March 2014


The Lost World of Scripture by Walton and SandyEveryone loves a good story of discovery. Whether it is in the pages of a good book or watching Indiana Jones on the big screen, people love to be drawn into the discovery of lost artifacts, and even more so, lost worlds. The field of archeology, and its attending fields, has unearthed artifacts, buried tombs, treasures and entire villages and cities that give us a glimpse into the lives and ways of the people and civilizations of the ancient past. It many ways, we are discovering things and worlds that have been lost and are very different than ours.

Among  these discoveries are the ancient writings of the various people groups. We have found much, but there is more to discover and even much more that we will probably never find. The discovery of various writings from ancient times provides us with a wealth of information for how people thought and lived in the past. They are a window into the culture. More so, for Christians, they are a window, not only into Scripture itself, but how others viewed Scripture and its role in the life of the early Christians.

There is no doubt that modern readers of the Bible have to fight reading their own world into the world of the Bible when it comes to the task of interpretation. Unfortunately, there are many readers of Scripture, Christians included, who do this without knowing it. The world in which the Bible was born is lost to them and they don’t realize it.

In an effort to bring the reader of Scripture into the world in which it was born, Wheaton professors John Walton (Old Testament) and D. Brent Sandy (New Testament) have teamed up to write The Lost World of Scripture: Ancient Literary Culture and Biblical Authority. The purpose of the book is to present as clearly as possible, given what we know about the ancient world, a picture of the function and authority that oral traditions and written texts had in ancient societies. The authors want readers of Scripture to appreciate the fact that, while modern cultures, especially Western and European cultures, are text dominant (and therefore have a high literacy rate), ancient cultures were oral and hearing dominant (and therefore had a low literacy rate). “Understanding the oral and manuscript galaxy of the biblical world – before the watershed of print culture – is essential for grasping how the Bible was written” (11). It is this lost world of oral and hearing dominance in which Scripture was born.

Overview

The book is divided into four parts. For those familiar with Walton’s The Lost World of Genesis One, the same proposition pattern is used for the chapter structure.  Through the proposition structure, the authors systematically bring the reader through the thought process ancients had about the role and authority of oral traditions and written texts so that modern readers of Scripture might more accurately understand what Biblical authority is and, specifically, what the inerrancy of Scripture does and does not and can and cannot mean.

Part One lays the ground work in understanding the composition of texts in the Old Testament and how information was communicated orally. “If we are to understand more fully the development of biblical literature and our view of its authority, we need to adjust or thinking about how information was disseminated and traditions transmitted in the ancient world.” (18) Here the authors address the nature of authority in an oral and hearing dominant culture. “Authority,” it is said, “was not connected to a document but to the person of authority behind the document when that person was known, or to the tradition itself.” (27) The oral transmission of information was primary and thus carried through people. Written texts were not unimportant but only carried authority in so far as the person behind the information had authority. One of the key concepts discussed here is speech-act theory which examines how communication is carried and meaning is intended through locutions (words and genres) which embody illocutions (the intention to do something with locutions such as a blessing) with a perlocution view to seeing a response from the audience (like obeying). (41) Important to the author’s argument is the distinct role each part plays in the communicative act of meaning and expressing authority. God’s authority and the inerrancy of the text, it is argued, are located in its illucutions (42, 44, 45). On the other hand, inspiration takes place at the locution level. (44) Why is this distinction important? It is said that

Even though people in Israel believed there were waters above the earth held back by a solid sky, or that cognitive processes took place in the heart or kidneys, the illocution of the texts is not affirming those beliefs as revealed truth. Culture-specific aspects of an illocution do not have a universal perlocution (eating pork, circumcision, head covering). Culture-specific aspects of the perlocution need to be translated to an appropriate contemporary perlocution. (45)

Walton and Sandy are trying to help us make a separation between those things which are culture-specific and authoritative truth that God is communicating by His Spirit through the human authors of Scripture. Admittedly, part one will be the most difficult section of the book for readers to grasp especially if they are not familiar with speech-act theory.

