The takeaway: helpful background info but inadequate treatment of the biblical text
The Hebrew Bible: A Comparative Approach. By Christopher D. Stanley. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2010, xvi + 544 pp., $42.00 paper. (This is an adapted and expanded review that I did for a forthcoming issue of SBJT.)
Christopher Stanley is a Pauline scholar at St. Bonaventure University and even though Stanley ventured outside his primary field of study in producing this volume he exhibits a keen grasp of the history, debates, and current trends of thought within Old Testament studies.
This textbook is designed to appeal to a range of audiences by claiming to interpret topics from the perspectives of three groups of scholars: “conservatives” which “adhere to traditional ideas about the divine inspiration of the Bible and therefore believe that the Bible should be trusted as a historical source;” “maximalists” which do not let religious beliefs “interfere with historical research” yet believe that the “majority of the stories are based on earlier oral or written traditions that contained significant amounts of historically trustworthy data;” and “minimalists” that “regard the biblical narratives as largely fictional works composed in the postexilic period” (121). The interpretive sections are only included within the conclusions of selected chapters while the bulk of the material is presented in a narrative that accords with the standard conclusions of more-or-less contemporary critical consensus.
While this seemingly agnostic approach is portrayed as this book’s selling point, I think it is actually its achilles heel. For one thing, it is inconsistently applied. There are occasions in which Stanley targets one of the three interpretive groups and calls them out (for example, he says that “conservatives” are foolish for believing that Daniel was written in the Neo-Babylonian period). On one hand, I appreciate this because I think part of teaching is exposing flawed thinking and unsupported silliness. On the other, I still think there is a place for teachers to withhold their opinions and let students weigh issues for themselves, in other words, to let them learn how to critically think through topics. But, Stanley’s application of these competing goals is a bit erratic for my taste and somewhat contrary to the advertised format of the book.
Also, Stanley places traditional interpretations alongside fanciful revisionist ones in ways that imply parity. For instance, he says that Genesis 2-3 could be interpreted to make “the humans emerge as heroes…while Yahweh comes across as a liar and bully” (208). He concludes that this view might “offend many religious believers, but it finds support in many of the details of the narrative” and both the traditional interpretation and this new approach “represent selective readings of the text” so they are a wash and no better interpretation is presented (208). Now, certainly some readings contain flaws and these should be exposed. Furthermore, I appreciate creative, new readings and there is certainly a place for them even in intro texts. However, to just throw a couple wrenches around and call it a day without really building anything constructive or giving any helpful guidance or trajectory of inquiry–on a very pivotal text within the history of interpretation, no less–isn’t too helpful for intro students.
There are times in which Stanley makes some pretty basic factual errors. For instance, in his description of ancient laws he states: “According to [the Exodus narrative], the entire collection of laws was dictated by the deity to Moses within a fairly brief period of time. Such a claim is unusual in the ancient Near East, where legal practice was based on age-old traditions, though rules pertaining to rituals were sometimes attributed to the gods” (295). Stanley goes on to say that it is not until the birth of Islam that a law collection again claims divine inspiration. I found it quite ironic that on this same page Stanley includes a picture of the stele that contains the Laws of Hammurapi. At the top of the stela there is a depiction of Hammurapi standing before the god of justice, Shamah, presumably receiving the following laws. Stanley labels the picture but gives no discussion of the Laws either in the caption or in his discussion of ancient law. Here is a picture of the page:
Lastly, Stanley’s depth of treatment is often unbalanced. For instance, he devotes roughly the same amount of space (1.5 pages) to a discussion concerning the calendrical conventions B.C. vs. B.C.E. (22-23) as he does the book of Judges (264-65). Now, I think the discussion of B.C. vs. B.C.E. is worthwhile but if this is an intro to the Hebrew Bible maybe we should spend more time discussing an entire book of the Bible than conventions of dating.
Stanley does a good job introducing students to a wide variety of topics that aid in comprehending the Old Testament such as sociology, comparative religions, and ritual studies, however, for the objections listed above I won’t be using it as a textbook in my classes.