The purpose of this paper is to provide a critique of five potential textbooks for a confessional Old Testament class. The textbooks will not be given an overall ranking, but rather, six basic aspects will be explored regarding each book to determine its best area of usage. To aid in determining the books’ strong points, deficiencies, and intended audiences, comments by various reviewers will be weighed and cited.
The first area to be considered will be the author’s methodological approach. This includes the overall structure of the book and how the author chooses to present the material. Various ways of introducing the Old Testament cannon exist. Two popular ways are the historical-critical approach in which the author examines chronologically the rise of the nation of Israel through the narratives of the Old Testament and a book-by-book approach in which the author gives a basic overview of each book in the Old Testament cannon. Some authors prefer to introduce issues such as methods of higher criticisms, archeology, or theology whereas other authors favor summary and commentary on the biblical text itself. However the author chooses to approach the material though inevitably will affect the way an Old Testament professor approaches the class and must be carefully considered.
The second area to be weighed in the critiques is the author’s theological assumptions. How the author views the Old Testament will deeply affect the presentation of the material. For example, the author could write with the view of the text as inspired and edifying rather than just ancient literature. The author could furthermore not approach the text from a Christian standpoint but regard the Hebrew Bible as having a separate message from the New Testament. If the author has a particular interest or proficiency such as liberation theology, this view may surface or be a major thrust of the book.
Thirdly, the depth and accuracy of the book will be weighed. Some authors will tend to place much emphasis on one aspect such as form criticism and leave other basic issues untouched which may make the book unsuitable for a general introduction. On the other hand, a book’s topics may be so broad and numerous that sufficient depth is not probed in any one aspect. While these will be considered, the overall accuracy of the material will also be examined to see if the author includes only information that is convenient or gives an honest presentation of serious topics.
Fourthly, the clarity and usefulness of the presentation will be considered to determine how well the book would suite the needs of potential students. Areas to be critiqued here will be the author’s vocabulary and sentence structures that determine readability, the organization and division of the material, and the use of visual aids and other tools which make the material easier to understand. While the author may have excellent quality of material in the book, if the material is not presented in a way that is absorbable by students it becomes impotent.
Fifthly, the appropriateness of the book for either undergraduate or Masters level studies will be determined. A textbook appropriate for a freshman undergraduate class must be basic and written from the standpoint that the reader knows very little of the Old Testament text. This unfortunately sometimes does not allow serious issues to be examined in depth as they will confuse the reader. However a Masters level class will readily be able to deal with such issues that an undergraduate class could not, and if a textbook does not include issue discussed in modern scholarship it would be unsuitable for a Masters level class.
Lastly, the appropriateness of the textbook for a confessional approach will be discussed. In a confessional approach matters of faith or theology can be delved into whereas they cannot be in a non-confessional approach. Indeed if the book does contain matters of faith or is written from the stand point that the Old Testament is inspired text, it may more readily fit the needs of the confessional classroom.
INTRODUCING THE OLD TESTAMENT BY RICHARD COGGINS
Upon first inspection of Coggins’ work, it is easily discernable that the book, “is not a standard introduction to the Old Testament” in that the approach does not merely move from book to book or in an entirely historical critical approach.1 Rather, Coggins is primarily concerned with exposing the reader to more popular, contemporary critical approaches. These include literary, archeological, textual, and sociological approaches. In addition, Coggins includes the two contemporary lenses of liberation and feminist theology through which the Old Testament can be viewed. Coggins does not give favor to one or more of these methods over the others, but rather focuses on giving a general description of each and its results to the reader.2
In incorporating these contemporary critical approaches, Coggins moves in somewhat of a logical sequence in structuring the outline of the book. Coggins begins the book by answering the question, “what is the Old Testament?” He does this by giving a very brief overview of the contents, transmission, and composition of the Old Testament and then transitions into textual criticism and the conceptual differences in translations. After raising questions that the text presents, Coggins moves to historical criticism examining the ancestral, Exodus, Judges, monarchal, and Persian periods of the Israelites. By laying the base of the text and history, Coggins is able to then to devote significant sections to archeology, the society of Israel, and anthropology. After also discussing what the Old Testament can say to liberation and women, Coggins seems eager to showcase the new style of literary criticism, consisting of belief in God through story. Finally, in light of the proceeding material, Coggins concludes the book with a summary of the religion of Israel and what kind of theology can be gleaned from the Old Testament.
