Text and Paratext: Book Order, Title and Division as Keys to Biblical Interpretation

Written by Gregory Goswell Reviewed By W. H. Chong

“Every bible is a study Bible,” declares Greg Goswell in this introduction to the interpretive value of the book order, titles, and divisions of our earliest copies of Hebrew and Christian Scripture (p. 4). In Text and Paratext he details how the various features that lie “beside the text” influence and shape how readers understand and interpret a passage of Scripture or a biblical book. As Goswell puts it, “There is more in the Bible than just the words!” (p. 1).

Goswell’s argument is possible because, contrary to popular belief, earliest versions of the biblical text were not copied exclusively scriptio continua (continuous script). Preserved in the “paratext” of most manuscripts (MSS) are titles, book orders, textual divisions, scribal corrections, marginalia, and a myriad of sentence-level markings. Specific elements range from the open and closed paragraph marks supplied by the Masoretic scribes of the Hebrew Bible to the use of punctuation and text segmentations to divide or “delimit” the words and phrases of Scripture in New Testament Greek MSS. All these markings precede the 12th century chapter divisions in Bibles, attributed to Stephen Langton, that present-day readers use. While not part of the “inspired text,” they pre-shape how scholars, translators, preachers, and students understand the text (as much as Bible Project videos, study Bible headings and even sermon titles pre-shape our interpretation of Scripture). In Goswell’s own words, “The order of the biblical books, their titles, and their internal divisions provide a built-in commentary on the text. These paratextual elements have the heuristic value of starting points for interpretation.” (p. 7)

With this understanding of paratext, Goswell ventures through each book of the Bible exploring in interpretive value of three kinds of paratext:

1. Canonical structure (chs. 1–3): For example, how has placing the Pauline writings ahead of the Catholic Epistles (a result of the Vulgate determining the order of our Western bibles and by no means the only “book order” found in early MSS) resulted in the “Protestant penchant to give priority to Paul”? (p. 64)

2. Book titles (chs. 4–5): For example, does “Numbers” (from the Septuagint title Αριθμοί, as found in Vaticanus and Alexandrinus) offer a better interpretive key to the fourth book of the Pentateuch than the Hebrew title בְּמִדְבַּר, “in the wilderness”? (p. 84).

3. Textual divisions or delimitations (chs. 6–7): For example, should ἐν ἀγάπῃ (“in love”) in Ephesians 1:4 be read with what precedes or what follows? (p. 162)

The bulk of Text and Paratext collates and refreshes Goswell’s years of research and writing into observations from various biblical manuscript traditions, with several sections having begun life as journal articles (chs. 1–5). However, far from contenting himself with merely esoteric discussions (as specialised works on scribal habits can sometimes tend to be), he is happy to venture into the interpretive significance of paratextual features. At times, however, this leads to more conjectural reflections, such his view that as the title “Jonah” for a critical account of the prophet suggests another individual’s authorship (p. 92), or that the mention in 2 Timothy 4:13 of τὰς μεμβράνας (“the parchments”) refers to Paul’s own letters in codex form (p. 115).

More helpful is how Goswell ends each chapter with practical guidelines on how to interpret the order, titles, and text divisions of Scripture. The careful reader is rewarded with a range of helpful exegetical insights to serve their own personal reading and study, such as allowing the Hebrew and Greek versions of the Old Testament canon to suggest different but complementary ways of reading the same book (p. 31) or to highlight features and themes that are obscured or less appreciated otherwise (p. 53).

As an introductory volume, Text and Paratext leaves much unsaid and unexplored. Goswell’s background as an Old Testament scholar means that the detail and familiarity found in discussions of books like Daniel and Esther are not evenly matched across the Bible: in particular, the text divisions in several New Testament books attract only brief and cursory discussion. Nevertheless, there is plenty of interpretive “food for thought” throughout Text and Paratext for readers to appreciate. This is not because the paratext of Scripture should be seen as unquestionable or sacrosanct, but because it “encodes the evaluations of early readers” (p. 179) who were linguistically and culturally closer to the biblical world than our digital-first, information-saturated environment where Scripture is too often read and shared without meaningful context (p. 180). Employed with humility and care, the set of tools Goswell introduces in this book will help readers gain a richer and deeper appreciation of the biblical storyline, as preserved in the text—and paratext—of Scripture.

W. H. Chong

W. H. Chong
University of Otago
Dunedin, New Zealand

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