The New Oxford Annotated Bible

Arch of Titus Menorah

The New Oxford Annotated Bible

5thedition, Oxford University Press, fully revised and expanded, NRSV with Apocrypha. Pp. xxiii, 2416, ISBN: 978-0190276096. $95.00., reviewed by Darrell Sutton

When Early Modern English was becoming the vernacular speech, Edward VI (1537-1553) removed restrictions on the printing of the Bible. Mary Tudor (1516-1568) later reversed these changes. Once again, the Crown looked favorably on Catholicism. So Reformers went into exile, during which time a Church of England was formed in Geneva. There, the “Marian Exiles” agreed to undertake a new rendition of the scriptures. The Geneva Bible of 1560 was the fruit of their extensive labors. It was unique, seeing that it contained not only a new translation, but also over 300,000 annotations to the text. The exiles’ popular interpretations of the English text and alternate renderings of Hebrew and Greek terms opened the minds of citizens whose thoughts had been inured to established beliefs. Since that time, new interpretative ideas and arguments have been received; closed-mindedness has gone out of fashion.

From its inception in 1962, The Oxford Annotated Bible provided students of scripture with non-traditional insights into the contours of the development of the canon. The transformation of the New Oxford Annotated Bible (NOAB) is now complete. Originally edited by Herbert May and Bruce Metzger, cutting edge scholarship on the text and context of scripture was popularized. May was a distinguished Old Testament specialist; Metzger was a recognized doyen of New Testament textual criticism. May and Metzger found various facets of select biblical books dubious and legendary. They were broad-minded; but they still maintained sympathies toward the salvific work of Christ outlined in the New Testament. Scholarship advanced in profound ways through their researches. But in light of some of the notes now accepted in the Bible under review, both May and Metzger could be considered somewhat conformist.

Containing sixteen Apocryphal/Deutero-canonical books, the NOAB 5th ed. is advertised as “An Ecumenical Study Bible”. Edited by Michael D. Coogan, along with associate editors Marc Z. Brettler, Carol A. Newsom and Pheme Perkins, the ripest fruit of biblical investigations is presented. More than 50 respected scholars were involved in the elucidation of the books. Several of them also supplied scholarship for The Jewish Study Bible (2004). The NRSV text remains essentially the same except for the inclusion of information from United Bible Societies Greek New Testament, 4thed. (see Textual Criticism, p.2246); notes at the bottom of the page have been revised. New interpretative essays were commissioned.

The Editor’s Preface (p.xiii) states:

The editors recognize that no single interpretation or approach is sufficient for informed reading of these ancient texts, and have aimed at inclusivity of interpretive strategies.

Yet academics who hold Low Church views or Evangelical positions are absent from the list of contributors on page v. Consequently the editor and associate Editors do not appear to have achieved the inclusivity for which they aimed. The volume is thick at c.2400 pages. Each contributing editor to individual books was free to pursue his or her own lines of inquiry. This liberty takes them in different directions. And their independence of thought is refreshing. The historical critical method is the main tool employed in the analyses of texts; the use of typology as an implement for demonstrating that Jesus Christ was the realization of ancient Jewish longing, and the messianic fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies, is regularly overlooked; but typology is mentioned in the essay ‘Christian Interpretation in the Premodern Era’ (p.2267).

Evidence for literary allusion is strained at times: e.g., competent Hellenists may doubt that Paul had Plato’s Phaedra 245c-257d in mind when he wrote his defense of Jesus’ resurrection in I Corinthians 15. And the editors are sensitive, indeed almost apologetic, about accounts in the New Testament that put Jewish parties in a negative light, but they are not so touchy about ancient Jewish warfare against the inhabitants of Canaan’s districts.

