Book Reviews -- By: Anonymous
JETS 46:2 (June 2003) p. 309
Making Sense of the Bible: Literary Type as an Approach to Understanding. By Marshall D. Johnson. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002, 161 pp., $12.00 paper.
From time to time I try to take stock regarding how much influence literary approaches to the Bible have had on biblical scholarship. My impression that the influence has been minor is confirmed by the book under review. I interpret the highlighting of literary type in the book’s subtitle as signaling a literary intention, but the categories are consistently those of traditional biblical scholarship and are more concerned with content than form.
The categories covered in the book are these, in the order in which they appear: wisdom literature, poetry of worship, historical narrative, prophetic literature, legal collections, apocalyptic literature, letters, and the Gospels. The treatment of these is cursory and spotty. I could discern no systematic plan of attack for the material, and the selectivity behind the material struck me as arbitrary.
To choose a specimen purely at random, the psalm of individual lament gets half a page. Nothing is said about the five-part fixed form that psalms of lament follow. There is also nothing about the characteristic rhetorical strategies of the lament psalmists, such as painting a hyperbolic and heightened picture of the crisis, the conducting of a quest for consolation in the face of a terrible crisis (and perhaps a terrible injustice), incorporating elements of protest and persuasion (aimed at moving God to act), and employing the resources of poetry. Instead we get a brief catalog of occasions that lie behind the lament psalms, followed by mention of ten psalms that fall into the genre of the lament.
The blurb on the back of the book claims that the book gives readers the tools they need to make sense of biblical texts. I found this claim to be false. What readers need to know in order to read the psalms is how poetry works, how to interpret a poetic idiom, and how lyrics and their subtypes are structured. Readers of this book will get none of this. They will instead get broad labels that were forged by form criticism half a century ago.
I must confess to being more mystified with every passing year about why, in a competitive climate with many potentially good books floating around, some of the specific books that see the light of day are published. This book does nothing to demystify the process for me. “What quirks of publishers’ committees and what personal connections were operative?” I often find myself asking. To add to the mystery, the Library Journal found Making Sense of the Bible a “highly recommended” book, and biblical scholar Dale Allison called the book “a superb introduction ...
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