Saturday, May 2, 2009

2009.05.08

Version at BMCR home site
Bruce Chilton (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to the Bible. Second Edition. First edition published in 1997. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008. Pp. x, 724; maps 19; ills. passim. ISBN 978-0-521-69140-6. $34.99 (pb).
Reviewed by Dave Leal, Brasenose College, Oxford

Table of Contents

Those familiar with 'Cambridge Companions' -- whether to particular thinkers, or to bodies of thought -- will have a sense of the standard format; a mid-sized book with single-author chapters and an introduction. That format would not be likely to produce a very companionable Companion to the Bible, and the approach here is rather different. The work is divided into three parts, broadly concerned in turn with the Hebrew Bible, inter-testamental literature and the New Testament, preceded by an introduction outlining the approach of the authors and providing background material relevant to the book as a whole. Each part, and the introduction, are followed by substantial bibliographical essays offering the reader ample opportunity to begin to fill out detail, assess evidence and weigh interpretation. The work is supplemented by maps and illustrations; the two maps allowed the luxury of color are not likely to be a significant improvement on those regularly contained in copies of the Bible, but there are a number of places where clear maps placed in the text are an ideal aid to understanding. In addition to the running text, which occupies a column around two-thirds of the width of the page, there are frequent pull-out boxes with background information and explanation of terms used in the main text, varying from barely more than a hundred words to over 3 pages of triple-column text. It is a system that works well, permitting extended discussion and argument to take place alongside the flow of the book.

What, then, is this a Companion to? It serves as a companion to a large body of literature within which is a smaller set of texts held in reverence by Jews and Christians. Some of the texts discussed find their way into Bibles used by Catholic Christians, but are generally excluded by Protestants; some of the texts are unlikely ever to find their way into any characterization of a collection as 'Bible', but have their place here as indications of the milieu in which (for example) the 'biblical' Gospels and Acts came to be, alongside the much-discussed 'gnostic' gospels and acts. The 'Apocryphal' and 'Deuterocanonical' writings belonging to the inter-testamental period are discussed in some detail in Part Two of the Companion, in the context of an account of the history and culture of a period advertised as 332 BCE to 200 CE; curiously, discussion of the book of Daniel is shared between the end of Part One (owing to a judgement that the folk-tales underlying chapters 1-6 as we have them date back to the sixth century BCE) and Part Two, where the 'apocalyptic' chapters 7-12 are discussed in the context of the events of the second century BCE.

It will be clear, then, that the Companion is not a book-by-book commentary. Nor, though, in spite of the example just mentioned, is it a 'biblical history' with the texts discussed piecemeal as appropriate (an approach which might lead to a fracturing of the discussion of Isaiah, to name one particular example, and a significant scattering of treatment of the psalms). Longer books are typically subject to careful summary analysis, with something approaching an analytical table of contents provided, and an account of historical, social and political context sketched. Even shorter books (Ruth, for example, discussed on pp. 299-302) are given a page or two of introductory comment. In the division of aids to biblical study into 'Introductions', 'Histories', 'Theologies' and 'Commentaries' which was once common the Companion serves as a hybrid between introduction and history. (Regarding commentary, the bibliographical essay to Part One offers a general commendation of the works in the Anchor Bible Commentaries series, and the Old Testament Library commentaries published by Westminster John Knox in North America, but eschews any recommendation of particular commentaries, whilst Part Three offers the reader a number of named commentaries on most books, giving a variety of perspectives.)

The stated purpose of the Companion is to guide 'critical, informed reading', and to do this by providing a 'basic knowledge of the cultural contexts in which the biblical books were produced, including the history, language and religious beliefs and philosophical insights of the writers, the people they wrote about, and the audiences for whom they wrote' (Introduction, p. 3). The statement in the introduction that the work is 'largely chronological in its organization' is quickly qualified by noting the editor's desire to allow readers to follow as far as possible 'the sequence of the books in their printed Bibles'. The compromise works well in bridging the functions of introduction and history, and someone using the book alongside a reading of the Bible from cover to cover would find this possible, though it may be doubted that the editors had precisely this use of their work in mind. There is, it should be added, a very full index of biblical references and a general index of sufficient detail to guide the reader to discussion of the books and subjects he or she may be interested in, so that had the editors chosen (for example) to locate discussion of Genesis chronologically in terms of a speculative date for the formation of the text pretty much as we have it, rather than according to what we might term its 'biblical chronology', little trouble would have been caused.

