The HarperCollins Study Bible

The Publisher and the Society

The most distinctive feature of the HarperCollins Study Bible is the collaboration between a major publisher and the professional scholars of the Society of Biblical Literature. Each member of this partnership brought a distinguished and venerable heritage to their common enterprise.

Outline of the Review

The Society
The Collaboration
On the Way to the Study Bible
          An Earlier Detour
          The Mainline Project
The First Edition
          The General Editor
          The Associate Editors
The Revised Edition
The General Articles
Samples of Interpretation
          Genesis Revisited
          The Exodus and History
          Leviticus and the Holy
          The Book of Kings and Its ‘Message’
          The Unity of Isaiah
          Matthew Joins the Empire
          Mark, Well Introduced
          Paul’s Letters
Some Evaluative Comments


Harper Brothers was a major publisher of books and magazines in New York in the nineteenth century (founded in 1817), featuring such authors as the Brontë sisters, Dickens, and Mark Twain as well as several Harpers magazines. In 1962 the firm merged with Row, Peterson and Co. to become Harper & Row. Their first study Bible was published at just that time. (More below about this work edited by Harold Lindsell.)

The Collins part of the HarperCollins combination was a British firm, William Collins and Sons, founded in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1819. It featured dictionaries and religious books in the nineteenth century, and added popular juvenile and crime fiction in the twentieth, with collections by Agatha Christie and Rex Stout (Nero Wolfe), later acquiring the rights also to the works of the religious writer C.S. Lewis.

In 1987, Harper & Row was acquired by News Corporation, Rupert Murdoch’s vast media empire, and in 1990 William Collins and Sons was added to create the umbrella group HarperCollins, a worldwide book publishing enterprise using many different “imprints.” Among these “imprints” is Zondervan, the religious publishing firm that acquired the rights to the New International Version of the English Bible after 1973. Zondervan was acquired by the Murdoch group in 1988. (See the HarperCollins Company Profile on line).

The Society

The 1880s marked a great upsurge in higher education in the United States, especially in newly institutionalized graduate education. While earlier periods had seen clubs and societies dedicated to shared cultural and artistic pursuits, the 1870s and 1880s saw the rise of professional societies for the promotion of particular academic disciplines. The American Philological Association was founded in 1869, the American Social Science Association in the same year, the Archeological Institute of America in 1879, the Modern Language Association in 1883, and the American Historical Association in 1884. The rise of many academic empires lay in the beginnings of such societies, and the Society of Biblical Literature was right in the middle of the action. The purpose of the Society was to promote rigorous standards of scholarship in the teaching of the Bible, especially in colleges and seminaries.

The Society began in New York in 1880, initially proposed by Professor Frederic Gardner of Berkeley Divinity School in Middletown, Connecticut. (For all this see, Ernest W. Saunders, Searching the Scriptures: A History of the Society of Biblical Literature, 1880-1980, Scholars Press, 1982. Available on line.) Prominent members at the beginning were Philip Schaff (in whose office the planning meeting was held) and Charles Augustus Briggs (later of Briggs Heresy Trial fame), both of Union Theological Seminary in New York, and James Strong of Drew Theological Seminary in New Jersey (the Strong of Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance fame). Eighteen scholars attended the first meeting in June of 1880, but by year-end forty-five members were registered and in the following year the publication of the Journal began, giving to scholars at large the papers delivered at the meetings. A pattern was established of semi-annual meetings, in June and December, times geared to breaks in the academic year.

Until the middle of the twentieth century the Society was heavily oriented to the northeastern region of the United States, though other regional meetings were initiated early on. In the post-World War II explosion of higher education, membership greatly expanded, regional meetings proliferated, and publications by the Society multiplied. In the 1960s, tax-supported universities began to teach religion as an academic discipline, and Biblical scholars were in more demand as teachers of religion. In this context, the Society became significant not only as an exchange of scholarship but also as a market for academic appointments.

In the later twentieth century the Society became the platform for many nearly-autonomous specialized groups, focusing on narrower and narrower areas of study. The most prominent of these was “the Jesus Seminar,” which eventually spun off its own organization and publishing house.

The current Society is a renowned international body with 8,700 members, 30% of which are from outside the United States, 23% of which are women, and 28% of which are students. (See the 2010 Annual Report.) They gather in eleven regional meetings in North America as well as at the giant Annual meeting in November of each year. The prestigious Journal of Biblical Literature is in its 130th year of publication. It now publishes only scholarly articles (not reviews) each quarter, with the large volume of book reviews covered in a separate publication, the Review of Biblical Literature, new installments of which are available to members by email every couple of weeks.

