How Repentance Became Biblical

Judaism, Christianity, and the Interpretation of Scripture

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
David A. Lambert
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , December
     280 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The title of Lambert’s monograph—and blurb-length summaries of its argument—may suggest that its major claim is that the concept of “repentance” is not found in the Hebrew Bible, but is, instead, a creation of later Jewish and Christian interpretation. But this book is far more sophisticated than a simple debunking of the assumption that “repentance” is a native “biblical” category. This part is simplest to articulate, but exposing an anachronism is only part of of Lambert’s contribution to analyzing modern reading practices: how they are shaped by certain understandings of religion in terms of interiority, agency, and moral transformation.

Lambert shows that repentance in the modern religious sense, entailing interior emotional states and individual moral agency, is not an idea we find in biblical sources. Instead, it is a discourse that emerges in the Hellenistic period, and crystallizes as a technical theological term in rabbinic Judaism and early Christianity. This idea becomes a totalizing hermeneutic, which Lambert calls “the penitential lens”: a set of reading practices that configures narrative tropes and philological terms around one center, even if they are initially unrelated to each other or have different primary concerns. Another way to understand Lambert’s point (with an image he himself does not use) is to imagine “repentance” as a mental magnet that attracts and binds a large variety of objects, even if they had been laid out in different configurations, with other centers, before being rearranged by the magnet’s force.

Lambert offers several “reading moments” to illustrate new understandings that emerge when the penitential lens is acknowledged and set aside. He begins with penitential “rites” described in biblical texts—fasting, prayer, and confessions of sin—which tend to be understood as external expressions of internal states of contrition, and filed under the rubric of “repentance” as moral renewal, catalyzed by sincere regret. Lambert rereads these rites as performed bodily practices intended to elicit a response. They are not so much interior processes of moral transformation as they are strategies of appeal, practices that visibly place the petitioner in a position of diminished status vis-à-vis Yahweh, the one with the power to change the sufferer’s situation.

Lambert then discusses the terminology of repentance, particularly the Hebrew shuv, “(re)turn,” often articulated as “(re)turn to the Lord.” He reads this, too, as an expression of appeal and oracular inquiry in the context of covenantal allegiance, rather than an internal spiritual transformation. Then, Lambert turns to prophetic utterances, which are usually read as “preaching”: pedagogical exhortations meant to elicit a change in behavior (presumably to avert the doom of which the prophet warns). But he argues that prophetic utterances are concerned less with instruction than knowledge—less about preaching repentance and expecting moral renewal, and more about justifying divine power and rationalizing the people’s dire circumstances. That is, exile and suffering are foregone conclusions, and they are deserved: the prophet’s concern is theodicy rather than pedagogy. While this provocative chapter has important implications for biblical scholars’ understanding of prophecy as a genre, it is here that things get somewhat muddy historically, as Lambert surveys a vast corpus of material from Mari through Moses, Jeremiah to Jonah, in twenty-seven pages, leaving many doors open for detailed study. But he clearly illustrates the major point: that the Bible in general, and especially prophetic texts, are intuitively construed as morally instructive, even though this priority is not always evident in the sources. Then, Lambert moves to apocalyptic texts, arguing that promises of human transformation in the end times also do not foreground individual moral agency, but are understood as a sovereign divine act of re-creation that is both cosmic and anthropological. Exhortations to change one’s behavior to prepare for the last days have more to do with joining a group—whether the Qumran community or the Jesus movement—than with an internal moral transformation.

Lambert is not arguing that there is no trace of repentance in early biblical texts, or that the idea was created from whole cloth in late antiquity. Instead he argues that the practices, terms, and genres that later become parts of one theological idea—repentance as an interior process of moral renewal—did not initially have such a concept “behind” them. That concept emerges as a discourse only later, when it organizes various phenomena—fasting, prayer, confession, covenantal loyalty, prophetic utterance, apocalyptic expectation, community formation—around itself as a core.

Repentance congeals deliberately into a coherent religious idea in rabbinic Judaism and early Christian literature. Lambert does offer a genealogy of repentance, placing its emergence as a religious concept (defined by emotional states, moral agency, and individual transformation) in the late Second Temple period. He finds its origins as an interior, individual process in Hellenistic moral philosophy, with its notion of mental pain, rather than in the scriptural sources of Judaism and Christianity. In his final chapter, Lambert shows how both traditions newly insist on thematizing “repentance” (teshuva/metanoia) as a concept that entails an interior, individual abandonment of a former identity. This move, he argues in Foucauldian terms, places the mechanism of control within the self, instead of in external institutional coercion.

But tracing the origins of repentance historically is not Lambert’s most salient contribution. He offers the genealogy to illustrate how the discourse of repentance, shared by Judaism and Christianity, becomes a lens for reading biblical texts and imagining “biblical religion,” and, indeed, constructs the Bible as its own source. This lens engenders interpretive slants that attempt to peer beyond the words and practices described in the texts, and assume that another, truer purpose must lie behind them. But Lambert encourages us to look squarely at them instead. Turning from interiority, moral agency, and expectations for individual spiritual transformation, Lambert shifts our gaze: he highlights strategies of appeal that depend on power relationships; justifications of power and explanations of history; and constructions of group belonging.

This is not a new move in the study of religion. But it is welcome in biblical studies, whose relationship with Jewish and Christian theology remains blurred. Even modern critical scholars have internalized an understanding of the Bible as a particular kind of religious text: a source of theological concepts, and a corpus that intends to transmit moral instruction and enable spiritual transformation. Lambert expertly uncovers the hermeneutical power of these assumptions, and reveals what becomes visible when they are no longer the default lens.


This book has also been reviewed in JAAR by John Mandsager. Please click here to see that review.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Eva Mroczek is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at University of California, Davis.

Date of Review: 
May 21, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

David Lambert is an assistant professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he teaches courses on the Hebrew Bible and its history of interpretation. He received his undergraduate and graduate training at Harvard University in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations.



Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.