Friday, November 6, 2009

Understanding the Old Testament

Reading the Old Testament: An Introduction
by Lawrence E. Boadt (Paulist Press, 1984)

Introducing the Old Testament (2nd rev. ed.)
by John W. Drane (Lion Hudson, 2000)

As a trainee Reader I had to read a lot of dense and dry theology text books, and Lawrence Boadt's "Reading the Old Testament: An Introduction" is one of the few that fired my enthusiasm. I would hasten to say that I do not agree with all the author's assumptions, but it is very unfair to him to suggest (as some American Bible-belt reviewers have done) that he does not see Holy Scripture as divinely inspired, and I am certain he does not deserve the "liberal" tag that some of the same reviewers have tried to attach to him.

The fact that Boadt (who incidentally is a Jesuit priest) is willing to explain the views of liberal scholars without attaching a Surgeon General's health warning at every turn of the page is hardly the first step on the road to perdition. Besides, if we only ever read books we wholly agree with, we may never grow up as Christians. It is always wonderful to read a book that stresses the work of the Holy Spirit behind scripture and history - but that is essentially devotional writing. Actually some of my evangelical colleagues would say that's the only sort of theology we need, but it doesn't take much reflection to see the limitations of such an approach. How can we answer the world's questions (as indeed we can and must, with flying colours!) if we do not grapple with the questions that arise naturally when scripture is read with an open mind by anyone with a basic grasp of human history?

I find no evidence that Fr. Boadt disagrees with my own mainstream position on the inspiration of scripture; rather I tend to assume that he takes it for granted. However, he has set out to write a book not about Christian pneumatology but about divergent scholarly opinions on the historical and cultural roots of the Hebrew scriptures. That task has been undertaken by many writers ranging from Christian fundamentalists to militant atheists. I do not think any of them can have done so with more intelligence, sensitivity, honesty and grace than Boadt.

If, however, you really want a more conservative introduction that covers similar ground, try John Drane's excellent "Introduction to the Old Testament". I worked extensively with both books during my theological training, both are strongly recommended, and Drane is actually a little more up to date in terms of the latest scholarly fashions (new edition soon please, Fr. Boadt). However, the evangelical Drane writes with only the merest fraction more of a confessional flavour than the catholic Boadt, and fittingly so as both books are intended as introductions to scholarly thought rather than as discipleship manuals. In fact of the two books I found Boadt more helpful on many counts - easier to read, more interesting, better prose, better structure and generally more informative about the cultural context of the various Hebrew scriptural writings.

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