Book Review – Biblical Criticism: A Guide for the Perplexed, by Eryl W. Davies

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Mar

Note: This review also appears in the Reviews of Biblical and Early Christian Studies (http://rbecs.org). Check out this site for lots of book reviews by PhD candidates and early career scholars in the areas of biblical studies and patristics.

Eryl W. Davies. Biblical Criticism: A Guide for the Perplexed. London: Bloomsbury, 2013. ISBN: 978-0-567-01306-4.

I’d like to thank Bloomsbury for providing me a review copy.

Biblical Criticism: A Guide for the Perplexed, by Eryl W. Davies, sets out to be an introduction to four of the most prominent and representative post-modernist hermeneutical methods used in biblical studies. It is a quick read (the body is just over 120 pages) that is well-documented and has a very useful bibliography (40+ pages of end matter). Davies’ writing is easy to follow and can be read very rapidly without a significant loss in comprehension, which is very appropriate (and welcome) in primer on methodologies like this. The book consists of an introduction, four chapters (each dedicated to one method), and a conclusion.

Davies chooses for his discussion four contemporary hermeneutical methods that have become prominent in contemporary biblical studies: reader-response criticism, feminist biblical criticism, ideological criticism, and post-colonial criticism. He acknowledges that this is only a small selection from the array of methods that have set themselves up to one degree or another in opposition to historical-criticism. His selection is justified in a couple of different ways. First, he focuses on post-modern and reader-centered approaches rather than mid-20th-century structuralist and text-centered approaches. This is a reasonable focus since the latter have been a part of biblical studies for more than a generation, now, and have many volumes dedicated to them. As for post-modernist approaches, on the other hand, while they have been prominent in general literary criticism, linguistics, and semiotics since the 1970s, it has not really been until especially the last 20 years that these methods have enjoyed widespread usage in biblical studies that now makes up a very large minority of published studies and paper presentations. Second, his selection of these four post-modern approaches as opposed to other well-known methods (e.g. deconstruction) is based on their relative prominence in biblical studies. A glance at the program for an SBL meeting will show many sections dedicated to feminist, post-colonial, and ideological criticism, but usually not one dedicated to deconstruction. The same goes more generally for scholarly literature published in the last 20 years. So while these four approaches represent only a percentage of the total number of post-modernist literary-critical methods, they represent the dominant and most influential portion of such methods used in biblical studies.

The book’s introduction is valuable reading in itself. Here, Davies concisely describes the many-faceted relationship between historical-criticism and the newer methods, focusing especially on the historical connection between perceived deficiencies in historical-criticism and the rise of contemporary reader-oriented methods.

Each of the following four chapters chooses one of the highlighted methods, introducing the reader to the scholarly situation that gave rise to the given method, some of the most important practitioners of the method, some history of its development and of its eventual use within biblical studies, and at least one example (usually more) of the method in action. These chapters are very well done. I found the chapter on feminist biblical criticism especially helpful in the way it situated contemporary feminist and womanist biblical scholarship in the context of the feminist movement as a whole (going back to 19th and early 20th century women’s suffrage movements, or “first-wave” feminism). None of the chapters go into a specialist level of detail regarding, for example, the vocabulary of the method’s various practitioners, but Davies provides enough of a bibliography that any reader wishing to follow up on this book’s introduction to the method should be able to do so easily.

In his conclusion, Davies surveys very rapidly three more methods that he regards as closely-related to the previously discussed four and which have, in his opinion, had an especially significant impact on biblical studies: rhetorical criticism, canonical criticism, and ethical criticism. One might question the appropriateness of rhetorical criticism, in particular, in this volume, since it really belongs historically and ideologically more to the text-centered approaches of the mid-20th century and in many important ways to historical-criticism itself. A certain surface similarity between it and post-modernist approaches, or perhaps even a basic genetic relationship, does not seem to justify its inclusion in a volume otherwise dedicated to what are essentially reader-oriented approaches. The inclusion of canonical criticism may be somewhat more justified in that it is concerned with the impact of the reading context of biblical texts within the canonical body and within the reading community defined by that canon, but it is still essentially text-centered (the text’s meaning is primarily a product of the text as a part of the canon). Both of these methods are examples of mid- to late-20th-century synchronic approaches that were still essentially historical-critical and, at the very least, were not driven by a skepticism toward meaning inherent in the text and toward the historical reading community itself. Ethical criticism fits better with the book as a whole, turning its critical eye, as it does, to the Bible itself and to the ethics that it communicates (but do not feminist and ideological criticism include ethical criticism within themselves?). The main reason I bring up the appropriateness of the very brief but nevertheless helpful discussions of rhetorical and canonical criticism is really a question that their inclusion raises: if these are included, why not other methods that are more similar to the primary four? They just seem a little extraneous. This is a minor criticism, however, of what is, in fact, a very useful and overall well-written survey of some important trends in biblical scholarship since the 1970s that ought to be on the reading list of most every biblical scholar and minister.

What do you think?