Daniel J. Harrington
The Bible's influence through history
Image

One of the most attractive and productive approaches in biblical studies in recent years goes by the German term Wirkungsgeschichte, that is, the history of the Bible’s influence or effects. The books covered in this survey illustrate in various ways the influence of the Bible and its interpretation throughout the centuries and today.

Henry Wansbrough’s The Use and Abuse of the Bible: A Brief History of Biblical Interpretation (T&T Clark) offers a sound, concise, engaging and stimulating journey through the history of biblical interpretation from New Testament times to the present. Wansbrough, a British Benedictine monk of Ampleforth Abbey, seeks to capture some of the ways in which the Scriptures have been interpreted in Christianity and on its fringes—for good (mostly) or for ill (in some cases). His volume contains general chapters on the interpretation of the Old Testament in the New Testament, the Bible in the politics of early 17th-century England, the Bible and the State of Israel, and the Second Vatican Council and the revival of lectio divina. It also considers individuals and their contributions to the history of biblical interpretation: Melito of Sardis, Irenaeus, Origen, Jerome, Bede, Bernard of Clairvaux, Thomas Aquinas, Julian of Norwich, Margery Kempe, Martin Luther, John and Charles Wesley and John Henry Newman.

In treating these topics and figures, Wansbrough offers a nice blend of historical and biographical context, samples of their approaches to the Bible and appropriate praise and blame for the results. For example, he praises Origen for insisting on the mystical sense of Scripture and Jerome for stressing the literal sense, while noting the dangers of overemphasizing either approach. And he applauds the Wesley brothers for their abundant use of Scripture in their hymns and preaching, but also lauds Newman for striking a balance between Scripture and tradition and facing up to the challenges posed by the new archaeological, historical and literary studies of the Bible in the 19th century. He regards most of these interpreters sympathetically and even affectionately, though he is very tough on the early Zionists’ political/propagandistic use of the Old Testament and biblical archaeology in the Land of Israel. All in all, this is a remarkably solid and appealing survey of Christian biblical interpretation and theology by a distinguished biblical interpreter in his own right.

What happens when familiar interpretations of biblical texts (such as the creation story in Genesis 1) clash with history and archaeology, modern science, biblical scholarship and good sense? In Making Sense of the Bible: Difficult Texts and Modern Faith (Paulist), Antony F. Campbell, S.J., explores how critical study of the Old Testament, along with current trends in biblical scholarship, can assist readers today in understanding what may appear to be difficult and problematic scriptural texts in ways that are beneficial to modern faith and do not endanger it. His motto is “Go, think!”

Campbell first treats Israel’s traditions in the Pentateuch about humanity (creation, the garden, Cain, the flood, Babel), Israel’s ancestors (Abraham and Sarah; Isaac and Rebekah; Jacob, Leah and Rachel; Joseph) and Mount Sinai (the law, the sanctuary). Then he considers issues regarding Joshua and the land (Israel’s doing, God’s doing, the absolutely appalling—with an appendix on archaeology and the book of Joshua) and King David (his climb to power and his middle years). Campbell contends that while we can no longer do what our forebears did with these texts, when we now see what we can do with them we can and should be encouraged.

Campbell regards Genesis 1, for example, not as an account about how God created the world but rather as a grand portrayal of Israel’s longing for an ideal and ordered world and a fitting preface to the book’s dour reflections on human limit (the garden), human violence (Cain), human existence (the flood) and human ambition (Babel). Bible readers who find themselves puzzled or even embarrassed by certain Old Testament texts will discover here many fresh and stimulating insights for today.

Among the enduring (and questionable) legacies of the Bible over the centuries have been the model of the patriarchal family and the complementarity of the sexes (as in “women’s work”). In Women’s Lives in Biblical Times (T&T Clark), Jennie R. Ebeling, associate professor of archaeology at the University of Evansville, presents a reconstruction of the life of a fictional woman named “Orah”—Hebrew for “light”—in a small village in the central highlands of Iron Age I Israel (1200-1000 B.C.). She works on the basis of archaeology, the Hebrew Bible, other ancient Near Eastern and Egyptian texts, iconography and ethnography.

In seven chapters Ebeling chronicles Orah’s life “from cradle to grave”: birth and background, childhood, womanhood, marriage, childbirth, motherhood, and old age and death. She focuses on the events, customs, crafts and technologies, and other activities in which Israelite women would have participated daily according to the agricultural calendar by which they lived. She gives particular attention to women’s control of such diverse crafts and technologies as pottery production, spinning, weaving, basketry and hide-working, along with women’s essential contributions in the realms of midwifery, birth, breast-feeding, child rearing and household religious rituals, as well as their participation in supposedly male activities like harvesting and processing grain, grapes, olives and other crops.

The Iron Age I archaeological period in ancient Israel correlates with events described in the book of Judges and leading up to the formation of the monarchy under Saul and David. It was a decisive period in the formation of the various peoples in the central highlands into what came to be understood as Israel. Ebeling has a great story to tell, and she does so quite effectively by correlating each chapter not only with an age in Orah’s life but also with the various festivals on the ancient agricultural calendar (Passover, Weeks, Tabernacles, etc.). In each chapter she develops four topics pertaining to women’s life. For example, with regard to Orah’s childhood (at age 8) she treats education and literacy, baking and brewing, pottery production and spinning and weaving. Thus she brings to life the day-to-day existence of characters about whom the Bible says relatively very little.

Most introductions to the Old Testament these days are written with an eye to the large secular university textbook market. Thus they tend to concentrate on historical and literary matters and avoid theology and spirituality. Michael W. Duggan’s The Consuming Fire: A Christian Guide to the Old Testament (Our Sunday Visitor) is different in that it treats the Old Testament explicitly as part of the Christian Bible and makes many connections with the New Testament and Christian piety.

Duggan, who teaches at St. Mary’s University College in Calgary, takes his title from the biblical image of God’s glory or word as “like a consuming fire” (Ex 24:17; Dt 4:24; etc.). After setting the stage with almost 100 pages of introductory material, he treats each book in the Pentateuch, Historical Books, Prophets, Writings and Deuterocanonical Books. He sets the individual books in their historical contexts, explains their content, notes some of their major themes or topics and provides a detailed outline. His discussions are solidly based on the biblical texts, conversant with modern scholarship, objective and fair in judgment and expressed in a clear and concise manner.

What sets his work apart are the sections on the legacy of the Old Testament books in the New Testament and the invitations to the meditative reading of specific passages. While most obviously a textbook, this volume can be kept as a reference work and a stimulus to serious discussion and prayerful reading of Scripture.

The enduring legacy of Jesus and his first followers has resided primarily in the four Gospels attributed to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. In Who Chose the Gospels? Probing the Great Gospel Conspiracy (Oxford University Press), Charles E. Hill, professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, takes issue with some prominent scholars (and their followers in the popular media) who claim that the choice of those four Gospels represents merely the political victory of one “proto-orthodox” party supported by the emperor Constantine. This development supposedly had its roots in the polemical writing of Irenaeus around A.D. 200. On the contrary, Hill traces the idea of just four canonical Gospels and their authority in the churches back to around A.D. 100 and argues that their content and protagonist (Jesus) made them self-attesting and self-authenticating.

The second century of the Christian era was pivotal, according to Hill, in the development of the four-Gospel canon and the church’s faith. By all accounts it was a wild and woolly time in church history. Having published widely about this period, Hill culls the evidence for his thesis from ancient manuscripts as well as the earliest Christian writings outside the canon (Irenaeus, Justin, Apologists, Apostolic Fathers, apocryphal Gospels and even the enemies of Christianity). The trail ends with Papias and the mysterious John the Elder in the early second century. Hill’s learned, careful and sensible readings of the ancient texts provide a healthy antidote to the skeptical and sensationalist treatments they have too often received in recent years.

Ernst Käsemann (1906–98) was one of the most famous biblical scholars of the 20th century. He served as a Lutheran pastor in the early years of Nazi oppression, and after World War II he was a professor on the Protestant theological faculties at Mainz, Göttingen and Tübingen. While he wrote important monographs on Hebrews and on the theme of the body of Christ, as well as a full-scale commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Romans, he is perhaps best known from his provocative essays on such topics as the quest for the historical Jesus, justification as the center of Pauline theology, and unity and diversity in the New Testament.

