Matthew Avery Sutton
Apocalypticism has had a powerful impact on American life. It has fostered among adherents a strong sense of purpose and personal identity, it has helped them interpret the challenges they face all around them, and it has provided them with a triumphant vision of the future. Although there are many kinds of apocalypticism, in the United States, Christian forms have dominated. The Bible’s focus on a coming millennium has offered Americans the promise of transformation and redemption in a world that sometimes seems void of both. When Christians have emphasized the Bible’s apocalyptic and millennial visions, they have acted in new and important ways. Apocalyptic visions, rather than fostering a sense of indifference to the coming of the end of days, have served as a call to battle. God, millennialists insist, has given them much to do and very little time in which to do it. Positive that Jesus is coming soon, they have preached revival and engaged directly and aggressively with their culture. Sometimes their actions have served to reinforce the status quo, and at other times they have sparked revolutions. The uses of apocalypticism and millennialism are almost as diverse as their adherents.
Lincoln A. Mullen
Since the first printing presses were established in Britain’s North American colonies, print was a ubiquitous feature of American religion. Print was a powerful means of communicating religious ideas, both to the faithful and to people whom religious groups wished to persuade. One common form of religious communication was the pamphlet or, by the 19th century, the tract. These tracts were a way of catechizing people who were already a member of different denominational groups, and tracts provided them with inexpensive collections of religious reading material, such as hymns or psalms. Tracts become a primary feature of evangelism in the United States, as did Bible distribution. In the 19th century the American Tract Society and the American Bible Society managed to exert a long reach into the interior of the United States, with distribution channels that were more far flung than those of any other institution except perhaps the postal service.
Print also functioned as a means of creating institutional loyalties. The American Tract Society created a network of tract distribution and funding which linked together large numbers of affiliate societies. While the American Bible Society preferred a different organizational structure, it brought together a wide array of denominations to make common cause for Bible distribution. In the 20th century, trans-denominational periodical publishers managed to unite various wings of Protestantism, as periodicals staked out positions in debates between fundamentalists and modernists, or later between evangelicals and liberal or mainline denominations. Yet smaller publications also functioned to establish denominational loyalties.
The Bible was by far the most important printed text in American Christianity. One of the earliest imprints in North America was a translation of the Bible into the Algonquian language, and later missionary groups sometimes made it a priority to translate the Bible into Indian languages. Printing of the English Bible proliferated for a number of reasons. One was the repeated efforts of the American Bible Society to supply the United States with a Bible for every household. Another was the development of various editions of the Bible, containing different qualities of paper and typography, or distinguishing themselves by the purpose of the text, such as study Bibles rich in notes, maps, and other explanatory features. A third reason was the proliferation of Bible translations, beginning with the late-19th-century Revised Version. These Bible versions were aimed at improving the scholarly reliability of the text, but they were matters of intense interest and debate among Christians more generally. Bible translations came to be a key marker of group identity and a contested source of religious authority, even as they were sponsored by trans-denominational groups like the National Association of Evangelicals or the National Council of Churches.
In short, print culture was a primary means of establishing group loyalty, for various Protestant groups as well as for Jews and Catholics, yet it also represented a key attempt at Christian unity and ecumenism. Print culture was both a proxy for many other ways of being religious and a powerful religious force in its own right.
J. Blake Couey
The book of Isaiah is a compilation of prophetic poetry and narratives, named for an 8th-century
Isaiah is a sophisticated work of biblical Hebrew poetry, characterized by intricate combinations of imagery and wordplay. It features a high view of divine sovereignty, emphasizing Yhwh’s control over world nations and superiority over all human and divine powers; these ideas contributed to the emergence of monotheism in ancient Judah. The book also articulates diverse responses to imperial domination, even as it chronicles the ebb and flow of Judah’s own imperial aspirations. Striking portrayals of women and gender appear throughout Isaiah, including the extensive personification of Jerusalem as a woman and the comparison of Yhwh to a mother. Isaiah is also notable for its discourse about disability, which serves a variety of rhetorical functions in the book.
The impact of Isaiah was felt immediately, as evidenced by the number of copies of the book among the Dead Sea scrolls and citations of it in the New Testament. It greatly impacted the development of important religious ideas, including apocalypticism and belief in resurrection. In Christianity, Isaiah played an important role in reflection upon the nature of Jesus and the inclusion of Gentiles, even as it informed Christian anti-Judaism. The book has had a more complicated reception in Judaism, where it significantly influenced the growth of Zionism. Scholarly study of Isaiah continues to clarify the shape of its final form and history of composition. Current research on the book is increasingly interdisciplinary, engaging metaphor theory, disability studies, and postcolonial thought. The history of the book’s interpretation and reception is another area of growing interest.
