Monday, April 14, 2014

The Textual World of the Bible, Book Review

Title: The Textual World of the Bible
Author: Michael B. Shepherd
Publisher: Peter Lang, 2013
Price: $70.95 (amz)
Binding: Hardback
Pages: 130
“The Bible is the real world.” 

With this provocative claim, Michael Shepherd begins this volume. Shepherd understands biblical theology to be the “theology of the Bible and its representation of reality” (p. 1). The biblical authors are “in the business of world making,” Shepherd argues, and “they insist that theirs is the only real world” (p. 1). Shepherd’s aim in this work, then, is to grapple with the way the biblical authors themselves grapple with other “biblical authors’ representation of reality” (p. 1).

One of Shepherd’s primary contentions is that the theological freight of the Bible is a feature of the texts themselves. In this regard, “an explanation of the composition of the text in its present shape is at the same time an explanation of the Bible’s theology” (p. 1). Considering biblical theology to be “exegesis done faithfully” (p. 2), Shepherd seeks to uncover the compositional strategies that the biblical authors use to communicate their theological message. To this end, Shepherd selects intertextually rich passages that include “biblical-theological summaries” of previous biblical narrative.

The structure of his book follows the canonical location of the texts he exposits. Shepherd identifies biblical-theological summaries from the Law (Deut 6:20-25; 11:1-17; 26:5-9), the Prophets (Josh 24:1-15; Judg 2:1-5; 6:7-10; 10:11-16; 1 Sam 12:6-17; Jer 2:1-13; Ezek 20; Amos 2:6-3:2; Mic 6:1-8), the Writings (Ps 78; Pss 105-106; Pss 135-36; Neh 9), and the New Testament (Acts 7; 13:13-41; Heb 11). Though these passages have often been understood in terms of tradition history or “salvation history” (Heilsgeschichte), Shepherd argues that these texts present themselves as exegetical in nature.

In his succinct interaction with these strategically chosen passages, Shepherd highlights each author’s own highlighting of key events and texts in Israel’s past. The biblical writers, he argues, proclaim the Word of God by composing interpretive portrayals of significant events that have already been interpreted by previous biblical authors. For instance, Shepherd observes that when the prophets rehearse Israel’s history, they typically forefront God’s faithfulness in the exodus and also the people’s unfaithfulness following the giving of the Law at Sinai (e.g., pp. 26-27). For Shepherd, this accords with the Pentateuch’s own interpretive commentary on these events. In this sense, the prophets and poets of Israel are providing an “exegesis of an exegesis” (see e.g. pp. 1-2, pp. 16-17, p. 28).

Shepherd argues that this textual feature is crucial because these strategic passages help shape the larger context of the biblical canon. In this way, the biblical writers provide guidance for biblical readers in understanding the nature and significance of the overarching storyline of the biblical narratives. This theological and text-immanent context, in turn, functions as “the framework of the real world into which the reader must fit” (p. 2). The specific shape of the biblical canon is therefore enduringly relevant to the life of readers seeking to affirm the authority of God’s Word and submit to its claims on their lives (see pp. 87-94).

One strength of this volume is Shepherd’s laser focus on the particular textual pattern of subsequent texts summarizing and interpreting previous biblical narrative. Shepherd’s first chapter provides a helpful overview of the way images of specific events (e.g., creation, flood, exodus, exile) are interpreted and portrayed by the biblical authors in order to describe the past, present, and future of Israel and the nations. The biblical authors, in this sense, set their understanding of the world within the framework generated by the biblical narratives. More specifically, they represent reality through “a pattern of figuration based on the sequence of events narrated in Genesis-Kings” (p. 1). 

This feature, Shepherd posits, is “what makes the very fabric of biblical historiography and prophecy” (p. 5). Shepherd’s work thus furthers the hermeneutical discussion regarding the nature of biblical narrative in general and the interpretive value of these intertextually rich biblical-theological summaries in particular.

This focus, though, also means that the volume is highly selective. For example, Shepherd’s discussion of the New Testament is unfortunately abbreviated. In a volume that highlights the manner in which subsequent authors make use of the “textual world” generated by the narratives of the Old Testament, the brevity of Shepherd’s discussion of the Gospel narratives is disappointing. He notes that the Gospels are like “theologies of the Hebrew Bible in narrative form” (p. 83) but does not expand on this promising notion. Further, in the chapter on the New Testament, Shepherd devotes only four pages (83-86) to exposition of Acts 7, Acts 13:13-41, and Heb 11 (Paul’s letters and Revelation are only mentioned in passing).

Consequently, a more accurate title might be “The Textual World of the Hebrew Bible.” In this vein, Shepherd’s systematic reflections and “practical implications” (pp. 87-94) are insightful but take up more than half of the last chapter and would function better as a conclusion following an expanded section on the New Testament.

Readers convinced of Shepherd’s overall approach to the narratives of the Old Testament will miss further development of these New Testament passages. An important feature of Shepherd’s end game in this volume is the training of “more textually-oriented church members” (p. 88) who recognize the hermeneutically rich terrain of the biblical narratives and read with eyes adjusted to this textual topography.

Shepherd has clearly not mapped the bulk of the Bible’s textual world, but he has successfully opened up a number of promising paths into this area of study that sojourners seeking to inhabit this world will heartily welcome.

Also in JETS 57.1 (March 2014): 149-50.

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