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Praise for The Blackwell Companion to the Bible and Culture

“This volume is a delight, full of interest and surprises. It contains a wealth of fine scholarship made readable and the book is highly recommended . . . Immensely varied, accessible, and fascinating.”

Journal of Contemporary Religion

“A sweeping and magnanimous overview . . . admirably achieves its goal with wit, aplomb, and a disciplinary breadth that is all too rare in biblical studies today . . . A welcome addition to the growing corpus of literature on the important relationship between the Bible and culture.”

Review of Biblical Literature

“A unique manual which demonstrates that biblical studies are no longer done exclusively in departments of theology.”

International Review of Biblical Studies

The Wiley-Blackwell Companions to Religion

The Wiley-Blackwell Companions to Religion series presents a collection of the most recent scholar­ship a nd knowledge about world religions. Each volume draws together newly-commissioned essays by distinguished authors in the field, and is presented in a style which is accessible to undergraduate students, as well as scholars and the interested general reader. These volumes approach the subject in a creative and forward-thinking style, providing a forum in which leading scholars in the field can make their views and research available to a wider audience.

Recently Published

The Blackwell Companion to the Study of Religion

Edited by Robert A. Segal

The Blackwell Companion to the Qur’ān

Edited by Andrew Rippin

The Blackwell Companion to Contemporary Islamic Thought

Edited by Ibrahim M. Abu-Rabi’

The Blackwell Companion to the Bible and Culture

Edited by John F. A. Sawyer

The Blackwell Companion to Catholicism

Edited by James J. Buckley, Frederick Christian Bauerschmidt, and Trent Pomplun

The Blackwell Companion to Eastern Christianity

Edited by Ken Parry

The Blackwell Companion to the Theologians

Edited by Ian S. Markham

The Blackwell Companion to the Bible in English Literature

Edited by Rebecca Lemon, Emma Mason, John Roberts, and Christopher Rowland

The Blackwell Companion to the New Testament

Edited by David E. Aune

The Blackwell Companion to Nineteenth Century Theology

Edited by David Fergusson

The Blackwell Companion to Religion in America

Edited by Philip Goff

The Blackwell Companion to Jesus

Edited by Delbert Burkett

The Blackwell Companion to Paul

Edited by Stephen Westerholm

The Blackwell Companion to Religion and Violence

Edited by Andrew R. Murphy

The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics, Second Edition

Edited by Stanley Hauerwas and Samuel Wells

The Wiley-Blackwell Companion Practical Theology

Edited by Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore

The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Religion and Social Justice

Edited by Michael D. Palmer and Stanley M. Burgess

The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Chinese Religions

Edited by Randall L. Nadeau

The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to African Religions

Edited by Elias Kifon Bongmba

The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Christian Mysticism

Edited by Julia A. Lamm


Notes on Contributors

Ibrahim Abraham is a research assistant and case worker in the Centre for Studies in Religion and Theology at Monash University, Australia. His work explores the intersections of religion, law and culture.

Alice Bach is Archbishop Hallinan Chair of Catholic Studies at Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio. ‘My main scholarly interests parallel and reflect my amateur pleasures: watching the media, film, and politics hammer out startling versions of religion, while the religious hammer away at the media, filmmakers, and politicians.’ She is the author of Women, Seduction and Betrayal in Biblical Narrative (1997) and Religion, Politics, Media in the Broadband Era (2004).

Andrew Ballantyne practised as an architect, and then moved into academic work. He has held research and teaching posts at the universities of Sheffield, Bath, and Newcastle, where he is now Professor of Architecture. Among his publications are Architecture, Landscape and Liberty (1997), Architecture: A Very Short Introduction (2002) and Architecture Theory: A Reader in Philosophy and Culture (2005).

Roland Boer is Senior Research Fellow in the Centre for Studies in Religion and Theology at Monash University, Australia. Among his many publications are Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door. The Bible and Popular Culture (1999), Last Stop Before Antarctica: The Bible and Postcolonialism in Australia (2001) and Marxist Criticism of the Bible (2003).

Sharon A. Bong currently lectures in the School of Arts and Sciences at Monash University, Malaysia. Her key research interests are women and religion in a post-colonial context. She is the Executive Coordinator of the Ecclesia of Women in Asia, a forum of Asian Catholic women. She was a journalist with the New Straits Times Press, based in Malaysia.

Euan Cameron is Henry Luce III Professor of Reformation Church History at Union Theological Seminary, New York. He is the author of The Reformation of the Heretics: The Waldenses of the Alps 1480–1580 (1984), The European Reformation (1991) and Interpreting Christian History (2005), and is the editor of Early Modern Europe: An Oxford History (1999).

Jo Carruthers is AHRC Academic Fellow in ‘Performativity, Place, Space’ in the Arts Faculty at the University of Bristol. Her interests are in the intersection between biblical, literary and cultural studies. She is currently working on a cultural history of the Jewish festival Purim as well as writing a reception history of Esther for the Blackwell Bible Commentary series.