J. Cheryl Exum
In the Hebrew Bible human sexual desire is, for the most part, constructed as male and as dangerous. In the patriarchal economy of ancient Israel, in which women were subordinated to men and younger men to older men, desire poses a potential threat to the preservation of male status, privilege, and hierarchy, upon which the patriarchal system is based. It is viewed warily as an overwhelming urge that, unchecked, can cause a man to lose control and act in ways that might jeopardize his position in the patriarchal hierarchy and, if some texts are to be taken seriously (Proverbs, the story of Samson), even his life. Thus legal texts seek to regulate and control sexual behavior and thereby channel sexual desire in permissible directions; Proverbs responds to the threat that uncontrolled desire poses by offering the young man a patriarchally sanctioned object of desire, personified Wisdom, and narrative texts, such as the stories of Samson and Delilah and David and Bathsheba, provide object lessons in the dangerous consequences of desire. There are few places in the Hebrew Bible where one person is said to love (’ahab) another in an amorous or carnal sense, and in all these cases only one of the pair is said to love. This does not mean that love was not thought of as reciprocated in biblical times, but only that reciprocal love was not a concern of biblical writers, with the exception of the poet of the Song of Songs. The Song of Songs is the only text in the Hebrew Bible in which sex, desire, love, and romance can all be found. This short book, the Bible’s only love poem, gives its readers an unprecedented insight into what it is like to be in love from both points of view, a woman’s and a man’s.
The relationship between Egypt and ancient Israel and Judah was far more complex than is often recognized. Egypt figures prominently in their national myths of origin as a way station for the patriarchs and as the “house of slaves” and starting point of the Exodus. Although no Exodus event can be confirmed from extrabiblical sources, its significance in the Bible suggests an historical kernel. The diverse existing traditions about Egypt in the texts of the Pentateuch and other early biblical writings, combined and written down at a later date, seem to reflect different experiences on the part of the groups that coalesced into Israel
By the time of the monarchy, there is more direct evidence for Egyptian influence on Israelite culture, particularly in administrative affairs. It is also clear that Egyptian religion was practiced in the Levant at this time and would have been known in Israel and Judah.
By the time of the divided monarchy, the historical picture comes into better focus. Relations between Egypt, Israel, and Judah were quite variable. Although Egypt’s New Kingdom empire in the Levant had ended, the region continued to be a useful trading outlet, and the pharaohs were not above raiding to assert their power. However, there are numerous examples of fugitives from the Levant finding refuge from their enemies in Egypt. In the interest of maintaining a buffer zone against the northern empires that encroached, Egypt and Kush gave military aid to Israel and Judah at times, through both direct action and supplies.
The prophets had not forgotten Egypt’s role as an oppressor and frequently condemned it, as well as the tendency of Israelite and Judahite rulers to seek its help. But at times the prophets also envisioned peace with Egypt.
There are a number of specific Egyptian texts that supply mutually illuminating points of comparison with biblical texts, including wisdom instructions, prayers, hymns, creation accounts, and autobiographies. These are indications of the extensive, ongoing, cultural interactions between Egypt and the cultures that produced the Old Testament.
Brent A. Strawn
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 God of the Old Testament (or Hebrew Bible) is arguably one of the most fascinating deities in all religious literature: complex and multifaceted; prone to great acts of mercy and kindness, although not above brutal acts of punishment and wrath; consumed with care for the world and its inhabitants; capable of changing direction or mind; inexplicably in love with God’s people and deeply concerned with their ways in the world.
This robust picture of the character of God in the Old Testament emerges in the aggregate: from viewing the library of books that is the Old Testament as a whole and trying to reckon with their literary complexity at a higher order of reflection. Inordinate attention to specific parts of the Old Testament—this verse, say, or that one, especially when divorced and isolated from all others—can produce a completely different (mis)perception such as that found in some ungenerous estimations that see the God of the Old Testament as petty or unjust, vindictive or bloodthirsty, misogynistic or genocidal. Such estimations are as old as the second-century arch-heretic Marcion but are also found in works of more recent vintage.
Some—although certainly not all—of these negative descriptors can be applied to the God of the Old Testament in certain passages, but a portrait consisting solely of them will end up being little more than a caricature that will not hold up to close scrutiny because it systematically ignores every piece of contrary data found in the Bible. To be sure, accounting for what might be called “polarities” in God’s presentation (God’s love versus God’s wrath) is a challenging intellectual task, literarily as much as theologically. Not all readers are up to the job (witness Marcion). But this task must be engaged if one wishes to write a complete character description (not to mention analysis) of God from the biblical texts. Indeed, the complexity of any more fulsome portrait of God in the Old Testament—marked, for example, by tensions, a vast array of metaphors, and alternative presentations—should be one of the primary results of such an endeavor. The God of the Old Testament is, after all, first and foremost, according to the description above, complex and multifaceted.
The complexity of God’s portrayal in the Old Testament is the direct result of the diversity of the Bible itself—a term that derives from a Greek plural, ta biblia, “the books.” Not only are the books of the Bible several and different at a synchronic level, but also they come from different periods and are themselves (that is, within each particular book) the result of long diachronic processes. This two-layered diversity that marks the Bible adds yet further difficulty to the task of describing God therein, even as it suggests that more than one approach can and must be (and has been) utilized in the attempt.
