John A. Maxfield
Scholarly analysis of biblical interpretation and commentary in the history of Christianity has become an important subfield in history as well as biblical studies and theology. From the Reformation and into the modern era, Martin Luther has been appreciated first of all as an expositor of the Bible and a confessor of its teachings. His vocation as a theologian called to teach in the University of Wittenberg was especially focused on the exposition of scripture, and his development as a theologian and eventually as an evangelical reformer was deeply tied to his experience in interpreting the Bible in his university classroom, in the Augustinian cloister, and in his household. His interpretation of scripture was the basis of his “Reformation discovery” of justification by faith, and his conflict with the papal church was largely the result of Luther’s conviction that the message of scripture, in particular “the gospel,” was being overwhelmed in the theology and churchly practice of his time by “human teachings” not supported by and contradicting scripture. As a result, Luther and other evangelical reformers of the 16th century appealed to scripture alone (sola scriptura) as the highest authority in shaping their theology and proposals for reform.
Luther’s teachings and leadership in the Reformation were shared and celebrated not only through his doctrinal and polemical treatises and catechetical writings, but also through the many sermons, biblical commentaries on both Old and New Testament books, and prefaces on the books of the Bible that were published in his lifetime and thereafter. Old Testament commentary was an especially important genre of Luther’s published works, as it encapsulated much of his work as a university professor of theology and evangelical reformer.
Anne W. Stewart
Do humans have a will capable of choosing the good, doing the good, and evaluating the good? These are the central questions of moral agency, the notion that humans can be morally responsible for their actions, that is, that they are capable of deliberately exercising agency for good or ill. The Hebrew Bible offers multiple perspectives on these questions, and at least three different models of moral agency can be discerned. Some traditions indicate that humans are fundamentally flawed moral creatures who are incapable of choosing the good apart from divine intervention. For example, the psalmist confesses: “I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me” (Ps. 51:5) and prays for a divine change in the human condition: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me” (51:10). Other traditions, however, frequently take the more optimistic view that humans are capable of choosing and acting in accord with the good, though they may not always exercise their inherent capacity to do so. The Deuteronomic law, for example, is based on the notion that humans have the ability to distinguish obedience from disobedience and to act accordingly. Thus humans will reap the consequences of their actions, for God “maintains covenant loyalty with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations, and [God] repays in their own person those who reject him … Therefore observe diligently the commandment” (Deut. 7:9–11). In other words, humans are held responsible for their moral choice. A third view, found especially in the book of Proverbs, takes a middle view that moral agency involves a combination of internal and external factors: while most, though not all, humans are inherently capable of choosing the good, their capacity for moral agency requires cultivation by external forces. That is, humans are capable of moral choice, yet their ability to choose according to the good depends upon both an innate receptivity and training by others. The Hebrew Bible thus reflects a diverse set of viewpoints about the status of human moral agency, the extent of human accountability, and the factors that influence human action.
Thomas B. Dozeman
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Religion. Please check back later for the full article.
The Pentateuch (“five books”) is the title for the first five books of the Bible in the Greek translation, known as the Septuagint (LXX). The more original title is the Hebrew “Torah,” meaning “law.” The revelation and composition of the Torah is attributed to Moses, which is reflected in the additional designation of the books as the “Torah of Moses.” The authorship of the Pentateuch is central to its interpretation in Jewish and Christian tradition. The Mosaic authorship characterized the interpretation of the Pentateuch in the pre-critical period of research. The study of the Pentateuch in the modern era has been dominated by the quest to identify its anonymous authors and the changing social contexts in which the literature was written.
Jack R. Lundbom
“Prophets” in the ancient world were individuals said to possess an intimate association with God or the gods, and conducted the business of transmitting messages between the divine and earthly realms. They spoke on behalf of God or the gods, and on occasion solicited requests from the deity or brought to the deity requests of others.
The discovery of texts from the ancient Near East in the 19th and early 20th centuries has given us a fuller picture of prophets and prophetic activity in the ancient world, adding considerably to reports of prophets serving other gods in the Bible and corroborating details about prophets in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Two collections are important: (1) letters from the 18th-century Mari written during the reigns of Yasmaḫ-Addu (c. 1792–1775) and Zimri-Lim (c. 1774–1760); and (2) the 7th-century annals of Assyrian kings Esarhaddon (680–669) and Assurbanipal (668–627).
Prophecies at Mari are favorable for the most part, and censures of the king, when they occur, are not harsh. Many simply remind the king of some neglect or give him some warning. One tells the king to practice righteousness and justice for anyone who has been wronged. None censures the people of Mari as biblical prophecies do the people of Israel. Assyrian oracles are largely oracles of peace and wellbeing, typically giving assurance to the king about matters of succession and success in defeating enemies. If prophets admonish the king, it is a mild rebuke about the king ignoring a prior oracle or not having provided food at the temple.
According to the Bible, Israel’s prophetic movement began with Samuel, and it arose at the time when people asked for a king. Prophets appear all throughout the monarchy and into the postexilic period, when Jewish tradition believed prophecy had ceased. Yet, prophets reappear in the New Testament and early church: Anna the prophetess, John the Baptist, Jesus, and others. Paul allows prophets to speak in the churches, ranking them second only to apostles.
