Dodson, Derek S., and Katherine E. Smith. Exploring Biblical Backgrounds: A Reader in Historical & Literary Contexts. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2018. 260 pp.; Pb. $39.95. Link to Baylor.
Baylor University’s own Derek S. Dodson and Katherine E. Smith have put together this excellent collection of ancient texts designed to enrich readers with the ancient cultures from which the Bible came. As they have noted in their preface, “an informed reading of the Bible recognizes the historical distance and seeks to understand the biblical text in its historical and literary contexts,” (xi). One of the most efficient ways to reconstruct an ancient’s worldview is to branch out from the Bible and explore other literary sources where there might be parallels to compare, and with this marvelous compendium, Dodson and Smith have done just that.
It is very similar to Matthews’ Old Testament Parallels: Laws and Stories from the Ancient Near East, but stands out in format and content. The book consists of two parts, Old Testament Background and New Testament Background. Part I groups the parallel writings together by genre, mirroring the canonical layout of the OT. For example, the first section of ancient parallels is called “Creation and Deluge”, and it covers six texts similar to what is seen in Genesis 1-9. Subsequent to this genre is the section “Law and Ritual” containing readings such as the Code of Hammurabi and excerpts regarding the cleanliness of animals found in the Egyptian Book of the Dead, both of which have similarities found in Leviticus.
Part II of the book is slightly different from Part I. The first seven sections provide a framework for the background of the gospels, but not exclusively. Some of the readings, however, will surely help contextualize the worldview of other New Testament writings. For example, the first section consists of four texts introducing the reader to the various Jewish people groups in the first century read in Scripture (Essenes, Pharisees, etc.). One of the writings in here though is from the Qumran Community—1QS—on Justification (p. 179), which articulates an understanding of justification one would find comparable with various points in Paul’s epistles (cf. Rom 1:16-17; 3:21-26; Gal 2:15-21). Another point of differentiation after these section’s writings is their categorization. They are grouped by subject matter rather than chronology. This isn’t to suggest there aren’t similarities between these writings and those in the New Testament, but the writings are concomitant with the subject more than anything else. For example, there are many writings relating to Family Life which can be seen from not only Paul’s letters, but also the gospels and later New Testament developments. I found this layout helpful for reference purposes.
Dodson and Smith have offered a rigorous source for those looking to explore several ancient sources with parallels of the Bible. This wide range of comparable texts from comes from the ancient near east, through the Greco-Roman world, and even into early Christianity, touching all the areas a student needs for essential exposure to the numerous contexts of the Bible. Exploring Biblical Backgrounds is worth adding to your collection if you are looking to deepen your understanding of the world from which scripture sprouted from.
Disclaimer: Thank you to Baylor for generously providing me with a review copy in exchange for an honest review. The thoughts and opinions expressed above are my own and were not influenced by the gesture.