Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 7 (2007) - Review
Many will already be familiar with Matthews introductory guide to Daily Life in the biblical period, this being the third edition of the handbook. What has changed from earlier versions of the volume? Matthews has revised and updated the text to take into consideration developments in the understanding of life and culture during the almost two decades since the revised version of the book appeared. Bibliographies and sources cited have been supplemented, updated and modified, and the text rewritten for readability. The overall size of the book has remained about the same, but significant changes in the presentation need to be noted. The revised version of the book (1988) was laid out in a single column taking up about two thirds of the page, the remaining white space being peppered with biblical citations, line drawings and black and white photographs. This new edition is a thorough revision and updating of a work that had already proven its usefulness. Printed in double columns, with its numerous photos, charts and maps presented in full color on glossy paper, this hardcover volume is attractive and affordable, and should appeal to its intended audience: those looking for a concise introduction to the basic elements of daily life in the biblical period. Matthews, an Old Testament scholar with numerous publications concerning the social world of Israel and its place in the broader ancient Near East to his credit, proves an able guide to summarizing the vast amount of information available on the topic.
Matthews divides the work into five sections, corresponding to five historical eras—the Ancestral Period, Exodus-Settlement Period, Monarchy Period, Exile and Return, and Intertestamental and New Testament Period. Each section begins with an overview of the developing and changing political situations in which Israel and/or Judah find themselves. The historical overviews essentially follow the biblical narratives, from the patriarchal age to the Bar Kochba revolt in the 2nd C CE. (Matthews notes that the exact dates of the ancestral period are still uncertain [p. 24] but a date ca.1800 BCE is implied.) Inevitably, some social and cultural concerns begin to be addressed in the historical summation, but it is in his description of each time period that Matthews excels as a trusted guide, outlining and detailing numerous aspects of daily life in order to facilitate an understanding of the biblical text. Information about cooking and dress, work and worship, military equipment and legal matters and a multitude of other aspects of ordinary life which the biblical texts allude to, assuming a basic awareness on the part of the reader, are presented in clear and concise prose. The carefully chosen illustrations are helpful in this regard, allowing the novice an introduction to art and artefacts from the ancient world.
A few further features are to be noted. Internal cross-referencing facilitates reference back to customs or practices which have already been discussed yet remain pertinent to understanding a later period. Each section concludes with a series of review questions that can be used by the reader to assess one's comprehension of the main points of the chapter, or might find a role in the use of the book as a class text in an introductory course. To this edition has been added a glossary so that unfamiliar terms can be looked up. The volume also contains four indices—subject, personal names, place names, and ancient texts—which enhances the usefulness of the work.
Students beginning serious biblical study in the context of a college or university program, or those in the church seeking for a readable volume to answer some of their many questions arising from their reading of the Bible should find this volume helpful. The lack of footnotes however, limits the usefulness of the book for more serious scholarship. While the bibliography is helpful, a beginning student would certainly need guidance to pursue any of the topics introduced. Certainly specialists will find things to quibble with in Matthew's summation of the biblical world (e.g., "the ancestral period,"). Nonetheless, the book can be recommended as an up-to-date resource presenting an understanding of the current state of scholarship regarding the political, social and cultural contours of the biblical period, and as such should be helpful to beginning students.