The Collaboration

The collaboration between Harper and the Society of Biblical Literature actually predates the formation of HarperCollins. It began with Harper’s Bible Dictionary, published by Harper & Row in 1985. (A revised edition of the Dictionary was published by HarperSanFrancisco, an imprint of HarperCollins, in 1996.) That Dictionary was presented as an entirely new work created by the Society of Biblical Literature, which holds the copyright.

This dictionary stands as the latest in the long line of Harper’s Bible dictionaries that have provided help in understanding the world of Scripture. This is, however, a totally new edition. …It also represents a unique venture in the field of publishing since it is the result of a cooperative project between a major learned society, the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL), and a major publishing house, Harper & Row. In this joint effort, the Society of Biblical Literature has assumed responsibility for the content of the Dictionary, while Harper & Row has handled matters of format and editorial style. This has assured the widest circulation [Harper’s part] of what is surely the most authoritative volume in its field [SBL’s part]. (From Preface to the 1st ed., The HarperCollins Bible Dictionary, rev. ed., Paul J. Achtemeier, gen. ed, 1996, p. xix.)

The success of the collaboration between the publisher and the Society prompted them to go forward with a second enterprise, Harper’s Bible Commentary, James L. Mays, gen. ed., Harper & Row, 1988. (The revised edition of 2000 was entitled The HarperCollins Bible Commentary.) This work provided general articles on the Biblical world, on major parts of the Bible, and individual commentaries on all the books of the Hebrew scriptures, the Apocrypha, and the New Testament. The Commentary is linked throughout by cross references to the articles in the Dictionary, making the volumes as complementary as possible.

This collaboration brought together the major association of Biblical scholars in North America and a publisher with outstanding experience and competence in designing and publishing resources for Biblical study.

The orientation and viewpoint of these scholarly volumes (and thus of the Study Bible yet to come) is expressed at the beginning by Paul Achtemeier:

The 179 scholars who have contributed their knowledge and skills to this [Dictionary] come from some seven countries, and are acknowledged experts in the fields about which they have written here. They were chosen because of their knowledge and their ability to communicate to scholars and nonscholars alike…. The authors do not, however, write from any confessional perspective, but rather from the broad perspective of expert biblical knowledge. Their intention is not to convert the reader to a particular religious point of view, but rather to provide information and to aid understanding. (Preface of 1985, Dictionary, p. xix.)

This scholarly objective, as distinguished from a religious confessional one, is a primary feature of all the works in the HarperCollins–SBL collaborations.

On the Way to the Study Bible

An Earlier Detour.

Three decades earlier, the idea of a Harper Study Bible had taken an entirely different route. Right after Harper & Row was formed in 1962, it published the Harper Study Bible, Revised Standard Version, Prepared and Edited by Harold Lindsell, 1964. Harold Lindsell was a prominent Evangelical Protestant, who had been a founding faculty member of Fuller Theological Seminary in Southern California in 1947, and had risen to be Vice President of the Seminary in 1964. Lindsell had spent six years creating this study Bible, dividing the RSV text into small units with topical headings, creating a marginal cross-reference system, writing introductions to all the Biblical books, and providing annotations running throughout.

Unlike the later HarperCollins Study Bible, the Lindsell Harper Study Bible was deliberately confessional.

…[T]he Harper Study Bible is amplified by hundreds of interpretive notes written from the standpoint of conservative theological scholarship…. Major doctrines of the Christian faith are frankly set forth, obscure passages are brought to light, terms are defined, and parables are clearly explained. (Harper Study Bible, Harper & Row, 1964, pp. xiii-xiv.)

Unlike other Evangelicals of his time, Lindsell apparently had no fear of the Revised Standard Version (soon to be replaced for Evangelicals by the New International Version [NIV]). He set forth to make the dreaded RSV an instrument of God’s Word for Evangelical students of the Bible. (A reissue of the Lindsell Harper Study Bible with the New Revised Standard Version text is listed as a Harper item in 1991.)

However sales and acceptance went with the 1964 Study Bible, Harold Lindsell gained major public notice with his book Battle for the Bible (Zondervan, 1976), which set Evangelicalism aflame over the issue of “inerrency” of the Bible. The future of Harper and its Study Bible lay elsewhere, with a different collaboration of the Publisher with the world of Biblical scholarship.

The Main Line Project.

The HarperCollins Study Bible was originally planned as a third member of the collaborative work between the Society and the Harper publishers, though a couple of matters changed along the way. First, HarperCollins was formed. There was new overall management and changes of names and personnel. It must have been clear, however, that Harper & Row had a couple of winners going in the religious field with their Dictionary and Commentary, and the obvious continuation of those projects to the next stage was not interrupted.

