Asking what’s new in biblical studies might not be the right question, according to Carey Newman, Baylor Press director, who thinks that emphasizing the new isn’t the point. “A well-written book from a seasoned scholar on an important idea always works,” he says. “Prospecting for the mother lode of new and different is really a search for fool’s gold—publishing houses are built with the bricks of great books, laid on top of each other, rather than out of flashy billboards advertising something new.” This fall and into 2019, biblical studies scholars provide the bricks to build readers’ understanding of the sometimes-opaque scriptures.
Talk about the Bible
Newman points to Craig Blomberg’s A Theology of the New Testament (out now) as a cornerstone for Baylor’s biblical studies list. Blomberg, distinguished professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary, writes, “The more I studied, the more [the] idea of fulfillment as an integrating theme grew on me.… The Old Testament is a collection of largely openended books looking ahead to a time in the long-term future when all of God’s promises will be fulfilled, after the short-term judgment that is so often predicted gives way to the restoration and re-creation of God’s people and their world.” In contrast, “every New Testament book states… that the age of the fulfillment of these promises has arrived. The Messiah has come.”
Peter Enns aims to help readers discover How the Bible Actually Works (HarperOne, Feb. 2019), writing, “The Bible becomes a confusing mess when we expect it to function as a rulebook for faith. But when we allow the Bible to determine our expectations, we see that Wisdom, not answers, is the Bible’s true subject matter.” He adds, “The Bible… was never intended to work as a step-by-step instructional manual. Rather it presents us with an invitation to explore… and herds us toward a more subtle, interesting, and above all sacred quest… [for] Wisdom.” Enns is the Abram S. Clemens Professor of Biblical Studies at Eastern University, the host of the Bible for Normal People podcast, and the author of The Bible Tells Me So and The Sin of Certainty.
Enns is a seasoned scholar who can write accessibly for readers outside the academy. However, says Michael Maudlin, senior v-p, executive editor at HarperOne, it has become more difficult to find younger scholars who can write such books. “They are discouraged by their institutions from writing for popular audiences, and media dynamics have shifted so that it is much harder for voices to break out even if they wanted to,” he notes. “And the academy’s bias toward narrowing a scholar’s focus means it is harder to interest a lay audience in what they do.”
There are many scholars who train a wide-angle lens on the Bible and write for a general readership, including Peter J. Williams in Can We Trust the Gospels? (Crossway, out now). Williams is the director of Cambridge’s Tyndale House (one of the world’s leading institutes for biblical research), chairs the International Greek New Testament Project, and is a member of the English Standard Version Translation Oversight Committee. In the book, which is intended to appeal to scholars, believers, and skeptics, he presents evidence for the historical and theological reliability of the Gospels.
“Trusting the Gospels is both the same as trusting other things and different,” Williams writes. “It is the same in that we often have to evaluate the credibility of people and things in daily life. It is different in that the Gospels contain accounts of miracles and of a man, Jesus Christ, who is presented as the supernatural Son of God who can rightfully claim ownership of our lives. But, before we consider such claims, we need to ask whether the Gospels show the signs of trustworthiness we usually look for in things we believe.”
Once there is trust, there is still the task of making sense of the scriptures. Understanding the culture in which the biblical texts were written can be crucial for understanding them today, and Paula Fredriksen is among the scholars tackling that subject; her When Christians Were Jews: The First Generation was published by Yale in October. Illuminating the Jewish roots of Christianity, Fredriksen (From Jesus to Christ) tells the social and intellectual history of how a group of apocalyptic Jewish missionaries began a movement that grew into a new religion that came to dominate the Western world. Fredriksen is Aurelio Professor of Scripture Emerita at Boston University, and is currently the distinguished visiting professor of comparative religion at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
In How New Is the New Testament? First-Century Judaism and the Emergence of Christianity (Baker, out now), Donald A. Hagner counters what he sees as the trend in biblical studies toward seeing early Christianity as a form of Judaism, rather than a distinctly new faith. Hagner analyzes the New Testament canon, pointing to the ways in which early Christianity both aligned with Judaism and diverged from it, arguing that the emerging church’s newness was essential. Hagner is George Eldon Ladd Professor Emeritus of New Testament and senior professor of New Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., and the author of The New Testament: A Historical and Theological Introduction.
