Exploring Biblical Backgrounds

A Reader in Historical and Literary Contexts

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Editor(s): 
Derek S. Dodson, Katherine E. Smith
  • Waco, TX: 
    Baylor University Press
    , July
     2018.
     272 pages.
     $39.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781481308540.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In Exploring Biblical Backgrounds: A Reader in Historical and Literary Contexts, editors Derek S. Dodson and Katherine E. Smith have mustered a useful collection of over one hundred comparative readings so undergraduate students and interested readers may access key primary sources that shed light on the background of the Bible. Their desire is to develop informed readers who understand that the Bible did not spring out of a vacuum detached from history. Instead, it was produced within a spectrum of historical and literary contexts. Dodson and Smith have provided students with a representative selection of documents from across that spectrum to compare themes, ideas, and literary features. 

As this book is a large, eclectic collection of writings, it does not lend itself to an in-depth summary. However, there are essentials to keep in mind. Exploring Biblical Backgrounds is more of an introduction than a reference work. The editors have made no attempt to provide an exhaustive treatment of every text with historical or literary significance in reference to the Bible. It is a sampler. Readers should come away with a better understanding of what types of texts are out there. The readings are presented solely as English translations and are borrowed from other works or are original translations by the editors. The contents are grouped according to their correspondence with the periods of time covering the Old and New Testaments respectively. Within these divisions, readings are grouped by theme or genre. For instance, some of the themes covered under Old Testament background include creation stories, legal codes, inscriptions, and wisdom literature. New Testament themes include infancy narratives, miracles, ascensions, and descriptions of early Christian worship. 

Given that 109 separate readings cannot be realistically discussed in a short review, here are just three selections that offer a small glimpse of some of the interesting material this book contains. 

The Baal Cycle: Anyone familiar with the Old Testament has heard of Baal, the deity worshipped by the Canaanites. This text describes his path to dominance over all other deities and his relationship with Anat—his female counterpart also mentioned in the Bible. There is undeniable value in gaining insight as to how Baal worshippers viewed their god. The Old Testament isn’t a textbook on comparative religions; it doesn’t explain the ins and outs of Baal worship, even though this god was worshipped by many throughout the Old Testament. Yet, now we can peer into what followers of Baal believed about their god (89). 

The Mesha Stele: The editors’s description explains how a 9th century stone celebrates the accomplishments of Mesha—a Moabite king—who makes a cameo in 2 Kings 3. Brief remarks address provenance and the overall theme using applicable Scripture references. The account recorded in 2 Kings describes Mesha’s rebellion against Israel and subsequent defeat at the hands of a combined force from Israel and Judah. The Mesha Stele reveals that Mesha credits his god, Chemosh, for earlier military successes against Israel during the reign of Omri (95).

Plutarch— Advice to Bride and Groom: Written during the time of the New Testament, Plutarch describes the relationship between husband and wife, relating the standard convention that wives were expected to worship only the god(s) their husband worshipped. This explains the context of passages such as 1 Peter 3, which speaks specifically to Christian wives married to non-Christian husbands who likely worship other gods (237-38).

The strength of this volume is the sheer variety of its readings. The selections are interesting and the introductions, while brief, help by summarizing the contents and pointing out Biblical connections. The Scripture Index proves useful for readers studying one of the included passages. The only weaknesses are two items that would have improved the book’s usefulness. First, the preface is short—weighing in at only a page and a half. It would have been helpful to have included an extended introduction that details how exploring biblical backgrounds is a fruitful pursuit. Second, there is no section which directs interested individuals towards further research. Every reading is accompanied by a citation, but if one wishes to learn more about the field of exploring biblical and literary contexts, they are left to their own devices. 

Primary sources are essential to biblical studies. And reading a book like this, filled to the brim with primary sources, is an immersive experience. How amazing is it that the voices of ancient people can still be heard through their preserved stories and records? An immersive experience like this is not unlike visiting a foreign country. It should broaden you.  You meet people and hear ideas you never would have before. But you also encounter people and ideas that share similarities to those around you. It can make the Bible feel more real, placing it alongside historical people and places. Reading primary sources in a format like this should be a required component of every Bible student’s education. Some will be surprised to discover uncanny similarities with Bible stories, as well as some incredible dissimilarities. Not meant to cast doubt on the merits of the Bible’s truth claims, this book provides a rich resource to better understand Scripture alongside archaeology, history, and grammar. Exploring Biblical Backgrounds is a welcome tool that offers readers the opportunity to become aware of their surroundings and the stimulus to explore further.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Brent Niedergall is Associate Pastor at Catawba Springs Christian Church.

Date of Review: 
March 15, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Derek S. Dodson is Senior Lecturer and Katherine E. Smith is Part-Time Lecturer and a doctoral candidate in the Religion Department at Baylor University.

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