Religion Booknotes

Isaiah
Interpreted by Early Christian and Medieval Commentators
Translated and edited by Robert Louis Wilken, et al.
Eerdmans, $45, 618 pp.

When as a young neophyte Augustine asked Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, what part of the Bible he should start with, Ambrose answered, “Isaiah.” That great prophet was, and is, central for Christians. His words are echoed throughout the New Testament, and his voice is often heard in the liturgy. 

As Robert Louis Wilken makes clear in his contribution to “The Church’s Bible” series, patristic and medieval commentators drew from the pages of Isaiah both the promise and fulfillment of the coming Messiah, but Isaiah was also crucial for the development of Mariology. Most readers will be familiar with this passage from Christmastide: “A shoot shall come out of the root of Jesse / a blossom shall come out of his root” (Isaiah 11:1). In the middle of the second century, Justin Martyr read this as a clear reference to Christ. Ten centuries later, Bernard of Clairvaux was just as confident that the shoot signified the Virgin and the blossom the virgin birth. In the development from Justin Martyr to Bernard, we find a context for such things as the “Jesse Tree” and the frequent iconographic allusions to flora found in Medieval and Renaissance art. There are countless examples of this sort, all showing that the Isaiah tradition has had wide and important ramifications for the life of the church.

The organization of Wilken’s volume makes it a very useful pedagogical aid. Each chapter of the Book of Isaiah itself is set out in bold. Following that, set off in italics, is a short summary of the main themes that the tradition has discovered in the text. Wilken then offers a judicious selection of patristic and medieval commentaries. At the end of the book there are short biographies of the authors Wilken cites, a very thorough index of subjects, a bibliography, and an appendix of biblical sources. In addition to the Latin and Greek Fathers, the volume has a representative selection of texts from the Syriac world. Wilken also includes a few liturgical texts, such as the Apostolic Constitutions, the Anaphora (or Eucharistic prayer) of the East Syrian Liturgy, and the beautiful Liturgy of Saint James, which is associated with the church in Jerusalem.

This book would make wonderful spiritual reading in Advent or Lent, when the yearning voice of Isaiah is frequently heard in the liturgy. What better way to spend those seasons, as we watch for the coming of the Savior or for his Resurrection, than by meditating on Isaiah with the help of this inviting book.

 

Spiritual Radical
Abraham Joshua Heschel in America, 1940–1972
Edward Kaplan
Yale University Press, $40, 544 pp.

The second volume of Edward Kaplan’s biography of the late Abraham Heschel starts with the rabbi’s departure from Europe and ends with his death. After arriving in this country, Heschel first taught at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. There he was somewhat out of his element—a Torah-observant rabbi from a distinguished Hasidic family at a school completely committed to Reform ideals. After the Second World War, Heschel left Hebrew Union for New York, where he became a teacher at the Jewish Theological Seminary, a more conservative institution. One might suppose he would have received a warm welcome there. In fact, as Kaplan tells us in sad detail, Heschel was looked upon suspiciously by his colleagues because of the pietism of his Hasidic background. A great Talmudist at the Jewish Theological Seminary dismissed Heschel’s religious outlook as foolishness (narrishkeit). This kind of critique has a long history: from the time the Hasidic movement first arose in the seventeenth century, classical Talmudic scholars have had little use for Hasidic exuberance. And as Heschel’s reputation grew in the United States, there were those at the seminary who became jealous of all the attention he received from the secular press.

Heschel was a prodigious scholar and his books on the prophets, prayer, and the Sabbath gained a wide readership beyond the Jewish world. At the height of his fame, no Jewish scholar except Martin Buber was as well known, or as often read, in the gentile world. When I was a young teacher, Heschel gave a lecture on the Sabbath at my university. He filled the largest auditorium on campus to capacity. It is still worthwhile to read what he had to say about the prophets. In addition to his better-known books, he published a great deal of technical scholarly work, which Kaplan ably addresses in this beautifully written book.

