Whether or not you’ve noticed, we’re kind of in the midst of a collection of reviews on biblical interpretation. This is an on-going interest for me as both a seminary graduate and Bible teacher. I think it may draw my attention so much because it is a nexus point of biblical studies, philosophical inquiry, and theological reflection. Whatever the case, I had sent a request to Eerdmans a while back, and after giving up hope that I’d see the books in question, they showed up back at the beginning of the summer. Today, we’ll get a look Reading The Bible With The Dead, and Monday, All Roads Lead To The Text. Oh, and I should mention Monday’s review comes with an opportunity to win a FREE copy for yourself.
If you couldn’t tell from the title, Reading The Bible With The Dead is an interesting as well as informative book. John L. Thompson sets out to examine particularly hard texts in Scripture (those usually left out of lectionary readings) and see what the history of exegetical reflection on these texts can teach us. He is motivated in part to examine texts certain interpreters have expressed dismay over (particularly those of the feminist variety), and see if perhaps we can learn how to navigate these passages in our own 21st century context by looking back at how earlier contexts handled them.
These passages in question are:
- The story of Hagar in Genesis
- The story of Jephthah’s daughter in Judges
- The imprecatory Psalms
- The patriarchs in Genesis and their “bad behavior”
- The story of Gomer and Hosea
- Paul’s command in 1 Corinthians 11
- The biblical teaching on divorce
- Paul’s teaching about women being silent
- The stories of sex and violence in the Old Testament (Dinah, Tamar, and Bathsheba)
I would imagine these are not most people’s typical go-to passages for small group Bible study, much less a sermon series. For each of these problem passages, Thompson engages in a survey of patristic, medieval, and reformation biblical interpreters to see how they dealt with the issues. Not every interpreter makes every chapter, but the most frequent “guest” interpreters invited by Thompson to weigh in are a few of the usual suspects: Calvin, Luther, Augustine. Perhaps lesser known to mainstream audiences, but cited just as much by Thompson, are Ambrose, Bullinger, Bucer, Denis the Carthusian, Nicholas of Lyra, and Peter Martyr Vermigli.
For each chapter, Thompson presents each passage by first noting how it is either neglected by modern interpreters, left out the lectionaries, the object of feminist ridicule, or some combination of these and similar issues. From there, using the above conversations partners (and many more), he looks at how the church has wrestled with the issues in the past to see if that might provide a better way forward. To close out each chapter, Thompson offers some enumerated action items in our on-going quest to be better Bible interpreters.
As an example, after the chapter on the imprecatory Psalms, here are Thompson’s takeaways:
- God cares about injustice and suffering (“The imprecations and laments directed against enemies in the Psalms, whatever they may say about the character of the psalmists, are always seen as disclosing God’s commitment to justice and concern for those who suffer.” 68)
- Only Jesus is fit to lament and curse absolutely (“There is universal apprehension among the teachers of the church, both ancient and modern, lest the Bible’s curses be kidnapped to settle private scores.” 69)
- Laments and imprecations must be appropriated (“Precritical commentators believed these harsh passages must be read and known not only because they are scriptural, inspired, and somehow authoritative, but also because they are useful – even if also enigmatic.” 69)
- Laments and imprecations must not be misappropriated (“The history of Christian anti-Jewish exegesis – along with other variations that have come and gone, by which the enemies of God or Christ are identified among our contemporaries – ought to stand as an object lesson of what not to do with the Psalms.” 70)
Each of these is much further elaborated on by Thompson, but you get the idea. In the end, each chapter basically presents a problem, shows how precritical commentators dealt with it, then Thompson gives his applications that he believes follow.
Each chapter is stand alone and so they can be read in any order. At the end though, Thompson offers a chapter on how to learn from history, specifically in this case, the history of exegesis, which I actually decided to read first. After the endnotes, there is a short glossary of biblical commentators (so some of those lesser known names have some context to go with them) and then perhaps even more helpfully, Thompson includes an extensive guide to the available biblical commentaries published before 1600 sorted by biblical book. If the thoughts of these precritcial commentators sparks an interest, Thompson has a more than thorough guide of where to go from here.
It is probably best to think of this book as a simultaneously descriptive and prescriptive work. Descriptively, it is excellent, and I hope it is more widely read as an introduction to the wisdom to be found in precritical biblical commentators. The book is worth the price alone for the bibliography that points you to so many valuable sources. From what I can tell, there is little to criticize on this front. Thompson present his sources as interpreters to listen to and learn from, not as some outdated relics from the past. He is sympathetic to what they have to say and wants us to be as well.
When it comes to his prescriptive angle, many of them are self-evident conclusions. In the chapter on the patriarchs, he notes that not all the characters in the Bible are meant to be models for us. Likewise, in the chapter on divorce, he concludes that the various biblical texts are hard to homogenize. Few people, if anyone, would argue with many of the of the prescriptive conclusions Thompson draws.
At the same time, there is a kind of subtle thread through the whole work that gives the feminist biblical interpreters a little too much credit in my opinion. While they may be helpful to highlight ways evangelicals misread hard texts, I don’t think the hermeneutic used by many mainline feminist interpreters (Phyllis Trible and Cheryl Exum get the most mention in this work) is a better option. To that extent that Thompson is just interested in listening to see if we might need to adjust our hermeneutics, it can be helpful. However, when it comes to stories like Hosea and Gomer, I think the shock value needs to remain front and center, regardless of how some feminist interpreters might react (the same goes for the OT’s portrayal of idolatry as graphic fornication).
All that being said, I think you can read Thompson’s book profitably regardless of your opinion on the validity of feminist biblical interpretations. In some cases I think the lesson to be learned is that we shouldn’t read some texts the way they have been in the past. But, it is better to read communally with those who have gone before us, even if we ultimately disagree, rather than just myopically read it ourselves. Thompson’s book is a helpful descriptive work and offers some useful prescriptions for moving forward in our reading the Bible with the dead.
- Author: John L. Thompson
- Title: Reading The Bible With The Dead: What You Can Learn From the History of Exegesis That You Can’t Learn From Exegesis Alone
- Publisher: Eerdmans (June 1, 2007)
- Paperback: 324pgs
- Reading Level: Bible School (or Advanced General Reader)
- Audience Appeal: Christians interested in how the church has historical dealt with various problem passages in the Bible
- Gratis Review Copy: Yes (courtesy of Eerdmans)