June 20, 2011

Review: Lieb, Mason, Roberts, eds., "The Oxford Handbook of the Reception History of the Bible"

Title: The Oxford Handbook of the Reception History of the Bible
Editors: Michael Lieb, Emma Mason, Jonathan Roberts
Consultant Editor: Christopher Rowland
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Genre: Religion/History/Literature
Year: 2011
Pages: 752 pages
ISBN13: 978-0-19-920454-0
Binding: Hardcover (9.7 x 6.7)
Price: $150.00

To paraphrase the Gospel of John: "And there are many ways which Christians have understood the Bible, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written." Instead of filling the entire world with new books, Oxford's new Handbook of the Reception History of the Bible has a more limited scope. Co-editor Jonathan Roberts describes the scholarly enterprise of "reception history" as "selecting and collating shards of that infinite wealth of reception material in accordance with the particular interests of the historian concerned, and giving them a narrative frame" (1). The main questions are these:

-Whose responses to the Bible are deemed to be of importance?
-What biblical texts receive special attention in their particular readings?
-How do they justify their selection?
-To what ends are their readings marshaled?

Perhaps the foremost question this book asks is: "What does it mean to be a reader?" Before describing the rest of the book, here's a brief snapshot of how Jonathan Roberts addresses what it means to be a reader in the Handbook's introduction:

The empirical Enlightenment understanding of reading disregards the reader's subjectivity. In other words, a text is treated as an object 'out there,' an object which anyone can approach and, given enough time, understand in much the same way. This differs from a "Romantic" approach to reading, which prizes the individual subjective experience of reading. A reader can basically craft the meaning of the text apart from considering things like the original author's intent, or the way the text has traditionally been understood.

Philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900-2002) advocated for an approach to reading which differed from these two models. He drew attention to the "situated nature of all interpretive acts" (1). He hoped for a "dialogical relationship" between the reader, the text, and the past (2). Rather than being overly suspicious of traditional readings, Gadamer wants to promote a trusting, questioning relationship to tradition in order to understand what a text has meant to people over time, and for what reasons. But this kind of reading comes with a hefty price. It "demands the relinquishment of a foundationalist dream that the meaning of biblical (or indeed any) texts can be settled once and for all" (3).

Or, to put it more bluntly: The editors and contributors to this volume believe that "no individual, school, or group does or can own biblical reception" (7). They help us explore the mystery of reading by describing various ways the Bible has been understood—the ways it has impacted millions, perhaps billions of lives, be they Jewish, Christian, Hindu, Gnostic, agnostic, feminist, pacifist, and a number of other backgrounds. "All of us," Roberts writes, "live in a changing world in which engagements with the Bible are themselves ever changing. It is a world in which there are always new engagements between readers and the Bible (or 'Bibles', as that text shifts according to manuscript translation and tradition), and those engagements will never stabilize)" (8). The Handbook traces that instability in two parts, forty-four chapters, each written by a scholar of biblical or literary studies.

Each of the twelve chapters in Part I focuses on a specific book in the Bible. These chapters survey the outline, form, and content of seven Old Testament books and five New Testament books deemed "influential in the history of interpretation" (6). I was particularly impressed with John F. A. Sawyer's chapter on Job. Not only does he usefully describe "historical-critical problems" (28), evidence people have interpreted to suggest that the book of Job has changed over time, but he goes on to explore the "theological and philosophical issues" raised in the book (31), including the problem of evil, suffering, and God. John J. Collins's chapter on Daniel sets the stage for later chapters which discuss millennialism and the construction of timetables by various apocalyptic groups into the 20th century.

Part II contains in-depth analysis of how social and historical contexts have helped to shape interpretations of biblical passages and themes. Not only do these chapters provide outlines of how the Bible has been understood by different people at different times, they often enact that very difference. Albert C. Labriola's magisterial chapter on the Bible and iconography explores medieval manuscripts which display striking interpretations of the doctrine of the Trinity. David J. Clark's personal involvement with translations of the Bible for communities in Thailand and Russia directly informs his chapter regarding linguistic and cultural influences on Bible translations. In "The Origins, Scope, and Spread of the Millenarian Idea," Peter Clarke follows eschatology from origins in Zoroastrianism through more recent unfamiliar territory: the Tonghak/Ch'ondogyo movement, Won Buddhism, and the Unification Church (the so-called Moonies) in Korea, in addition to Rastafarianism, Mahdism (an Islamic manifestation), and the secular millennial visions of early Marxism. Richard Harries pits retaliationism against pacifism by looking at key texts various war movements historically employed to justify their positions. Ann Loades tells the story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton's overall discontent with scripture's affects on women in her chapter on "The Women's Bible." (Incidentally, this is the only chapter in which Mormonism is mentioned. "One of Stanton's most powerful lectures," Loades notes, "was on the state of married women, including that of polygamous Mormon women—polygamy being nowhere condemned in the Bible, as its readers could discover," p. 314).

Other chapters explore homosexuality, black liberation theology, Latin American views of exodus, and pop-cultural biblical manifestations in Dan Brown novels and Bob Dylan records. (For a full account of the Handbook's diversity, see the Table of Contents at the end of this review.) Valentine Cunnigham's concluding essay, "Bible Reading And/After Theory," is a labyrinthine, post-modernish disorientation which could have used an explanation of itself! Absent a chapter summarizing the whole book, the collection's ending with Cunningham left this reader a little off-kilter.        