Heschel became most famous as a public intellectual in the 1960s. His concern for the Catholic Church’s statement about the Jews (formalized in Nostra aetate) coincided with his friendship with Thomas Merton. His pleas for racial harmony and his prominent role in the antiwar movement increased his fame—or, in the eyes of some, his infamy—throughout the country. It was also during this period that he began to cultivate friendships with the leading Protestant figures at Union Theological Seminary, which is just across the street from the Jewish seminary. With Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich, Heschel undertook an ecumenism of friendship and real intellectual exchange.

One of Heschel’s most important gifts, in my own estimation, was his ability to interweave his profound knowledge of the biblical and rabbinical tradition with his commitment to prayer, both personal and communal. To put it in Christian terms: He knew how to combine theology and spirituality into a seamless whole. He also understood, as Kaplan demonstrates, that this combination led to certain ethical imperatives. Heschel’s greatest strength was his ceaseless desire to seek the face of the faceless God, as he put it in one of his poems. He asked that that poem be read to him one Sabbath eve, not knowing he would stand before the God he served so faithfully before sunrise.

 

A New Dictionary of Saints
East and West
Edited by Michael Walsh
Liturgical Press, $49.95, 704 pp.

On the bookshelf over my computer I count six different “Lives of the Saints,” including the twelve-volume Butler’s (Liturgical Press), which is the one I consult most often. I will now have to find space for A New Dictionary of Saints East and West. As the title indicates, the book’s editor, Michael Walsh, has included almost all the saints of both the Eastern and Western churches—and by “Eastern” I mean not only the various branches of the Byzantine tradition but also the non-Chalcedonian churches, such as the Coptic, Ethiopian, and Assyrian. That adds up to a lot of saints, many of whom are little known outside their own ecclesial traditions.

Because of the large number of names in this one-volume dictionary, each entry has to be rather brief. Walsh’s dictionary is in this way very much like the old but estimable Doubleday dictionary edited by John Delaney, though Delaney’s entries tend to be shorter, more generous, but less comprehensive than those in A New Dictionary of Saints. The Walsh book is a useful reference, but its short biographies are too heavy on facts and light on narrative to make for good reading. My suspicion is that it will end up on library shelves—and any good library should have a copy—while those who seek more than raw information will continue to read Butler’s Lives of the Saints. But Butler’s needs to be updated and cleaned up: all available editions are full of errors and typos. Any new edition will have to include new entries for the saints canonized by John Paul II in the final years of his papacy. Whatever the deficiencies of Butler’s, it is still the most comprehensive work of its kind available today, though Richard P. McBrien’s Lives of the Saints is good for its ancillary materials, and Robert Ellsberg’s All Saints has the most charm and ecumenical breadth.

The virtue of a dictionary like Walsh’s is that it includes saints one has never heard of before, and coming across them is always both fun and instructive. Walsh’s is the most encyclopedic dictionary of saints I’ve seen, except for a volume I found in Paris a few years ago. Its daunting title was Dix mille saints (Ten Thousand Saints). Walsh does not include everyone, though. I am very interested in Blessed Frédéric Ozanam, who was beautified by John Paul II at the 1997 World Youth Day in Paris. Ozanam was a layman, a university professor, and a husband and father. Despite his academic career, he had time to found the Saint Vincent de Paul Society. But his absence from this book is only a minor lapse, especially since Walsh does not miss the many other men and women John Paul II beatified and canonized.

 

New Testament Theology
Exploring Diversity and Unity
Frank J. Matera
Westminster / John Knox, $49.95, 485 pp.

In the very good introduction to New Testament Theology: Exploring Diversity and Unity, Frank Matera takes the reader on a quick tour of previous attempts by scholars to construct a New Testament theology. His own take on this controversial subject is summed up in his subtitle: in the canon of the New Testament he finds both “diversity and unity.” The diversity is, of course, a commonplace in New Testament scholarship. The Christology of Matthew is not the same as the Christology of John, just as Matthew’s understanding of Israel is not the same as, say, Paul’s in his letter to the Romans. Matera claims that in this manifest diversity there is also a certain unity, because all the canonical books, whatever their differences, have a common underlying narrative about the meaning of Israel, Jesus, and the community called church.