While I appreciate, and even agree with much of, what the authors are trying to prevent in Biblical interpretation, I do have some reservations and concerns with some of their conclusions. Two examples will suffice. First, while I do not dispute the value of speech-act theory and its distinguishing between words, affirmations and expectations upon the readers, it feels that the different parts have been so separated so as to ignore the fluid and wedded relationship they share. Yes, words have meaning in a context and contexts are where authors intentions are, but this belief is not to be held at the expense of the value of words and phrases. Words are not just inspired but certain words are given through which meaning and affirmations are to be conveyed. Second, and in conjunction with the first concern, is with how the authors view the role of textual criticism. In analyzing the nature of textual criticism, that is, finding the accurate wording of the originally inspired manuscripts of Scripture, Walton and Sandy conclude that, since we do not have the originals with which to compare our best Hebrew and Greek texts, we cannot know what the originals were and “it does not matter” according to their model. (67) Therefore, it does no good to say the originals were inspired if we do not have them. In my estimation, and that of many, this conclusion will not do and unnecessary. It may be so that oral dominant cultures viewed texts differently than moderns do, but this is not a basis upon which to overly devalue determining the wording of the originals. Just because we have “little confidence” in the exact wording of a few places in Scripture is not a warrant to say the whole task is irrelevant. Why let uncertainties over a very small part of the text drive our understanding of the rest of the text and not vice versa?

Part Two deals with the same issues of composition and communication but for the New Testament. The hearing and oral dominance of the ANE world continues into the NT world, though there is a shift to more use of texts around 700 B.C. (79). With the Greeks and Romans paving the way for text it is clear the orality still dominated texts as they were written primarily for oral use and memorization (85). Even philosophers bemoaned the use of text as they felt it would undermine oral lectures and created a lazy mind (104).

Moving to the NT era, we see a noticeable shift to more dependence on texts, most notably within Christianity. Many myths are dispelled concerning a correspondence between illiteracy in reading with intelligence and even education. The ministry of Jesus is examined through the lens of His oral communication to people who were oral and hearing centered (Proposition 8). The authors deduce that Jesus was educated and could read despite his meager background as a carpenter in Galilee (119). There is a good discussion of Jesus as the logos (word) of God and how this is to inform our understanding of most of the texts that speak of “the word of the Lord” in both testaments (Prop. 9). Some Christians will have minor disagreements with some of their conclusions here but generally they make good arguments for their case. This moves into Proposition 10 which deals with how Jesus would have thought of the transmission of His own words.

Proposition 11 and 13 address how variants within oral tradition were handled. Since they were common within secular oral tradition it is believed that they were accepted within the oral tradition of Jesus words and sayings. This is why many NT scholars, when referring to the words of Jesus in the Gospels, refer to them as containing the ipsissima vox (voice) of Jesus’ words and not the ipsissma verba (exact words) (149). This may come as a shock to many readers of red letters Bibles which have the words of Jesus in red so they can be found and easily distinguished from the rest of the text. The result is that what we have in the Gospels is not the exact words of Jesus, word for word as He said them in the moment, but we do have the essential words He spoke and can be confident that the Gospels are reliable in that regard. Oral tradition had acceptable ranges of variation in the retelling of stories and the words of Jesus would have fared no better.

Part Three tackles the Biblical world of literary genres. Here the nature of modern historiography and ancient myth telling are compared as well as the implications this has for the authority of Scripture. One of the points the authors try to make is that when the writers of the OT recounted and wrote about events in the past, they did so with varying purposes in mind. This explains some of the differences between the same accounts in Kings and Chronicles as well as the Gospels in the NT. The varying accounts of the same events do not mean that the writers thought truthfulness about the events was unimportant, but they had different standards of retelling events and they had agendas in doing so. Here again the authors make use of the locution and illocution distinction which leads them to make a number of confusing and concerning statements regarding the written text of Scripture. For instance, in the discussion of the role law had within ANE cultures and Israel they make the following conclusion:

Nothing from ancient Near East suggests that any society had a normative written set of laws that contained a comprehensive legal code for that society. From the discussion of hearing-dominant cultures in the early chapters of this book, it is easy to see why that is the case. Written documents did not hold position of authority in a hearing-dominant context. There is no reason to think that there was a comprehensive, written, authoritative document containing the legislation for Israelite society. (219)

This statement, and other like it, is confusing to say the least. It leads one to ask what does one make of the Pentateuch if it is not viewed as a written document containing Israelite legal code. If readers are familiar with Walton’s previous work on ANE literature and culture then this statement is not surprising. For all of the valuable information Walton has uncovered, he has tunnel vision when he uses the comparisons between ANE cultures and Israel at the expense, and almost complete ignorance of, the differences. It is precisely that Israel had a written legal code as extensive as they did, regardless of how long after it was verbally given, that makes them unique among ANE peoples. This is the phenomenon of Scripture!

