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Reading the Bible with the Dead: What You Can Learn from the History of Exegesis that You Can't Learn from Exegesis Alone Paperback – June 1, 2007
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"Thompson demonstrates that earlier generations struggled with questions not unlike our own and that they have much to teach us about faithful interpretation of scripture. A delightful read."
"Preachers will want to keep this book close at hand; it will impel them to investigate the riches of the history of exegesis also for texts they preach more often."
Richard B. Hays
— Duke Divinity School
"It is a peculiar conceit of modernity that we are the first to recognize the presence of puzzling, offensive texts in the Bible. John Thompson punctures that illusion and offers a fascinating survey of the diverse ways in which premodern interpreters struggled — for better and for worse — with some of the same texts that trouble us today. Reading the Bible with the Dead contains a treasure trove of provocative insights. The clarity of Thompson's exposition is exemplary, and his evaluations are wise and balanced. The 'Finding Guide to English Translations of Commentary Literature Written before 1600' will be of great value to students and pastors who want to pursue this conversation more deeply."
— Beeson Divinity School
"Combining mature scholarship with an engaging style, John Thompson helps us to peer over the shoulders of saints of the past as we read the Bible today, especially some of its difficult texts. In doing so, he shows that serious study of Holy Scripture requires more than the latest Bible translation in one hand and the latest commentary in the other. An invaluable guide for all pastors and teachers of God's Word."
"Every pastor or church needs a book like this in the library."
— Princeton Theological Seminary
"John Thompson is well known for his fascinating scholarly studies of the history of exegesis, particularly concerning some of the more challenging biblical texts on issues of gender and violence that lectionaries often skip. . . In this clear and user-friendly book Thompson melds modern questions with patristic, medieval, and Reformation-era questionings about hard-to handle biblical stories and injunctions, from Hagar and Jephthah's daughter to the psalms of imprecation and Pauline strictures on men's hair and women's public speaking. While making no claims to exhaustive treatment of any text, Thompson provides twenty-first-century readers with a rich spectrum of interpretation by pre-Enlightenment exegetes. "
— senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley
"Thompson's book provides an exceptionally incisive and courageous example of reading uncomfortable biblical texts through a history of the reading of those texts. The fruit it bears is faithful wisdom, the kind of reading we need most."
— author of Darkness Is My Only Companion
"A bold encounter with the 'texts of terror.'. . . Will be of profound interest to any scholar of the history of biblical interpretation or of feminist questions and uses of Scripture."
About the Author
John L Thompson is Professor of Historical Theology and Gaylen and Susan Byker Professor of Reformed Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary.
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The book is fascinating, but the interpretations of these passages are often allegorical or far-fetched or off the beaten path, and part of the reason is because the early church fathers didn't have access to the historical and cultural background that sheds light on the meaning of the passages. For example, the early fathers didn't know that both animals and people would have lived in Jephthah's house, they didn't know that Hosea marrying a prostitute was an example of a prophet acting out what God was doing with His people (something we see in Ezekiel 3-4).
Moreover, most of the patristic fathers didn't interpret these passages in theological context. For example, the weird and the wacky stories in Judges fits in with the overall theme of the book (without God, people do stupid things, or better put, The failures and foibles of God's people show how much we need God's Word and God's Guidance).
I realize how this going to sound to some people "Only the new is true. We are much more enlightened and knowledgeable today." Let me be clear: The church fathers have wonderful things to say about growing in the grace and knowledge of Christ. I love reading the fathers for devotional thoughts. I just feel that interpreters today have a better handle on the meaning of the text.
So I came away from this book thinking "Thank God for these brave fathers, we stand on their shoulders. But at the same time, Thank God for the historical, theological, and exegetical insights of theologians today."
These passages in question are:
The story of Hagar in Genesis
The story of Jephthah's daughter in Judges
The imprecatory Psalms
The patriarchs in Genesis and their "bad behavior"
The story of Gomer and Hosea
Paul's command in 1 Corinthians 11
The biblical teaching on divorce
Paul's teaching about women being silent
The stories of sex and violence in the Old Testament (Dinah, Tamar, and Bathsheba)
I would imagine these are not most people's typical go-to passages for small group Bible study, much less a sermon series. For each of these problem passages, Thompson engages in a survey of patristic, medieval, and reformation biblical interpreters to see how they dealt with the issues. Not every interpreter makes every chapter, but the most frequent "guest" interpreters invited by Thompson to weigh in are a few of the usual suspects: Calvin, Luther, Augustine. Perhaps lesser known to mainstream audiences, but cited just as much by Thompson, are Ambrose, Bullinger, Bucer, Denis the Carthusian, Nicholas of Lyra, and Peter Martyr Vermigli.