There is nothing especially eccentric about Matera’s approach. He begins with the synoptic Gospels and soldiers through the entire canon with his dual criterion of singularity and unity. His method never comes off as programmatic or procrustean; he does not force the scriptural material out of shape in order to make it fit his theory. It has been my longstanding custom to read something new for each undergraduate course I teach on Scripture and the early church. This semester I have taught with Matera’s book in hand. As I worked my way through it, several things struck me. First, Matera, like any good New Testament scholar, is a very close reader of texts. This means that when he is commenting on a particular passage he is aware of other passages where similar language is used, and he is interested in the significance of those similarities. Second, it is impossible to dwell at length on strikingly fecund biblical passages when you aim to cover as much ground as the author of this book does, but Matera has a particular gift for saying a lot in a few pages. Often, he simply states his own conclusions without picking over the relevant scholarly debates. For example, after offering a somewhat lengthy treatment of the famous kenosis hymn in Philippians, Matera concludes that this text underscores the pre-existence of the Word. He acknowledges that some scholars disagree with this interpretation, but he doesn’t try to argue with them: he knows some of his conclusions may be contestable, but he leaves most of the contestation to others.

Overall, Matera’s book is fair, thorough, and judicious. A succinct conclusion sums up his efforts at explicating the canon, followed by a good bibliography. Unfortunately, the book has neither an index of scriptural passages nor a topical index. Despite this inexcusable omission, I can imagine Matera’s new book being used as a central text in a course on the New Testament, or as a companion for someone who wants to make a serious study of the Bible on her own. I have found it a helpful classroom companion.

 

Jerusalem’s Temple Mount
From Solomon to the Golden Dome
Hershel Shanks
Continuum, $39.95, 216 pp.

Hershel Shanks, the pugnacious editor of the Biblical Archaeology Review, has expressed dismay at the Israeli Antiquities Authority’s willingness to let the Islamic authority excavate the Temple Mount (they’re digging ditches for telephone lines) without the supervision of competent archaeological scholars. Perhaps that dismay helped to motivate his new book, Jerusalem’s Temple Mount: From Solomon to the Golden Dome. In any case, there’s hardly a trace of polemic in this lavishly illustrated account of the history of the Temple. The book covers the construction of the First Temple, as described in the First Book of Kings; that temple’s destruction, the building and destruction of the Second Temple; and the erection of the Islamic Dome of the Rock in the late seventh century. The Dome of the Rock is one of the jewels of Islamic architecture. Originally, it served as an Islamic counterpoint to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which was built by Constantine in the fourth century.

Shanks’s book is a masterpiece of haute vulgarization. He begins his narrative with the Temple Mount as it exists today and works backward from there, digging deeper and deeper into the past, until he gets to Solomon’s temple. The colored photographs are beautiful, and the architectural projections illuminating. The text distills a great deal of scholarship into readable prose. Shanks points out that almost nothing of Solomon’s temple has been turned up by the archaeologists, and the great Western (“wailing”) Wall is all that remains of the Second Temple. But archeologists have been able to uncover much ancillary material that indicates the shape and scale of the temple that Jesus knew in his lifetime.

The entire Temple Mount is a monument to religious passions. Pious Jews will not walk on the Mount for fear of inadvertently walking over the remnants of the Holy of Holies. Muslims vigorously deny that there is any temple under the present-day Mount. Some feverish ultra-orthodox Jews, aided by Christian fundamentalists, are preparing for a new temple and its priesthood by reconstructing the vestments and paraphernalia used in the temple. The Jews hope to trigger the coming of the Messiah, the Christians his return. A few years ago, one Christian fundamentalist plotted to blow up the Dome of the Rock and the adjacent Al-Aqsa Mosque to make it easier to rebuild the temple.

The temple has always loomed large in the Christian imagination. The Christian architects who designed Hagia Sophia and the great Gothic cathedrals all looked to Solomon’s temple as the archetype of sacred architecture. A few years ago I mentioned favorably in this column Simon Goldhill’s The Temple of Jerusalem (Harvard University Press), but if I had to choose between the two, I’d go with Shanks’s book, if only because it is so beautifully illustrated. It will help students—and teachers—visualize Solomon’s great building program.

Published in the 2008-02-29 issue: 
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Lawrence Cunningham is John O'Brien professor of Theology (Emeritus) at the University of Notre Dame.

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