Kate Cooper is Senior Lecturer in Early Christianity and Director of the Centre for Late Antiquity at the University of Manchester. She is the author of The Virgin and the Bride: Idealized Womanhood in Late Antiquity (1996), and co-editor of Studies in Church History. She has written numerous articles on gender and religious change in the late Roman Empire, and her forthcoming publications include the monograph Passion and Persuasion: Gender, Violence, and Religious Change in Late Antiquity.

Philip R. Davies is Research Professor of Biblical Studies at the University of Sheffield, and the author of numerous books and articles on Israelite history and archaeology, early Judaism and biblical interpretation, including In Search of Ancient Israel (1992), Scribes and Schools: The Canonization of the Hebrew Scriptures (1998) and (with George Brooke and Phillip Callaway), The Complete World of the Dead Sea Scrolls (2002).

Mary Dove is a Reader in English at the University of Sussex, and was previously at the University of Melbourne. She has published widely on medieval biblical interpretation, particularly interpretation of the Song of Songs, and is the editor of the Glossa Ordinaria in Canticum Canticorum (1997). She is currently completing a book on the first English Bible.

Jonathan A. Draper is Professor of New Testament at the University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. He is the editor of The Didache in Modern Research (1996), The Eye of the Storm: Bishop John William Colenso and the Crisis of Biblical Interpretation (2003), Orality, Literacy and Colonialism in Southern Africa (2003) and Orality, Literacy and Colonialism in Antiquity (2004).

Erhard S. Gerstenberger studied theology at the universities of Marburg, Tu¯bingen and Bonn. He has taught at Yale, the Lutheran Seminary of the Igreja Evangelica de Confissão Luterana no Brasil (IECLB) and the universities of Giessen and Marburg. Among his publications are Yahweh – the Patriarch (1996), Theologies in the Old Testament (2002) and commentaries on Leviticus (1996) and Psalms (1988, 2001).

Tim Gorringe is St Luke’s Professor of Theological Studies at the University of Exeter. He has taught in St Andrews, Oxford and India. His publications include Fair Shares: Ethics and the Global Economy (1999), A Theology of the Built Environment: Justice, Empowerment, Redemption (2002) and Furthering Humanity: A Theology of Culture (2004).

Heidi J. Hornik studied at Cornell University and Penn State University and is now Professor of Italian Renaissance and Baroque Art History at Baylor University, Texas. Her archival research is on the sixteenth-century Mannerist painter, Michele Tosini. With her husband Mikeal Parsons, she co-edited Interpreting Christian Art (2004) and co-authored Illuminating Luke: The Public Ministry of Christ in Italian Renaissance and Baroque Painting (2005).

Edward Kessler is Founding Director of the Cambridge Centre for the Study of Jewish-Christian Relations. He specializes in contemporary Judaism and Jewish-Christian relations. His publications include Bound by the Bible: Jews, Christians and the Sacrifice of Isaac (2004), and he is co-editor of A Dictionary of Jewish-Christian Relations (2005).

Stephen N. Lambden received his PhD in 2002 from the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. His research spanned the fields of Biblical and Islamic Studies, focusing upon the Isra’iliyyat phenomenon, the Islamo-biblical tradition, and the emergence of the Babi-Baha’i interpretation of the Bible. He is currently a Research Scholar at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, working on Shiism, early Shaykhism, and doctrinal dimensions of the Babi-Baha’i religions.

Scott M. Langston teaches Religion and Biblical Studies at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. He has also taught American history and is a member of the Southern Jewish Historical Society. Among his publications are articles on Jewish history and the New Testament, and the Exodus volume in the Blackwell Bible Commentary series (2005).

Burke O. Long is the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Religion Emeritus, and Research Professor of Religion at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. His recent publications include Planting and Reaping Albright: Politics, Ideology, and Interpreting the Bible (1997) and Imagining the Holy Land: Maps, Models and Fantasy Travels (2003).

Gerard Loughlin is Professor of Theology and Religion at the University of Durham. He previously taught at Newcastle, where he developed his interests in the theology of culture, with reference to film and sexuality. He is the author of Alien Sex: Desire and the Body in Cinema and Theology (2004) and editor of Queer Theology: Rethinking the Western Body (2005). He is also a founding co-editor of the journal, Theology and Sexuality.

Peter Matheson is a Fellow of the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Otago, New Zealand. His recent books include The Imaginative World of the Reformation (2002), and The Rhetoric of the Reformation (1997). He is currently writing the biography of Luther’s contemporary, the woman theologian, Argula von Grumbach.

Mikeal C. Parsons is Macon Professor of Religion at Baylor University, Texas, where he has taught since 1986. He has published numerous articles and authored or co-authored eight books, including The Departure of Jesus in Luke – Acts (1987), Rethinking the Unity of Luke and Acts (1992) and (with Heidi Hornik) Illuminating Luke: The Infancy Narrative in Italian Renaissance Painting (2003).

