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

Gilbert, Christopher, A Complete Introduction to the Bible (Mahweh, NJ: Paulist Press, 2009). Pp. xii+320, Softcover, US$24.95, ISBN 978-0-8091-4552-2.

The purpose of Christopher Gilbert's text is to provide a lay or undergraduate student readership with little or no background in reading the Bible with an academically informed view of the Jewish and Christian Scriptures. Gilbert's introduction covers the whole of the Christian Bible. It is accessible and well-written.

Gilbert divides his book into three parts consisting of 14 chapters. Part 1 provides introductory comments on method and interpretation, Part 2 explores the Hebrew Bible, and Part 3 analyzes the New Testament. The chapters in Part 2 and Part 3 are organized generally according to the order in which the books appear in the Jewish canon and the New Testament respectively. An exception to this is the chapter on the prophets which follows a critical chronological order.

In Part 1 in the first chapter Gilbert presents three approaches to reading the Bible: devotional, polemical, and academic. He justifies the academic approach used in the book by claiming that it is scientific and objective, therefore, free from bias. By an academic approach he means primarily two different methods: historical criticism and synchronic narrative analysis. These two approaches are then briefly explained.

Gilbert's second chapter recounts the history of interpretation of the Bible. He begins with early Jewish interpretation including explanations of the targumim, midrashim, Mishnah, and the Talmuds. He then continues with early Christian interpretation, and medieval Jewish and Christian interpretations. He finishes with interpretation from the Reformation to the modern period. He mentions feminist criticism in passing, but does not mention the variety of other postmodern interpretative methods.

In Part 2 the Hebrew Bible is surveyed book by book. Chapter 3 deals with Genesis. The JEDP sources, ANE parallels, the plot of Genesis, and various genres are explained. The chapter ends with a pithy summary of the plot, values, and worldview Genesis promotes. Chapter 4 covers Exodus-Deuteronomy. Historical issues and narrative are discussed. ANE treaty forms are explained without differentiating between Hittite and Assyrian forms. The Covenant, Priestly, and Deuteronomic Codes are anachronistically called laws of Judaism. Chapter 5 covers Joshua–2 Kings, explaining settlement theories and mentioning the theological meanings of events in the lives of David, Solomon, and the subsequent kings of Israel and Judah. Chapter 6 deals with the books of Isaiah–Malachi, but also includes treatments of the ministries of Elijah and Elisha which were not covered in the previous chapter. Chapter 7 contains a discussion of the songs and wisdom literature of the Kethuvim. The Psalms and its various genres are explained and Song of Songs, Lamentations, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job are discussed. Chapter 8 covers the post-exilic Kethuvim, while Chapter 9 covers the apocrypha, deuterocanonical books, LXX, and Qumran literature. It also includes their historical contexts and explanations of the various Jewish religious movements and social clusters in the Second Temple period.

Part 3 discusses the New Testament. Chapter 10 discusses the person of Jesus, various historical sources confirming his existence, and the historical issues surrounding his resurrection. Chapter 11 discusses the synoptic gospels, the four source hypothesis, and John. Chapter 12 covers Acts while chapter 13 deals with Paul's writings. Chapter 14 explains the remaining epistles and Revelation.

The advantage of Gilbert's introduction is that the whole Hebrew and Christian Bible is surveyed in a lucid and nontechnical style. Specific biblical books can be referenced easily. Its explanation of sources woven throughout the discussion of the Hebrew Bible does not overly detract from the literary character of the final form. Gilbert maintains a consistent maximalist historical position throughout the book.

At times Gilbert's explanations are too brief and reductionistic. For example, there is much overlap between the devotional, polemical, and critical ways of reading the Bible, yet Gilbert states that an academic reading is separate from the other two. The overly optimistic hermeneutical position he takes equates historical criticism with objectivity equal to that of biology and physics. Yet much has been written about the subjectivity that exists in all academic disciplines, including the hard sciences. In biblical studies, a critical approach is rarely if ever neutral on the issue of divine inspiration, as Gilbert maintains. Gilbert promised the use of an artistic literary analysis which he does not deliver. Rather than analyzing the text's artistic literary devices he limits his literary comments to a straightforward retelling of the narrative. Moreover, I would like to have seen more consistent comment on the way the Hebrew Bible presents its values and worldview in a way similar to how Gilbert treated the text in the chapter on Genesis and also did briefly in some other chapters. While Gilbert's book is useful for the uninitiated, it is not a “complete” introduction. Except for a brief mention of feminist criticism the reader is left unaware of the various postmodern readings. Its survey of the different biblical books, their themes and historical background, are too brief and cursory to be labelled “complete.” Also, the book would be more useful and interesting if it included pictures and informative sidebars. For a student text the features and format are not very exciting.

In conclusion, while Gilbert's introduction provides useful information for the student, I would not use it as a first choice classroom textbook. The student is left with an incomplete impression of the various ways scholarship is currently reading the Bible. There are also more graphically interesting student introductions on the market. Additionally, it does not provide resources for the teacher.

Glen A. Taylor, Tajikistan National University