Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 10 (2010) - Review

Bauks, Michaele and Christophe Nihan, Manuel d'exégèse de l'Ancien Testament (Le Monde de la Bible, 61; Geneva: Labor et Fides, 2008). Pp. 236. Paperback. € 27.00. ISBN 978-2-8309-1274-6.

This handbook of exegesis is intended to complement the recently republished Introduction à l'Ancien Testament edited by T. Römer, J.-D. Macchi and C. Nihan in the same collection (Le Monde de la Bible, 49; Geneva: Labor et Fides, 2009) and thus provide French-speaking students with important tools for the study of the Hebrew Bible. A comparable handbook has been written in German by Uwe Becker, Exegese des Alten Testaments (2nd ed.; UTB, 2664; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2008).

As for the overall layout, the Manuel d'exégèse is divided into five chapters; the first four outline different methods and the last provides an example, applying the methods to the exegesis of Num 12:

  1. Textual Criticism (by Jan Joosten)
  2. Narrative criticism (by Jean-Pierre Sonnet)
  3. Form and genre criticism and tradition history (by Michaela Bauks)
  4. Redaction criticism (by Christophe Nihan)
  5. Exegesis of Numbers 12 (by Jan Joosten and Thomas Römer)

Moreover, Numbers 12 serves as a guiding example for each of the first four chapters, which try to illustrate the implications of the methods they present for the study of this text. Far from leading to repetitions, this approach gives unity to the book despite the diversity of authors and tools, and the last chapter conveniently summarizes what the reader has learned through the entire handbook. Furthermore, each of first four chapters ends with a section called “user's guide” that describes in concrete terms the different steps the student is advised to follow in order to correctly apply the method. Thus, from the outset, this handbook adopts teaching principles that potentially make it a very useful tool.

With respect to textual criticism (chap. 1), Jan Joosten offers a clear and efficient presentation in two steps. First, he introduces the different textual witnesses. The MT and other main traditions (e.g., Septuagint, Qumran scrolls) are well presented; minor traditions are briefly addressed and for example the Vetus Latina is only mentioned under the subsection concerning the Vulgate (p. 28). Second, the author describes the method: possible origins of scribal alterations and the usual rules of textual criticism for evaluating the different readings. This outline is to be commended for the wisdom of the advice given to the students and the well-balanced evaluation of classical rules. For instance, lectio brevior and difficilior are not always melior; conjectures sometimes prove to be valuable; there are cases that cannot be resolved; and the like. Thus, readers learn rules and their limits so that they will not be tempted to apply them mechanically. The end of the chapter echoes the current trend in research towards studying secondary readings that witness to the reception of the text and the history of its interpretation. The “user's guide” is relatively brief. Some readers will be surprised by the following advice: “other witnesses [other than the MT, Samaritan Pentateuch and Septuagint] could be selected according to the capacities and the tastes of each person” (p. 44; italics added), but it is of course an adaptation to the situation of a beginner. In sum, in 33 pages J. Joosten succeeds in writing a very good introduction to textual criticism particularly adapted to undergraduate students.

Chapter 2, devoted to narrative criticism, is simply excellent. Virtually all the main aspects of this approach are presented, with plenty of well-chosen examples. It is true that students, including French speakers, already dispose of several outstanding books introducing this method; to mention but a few, there are Robert Alter's The Art of Biblical Narrative (New York: Basic Books, 1981) and Daniel Marguerat and Yan Bourquin's How to Read the Bible Stories (London: SCM Press, 1999). But the purpose of this chapter is to give—in about sixty pages—an overview of the relevance of this method. This reviewer highly recommends this short, dense, and agreeable text to people who want to get a glimpse of narrative criticism, because it will surely make them want to go into more detail.

Chapter 3 brings together several approaches to Biblical texts that are not always clearly distinguishable. Michaela Bauks tries to make useful distinctions while avoiding the separation of perspectives that are in reality inextricably linked. She first provides an historical outline of the development of Formgeschichte and Gattungskritik. Then, since form criticism aims to identify in a given textual unity an overall structure that corresponds to a precise literary genre (p. 101), Bauks gives a very detailed list of genres and, when possible, the form or structure that characterizes them. Included is a brief paragraph (p. 109) describing the main forms of poetic parallelism (synonymous, antithetic, and synthetic).

The second part of chap. 3 tackles tradition criticism and tradition history. Here again the author carefully distinguishes between the different aspects: analysis of patterns and themes, analysis of traditions (that is, “a set of patterns and themes organized in a precise way,” p. 121) and the history of traditions (i.e., the study of the “evolution of the different traditions inherent to the Old Testament according to a chronological and systematic order,” p. 124).