Few should doubt the perspicuity of the editors. But after two centuries of critical studies, better grounds are needed for solving difficulties than the inclusion of the quip ‘what so and so writes in the text of scripture is untrue.’ As for commentators, the claims of naiveté that are leveled so readily at holders of conventional views today, seem to fit equally well those erudite persons whose scholarship has not proceeded beyond the “assured scientific results” of yesteryear’s Teutonic studies. Parsons and laypersons today who disallow critical remarks into their spheres of interpretation, usually do so after consciously weighing those remarks against statements made by persons in the New Testament whose recorded speeches consist of allusions and quotations from the Old Testament, a body of documentary literature that was believed to have been properly conserved and passed down.

Biblical writers who cited wording from biblical texts composed in previous centuries believed that the MSS from which they quoted were trustworthy and reliable. It remains an inexplicable wonder that Jesus and other New Testament authors seem wholly unaware of the most rudimentary claims made by modern biblical critics, i.e., that Jewish ancient texts were incorrectly preserved, that their origins and compositional forms were attributed to the wrong writers, and that they were habitually misunderstood by successive generations of rabbis and readers.

Upon those unsuspecting convictions, customary views of Christians were based, from the literate circles of the early sects of Christendom up to Medieval and Renaissance times. Since the Enlightenment, induction in the fundamentals of “critical” scholarship of the Bible has produced academics that now may be rightly labeled ‘traditionists’. The traditional texts and interpretations they revere are also numerous, being visible everywhere to close readers of this new study-bible. Below, a few of the NOAB editors’ opinions are presented;

Genesis: note at 3:1-24: Of Adam and Eve – ‘Though the story is often taken by Christians as an account of “original sin”, the word “sin” never occurs in it. Instead, it is a sophisticated narrative describing how God’s acts and their aftermath lead to the formation of fully adult, mortal humans to till the earth … .’

Exodus: note at 12:29-52: Of the flight from Egypt, ‘like virtually every stop on the journey, they cannot be clearly identified and do not reflect accurate or actual memories. Six hundred thousand men is hyperbole … .’

Daniel: p.1249: ‘According to ch 1, Daniel was taken to Babylon at the beginning of the Babylonian exile and was chosen to serve in the royal court. This setting, however, does not necessarily reflect the realities of the book’s historical context and composition. Several major historical errors in ch 1 suggest that the author wrote long after the Babylonian conquest of Judah and very likely was not attempting to write a historical account at all, but rather a series of historical fictions set in that time period.’

Jonah: p.1320: ‘Jonah is not a historical book in the sense of recalling events that actually occurred.’

The above quotations illustrate the low view of scripture by all of the editors. Their observations deserve to be read carefully because, as is apparent, thorough going “skepticism” is now the dominant mode of approach to the study of the Bible in universities and divinity departments in which they teach.

The editors supplied the NRSV with a superb apparatus. They did so as they kept nearby the source-texts in their original languages. All of the scholarly devices (footnotes and essays etc.) equip students with resources necessary to agree or disagree with specific annotations. Here and there the notes contain gems of historical details about the ancient near east.

In the main, the footnotes develop ideas on the crucifixion and resurrection in a clear-cut manner. Greek and Roman literature is cited in ways that are commensurate to the discussion; but every note on same-sex relations misleads readers, except the one at I Corinthians 6:1-11. Though I disagree with much that is written in various book introductions, each editor writes clearly and adeptly. The editors are well aware that there are elements of truth in the Apocryphal books. Dates and figures are discussed fairly in Kings and Chronicles. The “Dead Sea Scrolls” and Septuagint are used to explain several textual variations. The former of the two frequently is treated as if they were much more true to fact than the “canonical” texts to which some editors are appending notes.

The place in the road to which scholars have come is an intersection. A new course is needed. The road to here has been long. The old findings, although redressed in new questions, seem commonplace. Literary exposition is an ever-developing field of study. Invention and reinvention creates new ways of looking at texts, and refurbishes old models, renewing them for the next generation. There are examples – 19thcentury German scholarship forever altered the way academics dealt with cuneiform, Hieroglyph, Sanskrit, Greek and Latin literature and the Bible. Biblical scholars in the west, whose criticisms were founded on rationalist thought and not on any objective appreciation or treatment of supernaturalism, still have been unable to emancipate their researches from German cynicism. In these studies, miraculous occurrences are downplayed. Such investigations are carried out with clinical solemnity and do not inspire confidence in Christians, Jews or in some cases, Muslims.