The theological assumptions of this author are discernable through the reoccurring themes and statements presented in the book. The main intention of the work is clearly an objective introduction. However, certain confessional tones surface from time to time. For example, in discussing the literature of the Old Testament, Coggins points out that even the pure literary level of the text would have no significance if not for the “deep religious convictions” and “intentions of the original author.”3 In his section on new literary criticism, Coggins’ major emphasis is to show God as described in human terms as a fellow actor or main character in a drama. This aligns well with Coggins section on the personal characteristics of God such as his steadfast love found throughout the Old Testament in his section on theology.4 In addition, Coggins highlights the particularity of God as being one by mentioning the shema many times throughout and examining the Old Testament’s point that God is the one control of history in the section on Israel’s religion. In addition, in his section on theology, Coggins chooses to include the subsections dealing with God’s concern for the community, God’s condemnation of meaningless religious practice, and the Old Testament’s allowances for doubt to be present in a faith understanding.
Besides these conventional theological assumptions of God that surface such as his being one, a personal God, and a God concerned with community, other contemporary theological assumptions surface such as Coggins’ appreciation for feminist theology. For example, after pointing out that the majority of descriptions of God are cased in masculine terms in the Old Testament, Coggins also carefully points out the feminine descriptions of God as well such as his crying out like a woman in Isaiah 42:13 and the unique usage of the feminine noun hokmah for wisdom in Proverbs.5 Depth and Accuracy
One could say that Coggins’ book has impressive depth in that it covers a wide variety of critical approaches. One the other hand, most of Coggins’ presentations are extremely brief. For example his entire discussion on the transmission process of the Hebrew text is less than one page in length.6 It seems Coggins’ intention therefore, is to say what is most necessary and accurate as succinctly as possible. The book is straightforwardly designated an introduction because it primarily introduces the reader to substantial issues in Old Testament scholarship without providing a volume of information that would be appropriate for any in-depth study of a particular issue. As noted by others, one possible drawback to the depth and accuracy dimension of this book is the fact that it does not contain footnotes or endnotes, and thus, further research on a topic discussed is not easily possible.7 On the other hand Coggins’ frequently provides relevant examples in his overviews. For example, in the discussion of text criticism, while familiarizing the reader with important concepts such as Qumran manuscripts, the MT, and the LXX, Coggins provides multiple examples of translation differences in Hebrew idioms in popular English translations. While Coggins never provides isolated discussion on any one particular biblical book, he does examine the historical discrepancies and reliability of Old Testament witnesses in the various periods of Israelite history. One particular high mark for accuracy should be given for Coggins’ treatment of archeology. After acutely describing the purpose of archeological study, he provides detailed particular examples for illustrations, such as the ambiguity of the position or existence of the city Ai.8 Thus, Coggins’ introduction to the Old Testament could be described as brief but precise.
Clarity and Usefulness of the Presentation
Coggins’ book contains many elements which give it a high sense of clarity. For instance, Coggins’ uses word choices and language which do not encumber or overwhelm the beginner while also not wearying those with familiarity. Readability is excellent due to short sentence structure throughout the book. Martens as well has noted that, “Coggins’ writing is articulate, his prose attractive.”9 On the other hand, Coggins includes no visual aids whatsoever such as photographs, charts, or maps. The lack of these hinders the presentation of the material and would greatly increase the usefulness, clarity, and understandability of the overall book if they were present, especially in sections such as the ones on archeology or the periods of Israel’s history. The book does contain clearly unique chapters and easily definable subsections which keep the reader focused on the issue at hand. However, there seems to be a noticeable shift halfway through the book when Coggins’ transitions from discussions on Israel’s history and archeology to liberation and feminist theology. Such a change may confuse a beginning student although a veteran would find it helpful. The same material is also viewed multiple times through different lenses at certain points. For example prophets are first viewed from a sociological perspective in how they fit into the society of Israel in chapter 5 and later in chapter 10 are viewed solely in the light of Israel’s religion. Thus, the book may be “most useful to readers looking for a non-technical portrayal of the various ways Old Testament scholarship is practiced today at universities.”10 Usefulness of the book could also be characterized as providing a reference for concise explanations of key points such as Israel’s literature, religion, or society.