Some authors zero in on specifics of Christian theology, as with The Doctrine on Which the Church Stands or Falls: Justification in Biblical, Theological, Historical, and Pastoral Perspective, edited by Matthew Barrett (Crossway, Mar. 2019). Justification is the doctrine that Christians are forgiven for their sins not by doing good works, but by faith in Christ alone. The idea was radical in the time of the Reformers, and it became the organizing principle of Protestant theology. Barrett is associate professor of Christian theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and the author of The Grace of Godliness and Salvation by Grace. Zondervan Academic’s Justification by Michael Horton (out now) examines in two volumes the history of the doctrine and locates it within contemporary biblical scholarship. Horton is professor of systematic theology and apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary and the author of books including The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way.
Theology matters, and not just in the academy, write Miroslav Volf and Matthew Croasmun in For the Life of the World: Theology That Makes a Difference (Baker, Jan. 2019), arguing that theology is crucial for navigating today’s tangle of questions about what is true, which values are universal, and what makes for a life well lived. Volf (profiled on p. 20) is the Henry B. Wright Professor of Theology at Yale Divinity School, founding director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture, and author more than 20 books, including A Public Faith, Public Faith in Action, and Exclusion and Embrace. Croasmun is associate research scholar and director of the Life Worth Living Program at the Yale Center for Faith and Culture.
In Catholicism, study of the Bible was once the exclusive purview of priests and scholars; the reforms of Vatican II put it into the hands of the people in the pews. To help with scripture study, there are books such as A Catholic Introduction to the Bible: The Old Testament by John Bergsma and Brant Pitre (Ignatius, out now), which introduces readers to each book of the Old Testament and examines it in relation to Catholic teachings, as well as historically, culturally, and theologically. Bergsma and Pitre show how Old Testament passages are used in the Lectionary for Mass; they also include maps, illustrations, and other reference materials. Pitre is professor of sacred scripture at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans and the author of Jesus and the Last Supper, The Case for Jesus, and Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist. Bergsma is professor of theology at Franciscan University, a senior fellow at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, and the author of The Jubilee from Leviticus to Qumran.
Looking back to the beginning, before the Bible, is God’s Library: The Archaeology of the Earliest Christian Manuscripts by Brent Nongbri (Yale Univ., out now), who argues that early Christian manuscripts should be viewed not only as source texts, but as archeological artifacts whose origins have been misrepresented on the antiquities market. Nongbri is an honorary research fellow at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, and the author of articles on the paleography and codicology of early Christian manuscripts.
The Bible Through Its People
One friendly way into the scriptures is through its people, and in The Prodigal Prophet: Jonah and the Mystery of God’s Mercy (Viking, out now), Timothy Keller puts a contemporary spin on the familiar story of the prophet who disobeyed God and was swallowed by a whale. Drawing parallels to the tribalism of contemporary politics, Keller calls Jonah “a highly partisan nationalist” who is angry that God bestows mercy on pagans and others outside the chosen people. Keller writes: “The book of Jonah yields many insights about God’s love for societies and people beyond the community of believers; about his opposition to toxic nationalism and disdain for other races; and about how to be ‘in mission’ in the world despite the subtle and unavoidable power of idolatry in our own lives and hearts.” Keller, founder of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, is the author of the New York Times bestseller The Reason for God.
Another Old Testament figure viewed through a modern lens is Joseph, the favored son of Jacob, who was sold into slavery by his jealous brothers. In Was Yosef on the Spectrum? Understanding Joseph Through Torah, Midrash, and Classical Jewish Sources (Urim, out now), Samuel J. Levine sees symptoms of autism in Joseph. Levine, a lawyer, professor of law, and director of the Jewish Law Institute at Touro Law Center, juxtaposes traditional interpretations of the text with insights from modern psychology.