Anne Primavesi is a systematic theologian focusing on ecological issues. She is a Fellow of the Centre for the Interdisciplinary Study of Religion, Birkbeck College, University of London, and the author of several books including Sacred Gaia (2000), Gaia’s Gift (2003), and Making God Laugh (2004). She has lectured widely in the British Isles, Europe, North America and South America.

Ilona N. Rashkow teaches at Stony Brook University, New York. Her primary interests include psychoanalytic literary theory as applied to the Hebrew Bible. Her books include Upon the Dark Places: Sexism and Anti-Semitism in English Renaissance Biblical Translation (1990), The Phallacy of Genesis (1993) and Taboo or Not Taboo (2000). She is currently writing a book-length study on ‘forgetting’ in the Hebrew Bible from a Freudian and Lacanian perspective.

John W. Rogerson is Emeritus Professor of Biblical Studies at the University of Sheffield. His many publications on the history, sociology and geography of ancient Israel, the history of biblical interpretation and the use of the Bible in social and moral questions include W.M.L. de Wette: Founder of Modern Biblical Criticism (1992), The Bible and Criticism in Victorian Britain (1995), The Oxford Illustrated History of the Bible (2001) and Theory and Practice in Old Testament Ethics (2004).

Deborah F. Sawyer is a Reader at Lancaster University. Her publications include Women and Religion in thefirst Christian Centuries (1996), Is There a Future for Feminist Theology? (co-edited with Diane Collier, 1999), and God, Gender and the Bible (2002). Her other publications in the area of gender and religion include her contribution to the Encyclopedia of Religion (2nd edn, 2005) and articles in Feminist Theology and Religion and Sexuality.

John F. A. Sawyer is Emeritus Professor of Religious Studies at Newcastle University and of Biblical Studies and Judaism at Lancaster University. His books include Thefifth Gospel: Isaiah in the History of Christianity (1996) and Sacred Languages and Sacred Texts (1999). He is co-editor of the Concise Encyclopedia of Language and Religion (2001) and the new reception-history-based Blackwell Bible Commentary Series (2003– ).

Choan-Seng Song is the Distinguished Professor of Theology and Asian Cultures at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, CA, and Director of the GTU project, ‘Partnership for Transforming Theological Education in Asia, the Pacific and North America’. He has taught in Taiwan, Princeton, Kyoto and Harvard, and his many books include Third-Eye Theology (3rd edn, 1991) and The Believing Heart (1999).

Andrew Tate is a Lecturer in English at Lancaster University. He has published articles and book chapters on a wide range of topics, including nineteenth-century religion, Victorian visual culture and post-modern fiction and spirituality. He is currently working on a full-length study of Douglas Coupland, and a book about contemporary fiction, Christianity and re-enchantment.

Meg Twycross is Professor Emeritus of English Medieval Studies at Lancaster University. She is Editor of the journal Medieval English Theatre, and a Co-Director of the York Doomsday Project. Her publication, Masks and Masking in Medieval and Early Tudor England (2001), written with Sarah Carpenter, won the David Bevington Prize. She is currently engaged in a detailed study of the York Ordo paginarum using virtual restoration techniques on high-resolution electronic scans.

Gerald West teaches at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg, and is the Director of the Ujamaa Centre for Community Development and Research. His publications include The Academy of the Poor: Towards a Dialogical Reading of the Bible (1999) and (with Musa Dube) The Bible in Africa: Transactions, Trajectories and Trends (2000).


The Fertile Crescent

The Ezekiel cycle. Dura Europos

The Menorah, Temple and Akedah. Dura Europos

The Zodiac mosaic. Beit Alpha

The Akedah. Beit Alpha

Judas Iscariot, video still from The Interview Series

Mary, video still from The Interview Series

Mary Magdalene, video still from The Interview Series

Lazarus, video still from The Interview Series

Jonah Swallowed

Jonah Praying

Jonah under the Gourd Vine

The Good Shepherd


Fra Filippo Lippi, Annunciation

Michelangelo, David

Rembrandt, The Prodigal Son

Caspar David Friedrich, The Cross in the Mountains

Salvador Dalí, The Sacrament of the Last Supper

The Fall of Nineveh, front cover

The Fall of Nineveh, back cover

Preface to the Paperback Edition

Since the publication of the hardback edition of The Blackwell Companion to the Bible and Culture in 2006, there has been a veritable explosion of academic interest in the reception history of the Bible. In addition to two new journals, Biblical Reception and the on-line open access Relegere: Studies in Religion, there are at least three reference works: my own Concise Dictionary of the Bible and its Reception (2009), the Oxford Handbook of the Reception History of the Bible (2011) and the projected 30-volume Encyclopaedia of the Bible and its Reception (2009–). Out of numerous other recent publications by biblical scholars I might mention Bernhard Lang, Joseph in Egypt. A Cultural Icon from Grotius to Goethe (2009), Martin O’Kane, ed., Biblical Art from Wales (2010), Chris Rowland, Blake and the Bible (2011) and After Ezekiel. Essays on the Reception of a Difficult Prophet, edited by Paul Joyce and Andrew Mein (2011). Six more volumes in the Blackwell Bible Commentary Series have also appeared, three on Old Testament books, Esther (Carruthers), Ecclesiastes (Christianson) and Psalms I (Gillingham), and three on New Testament books, Galatians (Riches), Thessalonians (Thiselton) and the Pastoral Epistles (Twomey). Despite all this, thanks to the pioneering work of a large and very remarkable team of contributors, I think the Blackwell Companion is still in many respects ahead of the game, and will continue to provide a useful reference source as well as a starting point for future research in most of these rapidly expanding areas of postmodern Biblical Studies.

