BMCR 2015.01.18

The New Cambridge History of the Bible. Volume 1: From the beginnings to 600

, , The New Cambridge History of the Bible. Volume 1: From the beginnings to 600. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013. xxvii, 979. ISBN 9780521859387. $190.00.

A book published under a title that features the words ‘Cambridge history of…’ raises anticipation. It is beyond doubt that the volume that is under review here, and which is published as the first of four that form the New Cambridge History of the Bible,1 meets those expectations. For amateurs and specialists alike, this book unlocks a storehouse of information on a wide array of subjects that somehow all involve the formation and earliest history of the Bible but are so diverse that one cannot begin to describe them.2 Of a book counting 37 articles and almost 900 pages (excluding bibliography and indices), no review can even begin to critically assess the individual contributions. Instead, I will try to formulate some general observations on the volume as a whole. I first hold it up to the more than forty-year-old Cambridge History of the Bible and then offer some comments on the coherence of the volume. Finally, I briefly reflect upon the book’s use of the term ‘Old Testament’. In presenting these points, I refrain from continuously repeating my judgment –this would be tiresome for both author and reader–, but ask the reader to keep in mind the appreciation articulated above.3

When one compares the volume under review with the original Cambridge History of the Bible (which just like the new one comprises several volumes), one notices that it corresponds not only to the first volume in the original series but also to the opening articles of the second one. This can be explained by the fact that in that series, some overlap existed between the first and second volumes. This results from the genesis of that series: the original Cambridge History of the Bible was supposed to comprise only two volumes, one dealing with The West from the Reformation to the Present Day (published 1963 without a volume number) and the other with The West from the Fathers to the Reformation (published 1967 as volume 2). The volume From the Beginnings to Jerome, which can be considered the forerunner of the one under discussion here, was published last (1970, as volume 1) and was not included in the original design, which only aimed to treat the history of the Bible in the West, from a time when the books of the Bible as well as the canon already existed in a closed form.4

In the New Cambridge History, however, the first volume on the formation of text and canon and their early reception in East and West was from the beginning designed to be part of the series. And although it of course partly overlaps with the first volume of the original series, the design of the new book is quite different. A few of the differences are mentioned below, but one can be singled out here, as it is already reflected in the title of the new book. Whereas the first volume of the original series treats a period that runs From the Beginnings to Jerome, the new one covers more ground: From the Beginnings to 600. Remarkably, the change of chronological upper limit is nowhere explained in the new volume: the reader does not know why precisely the year 600 marks the boundary.

A comparison of the framework of the new first volume with that in the original series shows some improvements. Of the five main parts of which the book consists, only part III ( The New Testament) is more or less identical to that of the 1970 volume in terms of structure. The contributions that deal with Languages, writings systems and book production only make out one part (I) instead of two, which they do in the 1970 volume: in the new edition, attention is more devoted to other issues, most notably the translations and early interpretation of the Bible. The strong focus on the versions shows from the addition of an entirely new part V ( Biblical versions other than the Hebrew and Greek : articles on the Latin, Syriac and Coptic translations) and of contributions devoted to the Septuagint and the Targumim (both of them in part II: The Hebrew Bible and Old Testaments) and to biblical Greek. Much more attention is also paid to early exegesis of the Bible, both Jewish (in the 1970 volume covered by one contribution and now by four, which treat amongst other topics rabbinic and Qumran exegesis) and Christian and other (part V was changed from The Bible in the Early Church into The reception of the Bible in the post-New Testament period and includes contributions on Gnostic and Manichaean interpretation, Syriac exegesis etc.). This expansion, which mirrors the developments of modern scholarship, has made the new volume 300 pages longer than that from 1970. On the other hand, the topic of Antiochene exegesis and its exponents is no longer treated in a separate article, yet it does occur (albeit it rather briefly) in articles such as those on Traditions of exegesis and on Exegetical genres in the patristic era. And of course it is only natural that, no matter how sizeable a volume is, some topics end up having been omitted or having flown under the radar (in this case: the Gothic Bible translation, Philo Epicus etc.).

