A Brief History of Old Testament Criticism: From Benedict Spinoza to Brevard Childs, Reviewed

The world of Old Testament interpretation can feel vast and complex, teeming with concepts and terms like “historical-critical,” Sitz im Leben, and documentary hypothesis. Admission into that field of ideas is potentially cost-prohibitive, not to mention time-consuming.

Mark Gignilliat, Associate Professor of Divinity at Beeson, has greatly simplified a student’s entrance into the realm of Old Testament interpretation. His new book, A Brief History of Old Testament Criticism: From Benedict Spinoza to Brevard Childs, explores major Old Testament interpreters and themes in the modern period. Gignilliat begins with Spinoza (b. 1632) and concludes with Childs (d. 2007) in his “picture gallery tour of sorts.” Gignilliat writes, “This is a book for students. …The intended audience of this book is anyone who is interested in the Bible, its history of interpretation, and the particular problems and approaches to Old Testament studies in the modern period.”

The “picture gallery tour” surveys OT criticism through the lens of seven major characters: Spinoza, de Wette, Wellhausen, Gunkel, von Rad, Albright, and Childs. The author makes “no comprehensive attempt at expounding the very complex history of Old Testament interpretation,” but he does go beyond even his seven major subjects in detailing the ideas of other important thinkers, too. Gignilliat gives each interpreter his own chapter, which includes a short biography and a survey of ideas and writings. Chapters end with a “For Further Reading” section that the interested reader can pursue.

Gignilliat in his introduction immediately shows himself to be humble, gracious, and warm in tone, which continues throughout the book. He is aware of the limitations of a “brief history” like this (perhaps overly aware), though his concerns are not warranted, since this book accomplishes what it sets out to do.

One thing the author does particularly well is analyzes major interpreters in their life context. Of Spinoza, for example (to whom he traces the beginning of the denial of Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch), he writes:

But it is important to understand, even if somewhat minimally, the community values Spinoza was reacting against and the intellectual currents of the day that influenced his thought. Modernity’s most cherished claims–autonomous intellectual pursuits, dismissal of dogmatic tradition, naturalism, and affirmation of the Cartesian “I” (I think therefore I am)–were advanced by Spinoza’s philosophical and hermeneutical outlook.

He notes that Spinoza’s emphasis on rationalism and the knowing self may have been, in part, a reaction to the “religious dogmatism, military might, and political ambition” that “made for a toxic combination throughout the Thirty Years War.”

Gignilliat’s ability to understand thinkers in context helps the reader to better appreciate what led to their contributions. With the above in mind, I could better understand why Spinoza sought to turn “sola scriptura into nuda scriptura, that is, Scripture stripped of any theological or ecclesial context.” (I thought this was a brilliant line.) Gignilliat does not follow Spinoza this far, but he gives a fair shake to the ideas of Spinoza and others throughout the book.

The author treats the documentary hypothesis and its development, beginning with Wellhausen. Though many evangelicals bristle at J, E, D, and P, Gignilliat does a good job showing how Wellhausen and those after him developed the notion that the Pentateuch has a complex redaction history. One key implication of the hypothesis is that someone like von Rad can conclude (in Gignilliat’s words):

The Hexateuchal [Pentateuch+Joshua] traditions do not give us a historical account of Israel that will satisfy modern attempts at history making. What these traditions do give is insight into Israel’s ancient faith and how that faith was continually actualized in Israel’s history of salvation.

Childs is the climax of the book: He is both “confessional and critical.” That is, he integrates historical-critical insights that have preceded him, yet with a confessional understanding of the Bible as Scripture. The canon matters to Childs, and his belief in the Bible as God’s Word–not just an object of historical study–influences his approach.

Gignilliat finally stands with Childs. For Gignilliat, “[A] confession of faith shapes, if not determines, the way we go about reading the Old Testament as Holy Scripture.” Readers who are nervous about some of the tendencies of Old Testament criticism to minimize (or ridicule) this view of the Bible as Scripture can rest assured with Gignilliat as their tour guide. Readers who are nervous about a Zondervan author writing a history of a field that has not exactly been dominated by evangelicals can also be rest assured by Gignilliat’s fair treatment of ideas and interpreters.

