Book review: The Literary Guide to the Bible

Edited by Robert Alter and Frank Kermode

★★★★

I’ve had this book for quite a while, but used it only as an occasional reference. I finally decided to read it all the way through, and I’m glad I did, though it definitely took a while. Perhaps two dozen authors provide coverage of nearly every book of the Bible, plus a collection of general essays thrown in at the end for good measure.

This collection­ isn’t meant as a ministerial aid. It’s a book-by-book journey into the richness of the Bible’s presentation. The Old Testament coverage focuses heavily on the poetic structure and literary qualities of the writing. As a result, books you may consider dry—like Isaiah—become stunning in their literary beauty, while other books that contain fascinating stories and theological depth—like Genesis—can appear ugly and boring by comparison.

While the Old Testament focuses more intently on literary style and presentation, the tone shifts when the topic moves from the Hebrew Old Testament to the Greek New Testament. Here, the emphasis is more on historical-critical exegesis, and what the New Testament writers were trying to tell us about the Christian movement in their own day. While Christian writings do build heavily on an Old Testament foundation, they derive not from the poetic Hebrew but from the ghetto-Greek of the Septuagint. Thus, cadence gives way to content, but the coverage is no less interesting.

I toyed with the idea of doing two book reviews: one for the Hebrew Bible and one for the Christian writings. They are that different. My favorite topics, for four entirely different reasons, were:

  • Isaiah, by Luis Alsonso Schokel, which is a exquisite collection of poetry by three or more authors.
  • Jonah, by James S. Ackerman, is exposed as a literary masterpiece.
  • The Gospel of Mark, by John Drury, is an interesting portrayal of a human Jesus hardly devoid of emotion.
  • The Pauline Epistles, by Michael Goulder, provides a glimpse into the mind of a fascinating and influential apostle.
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