago. “The struggle for identity and the encounter with difference is as old as humankind,” he notes. “The writers of Genesis struggled just as we do to articulate and preserve their own identity and to negotiate constructively a world of difference.”
In Revelation as Civil Disobedience: Witnesses Not Warriors in John’s Apocalypse (Abingdon, out now), Thomas B. Slater—professor of New Testament language and literature at the McAfee School of Theology at Mercer University in Atlanta—interprets the book of Revelation as a call to civil disobedience and nonviolent resistance to unjust laws. Slater argues that even when resistance is expressed in military terms in Revelation, Christians are not called to take up arms to defend themselves.
Those who do take up arms in war can suffer emotional and spiritual damage caused by the violation of their beliefs and values. In The Bible and Moral Injury (Abingdon, Feb. 2020), Brad E. Kelle—professor of the Old Testament and Hebrew at the School of Theology and Christian Ministry at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego—explores war narratives from the Old Testament and how they relate to warfare today: “Psychologists, researchers, and other caregivers have recently identified one of war’s unseen wounds that has come to be referred to as ‘moral injury,’ ” Kelle writes. He argues that biblical texts can be used “in the ongoing attempt to understand, identify, and heal moral injury.” Kelle (also author of Telling the New Testament Story) has served as the chair of the SBL’s Warfare in Ancient Israel consultation.
In What Are Biblical Values? What the Bible Says on Key Ethical Issues (Yale Univ., out now), John J. Collins—professor of the Old Testament at Yale Divinity School—argues that the Bible has something to teach about a range of today’s contentious issues, such as reproductive rights, gender, care of the environment, social justice, and the roles of women.
Consider the Women
Biblical studies has traditionally been a male-dominated discipline, but this season there appear to be more notable books by female scholars. Do these books reflect a fundamental change—a greater number of women studying and writing in the field? SBL’s Kutsko says, “The answer is yes and, unfortunately, no. While our membership has increased dramatically over the last two decades, the percentage of women members to men has remained constant at 24%. So while there are now more women members of SBL (and by extension in the field of biblical studies) than two decades ago, we remain frustrated that the percentage of women to men hasn’t risen.”
Are more female biblical scholars being published? Maybe, Kutsko says: “I think publishers recognize that many women scholars are asking more probing, creative, and timely questions. Also, more than critical thinking, what characterizes the humanities (including biblical studies) is independent thinking. That may be what publishers see in many of the women’s voices in academic biblical studies.”
There are books that challenge traditional understandings of scriptural passages about women’s roles and status in the Bible, but those challenges might not be new, Amanda Benckhuysen (profiled on p. 19) writes in The Gospel According to Eve: A History of Women’s Interpretation (IVP, out now). “In the history of the church, there have always been those who have questioned notions of women’s inferiority and who have believed that the Bible intends woman’s full emancipation and equality,” she writes. “For them, the Bible, when interpreted correctly, is women’s greatest advocate, encouraging women to embrace in Christ their full humanity as image bearers of God.” Benckhuysen is a professor of the Old Testament at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Mich.
Rediscovering Scripture’s Vision for Women: Fresh Perspectives on Disputed Texts by Lucy Peppiatt (IVP, out now) offers readings of key New Testament passages that will seem new to some. “There is a growing assurance that the Bible tells a story of God releasing women alongside men into all forms of ministry, leadership, work, and service on the basis of character and gifting rather than on the basis of biological sex,” writes Peppiatt, who is the principal of Westminster Theological Centre in the U.K. and the author of Unveiling Paul’s Women and Women and Worship in Corinth.
In Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (Zondervan, Apr. 2020), Aimee Byrd (profiled on p. 24) counters teachings about biblical manhood and womanhood that have been ubiquitous in evangelical churches and claim to define the correct relationship between men and women in the home, church, and culture at large. Byrd—who is not a scholar—says the book grew out of her belief that “until both men and women grow in their understanding of their relationship to Scripture, there will continue to be tension between the sexes in the church. Do men and women benefit equally from God’s Word? Are they equally responsible in sharpening one another in the faith and passing it down to the next generation?” The answer Byrd finds is yes.
