Reading the Bible with the Dead: What you can learn from the history of exegesis that you can't learn from exegesis alone. By John L. Thompson
Reading the Bible with Giants: How 2000 Years of Biblical Interpretation Can Shed New Light on Old Texts. By David Paul Parris


Pp xi, 324 , Grand Rapids , MI/Cambridge, Eerdmans , 2007 , $20.00, £10.99 .

Pp xxii, 228 , Bletchley : Paternoster , 2006 , £9.99 .

As the old joke might have it – you wait centuries for a good introduction to the hermeneutical significance of the history of biblical interpretation, and then two come along at once. These two books come with remarkably similar titles, with even more remarkably compatible (lengthy) subtitles, and both from writers associated with (or at) California's Fuller Seminary, one of the most accomplished and thoughtful centres of evangelical scholarship in the USA. They both arrive ready to broker the insights of this here-to-fore specialist subdiscipline to a wider world of Bible readers, and what a marvellous job they both do, in their different ways.

Thompson's is a longer project heavily dependent on a wealth of case studies. A coherent theme unites them: the vexed question of how issues of gender and sex have played out in the history of the church's interpretation of scripture. Thompson is a professor of historical theology, and has previously written two scholarly tomes on aspects of this question, including his Writing the Wrongs: Women of the Old Testament among Biblical Commentators from Philo through the Reformation (OUP, 2001). Here he draws together some of the insights of his earlier work recast around the more methodologically inclined question of how we learn from the history of exegesis. Nine case studies range through topics such as ‘Sacrificing Jephthah's Daughter’, ‘Patriarchs Behaving Badly’, ‘Gomer and Hosea’, and NT studies such as Paul's view of prophetesses, and the celebrated argument of 1 Timothy 2:11–15 regarding Adam and Eve.

Thompson typically explores the details of how a range of witnesses have handled these texts, frequently demonstrating his baseline assumption that this is invariably complex, hard to summarise, and needs careful contextual consideration. It will be hard for the careful reader of this book to offer broad generalisations again concerning ‘the Fathers' attitudes to sexuality’. Even Tertullian's oft-quoted line about women as the devil's gateway is here set in context, not pardoned, but placed against his more frequent attribution of the evils of the world to Adam, rather than this one rhetorical excess concerning Eve. Each chapter then ends with between two and four summary observations, along with thoughts about how this might refine our own interpretative work. Here are some samples: Hagar's story is terrifying; laments and imprecations must be appropriated (and must not be misappropriated) – only Jesus is fit to lament and curse absolutely; not all the Bible is a model for us; a hermeneutic of suspicion is not always a bad thing; the Bible's divorce texts are hard to homogenize; few ever read Paul's supporting arguments [in 1 Tim 2] as literally true; sexual violence should not be covered up – old commentators may be our allies. Each conclusion is presented with a thesis-statement summary and a page or so of further reflection.

Reading these studies should persuade any reader of several things: there is great wisdom in the church's tradition without this meaning that the church, mirabile dictu, saw all our own best insights before they were culturally possible (e.g. with regard to any proto-feminist agendas in earlier ages); where we struggle it is almost sure that the church's sharpest readers struggled long before us; and perhaps most significantly, where we often, following the lectionary, resolve issues by passing over texts in silence, this was never the way of the tradition, which was always willing to voice and interrogate the issues. In one helpful summary, Thompson writes ‘Although they would never have put it like this, precritical commentators are committed to remain “within” the text – unlike many historical critics and feminist readers, who do not hesitate to challenge the authority and autonomy of texts from the outside.’ (p.103) Thompson's book lays to rest the bizarre charge that the only two options are external critique or naïve acquiescence to the text. In this world of historical traditioning we find rigorous critique and interaction, limited to be sure by the historical horizons of its world, but fully engaged with the question of how to live with the God of such texts in their own day.

Two other points: first Thompson appends an invaluable ‘Finding Guide to English Translations of Commentary Literature Written before 1600’ (pp 274–301), which should make it wonderfully possible to benefit from further study in this area. Secondly, this is a very well written book, the proof perhaps lying in the ease with which it takes the reader down some scarcely trodden historical by-ways and some state of the art hermeneutical reflection all at the same time, without ever appearing unduly complex or heavy-handed. This really is a fine achievement, and the author is to be congratulated on bringing the treasures of such study to a wider audience.

Parris' work is shorter, and ranges more widely in its examples, but also essentially sets out to mediate the concerns of tradition-history, or what Gadamer called ‘the history of effects’, to an audience of (generally conservative) Bible readers who are probably labouring under the misapprehension that the task of biblical interpretation is just between them and the ‘author’. Parris suggests that it is more helpful to imagine a 3-way conversation between the author, the tradition, and the reader. Informed by the concerns of ‘reception theory’, he then offers a clear and well-illustrated guide to what is at stake in such a thesis.

The opening chapter explores the area by way of looking at Psalm 121 and asking how the image of ‘lifting up my eyes to the hills’ should function. There follows a study of Jonah's fish (or whale), tracing the concerns of commentators regarding the nature of the beast, and its possibilities with regard to actually swallowing Jonah. A third, lengthier chapter explores the theoretical argument about living tradition, though it is packed with thought-provoking examples about how translation and the passing on of tradition in turn effect further interpretative possibilities in the life of the text. Chapter 4 offers thoughts on how to go about exploring the history of interpretation, offering a strong case study of how Matthew 28:18–20 was read at different times in the church. Chapter 5, the book's argument in miniature, proposes three levels of reading: for pleasure, literary reading (looking for overall flow, coherence, plot …), and then ‘detailed studies’. Parris is careful to say at the beginning of the book that he is not advocating ‘reception theory’ as the only tool in the interpreter's tool box. Perhaps in the light of chapter 5 one might say that the book is nevertheless a strong defence of the indispensability of this tool alongside other, more well-known ones. A practically orientated final chapter looks at how one might make use of these perspectives in teaching and preaching. Examples here include good (brief) studies of Augustine on Romans 7, the changing shape of parable study, and the case of the ‘moon-struck’ epileptic in Matthew 17.

Parris' book is shorter and more introductory than Thompson's. It includes many engaging anecdotes of his own experiences in teaching and reflecting which help to make it an easy read, even if some of the colloquialisms that ensue (such as describing Calvin as ‘the 800 pound gorilla that cannot be ignored’– p.50) presumably made more sense in some classroom context than they do on the page. There are a few misprints, and some text off-set in boxes and margins (as well as occasional missing footnotes) which interrupt what would otherwise be a very fluent text, but in terms of substance and overall aim this is a successful introduction and orientation, with perhaps a slight sense that the intended reader comes from something like a traditional evangelical perspective and would benefit from seeing things more broadly.

Taken together, these two books are timely reviews of the importance of engaging with the history of interpretation. The Bible reader does it anyway – the question is how well they will do it, with due respect to the nuances and still enduring significance of interpretative paths long-since taken, or with massive generalisation and the hubris of believing that we, only we, have finally scaled the summit of interpretative wisdom. (One of the most fascinating asides, in this respect, is Parris' tracing of the changing emphasis of the saying ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’– from indebtedness to surpassing superiority over the tradition.) Interestingly neither writer explores the theoretical frameworks of ‘reception history’ much, in Thompson's case hardly at all. Nevertheless, the proof and the pay-off is in the practical case studies, with their implications which stretch far and wide.

All those engaged in the many and varied tasks of biblical interpretation could profit from reading these books, and seeing in them a gateway to areas too little inhabited by commentators of recent generations.