The other thing I want to refer to that happened in the years following the publication of the hardback edition, is the untimely death of Paul Fletcher in September 2008 at the age of 43. The original conception and overall structure of the volume owes almost everything to his scholarship and the breadth of his vision, and I would like to dedicate this paperback edition to his memory, with affection, nostalgia and great respect.

John F. A. Sawyer


John F. A. Sawyer

If we exclude those parts of the world where the Bible was entirely unknown before the advent of Christian missionaries, there are few aspects of culture, ancient, mediaeval and modern, European and non-European, religious and secular, that have not interacted in some way with the Bible. Outside the United Nations building in New York the representatives of at least 191 countries are daily confronted by a bronze statue, 3 metres high, entitled ‘Let us beat our swords into ploughshares’ (cf. Isa. 2:4; Mic. 4:3). According to the latest statistics provided by the United Bible Societies, there are 2,377 languages in which the Bible or parts of it can be read, while another, probably rather less reliable, calculation sets at more than six billion the number of copies of ‘the world’s best-seller’ sold since the invention of printing. The title of this Companion reflects the scale of the subject and sets no boundaries on the areas to be explored, chronological, geographical or thematic. The only limits are arbitrary and practical, namely the size of the volume and its date of publication. As the authors faced with the challenge of contributing to it have frequently pointed out over the past few years, they could not possibly give adequate coverage to every aspect of their topic and have had to be selective. The same is true of the editor. There are many topics that would have been relevant and interesting and which some readers will be disappointed to find missing. What no-one can say, however, is that this project was too narrowly defined, or that the vast range of material covered is not broadly representative of the extraordinary phenomenon implied by the title.

The word ‘Bible’ in the title is itself comprehensive and includes both Jewish and Muslim definitions, although it must be said that, apart from the two chapters specifically devoted to Judaism and Islam, the authors are working by and large with the Christian Bible in the sense that the texts discussed are in the vernacular (mostly English) rather than the original Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek, and include the New Testament. The interaction between the Christian Bible and culture, however, goes well beyond Church history, and well beyond a survey of Christian interpretations of the Bible. The title of the volume deliberately presents a relationship between two terms that can be described as both tension-filled and mutually generative. The focus throughout is the interaction between the text, the specific context of the Bible’s readers, and the weight of the historical past and tradition(s) that impact upon the readers’ present. The aim is to provide a series of assessments of the ways in which the various ‘practices’ of culture – aesthetic, political, religious – inform and are informed by scripture. It offers a coherent challenge to assumptions that the Bible is a static and univocal phenomenon. Just as the text and its readers have challenged dominant cultural assumptions in every age or period, so too changing cultural forms constantly question the validity of the biblical text and its interpretations.

Only a minority of the authors – and the editor – would describe themselves as having had a conventional training in biblical studies. Most come from other disciplines, and the variety of fields of study and topics selected is matched by the variety of scholarly approaches adopted. A few are concerned to show how the meaning of certain biblical texts can be or has been illuminated by the application of insights from aspects of contemporary culture such as, for example, architecture and psychology. Others, less interested in the niceties of biblical interpretation, explore the impact of the Bible – or particular biblical texts – on the Reformation, politics in general, ecology, and the like, or on specific peoples and communities, especially in Asia, South Africa and Latin America. Another group, the largest group, focuses on types of interaction between the ‘Bible’ and ‘Culture’ which illuminate both, as for example in the chapters on Literature, Film, Music, Art, the Theatre, the Body, Gender, Nationalism and Postmodernism.

A recurrent theme in these essays, designed to make students of the Bible and other disciplines more aware of what kind of a text they are working with, is the multi-faceted nature of the Bible and its after-lives. Christopher Hill, whose book The English Bible and the Seventeenth-Century Revolution is also a recurring motif in BCBC, argues that ‘the polysemy of Scripture undermined its political power’ (1993: 428). If the text can mean more or less whatever anyone wants it to mean, then how can it be used as an authority on which social policies, ecclesiastical dogmas, ethical codes or the like are based? The evidence of this volume is that, far from undermining the political power of the Bible, its many meanings seem to have provided its readers with all the inspiration and authority they need, whether to justify a theological doctrine or to create a work of art or to rebel against an oppressive regime.

