Scripture and Social Justice

Catholic and Ecumenical Essays

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Anathea E. Portier-Young, Gregory E. Sterling
  • Lanham, MD: 
    Lexington Books
    , August
     280 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Scripture and Social Justice: Catholic and Ecumenical Essays, edited by Anathea E. Portier-Young and Gregory E. Sterling, is a collection of essays honoring John R. Donahue who has few peers in his ability to relate “Scripture to social justice issues with effectiveness” (xi). The essays themselves “address many issues central to the study of scripture and justice and to a just praxis that emerges from close engagement with scriptures witness” and discuss texts found in the Hebrew Bible, New Testament, and Early Christian Church (xix).

There are several notable moments, such as John J. Collin’s essay titled “What are Biblical Values?,” which are particularly illuminating. In his essay, Collins goes confronts the late Billy Graham and his invoking of biblical values. Perhaps most importantly, Collins argues the “Bible is not a coherent, systematic treatise, but a collection of writings that grew over a thousand years or so. It contains different theologies and different emphases” (24). As such, Collins argues that to understand biblical values is to understand biblical themes rather than biblical texts. Collins touches on issues of sex, gender, and slavery but argues—correctly in my view—that “no theme is more prevalent in the preaching of the prophets than the denunciation of social abuses” (33).

In addition, Gregory E. Sterling’s essay Deities in Disguise is a nuanced and needed argument for a universalistic application of Matthew chapter twenty-five. In that chapter, Jesus advises his disciples that at the Last Days there will be those who fed, clothed, and took Him in and those who refused. When asked when they did any of these things, Jesus explains that when they did it “to the least of their brothers and sisters” they did it to him. Throughout Christian history commentators have speculated on just who these “least” are with some arguing they refer only to other Christians, perhaps even just to Christian missionaries. Sterling passionately, and expertly, argues for a universalist approach suggesting that “we cannot determine in advance in whom we will find Christ” (170).

Unfortunately, the volume fails to define what it means by “social justice.” This is problematic, at times making the reader question the connection a few of these essays have to this concept. Adela Yarbro Collins’s essay is a good, though not the only, example of this point. Her nuanced essay provides details on the role women played in the teachings of the Early Church. It is well written, interesting, and worth reading. However, it’s connection to social justice remains unclear. Should every essay that touches on the role of women be an innate act of social justice? Perhaps, and while that question should spur productive discussion in a graduate seminar, there could have been a more explicit connection.

Ultimately, the volume is powerful and appropriate for the scholar and layperson alike. Anyone interested in scripture, and its eye for justice, will enjoy and profit from the read.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Taylor Kerby is an alumnus of Claremont Graduate University and holds master's degree in Religion and Education.

Date of Review: 
March 18, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Anathea E. Portier-Young is Associate Professor of Old Testament at Duke Divinity School and author of the acclaimed Apocalypse against Empire: Theologies of Resistance in Early Judaism.

Gregory E. Sterling is Reverend Henry L. Slack Dean and Lillian Claus Professor of New Testament at Yale Divinity School. He is the editor of the Philo of Alexandria Commentary Series and the Studia Philonica Annual.


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