Book Write-Up: The Lost World of Scripture

John H. Walton and D. Brent Sandy.  The Lost World of Scripture: Ancient Literary Culture and Biblical Authority.  IVP Academic, 2013.  See here to purchase the book.

John H. Walton teaches Old Testament at Wheaton College, and D. Brent Sandy teaches New Testament and Greek there.  In The Lost World of Scripture, Walton and Sandy discuss the production of the books of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament in the ancient world and how they believe that this relates to the authority of Scripture.

The book has twenty-one propositions, followed by “Faithful Conclusions for Virtuous Readers,” which comments on issues pertaining to biblical authority.  This review will highlight three primary points that the book makes.  In the course of this discussion, I will offer some evaluation and critique.

A.  A point that is reiterated throughout the book is that the ancient context of the Bible was an oral culture.  In the ancient Near East, writing was not the commonplace method of communication.  It existed for archival purposes, to communicate with a god or future generations of kings, as a display of power, or so a king can communicate his will to his subjects.  But people mostly told stories.  The Greco-Roman culture that surrounded the New Testament was similar.  Classical Greek and early Christian figures expressed a preference for oral communication over writing, as oral communication allowed for more give-and-take.  Throughout the New Testament, there is an emphasis on the spoken word.  The New Testament documents came to be written, as the Gospels were used in churches, and as Paul wrote letters.  Even then, the documents were read aloud orally, in communal settings.  According to Walton and Sandy, the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament both show signs that they are based on oral traditions.  The Hebrew Bible contains expressions that sound appealing when spoken, and the diversity within New Testament stories probably reflects the different memories that people have when they tell stories.

How do Walton and Sandy relate this point to biblical authority?  For one, they believe that the oral nature of the traditions that entered the Bible should shift the focus away from the question of how and whether the written words were inspired.  Oral tradition allows for some fluidity and flexibility, so faithful Christians need not be disturbed by, say, the different recensions of the biblical text (i.e., the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Septuagint, etc.), with their different readings.  The New Testament authors obviously were not disturbed by them!  Walton and Sandy seem to be suggesting that we should go with the big picture of the biblical message, rather than focusing on every single written word in the text.  At the same time, they appear to shy away from abandoning a commitment to the verbal inspiration of Scripture, maintaining that God providentially arranged for Scripture to have the words that it does.  Second, Walton and Sandy employ their model to argue against certain historical-critical models.  JEPD is probably false, they claim, since JEPD focuses on authors writing the text, when that culture was largely oral.  The Gospels are based, in large part, on actual memories that people had.

There may be something to this model.  The book is somewhat lacking, however, in discussing possible purposes and settings of the oral traditions that made their way into the Bible.  Where did the stories originate?  What historical issues or problems were they addressing?  Also, the book perhaps should have addressed the rabbinic focus on every single word of Scripture, as if every word is inspired and contains deep meaning.

B.  Another point that Walton and Sandy make is that the biblical writers considered themselves, not to be authors, but rather to be tradents of already existing tradition, going back to an authority.  When scribes added clarification to the text of the Pentateuch, they were acting within the authority of Moses.  When disciples of Isaiah applied Isaiah’s teaching to new situations as they composed new material, they were acting within the authority of Isaiah.  (Walton and Sandy actually express agnosticism about whether there is more than one Isaiah, but their point is that more than one Isaiah need not pose a barrier to faith.)  Similarly, Darwinism, Freudianism, and Platonism build on the authority of the figures whose names they bear, yet they are not the same as what Darwin, Freud, and Plato taught.

How far Walton and Sandy take this insight is unclear.  On page 223, they say that “we should no longer feel that authority or inerrancy is threatened by those who suggest that some legal sayings might be later additions or that some offer alternatives to other sayings’ way of dealing with issues.”  Walton and Sandy express skepticism about JEPD, but could one argue, using their model, that both P and D are acting within the authority of Moses, albeit are taking Moses’ teaching in different directions?

C.  A key point in the book is illocution-locution-perlocution.  On page 41, Walton and Sandy state: “The communicator uses locutions (words, sentences, rhetorical structures, genres) to embody an illocution (the intention to do something with these locutions—-bless, promise, instruct, assert) with a perlocution that anticipates a certain sort of response from the audience (obedience, trust, belief).”

Walton and Sandy believe that this insight can help resolve a number of problems that perplex faithful readers of the Bible.  Some faithful readers are perplexed because they think that the Bible contradicts science.  Walton and Sandy argue that God accommodated God’s communication to the cosmological views of the ancients, which form the locution.  Our focus should be on God’s spiritual intent behind the communication, as we recognize that the locution is merely cultural.  Some faithful readers wonder if the Bible contains historical inaccuracies.  Walton and Sandy argue that we should look at how history was written in antiquity: it focused on the outcome of events rather than showing pristine accuracy on every factual detail.  Some numbers in biblical narratives may have served a rhetorical purpose.  (Overall, Walton and Sandy believe that the Hebrew Bible talks about actual historical events and characters, as historiography in the ancient world did so, and as the events and characters give shape to the biblical passages’ message.  If the Exodus did not happen, for example, can we really learn anything about God’s character by reading the Exodus story?)  A much discussed problem is whether New Testament authors misinterpret Old Testament passages, as they apply the passages in ways that seem to go against the passages’ original contextual meanings.  Walton and Sandy contend that we should consider the illocutions: there is a purpose behind the Old Testament passages, and there is a purpose behind how the New Testament applies them; the New Testament writers were not necessarily aiming at interpretative accuracy when they applied Old Testament passages.

In the “Faithful Conclusions for Virtuous Readers,” Walton and Sandy appear open to the idea that the biblical writings reflect different political ideologies.  But they believe that God may still be behind their inclusion in the Hebrew Bible: for instance, God uses the pro-David material to highlight the good things that David did, and the anti-David material to show that David was a flawed sinner in need of God’s grace.

One may wonder how we can discern God’s intent.  Plus, could not people stuff inconvenient messages of the Bible into the cultural “locution” category to argue that they are not authoritative but only applied to the past?  Perhaps, but Walton and Sandy’s model can still be helpful to believers who wonder how to apply spiritually a document that originated in an ancient culture, different from their own (at least for Western believers).  There are times in the Bible when God appears to express an intent, or a message that can edify people from a different time and culture from those of the original audiences.

I checked this book out from the library.  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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