Oxford Handbook of the Bible in America, ed. Paul C. Gutjahr (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 692.
One of my first real exposures to seeing how the Bible was used in America was reading the early constitutions/pacts/laws of American colonies. I was amazed to see the straightforward application of Mosaic legislation in American colonies, bordering on theonomy (see especially Colonial Origins of the American Constitution). Another useful foray into the way the Bible has been used in the US, especially the distinction between the use of the OT and NT, is Eran Shalev’s American Zion. Of course the literature is vast, but often for biblical scholars a few interesting texts are a gateway into a whole new realm of study.
Because of texts such as these and others, and because of the importance of hermeneutical theory to the academy and the church, I believe it is useful to examine how the Bible has been used by different people in various cultures, and to see how their own contexts have influenced their interpretations or applications of the Bible. So I was excited to see the new publication of the Oxford Handbook of the Bible in America.
This large collection of essays is intended “to offer in a single volume a wide-angle view of how Americans have read, understood, and used the Bible since the early seventeenth century” (xix). To that end, the editor Paul Gutjahr has assembled an able team of 45 scholars, including those recognizable to many of us biblical scholars such as Mark Noll and Daniel Dreisbach.
The book breaks down into five parts: Bible production; Biblical interpretation and usage; the Bible in American history and culture; the Bible and the arts; the Bible and religious traditions. Those interested in hermeneutics will obviously be drawn to the second part on the interpretation and usage of the Bible in various epochs and traditions. There are chapters on the Bible in the 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th-21st centuries, as well as its use in the cultures or traditions of African Americans, LGBT’s, creationists, KJV-onlyists, feminists, and homiletics. Zooming out for a bit to see how the Bible has been used in these various traditions is a useful way of re-examining one’s own presuppositions and norms.
The essays are long enough to give good coverage to the subject with plenty of documentation (endnotes appear at the end of each chapter), but not quite long enough to go much in depth into any of the particulars. They are therefore a good starting point for researching topics or for getting a broad sweep of the issues in order to be informed.
One omission that would have greatly strengthened the work would have been something covering the theoretical side of American scholarship. At least one chapter on the different schools of interpretation in American universities and seminaries would have been useful, but an entire section could have begun the volume. We get a good picture of how the Bible was applied and used, but not any information (at least in a systematic way) of how different people and organizations and movements received their hermeneutical theories.
Overall the volume is well-executed and a monument to scholarship on the topic of the Bible in America. This nation truly has been a “people of the book,” so much so that we bordered on theonomy in our early colonies. But our nation is now declining in biblical literacy and in its respect for the Bible in the public sphere. That is not necessarily a negative thing, nor is it necessarily positive. But the rise of pluralism brings certain challenges, and understanding the history of our nation’s use of the Bible will guide us toward ways forward and will also help us recognize our own assumptions that we bring to the Bible. For these reasons, this Oxford Handbook is more than welcomed on any Bible student’s shelf.