For the editors of the volume, it cannot have been easy to manage such a massive undertaking. It is only logical then that (as they inform us in the remarkably honest preface), while all of the articles may have been written with the same agenda in mind (i.e. to give “a clear account of the current state of scholarship, and in such a way as to be accessible” to researchers, scholars and students), at the same time “each contributor was given the freedom, within [those] parameters […], to write as he or she saw fit” (p. xiv). With all of the contributors being shrewd experts, one could imagine them to have seized the opportunities offered by this freedom and to have delivered their paper in the style of their choosing. Indeed, one easily perceives differences in the way the contributors approached their article: contributions such as those by Emanuel Tov and Gilles Dorival are written with a minimum of footnotes whereas others abound in them (see the articles by David Parker, Michael Hollerich etc.): as a consequence, the level to which the interested graduated student is referred to further reading strongly depends on the individual contribution.5

One could also imagine the widely recognized specialists who were asked to contribute have been stubborn and not delivered precisely what the editors were aiming at. In this regard, it is rather ironic that while the editors explicitly mention (and rightly so!) “the fact that since 1970 the study of the Septuagint for its own sake, and not simply as a text-critical tool for the original Hebrew, has become much more the standard” (p. xiii), the article on The Septuagint pays remarkably much attention – old-fashioned style– precisely to its role as a witness of the Hebrew text. Admittedly, the author remarks that “[f]or a long time in the history of biblical research the Septuagint was used as a tool to reconstruct the Hebrew text in places where the latter was not so clear [, but that] in recent years […] scholars have started to deal with the Septuagint as a literary document in its own right” (p. 275), but nonetheless she continues to focus on the Septuagint’s relations with the Hebrew text (pp. 275-280) and to end her conclusion with an appeal to pay more attention to the Hebrew (p. 288).

One has the general impression that interaction between the various articles is rather rare: cross-references between them are seldom. This is understandable (I do not see how another way of dealing with the articles would have been manageable), but sometimes it leads to quite humorous results. To name two examples: in the article on Eusebius, it is stated as a fact that Origen’s move to Palestine was inspired by the falling-out he had had with his bishop in Alexandria (see p. 630), whereas in the article on Origen himself, the reasons for his move are said to remain disputed (p. 607). In the contribution on The New Testament text and versions, the third century is named as the earliest possible one in which the Bible was translated into Christian Palestinian Aramaic (p. 421), whereas in the article on The Syriac versions of the Bible, it is the fifth century that is put forward as the probable date of translation (p. 535).

A final question that one might address is a perhaps unexpected one, namely that of the volume’s denomination. Nothing is said with regard to this matter in the preface, and of course one expects such an academic enterprise to be denominationally neutral. The book under review does not fail to live up to that expectation, but nonetheless seems to reveal a Protestant background here and there. The index, for example, uses the terms ‘apocrypha’ (p. 930, compare also p. xxiv) and ‘pseudepigrapha’ (p. 930) as Protestant practice does. While in general this does not bother, it could do so with regard to one certain point: the ease with which the term ‘Old Testament’ is used can be somewhat uncomfortable. For example, the very first sentence of the very first article of the book states that “[t]he languages of the Old Testament are Hebrew and Aramaic” (p. 3). In such a sentence (as well as in the title of the article: The languages of the Old Testament), the term ‘Hebrew Bible’ would have been more neutral: to some readers the biblical books in question are not the Old Testament but the Tanakh, and for others the Old Testament does contain books that have never existed in any Hebrew or Aramaic form. In the article on The Old Testament text and its transmission, the use of the term ‘Old Testament’ is even more remarkable, since that contribution deals with episodes in the transmission history of the Hebrew Bible (such as its position in relation to the Samaritan Pentateuch) that predate any conception of ‘Old Testament’. Here it would not only have been more neutral but also more correct to have used the term ‘Hebrew Bible’ in the title. One indeed notices that the author of the article avoids using the term ‘Old Testament’ in his text. Why then use it in the title? Joachim Schaper shows that it can be done better: the title of his article, The literary history of the Hebrew Bible sets forth nicely and correctly what the article is about. Certainly, with regard to this issue of nomenclature the new volume improves upon that from 1970 (e.g. the title of part III was changed from The Old Testament into The Hebrew Bible and Old Testaments), but some room for improvement remains.


1. The second ( From 600 to 1450, published 2012) and third ( From 1450 to 1750, published 2013) have also appeared; the fourth ( From 1750 to the Present) is on its way.

2. The reader is kindly referred to the Table of Contents.

3. One small section of the book, however, needs to be criticized. The index of manuscripts (pp. 913-915) is not only full of errors but even ludicrous: various entirely different systems of reference (some of which are nonsensical) are used next to each other and make the index unusable.

4. See the prefaces to the volumes from 1963 and 1967.

5. One could imagine the targeted reader to be at times in want of more precise references or information (compare e.g. p. 517: “Pierre Nautin has righly stressed”, without any bibliographical reference; or p. 793: “[t]he earliest attestation of Christian scholia in the technical sense comes in the late 300s, possible with Pseudo-Athanasius”: which text is meant?).