Yeah! Mission accomplished. I managed to complete my reading project in the ten weeks I gave myself for it. This will therefore be my final report.
So I managed to accomplish the mission; but did I fulfil my objectives? As stated in the initial letter on the project, they were:
- I get up to date on scholarship dealing with the OT prophets and gain a number of new insights on the way, to be shared with you.
- It helps you and I to understand – and appreciate – the prophets better.
- You are inspired to do some serious reading yourself.
I can only speak for myself, of course. I do not know (to tackle this in reverse order) if you are inspired to now do some serious reading yourself. Neither do I know whether it has helped you to understand the prophets better. For myself, however, I am afraid the gains on this second point were a bit meagre; I was hoping for more.
On the positive side: reading this dictionary has provided me with a fresh appreciation for the incredible – and inexplicable – Isaiah. It has also given me a renewed interest in the somewhat tortured structure of Jeremiah. And there is more, but all in all it has not been an abundant harvest.
At the same time, it has lowered my esteem for at least a section of the scholarly community. I continue to have a high view of the importance of scholarship; but obviously, there is a lot of scholarship poorly done. The level of nonsense that is produced wearing a grave, serious, and seemingly impressive academic demeanour has been a bit of a shock, to be honest, even though this is far from my first exposure to it.
Most likely, it is therefore the first objective that I have fulfilled best. It has put me up to date at least on that scholarship that follows a clear historical-critical bent, ascribing much of the prophetic writings to generations of scribes living after the prophets (the “axiom” of the many hands first discussed in the second reading report). I am not sure that is a great gain, but it is at least a small one.
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I have been reading: Mark J. Boda & J. Gordon McConville (eds), Dictionary of the Old Testament Prophets (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2012).
In case you missed previous reports:
You can probably tell that my final evaluation of this book is not overly positive. As it turned out, it is indeed a compendium of scholarship, not an introduction or handbook to the prophets. How well does this help to read the prophets with understanding? Some, but not all that much.
In an Amazon review, I would give this book 2 ½ stars if I could. I did publish a review; I gave it three stars, but wrote that I would only give it two for evangelical readers.
I still wonder what the intended audience of the book is. It is too little for biblical scholars, but the often heavy academic style does not make it very accessible for a broader lay or non-expert readership. The experts are not always gifted writers, to put it mildly! Perhaps theology students would benefit the most from this work as a shortcut or quick overview, but that makes for a small readership.
One more point of critique. Since IVP is the publisher, I was expecting an evangelical dictionary. However, I doubt that it is. I am not thinking in terms of labels and contentious debates about “evangelicals” (= good) and “liberals” (= bad). And I certainly do not want to judge on the individual contributors and deny them the term “evangelical” as a self-designation if that is how they choose to identify themselves.
I am wondering because of the way the dictionary as a whole positions itself. It consistently builds on non-evangelical scholarship of the past as its point of departure. It does not find this point in evangelical scholarship or the debates and the questions that have been of special concern to evangelicals.
In other words, the dictionary locates itself in a conversation among mainline (for lack of a better word) scholars, not in a conversation among evangelical believers or within the evangelical movement. In fact, the dictionary does not interact all that much with evangelical scholars of the past or with specific evangelical concerns. A point in case: the comparatively long article on Jonah, one of the most conservative in this volume, does not offer any discussion of the fish. But isn’t this an obvious question for most of us?
The “Book of the Twelve”
Before moving on to my top ten, I will share one more significant new thing that I have learned from this dictionary: since the 1990s there has been intense debate about seeing the twelve Minor Prophets as one book and studying it as such. The idea is not entirely new, but it has drawn a lot of more support in recent years.
In the Jewish Bible the Minor Prophets are counted as one book, since they were originally written on one scroll. It is usually referred to as the Book of the Twelve. However, this is not yet the same as treating it as a unified work; after all, it contains twelve seemingly independent prophetic texts.
