A Guide to the Bible: a book review

While statistics tell us that the amount of people who read their Bible continues to fall, there is no shortage of guidebooks for Bible reading on the market. Popular level books by liberals (John Dominic Crossan, Harvey Cox, Marcus Borg), Post-Evangelicals (Peter Enns, Rob Bell), Traditional Evangelicals (Gordon Fee & Doug Stuart, John Walton, RC Sproul), Fundamentalists (Henrietta Mears, John McArthur) flood the market and continue to sell well. Perhaps better than ever, since modern readers find the Bible so disorienting. John Goldingay offers his guidance through the realm of Scripture in A Reader’s Guide to the Bible.

9286Goldingay is one my favorite Old Testament scholars and commentators. He is the David Allan Hubbard Professor of Old Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary, the author of a masterful 3 volume Old Testament Theology and has written several critical commentaries, notably, Daniel in the Word Biblical Commentary, and 3 volume Psalms commentary in the Baker’s Commentary on Old Testament Wisdom. He also provides the Old Testament counterpoint to N.T. Wright, with the 17 volume Old Testament For Everyone Series (WJK).

In A Reader’s Guide to the Bible, Goldingay covers the history, narrative, and various genres of Scripture in 4 brief sections. Instead of providing a book by book overview, he opens with an introductory section, providing a broad chronology of the Bible, and a look at biblical geography (part 1). Next, he examines the story of Scripture from the Creation in Genesis to the early church of Acts (part 2).  In part 3, Goldingay explores the biblical genres which provide “God’s word for his people”: the instructions to the priests in the Pentateuch, the prophets, apostolic letters, the wisdom of Proverbs and Song of Songs, and Apocalyptic in Daniel and Revelation. Finally, in part 4, he examines Scriptures which describe Israel’s response to God—prayer in praise in Psalms and Lamentations, and the doubt and uncertainty described in Ecclesiastes and Job. An epilogue describes the value of reading the Bible today.

One of the things that Goldingay does quite well, is noting the contexts that the biblical authors wrote in and to.  He points, occasionally,  to various sources and settings behind the text (source criticism), but his focus throughout remains on the final form of Scripture. For example, in referring to the opening books of the Bible, Goldingay writes:

Some of the threads that make up the first five books in the Bible can be unwoven, and we can then see how the story was applied to the people in different periods. We will note some examples of this below. But it is a delicate exercise, and it is guesswork. Since only the conflated version has been preserved we concentrate on that. (35).

So in Genesis, Goldingay notes three-time periods that the final text is relevant to (1) the Exodus (Moses’ timeframe), (2) the Davidic Monarchy under David and Solomon, and (3) the exile (40-41). By reading Genesis with an eye to the concerns of these periods, Goldingay avoids reading modern scientific concerns back into the text (as in the creation accounts):

These stories thus relate to a period in Israel’s life, which helps to short-circuit the problems that arise when they are treated as scientific narratives. There are various ways of fitting scientific discoveries and the creation stories together. But we miss the point of Genesis if we concentrate on this question. Genesis is concerned with bringing a message to the people in its day that will help them understand their own lives and help them follow the truth (42).

This same focus on the contexts of the communities that produced and received these Scriptures is carried through the Deuteronomic history,  the time of the Exile and, in the New Testament the early church, as does the same reticence of falling down the source criticism rabbit hole(e.g. Goldingay mentions the various time periods/sections in Isaiah, the synoptic triple tradition, and Q, the questionable authorship of some epistles like second Peter, but on the whole, doesn’t question the contested letters of Paul, or chase down sources and authorship).

The essay that serves as the epilogue, underscores the continuing relevance of reading the Old Testament for Christians. Goldingay contends that the Old Testament provides the necessary background which enables us to understand Jesus, and asks all the questions which Jesus is the answer to (177-180). However, the Old Testament has its own intrinsic value as well. It illustrates God at work in the life of His people, and it addresses a broader range of concerns than the New Testament does (181-183).

Goldingay is a great scholar but this is not a heavy book. I’ve probably used more theological jargon writing this review than Goldingay did in his whole book. He presents a broad overview of the biblical story cognizant of the thought world of its original authors and their intended audience, but he does so, in simple, accessible language. And he does this in only a 186 pages.

Although, I do have a couple of minor critiques. First, there is a small editorial error in the opening pages of the book (1-2). When Goldingay gives an outline for his book, he mentions 3 chapters in his introductory section (part 1). There are only 2 chapters in that section (“The Events of the Bible” and “The Land of the Bible”), so this throws all his other chapter numbers off by 1. Perhaps this is a reflection of an earlier draft. This is not really a substantive complaint, but I hate seeing this kind of editorial oversight in a finished product.

Secondly, I had a difficult time figuring out who the intended audience was for this book. This book was published by IVP Academic, (InterVarsity Press’s academic imprint), but I have a hard time envisioning this book being used in the classroom.  While Goldingay is a thoughtful scholar and there are some real gems here, its brevity, lack of critical engagement, footnotes or even a bibliography, means it is really intended as a  popular level book. In fact, the only suggested reading for those who want to go deeper with individual books is his “Old Testament for Everyone” and N.T. Wright’s “New Testament for Everyone” series, which are non-technical, lay commentaries. On the other hand, there is enough substance here that I think lay readers may also find the lack of works cited frustrating, or find his discussion of some scripture genres or books, overly brief. I followed along with Goldingay just fine, but I have also read a lot (and went to seminary). I wondered if certain sections would make as much sense, or provide enough detail for me if I was a total neophyte.

But on the whole, I found this a handy overview of the Bible, its history, narrative, and various genres, commending the whole scripture to the people of God. Serious students will want more than this book offers but as an entry-level guidebook, this is pretty good. I give it 3-and-a-half stars. – ★★★½

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from IVP Academic in exchange for my honest review.

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