[K:NWTS 4/2 (Sep 1989) 42-44]

From the Librarian's Shelf....

Robert Alter and Frank Kennode, editors. The Literary Guide to the Bible. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987. ISBN: 0-674-87530-3. $29.95 (cloth).

I picked up this volume with a great deal of anticipation. In recent years, literary and narrative studies have brought fresh insights into the character of the written word. Blurbs by John Barton and Amos Wilder encouraged the hopes of fresh investigations of the various books of the Bible. But I have put the book down with deep disappointment. There is very little which is "new" here, a great deal which amounts to pedantic rehashing of old liberal-critical views and precious little interaction with the better recent literary and narrative materials. Indeed, if this volume is truly indicative of the new literary and narrative approaches to Scripture, the movement is still-born–a repristination of standard higher critical positions. In fact, this volume represents critical fundamentalism at its worst. The promise of new insights is unfulfilled (with the exception of J. P. Fokkelman on Genesis and Exodus and John Drury on Mark). The essays in this volume for the most part simply repeat the conclusions of the standard liberal-critical Bible dictionaries and encyclopedias, commentaries and study Bibles.

The by now familiar dogmas of liberal-critical fundamentalism abound in these pages: (1) the Bible is not revelation since the Biblical writers could neither bridge Lessing's ugly ditch or Kant's epistemological antithesis; (2) the Bible is a checkerboard of conglomerate sources from disparate traditions; (3) the Bible does not contain a unified message, rather it is a religious thesaurus evidencing the religious quest of numerous individuals and communities; (4) the Bible was never really understood until the enlightened, rationalistic experts of the 18th century unlocked its non-mysteries; (5) the importance of the Bible does not reside in historicity, but in the religious truths imparted through its pages. I ask our readers–is this a breathtakingly new advance in Biblical studies? Is this pushing back the shutters and opening the windows of understanding?

This is in fact more of the same old stuff. More of the tired dogma of the past 200 years of liberal Biblical scholarship. When its pages are not trite, they contain the obvious; when they are not absurd, they are ridiculous (cf. pp. 596-97 for an utterly incredible reading of the "fishers of men" motif). And when they are not heretical, they are often blasphemous. What a waste of ink and wood pulp! These liberal truisms have all been said before and better–try Otto Eissfeldt's, The Old Testament: An Introduction for the standard liberal-critical line on the Old Testament; or, Feine, Behm, Kummel (Introduction to the New Testament) for the New Testament.

There is another facet of this volume which borders on outright dishonesty. Take the essay by Bernard McGinn on Revelation for instance. In a volume alleged to provide literary analysis of the Apocalypse, McGinn offers a survey of the history of interpretation of the final book in the Christian canon from the first to the twentieth century. Since he has recently completed a book on Joachim of Fiore, we learn a disproportionate amount about the Joachimist interpretation of the Apocalypse. So much for incorporating pet projects into a survey of 2000 years of interpretation! Yet where is the literary analysis of Revelation? McGinn tells us about Augustine's view of the work; he discusses, albeit much too superficially, Thomas Brightman, Daniel Whitby and even Jonathan Edwards (in passing). J. N. Darby even receives a nod. But what does this have to do with the literary character of Revelation? History of interpretation–yes. But the title on the dust jacket of our volume does not read: A Survey of the History of Interpretation of the Books of the Bible from the First to the Twentieth Century. Hence McGinn's essay does not belong in a volume with our title–save insofar as modern literary analysis has nothing more to offer than a reprise of the history of interpretation.

Robert Alter has written two stimulating books on Biblical narrative, both of which contain fresh insights into the nature of Biblical texts. If the present volume is indicative of the direction Alter believes the new literary approaches should be going, then he should not have expended the effort to produce his own two volumes. The present volume is opposite his own efforts in virtually every way. Meir Sternberg's trenchant comment in another context is certainly applicable to Alter in this context: "Rarely has there been such a futile expense of spirit in a noble cause; rarely have such grandiose theories of origination been built and revised and pitted against one another on the evidential equivalent of the head of a pin; rarely have so many worked so long and so hard with so little to show for their trouble."

No friends, save your money. The new insights in this volume are not worth $29.95. In fact, laid end to end they would be worth little more than a plug nickel.