Hebrew prophets give messages much like those of other ancient Near Eastern prophets, but what makes them different is that they announce considerably more judgment—sometimes very harsh judgment—on Israel’s monarchs, leading citizens, and the nation itself. Israel’s religion had its distinctives. Yahweh was bound to the nation by a covenant containing law that had to be obeyed. Prophets in Israel were therefore much preoccupied with indicting and judging kings, priests, other prophets, and an entire people for covenant disobedience. Also, in Israel the lawgiver was Yahweh, not the king. In Mari, as elsewhere in the ancient Near East, the king was lawgiver. Deuteronomy contains tests for true and false prophets, to which prophets themselves add other disingenuine marks regarding their contemporaneous prophetic colleagues.
Hebrew prophets from the time of Amos onward speak in poetry and are skilled in rhetoric, using an array of tropes and knowing how to argue. Their discourse also contains an abundance of humor and drama. Speaking is supplemented with symbolic action, and in some cases the prophets themselves became the symbol.
The Revelation of Jesus Christ, or the Apocalypse of John, has been extraordinarily influential in Christian life and theology. For example, because of the many hymns sung by the heavenly host, Revelation has, like Isaiah 6:3, been particularly influential on liturgy and also music, for instance, the setting of Revelation 5:12, “Worthy is the Lamb that was Slain,” in Handel’s Messiah. It is one of two biblical apocalyptic texts (the other being the book of Daniel in the Hebrew Bible). Apart from the opening words, a dominant theme of Revelation is prophecy, and its imagery emphasizing what John “saw” on Patmos suggests that the form of prophecy in the first century
Mark S. Smith
The Ugaritic texts provide a rich resource for understanding the Late Bronze Age kingdom of Ugarit, located on the coast of Syria. The site has yielded about two thousand tablets in Ugaritic, the West Semitic language of this city-state, and about twenty-five hundred tablets in Akkadian, the lingua franca of the period, as well as many texts written in seven other languages. These reveal a cosmopolitan, commercial center operating in the shadow of two great powers of the eastern Mediterranean basin, the Egyptians and the Hittites.
The Ugaritic texts offer innumerable literary and religious parallels to biblical literature. The parallels are so rich and in some cases so specific that it is evident that the Ugaritic texts do not merely provide parallels, but belong to a shared or overlapping cultural matrix with the Hebrew Bible. Ugaritic literature may not predate the earliest biblical sources by much more than a few decades, but the bulk of biblical literature dates to centuries later. Moreover, unlike the coastal, cosmopolitan center of Ugarit, ancient Israel’s heartland lay in the rural inland hill-country considerably to the south in what is today Israel and occupied Palestinian territory. Despite these important differences, Ugaritic and biblical literature are not to be understood as representing entirely different cultures, but overlapping ones.
Jerome F. D. Creach
“Violence in the Old Testament” may refer generally to the Old Testament’s descriptions of God or human beings killing, destroying, and doing physical harm. As part of the activity of God, violence may include the results of divine judgment, such as God’s destruction of “all flesh” in the flood story (Gen. 6:13) or God raining fire and brimstone on Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19:24–25). The expression may also include God’s prescription for and approval of wars such as the conquest of Canaan (Josh. 1–12). Some passages seem to suggest that God is harsh and vindictive and especially belligerent toward non-Israelites (see Exod. 12:29–32; Nahum and Obadiah), though the Old Testament also reports God lashing out against rebellious Israelites as well (Exod. 32:25–29, 35; Josh. 7).
Christians have wrestled with divine violence in the Old Testament at least since the 2nd century
Assessment of the significance of records of or calls for violent acts in the Old Testament are difficult, however, because of the complex literary and canonical context in which such passages appear and because of the incongruity between ancient Israelite culture and the culture(s) of readers today. Studies that compare the Old Testament presentation of violence with that of contemporary ancient Near Eastern nations offer potentially more controlled results. Comparative studies alone, however, cannot account for the multiple layers of tradition that often make up Old Testament references to violence. That is, while Assyrian and Babylonian records of warfare presumably describe what Mesopotamian kings actually did in battle, the Old Testament often reports wars and military conflicts, and the aspirations of the leaders of Judah, from the perspective of a defeated people. Thus, even Judah’s desire to defend itself militarily morphed into an expression of hope in God.
Given the complexity of the development of the Old Testament canon, a fruitful and ultimately more accurate way of treating the subject is to determine how ancient Israelites thought about violence and how the subject then affected the overall shape of the Old Testament. A logical starting point in this endeavor is the Hebrew word ḥāmas. This term connotes rebellion against God that results in bloodshed and disorder and a general undoing of God’s intentions for creation. Thus, violence appears to intrude on God’s world, and God acts destructively only to counteract human violence. For example, in Gen. 6:11–13 human violence ruined the earth and thus prompted God to bring the flood as a corrective measure. This way of understanding violence in the Old Testament seems to identify the Old Testament’s own concern of violence and presses a distinction between divine destruction and judgment and human violence.
