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Behind the Text Behind the Text
History and Biblical Interpretation (Scripture and Hermeneutics Series Vol. 4)

Craig Bartholomew (Editor) with C. Stephen Evans, Mary Healy, Murray Rae
ISBN 9781842270684 (1842270680)
Paternoster, 2003 (553pp)

Category: Biblical Studies
Subcategory: Hermeneutics

It takes only a moment's thought to realise that Judaism and Christianity are inescapably tied to historical events — the Exodus and the Crucifixion, to take obvious examples. Even when those events are interpreted by words (such as 'I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt', or 'Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures'), there is what is sometimes called the 'scandal of historical particularity' to God's revelation of himself. Why these particular events, and these words, in these languages? Then there is the bigger claim that if biblical history is indeed 'true' (recognising how tricky it can be to define what we mean by that slippery word), it is the key to human history as a whole.

These sorts of issues and others like them — related to what lies 'behind the text' — are explored at length in the latest volume in the now well-established 'Scripture and Hermeneutics Series', sponsored by the University of Gloucestershire, the British and Foreign Bible Society, and Baylor University, USA.

A brief but informative introduction by Craig Bartholomew, the driving force of the project, is followed by twenty chapters in five sections: (1) historical criticism — critical assessments; (2) rethinking history; (3) tradition and history; (4) history and narrative; (5) history and biblical interpretation. Without outlining individual treatments, a flavour of the scope of the whole discussion can still be offered.

Since the onset of biblical criticism in the 18th century or thereabouts, historical method has been a major preoccupation of biblical scholars. A number of the contributors assess the implicit presuppositions as well as the explicit arguments of historical critics, and explore how far Christian interpreters of the Bible can and cannot ignore historical claims. The volume also reminds us that the concern for 'history' has not vanished with postmodernity, which questions the objective neutrality sometimes associated with the discipline of history writing, and exposes how the past constructed by historians is used in power plays. Alongside the reassessment of historical criticism, then, is the encouragement to rethink the nature of history and history writing, to attend to the role of testimony in history writing, to formulate a theology of history, and to reflect on the sometimes conflictual relationship between tradition and history. Even literary interests in biblical texts do not escape historical concerns; history writing involves the production of 'literature', and most contemporary scholars call for a combination of 'historical' and 'literary' factors in interpretation, whilst recognising that there are ongoing questions of how historical events can be accurately represented through narrative form, and about the theological significance of the Bible's grand narrative.

The aim of the volume is more to raise these issues for discussion than to solve them all. It does this well, and given that most of those who read the book are likely to be academics and advanced students of theology and biblical studies, the lack of agreement and answers will come as little surprise — which is not to say that individual contributors are reticent or unclear about describing what they see as the way forward in this area.

Although a number of essays towards the end offer case studies in the interpretation of specific biblical texts, the volume as a whole might have been strengthened with more such sustained discussion of passages. This possible lack, however, is outweighed by the benefit provided by the contribution of philosophers and theologians as well as biblical studies scholars. This volume, like the others before it, is an important reminder of the need for interdisciplinary work in biblical interpretation, and is highly recommended to all those interested in contemporary theology, hermeneutics, and philosophy of religion.

Also in this series:
A Royal Priesthood? (Vol 3)

Antony Billington, January 2005

Antony Billington teaches Hermeneutics (that's Biblical Interpretation to you & me) at London School of Theology. He's heavily into film and contemporary culture and spends most of his wages in the LST Bookshop (enter at your own risk).


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