Book review: Interpreting the Old Testament after Christendom

Anvil journal of theology and mission

Jeremy Thomson, Interpreting the Old Testament after Christendom: A Workbook for Christian Imagination, (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2021)

by Miles Hopgood, Ewing, New Jersey, USA

A workbook suggests a series of problems to be solved, which is how Thomson presents the task to the reader in Interpreting the Old Testament after Christendom. In trying to read the Hebrew Bible (or First Testament, as the author prefers), Thomson sees the modern Christian as beset on all sides by impediments. The Shoah exposed the contributions of the Christian tradition to the genocide of European Jews, demanding an undoing of its supersessionism. The decline of Christendom in the West has decentred the Bible in its cultures. The breadth of literature in the Hebrew Bible is a challenge. In the face of all this, Interpreting the Old Testament offers the reader only what it can: an honest assessment of the challenges and an approach whereby the Christian imagination might be drawn authentically and responsibly to engage with these Scriptures.

The approach Thomson advocates is less a formula and more a series of loci or points around which his engagement with the text centres. He takes as his starting point the intertextuality that defines the presence of the First Testament in the Second, looking to how its authors quote, allude and echo the Hebrew Bible in their own writings. He balances this intertextuality with an emphasis on reading whole books, reading any passage through the genre and motifs of the book as a whole. To demonstrate how this approach looks Thomson focuses on four books – Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings – as proofs-of-concept for his method. From these examples, Thomson concludes with a summary of what he recommends: a preference for a canonical (as opposed to narrative) approach that emphasises the conversation within and between the books themselves, aimed at facilitating greater access to these books at all levels of education and familiarity.

Despite its laudable goals – or perhaps, because of them – Interpreting the Old Testament after Christendom will prove frustrating to readers. The title of the book will be read by many as promising something it does not adequately deliver, which is an interpretive approach equal to the challenge the Hebrew Bible presents. This is, I believe, by design: the problem Thomson sets before the reader is one he knows he cannot solve for them, and so he sets about equipping them to wrestle with it instead. Still, some will be frustrated by the author alerting them to the difficulty of the challenge without providing a tidier solution. Similarly, the book does not match well with any one audience. A lay reader will be overwhelmed by the wealth of scholarly engagement, whereas the interdisciplinary nature gives the book a jack-of-all-trades feel in the hands of an academic. Pastors appear to be its target audience, and they may make good use of it; however, the lack of stronger signposting and better organisation in its writing will make harvesting its value tougher going than need be.

Interpreting the Old Testament after Christendom is, in short, the book its subject matter warrants. It is upfront in its challenge, offering much insight at the cost of much work, so much so that many who pick it up will deem it not worth the effort. While it could have been made easier to engage, those who know the value of what it covers are encouraged to make the time to read it.

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