Also viewing scripture through a contemporary lens is Reading Genesis Well: Navigating History, Poetry, Science, and Truth in Genesis 1–11 by C. John Collins (Zondervan Academic, out now), who shows a way to read Genesis 1–11 as a conversation about the relationship of science to faith. Collins is professor of Old Testament at Covenant Theological Seminary and chair of the Old Testament translation committee for the English Standard Version, as well as the author of Science and Faith: Friends or Foes? and Did Adam and Eve Really Exist? Who They Were and Why You Should Care.
The apostle Paul has been a favorite subject of New Testament scholars in recent years, with seminal books such as Paul: A Biography by N.T. Wright, which was published in February. Now, in Studying Paul’s Letters with the Mind and Heart (Kregel Academic, out now), Gregory S. MaGee, an associate professor of biblical studies at Taylor University, unearths practical applications for contemporary Christians in Paul’s teachings. Also from Kregel, The Gospel of John in Modern Interpretation, edited by Stanley E. Porter and Ron C. Fay (Kregel Academic, out now), a new volume in Kregel’s Milestones in New Testament Scholarship series, looks at the work of eight influential Johannine scholars over the past two centuries. Porter is president, dean, professor of New Testament, and Roy A. Hope Chair in Christian Worldview at McMaster Divinity College in Hamilton, Ontario. Ron C. Fay is assistant professor of biblical studies at Liberty University.
Reading Mark’s Christology Under Caesar: Jesus the Messiah and Roman Imperial Ideology by Adam Winn (IVP, out now) focuses on the question of how Mark was read by the early Christians in Rome in the aftermath of the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. Winn is assistant professor at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor’s College of Christian Studies and the author of The Purpose of Mark’s Gospel: An Early Christian Response to Roman Imperial Propaganda.
The exotic apocalyptic visions in Revelation, the New Testament’s final book, have entered popular culture through such books as the millions-selling Left Behind series and through films, art, and other media. The Book of Revelation by Timothy Beal (Princeton Univ., out now) traces the history of Revelation, from its composition in first-century Rome to the modern-day fascination with its sometimes bizarre imagery of destruction and redemption. Beal is the Florence Harkness Professor of Religion at Case Western Reserve University and the author of The Rise and Fall of the Bible: The Unexpected History of an Accidental Book.
Some Christians read in Revelation a vision of the end of the world (end times) in which believers are rescued from Earth (raptured) and saved from the Tribulation (a seven-year period of chaos and suffering). But, in Not Afraid of the Antichrist: Why We Don’t Believe in a Pre-Tribulation Rapture (Chosen, Mar. 2019), Michael Brown and Craig Keener analyze what the biblical texts actually say, concluding that Christians should not expect that rescue. Brown is the director of the Coalition of Conscience, president of the Fire School of Ministry, and the author of 20 books, including Playing with Fire: A Wake-Up Call to the Pentecostal-Charismatic Church; Keener is F.M. and Ada Thompson Professor of Biblical Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary and the author of 22 books, including Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts.
Back to the Book
This season also brings the publication of new editions of the Bible, including John Goldingay’s Old Testament translation, The First Testament: A New Translation (IVP, out now). Goldingay is David Allan Hubbard Professor of Old Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary and the author of The Theology of the Book of Isaiah, Do We Need the New Testament? and the 17-volume Old Testament for Everyone series, where much of this translation was first published.
In November, Crossway released The Greek New Testament: Reader’s Edition, produced at Tyndale House, Cambridge, which combines a Greek New Testament translation with glosses of words in the text and other study aids for those with limited knowledge of Greek.
But the biggest event in Bible publishing this year is the release of Robert Alter’s magisterial The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary (Norton, Dec.), now complete in three volumes. Alter (profiled on p. 18) is also a literary critic and scholar, with books on the 18th-century European novel and on contemporary Hebrew and American literature.
Of course, for those who don’t read the original languages, without translations there would be no study of the Bible. In The Art of Bible Translation (Princeton Univ., Mar. 2019), Alter writes that any translation of the Bible must capture the beauty of the original language—its poetry, rhythms, sound- and wordplay, dialogue, word choice, and syntax—not only for reading pleasure, but also to preserve accuracy. Modern English versions fail on all counts, he says.
A version of this article appeared in the 11/12/2018 issue of Publishers Weekly under the headline: Opening the Bible