Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 16 (2016) - Review

Steinberg, Julius and Timothy J. Stone (eds.), The Shape of the Writings (Siphrut, Literature and Theology of the Hebrew Scriptures, 16. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2015). Hardcover. US$54.50. ISBN 978-1-57506-373-7.

The Writings, the third canonical division of the Hebrew Bible, has an interesting and multivalent role in biblical scholarship. On the one hand, it is often at the heart of debated issues (dating and its significance for the New Testament and rabbinic Judaism; the character of “scripture” versus “canon”; tripartite versus quadripartite collections; etc.). On the other hand, though containing the much beloved and much used book of Psalms and the forever challenging book of Job, the amorphousness and seemingly endless variety of orders of its content in biblical collections has made it seem relatively insignificant as a canonical unit.

Julius Steinberg and Timothy Stone, both veteran scholars of the Writings, have brought together other colleagues, primarily from Europe, to explore the hotly debated issues of dating and canon and to claim that its shape and structure as a canonical collection are significant and intentional. The volume is introduced by a long essay that presents an overview of scholarship, focusing first on the closing of the Hebrew canon and pertinent historical sources and then on the shape of the Writings as found in ancient as well as contemporary Bibles. Though differing on many issues of interpretation, Steinberg and Stone are both strong advocates for an intentional and clear structure of the Writings. Nevertheless, they bend over backwards to be fair and comprehensive in their presentation of both sides of the issues raised.

All of the essays in this volume, accompanied by helpful bibliographies, contribute to the goal of “examining the books in the OT for signs of their compilation into well-ordered collections” (p. 52). Each of them, however, lifts up particular and often different methodological perspectives in accomplishing this task.

Peter Brandt (“Final Forms of the Writings: The Jewish and Christian Traditions”), utilizing findings from his larger study of canon, provides an overview of many different arrangements for the Writings in both Jewish and Christian Bibles. Focusing on chronology, liturgy, and other themes and concerns, he argues there is a limited number of important orders. He concludes that the absence of a unified collection for the Writings in Christian Bibles may be because the books “were not yet considered a fixed canonical concept in those circles propagating the reception of the Jewish Bible in early Christianity” (p. 83).

Stephen Dempster (“A Wandering Moabite: Ruth—A Book in Search of a Canonical Home”) explores the many canonical contexts for Ruth in the Bible. By studying the relationships between Ruth and adjacent books (intertextuality), often relying on redactional and thematic elements, he concludes “canonization allows for flexibility of arrangement in the interests of hermeneutical creativity” (p. 116).

Frank-Lothar Hossfeld and Erich Zenger (“Thoughts on the ‘Davidization’ of the Psalter”) propose a five-stage compositional process for integrating David into the Psalms as a paradigm for messianism, prayer, a historical king, and everyman. All of this, utilizing tradition history as well as redaction criticism, reflects “the individuality as well as the interconnectedness of the Psalter in relation to other traditions and books of the OT” (p. 129).

Will Kynes (“Reading Job following the Psalms”) explores the relationship between these two biblical books and the import of sequence as he maintains that “knowledge of the Psalms is a prerequisite for fully understanding Job” (p. 131). Intertextuality, as well as form, redaction, and rhetorical criticism, help Kynes create a rich dialogical relationship between these two books of the Writings.

Julius Steinberg (“The Place of Wisdom Literature in an Old Testament Theology”), building upon his major study of the Writings, utilizes a “structural-canonical” perspective. With the canonical structure of the collection found in the Talmud (B. Bat. 14b) as his guide, he delineates two collections: (1) wisdom (Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs), and (2) national-historical (Lamentations, Daniel, Esther, Ezra-Nehemiah) framed by Psalms and Chronicles and introduced by Ruth. He uses thematic concerns to describe the theological structure and special character of wisdom (epistemology; positive and negative perspectives; etc.).

Timothy J. Stone (“The Search for Order: The Compilational History of Ruth”), also building upon his earlier work, argues for an intentional arrangement of books within the Writings, suggesting that there are only two basic orders (Talmudic and Masoretic). Looking for “catchwords or catchphrases at the seams” (redaction criticism) and themes shared or reversed by “contiguous books” (intertextuality), he suggests Ruth's placement in these orders and calls for a rethinking of canonical process and formation.

Amber Warhurst (“The Associative Effects of Daniel in the Writings”) addresses the frequently asked question of whether Daniel is more at home in the Prophets or Writings. Challenging ancient rabbinic as well as some contemporary scholarship, she raises the possibility that Daniel's juxtaposition with other books of the Writings actually provides a positive contribution to a postexilic theology addressing issues of exile and restoration.

Hendrik J. Koorevaar (“Chronicles as the Intended Conclusion to the Old Testament Canon”) argues for a Persian date (400 b.c.e.) for Chronicles, basing his argument on literary and theological characteristics as well as its interrelationship and structural position vis-à-vis other books in the Writings. He concludes with the proposal that the book was written to close the Hebrew canon.

Georg Steins (“Torah-Binding and Canon Closure”) also discusses the role and function of Chronicles. He focuses on the place of the book in the Writings. After addressing source-critical and historical issues, Steins lifts up the central role of Torah in Chronicles. Presenting many textual references, he concludes that the book was intended to synthesize, summarize, and close the canon at a fairly early date (second century b.c.e.).

Stephen B. Chapman (“A Threefold Cord is Not Quickly Broken”) addresses the claim by Barr, Barton, and others that the Bible was read “atomistically,” arguing instead that we are able to discern “a sense of its literary theological ‘shape’” (p. 287). He does this through a study of canonical titles, canonical divisions, and genre designations in ancient Jewish and Christian sources.

The book concludes with three responses by scholars whose work represents a wide spectrum of opinion about the Writings and canon: John Barton, Tamara Cohn Eskenazi, and Christopher R. Seitz. Together with the introduction, these helpful responses form an interpretive envelope within which the volume pursues its agenda.

This volume addresses a rich variety of important topics including canon formation and history, canonical reading, the structure of the Writings, reception history and its role in canon studies, the historical evidence pointing toward an early formation of the Writings, intertextual connections within the Writings, and the relationship of the Writings to Torah and the Prophets.

Steinberg and Stone are to be commended for bringing together a provocative and valuable series of essays and responses that contribute much to a field filled with questions and controversy. This reviewer wishes to raise but one question. Do these scholars intend to provide us with a view of the Writings as canon anchored in ancient times that should have special import and influence today, or is this just one of many ways to read and interpret the Writings? Regardless of the answer to this question, the goal of Steinberg and Stone “to help define the contours of the discussion and to foster meaningful dialogue” (p. 52) has been admirably achieved.

Donn F. Morgan, Church Divinity School of the Pacific