Appropriateness for Undergraduate or Masters Level Studies
While it appears that Coggins’ intention is to provide a brief introduction in the narrowest sense which does not contain an overload of information, it nevertheless becomes apparent that issues discussed such as liberation theology and anthropology from an Old Testament perspective may be incomprehensible to a freshman in an undergraduate Old Testament class. Even basic terminology in the realms of sociology may be confusing rather than helpful to a beginning undergraduate student who does not have an established base in religious studies.
Conversely, in the master’s level of study, such an introduction would prepare the reader to accurately understand terminology and current trends of scholarship which would provide and excellent basis for further study. For example, the discussions of contemporary critical methods would enable a master’s level or beginning seminar student to dissect commentaries to ascertain the methods the commentators is using. Explanation of liberation and feminist theologies would allow the master’s level student to recognize traces of these found in other author’s works. In addition, one would hope that a seminary or masters level student would already be familiar with the fact that Israel’s history has definable periods such as the Exodus, Judges, and the monarchy whereas a beginning undergraduate student may not be aware of this. Such a basis of underlying understanding would greatly increase the reader’s appreciation of what Coggins concludes in sections dealing with these periods. However, one drawback to using Coggins’ work in the master’s level is that all Greek and Hebrew words are transliterated. Nevertheless this work is more suited for master’s level work than undergraduate unless the student already has some basis in religious studies.
Appropriateness in a Confessional Approach
Though it is not blatant, Introducing the Old Testament by Coggins is discernibly written from a confessional standpoint and would be suitable for teaching in a confessional approach. Coggins mentions issues that relate to the New Testament and Christian faith when they arise in the book and even gives suggestions in his theology sections toward reconciling difficult issues in his such as the vindictive pictures of God found in the Old Testament with conflicting images of God’s grace found in the New Testament. However, the author also makes some statements that would be “unacceptable to conservatives.”11 For instance Coggins describes the Word of God being, “a record of human perceptions of divine words and actions, and human perceptions in all ages are fallible.”12 Coggins also assigns engaging titles to his chapters such as “Did it all Happen” which does not tiptoe around troublesome or puzzling issues surround the text and history.13 Such material causes the reader to examine the issues and better understand faith in the confessional approach. Coggins should furthermore suits the book for a confessional approach by examining how the Old Testament allows for some doubt to be present in a faith understanding. This is helpful when one must wrestle with the difficult issues. Lastly, material such as what the Old Testament says in favor of the poor in the liberation theology section or how the Old Testament favors women in Song of Songs in the feminist theology section has the potential for broadening the faith perspective of one in the confessional approach.
INTRODUCING THE OLD TESTAMENT BY JOHN DRANE
The methodological approach for this work is unique primary because it is the result of a combination of two of Drane’s previous works, The Old Testament Story and The Old Testament Faith which result in an introduction with two main sections. Before either is visited though, Drane provides a brief introduction section which succinctly describes such things as the overall story of Israel, how the Old Testament is interpreted as a religious book, the process of transmission and redaction of the Old Testament, and the division of books according to groups as the Pentateuch, History, Poetry and Wisdom, and the Prophets.
After the introduction section, Drane moves along the “traditional and well-traveled historical path” in section one, treating much of the Old Testament narratives as history and attempting to place each book within a particular time frame.14 Drane’s scope is broad and complete covering the “Bronze Age migrations to the Maccabees.”15 In addition, to the historical narration approach weaving in discussion of specific people, events, geography, and culture of the Old Testament in the regular type of the book, Drane also includes special articles throughout which are printed in a smaller text type and tend to be more scholarly in depth. These articles are devoted to “historical, archaeological, and literary explanations” of particular topics.16 Thus, the first section is an overall presentation of the various stages of Israel’s existence up to New Testament times.
Once Drane discusses the history of Israel, the second section of the book is Drane’s attempt to deal with major themes in theology found within the Old Testament. His section headings are, “The Living God,” “God and the World,” “God and His People,” and “Worshiping God.” The purpose of these sections is not to introduce specific theological viewpoints such as natural theology or process theology, but rather, to provide a categorizing of broad motifs which can be found throughout the Old Testament. To keep a connection alive with the Old Testament in commenting on the perspectives from which God can be viewed, Drane scatters references to Old Testament texts and events to provide examples. Lastly, Drane concludes the book with a look of the relationship of the Old Testament to the New from a Christian perspective.