So in NOAB, Genesis through Deuteronomy is still regarded as a patchwork of accounts, some true and some false, arranged in their present form by prejudiced editors. And Joshua is thought to contain reports of a conquest that are unquestionably erroneous (see p.322); in Judges, the literary redactor is said to have represented northern heroes in an apostate culture, but showed a positive bias toward the tribe of Judah in the southern Kingdom (p.359). The NOAB editor for Samuel doubts that it is ‘a narrative of history’ (p.405). Evidently ‘Esther contains some folktale motifs’ (p.715). Job is described as a ‘naïve narrative’ of a ‘folktale world’ (p.779). Isaiah wrote chapters 1-39, then an editor composed 2nd Isaiah, chapters 40-55 and later the redactor of 3rd Isaiah, chapters 56-66, came to collect the speeches of several unknown prophets (p.977). Moreover, Zachariah wrote chapters 1-8 of his scrolls, but someone else compiled 9-14 (p.1357).

As for how the New Testament should be understood, in the opening essay, which is entitled ‘The Introduction to The Gospels’, we encounter these words:

Scholars who reject biography as a description of the Gospels often overemphasize the ideological or legendary elements found in the narratives. They prefer to read the Gospels as etiological legends explaining the emergence of a new religion or as ideological representations of the Christology of particular early Christian communities. Such writings … operate like myths and symbols to support Christian beliefs and practices (p.1777).

Authorial inscriptions in the NOAB that are attached to several New Testament epistles are doubted. Nothing new exists in that regard. Aside from titular statements ascribed to the Church Fathers, no one can definitively show epistolary origins anyway. For some reason, however, the Pax Augusta assigned to the period of Augustus’ rule (27BC-AD14) is routinely interpreted by biblical critics to have been a time of peace (see note at Luke 2:1-7). Untrue: keep in mind the Pannonian Revolt in 6-9AD. Oddly, John 21:1-25 is considered to be a later addition to the Gospel. How one could know if the chapter was written 1 year or 125 years afterward without any identifying markers in the text is anyone’s guess.

This edition has its merits. A number of individual books deserve notice. Among them, the technicalities of Leviticus are handled well. And readers of the Psalms will not be left in the dark as obscure idioms of hymns are expounded. The notes to Proverbs are encyclopedic and constitute an excellent compendium of insights. Jeremiah and the Maccabees exemplify the results of superlative researches. The Commentaries to The Gospel of John, Hebrews and Revelation prove that a theology ensconced in metaphors can be agreeably managed.

This Bible will likely find an abundance of readers. Politically correct churches will urge it upon their parishioners. But it will not dissolve the doubts that people have about the verity of the religious beliefs of Jesus Christ. One hopes that serious students of the Bible will not presume that the published researches in the NOAB are representative of the views of mainstream scholars or of adherents to Judaism and Christianity around the world. Depending on how it is used privately, the volume is to be recommended for purchase, but it should be read with caution alongside study editions issued by Christian committees of other traditions.

[On page 2293 Israel is misspelled “Irael”]

Darrell Sutton resides in Red Cloud, Nebraska (USA), where he oversees multiple congregations and writes on biblical and classical literature

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2 Responses to The New Oxford Annotated Bible

  1. David Ashton says:

    What is needed is solid scholarship which takes into account diversity of interpretation, evidence-led and rationally argued, not fads, disputed assertions and weasel wording.

    Matthew 7.6. Psalm 22.16.

  2. Fernando Serna says:

    Thanks so much for this refreshing review. What is your preferred Bible translation?

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