One great strength of A Brief History of Old Testament Criticism is Gignilliat’s consistent use of primary source materials. He does what every good philosopher should do: examines thinkers’ own writings, not just others’ writings about their writings. In this way he is able to describe his subjects in their own terms.

As I read I found myself occasionally distracted by what came across as an overly conversational tone. Although this is not present in all parts of the book, some sections overused, I thought, phrases like “all to say,” or, “it will be remembered that,” or, “at the end of the day.” The writing would have been stronger without that kind of verbal filler–and the author certainly had no need of hedging anything he said in such ways, since his brief history is a cogent, readable, and enjoyable one.

An evangelical doing Old Testament criticism may often feel how de Wette did–“lost in the middle” and in “a theological no-man’s land,” as Gignilliat describes it. But evangelicals should also know that Gignilliat is in that same territory, honoring the insights of those who have gone before, yet holding a high view of the Bible as God’s words to humanity, for then and for now. He quotes Herman Bavinck: “[Holy Scripture] was not only ‘God-breathed’ at the time it was written; it is ‘God-breathing.'”

A Brief History of Old Testament Criticism has its Zondervan product page (including sample pdf) here. It’s on Amazon here.

I received a review copy of this book from Zondervan in exchange for an unbiased review.

The reactions Jesus generated (Blog Tour of Theology of Luke and Acts, by Bock)

Luke and Acts, Darrell L. Bock says, is “a very Trinitarian story.” Indeed. The two volumes taken together go a long way to instruct the reader in the mutual relationship God shares as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. They also detail the founding of the early church and show how it continued Jesus’ ministry and mission.

The above video is from Zondervan, in promotion of their blog tour of Bock’s new book, A Theology of Luke and Acts. Blog tour participants each select a chapter on which to focus their review, i.e., a major theological theme. (Posts from Round 1 of the tour are all here.)

I focus my review on chapter 16, “How Response to Jesus Divides: The Opponents, the Crowds, and Rome as Observer of Events in Luke-Acts.” Having last semester taken an exegesis course on Mark, I had already become interested in how groups of people could have such radically different responses to the same person and message.

But first, the book more generally.

A Theology of Luke and Acts consists of three parts. Part One briefly addresses introductory matters (context, unity of Luke-Acts, extensive book outlines, etc.). Part Two covers the theology of Luke-Acts. (For the Contents and a sample chapter, see the pdf here.) Part Three then briefly concludes with Luke-Acts’s place in and contribution to the New Testament canon.

Bock makes the case right away for why study of Luke and Acts is important:

The biblical material from Luke-Acts is probably the largest and most neglected portion of the NT. Of the 7,947 verses in the NT, Luke-Acts comprises 2,157 verses, or 27.1 percent. …In addition, only Luke-Acts tells the story of Jesus Christ from his birth through the beginning of the church into the ministry of Paul. This linkage is important, for it gives perspective to the sequence of these events. …So thinking biblically, it is important to keep Luke and Acts together and tell the story of Acts with an eye on Luke.

Bock has spent the last 30 years in Luke and Acts. Many (myself included) consider his Baker commentaries on each book (Luke here; Acts here) to be the standard among recent evangelical Luke-Acts commentaries. Bock writes that this new volume “has allowed me to put together in one place many things I have said before in many distinct volumes.”

The author balances in-depth scholarship (extensive footnotes and a 16-page bibliography give the reader more to explore) with winsome, practical insight into the Biblical text. Of “discipleship and ethics in the new community” (chapter 15), for example, he writes,

Discipleship is both demanding and rewarding. According to Luke, it is people-focused, showing love for God and then treating others with love that parallels the love of the Father. In Acts, one sees little of the church serving itself and much of the church reaching out to those who need the Lord. For Luke, the people in the highly effective early church look outward.

