New Edition of the Cambridge History of the Bible

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James Carleton Paget and Joachim Schaper (eds). The New Cambridge History of the Bible From the Beginnings to 600. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013. xxvi + 979pp (cloth) $190.00.

Richard Marsden and E. Ann Matter (eds). The New Cambridge History of the Bible From 600 to 1450. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012. xxii + 1045pp (cloth) $190.00.

 

The original Cambridge History of the Bible (CHB, three volumes, 1963–70) has long been the standard reference work on the history of the Bible from the initial writing and collection of individual manuscript pieces, through the 1960’s, when the great explosion of Bible translations that has marked the last 50 years was igniting. The creation of this new edition was driven by the “considerable advances in scholarship made in almost all biblical disciplines during the previous forty years and respond to the new scholarly concerns of the twenty-first century” (2:xv). A broader and more inclusive editorial policy is also noted,

The volumes respond to shifts in scholarly methods of study of the Old and New Testaments, look closely at specialized forms of interpretation and address the new concerns of the twenty-first century. Attention is paid to biblical studies in eastern Christian, Jewish and Islamic contexts, rendering the series of interest to students of all Abrahamic faiths (1:ii).

As planned the series will expand the original three volumes to four:

  • From the Beginnings to 600 (edited by James Carleton Paget and Joachim Schaper)
  • From 600 to 1450 (edited by Richard Marsden and E. Ann Matter)
  • From 1450 to 1750 (edited by Euan Cameron)
  • From 1750 to the Present (edited by John Riches)

The volumes under consideration in this review (Volumes 1 & 2) are the first offering in the series. Volumes 3 & 4 are due for release in 2014–15. As one would expect from any Cambridge series work, the research is near exhaustive. Each volume has a near-exhaustive bibliography (1:871–912; 2:874–983) and are thoroughly indexed (1:913–79; 2:984–1045).

The volume one editors, James Carelton Paget, Senior Lecturer in New Testament Studies at the University of Cambridge and Joachim Schaper, Professor of Hebrew and Semitic Studies at the University of Aberdeen, note that since the original CHB the field of Biblical studies, “has witnessed a considerable number of discoveries of texts and artefacts relevant to the study of the Old and New Testaments and an often remarkable shift in scholarly methodology and opinion” (1:xii). Volume One is divided into five parts: “Languages, Writing Systems and Book Production” (3–82); “The Hebrew Bible and Old Testaments” (83–388); “The New Testament” (389–504); “Biblical Versions Other Than the Hebrew and The Greek” (505–48); and “The Reception of the Bible in the Post-New Testament Period” (549–870). A total of 37 chapters bringing together a notable collection of scholars specializing diverse fields of Old and New Testament background, introduction, and development.

Happily, the editors also retained chapters on several key individuals, “a decision was made, perhaps rather unfashionably, to retain the policy of CHB of devoting some chapters to individual exegetes of significance” (xiv). Along with chapters on Origin (605–28), Jerome (653–75), and Augustine (676–96); a chapter on Eusebius of Caesarea (629–62) was added. However, the individual chapter on Theodore of Mopsusetia was not retained and the discussion on his contribution was subsumed into the chapters on exegesis. This new edition also enlarges the discussion of the Septuagint beyond the “fragmentary way” (xiii), which the original edition presented the material, “reflecting, in particular, the fact that since 1970 the study of the Septuagint for its own sake, and not simply as a text-critical tool for the original Hebrew, has become much more the standard” (ibid).

The writing quality amongst the chapters is more uneven than one might expect. The opening sentence of the first chapter, “The languages of the Old Testament are Hebrew and Aramaic,” (Kahn, 3) is clearly not going to remind anyone of Charles Dickens or Herman Melville. Fortunately though, aside from this tediously pedantic first chapter there are many well-written and stimulating contributions. Paget’s “The Interpretation of the Bible in the Second Century” (549–83) is a valuable overview. In particular, his discussion of development of biblical interpretation in the second century (562–72) is especially helpful.

There are some other particularly notable chapters. Bogaret’s discussion of the Latin Bible (505–26), although perhaps a bit brief, is a helpful contribution and a good reminder that the Latin is an important field of study, especially in the context of New Testament translation. Of particular interest is Graumann’s chapter, “The Bible in doctrinal development and Christian Councils” (798–821). Of interest is his discussion of the debate between Origen and Heracleides (ca. AD 244). Graumann concludes that,

The debate is almost entirely concerned with scriptural interpretation. The Bible is the unquestionable normal against which any teaching is measured and from which the answers to any disputed question are expected (800).

He notes that the dialogue between Origen and Heracleides, “may illustrate the kind of reasoning we can expect at other, formal, synods” (ibid). His overview of the Christological controversies (800ff) and the interpretative methodology of Athanasius is informative. His discussion on how the Nicene Creed slowly began to supersede Scripture as the theological standard is fascinating (812ff). In discussing the machinations of Cyril against Nestorius, he notes, “for his [Nestorius] theology was measured against the Nicene Creed as the norm of orthodoxy – not scripture” (814). One other notable section is Edwards’ “Figurative readings: their scope and justification” (714–33), especially his discussion of allegory (720 – 22) and “Origen’s hermeneutic” (723–26).

