Over a long career, Justo L. González has written prolifically and responsibly in the field of historical theology, and in his eighty-fourth year offers a brief but deeply informed introduction to the formation and interpretation of Scripture as the Church’s book. His target readership is the mythical educated layperson rather than fellow professionals. His prose is correspondingly free from scholarly affectation, his tone that of the patient expositor. He grinds no axes and airs no grievances. And while he does not touch on everything an interested neophyte might want to learn, he manages to convey a considerable amount of information in less than two hundred pages.
The book has three parts that treat, respectively, the shape of the Bible, the use of the Bible, and interpretation of the Bible. González focuses mainly on antiquity but some of his discussions move into medieval and even modern times. An extensive “cast of characters” at the back of the book provides thumbnail sketches of the authors González discusses in his text.
In his discussion of the Bible’s “shape,” González deals primarily with the material dimensions of Scripture, beginning with its contents. What were the cultural contexts and languages employed in the writing of the Old Testament, and how did Hellenistic Judaism’s Greek translation (the Septuagint), which was adopted by the first Christians, lead to two distinct canons that even today distinguish Catholic and Protestant versions of the Old Testament? What were the factors at work in the formation of the New Testament canon? While the points he makes are historically responsible, and are certainly helpful to readers totally ignorant of such matters, I found it puzzling that González gives no attention to the kind of prior questions that most demand consideration: What sort of experiences among the tiny and insignificant people of ancient Israel led to the production of such breathtakingly original and compelling writings in the first place? And what sort of experiences impelled the followers of a failed messiah to compose the writings that make up the New Testament, the most tension-filled religious literature ever written?
Concentration on the material aspects of the Church’s book continues through the remainder of Part One, as González treats in turn “the physical appearance of early Christian Bibles,” “chapters and verses,” “the transmission of the text,” and “from manuscripts to printed Bibles.” In these discussions, each of them well informed and instructive, González considers mainly the physical evolution of the New Testament through the centuries, making the simple but important point that the printed and translated Bible that is held and read by present-day Christians did not fall from heaven but is, down to its very punctuation, a “work of human hands.”
In Part Two, González takes up some of the ways in which the Bible was used in the ancient Church, beginning quite properly with its use in worship. Here, the time he spent on the material aspects of the Bible shows its pertinence: before the invention of printing, the experience of Scripture was necessarily liturgical. For most believers, Scripture was not read but heard, and such an oral/aural engagement continued for some fifteen hundred years. González notes the importance of the reader as an ordained position in a largely illiterate population, and the significance of preaching as the primary site of patristic theology. He shows how the shape of the Christian liturgy built on the practice of the synagogue, but he could also perhaps have devoted some attention to the way in which the classic forms of the Eucharist also drew their very language from the Old and New Testaments, so that Scripture was embodied and enacted in the practice of prayer.