The World of the Bible

Written by A. S. van der Woude (ed.) Reviewed By Colin J. Hemer

The ‘world of the Bible’ is a category which may comprise a remarkable diversity of content. These two books are themselves very different in level and approach, and in the focus of their usefulness. Both, in different ways, major very strongly on the OT, even to the detriment of the NT. Both have striking virtues in their own class.

The first work is a translation from the Dutch of the first volume of a major projected series. Most of the contributors are Dutch or Dutch-American. Their work is in parts fairly technical, and in general represents a moderate mainstream scholarship. In the areas of its strengths, subject as ever to the reader’s careful and critical use, it will be a most valuable reference tool. The problem lies in its strangely uneven coverage, and particularly in the sketchy, often almost perfunctory, treatment of the NT sections. I suspect there is a special reason for this in the lamented death of Professor W. C. van Unnik, whose name is retained among the editors. Evidently his contributions, both in writing and in editorial organization, were lost to the project in mid-course.

The book is divided into six principal sections, covering respectively geography, archaeology, writing and languages, textual criticism, history of the ancient Near East, and biblical institutions. There are wide variations between contributors in scale and approach. Thus, while J. H. Negenman devotes 40 pages to a detailed factual description of the physical and human geography of all the relevant countries, almost without biblical reference, B. van Elderen makes selective topographical connections with the NT in five (though the lukewarm piped water of Laodicea does not come from the neighbourhood of Hierapolis/Pamukkale, p. 48, but from the opposite side of the valley). The two pieces on archaeology, by H. J. Franken and C. H. J. de Geus, are very salutary in their insistence on rigour in method and interpretation. J. C. de Moor offers many interesting examples in his account of languages and scripts, J. Hoftijzer writes on Hebrew and Aramaic, and G. Mussies on Greek. This last is too brief, an excellent prolegomenon on the status of Greek in Palestine, but it effectively stops short of questions we really want to ask about the kind of Greek found in the NT, whether nearer to everyday language (Deissmann, Moulton) or theologically innovative (Turner). The contributions on the text are notably authoritative, that on the OT by the eminent Israeli scholar Emanuel Tov, and that on the NT an admirably clear and concise piece by J Smit Sibinga.

The historical part raises the problem of the odd unevenness of the book in the sharpest form. The survey is divided into two very unequal sections, before and after Alexander. K. R. Veenhof’s narrative of the earlier period extends over almost a third of the whole book, but is extraordinarily packed with detail, a huge pageant of civilizations, kings and campaigns. The 20 pages following, by M. A. Beek, another OT scholar, deal selectively with Alexander and his successors, before petering out in the neighbourhood of the NT with generalities about religions, roads and Judaism. The book then concludes with K. Roubos writing on the institutions of everyday life and of religion, mainly as represented in Judaism and the OT.

This book, then, is disappointingly unequal, more in its scale than its quality. It will be valuable for the OT student, but the best of the work specifically directed to the NT is contained in a mere 20 pages of Mussies and Sibinga. It will hardly be a tempting buy for the NT specialist. It is unclear at this stage what steps may be taken in following volumes to redress the balance. There are good bibliographies, largely of standard and technical works in English, French or German, attached to each sub-section. The book is very attractively illustrated, partly in colour, and there is a substantial index of the more important names and subjects.

Dr Thompson’s book is written at a more popular level, with a clearer focus and appeal to a wider readership. The author, formerly Reader in Middle Eastern Studies in the University of Melbourne, is a well-known authority on biblical archaeology, and he is supported by a strong team, including Alan Millard and Derek Williams as text editor. All concerned are to be congratulated on the attractiveness of the final product. The volume makes an immediate impact in the colourful spaciousness of its format and the beauty and aptness of the photography, notably in the contributions of Sonia Halliday and her colleagues.

There is an inherent difficulty in the attempt to present the ‘everyday life’ of Bible times topically, for the subject spans millennia and a geographical spread from Rome to southern Mesopotamia. If the early materials were available, it would be natural to undertake the task chronologically, so that each vignette were an attempt at an integrated portrait of an actual way of life. But to say that is not to question the value of attempting the complementary task, which is no less important, provided only sufficient care is taken to avert cultural and chronological confusion. This prospect is eased by the relative stability and continuity in life and religious culture across wide areas of the ancient Near East. This task seems generally to have been negotiated with some skill.

The book has a threefold expressed purpose: to make some of the recent discoveries of archaeology available, to bring them alive, and to illustrate the grounding of the whole Bible in real life. After an introductory survey of background geography and history and on the function of archaeology, the other six main sections are organized thematically, on home life, food, industry and commerce, culture and health, warfare, and religion. The large majority of the book is concerned with the OT and the Palestinian scene, though other perspectives are not neglected. The evidence is drawn largely from the biblical text itself, which is freely cited, so that the reader may proceed consecutively, without constant reference to the Bible. The narrative is enlivened by the author’s extensive knowledge of Palestinian life as well as archaeology, and by modern parallels.

This then is a most attractive volume in which to browse. Its specific value to the specialist student will be limited by its popular approach and lack of technical documentation, though there are useful sectional bibliographies of more popular works and encyclopaedia articles. It will be a most helpful source-book to enliven the presentation of preacher and teacher. There are good and clearly arranged indexes of places, people and subjects.

Colin J. Hemer