The volume two editors are noted biblical and medieval scholars. Marsden is Emeritus Professor of Old English at the University of Nottingham and Matter is the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. The work is arranged in five parts: “Texts and Versions” (19–308); “Format and Transmission” (309–484); “The Bible Interpreted” (485–658); “The Bible in Use” (659–754); and “The Bible Transformed” (755–873). A total of 44 chapters by individual scholars within those parts present a depth of material on the Bible in the medieval era, a period the editors call a “diverse and complex period of history” (xv). Marsden’s Introduction (1–16) where he notes that when the era begins, “Christendom still enjoyed a broad measure of political and spiritual unity, and Islam had yet to appear. Byzantium was leading the Christian society in the East, while the evangelization of the West continued apace, which much of northern and western Europe still in the process of conversion” (1). By the end of this era every aspect of the entire world: politically, theologically, culturally, and socially had changed. In terms of technology the revolution enabled by Johannes Gutenberg (1395–1468) was about to change the world even further.

The strength of the second volume is also the source of its weakness. While there are new and more detailed discussions of the Bible in the several languages (Ethiopic, Armenian, Georgian, along with the Scandinavian and Slavonic languages), it seems to come at the expense of the discussion of the Latin texts and particularly the English. Marsden notes, “large parts of the Bible have been available in the English language continuously for more than 1100 years, a record unparalleled by any of the other language communities of western Christianity” (217). While this “unparalleled” record has its foundation established in this period; his chapter on “The Bible in English” (217–38) is one of the shortest, and in many ways, least satisfying parts of this volume. Hopefully the forthcoming volume edited by Cameron will backtrack and enlarge the discussion of the English versions.

One chapter of particular note is “The Use of the Bible in Preaching” (2:680–92) by Siegfried Wenzel. He notes that both preaching styles and format of the sermon (sermo) and homily (homilia) “underwent some significant changes and developments” in this period (682). The homily was often a more discernable and perhaps more formidable “biblical exegesis” than the sermon, which was often only “loosely built upon a scriptural verse” (ibid). Wenzel’s entire chapter and particularly his discussion of Wyclif, or more familiarly to American readers, Wycliffe (688ff), is stimulating reading.

These volumes represent the best modern research on the history of the Bible, some of the most varied and stimulating essays on the subject, and open avenues of future research into areas not covered in the original edition. It will be interesting to see if Volume Four gives any attention to the rise and impact of “Study Bibles” which have now witnessed enormous range and influence.

This set is a must have for any seminary or research library, training school, or scholar; although the sheer cost of the entire set (nearly $800) may be prohibitive for the individual. These volumes are most highly recommended and we are eagerly anticipating the release of the last two volumes..

Examining Martyrdom in Early Christianity

I’m going to be posting some book reviews in the next month or so and continue the series on the History of the English Bible.

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Candida Moss. Ancient Christian Martyrdom: Diverse Practices, Theologies, and Traditions. Anchor Yale Bible Reference Library. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012. xiv + 256pp (cloth) $40.00.

Candida Moss. The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom. San Francisco: HarperOne, 2013. 308pp (cloth) $25.99.

Often, one of the first “apologetic” arguments Christians are exposed to are the martyrdom narratives in the early church, that is, the death of early Christians for their faith. Perhaps the most readily recognized in anecdotal apologetics is Christianity must be true (especially details regarding the resurrection and the life of Christ) since people assuredly would not die for what they knew to be a false or for a false cause. As Candida Moss states,

For much of the Christian era, martyrdom was viewed as particular to Christianity and as an indication of Christianity’s unique possession of religious truth. If Christians alone were prepared to die for their beliefs, it was thought, then there must be something special about Christianity (Ancient Christian Martyrdom, 23).

Moss, a graduate from Oxford and doctorate from Yale University, is professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Notre Dame. She is also the author of another book on the subject of martyrdom, The Other Christs: Imitating Jesus in Ancient Christian Ideologies of Martyrdom (Oxford, 2010).

The two titles reviewed here cover the same material. Ancient Christian Martyrdom (ACM) is the more detailed and “scholarly” contribution and is part of the Anchor Yale Bible Reference Library. Moss has extensive notations and is painstakingly detailed in ACM, while The Myth of Persecution (MP) is the same material presented in a more popular writing style. ACM contains a near-exhaustive bibliography (205–30); however, the bibliographic support for MP, while present, must be culled from the notes (263–95) and not in a separate listing, which even in this more “popular” format must be counted as a negative. Both works have very helpful indexes.

As Moss demonstrates the study of the subject of martyrdom is complex, even in terms of definition. “Originally, martyrs referred to the testimony or witness presented by an individual in a trial setting” (ACM, 2). However, by the time of Polycarp (AD 69–155), “the meaning of this term had been transformed from a material witness to an executed Christian” (ACM, 3).

Moss states,

As a history of ideologies of martyrdom, this book will utilize a functional definition of martyrdom that incorporates texts whose protagonists are memorialized as martyrs, even if the texts do not use martys in a technical sense (ACM, 5).

