Reading the Bible with the Dead: what you can learn from the history of exegesis that you can’t learn from exegesis alone

John L. Thompson. Eerdmans, 2007. [227 pages].

The Bible contains more than enough jarring material that proves itself awkward reading for Christians and those who teach it. Believers can be embarrassed by some of its content. Christianity and its sacred Book has always had its detractors, but the arrival of the internet has made it easier for awkward Bible stories and texts to be passed around and thrust upon unsuspecting (and biblically illiterate?) Christians. Others can be pained and puzzled by its stories or commands, feeling unjustly criticised by something God’s written word has said, or hurt because of something the Bible apparently condones.

John L. Thompson shows us that these surprising texts are in fact not surprising at all: Christian thinkers have known about these since the beginning. More importantly, they have struggled to come to terms with these awkward passages and present them to the church in a way that was pastorally sensitive as well as faithful to the text. Sometimes they can be judged to have failed at one or the other of these or even both, but the aim of Thompson’s book is to show that these passages have been read before, and that Christian history has resources to help us make sense of them today.

Reading the Bible with the Dead examines a collection of problematic texts through the lens of their history of interpretation. This work has unearthed and collated the interpretations and uses of these texts by a range of pre-modern interpreters from the early church, the middle ages, and the reformation-era. These interpreters were recognised and respected teachers of the Bible in their own day (even if many of their names are unfamiliar now), and most of them had pastoral responsibilities. Before them were the needs and concerns and struggles of real people as they worked through how best to understand these texts as divinely inspired and for the benefit of the church.

The nine topics covered in the book are:

1. The treatment of Hagar (Gen 16; 21).

2. The sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter (Judg 11).

3. The ‘imprecationary’ psalms (e.g. Pss 58; 69; 137).

4. The misdemeanours of the patriarchs (throughout Genesis).

5. Gomer the unfaithful wife (Hosea 1-3).

6. Corinthian women speaking in church (1 Cor 11).

7. Divorce (Deut 24; Matt 5; 1 Cor 7).

8. Gender roles in the church (1 Cor 14; 1 Tim 2).

9. Stories of sex and violence (Gen 34; Judg 19; 2 Sam 11; 2 Sam 13). 

Some parts of the historical record of interpretation will not surprise us. We do see instances where gender roles are reinforced, victims were made to share blame for their misfortune, and interpreters did at times looked for ways to exonerate bad behaviour by biblical characters. But we are also reminded that these historical interpreters were – like us – real people who did their best in difficult contexts and within the norms of their own times and cultures. One example of this is the suggestion that John Calvin’s cold response to the stories of Tamar and Bathsheba was coloured by the repeated misdemeanours of one member of his family (p. 208).

Yet there are numerous times where the history of interpretation will not affirm our expectations. Those who think efforts toward gender equality did not begin until the twentieth century will be surprised to find that Calvin ‘lobbied his city council for fifteen years before the double standard [of husbands but not wives having authority to initiate a divorce] was finally taken off the books in Geneva’ (p. 107). Few Christians ever thought that 1 Timothy 2:15 taught ‘salvation by childbearing’, and employed a number of exegetical strategies to make sense of what Paul might have meant by this phrase (pp. 173-176). Many times the interpreters are shown to be uncomfortable with straightforward readings of the text and sought to mitigate their negative impact. Modern Christians are far from the first to be unsettled by the apparent choices of biblical characters or narrators. As Thompson notes in his conclusion, the fact that readers found certain texts problematic bears ‘witness that such problems are not necessarily the by-products of a degenerate modernity and its cultural accommodations’ (p. 222). The difficulties are genuine, and record of history can remind us they are not new as well as help us work through them.

The end of each chapter provides a number of suggestions for how to deal with these difficult parts of the Bible today. This is a helpful feature of the book that summarizes key lessons from each chapter for readers who carry the responsibility of teaching the church. Typically these suggestions draw on the interpretive history, looking not usually at particular examples but at the trends and tactics often employed to make sense and use of these perplexing passages. However, Thompson does not lionize past interpreters and also suggests that we learn from the mistakes and silences of the past as well.

Thompson aims to make his book helpful to interested non-experts. Many readers will be unfamiliar with the numerous and hitherto unheard-of historical figures, and may well find the prospect of tracking down their even more obscure commentaries a task more daunting than ever practical. To this end he has provided appendices identifying these commentators (pp. 265-273) and key historic commentaries on each book of the Bible (all pre-1600, and increasingly available on the internet or affordably republished; pp. 274-301).

Reading the Bible with the Dead invites us to be both comforted and provoked by history within the context of difficult biblical material. It reminds us that the Christian faith stretches not only across cultures around the globe but also back in time through successive epochs of history. This fact should foster in us humility as well as curiosity.

Thompson’s book provides nine introductory tours into this history, and directions for those who wish to strike out and explore the interpretive landscape of the past for themselves. Even if we are not persuaded by the past, the past will ground us more steadfastly in the rich traditions of biblical exegesis, and for those who care about the role of the Bible for the church, the time spent in exploration will not be time wasted.

Reading the Bible with the Dead is available at Book Depository, and was priced at $47.11 on September 13, 2020.