For the preacher, teacher, or student working his or her way through Luke and Acts, this is a book to have at hand.

Chapter 16 addresses “How Response to Jesus Divides: The Opponents, the Crowds, and Rome as Observer of Events in Luke-Acts.” Bock notes that in his pre-Jerusalem ministry, “it is the Pharisees and teachers of the law who interact the most with Jesus among representatives of official Judaism,” often occurring together in Luke as a pair: “Pharisees and teachers of the law” (οἱ γραμματεῖς καὶ οἱ Φαρισαῖοι).  The Pharisees, who ridicule, question, and oppose Jesus, are “the key foil for Jesus until he gets to Jerusalem.” At that point, says Bock, “the chief priests and teachers of the law take over that role with much more hostility. …Their opposition is part of the picture of a divided Israel for Luke.” Jesus’ “new way” and claims of authority “brought reaction from those who liked the old wine.”

“Crowds” (ὄχλος), by contrast, “often note Jesus’ presence or press upon him in his ministry” in a non-oppositional way. Noting the blind man’s cry from the crowd of “Son of David” (“a messianic confession of great significance”), Bock says that those “on the fringe” or margins of the crowd are “often more sensitive” to the mission and message of Jesus. Jesus interacts with the crowd, Bock says, as teacher and healer, and yet “the crowd as a group thinks of him only as a prophet (Luke 9:18).” In Acts, the crowds are more easily swayed, “being incited or worked up to oppose the new movement.”

Rome is a mixed bag. “After Jesus, her actions protect the Christians from the hostile desires of Jewish leadership, but do so with an injustice that will not recognize their rights or release them.” And yet they are still for Luke “the unseen agent of providence in their acts,” even though they may not be aware of it.

It is easy to imagine Bock’s chapter on varied reactions to Jesus aiding the preacher or teacher, especially one who wants to elaborate on the famous “Who do you say that I am?” question of Jesus. Bock guides the reader through key texts in Luke and Acts to survey various Jewish, crowd, and Roman reactions to Jesus, whose coming, if nothing else, “generated a reaction.”

I can also easily envision someone referring to other similar chapters for a quick yet thorough overview of how Luke treats other theological themes: women and the poor (chapter 17), Israel (chapter 12), salvation (chapters 10 and 11), and so on. A Theology of Luke and Acts is worthy of Bock’s other work on those two texts, and serves as a useful reference guide.

See more about the book at Zondervan here. It is available for purchase through Amazon here.

As a blog tour participant, I received a free review copy of the book from Zondervan, but without obligation to write a positive review. The blog tour continues through the end of this week. You can follow it here.

Free Book! Ephesians commentary by Arnold (Zondervan)

I am giving away a book at Words on the Word this weekend. It’s a commentary on Ephesians by Clinton E. Arnold, from Zondervan’s Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament series.

Last weekend I reviewed Luke from that same series. You can read that review to find out more about the structure and layout of each book in the series. Anyone who is preaching, teaching, or just studying their own way through Ephesians will find this book illuminating. Those who know even a little Greek will benefit most from this book, but Arnold translates everything, so those who know no Greek will benefit, too.

I will choose a winner at random. To enter the drawing, comment on this blog post with your answer to the question, “If you had a chance to sit down for a cup of coffee or tea with the apostle Paul today, what is the first thing you would ask him?” (I know what I would ask!)

Then if you link to this post on your Facebook, Twitter, blog, etc., come back here to tell me in the comments section that you did, and you’ll receive a second entry. I will announce the winner on the blog first thing Monday morning.

If you want to skip the giveaway contest and just buy the book for yourself, you can find it here.

Zondervan Book Giveaway

Head over to Koinonia, Zondervan Academic’s blog, for another Wednesday giveaway. This time they are giving away the forthcoming Four Views on the Apostle Paul. Details are here.

I’m especially grateful to Zondervan for their featuring one of my reviews on their blog recently.