So why might they be one work? Already the 19th-century scholar Franz Delitzsch (1813-1890) noticed that each book in the collection included at least one phrase from the book preceding it (apart from the first one, of course). Often this phrase appears in the last chapter of the preceding prophet and the first chapter of the succeeding one. An obvious example is Joel 3:16, “The LORD roars from Zion”, repeated in Amos 1:2. In addition, certain themes such as the day of the Lord appear in all or most of these books.
It wasn’t until the 1990s, however, that some began to argue that the twelve books were also connected through an ongoing plot, a storyline, and therefore should be considered a literary unit not unlike a single book. This book tells the story of Israel’s sin, its punishment, and in the three postexilic prophets its restoration.
Initially, I found the idea intriguing, but after reading the various articles in the dictionary that touch on this, I remain unconvinced. Each of the twelve is so unique and different from each of the others. It does not make the impression that they have been polished and harmonized into one single literary work, forced to fit the mould.
Given twelve more or less random building stones (thoughts, topics, texts, whatever), it will usually be possible to connect them in some sort of narrative.
Here is a problem for the theory: unfortunately, the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) has the twelve Minor Prophets in a different order – for which a different plot or train of thought is proposed. Hosea and Amos tell about the northern kingdom (Israel), then Micah and Joel focus on Jerusalem, Obadiah, Jonah and Nahum tell about judgement on the nations, Habakkuk and Zephaniah about judgement for Judah, and the postexilic prophets complete the story.
Again, take any twelve pieces, and it will be possible to turn them into a story.
Here is another problem for the theory:
The nonbiblical scrolls from Qumran that cite and comment on the Prophetic Books always comment only on individual books from the twelve Minor Prophets. The twelve Minor Prophets are never viewed as a single prophetic work, even though they are copied on a single scroll and therefore treated as a single ‘book’ in terms of the format of the collection. (“Text and Textual Criticism”, 780)
So perhaps this is yet one more scholarly idea that will eventually fizzle out to make room for some other novelty.
And now for the fun part: which ten articles have I found the most helpful for understanding the prophets? A few preliminarily remarks:
- Putting the question this way immediately excludes a few excellent articles, such as “Prophecy and Psychology”. However informative or entertaining they may be, they are not the ones that most help us understand the prophets.
- I generally liked the articles on approaches and methodologies (the one on “Form Criticism” certainly enabled me to understand this approach better than anything I have read before), although they tend to be difficult and theoretical. Based on the criterion of helpfulness, these too had to be excluded.
- The introductions to the prophetic books were usually interesting and at least of some help, even though many fully embraced the axiom of a long and complex development process. I particularly valued the ones on Amos, Zechariah, and Zephaniah. If you can handle the critical scholarship, they are worth reading, but I have not included any in the final selection.
- Here are several more articles that were good, but still didn’t make it: chaos, cosmology, death, divination, lament, mountain imagery, prophets in the NT, social justice, warfare and divine warfare, wilderness, word of God, worship, wrath, Zion.
- It has been a tough choice. I guess I have to say that, even if only so that the other articles feel less bad about not making the final cut.
- And now, almost without further ado…
One last ado: I do not consider it feasible to arrange the articles in a hierarchical top ten, counting down to the very best number one. It is subjective enough to choose ten out of 115. I therefore present them in a more fitting manner: alphabetical order!
1. “Exodus Imagery” (205-14)
In Old Testament prophecy, the exodus is an important theme, a fundamental reference point, and a crucial source of imagery. It pays off to be aware of this, so if you are not, maybe this article can help.
2. “Israel” (391-7)
I already shared from this article in the previous reading report. Next to clarifying terminology, it also paints a larger theological picture.
3. “Liturgy and Cult” (513-24)
If for no other reason, this article deserves to be singled out because it is the only one to question the widely accepted postexilic date and origin of Isaiah 56-66 (so-called “Trito-Isaiah”). This “avoids the doubtful proposal of rank idolatry in the postexilic Jerusalem temple, which draws no fire from any postexilic prophet” (519). Indeed; what is described in these chapters fit the time before the exile, when idolatry was rampant in Israel, much better.