All in all, M. Bauks successfully summarizes and organizes the material, also providing a helpful “user's guide.” Nevertheless, although the decision to subsume issues of poetic analysis and comparative or contextual approach under form/genre analysis and tradition analysis/history respectively can easily be justified, the meagre presentations of the former subjects will probably disappoint some readers who consider them important. Considering the wealth of poetical techniques implemented in a significant part of the Hebrew Bible, it is regrettable that no example of “staircase parallelism” or other patterns is given, and in general, that a proper presentation of structural analysis is lacking. Moreover, only five pages are devoted to a rough glimpse of the kind of parallels originating from the Ancient Near East. This is not to say that the author (who has done a very good job) should have written a very long chapter dealing in detail with all these matters, but perhaps the handbook could have included other chapters addressing these topics.

The last approach presented is redaction criticism, addressed in a brilliant chapter by C. Nihan. This is certainly one of the best introductions to the subject—solid, precise, qualified and up-to-date—in about fifty pages. It is to be noted that source criticism is annexed to redaction criticism, in accordance with the current practice in Continental European Old Testament exegesis. First of all, Nihan handily traces the history of Redaktionskritik, including a discussion of the evolution in terminology and a summary of the main trends in the research since the last century concerning the Deuteronomistic History, the Prophets and the Psalms, as well as the Pentateuch. Then he extensively describes the criteria of source/redaction criticism along with many examples. Remarkably, he qualifies each criterion by noting the risks involved in an overly mechanical application. For example, he mentions the danger of seeing some tensions or contradictions, and thus hints of different redactions where in fact the tension can either be a full-fledged part of the narrative strategy, or a different articulation, or even simply stemming from the perception of a modern reader (pp. 160–61). Having summarized the process of analyzing a passage, Nihan outlines a method for synthesis in answering questions about the redactional history of the text, the underlying intentions of the redactors, the possible link with known large-scale redactions, and the context of the different redactions. At the end of the chapter, the author discusses several topics related to redaction criticism: what we know of redactional processes in Antiquity (outside of the Bible), inner-biblical exegesis and the overlapping of textual and redactional criticisms.

Finally, chapter 5 provides an example of exegesis with the study of Num 12. Jan Joosten first gives an annotated translation and textual-critical remarks. Then Thomas Römer performs insightful synchronic and diachronic studies of the text, being careful to follow the methods presented in the preceding chapters, in order to offer a model for students. He identifies the structure, the narrative construction, and the literary genres of the passage, applies the criteria of redaction criticism, proposes a model for the redactional history of the passage, tries to locate the literary and historical contexts of the main redactions he discerns, and examines the history of traditions occurring in the text. With regard to the application of the source/redaction-critical criteria, the caution of the author is noteworthy; he indicates when a criterion does not necessarily apply, and admits that a synchronic explanation could be advocated for the present state of Numbers 12 and its two intricate themes (p. 207). Naturally not everyone will agree with his identification and date of the redactions and traditions, especially regarding a text from the Pentateuch for which there are plenty of diachronic theories. But here again, the clarity of the exposition is outstanding.

Overall, this handbook provides excellent introductions to important areas of exegesis, and it will surely constitute a very useful tool for students. The limits of this work are due to the decision to restrict the material to four subjects, while it would have been possible to include more substantial introductions to other issues like structural analysis and the comparative study of the Hebrew Bible in its ancient Near Eastern setting. Another topic omitted is philology. Obviously, the first thing the student has to do is to translate the text, which is a full-fledged step in the exegetical process, as demonstrated by the important section deservedly devoted to this matter in serious exegetical commentaries. Indeed, the first two sections of chapter 5 are devoted to translation and notes on the translation of Numbers 12. Problems of semantics, syntax and other grammatical matters, as well as how to evaluate propositions issued from Semitic comparative grammar when dealing with hapax legomena, are frequent issues students face even before studying the diachronic and synchronic aspects of a text. Thus a basic outline of the various tools available and the methodological caution needed, enabling the student to make critical use of dictionaries and grammars, would have been appreciated.

Nonetheless, this handbook will soon become a “must-have” manual, recommended for its masterful introductions to the subjects it addresses.

Matthieu Richelle, EPHE-Sorbonne, Paris / Faculté de Théologie Evangélique, Vaux-sur-Seine, France