Conclusion

So what about inerrancy and authority? How does the oral and hearing-dominant culture of the OT and NT shape our understanding of the authority and inerrancy of the written text of Scripture – God’s word. For the authors, inerrancy is useful as long as it is properly defined. While it could die the death of a thousand qualifications, its basic meaning – without error – is true of Scripture. But Walton and Sandy are wary of the future of the term inerrancy. Not because they believe the Bible has errors but because “the term inerrancy may no longer be clear enough, strong enough or nuanced enough to carry the weight with which it has been traditionally been encumbered” (275). Time will tell in this regard but I think inerrancy still has a future and books like Five Views on Inerrancy show not only its value but necessity.

For the authority of Scripture, the authors do believe Scripture is authoritative for Christians over any other possible book. It is our standard of faith, rule and practice, they would say. It has authority because it is in written form what God said verbally.  What I am not sure of is whether or not they see Scripture, since it is the words of God, as having a self-understanding of its own authority. What does God say to us about His word in His word? Further, Scripture is our only access to the oral tradition of the OT and NT. It is now the Christians only authority to God’s spoken word. This is not something the authors touch on and needs to be explored.

The Lost World of Scripture is a mixed bag for me. Readers will be captivated by the historical explanation of how oral tradition worked and the mindset of people in these cultures. The book is far from disengaging. They do a good job of contrasting the value and place of written texts within hearing and text-dominant cultures and how modern notions of accuracy do not line up with ancient notions. The authors recognize that they are making possible scenarios and conclusions based on their research but they seem to be more dogmatic in their theological conclusions about the inerrancy and authority of Scripture then is warranted. As mentioned previously, what is missing is a discussion on the phenomenon of Scripture as the written revelation of God to man. While much, if not most, of the OT was given orally first, most of the NT was not (see the letters of Paul). Why is it that we have so much writing from Christianity as opposed to other religions of their time? Why did Christians write their oral tradition down as much as they did?

The Lost World of Scripture is an intriguing book but needs to be read carefully and with discernment.

NOTE: I received this book for free from IVP and was under no obligation to provide a favorable review. The thoughts and words expressed are my own.

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Warfare in the OT by Boys SeeversI was born in 1981 and the last war on American soil was World War II, which ended in 1945. If you do not count the wars since then in which America has been involved overseas, my lifetime has been war-free. Though both my grandfathers served in the military, neither my father nor I have served in any capacity. Wars and small battles, as real as they are, have been the stuff of TV for me. I have read about them in the paper, heard about them on the radio and I can distinctly remember watching live footage of Desert Storm.

However, for many people around the world, war is an everyday part of their lives. For those born during times of war, they cannot imagine their lives without it. Similarly, this is how it was for much of the Ancient Near East (ANE), including Israel. To help the modern reader of Scripture better understand how war is so intricately woven into its fabric, Boyd Seevers has wrote Warfare in the Old Testament: The Organization, Weapons, and Tactics of Ancient Near Eastern Armies. Dr. Seevers is an expert in the Old Testament, ancient warfare and has participated in many archeological excavations in Israel where he lived as a professor for eight years.

Overview

Warfare in the Old Testament documents, through historical fiction and historical background, the warfare history, weapons and tactical methods of the six most notable nations in the ANE: Israel, Egypt, Philistia, Assyria, Babylon and Persia. Each nation is examined in two basic parts. First, through historical fiction, Seevers gives the reader insight into the events and possible thoughts of a typical warrior in the nation under consideration. This includes a description of their duties, weapons they might have used, a war or battle they would have fought in and how they might have thought about the events. Second, the historical background is given for the particular war or battle that was discussed during the historical fiction section in addition to all of the know wars of each nation. Finally, through discussion of the nation’s military organization, weapons, strategy and tactics, Seevers provides the reader with detailed description of the inner workings of their armies.  To aid in telling the stories and historical information, there are numerous pictures of military artifacts, drawings, sketches and maps.