The size, construction, and price of the book all seem to imply it is directed largely at universities and libraries. All but one chapter concludes with useful "Works Cited" and "Further Reading" sections (the one exception being "Augustine and Pelagius on the Epistle to the Romans"). It also contains useful subject and scripture citation indexes. The hardcover price seems steep, but if it follows the publication path of other books in the Handbook series, you can expect to pay around $55 for a future paperback edition.

Above all, this collection expertly explodes single-minded exegesis of the Bible by raising questions from a diverse spectrum of culture and history. How do various Jews approach the story of Job in a post-holocaust world? How have "fundamentalist" Christians competed with Darwinism through the creation narrative of Genesis? Why did Gandhi regard the Sermon on the Mount as being second only to his beloved Bhagavad Gita? What scriptures have African American preachers used to craft homiletic sermons in the 21st century? What can we learn about the interplay of imagination and inspiration by examining William Blake's biblical illustrations? How have Bob Dylan, U2, and Handel approached the biblical text for inspiration?

These questions are especially apt for inspiring excitement, as well as humility, on the part of biblical readers. Throughout the centuries, "individuals and groups have activated [the Bible's] passages, personalities, images, and events to meet the conditions they confronted," writes Scott M. Langston in his chapter on twentieth-century American views of the Exodus. His description wonderfully captures the overall purpose and spirit of the Handbook: The Bible doesn't sit passively, waiting to be obediently molded by readers. It also actively "stimulates readers' thoughts and actions" to influence personal spirituality, politics, culture, art, music, and life in general. "This influence...highlights the need to better understand the reception history...not merely as a scholarly endeavour, but as one that enlightens diverse human experiences. Much work remains to be done" (445).

The Handbook is an informative, entertaining, and diverse invitation to further engage in the work of reception history.             


Table of Contents

Introduction , Jonathan Roberts

Part One

Old Testament
1. Genesis, Rachel Havrelock
2. Job, John F. A. Sawyer
3. Psalms, Katherine Dell
4. Isaiah, John F. A. Sawyer
5. Ezekiel, Paul Joyce
6. Daniel, John J. Collins
7. Judges, David M. Gunn

New Testament
8. Gospel of John, Catrin H. Williams
9. Romans, Guy J. Williams
10. Corinthians, Judith Kovacs
11. Galatians, John Riches
12. Revelation, Christopher Rowland

Part Two 

Hermeneutical and Historical Issues
13. The Bible and Iconography, Albert C. Labriola
14. Linguistic and Cultural Influences on Interpretation in Translations of the Bible, David J. Clark
15. Memory, Imagination, and the Interpretation of Scripture in the Middle Ages, Mary Carruthers
16. Bible and Millenarianism, Peter Clarke
17. Non Retaliation and Military Force, Richard Harries
18. The Bible and Anti-Semitism, Tobias Nicklas
19. Dante and the Bible, Piero Boitani
20. George Friedric Handel and the Messiah, John Butt
21. Elizabeth Cady Stanton's The Women's Bible, Ann Loades
22. Uchimura and the Bible in Japan, Atsuhiro Asano
23. One Bible, Two Preachers: Patchwork Sermons and Sacred Art in the American South, Carol Crown
24. Bob Dylan's Bible, Michael J. Gilmour
25. From John's Gospel to Dan Brown: The Magdalene Code, Robin Griffith-Jones

Hebrew Bible
26. Gnostic Interpretations of Genesis, Ismo Dunderberg
27. Samuel Wilberforce, Thomas Huxley, and Genesis, John Hedley Brooke
28. Sodomy and Gendered Love: Reading Genesis 19 in the Anglican Communion, Jay Emerson Johnson
29. Exodus in Early Twentieth Century America: Charles Reynolds Brown and Lawrence Langner, Scott Langston
30. The Use of Exodus by the Africaanas and Liberation Theologians, Paulo Nogueira
31. Elihu's Spiritual Sensation: William Blake's Illustrations to the Book of Job, Emma Mason
32. Ezekiel 1 and the Nation of Islam, Michael Lieb
33. Post-Holocaust Jewish Interpretations of Job, Isabel Wollaston
34. Seventh Day Adventists, Daniel, and Revelation, Kenneth G. C. Newport
35. Esther and Hitler: A Second Triumphant Purim, Jo Carruthers

New Testament
36. Kierkegaard on the Lilies and the Birds: Matthew 6, George Pattison
37. Ghandi's Interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount, Jeremy Holtom
38. Preaching, Politics, and Paul in Contemporary African American Christianity, Brad Braxton
39. Ruskin, the Bible, and the Death of Rose La Touche, Zoe Bennett
40. Karl Barth on Romans, Tim Gorringe
41. Augustine and Pelagius on the Epistle to the Romans, Mark Edwards
42. Luther on Galatians, Peter Matheson
43. Joanna Southcott: Enacting the Woman Clothed with the Sun, Gordon Allan
44. Bible Reading and/after Theory, Valentine Cunningham