In the final analysis, it seems safe to say that the complexity of God’s portrayal in the Old Testament has functioned not only to make this deity endlessly fascinating in the history of civilization but also to underscore—at some literary level, if nothing else—that the God of whom the texts speak is truly a divine character: not able to be captured, controlled, or managed by the human characters in the stories and not even by the sacred literature itself. Only a robust approach to the biblical literature that pays attention to both synchronic and diachronic aspects can hope to do justice to such a fascinating deity.
H. G. M. Williamson
The history of ancient Israel is best known to most people from the narratives in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. There, however, the name “Israel” covers a wide diversity of social and political entities over the course of many centuries. The first attestation of the name outside the Bible (on the Egyptian stela of Merneptah, c. 1208
How to combine these differing forms of evidence has been the topic of lively and sometimes rancorous debate, which varies in its detail from one period to another, often depending on the extent to which external sources are immediately available. Solutions are not always available, but exploration into the nature of these problems and misunderstandings in the application of appropriate methods reveal where the problems lie and, in some cases, what are plausible solutions.
Until the 19th century, the history of ancient Israel was, for most people, coterminous with the familiar narrative of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible. No relevant external sources were known, and there was no reason to doubt its essential historical reliability, allowance made, of course, for those who could not accept the miraculous as historically factual.
Archaeological and epigraphical discoveries over the last two centuries or so, together with the introduction more recently of new and different historical methods, have led to aspects of this topic being fiercely contested in current scholarship. Taking a general familiarity with the outline “story” for granted, the following analysis will present some of the major topics on which new data have become available and on which opinion remains divided.
Stephen G. Burnett
Christian Hebraism was a facet of Renaissance humanism. Biblical scholars, theologians, lawyers, physicians, astronomers, philosophers, and teachers in Latin schools sought to learn Hebrew in order to read the Old Testament in its original language, and to borrow and adapt ideas and literary forms from post-biblical Hebrew texts to meet Christian cultural and religious needs. While some medieval Christian scholars such as Nicholas of Lyra and Raymond Martin made extensive use of Hebrew in their works, not until the early 16th century were a significant number of Christians able to learn Hebrew and use it to study the Hebrew Bible and post-biblical Jewish texts. The desire of biblical humanists to read the Old Testament in Hebrew, the curiosity of Christian Kabbalists searching for ancient wisdom, and a slowly growing number of Jewish tutors and Christians who were able to provide Hebrew instruction all contributed to the growth of this movement. Jewish printers pioneered the techniques of mass-producing Hebrew books to feed this new market. Christian printers would use these same techniques to print grammars, dictionaries, and other books needed for instructing Christians. The growing conviction of Martin Luther and his followers that the Bible was the sole source of religious authority (sola scriptura) provided the most compelling reason for large numbers of Christians to learn Hebrew. The most active and innovative Protestant Hebraists during Luther’s lifetime were members of the “Upper Rhineland School of Biblical Exegesis,” including Martin Bucer, Wolfgang Capito, Conrad Pellican, and above all Sebastian Münster.
Martin Luther and his Wittenberg colleagues were early adopters of the new Hebrew learning. He first learned Hebrew using Johannes Reuchlin’s Hebrew grammar, and put his knowledge to practical use when lecturing on the Old Testament and translating the Bible into German. His colleagues, above all Philip Melanchthon and Matthaeus Aurogallus, helped Luther translate and revise his translation from 1521 until his death in 1546. Luther characterized his approach to interpreting the Hebrew Bible as “Grammatica Theologica,” employing Hebrew philology to interpret the text, but also wherever possible making it “rhyme” with the New Testament. Toward the end of his life, Luther became increasingly concerned that Münster and other Hebraists were too quick to accept Jewish interpretations of many Old Testament passages, particularly verses that traditionally had been understood to be messianic prophecies. In On the Last Words of David (1543) Luther offered a model of how he interpreted the Old Testament, while sharply criticizing Christian Hebraists who followed Jewish interpretation too closely.
Erik H. Herrmann
Martin Luther’s exposition of the Bible was not only fundamental to his academic vocation, it also stood at the very center of his reforming work. Through his interpretation of the New Testament, Luther came to new understanding of the gospel, expressed most directly in the apostle Paul’s teaching on justification. Considering the historical complexities of Luther’s own recollections on the matter, it is quite clear that he regarded his time immersed in the writings of Paul as the turning point for his theology and his approach to the entire Scriptures (cf. LW 34:336f). Furthermore, Luther’s interpretation of the New Testament was imbued with such force that it would influence the entire subsequent history of exegesis: colleagues, students, rivals, and opponents all had to reckon with it. However, as a professor, Luther’s exegetical lectures and commentaries were more often concerned with the Old Testament. Most of Luther’s New Testament interpretation is found in his preaching, which, following the lectionary, usually considered a text from one of the Gospels or Epistles. His reforms of worship in Wittenberg also called for weekly serial preaching on Matthew and John for the instruction of the people. From these texts, we have some of the richest sustained reflections on the Gospels in the 16th century. Not only was the substance of his interpretation influential, Luther’s contribution to exegetical method and the hermeneutical problem also opened new possibilities for biblical interpretation that would resonate with both Christian piety and critical, early modern scholarship.
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.