This introductory textbook by John J. Collins adopts the standard format of such works with its division into four sections that follow the canonical order of the biblical material: Torah, Deuteronomistic History, Prophecy, and Writings. It also adopts the approach of most of its predecessors in that it tends to summarize and paraphrase the content of lengthy sections of the text, particularly its narrative portions. The thing that distinguishes it is its length, and the opportunity this affords the author to explore themes and issues that are typically given only cursory treatment in an introduction, if they are discussed at all. In this case at least, size matters, and it is the “add-ons” that make this book such a useful and valuable resource.
Collins views the Hebrew Bible as the common heritage of Jews and Christians, and not the exclusive property of either, and this ethos of inclusion informs the work as a whole. He rejects an ideological or confessional approach, and prefers to take into account various viewpoints and opinions. A clear example of this can be seen in the second chapter, “The Nature of the Pentateuchal Narrative,” where he gives an excellent overview of the development of scholarly views on the background to the text with particular emphasis on the documentary hypothesis. In order to present a fuller picture, the pros and cons of the most important critiques of the hypothesis are considered and evaluated. The same balanced approach can be seen in Collins’ discussion of the background to the patriarchal traditions. In this section, and throughout the volume, he makes reference to the history of scholarship and the evidence that the versions bring to bear on issues of content and interpretation. Collins is an able and honest guide during these forays who does not hesitate to reserve judgment when the results are inconclusive.
Some of the book’s excurses, like that on the royal ideology of Judah (pp. 236–39), are gems that are sure to enhance classroom discussions among students who are interested in academic study of the Bible. The same might be said of the appendix on the relationship between Deuteronomy and the Priestly Code (pp. 173–78), which is a succinct summary of the issues that draws on scholarship throughout the ages. In this case, Collins reaches the typically judicious conclusion that both sources contain ancient traditions and both have complex, lengthy histories of compilation that make things less cut and dry than some scholars would suggest.
At the outset, Collins stresses the importance of studying the Hebrew Bible within its wider context. “This introduction is written in the belief that the best guide to the literary character of the biblical text is the comparative literature of the ancient Near East.” (p. 19) He cites and examines the relevant Mesopotamian material that is typically discussed when considering the creation accounts, the flood, and the legal corpus, but the most illuminating example of the relevance of the ancient Near Eastern literature is seen in Collins’ discussion of the Vassal Treaties of Esarhaddon as background for the treaty model of the Hebrew Bible. The inclusion of these texts from neighboring civilizations allows beginning students to broaden their horizons regarding critical matters of biblical methodology and interpretation.
Even in seven hundred pages one cannot cover everything, and there are some places where it would be helpful to learn more about how Collins addresses some particularly thorny theological issues. One example of this is the hardening of the heart motif in Exodus, which is dismissed in a rather superficial way in one short paragraph. This is unfortunate because it is the sort of question that will be particularly interesting to the book’s intended readers, and they would benefit a great deal from learning how Collins might address it.
His frequent rehearsals of the advances and developments made in scholarship relate directly to Collins’ general view of the biblical material itself. “Rather than impose principles of uniformity on this literature, we should recognize it for what it is: the literature of a people that reflects the ever-changing circumstances of that people’s history.” (p. 599) The reader comes to appreciate that this statement applies not only to the Bible, but to the efforts of those who have studied it. His approach demonstrates that the history of scholarship can be read as a body of literature that reflects the ever-changing circumstances of the people who wrote it.
It is precisely his attention to matters of interpretation and context that makes Collins’ volume a useful and timely one. Toward the end of the book, he warns against the dangers of allegory, a warning that should be heeded in our day and age when the Bible is often allegorized to push political agendas or to defend positions on questions like who lives and who dies. The result, as Collins points out, is that the whole point of the text can be lost. “Perhaps the greatest irony of all in the history of the Bible is that it itself has so often been treated as an idol and venerated with a reverential attitude while its message is ignored.” (p. 604) Collins’ readers will find it much harder to ignore that message.