Bart D. Ehrman’s The Bible: A Historical and Literary Introduction is an engaging and effective textbook, covering potentially intimidating swathes of material in straightforward language. The book works through the Biblical canon, incorporating material from history, archaeology, literary criticism, and continually stressing the historical context of production and reception. In his preface Ehrman presents his desiderata for an introductory-level work, which include presenting the consensus of the field, balancing an account of the Biblical books’ content with scholarly opinions on them, allowing students to trace the intellectual processes which gave rise to those opinions rather than simply asserting them, and sending the reader back to the Bible to undertake their own informed readings. All these are tackled well in the ensuing volume, and the result is a textbook which should spur students to engage in the subject, not just reproduce “key points” in examinations.
Ehrman blends information and readings well, managing to delineate the space within which contrasting interpretations of the Biblical works could take place, whilst providing contextual material to help inform and limit that space. He has a difficult balance to strike, since material for study of the Bible at undergraduate level has to bear in mind those students who will only know the books from devotional use; those who have a strong confessional framework within which they read the canon; those who have never read any of it; and those who have mentally bracketed the Bible with “Classical allusions” or “Victorian novels” as high culture which is not for them. Without being able to embark on lengthy prolegomena, Ehrman uses the introduction to explain why a historical and literary approach will be valuable for any category of student, and to set the parameters of that approach, dividing it from spiritual and religious uses. This is supplemented with three “Excursus” sections, on “The Bible and the Believer”, “Jews and Christians in the Ancient World” and “Orthodoxy and Heresy in Early Christianity”, which tackle necessary issues which he clearly feels should be treated clearly but separately.
The main material is supplemented with a plethora of maps, illustrations and text boxes, giving “At A Glance” summaries, sidebars with contexts or controversies, and images diagrams to expand ideas. A huge amount of information is crammed in, but sometimes at the expense of the coherent reading experience. Some students may find it a bit wearing to force their eyes to flit from place to place on the page, before hopping back to the main columns to pick up the argument, and wish for a more integrated texts which carries them along with its own reasoning. However, this composition will no doubt make retrieving specific pieces of information easier when it comes to constructing essays, and if the book feels more like one to be used than read, this might be taken as the definition of a decent textbook. The only other potential fault with the text is the occasional lapse into over-conversational style, which engages the reader at the expense of precision, particularly if the book is designed to be used alongside a course of lectures.
One of the most intriguing aspects of the volume is the appearance of “Take A Stand” questions at the end of each chapter. Readers are presented with a scenario in which they must imagine they are explaining the contents of the chapter to a roommate, a Sunday School teacher, a sister or a friend from church, often in response to a popular but flawed opinion about the Bible. They are asked to provide an alternative view to the shelf on “Prophecy” in the local Christian bookstore which reads Daniel as about the near future, or to suggest that the validity of the Bible does not depend on its scientific accuracy, or to examine whether it consistently teaches that good people will be rewarded with happy lives.
This format is revealing of the way the study of the Bible in US higher education is shaped by the assumptions and principles which the book rejects. Though Ehrman takes great pains to make clear that a historical and literary approach to the Bible does not involve making theological or religious assertions, the insistence on the historical situatedness of the documents and the variety of possible readings involves engaging with those assertions when made by other people. The echoes of Luther in taking a “stand” suggest that the horizons within which the books are being considered are still those of heroic Protestantism, and that students might (or should) naturally feel bound by the integrity of their personal reading of this text. As opposed to simply regarding their literary and historical course on Biblical literature as precisely what it claims to be.
They may simply be the result of professors’ experience of students who refuse to make an argument one way or the other when it comes to papers on Biblical topics, but the form these prompts take is striking. Do college textbooks on similarly serious topics such as mid-twentieth-century history offer exercises in which the student should write a hypothetical letter to a newspaper pointing out the inaccuracies of their editorial on D-Day and the Greatest Generation, or mentally compose a speech putting a friend right on their comparison of inflationary policy to the Weimar Republic? The little boxes with their “real life scenarios” recall the similar features which pop up in Youth Bibles, offering the young reader an opportunity to stand up for Christ in their lives – in their imaginative life, at least.
The other horizon which shapes these prompts to intellectual commitment is the student lives they imagine. Aside from the assumptions about North American life and the pervasiveness of a particular kind of cultural Protestantism in public culture (in its religious and atheist forms), they suggest the most popular image of higher education: the rites-of-passage residential college where students will arrive as teenagers, live for several years in each others’ company with visits to the family home in the vacation, before leaving as adult members of the professional class. Though this remains the dominant vision of higher education, figures suggest that it only represents a small minority of those undertaking college-level study in the US, some estimates putting it as low as 20%.
In pointing this out I am not questioning Ehrman’s failure to tailor his work to that market, but picking up on the suggestion above that such questions work as a prompt to imaginative life as well (or better than) practical advice. The market for online study appears to show many students preferring the online programme of traditional “bricks and mortar” universities over institutions which advertise themselves as specialising entirely in distance learning: the knowledge that there is a football field and a halls of residence somewhere seems attractive, even if the students will never see them except via photos on the website or tweets from the university’s mascot. The rhetoric of Taking A Stand in Ehrman’s Historical and Literary Introduction might work less to help students who have dorm rooms and campus bookstores to fill them with reasoned readings of Biblical documents than to populate the imagined campus of those students who don’t.
Overall, then, The Bible: A Historical and literary Introduction is a thoroughly effective textbook, which adds another volume to Bart D. Ehrman’s long record of engaging and popular works on Biblical Studies.
The Bible: A Historical and Literary Introduction, by Bart D. Ehrman (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013) ISBN: 978-0195308167. I am grateful to Oxford University Press for providing a review copy.