Koinonia is accepting submissions until Thursday midnight.

Luke (Zondervan ECNT), reviewed

The last few weeks I’ve been spending time with David Garland’s Luke volume in Zondervan’s Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (ZECNT) series.

Garland’s commentary is more than 1,000 pages, but this should not be a surprise, since Luke is the longest Gospel. Like the rest of the ZECNT series, it is “designed for the pastor and Bible teacher.” Garland assumes a basic knowledge of Greek, but Greek is not required to understand his commentary. For each passage the commentary gives the broader literary context, the main idea (great for preachers!), an original translation of the Greek and its graphical layout, the structure, an outline, explanation, and “theology in application” section.

The graphical layout of each passage is a unique contribution that Garland’s Luke makes to Luke studies. Even though a narrative book like Luke is easier to follow than some of Paul’s detailed arguments, seeing main clauses in bold with subordinate clauses indented under them (plus how they relate back to the main clause) gives the reader a quick, visual grasp of the entire passage at hand. Garland does this well, too. Pages 50 and 62-63 of the commentary in this sample pdf give you a taste.

Luke has the full Greek text of Luke, verse by verse, and full English translation by Garland (passage by passage in the graphical layout, then again verse by verse next to the Greek). A value for me in using reference works is not having to pull five more reference works off the shelf to use the first reference work! This is about as portable as exegesis of Luke gets. Garland’s English translation is a bit wooden at times–just about every καὶ in the opening narrative of 1:5-25 receives the translation “and,” which it shouldn’t always. ὁ δὲ ἀποκριθεὶς εἶπεν in 10:27 becomes “He answered and said,” where just “He said,” would be preferred.

Garland’s intro is short, but covers what it needs to. He attributes authorship to Luke and holds to Luke-Acts unity, as many scholars do. (“[Luke] is writing not simply about the life of Jesus but what Jesus inaugurated that continued in the deeds of his followers (Acts 1:1-8)” (27).) He understands Luke-Acts as fitting into the genre of “Hellenistic historiography.” He treats Luke’s potential sources, date of writing, readers, location, purpose, and structural outline. There is an additional “theology of Luke” section at the back of the commentary that complements the introduction. It doesn’t cover all the theological themes in Luke (healing/exorcism, for example, is absent), but it doesn’t claim to, either.

Where Garland really shines in this commentary is in his treatment of the Greek words and phrases that comprise the Luke text. He attends to the lexical meaning of given words, how they function in context, and their use in other parts of Scripture. This is helpful especially for parts of Luke where the Greek vocabulary is more obscure or difficult.

Teachers and preachers especially will appreciate the “Theology in Application” section that concludes each passage. To the pastor wondering how to preach on something like Luke’s prologue, Garland writes:

The purpose of the gospel is not to give information but certainty that will change lives. Erudition about Jesus is not the same as insight into Jesus. The history of Jesus is not to be divorced from the proclamation about Jesus, as if the two were somehow incompatible. (58)

This comes after a detailed exegesis of the first four verses. As someone with preaching experience, I can say this combination of thorough attention to the Greek text with contemporary application is pure gold.

Inevitably no commentary can say everything about every word in the text, but there are parts of Luke that I thought deserved more attention. For example, in Luke 8:31 the demons known as Legion beg Jesus not to cast them into the Abyss (Greek ἄβυσσος). Garland just offers, “The Abyss is the place of punishment for evil spirits” (358). Although he infers that this verse shows the “eschatological dimension” to exorcisms, nothing more is given about ἄβυσσος. For a word that appears just once in the Gospels yet multiple times in the Old Testament and Apocrypha, more background on this term would have been useful to the reader. This could, of course, merely reflect a space limitation in the commentary.