Over and beyond this, the article presents a thoughtful and cautious discussion of the involvement of the prophets in the temple cult and the possible presence of liturgical texts in the prophetic books, that is, texts that were used in worship and temple service.
4. “Prophecy, History of” (587-600)
It is hard to see how this article is a “history” of prophecy. It starts off with a reasonable introduction to the prophets and their role within Israelite society. The second half is an overview of all the prophetic writings and how they supposedly came about (hint: mostly through scribes and editors and many hands; therefore, if you read this article, be sure to also read “Writing and Prophecy” for a contrarian view).
And this is the real reason to include this article here. It gives a thorough taste of the particular historical-critical view that underlies this dictionary. It provides a summary of the critical consensus it presupposes in many of its contributions, all in one single article. In other words, this is the Dictionary of the Old Testament Prophets in a nutshell. Read this, and you know what most of its other contributors think.
There, you owe me. I just saved you at least 80 hours of reading.
5. “Prophecy and Eschatology in Christian Theology” (601-10)
I hesitated to include this, because it did not contain much that was new to me. But then, this is my specialty, and for people who are new to the subject of eschatology (the study of the last things or the end times), this would be a good and evangelical introduction.
6. “Prophecy and Society” (623 34)
“Prophecy and Society” is an attempt to understand the prophets as members of their own social world. As such, it is not unlike the first part of “Prophecy, History of”. Obviously, it is important and helpful to understand the prophets as real people within their own society.
7. “Salvation, Deliverance” (692-700)
This article provides a helpful overview of the terms, stories, and images used to present the concept of salvation, plus a good discussion of various aspects of it.
8. “Temple” (767-74)
Not everything about this article is great, but it does explain what the temple was and stood for. It succeeds in something that is rare in this dictionary: synthesis; it connects the dots even into the New Testament and helps to develop a coherent understanding.
9. “Text and Textual Criticism” (775-81)
I included this article because it gives a taste of the manuscript situation for the Old Testament. Thanks to the Dead Sea Scrolls and other relatively recent discoveries and developments, we are now aware of the fact that there existed a measure of diversity in the text of biblical books in the first century before and after Christ. This is especially true for the book of Jeremiah, but this is not the only example. Around this time, the biblical texts had not yet been standardized among the Jews. It is interesting to learn a little a bit about this.
10. “Writing and Prophecy” (883-8)
This article argues two absolutely crucial points.
First, there is archaeological evidence from other areas and peoples in the Ancient Near East that prophetic words at times were written down almost immediately after they had been received or spoken. This speaks against a long period of oral preservation before prophecies were written down.
Second, the essence of being a scribe was being accurate in what one copied or in what one wrote down based on dictation, certainly not in creation.
On this basis, the author is one of very few in this volume to depart from the party line or axiom that I keep referring to:
A prophet might revise and reorganize his oracles, but whether or not his disciples or later followers could alter them or bring them up to date, as often is alleged, remains hypothetical in the absence of early manuscripts. (…)
The possibility that their oracles were written soon after they had uttered them deserves more attention than it has received in many commentaries. (888)
The author, Alan R. Millard, is far more cautious in his formulations then I will be in my next sentence. If Alan Millard is right, then a great deal else in this dictionary is wrong.
A Reading Project of Your Own!
That’s it. Well, almost. Because now comes the most important part of this letter.
I told you at the launch of my reading project that I would end with this, but you may have forgotten. I now officially present you with the challenge to start a reading project of your own.
What is a book that would help you grow, whether in biblical studies or in some other area of life? Make it something that is at least a little bit of a stretch and that therefore requires a formal goal or resolution and a disciplined effort.
How many weeks are you giving yourself? How much time per day or per week do you intend to invest in this?
I would be very interested in hearing from you if you are going for it:
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