It is no postmodern discovery that a text can and often does have many meanings. As the rabbis of the second century CE put it, ‘Just as a hammer striking a rock makes several sparks, so too every scriptural verse yields several meanings’ (Talmud Sanhedrin 34a). The same is true of most patristic exegesis, where, for example, allegorizing was one of the main methods used to interpret scripture, and for mediaeval Christian writers and artists, for whom the literal sense of the Bible was of little consequence in comparison to what they considered to be deeper, more relevant spiritual meanings, including the countless traditional christological interpretations of the Old Testament which they inherited. The subject of the original meaning of the text, or its literal meaning, hardly ever arises in this volume. Indeed, one can imagine the reception an ageing professor of biblical Hebrew would have received if he had interrupted a biblical discussion group in Brazil or South Africa or Korea with the words, ‘But that is not what the original Hebrew means.’ Maybe not, they would say, but that does not mean we are wrong. Who is to say that our reading of the text is not more inspiring or more relevant to us than the original meaning?

The rabbis tell the story of how Moses, once given the opportunity to attend a lecture being given by Rabbi Akiba (c.50–135 CE), was happy with a rabbinic interpretation of something he had said in the Torah, even though he could not understand it himself (Talmud Menahot 29b). We can speculate, mutatis mutandis, on what Jesus would have said if he had had the chance to discuss the interpretation of his parables with Joachim Jeremias; and what is he saying to St Catherine as they discuss the Psalms together in the painting by Domenico Manetti (1609–63) in the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena? On the evidence of the gospels (e.g. Matt. 27:46; Mark 15:34), we can be reasonably sure he would not have rejected out of hand many of the Church’s traditional eschatological or christological interpretations.

If we accept the value and validity of the new quest for non-literal meanings of the Bible, whether rabbinic, patristic, mediaeval, modern or postmodern – without which the present volume together with a good many other recent monographs would not exist – is there any control over how the Bible can be interpreted? Is it a helpless victim in the hands of its readers? To protect it, Jewish tradition laid down in minute detail precisely what instruments and materials are to be used in the production of Torah manuscripts, where they are to be kept and how they are to be used. Likewise Islamic authorities have sought to prevent the translation of the Qur’an into the vernacular, and to ensure that it is used only for correct religious purposes and not, for example, as a text for non-Muslim students of Arabic to practise on. For many centuries the Church too strictly controlled the process of reading the Bible, who could read it and how it should be interpreted or translated: they even put to death some of those who challenged their control of scripture. In modern times, the historical critics have attempted to impose their view that biblical texts have only one meaning, the original or literal meaning, and that all other readings are wrong. If these and other such controls are removed, and there is plenty of evidence that for many, if not most, readers of the Bible today, they have been, is there anything to prevent the wholesale rape and dismemberment of the biblical text?

The first answer to this charge would be to point out that when it comes to dismemberment, it is in fact the historical critics who are most guilty of this, in their wholesale fragmentation of the biblical text – one thinks of JEDP, the three Isaiahs and the synoptic problem – while the new readers by and large show far greater respect for the sacred text of the Bible as it has come down to us. Clearly, there can be no theoretical objection to the continuing application and refinement of historical critical methods, with their limited goals and expectations. But by the same token the value and success of other methods of interpreting the Bible, informed by structuralism, feminism/womanism, psychoanalysis, postcolonialism and the like, can no longer be denied. Second, the material collected in the present volume is immensely rich in examples of people searching the scriptures, desperately at times, for help and inspiration. Their seriousness, their respect for the text, their expectation that it will speak to their need, are beyond doubt. There are some like the supporters of Nazi anti-Semitism and the apartheid regime in South Africa, or the Jewish extremist settlers on the West Bank, who use the Bible to give authority and respectability to what most would consider to be an unjust cause. However, their crimes are not against the original meaning of the text – indeed, their interpretation may on occasion come very near it – but against humanity. Third, let us agree that the Bible has been roughly treated down the centuries by millions and millions of readers, including bishops, theologians, political activists, artists and preachers, as well as by the historical critics and uneducated ordinary folk. Those who would have liked to control the process and protect the Bible from ill-treatment – with whatever authority, ecclesiastical, academic or political – have been singularly unsuccessful. The text has suffered at the hands of its readers. For Christian readers, at any rate, it would be nothing new to find revelation in a broken body. ‘Wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities . . .’, the Bible is nevertheless still alive and millions still hear the Word of God or the voice of their Saviour when they read it.

