Review of The Hebrew Bible: A Critical Companion, ed. John Barton


Of the making of biblical introductions there is no end. John Barton has produced another significant work whose goal is to bring the latest insights in biblical scholarship to a broader audience, The Hebrew Bible: A Critical Companion (Princeton 2016). Only in contrast to other guides or introductions the material is here presented thematically, including essays on the historical and social context of the Hebrew Bible (part I), the major genres of biblical literature (part II), its major religious themes (part III), and finally reception history (part IV). The choice of organization is interesting, as it leads to a more theologically-oriented discussion as the heart of the book in part III, whereas parts I and II are more historical and literarily-determined in the vein of traditional introductions to the Bible.


Overall I thought the individual discussions were competent and well-grounded, reflecting the diversity of scholarly views, assumptions, methods, and topics of inquiry in contemporary biblical research. In addition, the writing is accessible and uncomplicated, clearly aimed at the non-specialist over the scholar, and substantial bibliographic information is helpfully appended to each essay. Because of the theological orientation of the book, I would say that The Hebrew Bible is especially useful for people coming from a religious background and who want to engage biblical scholarship at a level that is sensitive to faith concerns.


However, I did want to mention a few quibbles I had with the book.


First, I’m not sure that subtitling the work A Critical Companion was the best choice. While the essays present and engage with “critical” scholarship of various kinds, the theological interests that come to the fore at many points throughout the book make it something more than this and indeed complicate the use of this label. In my view, the term “critical” should be reserved for scholarship that attempts to describe rather than prescribe or reinscribe certain religious or theological convictions.


Second, the essays reflect significant disagreement on a number of substantive issues, which could easily create confusion in the mind of a reader. For example, the existence of the united monarchy is assumed by Barton (pg. 4) and yet rejected by Stavrakopoulou (pg. 39). Stavrakopoulou expresses skepticism toward the idea of an historical exodus or that Israel originated outside of the land of Canaan, while Frendo argues in favor of a historical exodus (pg. 95) and Gillingham distinguishes Israel from the people of Canaan (pg. 207). Frendo claims that Israel was officially bound to monolatry (pg. 93) and Sommer that Israel was actually monotheistic (pg. 241), whereas Kratz suggests that mono-YHWHism arose in the post-monarchic period (pg. 140) and Stavrakopoulou that it was an ideological construction of the biblical authors retrojected onto the past (pgs. 30-32).


Third, some of the contributions have an apologetic character. For example, Frendo states, “And yet, a close reading of these Old Testament narratives has allowed scholars to conclude that we can glean from them ‘archival and other details’ that can be linked with the results of archaeological research in Palestine and which in no way militate against the structure of the events assumed by the biblical narrators” (pg. 100). Against the emerging scholarly consensus, Sommer argues that Israelite religion during the monarchy was actually monotheistic and distinct from the general polytheism of the ancient Near East, running roughshod over a variety of complex biblical and extra-biblical evidence (pgs. 243-262). While monotheism is certainly evident in the final form of the biblical text, I highly doubt that it can be retrojected so easily onto the monarchic period.


Despite these concerns, I recommend the book as a convenient and stimulating overview of current academic study of the Bible, just as long as one remembers that some of the views articulated herein are somewhat idiosyncratic and nonrepresentative.

[Note: I received a free review copy from the publisher]