On the other hand, Garland’s commentary on the Good Samaritan parable (“merciful” as Garland has it) leaves out just about nothing. To provide needed historical context to the passage, Garland draws on what Josephus said about priests, what Sirach said about helping those in need, and includes an excursus on the “adversarial history” of Jews and Samaritans. Garland compellingly concludes from the parable:

The original Jewish audience must enter the ditch and accept a Samaritan as a savior, helper, and healer. They must experience being touched by this unclean enemy who treats a wounded man as a compatriot. (446)

Garland seeks to prove right the series claim that “all who strive to understand and teach the New Testament will find these books beneficial,” and he succeeds in this. Preachers or students of Luke will want to supplement Garland’s work with other works on Luke (Bock’s two volume set remains the standard), but the graphical layout of each passage and the theology in application sections alone are enough to warrant careful consideration of this volume.

(I am grateful to Zondervan for the free review copy of this commentary, which was offered to me in exchange for an unbiased review. You can find the book on Amazon here.)

UPDATE: Enter to win a free book giveaway of Ephesians from this same series.

Review of Biblical Hebrew: A Compact Guide

At long last, a compact reference guide to Biblical Hebrew!  Not long ago Zondervan released Biblical Greek: A Compact Guide, a helpful and portable distillation of Mounce’s oft-used grammar. Many such little books already exist for easily reviewing Koine Greek: Dale Russell Bowne’s Paradigms and Principal Parts for the Greek New Testament, Paul Fullmer and Robert H. Smith’s Greek at a Glance, and even the back of Kubo’s Reader’s Lexicon has a good summary of Greek grammar with paradigm charts.

There seem to be more resources available to students of Biblical Greek than to students of Biblical Hebrew.  For example, while there is just one (excellent!) “Reader’s” Hebrew Bible (uncommon vocabulary is glossed at the bottom of the page), I am aware of at least three Reader’s Bibles that exist for the Greek New Testament.  So Van Pelt’s Compact Guide, based on his and Pratico’s Basics of Biblical Hebrew, is a welcome addition as far as this eager Hebrew student is concerned.

The book is not terribly dissimilar from Pratico/Van Pelt’s Charts of Biblical Hebrew, but unlike that work, A Compact Guide is more than just a collection of charts and paradigms.  Each section includes a distillation of what is in the grammar text, followed by paradigms and charts for quick reference.

Oddly enough, though, at times there seems to be more precision and detail in this little book than in the larger grammar.  Or perhaps it’s just more nuance that has come to articulation with the passage of time since the publishing of the grammar’s second edition.  For example, whereas the grammar lists three kinds of Hebrew prepositions (independent, Maqqef, and inseparable), the Compact Guide adds a fourth: compound prepositions, where “two different prepositions, or a preposition and a noun” (28) combine to make a new preposition.

The primary focus of the guide is morphology (how words are formed, including paradigm charts) and syntax (how words are used in sentences, i.e., grammar).  There is nothing in the work by way of vocabulary, save for a Hebrew-English mini-lexicon at the back of the book.  Unfortunately, at least in the digital galley version I viewed, there was no introduction or explanatory note as to what constituted inclusion on the lexicon.  By contrast, in Mounce’s Greek counterpart, his lexicon notes that it includes words that occur in the New Testament 10 times or more.

In addition to a thorough listing of paradigms (the 11-page section on pronominal suffixes is particularly helpful), the book is filled with examples from the Hebrew Bible (with English translation).  The Hebrew font used, while not as easy to read as that of the grammar, is readable enough.

The section on verbs is a particular strength of this work–in addition to examining all the forms and stems (both strong and weak), there are extensive listings of paradigms for easy review.

All in all, I give a hearty two thumbs up for this work–and express my gratitude that it is now on the scene for those who want to keep their Biblical Hebrew fresh!  For a beginner in Biblical Hebrew I would recommend the full-length grammar textbook, but for those with even a semester or two of Hebrew (and beyond), this small reference guide will be a valuable and inexpensive addition to their library.

The guide releases August 20, 2012, although you can preview some of it here now. (I received a digital galley for review through Net Galley.)

UPDATE: I review the hard copy, now released, here.