Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 4 (2002-2003) - Review

Yvonne Sherwood, A Biblical Text and Its Afterlives: The Survival of Jonah in Western Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000). Pp. xii, 321. ISBN: 052179174X (hardcover); ISBN: 0521795613 (paperback). $ 65 (hardcover); $ 25 (paperback).

Sherwood's volume represents a postmodern approach to Jonah that draws heavily on the history of interpretation of the book. The first section concerns interpretations in "the Mainstream scholarly and Christian tradition from the first to the twentieth century"; the second section ("Backwaters and underbellies") alternative readings, including "medieval poetry, Netherlandish art, and Jewish interpretation"; the third section advances her own "'new' interpretation" (p. 2). From the title and the organization of the work it seems that Sherwood understands her greatest contribution to derive from her extensive reading in the history of interpretation of Jonah. In fact, her "'new' interpretation" comprises only about 40 pages of the volume (pp. 239-80).

Although the volume has a wealth of information about the history of interpretation, Sherwood's organization of this material is problematic. Her section concerning the "Mainstream" encompasses diverse readings, including Augustine, Luther, and contemporary biblical scholars. This unfortunately leads to broad generalizations about "Old Testament scholarship" that are clearly unfair and/or outdated. For example, she writes, "a common story told in Biblical Studies circles is the story of the Old Testament's gradual theological progress from primitive religion, embarrassing anthropomorphisms, and polytheistic slips towards ethical monotheism and universalism" (p. 55). Although this statement may have some validity when talking about earlier biblical scholars such as Wellhausen and Albright, such a characterization of the current state of biblical studies cannot be supported. Furthermore, her exclusion of Jewish scholars from her "Mainstream" category is also problematic, for many of today's "Mainstream" scholars (she includes, for example, Jack Sasson) have more in common with contemporary Jewish scholars (for example, Baruch Halpern, who in fact Sherwood discusses in her "Mainstream" section [p. 71]) than with John Calvin. Ironically, the correctives that she prescribes to overcome these supposed shortcomings have already gained a following within the guild. For example, two of her major points--(1) taking seriously the history of interpretation and (2) her argument "for Jewish Studies to become part of Biblical Studies, as Christian Studies always (implicitly) has been" (pp. 92-93)--are given voice in the annual meetings of the Society of Biblical Literature. Of course, one may debate how pervasive and influential these positions are in the discipline, but Sherwood generally ignores that these positions are now a part of the "Mainstream."

Because of these shortcomings, I suspect that many others will find her generalizations as hindrances to her message, rather than provocative statements causing her readers to rethink their positions. Some of her generalizations are especially problematic:

    The Mainstream absorbs social anxieties (about social discipline, a retrogressive Old Testament, a troubling Jewish Father, a Bible superseded by science) then processes and answers them and gives back to society a coherent solution: all dissidents purged, a rational Bible, the inferior and demoted Jew, a scientifically plausible, naturalized text (p. 187).
I find this rhetoric especially odd, since her very audience appears to be primarily those of us who she identifies as "Mainstream."

When she is preparing her readers for her own interpretation, Sherwood appears to understand the problems that her earlier rhetoric may have created. First, she acknowledges that "a new generation of Mainstream readers ... are effectively revitalizing (albeit not self-consciously) the themes and questions of the rabbis, Abravanel, Melville, and the Gawain-poet" (p. 226). She then refers to a long list of contemporary scholars on Jonah, including Alan Cooper, Kenneth Craig, H. Gese, Abraham Cohen and C. A. Keller, Serge Frolov, Walter Crouch, Baruch Halpern and Richard Friedman, Thomas Thompson, Thomas Bolin, John Miles, Arnold Band, John Dominic Crossan, Etan Levine, Andr and Pierre-Emmanuel Lacoque, and Phyllis Trible (pp. 226-30). Second, she explicitly moderates her bipolar categorization:

    At this point something of a confession is in order: if, by concentrating on certain limiting Mainstream readings I have so far tended to depict 'them' (the scholars, the biblical commentators) as bumbling stooges, rather like the unimaginative police officers who act as a foil for the maverick detective--genius in 1970s cop shows, if the emergent subtext of this book is that the professional paid readers have served the text poorly, and that the truly subtle readers are the unpaid, the unprofessionals, this is crassly cartoonist and polemically skewed. The truth is that the Mainstream is already mutinying against itself, and edging towards Jewish/Popular readings-so much so that having set myself up for a superhuman vault across the abyss between Backwaters and Mainstream, I find myself in the less heroic role of reinforcing the fragile rope-bridge already slung between the two. (p. 234)
It would have been much more helpful to state this "truth" much earlier in the volume and to find some other way of organizing her discussion of the history of interpretation so as not to give such a "crassly cartoonist and polemically skewed" view.

Sherwood's moderation of her rhetoric prepares her readers for her "'new' interpretation," which clearly draws heavily from the "new generation of Mainstream readers." In fact, those who are familiar with recent secondary literature on Jonah, especially readings of Jonah as satire, will find much of her interpretation familiar. Her most interesting and provocative contribution comes in her conclusion, in which she argues that, despite (or even because of) its satirical tone, Jonah conforms to the characteristics of a traditional story and is, therefore, a "quintessential story and typical biblical text" (p. 280). However, I am uncertain how many of her readers will be willing to wade through her review of the history of interpretation with its organizational and rhetorical problems, in order to find her interpretation of Jonah and her comments on its significance within the canon.

Raymond F. Person, Jr., Ohio Northern University