The major theological assumption which surfaces in the book is that the entire Old Testament story is to be viewed from a Christian lens. It is a recognizable motif that the events of in the Old Testament lead up to an understanding of God that is congruent with the Christian faith. This is apparent in the second section on theology from which one could reason that, “the emergence of Christianity was the only ‘logical’ outcome.17” As a result, a Christian interpretation is sometimes superimposed on the text without a treatment of what conflicting interpretations were possible in their immediate composition or historical context.
Another theological assumption which surfaces is the notion that a consistent picture of God is present in the Old Testament. This is evidenced by Drane scattered use of Old Testament texts to proof his discussion on theological topics without clarifying how a view of God in the one of the minor prophets may differ from that found in an earlier Torah account. Going along with this is the notion that the Old Testament presents a culminating message throughout the passing time of Israel’s history. These theological assumptions then surface most readily in Drane’s wording and presentation of information that implies that most of the Old Testament accounts should be taken as didactic in nature.
Depth and Accuracy
Drane displays a commendable consistency of setting forth accurate information for basic introduction in his narration of Israelite history. However, as noted previously, Drane also includes special articles inserted into the chapters in smaller print. It is in these articles that the issues are probed in more depth. For example, one article discusses anachronisms and legal differences in the Pentateuch while another explores the inclusion of Deutero-Canonical books in the Septuagint. These articles are interesting and engaging to the beginner as well as the experienced student. In addition, Drane can be complemented on his inclusion of “major archaeological finds from the Ancient Near East which contribute to a better understanding of the Hebrew Bible.”18 The site of Ugarit and the comparison of Canaanite religion to that of Israel is mentioned frequently. Drane also makes it a point to familiarize the reader with major Old Testament scholars whose work has impacted modern understandings such as “Wellhausen, Gunkel, Mowinckel, Alt, Albright, Bright, Noth, and von Rad.”19 These references are favorable because they provide a gateway for further study where Drane does not delve deep into issues.
However, one can also recognize matters which warrant inclusion but are not present. As Bowley points out, “there are neither outline of individual books…nor distinct segments regarding the formation and design of a book as a work of literary art.”20 Drane furthermore does not mention how contemporary Jewish interpretations of the text may differ the Christian perspective or “distinguish categorically between Second Temple Judaism and rabbinic Judaism.”21 Lastly, unlike, Coggins work, Drane gives no introduction to modern critical methods of study.
Clarity and Usefulness of the Presentation
Three unique attributes stand out in describing Drane’s presentation. First of all, anyone who even briefly glimpses through the book will note the prevalence of black and white photographs as well as illustrations, maps, and charts. These are helpful to the reader giving multiple visual aids of what important sites such as the temple would look like and how it would function. Photographs of important archeological finds such as Egyptian hieroglyphics help the reader absorb what is said in the text. Timelines help the reader picture stages of history and kings’ reigns. In addition, many modern photographs are chosen to represent certain themes, such a child crying to illustrate the book of Lamentations. This can have drawbacks though, for such photographs can be “misleading as when a picture of harvesting crops grown with modern irrigation methods accompanies a discussion of ancient Canaanite agriculture.”22 Overall, the visual aids, and particularly the maps and charts would provide added clarity to students.
Secondly, one notices while reading Drane’s book that special articles scattered throughout the main text provide information of more scholarly depth at points of interest. These are helpful and intriguing, containing valuable information, but unfortunately can be easily overlooked or disregarded since they are printed in a smaller print than the main text. Another drawback to this style is that the main text and special articles are not always related and “can be distracting and even confusing, forcing the reader to leave the main discussion of the biblical text to read ahead in the ‘scholarly’ track and then go back in the text to resume the main discussion.”23 Therefore, if these articles were kept the same in regard to content but changed in regard to layout, the information would be more assessable by students.
Thirdly, after reading portions of Drane’s work one notices the author’s attractive prose, comfortable yet informative tone, and clear writing style which makes the information easy to read and digest. Furthermore, “judicious use is made of headings and bullets, which makes the author easy to follow.”24 Students do not need a Master’s degree to understand the vocabulary and plenty of background information is usually supplied to reduce ambiguities. Thus, reading the work is no tedious affair.