On Being a Disciple of the Crucified Nazarene (Eerdmans) is the English version of the 2005 German collection of 28 previously unpublished lectures and sermons delivered by Käsemann between 1975 and 1996. They treat many of his favorite topics: the kingdom of God, discipleship and faith, the righteousness of God according to Paul, the body and Christ’s body, justification and gospel freedom, Paul’s letter to the Galatians, the Sermon on the Mount, possession and healing, and so on. Käsemann was always both an exegete and a preacher, and his challenging (and sometimes cantankerous) statements keep alive the theological legacies of both Paul and Luther. His essays are full of theological passion and will surely stimulate all who read them today.

The Pauline Year observed in 2008-9 produced many excellent studies of Paul’s life, missionary activity, letters and theology (see America, 3/9/09, pp. 22-25). A somewhat overlooked topic, however, was the legacy of Paul in early Christian circles. In The Making of Paul: Constructions of the Apostle in Early Christianity (Fortress), Richard I. Pervo, the author of the massive and learned commentary on the Acts of the Apostles (2009) for the Hermeneia series, seeks to provide a survey of how Paul was remembered, honored and vilified in the early churches. His goal is to describe how Paul became the pillar and founder of catholic Christianity, that is, the emerging “great church” of the period from A.D. 150 to A.D. 250. His focus is on how Paul’s undisputed letters and the figure of Paul the Apostle were used to carry on the Pauline tradition and were adapted to speak to the needs of Christians long after Paul’s death.

Pervo first describes how Paul’s undisputed letters (Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians and Philemon) were gathered, edited and circulated in the form of a collection around A.D. 100. Then he considers how the pseudepigraphical Pauline letters (Colossians, Ephesians, 2 Thessalonians, Pastorals, etc.) carried on and developed the Pauline tradition in various ways and how the figure of Paul appears in other early Christian letters (such as Hebrews, James, 1 Peter, etc.) and in narratives (Acts of the Apostles, Acts of Paul, Epistula Apostolorum, etc.). Next he deals with possible examples of opposition to Paul in Matthew’s Gospel and with the silences about Paul in other early writings. Finally he discusses how Paul was interpreted and used by Marcion, the Gnostics and Irenaeus.

This volume is immensely learned, full of fresh insights and connections and written in a lively and engaging style. Pervo plays very well the role of the historian as detective, always in search of loose ends, inconsistencies and contradictions, and other clues in the ancient sources. He defines the legacy of Paul as an inspiration to generate fresh understandings of his message for the service of the church and the world. He observes ironically that although Paul gave his life in pursuit of unity, he has often been the apostle of disunity; but that the complexity of his legacy is a fitting tribute to his memory.

The year 2011 marks the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Version, the British Protestant translation that has functioned as “the Bible” for English-speaking Christians for many centuries. In Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible (Princeton University Press), Robert Alter, who has taught Hebrew and comparative literature at the University of California at Berkeley since 1967 and has for many years been a pioneer in the literary study of the Old Testament, contends that it is in America that the potential of the 1611 KJV to determine the foundational language and symbolic imagery of a whole culture has been most fully realized. Taking his title from its translation of Jer 17:1, Alter explores the role of this translation in the shaping of style in the American novel, and so seeks to reanimate the sense of the importance of literary style in the novel.

After a seven-page prelude, he discusses literary style in the United States and the King James Version, and then considers various aspects of its stylistic influence in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick—polyphony; William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!—lexicon; Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day—American amalgam; Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises—the world through parataxis; and other American novels, including Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Alter concludes that the resonant language and the arresting vision of the King James Version, however old fashioned they may seem, continue to ring in our cultural memory. For those who love the Bible, the English language, literary stylistics and great American novels, this will be an engaging and stimulating book.

The legacy of the Bible can be found in many different forms and places. Tracking its influence is a fascinating enterprise in itself. It is yet another indication that the word of God is “living and active” (Heb 4:12).

Daniel J. Harrington, S.J., professor of New Testament and editor of New Testament Abstracts at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry, has contributed an annual survey of new books on the Bible to America

Recently in Culture