A book by a female biblical scholar that is not exclusively focused on women is Jesus for Everyone (HarperOne, Mar. 2020) by Amy-Jill Levine. Levine, who is a Vanderbilt University Divinity School professor and the author of Short Stories by Jesus and The Misunderstood Jesus, argues that Jesus is relevant for everyone, not just Christians. Levine writes that stories in the Bible told by and about Jesus help “me think about immigration, health care, family values, politics, economics, slavery and human trafficking, and sexuality.... One doesn’t have to worship him as lord and savior in order to appreciate his teachings.” HarperOne executive editor Mickey Maudlin says, “Amy-Jill Levine appeals to many because she plays the role of outsider so well. As a woman and a Jew and a biblical scholar, she is able to come at the Bible in a fresh way.”
The World of the Bible
A number of books dig at the roots of the Bible: The New Testament and Its World by N.T. Wright (profiled on p. 22) and Michael Bird (Zondervan Academic, out now) introduces the New Testament and presents its books in the context of Second Temple Judaism and early Christianity. Wright is the author of 84 books, including Paul: A Biography; Bird is the author of What Christians Ought to Believe, among other books.
Much of the Hebrew Bible depicts a rural, agrarian society, but the stories were written by people living in cities, Mark McEntire writes in Not Scattered or Confused: Rethinking the Urban World in the Hebrew Bible (Westminster John Knox, out now). McEntire argues that as more people are moving into cities, which affects human life and the natural environment, it is important to know what the Bible has to say about urban life. McEntire is a professor of biblical studies at Belmont University in Nashville and the author of Portraits of a Mature God and A Chorus of Prophetic Voices.
Christ’s Associations: Connecting and Belonging in the Ancient City by John S. Kloppenborg (Yale Univ., out now) looks at early Christianity as an urban movement of believers gathering in small groups. But with little information on the structure and mission of these groups, Kloppenborg places these Christ associations in the context of the ancient Mediterranean and posits that they were based more on practice than theology. Kloppenborg is a professor and the chair of the Department for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto.
In A History of the Bible: The Story of the World’s Most Influential Book (Viking, June 2020), John Barton argues that the Bible does not present a complete religious system, as many people believe, and although it inspired Judaism and Christianity, it does not fully describe either religion. The Bible is “a mêlée of materials, few of which directly address the question of what is to be believed,” Barton writes. “The history of the Bible is thus the story of the interplay between the religion and the book—neither mapping exactly onto the other.” Barton is a theologian and was a professor of Bible interpretation at Oxford; he also is editor-in-chief of the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Religion and the author of The Bible: The Basics.
In April 2020, Urim will publish Where Did the Bible Come From? A Comparison of the Similarities and Differences Between the Bible and Other Writings from the Ancient Near East by Ron Eisenberg, who explores who the biblical writers might have been and whether they consciously coopted ancient Near Eastern writings or were simply steeped in a shared culture of the region. Eisenberg writes, “Much of the material in the Bible is remarkably similar to pre-biblical antecedents; but far more important are the differences, how the Bible transformed this material to reflect a theology and worldview diametrically opposite to that of its pagan neighbors.” Eisenberg is a professor of radiology at Harvard Medical School and a radiologist at the Beth Israel Medical Center in Boston. He is the author or editor of The JPS Guide to Jewish Traditions, The Jewish World in Stamps, and a trilogy of books, Essential Figures in the Bible, Essential Figures in the Talmud, and Essential Figures in Jewish Scholarship.
The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls profoundly changed the course of biblical studies, and in Scribes and Scrolls at Qumran (Eerdmans, out now), Sidnie White Crawford aims to “take the insights of the first generation of scrolls scholars that have withstood the test of time, combine them with new insights from scholars since the complete publication of the scrolls corpus and the much more complete archaeological picture that we now have of Khirbet Qumran, and create a new synthesis of text and archaeology that will yield a convincing history of and purpose for the Qumran settlement and its associated caves.” Crawford is Willa Cather Professor of Biblical Studies emerita at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln and chair of the board of trustees of the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem.
In Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls: Revealing the Jewish Roots of Christianity (Image, out now), John Bergsma offers new insights on the Essenes, a radical Jewish community that predates Christianity and shaped the beliefs, sacraments, and practices of early Christianity. He writes that the Dead Sea Scrolls—which he calls “one of the most important archeological discoveries in the eastern Mediterranean world in the twentieth century... may overturn the theories of some of the most celebrated New Testament scholars in modern history, causing the Gospel of John and some of Paul’s letters to be redated by as much as a century.” Looking at Hebrew scripture and Jewish traditions, Bergsma explores the mystery of how a Jewish peasant could inspire a religion that became the foundation of Western civilization. Bergsma is a professor of theology at the Franciscan University of Steubenville and a senior fellow at St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology in Steubenville, Ohio.