For each chapter, Thompson presents each passage by first noting how it is either neglected by modern interpreters, left out the lectionaries, the object of feminist ridicule, or some combination of these and similar issues. From there, using the above conversations partners (and many more), he looks at how the church has wrestled with the issues in the past to see if that might provide a better way forward. To close out each chapter, Thompson offers some enumerated action items in our on-going quest to be better Bible interpreters.
As an example, after the chapter on the imprecatory Psalms, here are Thompson's takeaways:
God cares about injustice and suffering ("The imprecations and laments directed against enemies in the Psalms, whatever they may say about the character of the psalmists, are always seen as disclosing God's commitment to justice and concern for those who suffer." 68)
Only Jesus is fit to lament and curse absolutely ("There is universal apprehension among the teachers of the church, both ancient and modern, lest the Bible's curses be kidnapped to settle private scores." 69)
Laments and imprecations must be appropriated ("Precritical commentators believed these harsh passages must be read and known not only because they are scriptural, inspired, and somehow authoritative, but also because they are useful - even if also enigmatic." 69)
Laments and imprecations must not be misappropriated ("The history of Christian anti-Jewish exegesis - along with other variations that have come and gone, by which the enemies of God or Christ are identified among our contemporaries - ought to stand as an object lesson of what not to do with the Psalms." 70)
Each of these is much further elaborated on by Thompson, but you get the idea. In the end, each chapter basically presents a problem, shows how precritical commentators dealt with it, then Thompson gives his applications that he believes follow.
Each chapter is stand alone and so they can be read in any order. At the end though, Thompson offers a chapter on how to learn from history, specifically in this case, the history of exegesis, which I actually decided to read first. After the endnotes, there is a short glossary of biblical commentators (so some of those lesser known names have some context to go with them) and then perhaps even more helpfully, Thompson includes an extensive guide to the available biblical commentaries published before 1600 sorted by biblical book. If the thoughts of these precritcial commentators sparks an interest, Thompson has a more than thorough guide of where to go from here.
It is probably best to think of this book as a simultaneously descriptive and prescriptive work. Descriptively, it is excellent, and I hope it is more widely read as an introduction to the wisdom to be found in precritical biblical commentators. The book is worth the price alone for the bibliography that points you to so many valuable sources. From what I can tell, there is little to criticize on this front. Thompson present his sources as interpreters to listen to and learn from, not as some outdated relics from the past. He is sympathetic to what they have to say and wants us to be as well.
When it comes to his prescriptive angle, many of them are self-evident conclusions. In the chapter on the patriarchs, he notes that not all the characters in the Bible are meant to be models for us. Likewise, in the chapter on divorce, he concludes that the various biblical texts are hard to homogenize. Few people, if anyone, would argue with many of the of the prescriptive conclusions Thompson draws.
At the same time, there is a kind of subtle thread through the whole work that gives the feminist biblical interpreters a little too much credit in my opinion. While they may be helpful to highlight ways evangelicals misread hard texts, I don't think the hermeneutic used by many mainline feminist interpreters (Phyllis Trible and Cheryl Exum get the most mention in this work) is a better option. To that extent that Thompson is just interested in listening to see if we might need to adjust our hermeneutics, it can be helpful. However, when it comes to stories like Hosea and Gomer, I think the shock value needs to remain front and center, regardless of how some feminist interpreters might react (the same goes for the OT's portrayal of idolatry as graphic fornication).
All that being said, I think you can read Thompson's book profitably regardless of your opinion on the validity of feminist biblical interpretations. In some cases I think the lesson to be learned is that we shouldn't read some texts the way they have been in the past. But, it is better to read communally with those who have gone before us, even if we ultimately disagree, rather than just myopically read it ourselves. Thompson's book is a helpful descriptive work and offers some useful prescriptions for moving forward in our reading the Bible with the dead.
[A review copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher]