New Edition of the Cambridge History of the Bible


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..