The Cambridge Companion to the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament

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Stephen B. Chapman, Marvin A Sweeney
Cambridge Companions to Religion
  • Cambridge, MA: 
    Cambridge University Press
    , July
     532 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The Cambridge Companion to the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament explores the “increasing diversity in biblical scholarship” (2) and offers a snapshot of different approaches to the academic study of the Hebrew Bible. Contributors to this handbook address various historical, literary, theological, or methodological topics. Each chapter expands on and should be “read alongside introductory textbooks” on the Hebrew Bible (3). In short, this book functions as a supplementary handbook that expounds on specific approaches that develop students’ understanding of the field of biblical studies.

The twenty-three chapters of the anthology are divided into five sections. Section 1 focuses on the topics of text and canon. The two chapters in this section devote a significant number of pages outlining the history of the textual study of the Hebrew Bible and the development of Jewish, Protestant, and Catholic canons. Although both chapters are highly detailed, the complexity of their analyses are often above undergraduate introductory courses. Consequently, the two chapters are geared more toward graduate seminary students. These seminarians are more likely to devote time to discuss the differences between “law” and “scripture” (21-23) or the scope of different biblical canons. Even so, for these graduate students, the chapters helpfully delve into the intricacies of the development, transmission, redaction, and canonization of biblical texts.

Section 2 analyzes the historical study of the Hebrew Bible. Each of the three chapters centers on a different topic, including the history of the ancient Near East, Israelite religion, and the Hebrew Bible itself. Markedly, this section does not discuss the method of historical criticism. None of the chapters outline the strengths and weaknesses of this approach to the study of the Hebrew Bible. Rather, each contributor employs a historical method to provide additional details on the development of Israelite religion, culture, and texts. They eschew a methodological approach in favor of explicating the unique features of Israelite faith and political systems of governance.

Section 3 outlines different methodological approaches in the field of biblical studies, including historical criticism, social scientific criticism, and literary criticism. Each of these chapters expertly frames the history and important features of their respective methodologies. Compared to the contributions in the first two sections, these chapters are particularly relevant to graduate and undergraduate students. They are written in an approachable manner, using examples to illustrate the diversity within each method.

For example, Adele Berlin’s chapter on literary criticism contrasts the interpretation of Genesis 34 by Meir Sternberg, Danna Nolan Fewell, and David M. Gunn. Berlin’s analysis helps demonstrate the differences between the modern and postmodern approaches and establishes the diversity among literary biblical scholars. However, section 3 does not devote a chapter to cultural criticism or other “advocacy approaches” (3). This oversight diminishes one of the strongest sections of the anthology. Exclusion of the cultural method limits the range of biblical scholarship in the book and seemingly cuts off biblical methods in the late 20th century.

Section 4 highlights the different genres in the Hebrew Bible. This section is, by far, the longest at nine chapters. While each chapter focuses on a different set of texts, the brevity of each often only permits a paragraph per biblical book. The most effective chapters in the section abandon this approach, focusing instead on the features of the genre themselves. One excellent example is Stephen L. Cook’s chapter on the characteristics of apocalyptic literature. Rather than providing a paragraph for each apocalyptic text, Cook stresses the history and literary features of apocalypticism and the cultural forces that led to the development of an apocalyptic worldview.

Section 5 moves beyond the traditional methodological and historical approaches to the study of the Hebrew Bible. These six chapters underscore how the Hebrew Bible has been received and utilized in Jewish, Christian, and Islamic art, literature, and public policies. These chapters are an excellent supplement to an introductory textbook, showing how the Hebrew Bible continues to influence Western culture. Nancy J. Duff’s chapter on the Ten Commandments and US public policy offers a particularly effective account that complements the study of the Decalogue. Similarly, Walid A. Saleh’s chapter on the Hebrew Bible and Islam expands the scope of the field of biblical studies and encourages students to think about texts in unique and different ways.

The Cambridge Companion to the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament certainly succeeds in its goal to expand the discourse on the academic study of the Hebrew Bible. Each chapter addresses a different topic that delves into more detail than is typically found in an introductory textbook. In this sense, the anthology functions as an admirable supplement in a Hebrew Bible or Biblical Studies course. Still, the exclusion of cultural critical and other hermeneutical approaches is disappointing. Stephen Chapman and Marvin Sweeney recognize this gap in their introduction, stating that “we regret that this volume is not even more diverse” (3). Even so, the lack of disability, feminist, African American, Latino/a, postcolonial, and other interdisciplinary perspectives necessitates supplements to this supplementary anthology.

About the Reviewer(s): 

David A. Schones is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Austin College in Sherman, Texas.

Date of Review: 
May 28, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Stephen B. Chapman is Associate Professor of Old Testament in the Divinity School and Director of Graduate Studies for the Graduate Program in Religion at Duke University, North Carolina.

Marvin A. Sweeney is Professor of Hebrew Bible at the Claremont School of Theology, California and Professor of Tanak at the Academy for Jewish Religion California.


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