The Old Testament – An Introduction to Biblical Scholarship
Arthur J. Bellinzoni
Our classmate Arthur Bellinzoni's recently published book, The Old Testament -- An Introduction to Biblical Scholarship, is an important and readable guide to a contextual understanding of this varied library of ancient, yet timely, writings. It is unique in that it not only provides an insightful commentary on the major events, people and literary forms found therein, but also illustrates for the lay reader the methods of historical-critical modern biblical scholarship in application to selected O.T. books and passages. Although well written, and accessible to the lay reader, some of the detailed sections of this book cannot be read easily. However, the book's organization and comprehensive chapter-ending conclusions facilitate the author's invitation to skip about, choosing topics of special interest. Even so, the book is more than an introduction. It is both a guide and a scholarly reference source that will be consulted often.
Chapter titles reveal the scope of Arthur's text, as well as his judgement of the important Old Testament historical periods, world view, wisdom and literature. These chapters are 1. The Authorship of The Pentateuch, 2. Israel's Primordial and Patriarchal History, 3. From the Exodus to the Conquest and Entrenchment of Canaan, 4. The Period of the United Kingdom, 5. Mediators Between Yahweh and Israel, 6. The Northern Kingdom's Epic: The Elohist, 7. Mediators Between Yahweh and Judah, 8. The Reform of King Josiah, Deuteronomy, and the Deuteronomistic History, 9. The Restoration and the Priestly Synthesis, 10. Israel's Wisdom Literature, 11. Psalms, 12. Apocalypticism, and 13. The Text of the Old Testament.
In addition to helpful chapter Conclusions, extensive End Notes, Bibliography, a long list of Biblical Citations, diagrams, maps and a detailed Index are provided. Indeed, this is a major resource for lay readers, teachers and scholars. It became increasingly clear in reading this book why Arthur Bellinzoni was recognized as an outstanding teacher as a professor for 38 years at Wells College. It is typical for his students returning for reunions to tell him that they don't remember all he taught them about the bible, but learned how to read it.
The “virgin birth” story originating from a mistranslation of Isaiah 7:14 (p. 197), and the usual Christian translation and interpretation (both first century and contemporary) of the “Suffering Servant” of Isaiah 52:13-53:12 (p.219), are good illustrations of Arthur's analysis. There are limits to the confidence that may be placed in such scholarly interpretations, which Arthur takes pains to point out. “Biblical scholarship must be neutral,” yet neutral interpretations vary, primarily due to lack of sufficient contextual information or “missing pieces of the puzzle.” Some readers may have their view of the Bible, even their faith, challenged by this book. But many, if not most, will find it liberating and exciting. Its orientation, or agenda, if you will, can be stated no more frankly than Arthur himself does in one of his End Notes (p.42, n.18) in the Introduction on the miraculous and supernatural:
“Trying to find historical evidence to support the miracles of the Bible is like trying to find evidence to refute Darwin. The methodology of much evangelical Christian biblical scholarship is the historical equivalent of intelligent design in the realm of natural science. There is no distinction between bad biblical scholarship and bad science, because the presuppositions of biblical historians and of all historians and of all scientists are and must remain essentially the same. All employ a “scientific” (i.e., a secular, naturalist, nonsupernatural) methodology in their work.”
The development of the Old Testament canon was the result of a long complicated process over many centuries, with editorial revisions and mistakes along the way. An understanding of this is important to prevent a narrow incorrect literalistic interpretation of a text that is surely not based on an original or autograph copy. It was born in an ancient context that is different from ours. But what, if anything, religiously or spiritually positive, is gained from such a disciplined historical-critical deconstruction of the Old Testament? Have many Jewish and Christian believers taken literally what ancient writers may have known at the outset were metaphorical stories – not history in the modern sense – and missed the original motivation or inspiration? The first question should be, “What did it mean to them?, not “What does it mean to us?” That comes later. Jewish O.T. and N.T. writers “searched the scriptures” for hope and ultimate meaning in times of trial and found spiritually nourishment then, and we can now. As Arthur writes in another of his books, The Future of Christianity (p.159), “I would contend that religion is not science minus but poetry plus!” Arthur also recognizes the transcendent truths in biblical myths and legends in that earlier book (p. 160.):
“Stated simply, certain transcendent truths find human expression in indirect and sometimes obscure language. As such, myths are stories that require deeper, thoughtful, and more reflective scrutiny than simply looking at them as the factual record of actual events in the distant past. As an example, the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden is not an accurate historical account of what actually happened to our first parents. It is rather a story that points to certain truths about human kinds's passage from innocence to maturity, a coming of age that obliges us to distinguish between good and evil. It is not so much a story about them as it is a story about all of us.”
This insight is also revealed in the celebration of the Passover Seder, even today. Of the reading of the haggada that precedes the meal, Roy Rosenberg (Judaism – History, Practice and Faith, pp188-189 ) writes, “the retelling of the story of bondage and deliverance in response to the questions posed by the youngest person at the table (“Why is this [my emphasis] night different from all other nights? . . .”) recalls an “overriding theme in the haggada. . . that in every generation each person is obliged to see himself as if he had come forth from Egypt . . ..” In N.T. scholarship a similar “then as now” meaning is reflected in the famous commentary on the “Road to Emmaus” story in the Gospel of Luke by John Dominic Crossan that ends with the sentences, “Emmaus never happened. Emmaus always happens.” According to Marcus Borg, a Native American story teller said, after recounting the origin of his people, “Now I'm not sure it all happened this way or not, but I know it's true.” I would like to read more by Arthur on the positive role of myth and legend in religion.
Arthur Bellinzoni's book focuses on scientific and skeptical (in the best sense of the word) methodology and interpretation of the Old Testament. It is not a religious or spiritual book, but it is a valuable companion. I read the Old Testament with new interest and understanding now. I highly recommend it.
My synopsis of the book follows this review.
Jerry Moyar ‘57
May 10, 2009