Review

First, for an Old Testament and ANE expert, Seevers has done a great job writing the historical fictions sections. The writing is engaging and the details do not drag. One really gains a sense of what it must have felt like to be in those military situations. Second, as would be expected, the historical background sections weave together all of ANE history at the same time. The Biblical and extra-biblical accounts of the wars and battles are woven together to provide a fuller picture of their warfare histories. This is a great service to the reader as Scriptures are provided so they can locate the specifics for themselves. Third, Seevers does not sugar coat the nature of Israel’s involvement in war. War was a part of every nations life and Israel was no exception. Where applicable, the author notes when Israel might be acting like the other nations. For instance, the reference in 1 Samuel 18:25-27 to Saul’s request of David to bring him the foreskins from the slain Philistines is a practice the Egyptians did with various of body parts (137-38). This proved the warrior killed the enemy in battle and brought him approval and respect from his military leaders and nation. Fourth, Seevers also points out where Israel differed from the other ANE militaries. For example, it was not common practice for a nation to record their military struggles and losses. Israel, however, gives a lot of detail about these struggles. Seevers notes,

Surprisingly, some of the best information from Israel comes from when it was struggling for birth and survival. The Bible’s emphasis on God’s aid to his young nation is evident in the stories of how the military operated through its successive phases. (45)

This can be seen, for example, in the first six chapters of Joshua which detail their entrance into Canaan and the battle of Jericho. This was before they were a strong military power. In contrast, we are only given “a single chapter to David’s campaigns that conquered a large part of the ancient Near East (2 Sam. 8.” (70)

Numbers: Is Israel Really That Big?

One way in which Israel differs from other ANE armies is in their recording the size of their people and armies. The Bible provides a lot of information regarding their numbers and more so than other ANE nations records. The predominate word used to describe the size of the Israelite army and people is eleph which means “thousand”. What becomes problematic, says Seevers, is that “if eleph in these passages carries its normal meaning of ‘thousand,’ then many of the numbers appear extremely large.” (53) For instance, in Numbers chapter one and twenty-six Israel counts its men available for military service and there are over 600,000. Again, in 2 Samuel 24:9 David counts his fighting men and they come to 1,300,000. Seevers notes that “these numbers appear quite high, especially considering the apparent army size of other, better established contemporary nations.” (53)

In an attempt to resolve the problem presented in many passages another possible translation of eleph is “clan”, and, though it does not resolve all of the interpretational challenges, it seems to give us a more realistic picture of the size of Israel’s army at any given time. This, Seevers points out, helps to make more sense of Deuteronomy 7:1 which states that, upon entering Canaan, there were seven nations that occupied the territory that were “more numerous and stronger than (Israel).” So, at the time of the exodus Israel would have had about 5,500 troops and not 600,000 and more like 20,000 people instead of 2,000,000+ as they entered Canaan. Further, this might make more sense of the statement in Judges 15:14-15 where it is said that Samson killed 1,000 Philistines with the jawbone of a donkey. Translating eleph as “clan” would greatly reduce the number of men killed.

As Seevers points out, this solves many issues but it also raises some others. My own sense of this is the important hermeneutical principle – context. If the same word is used in these different contexts but has more than one meaning then we need to pay attention to the context in which it is used. It does seem a bit off to say Israel had 2,000,000 or more people upon entering Canaan. Even though they spent 40 years in the wilderness where they would have increased their population, there would have been a high mortality rate among births and they lost everyone twenty and older in the wilderness for their sin of murmuring (Num. 14:26-34). For Samson, the issue is whether or not he really did kill 1,000 (give or take) Philistines and not preserving a wrong interpretational history just for dramatic effect. Sure, Samson was strong, but even if he only killed 100 +/- soldiers it is still a great feat. Maybe the focus is on the weapon of choice, a donkey’s jawbone, and not so much the number of men killed. He would have definitely been at a disadvantage without a sword. This is my initial sense and more study on these passages is required on my part.

Conclusion

Dr. Seevers is very knowledgeable in the field of OT and ANE studies and Warfare in the Old Testament is the fruit of a lifetime of studies in these areas. The story telling is captivating as well as the historical facts. Seevers will have you thinking at every turn and drive you back to the text of Scripture with new insight and questions. I recommend this book for pastors preaching through the OT, teachers of OT and ANE studies and for Christians who are fascinated by OT biblical history. There is a wealth of additional information in the end notes and resources listed at the end of the book for further study in specific areas.

NOTE: I received this book for free from Kregel in exchange for an honest review. The thoughts and words expressed are my own and I was under no obligation to provide a favorable review.