Digging deep

2nd May 1997 at 01:00
The Cambridge Companion to the Bible

By Howard Clark Kee,Eric M Meyers, John Rogerson amp; Anthony J Saldarini

Cambridge University Press, #163;35

The two ink pots recovered from excavations at Qumran might have provided a more appropriate cover illustration to this book than Moses clutching the tablets of the Ten Commandments. The Cambridge Companion to the Bible is primarily about medium rather than message, although, in practice, biblical content is never far from the surface. The scope is wide; the title might have been "biblical writings" because a wide range of non-canonical literature is included: the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, the Book of Jubilees and the Testaments of the 12 Patriarchs, and the many writings with apocalyptic or gnostic overtones which appeared in the first century of the Christian era.The informative sections on the establishmen t of the canons would have been more useful at the beginning rather than at the end of the book to explain how the boundaries were drawn.

The term "companion" is apt. It seeks to provide the reader of the Bible with a basic knowledge of the cultural contexts in which the books were produced, including the history, languages, religious beliefs and philosophical insights of the writers. It is largely chronological, moving,in the Old Testament context, from the "world of the ancestors" (Genesis to Deuteronomy) to the "world of apocalyptic" and, in part two, from the Judaic encounter with Hellenism from Alexander the Great onwards to the Jewish world after the fall of Jerusalem. The final part looks at the formation and growth of the Christian community, including the responses of Christianity to Judaism on the one hand and Roman culture on the other.

The Old Testament writings are conventionally grouped as history, prophecy, wisdom, poetry and apocalyptic, with an illuminating chapter on Israel's worship. Evidence is drawn not only from the sacrificial law and the psalms but from excavations of local sanctuaries which served the needs of families and individuals. The authors make commendable efforts to interpret such evidence as exists and to present as full a picture as possible.

The New Testament section contains detailed accounts of the Jewish response to Graeco-Roman culture and how the "new covenant people" preserved and used the traditions about Jesus. Two chapters are devoted to Herod and his dynasty, and show how this "Hellenistic despot who killed his opponents" succeeded in achieving relative security and independence for his people within the empire. These chapters are essential to understanding the political uncertainty which fed the movements and revolts we read about in the Gospels. Given the context described, it seems not unreasonable to suggest that Jesus was indeed a landless peasant forced out by taxation and, like many others in a similar position, sustained by apocalyptic expectations.

Few users of this Companion will come to the reading or teaching of the Bible with more than a passing acquaintance with the main source theories. Each theory is explained and illustrated with the degree of detail that one would expect in a guide written for the older student or adult reader, but the text is rarely abstruse or unyielding. Many will find their interest fuelled by textual examples such as the similarities and differences between the material in Genesis and Ancient Near Eastern cosmologies and the poetry of love and lamentation.

Unlike commentaries and some handbooks, this book needs to be read as a narrative, although the main text is supplemented by side bars and focus boxes on aspects such as the divine name and first-century high priests. The black and white photography is unassuming - the 26 colour plates in the centre of the book show what might have been. In a similar vein the bibliographical essays which accompany each part contain many texts that are unlikely to be found or used outside a university library.

However, the success of this transatlantic team in combining scholarship with coherence is evident throughout and no more so than in the important sections on particular writings: the fourth Gospel is a model of succinct exposition and explanation. This book will open the minds of readers to a new and more firmly rooted understanding of the Bible.

Mark Williamson is general adviser for humanities and RE in the London Borough of Hounslow

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