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This is the first book I have read by Manfred Barthel. Barthel is an excellent example of the detail, thoroughness and thoughtfulness for which German writers are known. The English translation by Mark Howson, with additional material adapting it and providing context for English-language readers, is likewise superb. It sounds like an original writing in native English, not like the stodgy, unnatural and rough English we sometimes get of translated German scholars.
Barthel probes Bible content and related backgrounds and evaluates cultural updates from archaeology and other sciences that will shed light on biblical content. He does not seek just to simplistically prove that what the Bible says is true in an objective modern factual sense.
His goal is rather to enter the world of the Bible, to develop an appreciation for the text and the cultural and historical context it seems to represent. He reaches for the worldview behind what he reads there, attempting to see what would be meant in that original context, what styles of expression and what cultural format comes to light.
He does an excellent job of critically evaluating findings of modern sciences, such as archaeology, new historical findings and textual studies to relate them to events, perspectives of personalities in the Bible. This is particularly fulfilling in regard to the Old Testament, which is rarely probed at the level of popular Bible study and pulpit theology.
Beyond the Sunday School Version
Few people seem to really know what the stories in the Bible really say, and less of an idea how they might fit together, or how you can make sense of two or three versions of the same story in Genesis or other parts of the Torah. I bought this book in 1985 on one of my trips to the United States from Kenya, when I gathered books on various subjects. I never got around to really reading this till 2003.
The book was an exhilarating experience, a very satisfying part of a long-term study of the Old Testament I began in 2003. I started in June 2003 with a study of Genesis, in a weekly study group, which I sometimes taught. I included archaeology, background studies in the New Testament, the Dead Seas Scrolls and related historical periods. (Books related to hthis are recorded in my Reading Lists, many with reviews.)
I read this book in a leisurely manner, with critical reference to other sources over about a month's time in September and October 2003. Anything in history and archaeology related to the Middle East and the Bible interests me. I commonly cross-reference and heavily annotate books on these subjects.
Barthel provided some very stimulating discussions on various findings in archaeology that throws light on names and laces and events in the Bible. He goes through the Bible books in sequence and gives information from various sciences that help explain, clarify or verify each. There is more on the Old Testament, but also some related to the New Testament and a good section about the Essenes that gives some helpful insights.
This was interesting and helpful because it brought to life the contemporary situation in these biblical events. I always like to study the Old Testament, particularly, to understand the stories, not just as history, but as real-life experiences of humans like me, in another culture and place.
These people were trying to make sense of their challenges and insights in their own context and living situation, just as we do today, but with no benefit of all the centuries of gathered information we have access to! One thing you realize when you read -- really read -- these ancient carefully-preserved documents, is that they were written for those people -- real people, in a real-life situation.
We are used to having the Bible as one volume, now collected together in one volume in our modern manner of preserving and distributing writings. Many today seem unaware that these documents were written to a people at various times in their history. Especially the Old Testament (Tanakh, as the Jews call it) preserves and presents the history and traditions of the Hebrew people, a history and experience of faith and struggle, of ethnic development and identity, even of variatoins of these preserved ancient traditions.
These documents are not just ethereal, technical materials that apply directly to us and our times. One must take them seriously and evaluate them on their own grounds, not violate their integrity by imposing our external, foreign standards of science, literature and philosophy from our time. They project us back into the past in a vicarious experience of the setting in which these eventrs occurred, in which these ideas developed, in which these beliefs were the operative core of their life.
Taking Them Seriously
Barthel helps the reader take those ancient peoples and these documents seriously, not simply dismiss them as irrelevant. He opens up the world of the times in each "book" (scroll, with its stories, song collection or legal code) in a way that brings to life the real-life setting for us. Only at that point are we enabled to really see what this means to our times.
I try to get a personal sense of their encounters with the Divine in the events of their lives. It is a challenge further to try to understand the worldview they lived in and see how that helps clarify their understanding of the events reflected in what we now have recorded. Barthel did that.
See related reviews and articles on this site:
Bringing Deuteronomy to Life
What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It?: What Archaeology Can Tell Us About the Reality of Ancient Israel
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First version written for my reading list on Orville Jenkins Thoughts and Resources 22 June 2004
This expanded version written for Amazon.com May 17, 2006 and last updated 16 August 2006
This version posted on Thoughts and Resources 9 September 2006
Last edited 28 December 2006
Copyright © 2006 Orville Boyd Jenkins
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