Review of John L. Thompson, Reading the Bible with the Dead
Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 8 (2008) - Review

John L. Thompson, Reading the Bible with the Dead: What You Can Learn from the History of Exegesis That You Can’t Learn from Exegesis Alone (Grand Rapids/Cambridge: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2007).  Pp. xi + 324.  Paper, US$20.00, £10.99.  ISBN 978-0-8026-0753-3.


If this book was simply a compendium of precritical readings on various biblical texts, Thompson’s work would be a valuable resource for biblical scholars and pastors alike.  In Reading the Bible with the Dead, however, Thompson offers his readers much more than this.  Surveying patristic, medieval, and Reformation responses to some of the most challenging and offensive parts of Scripture, Thompson invites his readers to reflect on biblical “texts of terror” in the company of the great cloud of witnesses who have braved this treacherous territory before.  The result is that Thompson’s work offers not only insight into the history of biblical interpretation, but a corrective to the dearth of theological reflection on these often marginalized texts of Scripture. 

Thompson’s goal is to offer biblical scholars and pastors “a digest of the history of the interpretation of some passages and issues that ought to be of great interest to readers and hearers today, and for which the history of interpretation can offer not merely novel perspectives, but also insights and arguments likely to encourage and surprise” (p. 8).  He accomplishes this in nine chapters devoted to some of the thorniest texts and issues for modern readers, including the sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter, the Levite’s concubine, the marriage of Gomer and Hosea, and biblical comments on gender.  Each chapter begins with a brief discussion of the text from a modern perspective, delineating those aspects of the text that trouble modern readers. 

Careful not to expect that precritical interpreters read the Bible with modern concerns in mind, Thompson instead asks how past interpreters responded to particular texts that raise questions for readers today.  At times, precritical interpreters come across as hopelessly patriarchal and even misogynistic.  For example, in a chapter that examines stories of sex and violence, Thompson notes that some interpreters, while not excusing the male perpetrators, tended to blame the victim.  Dinah’s misplaced curiosity led her to wander from the safety of her home, eventuating in her rape by Shechem.  The rape and death of the Levite’s wife was her punishment for violating God’s law of marriage (Judg 19:2).  Bathsheba should have been more discreet in her bathing.  And Tamar could have stopped Amnon from raping her simply by crying out.  On these occasions, Thompson admits that a negative lesson must be drawn from these precritical readings about how exegesis can be skewed by personal presuppositions.  Such examples can be useful, he argues, for instilling in modern readers a sense of humility about the task of interpretation. 

Thompson’s survey also reveals, however, some surprising interpretations of these difficult biblical texts where precritical readers voiced questions and concerns similar to those of modern readers.  For instance, Martin Luther wonders why, if Jonathan was released from his father’s vows unharmed, Jephthah’s daughter was sacrificed.  Chrysostom ponders the inhumanity and stinginess of Abraham in sending Hagar and Ishmael away with such scanty provisions.  And many commentators struggled over the logic of Paul’s argument in 1 Tim 2:11-15.   Throughout the book, the reader discovers that precritical interpreters didn’t shy away from raising moral concerns about a biblical narrative or from questioning the logic of a Pauline argument.  Presupposing the authoritative character of these texts, precritical interpreters wrestled long and hard with them, seeking, like Jacob, a blessing from them.   

It is this quality that sets precritical engagement with “texts of terror” apart from modern approaches, which tend to ignore uncomfortable texts or read them against the grain.  While not always offering moral and exegetical solutions palatable to readers today, precritical interpreters model what it means to engage these texts as Scripture.  Furthermore, in their wrestling, they illustrate that modern responses to Scripture are not new, that some biblical texts are inherently troubling and have always been so.

Each chapter closes with a list of positive and negative hermeneutical lessons to be drawn from the survey, concretizing for the reader what is to be learned from these interpreters.  Thompson also includes a glossary and a guide to precritical writings at the end of the book as a way of encouraging readers to continue studying precritical interpretations of Scripture.  These resources are immensely helpful and add significant value to the Thompson’s work. 

There is much praise to be offered for this book and one can only hope that more “digests” like this will be published in the near future.  Reading the work of past interpreters is beneficial not just in learning about the past, but in gaining greater insight into our own presuppositions, limitations, and imaginative possibilities in the area of biblical interpretation.  Having said that, there is one critique to be given.  At times, Thompson seems to bite off more than can be reasonably addressed in one chapter.  For instance, in his discussion of 1 Corinthians 11 and the matter of women’s head covering,  Thompson extends his focus to include interpretations of 1 Corinthians 14 and the issue of women prophesying as well as Gen 1:27 and what it means for women to image God.  While 1 Corinthians 11 certainly incorporates these issues, by combining them into one chapter Thompson has compromised his ability to address them with the depth they deserve.  The result is that the reader is left with only a superficial indication of how precritical interpreters understood women’s roles in the church or the nature of men and women.  In any case, the best discussions tend to focus on particular stories and texts rather than issues.

Having said that, this book should be on the shelf of all those claiming to be students of Scripture as an aid and encouragement in studying biblical “texts of terror.”  Furthermore, for all who are beginners in studying the history of biblical interpretation, this book will serve as a great introduction.  This reviewer highly recommends Reading the Bible with the Dead.

Amanda W. Benckhuysen
University of Dubuque Theological Seminary