Moss presents her study of martyrdom geographically more for convenience and organization, although she notes the variation of accounts and ideology in the differing regions. “The arrangement of this book [ACM] into discrete geographically and sociohistorically grounded ideologies is an attempt to do justice to regional variations of Christianity and should not be taken too literally” (20).

Moss notes, correctly in our view, that while martyrdom accounts were stories that served both an inspirational and apologetic purpose, “Martyrs were ordinary people—slaves, women, and children—as well as bishops and soldiers who had risen above the constraints of their circumstances to display exceptional courage” (MP, 19). However, the downside, especially in modern history, are those same stories in some circles produce an “us vs them” mentality.

It is this idea, the idea that Christians are always persecuted, that authenticates modern Christian appropriations of martyrdom. It provides the interpretative lens through which to view all kinds of Christian experiences in the world as a struggle between “us” and “them (MP, 13).

Moss begins MP by arguing that the “Age of Martyrs” (Christianity before Constantine) is largely an exaggeration. She also makes the important distinction between “prosecution” and “persecution” (MP, 14; ACM, 9–12) “although prejudice against Christianity was fairly widespread, the prosecution of Christians was rare, and the persecution of Christians was limited to no more than a handful of years” (MP, 14). She notes that,

Before Decius, the prosecution of Christians was occasional and prompted by local officials, petty jealousies, and regional concerns. That Christians saw themselves as persecuted and interpreted prosecution in this way is understandable, but it does not mean that the Romans were persecuting them. This interpretation does not match up with the political and social realities: Christians were ridiculed and viewed with contempt, and there were even sometimes executed, but there weren’t the subjects of continual persecution (ibid).

Part of the problem that Moss notes is that modern sensibilities are offended by the harshness of governmental penalties in the ancient world (MP, 164–79). For example, Nero accused Christians of causing the great fire of Rome in AD 64, and subsequently burned many Christians alive. “The fact that Nero would have had Christians burned alive, however, was perfectly in keeping not just with Nero’s own penchant for cruelty, but also with the general principles of Roman punishment” (MP, 165; see also ACM, 77–79). As a comparison, during the American Revolutionary War, George Washington ordered 25 to 50 lashes for soldiers for failing to use the proper latrine and execution of soldiers, often with a level of cruelty, for non-treasonous, lesser offenses was not uncommon.

Moss’ discussion of the “Cultural Contexts: The Good Death and the Self-Conscious Sufferer” (ACM, 23–48), is important. “martyrdom was viewed as particular to Christianity and as an indication of Christianity’s unique possession of religious truth” (ACM, 23). She particularly discusses the death of Socrates (ACM, 33–37). She notes, “Socrates’s dying on principle in many ways stands [according to his biographers] as guarantor of the truth of his message. His nonchalant and at times joyful approach to death earned him admiration from many quarters, not least from the early Christians” (ACM, 35).

In short, unlike some misguided believers in the Ante-Nicene era (ACM, 149–55), martyrdom is neither desirable nor to be sought after. More importantly, while those who have been martyrs serve as examples of faithful steadfastness should not be viewed, biblically speaking, as a category of believers who are somehow spiritually superior (cf. MP, 19). Because he avoided a martyrs death, Myles Coverdale (c. 1488–1569), even though he assisted William Tyndale (c. 1494–1536), produced the first complete English translation of the Bible and worked on two others (The Matthews and Great Bibles), is often viewed in a disparaging manner in comparison to Tyndale. Moss’ discussion of the “Avoidance of Martyrdom” (ACM, 155–59) is singularly helpful on this point. In terms of a Biblical example, the Apostle Paul is a model in this regard. In Acts 22:24, when faced with a punishment that nearly always resulted in death he exerted his rights to avoid that possibility (compare mastzin anetazesthai “examine by scourging” in Acts 22:24 and ekelenon rabsizein “beaten with rods” in Acts 16:22, the later, while painful rarely resulted in death or disabling injury, while the former almost always did); but at the end of his life when his death was inevitable he was confident that the Lord would “bring me safely into His heavenly kingdom” (2 Tim 4:18).

These two works are important contributions to the study of martyrdom and the apologetics of the early church. Her observations and conclusions regarding the non-inspired texts of the church fathers on this subject will run counter at an emotive level to the popular evangelical understanding of martyrdom; but they are recommended as significant studies and a corrective. The entire concept of martyrdom is difficult, as Moss notes, “it is, perhaps, a cultural script that glorifies comfort and the pursuit of long life at any costs that reads martyrdom as unintelligible” (MP, 166).

Her questioning of the historiography of the Biblical accounts and, by implication, the uniqueness of Christ’s vicarious and propitious death, should not distract from her underlying arguments and observations. Her through examination of the history and realities of martyrdom in the early church require thoughtful consideration. An evangelical, biblically-based examination of martyrdom is clearly a need in the modern church, which is seeing persecution and killing of Christians (in the broadest sense of that term) rising in many regions and perhaps Moss’ work will inspire such an undertaking..