A challenge of a different kind to the enterprise undertaken in this volume, is implied by Walter Brueggemann’s out-and-out rejection of traditional Christian interpretations of the Hebrew Bible in his commentary on Isaiah (1998, vol. 2: 6). Not only do they fail to do justice to the Hebrew text, he says, but they are also anti-Jewish. I have argued elsewhere that the Hebrew Bible and the Old Testament are not the same thing: their contents are different, the arrangement of the books is different and, above all, the language in which they are written is different (Sawyer 1991). I therefore have some sympathy with Brueggemann’s view that there is something wrong in attempts to find direct access from the ancient Hebrew text into Christian tradition. While continuity between the Old Testament and the New is spelt out, in many editions of the Christian Bible, by cross-references on almost every page, direct continuity between the self-contained scriptures of the Hebrew Bible and the Greek New Testament is much more problematical. The Christian interpretations and appropriations of the Old Testament that are the subject of this volume, take place almost entirely in Greek, Latin, German, English and the other languages of global Christianity.

Childs’ ‘struggle to understand Isaiah as Christian scripture’ (Childs 2004) does not really begin until the seventeenth century because he is primarily concerned with the Hebrew text, and, before the seventeenth century, a knowledge of Hebrew is not only relatively rare among Christian interpreters, but also remained subordinate to Christian tradition (ibid.: 230–64). Christian uses of the Hebrew and Jewish sources down the centuries had for the most part been directed at exposing the errors of the Jews, and many Christian interpretations of Isaiah were violently anti-Jewish (Sawyer 2004). On the other hand, the Hebrew Bible has always been at the heart of Jewish life: in the words of Rabbi Jose ben Kisma (second century CE) ‘when you walk, it will lead you (i.e. in this life); when you lie down, it will watch over you (i.e. in the grave), and when you awake, it will talk with you (in the world to come)’ (Prov. 6:22, in Mishnah Aboth 6:9). Christians have much to learn from Jewish literature, art and music, not least about the meaning of the Hebrew text. Furthermore, the ‘back to the original Hebrew’ movement of the past three centuries, informed initially by historical criticism, Semitic philology and archaeology, and more recently by Jewish studies, has added an important new dimension to the reception history of the Book of Isaiah, and of the Hebrew Bible generally. However, it would be wishful thinking to imagine that it could ever have as much to say to Christians as the wealth of 2000 years’ dialogue between the Christian Old Testament (not yet, so far as I am aware, available in a Hebrew edition) and its Christian readers.

There remains in this discussion of the Bible in its global context, the question of whether it is the case that the Bible can mean anything you want it to mean. Is there any interpretation of scripture that is illegitimate or invalid or untrue? Let us take an extreme example. Members of the gay community in Israel noticed that the words normally translated ‘Every valley shall be exalted’ (Hebrew kol ge yinnase’) can be read in Modern Hebrew as ‘Any gay person can get married’ (Isa. 40:4). What are we to do with this modern reading of the text? Of course, the words are taken out of context and the interpretation is millennia away from the original author’s intention, but so are many, if not most, of the Jewish and Christian non-literal readings of the text that make up the subject matter of the present volume. It is clever and maybe mischievous, but it expresses the hope of a particular community that, in the topsy-turviness of a new age, when ‘the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together’ (v. 5), they will be redeemed like everyone else.

If it is the case, as many believe, that the text without a reader has no meaning, and the Bible is ‘like a sheep that before its shearers is dumb’, then it is its ‘shearers’, the readers and interpreters that must be scrutinized, their presuppositions, their aims, and their methods, not only their readings and interpretations. In the chapters that follow, readings of the Bible by fascists, sexists, imperialists and the like are condemned in terms probably acceptable to most readers. Other interpretations are cited with approval on what are probably less universally agreed aesthetic, ethical, political or other criteria. One suspects, for example, that many critics would seek to silence the gay reading of Isaiah 40:4 just cited, not because it is anachronistic or linguistically unsound in itself, but because of their attitude towards gay and lesbian marriages. Thanks to the achievements of modern biblical scholarship, we can sometimes hear, albeit faintly, the individual voices of the men and women through whose wisdom and creative genius, some would say guided by the hand of God, the Bible came into existence. Our aim in this Companion to the Bible and Culture, however, is to listen to some of the much louder and clearer voices of the millions of readers and interpreters of the Bible, who down the centuries have looked to it for guidance, authority and inspiration, and ensured that it is not isolated from the world in which they live, but remains, in the words of another second-century CE rabbi, ‘a tree of life to those who lay hold of it’ (Prov. 3:18; cf. Mishnah Aboth 6:7).

The thirty chapters are organized into four parts based on various key themes. Part I, Revealing the Past, considers the Bible’s journey through time from the Ancient World, from which it emerged and in which it barely existed (Davies, Chapter 1), to the modern world where it was challenged, dismembered and rewritten by scientists, historical critics, theologians and others (Rogerson, Chapter 7). During the intervening millennium and a half, the Bible was for the most part in the hands of its powerful custodians, the bishops and scholars of the Christian Church (Dove, Chapter 3), though the voices of lay people, including women, can be heard even in the Patristic Period (Cooper, Chapter 2). The translation of the Bible into the vernacular marked a major turning point in the history of European culture (Rashkow, Chapter 4). In the hands of the Reformers ‘it burst on the sixteenth century with the force of a revelation’ (Matheson, Chapter 5), and, in response, Catholic orthodoxy was obliged to develop new strategies to safeguard the authority of the Councils, the Fathers and papal primacy (Cameron, Chapter 6).

