The Language and Imagery of the Bible

Written by G. B. Caird Reviewed By Peter Cotterell

A few months ago Professor Caird’s book landed on my desk and I started to read. Almost immediately I reached out for a pen and for my Bible: the book demands to be underlined and annotated on every page, and to have its pointed comments fed into the pages of the Bible, comments on dozens, scores of crux passages. This is essentially a practical book, a working book and it deserves to be worked hard.

The principal concern of the book is with the language of the Bible. Two of its three Parts deal with it, while only the third Part deals with the imagery of the Bible as seen, for example, in eschatology.

The book has the inestimable advantage that the author is not a professional linguist. On the other hand only typical Oxford under-statement can excuse the claim of the preface that this is a book written by an amateur. Still, the advantage of the non-specialist approach is that the book is not burdened with enormously erudite but largely incomprehensible (to the non-specialist reader) footnotes. References to Greek and Hebrew abound but almost all intelligibly transcribed. (The Greek script in the extract from Liddell and Scott on p. 79 is excusable, especially in view of the devastating critique that follows, but the Greek footnote on p. 256 is surely unnecessary?)

Caird certainly sets about him with a right good will. He has a thorough-going critique of Jülicher’s principles for the understanding of the parables, and even Briggs’ commentary (ICC!) gets a backhander for its handling of Psalm 19:3. He comes down heavily on those who claim to be able to explain ‘what really happened’, for example at the crucifixion:

‘There is no harm in such conceits as long as they are recognised for what they are, sheer fiction. But anyone who takes them seriously is more credulous than the most naive believer in the biblical text.… We can respect the genuine agnostic who is content to live in doubt because he considers the evidence inadequate for belief, but not the spurious agnostic who prefers fantasy to evidence’ (pp. 60–61).

Of course, the danger of writing a book like this is that the author is sure to be judged by his own criteria. And one must ask if Caird is not reading back into the biblical texts current views concerning Hebrew beliefs of life after death when he asserts that during most of the Old Testament period ‘the Hebrew people had no belief in an after-life’ (p. 244)? And does one really have no difficulty at all in identifying Daniel’s sea from which the four beasts emerge as ‘the cosmic ocean of the creation myth’? (p. 228). And when Caird insists on the importance of accepting what a passage clearly purports to say rather than finding some alternative account of ‘what really happened’ why insist that the rending of the temple curtain is figurative only (p. 185; a judgment which Caird appears to regret at p. 217)?

Here is an important book, a book to read in gentle sips rather than huge draughts. The hardback at £18 is out of my reach (I told the publisher so) but the paperback at £5.95 is a must. You may well have reason to disagree with some of Caird’s propositions but this is a book from which the serious student cannot fail to profit.

And yet one is tempted to ask why it is that ordinary Christians, the non-academic but thoughtful Christians, have said the kind of things that Caird is saying, raised the same kind of objections to the cavalier treatment of the text by scholars, as Caird has raised without making any impact? Ah well! Our hearty thanks to Professor Caird for a book that will enrich our reading for a long time to come.

Peter Cotterell

London Bible College