December 7, 2013

Two reference books for advanced students and teachers of the Bible

When Wiley-Blackwell kindly sent me review copies of The Blackwell Companion to the New Testament and The Blackwell Companion to the Bible and Culture, a quick look showed two volumes of encyclopedic scope well-suited for an upper level college text or a desk reference guide for serious biblical scholars. As a lifelong student of the Bible in almost every English translation, I wanted to see how deeply I might delve into historical criticism, literary criticism, rhetorical criticism, form criticism, and other scholarly approaches to biblical texts.

Diving into The Blackwell Companion to the New Testament, I found no shallow waters. Once I’d caught my breath, I saw the diverse methods of interpretation as various ways of approaching a subject as one might do, say, in finding a fresh angle for photographing a familiar object in a new light. Although every approach might not interest me personally, many do. As a poet and writer, for example, I’m intrigued by form criticism for its study of literary patterns (or forms) and identification of the Bible stories, parables, proverbs, or other sayings, passed along by word-of-mouth until being incorporated into a written text.

A chapter on “The Rise of New Testament Archaeology” has special appeal, too, for its discoveries of ancient texts and artifacts that shed light on biblical interpretations and NT times. Indeed, Helena, the mother of emperor Constantine who influenced him towards Christianity, traveled to Jerusalem on a quest to locate the site of the crucifixion, thereby launching archaeological digs similar to what we know today. Over the years, subsequent excavations unearthed a “domestic area overlooking the Temple Mount,” where, “houses are remarkable for their size, beauty, and evidence of wealth.” For example, the chapter mentions, “One of the houses (the ‘Palatial Mansion’) was over 6,000 square feet and had many of the features of the luxurious villas…” of the “architecturally privileged” – people who had social status and power in Jesus’ day. In extreme contrast, other archaeological digs in Jerusalem have produced skeletal evidence of crucifixion, a cruel form of death.

In the chapter, “Literary Criticism,” editor David E. Aune addresses such aspects of literature as the viewpoint or narrator, setting, characters, plot, and rhetoric or “the ways an author uses the features of narrative to persuade readers to enter into and accept the world of the story” – literary qualities important in telling a story well, whether fictitious or true. In the Gospel of Mark, for example, “Mark assumes a cosmic setting (God and angels, Satan and demons, clean and unclean animals, etc.), but this cosmic setting has somehow gone wrong and is in the process of change, providing a context for divine-human conflict to drive the plot.”

Hopefully, this gives you a passing splash of the depth readers plunge into in exploring approaches to biblical criticism, which the editor hastens to explain has no negative connotations but “refers to the use of independent reason in investigating the origins, text, composition, history, content, and claims of books of the Bible and to the ability to make informed decisions about authenticity and inauthenticity, truth and falsehood.”

With The Blackwell Companion to the New Testament highly recommended for its biblical scholarship, The Blackwell Companion to the Bible and Culture seems more reader-friendly but just as thorough as indicated by its ample citations and impressive bibliographies at the end of each chapter. Both books also make excellent reference guides without overlapping. i.e., Instead of presenting approaches that influence our understanding of a biblical text, The Blackwell Companion to the Bible and Culture shows the influence of the Bible on literature, art, music, psychology, and even history and politics.

In 30 chapters, key topics include “Part I. Revealing the Past,” which shows the influence of the Bible from ancient to modern times; “Part II. The Nomadic Test,” which begins with the biblical influence on Judaism and travels through Asia and the Americas; “Part III. The Bible and the Senses,” which delves into ways the Bible has helped to shape literature, film, and other arts; and “Part IV. Reading in Practice,” which touches on political, economic, and even national values, such as our ongoing cry for justice, freedom, and human rights.

©2013, Mary Harwell Sayler

The Blackwell Companion to the New Testament, hardcover

The Blackwell Companion to the Bible and Culture, paperback

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