Book Write-Up: A Reader’s Guide to the Bible

John Goldingay.  A Reader’s Guide to the Bible.  IVP Academic, 2017.  See here to purchase the book.

John Goldingay teaches Old Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary.  This book is an introduction to the Bible, both the Hebrew Bible and also the New Testament.  Goldingay attempts to be empathetic towards the perspectives that are within the Bible.  He briefly covers the biblical stories, but he also comments on the possible identity of the authors, their backgrounds, and how their works spoke to their own and subsequent historical contexts.

Imagine a spectrum.  On the far right, you have an ultra-fundamentalist perspective on the Bible, which sees the Bible as divinely-dictated and as historically-accurate in every detail.  On the far left, you have a liberal perspective, which regards the biblical writings as solely human in origin, as reflecting ancient prejudices, and as containing historical errors, contradictions, and diverse theological, religious, and political perspectives.  On this spectrum, Goldingay is probably center-right.  He accepts the historicity of key events in the Bible, such as the Exodus and the Conquest.  He does not seem to acknowledge any major contradictions within the biblical writings (though he does come fairly close to saying that Paul and James contradict each other on justification).  Yet, he is open to the idea that different versions of biblical stories developed.  He accepts the standard scholarly division of the Book of Isaiah.  He believes that the personal, political, and geographical background of biblical authors influenced what they wrote, in distinct and diverse ways.  Although he never explicitly engages the subject of how God inspired the Bible (as far as I can recall), his perspective may be consistent with the evangelical view that states that God providentially arranged the personalities, lives, and backgrounds of the biblical authors, such that they wrote what God wanted them to write, even as their own distinct personalities remained intact in their writing.

The book tries to be a solid introduction: it talks about the history and geography of Israel in the first chapter, which would be logical in an introductory book about the Bible, as the story of ancient Israel is the subject of it.  At the same time, the book may also be of interest to seasoned, and even academic, readers of the Bible, especially when Goldingay offers his insights on the meaning of biblical passages and speculates about why the Bible is as it is.  For example, Goldingay offers an explanation for why Elijah and Elisha lack biblical books that bear their names, whereas later prophets have books that are attributed to them.  And both new and seasoned readers of the Bible can appreciate Goldingay’s vivid description of how the biblical writings (i.e., the Pentateuch, Joshua, etc.) could have spoken to different historical contexts, such as the time of the Davidic monarchy and the exile.

The book is deep, yet it is short and rather cursory.  Some ideas could have been developed further, yet one should remember that this is an introductory book about the Bible, and also that Goldingay has written volumes on Old Testament theology, where he explores issues in greater depth.  In this particular book, Goldingay does not answer every question one might have, but he gives readers something on which to chew.

Some mild critiques or questions:

—-On page 39, Goldingay differentiates between Israel’s creation story and other creation stories of the ancient Near East: “No other nation’s history starts from the creation of the world, but this history of Israel does.  Other ancient religions had stories about creation, but they did not go on to link the story of creation to their own history in this way.”  Goldingay’s comparison of the Hebrew Bible with the ancient Near East on creation and law was fascinating, and there may be something to what he is saying: that Israel employs what other nations have, but in a distinct and perhaps even a unique way.  But my impression is that at least some of the prominent ancient Near Eastern creation stories were attempts to explain the present in light of the past and to account for the structure of society: Enuma Elish ends with the foundation of Babylon, Atrahasis presents the gods creating humans to be their servants, etc.  Can we say, then, that they divorced their understanding of their history from their creation story?

—-Goldingay states on page 116 that “Ezekiel emphasizes that his message relates to the people he is ministering to, and it is hard to see why God would be showing Ezekiel events to take place millennia after his time and their time.”  Goldingay employs a similar approach to the Book of Daniel, saying that it primarily concerns the Antiochian persecution in the second century B.C.E.  With the Book of Revelation, by contrast, he attempts to see it as more trans-historical (but also historical).  Saying that Ezekiel and Daniel are primarily about their own historical contexts poses a theological problem because a number of prominent eschatological events that they predicted (i.e., peace, etc.) did not find fulfillment in their own historical contexts.  Goldingay tries to address this problem: he talks about how the New Testament believes that Ezekiel was fulfilled, and, in the last chapter, he discusses how we keep looking for these eschatological hopes to be realized, since they were not realized in the past.  Goldingay does not come up with a satisfactory answer to the problem, but, again, he offers insights on which to chew.

—-On pages 164-165, Goldingay states that Qoheleth addresses two mistaken responses to the problem of death.  One response is escapism in pleasure.  The other response is “the pie-in-the-sky solution that asserts, hopefully, that all will be put right after death.”  Goldingay then goes on to quote Ecclesiastes 3:19-21, which states that humans and animals both go to the dust and asks how anyone can know that the human spirit goes upward.  Goldingay was making an intriguing argument, and it piqued my interest because I have wondered about what Qoheleth believes about the afterlife.  Unfortunately, Goldingay was not clear about how Ecclesiastes 3:19-21 connected with the “pie-in-the-sky solution” he said Qoheleth opposed.

—-Goldingay seemed to be saying that Jesus’ teaching against divorce is for an ideal world.  Yet, he also says that Jesus thought that divorce could lead to serial adultery, implying that Jesus was serious about his prohibition.  Does Jesus expect people in this far-from-ideal world to obey his teachings on divorce?  Goldingay was not clear about this.  Still, his discussion of how the Bible presents an ideal yet condescends to where people are was thoughtful.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher.  My review is honest.



About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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