Despite this potentially helpful approach to violence in the Old Testament, many problems persist. One problem is the violent acts that religious zeal prompts. Old Testament characters like Phinehas (Num. 25), Elijah (1 Kgs. 18:39–40; 2 Kgs. 1), and Elisha (2 Kgs. 2:23–25; 9) killed, ordered killing, or participated in killing in order to purify the religious faith and practices of the Israelites. Nevertheless, most texts that contain problems like this also contain complementary or self-corrective passages that give another perspective. The complexity of the material with regard to violence makes it possible to argue that the Old Testament opposes violence and that the ultimate goal, and divine intention, is peace.
William Blake (1757–1827) was a British artist, engraver, poet, and writer on theological themes. His illuminated books were the product of his technological inventiveness, and are characterized by the juxtaposition of texts and images in which a dialectic between two different media is a means of stimulating the imagination of the viewer and reader. Influences on Blake are often hard to trace, though he explicitly cites and criticizes Milton and Swedenborg, as well as the contemporary artist Joshua Reynolds. Such influences, which might help explain Blake’s ideas, seem less important than the extraordinary inventiveness which one finds in his words and images and their production, which have analogies to earlier themes, but without offering the evidence that demonstrates direct dependence. Blake’s emphasis is on the importance of “inspiration” rather than “memory,” and as such he set great store on the creativity of the poetic genius and its reception by the engaged reader or viewer. The visual was primary for Blake. It was a major part of his attempt to produce that which is “not too explicit as the fittest for Instruction,” to allow the reader/viewer to work out what the meaning of words and images was and how one might inform the other. Much of his work is inspired by the Bible, though the heterodox approach he takes to biblical interpretation is frequently at odds with mainstream Christian opinion. Blake’s lifelong fascination with the work of John Milton led him both to challenge and refine his great predecessor’s views and, in Milton a Poem, to enable the departed spirit of Milton to discern the worst of his intellectually self-centered excesses. Blake’s interpretative method, his hermeneutic, is encapsulated in some words he wrote to a client who was perplexed by his work. In it he gave priority to imaginative engagement with the Bible which was only then complemented by rational reflection: “Why is the Bible more Entertaining & Instructive than any other book. Is it not because they are addressed to the Imagination which is Spiritual Sensation & but mediately to the Understanding or Reason?” (Letter to Trusler 1799, E702-3). His ongoing work and the complex idiosyncratic mythology that he invented reflect the changed circumstances of the reaction to the events in revolutionary France. Themes of the Blake corpus, such as prophecy, challenge the hegemony of authoritative texts like the Bible. His critique of dualism and monarchical view of God pervade his work.
Born in 1757, Blake lived most of his life in London with the exception of four, often difficult, years in Felpham, Sussex (1800–1804). He was married to Catherine Boucher (1762–1831), who in his later years was a collaborator in his engraving and printing. Arguably, the companionship of Job’s wife in the Illustrations of the Book of Job, so different from the impression one gets from the brief reference to Job’s wife in the biblical book, may reflect their marriage. The Felpham years were difficult because they marked a time of great personal upheaval, when the ideas which formed his long illuminated poems, Milton a Poem and Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion, took shape. As a consequence of an incident with a soldier in Felpham, he was put on trial at this time for sedition, for comments he was alleged to have made to this English soldier. This experience seared his visionary imagination and left its trace in the repeated references to the soldier who brought the charge against him, Schofield, which are dotted throughout Blake’s Jerusalem. Blake was trained as an engraver and pioneered his own technique. This remained the basis of his art, and arguably offered a means that complemented his visionary imagination (Joseph Viscomi, Blake and the Idea of the Book, 1993). After his move back to London, he lived in obscurity and on the fringes of poverty, indebted to the support of patrons like Thomas Butts, for whom he painted many biblical scenes, and later John Linnell. Only in the last years of his life was he discovered by a group of artists. Toward the end of his life he was adopted as an artistic father figure by a group called “The Ancients,” which included George Richmond, Samuel Palmer, and Edward Calvert.
The Hebrew Bible is a book that was primarily written by men, for men, and about men, and thus the biblical text is not particularly forthcoming when it comes to the lives and experiences of women. Other evidence from ancient Israel—the society in which the Hebrew Bible was generated—is also often of little use. Nevertheless, scholars have been able to combine a careful reading of the biblical text with anthropological and archaeological data, and with comparative evidence from the larger biblical world, to reconstruct certain features of ancient Israelite women’s culture. These features include fairly comprehensive pictures of women’s lives as wives and childbearers within Israel’s patrilineal and patrilocal kinship system and of women’s work within the economy of a typical Israelite household. Because the Bible is deeply concerned with religious matters, many aspects of women’s religious culture can also be delineated, even though the Bible’s overwhelmingly male focus means that specific details concerning women’s religious practice must be painstakingly teased out of the biblical text. The Bible’s tendency to focus on the elite classes of ancient Israelite society likewise means that it is possible to sketch a reasonable portrait of the experiences of elite women, especially the women of the royal court, although, again, this information must often be teased out of accounts whose primary interest is elite men.