Review of Victor H. Matthews, Studying the Ancient Israelites
Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 8 (2008) - Review

Victor H. Matthews, Studying the Ancient Israelites: A Guide to Sources and Methods (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007).  Pp. 232.  Paper, US$21.99.  ISBN 978-0-8010-3197-7.


When modern readers first approach the Old Testament they are confronted with social and cultural situations they do not understand, alien political and economic structures, and notations of geographical places and people groups with which they are unfamiliar. All of this information is communicated in a literature using conventions and contexts which are often quite unlike those familiar from modern literature. While many will simply read the text and substitute their own culture where possible and ignore much that is not understood, the discerning reader will immediately see the problem in such an approach. But where do they turn? A concise volume that would effectively introduce students to these issues and the further resources available to examine them has been a desideratum of many teachers.

In Studying the Ancient Israelites. A Guide to Sources and Methods, Victor Matthews has created just such a primer. The author has devoted much of his writing and editing energies to the creation of resources to facilitate students’ understanding of the “world” in which the biblical text was written. This volume intends to assist “students, laypeople, and their instructors” (p. 9) by facilitating their navigation through the variety of approaches to the biblical text utilized in contemporary scholarship. But beyond that, Matthews understood the need to introduce readers to the broader contextual world of the text and so aimed at what he terms a “hybrid focusing on the biblical and ancient Near Eastern sources and anthropological, geographical, historical, literary, and sociological methods that will make the study of the ancient Israelites more complete” (p. 7). His introductory handbook assumes no prior knowledge of biblical studies, yet introduces and summarizes a broad spectrum of information and approaches to guide the novice reader in the correct direction while providing more advanced students with a sound comprehensive review of methods and approaches to the task of interpretation.

In approaching this task Matthews works to demonstrate the manner in which historical geography, archaeology, literary approaches and the social sciences contribute to our understanding of the world of the ancient Israelites. A final chapter considers history and historiography. The variety of approaches to these areas of scholarship, including debates and disagreements, are concisely outlined, and Matthews can be commended for charting a balanced, informative, and readable course through the material. For example, when he discusses the use of archaeology in the reconstruction of the biblical world, he is careful to point out what archaeology can and cannot be expected to do. In this way, one of the perennial questions raised of biblical interpreters, the relationship between archaeology and the Bible, and the question of archaeology’s ability to “prove the Bible,” is refocused by Matthews’ descriptive summation of the methods and approaches of the discipline. In part, this is accomplished by a discussion of the steps taken in a typical archaeological campaign, a summary which broadens the reader’s understanding of the limited area of any site which can actually be excavated, the difficulties in interpreting cultural remains, and the need to use artefact and text to construct the past.

Beginning with the land, in a chapter titled “Historical Geography,” Matthews describes numerous important assumptions biblical authors make of readers. While their ancient audience would have a sense of the distance between sites mentioned, travel times, topography and climate, these are assumed in the text rather than described. Similarly, textual allusions to economic, social and cultural situations which help to shape the meaning of the text stand at a great distance from the modern reader. The more the reader understands the assumptions made by the writer, the less likelihood there is that the text will be seriously misunderstood. Matthews’ discussion of the contribution of the social sciences to the study of the Bible introduces a broad spectrum of background ideas to the reader, providing clear guidance that is especially helpful to the novice reader.

As the modern interpreter is also distanced from the literary and intellectual climate of the ancient Near East, an introduction to both the literature and its conventions is necessary for a nuanced and accurate understanding of the biblical text. To facilitate understanding, a variety of approaches to reading the text have developed which collectively provide important insights to understanding the Bible. As most scholars do not utilize a single literary approach to the Bible, Matthew’s introduction outlines and describes the various forms of interpretive approaches in what he terms “the scholar’s toolbox,” 

In addition to the maps, charts, photos, and line drawings used to illustrate the text, numerous boxes that address particular topics are liberally sprinkled throughout the volume. The shaded text boxes serve two primary functions: to describe and/or summarize a variety of topics, and to reinforce materials discussed elsewhere. The section on archaeology may again be used to illustrate. Boxes titled “Archaeology and Interpretation,” “Before You Dig,” “Developing a Ceramic Chronology,” “Ceramic Typology,” “Houses in the Biblical Narrative,” “Work Space in the Biblical Narrative,” “Monumental Structures in the Biblical Narrative,” and “Reading Tomb and Text” are distributed throughout the chapter which concludes with two helpful summations: “Opportunities Raised by Archaeology,” and “Limitations of Archaeology.” Two indices, “subject” and “ancient writings” facilitate use, as well as a bibliography. It was unclear to me why two of the chapters concluded with smaller bibliographies while other chapters did not, but this is a minor matter in what is an extremely helpful and affordable volume.

This readable work would serve well as supplementary reading for an introductory course in Old Testament, Ancient Israel or hermeneutics. Equally helpful is its usefulness to recommend as a resource to those serious non-professional readers of the biblical text who are seeking informed and helpful guidance in their reading of the text as a resource for personal faith.  

Bruce Power,
William and Catherine Booth College
Winnipeg