The Bible as Literature
Some scholars have approached the Bible not as holy writ, but as a work of literature. In Holy Imagination: A Literary and Theological Introduction to the Whole Bible (Abingdon, out now), Judy L. Fentress-Williams notes that most literary works have one primary voice that expresses an author’s point of view. But she argues for a reading of the whole Bible that recognizes its different voices and narratives. She groups sections of the Bible by genre, including, for example, myth, historiography, poetry, and apocalyptic literature. Using literary theory in her analysis, Fentress-Williams describes the primordial history presented in Genesis 1–11 as literary myth and the ancestral narratives in Genesis 12–50 as “formational narratives of identity.” Fentress-Williams is a professor of the Old Testament at Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, Va., and was the Old Testament editor of the CEB Women’s Bible.
Christobiography: Memory, History, and the Reliability of the Gospels by Craig S. Keener (Eerdmans, out now) recasts the Gospels as biographical narratives of Jesus’s life that follow the conventions of contemporaneous biographers and recount the ministry of Jesus through that literary form. Craig S. Keener is the F.M. and Ada Thompson Professor of Biblical Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky., and the author or editor of commentaries on Matthew, Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, John, and Acts.
In Joseph and the Way of Forgiveness: A Biblical Tale Retold (St. Martin’s Essentials, out now ), Stephen Mitchell uses the form of the novel to offer a fresh take on the story of Jacob’s favorite son—sold into slavery by his jealous brothers—who rises to power as viceroy of Egypt. Mitchell’s retelling of this story of betrayal and forgiveness studs the narrative with Zen-influenced meditations that illuminate its themes. Mitchell’s books include The Gospel According to Jesus, as well as modern versions of the Tao Te Ching, the Bhagavad Gita, the Iliad and the Odyssey, and other classics.
In New Testament Conversations: A Literary, Historical, and Pluralistic Introduction (Abingdon, out now), Suzanne Watts Henderson notes that in today’s pluralistic culture, students of the New Testament often see Christianity as just one among many religious and philosophical options. Because the New Testament is about more than doctrine, Henderson argues, it can add another voice to the search for meaning and purpose. Henderson is a professor of philosophy and religion, dean of the Belk Chapel at Queens University of Charlotte in N.C. and director for the university’s Center of Ethics and Religion. Her other books include Christ and Community and The Cross in Contexts.
Making Stories New
Some books offer reinterpretations of biblical stories and new ways of looking at their characters. Ryan Stokes sets out to update conventional views of the Bible’s “fallen angel” in The Satan: How God’s Executioner Became the Enemy (Eerdmans, out now; foreword by John C. Collins). He demonstrates that over time, the Satan (always referred to as “the Satan” in the Old Testament) went from serving as God’s executioner of evildoers to God’s primary enemy. Stokes—associate professor of religion at Carson-Newman University in Jefferson City, Tenn.—writes that “creative theologians and interpreters” transformed “this modest functionary of Yahweh into the great enemy of God and God’s people.”
Edward L. Greenstein seeks to set the record straight on one of the Bible’s most arresting figures. With Job: A New Translation (Yale Univ., out now), Greenstein, professor emeritus of Bible at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, presents Job not as a long-suffering man resigned to his fate and prostrate before God, but as an angry man defiant toward God. “The major interpretive innovation here is that Greenstein’s Job does not submit,” Yale editor Jennifer Banks says. “Job is about speaking truth to an unjust power, not the virtue of suffering, and Greenstein’s Job is notably more aggressive.” She points to passages in chapters 9 and 10 of the book of Job that are “probably the strongest condemnation of the deity” and show how Greenstein departs from other translations. Here is an example comparing translations of Job 20–22.
Robert Alter’s translation:
Though in the right, my mouth will convict me, I am blameless, yet He makes me crooked.
Even were I in the right, his mouth would condemn me. (Even) were I innocent, he would wrong me.
Finally, the broad range of books in biblical studies shows there are many scholarly approaches to the Bible. The State of New Testament Studies: A Survey of Recent Research (Baker Academic, out now), edited by Scot McKnight (a professor of the New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, Ill.) and Nijay K. Gupta (associate professor of New Testament at Portland Seminary in Portland, Ore.) offers a guide for the perplexed.
Lynn Garrett is a contributing editor at PW.
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