Review: @eerdmansbooks A Cultural Handbook to the Bible

cultural handbook to the bible

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There are times that the dedication page is a bitter-sweet send off to this one or that one; there are times, such as this one, where the dedication page tells the reader more than the back-of-the-book blurb provided by the publisher. John J. Pilch, the author, dedicates the book to several social sciences groups in various organizations, including the Society of Biblical Literature. From this stand point, we know what to expect — a reasonable, scientific approach to interpretation that may in fact challenge and change the occasional open mind.

In his preface, Pilch offers advice for reading this book. Don’t. Well, maybe not “don’t” but do not read this book as a novel or other historical production. Instead, this is a handbook in the truest form — meant to systematically present various topics under a broader category. For instance, if you want to understand dragons, flip to page 47, but this does not lead into the next topic, Mirrors and Glass (page 52). They just happen to both fit under the theme of Earth. Each topic is arranged, easily enough, under such categories as the Cosmos (heaven, hell, and other places one may visit in the ethereal plane), Family (not always your children), and even Entertainment (whereby one can read about the performance of the Song of Solomon). See, this book is not just a linear progression of topics, but a series of previous published articles arranged in groups so that reading and studying such things are easier. Finally, as regards the set up of the book, each section is closed off with a bibliography for further reading. These further reading resources are well with in line of social sciences, including anthropology (disappointed not to see Girard, but…).

So, since this book is not about starting at page one and arriving at the end with a real reasoned argument giving us something to judge, I have selected several topics so as to bring out the wonder of this book. Let me begin with hell and ascend from there. Pilch begins with an earnest attempt at thwarting the reader’s comfort (the “theological freight” (p2)). The author takes us through the misuse of the word hell in our language, as if it is a one-to-one translation and was exactly what David and Jesus meant. It is not. From here, he tackles Sheol, defined from a point in the Hebrew bible and brought to where we see it in Second Temple Judaism — as something more than a dark place. It is infused with Greek thought, where we find Hades misapplied in a bad translation attempt as well. Then, the landfill Gehenna — or was it (p5)? With confusion well established, Pilch then moves to Christian (generally Catholic) reception of Sheol-Hades-Gehenna-Hell. What does this teach us? That our English language and later theological concepts are often overcome with patina and in need of a good scrubbing, something the drafters of Vatican II realized.

Likewise, in the thematic category known simply as Family (105-46), Pilch takes on seven topics — Virgin (no, not always); Marriage (Traditional? Hardly); Family; Adultery (economy); Rape (could not happen to a man although it could); A Noble Death; and Final Words. In reading the section on Rape, one becomes astutely aware of the differences we share with other cultures (again, where is Girard?) and sickened by the comments so easily made by our fellow society members. In discussing this terrible concept, Pilch’s focus is on the daughter of Jacob, Dinah who was rape (by modern ideals) but did was not the victim of the crime. Anthropological resources are called into service — enthography, Scripture, language, mores. The exegesis, then, is given and in such a way as to draw the reader more deeply into the story until they realize the full measure of cultural awakening given by Pilch.

I have encountered far too many well-meaning Christians who believe that even in English, the bible teaches in a structured language with a one-to-one meaning. Yet, the same modern word for an abstract concept — say, freedom or liberty — has a different definition depending upon the person, the location of the country, not to mention how such words are received by wives of abusive husbands, people subject to brutal dictators, or even alcoholics. The same is true, in many ways, of reading Scripture. Perhaps a book like this, written by a scholar with an empathetic ear, can help to change the way too many approach Scripture. Pilch offers not just his easy-to-read writing style, but his faith, and his helpful Catholicism — it tinges here and there, with mentions of the Church Fathers, of books of the Deuterocanon, and of ecumenical councils. And of course, the easily recognized palette is the deep love for anthropology.

One note, however — this is a book using social sciences to read Scripture. It is not a book that will entail every academic study available, such as the assumption Luke did not read Matthew (109), but it nevertheless serves, at this point, to highlight what virgin meant throughout Scripture.

Enjoy the book, but treat it as a handbook, not a novel. Use it as a commentary — use it to get under the headlines that have lulled you into a false sense of security in “knowing” what the authors meant, which is always what you thought they did. There is so much more depth to Scripture than what we have brought to it.

Post By Joel Watts (9,927 Posts)

Joel L. Watts holds a Masters of Arts from United Theological Seminary with a focus in literary and rhetorical criticism of the New Testament. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of the Free State, working on the use of Deuteronomy in the Fourth Gospel. He is the author of Mimetic Criticism of the Gospel of Mark: Introduction and Commentary (Wipf and Stock, 2013), a co-editor and contributor to From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls (Energion, 2013), and Praying in God's Theater, Meditations on the Book of Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2014).

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