Part II, The Nomadic Text, traces the global appropriations of the Bible. Judaism, inseparable from the Hebrew Bible, is considered mainly in the context of Europe and the Middle East (Kessler, Chapter 8). Iran and the Arab world are the setting for a discussion of the complex relationship between Islam and the Bible (Lambden, Chapter 9). The remaining four continents have a chapter each devoted to them, with the exception of America which is divided into North America (Langston, Chapter 12) and Latin America (Gerstenberger, Chapter 13). A comprehensive study of the evolution of truly Asian forms of Christianity assesses trends common to the whole of South Asia, East Asia and South-East Asia (Song, Chapter 10). By contrast, the Bible in Africa is examined in the microcosm of Zulu culture (Draper, Chapter 11), and the Bible in Australasia in the sub-cultures of Vanuatu, outback Australia, and suburban Melbourne (Boer and Abraham, Chapter 14).

Part III, The Bible and the Senses, looks at some aesthetic and performative renderings of the Bible. A chapter on literature examines the history of the Bible’s reception in literature as ‘one of re-writing, supplementation and defamiliarization’, with examples from many periods of English literature (Carruthers, Chapter 15). In an essay on the Bible in film, the focus is not on Gibson’s Passion or the Hollywood epics, but on more unexpected examples like Pasolini’s short and controversial La Ricotta (1962) and the western Shane (1953) (Bach, Chapter 16). The chapter on music considers the relationship between libretto and biblical text in a selection of choral and operatic works from Handel to Vaughan Williams (Rogerson, Chapter 17). Painting as ‘an expansion of the (biblical) text’ is surveyed by reference to images from early Christian art, the Byzantine period, the Renaissance and Baroque, and the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (Hornik and Parsons, Chapter 18). A professional architect reads the descriptions of Rahab’s house in Jericho, the Tower of Babel, the Temple of Solomon, the New Jerusalem and other biblical monuments and buildings (Ballantyne, Chapter 19). Biblical drama is the subject of two chapters, one a critical study of the origins and development of mediaeval dramatizations of the Bible (Twycross), the other a socio-economic and political study of a dramatization of the ‘Fall of Nineveh’, first performed by a travelling circus in Philadelphia in 1892 (Long, Chapter 20). ‘The Body’ considers the application of biblical texts about the body of Adam, created in the image of Christ, to Christian teaching on homosexuality (Loughlin, Chapter 21).

Part IV, Reading in Practice, looks at disparate applications and practices of scripture in the modern world. A theologian argues, against Karl Marx, Christopher Hill and others, that throughout the twentieth century, from Russia to Africa, from Europe to Asia, the Bible remained a ‘profoundly disturbing political text’ (Gorringe, Chapter 24). An ecologist traces the origins of her subject to the Reverend Gilbert White, Carl Linnaeus, Ernst Haeckel (who invented the term ‘ecology’) and others down to the present day, mostly with reference to texts from Genesis, Leviticus, Psalms and Job (Primavesi, Chapter 25). The chapter on ‘contextuality’ finds increasing socio-economic awareness in African theology and biblical studies, using as a case study the work of the Ujamaa Centre for Biblical and Theological Community Development and Research at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (West, Chapter 23). A critique of psycho-analytical approaches to biblical interpretation leads to a new reading of a biblical incest narrative (Rashkow, Chapter 26), and a brief history of feminist and womanist re-readings of Scripture demonstrates how feminist theology brought a breath of fresh air into western academia (Sawyer, Chapter 27). The chapter on nationalism from the sixteenth century to the present day argues that various nationalist impulses have their origin in the pages of the Old Testament (Carruthers, Chapter 28). Postcolonialism is examined in the context of Asia where euro-centric meanings of the Bible have been broken down and Christianity has become a spiritual tradition of the East (Bong, Chapter 29). The final chapter explores the multiple manifestations and interpretations of the Bible in our own complex historical moment, an epoch frequently identified by the name ‘postmodern’ (Tate, Chapter 30).


On a personal note, I would like to say what a pleasure it has been to work with scholars from so many different fields and to thank them all very warmly for their cooperation. Among the many who have helped and encouraged me along the way, I want to acknowledge in particular the huge contribution made by Paul Fletcher to the project in its initial stages, and that of Francis Landy who, by a happy coincidence, was a near neighbour in Cortona during the final stages. My thanks are also due to the editorial staff at Blackwell Publishing, especially Rebecca Harkin, Sarah Edwards and Louise Cooper, and the production team of Karen Wilson, Linda Auld and Susan Dunsmore. Finally, I would like to mention my two daughters, Hannah and Sarah, whose labours coincided with mine, and to whose firstborn Alice and Sophie I proudly dedicate this volume.


Brueggemann, W. (1998). Isaiah (Westminster Bible Companion). 2 vols. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox.

