A handbook to the holy book

The Cambridge Companion to the Bible

April 24, 1998

The Bible has been described appropriately as the foundation text on which western civilisation was built. There was a time when it was simply "The Book" - the holy book, and for many people, the only book. All essential knowledge was contained within it, and the written word had an authority that precluded further argument. For some it still does. There are Christian circles in which "The Bible saysI" is the final answer to any question and whose members have no difficulty with the idea of an authoritative book that can speak, not only to its own time but to all time. For others, such ideas seem deeply implausible, and the Bible itself too full of improbabilities and moral contradictions to be worthy of serious attention. For a growing number, it is becoming an unknown book.

Fortunately there has long been an alternative to the stark contrast between absolute authority and exploded myth. Within the Bible itself there is a tradition of continuous reinterpretation, commentary and updating, whereby successive authors and editors felt free to re-clothe ancient myths and memories in a style, and with a content, relevant to their own day. They generally respected the words of their predecessors, but felt no compunction about adding to them or changing their significance. This was not deception, but a way of expressing the community's belief that the God encountered in past history was still present and active, and that they needed new words to guide and encourage them in their new circumstances. Given this continuous process of rewriting, it is easy to see why the Bible has so many anachronisms, and how, nevertheless, it still retains a deep contemporary religious significance through its power to speak effectively in so many different contexts.

The many-layered story of the exodus is a familiar example. Taken at its face value, it is full of absurdities and illogicalities. It was pointed out more than 200 years ago that a column of 600,000 men, plus women and children and all their flocks and wagons, would have to be some 800 miles long. Furthermore, we are told that this enormous body of people was tended by only two midwives. The Passover, supposed to have been instituted before their departure, makes no further appearance in the story for four or five centuries. The detailed legislation attributed to Moses on Mount Sinai refers mainly to the time when the people were settled in Palestine, and much of the ritual prescribed belongs to the period after the exile in Babylon. Egyptian historical records verify the building of the cities on which the Israelites were set to work, but give no hint of the traumas allegedly experienced by pharaoh and his army. Archeological evidence in Palestine does not support belief in the rapid conquest recounted in Joshua, but is more compatible with the slow infiltration described in Judges. And so one might go on. It has long been obvious that a literal interpretation of the story flies in the face of the evidence and of common sense.

But so does a complete dismissal of it. The event is far too deeply embedded in Jewish consciousness simply to be written out of their history. People do not describe themselves as runaway slaves, nor look back to a past deliverance as a constant source of inspiration and hope, nor base their morality on the belief that they were once oppressed, unless there is something in remembered history to support it. The anachronisms fall into place if the tradition is interpreted as having been built up over centuries as different circumstances and interests prevailed.

The most likely reconstruction of the original events is that a small group of Hebrew slaves escaped from Egypt and linked up with related nomadic groups that were already living alongside the Canaanites. Gradually the traditions of the newcomers were assimilated into the cultural memory of the community as the stories were retold to focus hopes on future deliverances. So began a process that enabled the faith of the community to survive disaster after disaster, which centuries later gave the Jews exiled in Babylon the courage to return and rebuild Jerusalem, which gave them much of their law, which provided the theological framework of destruction and restoration within which the life, death and resurrection of Jesus could be understood, and which in our day has been the main inspiration for liberation theology in South America.

I have bowdlerised a long and complex process of reconstruction and reinterpretation, in which there is plenty of room for detailed disagreement, but which represents a broad consensus of biblical scholarship. It tells a more humanly comprehensible story without undermining its religious significance. It shows the faith of the community as exposed to mistakes, lapses and disappointments, but as much more real for that very reason. Unfortunately, while pseudo-scientific fantasy, such as The Bible Code, remains high on the list of best-sellers, while the publicity given to books on the Bible is inversely proportional to their credibility, and while the popular image of biblical religion is dominated by the literalists, the quiet work of mainstream scholars frequently goes unnoticed. This is why I welcome so warmly The Cambridge Companion to the Bible, which occupies the scholarly middle ground. It would be hard to find a better guide.

"Companion" is the right word. It is neither a commentary, nor a dictionary, nor a theological interpretation. A good companion tells us what we need to know in order to understand while leaving us free to make our own judgements. This one is user-friendly, accessible to the general reader, judicious, and informative without being cluttered with unnecessary detail.

To study it with Bible in hand is to be nudged at just the right points, and the helpful paraphrases of individual biblical books give an excellent overview of the whole. It is designed to be read straight through, but it also works reasonably well as a reference book.

Each of its three main sections, "The Old Testament World", "Jewish Responses to Greco-Roman Culture" and "The Formation of the Christian Community", gives some of the background history, describes the social context in which the books were written, and summarises the ways in which scholars have treated this material, pointing out the major disagreements. There are lengthy annotated bibliographies at the end of each section.

The dominant theme throughout is that this is the story of a community of faith, trying to respond to its present circumstances in the light of its past, under the conviction that the hand of God can somehow be discerned in what is happening to it. The Bible's power to convey that conviction to its readers depends on the words themselves, and on the passion that informed them, not on scholarly reconstructions. But the scholarship is needed to allow the words to speak in a world very different from that in which they were written.

To that end the primary aim of the Companion is "to provide information and insight so that those who read and study the Bible may be more aware of and better informed about the dynamic process of historical change in which these outstanding Jewish and Christian writings were produced".

An unusual feature is the amount of attention given to Judaism during the inter-testamental and early Christian periods, with summaries of such little-known works as the Ethiopic Book of Enoch and the Sibylline Oracles. The story is carried beyond the destruction of Jerusalem by Hadrian in ad 135 to the emergence of rabbinic power, the fixing of the Old Testament canon at the Council of Jamnia around ad 200, and the growth of the tradition of detailed study of the text that set the scene for modern Judaism. The New Testament story is likewise continued to include the beginnings of the patristic period, and the growth of divergent traditions that gave rise to acute questions about authenticity and authority. The fixing of the New Testament canon was one answer to this problem. Thus it was that both the Jewish and the Christian communities became People of the Book, with all the attendant advantages in terms of definition and all the attendant dangers of reducing faith to a form of words.

This is a splendid book, beautifully produced and well judged to appeal to a wide readership. There are a few blemishes: some of the black-and-white photos are rather muddy; many page references are missing; and in the index most of the references to I John appear under John. But these do not detract from a fine introduction to the work of biblical scholars, full of interesting material and presented with style.

Rt Revd John Habgood was formerly archbishop of York.

The Cambridge Companion to the Bible

Author - Howard Clark Kee, Eric M. Meyers, John Rogerson and Anthony J. Saldarini
ISBN - 0 521 34369 0
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £35.00
Pages - 616

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