on 5 December 2010
I found this book to be hugely informative (deserving five stars for what it deals with), and hugely misleading (because of what it leaves out, and so deserving only one star, because overall it fails). I give it two reluctant stars.
The Product Description is very informative: "[T]his unique introduction ... seeks ... to illuminate the literature of the Old Testament by showing how it was shaped by the events, social structures, and religions and intellectual ideas of the ancient civilizations and cultures in which it was produced ... Rather than a conventional canonical-theological approach, it offers an approach for those interested in the Old Testament as a monumental cultural achievement ... and requires a minimum of prior knowledge or expertise." [The last clause doesn't seem accurate to me: considerable "prior knowledge and expertise" are required, since the book is seeking to replace the centuries-long paradigm of OT scholarship with a new one, beginning from the end of the eighteenth century but rapidly accelerating post-World-War-II and from the turn of the 20th/21st centuries.]
The first three chapters deal with the 'Geography and Ecology of Ancient Palestine', the 'Social Organisation', and 'The Peoples of the Old Testament World'. All very necessary, and well explained.
Part II, 'The History and Religion of Israel', begins to come to the nitty-gritty of what we are really studying: Israel itself, though always with the background acknowledgment of its being one among the nations. The chapters deal successively with 'Until the Time of Solomon' (ch 4); 'From the Death of Solomon to the Babylonian Deportation' (ch 5); 'Judah under the Persians and Ptolemies and the Judeans in Babylonia' (ch 6 - the most complicated and the most important period for the emergence of Judah/Israel with its own definite identity, and for the final redaction of many of the Old Testament books).
Part III, 'Literature and Life', does broad-brush exegesis of various OT tests. Successive chapters analyze the 'Creation and Origin Stories' in Genesis 1-11, compared with the Sumerian and Akkadian versions (ch 8), the nature of Narrative (ch 9), Legal Texts (10), Sacrifices and Psalms (ch 11); and then 'Prophetic, Wisdom and Apocalyptic Literature (chs 11, 12, 13 respectively).
These chapters (4-14) on the history, literature and life of Israel, and later ones too, convincingly build up the `new paradigm' of a continuous redaction of the sources of the OT text, so that, for example, even the `writing prophets' as we now have them are not the products of individuals sitting at their desks and writing scrolls of their prophecies from start to finish. The OT text is everywhere the eventual result of a long-evolving development, with additions, omissions, updatings, and rewritings of real (or even fictional) historical events in the light of contemporary events.
But with Chapter 15, `Beyond the Old Testament', I lost confidence in the authors. In spite of using the term `religion' in some chapter headings, and mentioning associated terms here and there, the Index of the book has no entries for `inspiration, religion, revelation, theology'. This simply will not do. The authors do not rigorously examine the theology of the Old Testament against the surrounding theologies. What is distinctive about the OT? This book misses altogether the point that it simply had to have, because it does not ask: when did the `the Old Testament World' end, and what must it include? There are various possible choices. From the literary point of view, one could argue for an end date set by the last OT writing, Daniel, about 165 BCE. Politically, the end might be seen as the Roman conquest in 63 BCE, or as the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE; or as the (uncertain) acceptance of an OT canon around 90 CE; or even, best of all, as the defeat of Bar Kochba and the final destruction of Jerusalem in 135 CE.
I maintain that EVERY discussion of `the Old Testament World', once it goes beyond Daniel's date, must go on to 70 CE or 135 CE. This means that the life, death, and claimed resurrection and ascension of Jesus of Nazareth, and the outpouring of the Spirit on the first Pentecost, and the founding and spread of the Christian Church (for me, as it developed, the Roman Catholic Church), and Paul, and the whole New Testament, must be included in a discussion of the `Old Testament World'. I see a straight-line continuation, from the history and prophecies of the Old Testament, to Christianity. If one leaves this out one leaves an unfinished `Old Testament' story.
I conclude by quoting the extraordinary words which the authors write in the paragraphs headed `Messianism' on page 222: "This unfortunate and inappropriate term [Messianism] is nevertheless commonly used to convey the widespread Jewish belief during this period that the course of history, which had recently turned against Jews in Palestine, would soon be brought to an end ... However important it has been in the past for Christians to imagine a Judaism waiting for a messiah, there was no `messianic Judaism' and no `messianic doctrine, but the notion of some kind of divinely appointed leader was common. Among Sadducees, of course, messianic ideas of any kind were rejected. And they reached diaspora Judaism only in the form of Christianity; for most of these the notion of a messiah was irrelevant (and politically unwise, anyway). This may be why Paul refers to Jesus as `Christ', literally a translation of `anointed' but in fact meaningless to most of his readers."
I cannot believe that the authors are serious. It seems incredible that I need to appeal to the immense literature on Messiahs and Messianism, against the authors' unbelievable one-page dismissal of it. See my own reviews of The First Messiah (Michael O Wise), The Messiah Before Jesus (Israel Knohl), The Jewish Messiah (Dan Cohn-Sherbok).
And the Dead Sea Scrolls? And John 20.31: "These things [signs] are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name".