Childs, B. S. (2004). The Struggle to Understand Isaiah as Christian Scripture. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans.

Hill, C. (1993). The English Bible and the Seventeenth-Century Revolution. Harmondsworth: Allen Lane.

Sawyer, J. F. A. (1991). ‘Combating Prejudices about the Bible and Judaism’, Theology 94: 269–78.

Sawyer, J. F. A. (2004). ‘Isaiah and the Jews: Some Reflections on the Church’s Use of the Bible’, in C. Exum and H. Williamson (eds), Reading from Right to Left: Essays on the Hebrew Bible in Honour of David J. A. Clines. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, pp. 390–401.

‘Swords into Plowshares’,

United Bible Societies Translation Statistics,


Revealing the Past

   Philip R. Davies

   Kate Cooper

   Mary Dove

   Ilona N. Rashkow

   Peter Matheson

   Euan Cameron

   John W. Rogerson


The Ancient World

Philip R. Davies

From the twenty-first century, we look at the ancient world through two pairs of eyes. One pair looks back over the sweep of human history to the civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia, Assyria, Persia, Greece and Rome, which played their successive roles in shaping our modern world. The other set of eyes looks through the Bible, seeing the ancient world through the lenses of Scripture, not only directly from its pages but also through two millennia of Christian culture that long ago lodged itself in the imperial capitals of Rome and Constantinople yet saw its prehistory in the Old Testament and its birth in the New. The museums, galleries and libraries of Western Christendom bulge with representations of scenes from a biblical world dressed in ancient, medieval or modern garb.

Although the rediscovery of ancient Egypt, for which we should thank Napoleon, preceded by a century and a half the unearthing of the ancient cities of Mesopotamia – Babylon, Nineveh, Ur, Caleh – these cities captured the modern imagination because they were known to us from the Bible. These discoveries heralded the phenomenon of ‘biblical archaeology’, and the kind of cultural imperialism that brought ancient Mesopotamia (Iraq) and Egypt into the ‘biblical world’. Although the ‘Holy Land’ was a small region of little consequence to these great powers, the biblical vision of Jerusalem as the centre stage of divine history has been firmly embedded in our cultural consciousness. The ‘biblical world’ can therefore mean both the real world from which the Bible comes and also the world that it evokes. In this chapter we shall look primarily at the former, with a final glimpse of the ancient world in the Bible.

How does one introduce ‘the ancient world’ in a short space? Obviously with the aid of great deal of generalization and selectivity. What follows is obviously painted with a very broad brush, focusing on major motifs such as kingship, city and empire – institutions that are not only political, but also economic and social configurations. The growth and succession of monarchy, cities and empires both dominated the world of the Bible but also occupy much of its attention. The climax of this ancient world’s history is the interpenetration of two spheres: the ‘ancient Near East’ and the ‘Greek’, effected by Alexander’s conquest of Persia. The ‘kingship’, by then lost to the Greeks, was revived in an ancient Near Eastern form, Greek-style cities sprang up, and a civilization called ‘Hellenism’ developed. This great cultural empire fell under the political governance of Rome, under which it continued to flourish, while Rome itself, after years of republic, adopted a form of age-old ancient Near Eastern kingship.

A Historical Sketch

The worlds of the eastern Mediterranean and the ancient Near East were contiguous both geographically and chronologically. The eastern seaboard of the Mediterranean lay at the intersection of a maritime world and a large stretch of habitable land from Egypt to Mesopotamia, the so-called ‘Fertile Crescent’, curving around the Arabian desert to the south-east and fringed on the north by various mountain ranges (see ). Egypt and the cities of Phoenicia were engaged in sea trading with each other and with various peoples that we can loosely call ‘Greek’ (Minoans, Myceneans, Dorians, Ionians and Aeolians) from very early times. The Greeks colonized parts of Asia Minor and islands in the eastern Mediterranean, and the Phoenicians founded colonies in North Africa and eventually Spain also. What was exchanged in this trade included not only wine, olive oil, papyrus, pottery and cedar wood, but ‘invisibles’ such as the alphabet, stories, myths and legends. Traders (including tribes who specialized in trading caravans, such as the Ishmaelites and Edomites) and their wares penetrated eastward via Damascus and the Euphrates and across southern Palestine to the Red Sea. During the second millennium BCE, Egypt was in control of Syria and Palestine; but during the Iron Age and up to the advent of Alexander, its grip loosened and political power lay well away from the Mediterranean, in Mesopotamia.

The Fertile Crescent


The ancient Near East

The word ‘civilization’ derives from the Latin civitas, ‘city’, and civilization is inseparable from urbanization. Cities mark the emergence of human diversity, a proliferation of social functions. They also mark a differentiation of power, for cities and their activities (in the ancient Near East at any rate) represent a form of social cooperation that is always governed by a ruler: major building projects, organized warfare, taxation, bureaucracy. In Mesopotamia, as throughout the ancient Near East (except Egypt) during the Bronze Age (c.3000–1200 BCE