It is quite possible that the editors would have considered the perception of separate tasks of 'introduction to the biblical texts', on the one hand, and 'history of the biblical peoples and cultures', on the other, as itself inimical to their stated aim of critical and informed reading. This has a number of consequences, which ought at least to be noted.

We may note first that the definite article present in 'the Bible', admittedly subject already to qualification given the contested nature of the precise contents of the Bible, is brought under a rather different pressure by the fragmentation of the biblical text, and even the text of particular books, as the whole is subjected to the scrutiny needed to provide for a suitable critical and informed reading. In all of this, there is a likelihood -- perhaps, one might say, a danger -- that the significance of the whole is diminished or lost. Clearly it is not the aim of the editors to perform this feat; if it were, they would have been much less willing to compromise their approach to chronology, and less willing to treat the biblical books as wholes for the purpose of introduction. A basis is offered upon which a different discussion might emerge; pp. 4-35, almost the whole of the introduction, is headed 'The Concept of God's People'. The Bible is, after all, in whatever particular version we may identify, a book of a people; and, moreover, the people will identify themselves as in some important sense 'of the book'. The fine summary affirmation on page 8 deserves to be noted: 'The two persistent themes running throughout the biblical writings are that (1) there is a people of God, and (2) they have been spoken to by God'. There is a summary account of the development of the concept of 'canonicity' (p. 12f), and a brief introduction to some of the key figures who play a part in the movement towards 'modern' biblical criticism (p. 14f). What the reader already part of a community of faith, where the Bible is read and expounded, or the reader from outside a community of faith wishing a companion to explain the significance of this book for so many, will miss is the way in which the Bible as a whole figures in the life of (say) the Roman Catholic Church, and the way in which the twin affirmations of 'people of God' and of 'a God who speaks' relate to the Bible as a whole. Perhaps a companion to the Bible has no role here, and these are questions for a Companion to Christian Doctrine, or to the Christian Church, but this is not obvious.

These considerations bring us close to central questions regarding the relationship of critical and informed reading of the Bible in the paradigm sponsored here, to critical and informed writing within a community of faith. To take them further would be to move beyond the immediate concerns of the work under review. What should be said, though, is that within the paradigm of critical scholarship on the Bible adopted by the editors, this work constitutes a high water mark.

It struck this reader, at least, as also in a sense a curiously conservative work. What I have in mind is not a kind of theological or biblical conservatism which seeks to support a simple and unitary history of the biblical books as they have come to us, but rather a preference for central, sensible hypotheses against the wilder outliers of opinion in terms of (for example) the dating of New Testament texts. The bibliographies continue this theme, often containing suggestions for further introductory reading and study that have stood the test of time well and lasted through many editions. It is to be doubted that many will read the whole work through from cover to cover, and the boxed sections will provide readers with easy access to accounts of (to give just two examples) form criticism and the Solomonic temple without needing to wade through pages of text to do so. Occasionally these boxes are used (particularly in their multi-page instances) as opportunities to develop critical assessment of some particular case of biblical interpretation, as for example on pp. 592-595, 'Pilate, the Politics of Rome, and Evangelical Politics'. Such short studies are welcome as an opportunity for the reader to gain a feel for the style of argument and controversy in biblical interpretation, and complement the rather more descriptive style characteristic of much of the main text.

The production standards are of a very high order. Black and white photographs contained in the text are usually of sufficiently high contrast to make detail clearly visible. If there was a logic behind the choice of format for the smaller pull-out boxes (merely in the margin, or intruding into the page) I could not discover it, but the pages are never so 'busy' as to be a distraction. Typographical errors are astonishingly rare.

One delightful surprise at the end of the bibliographical essay to Part One was the section (pp. 323-325) headed 'Biography'. This lists a number of key figures in the development of the study of biblical history and interpretation, from Reimarus onwards. The justification given is the 'false impression of the discipline and how it has developed' which would be given without it. One might prefer to see it as homage to those in whose footsteps the editors are following. As the author of Ecclesiasticus put it (44:1), 'Let us now praise famous men'.

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