However, a new mainline Protestant version of the English Bible had appeared just at the time HarperCollins came on the scene. The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) had been released by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA. Like its predecessor, the Revised Standard Version, the NRSV quickly became the standard English Bible, not only for great numbers of Protestants (meaning most non-Evangelicals), but also for large parts of the academic world as well. The Harper Bible Dictionary and Harper Bible Commentary, in their first editions, had been geared to the RSV, but the now-to-be-completed Harper(Collins) Study Bible would be based on the new version, the NRSV.

The General Editor of the Study Bible explained the value of the NRSV as follows:

The NRSV is selected for this HarperCollins Study Bible for several reasons… First, the declared intention of the Translation Committee to produce a translation “as literal as possible” makes this version well adapted for study. For example, careful reading is enhanced when we can observe such things as the recurrence of certain key words; if these are rendered into our language with some consistency, the task [of performing a word-study, for example] is obviously easier. Second, the NRSV was designed to be as inclusive as possible, in two different senses. It includes the most complete range of biblical books representing the several differing canons of scripture… In addition, it avoids language that might inappropriately suggest limits of gender. (“Introduction to the HarperCollins Study Bible,” 1st ed., p. xvii.)

The First Edition (1993)

The HarperCollins Study Bible was first published in 1993, four years after the appearance of the New Revised Standard Version. HarperCollins thus beat Oxford University Press with a study Bible based on the NRSV by eight years—Oxford only producing The New Oxford Annotated Bible, Third Edition, in 2001. This was a valuable lead in the academic market for textbook Bibles. While the Revised edition of the Study Bible, published in 2006, is the focus of this review, the first edition was the major creation, and its editors (not continued in the Revised edition) played the chief role in selecting contributors and overseeing their work. (The original editors will be discussed here; contributors will be discussed under the Revised Edition below, since most of them remained the same and often their work was hardly changed in the Revised Edition.)

The General Editor.

The master overseer was Wayne A. Meeks, a widely known and esteemed New Testament scholar at Yale University. Meeks grew up in Alabama, majored in Physics in college and graduated from Austen Presbyterian Theological Seminary in 1956. After four years as a campus minister, he earned M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in New Testament at Yale University. He had brief teaching positions at Dartmouth College and Indiana University before becoming a professor in the Religious Studies Department at Yale (not the Divinity School), eventually occupying the Woolsey Professorship of Biblical Studies. He became emeritus in 1999 and has since been visiting professor at several prestigious institutions. See his perceptive autobiographical statement about the world of religious studies during his career, which he gave in an interview recently at Smith College, where he is currently visiting “Neilson Professor.”

Meeks’ scholarship focused on the early Christian social world, and his most famous work is The First Urban Christians: the Social World of the Apostle Paul, Yale University Press, 1983, translated into Spanish, Japanese, Italian, Portuguese, Korean, and German, with a second English edition in 2003. Other works pursued the same line of inquiry, The Moral World of the First Christians (1986) and The Origins of Christian Morality (1993). These were the studies he was engaged in at the time he edited the HarperCollins Study Bible. His most recent major work is Christ Is the Question, redirecting recent preoccupations with the historical Jesus (Westminster John Knox, 2006).

By the 1980s Meeks was a prominent and respected figure in the academy, serving as President of the Society of Biblical Literature in 1985. He was an excellent choice for general editor of the new SBL-HarperCollins project. His only contribution as writer was the careful and balanced, “Introduction to the HarperCollins Study Bible,” but the recruitment of contributors and seeing their work through the editorial process was a major behind-the-scenes task.

The Associate Editors.

Much of the direct contact with contributors was done by the four Associate Editors, each of whom was responsible for a section of the Bible. Jouette M. Bassler, Professor of New Testament at Perkins School of Theology (Southern Methodist University), assisted with the New Testament contributions. She had done her Ph.D. at Yale in Pauline studies, her dissertation published in the SBL dissertation series in 1982, Divine Impartiality: Paul and a Theological Axiom. She was thus well-known to Wayne Meeks. She edited several volumes on Pauline Theology in the SBL Symposium series, and, after the Study Bible had come out, she served as editor of the Journal of Biblical Literature from 1995 to 1999. She was presented with a fine celebration volume at her retirement, The Impartial God, edited by Calvin J. Roetzel and Robert L. Foster (Sheffield: Phoenix, 2007).

Werner E. Lemke, Professor of Old Testament Interpretation at Colgate Rochester Divinity School, was one of two Associate Editors responsible for the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. Lemke had come from Germany as a child, took a B.A. at the University of Illinois in Chicago, a B.D. at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago, and did his doctorate in Theology at Harvard University, studying with G. Ernest Wright and Frank M. Cross. He taught at Colgate Rochester from 1966 until his retirement in 2003. Lemke had done archeological work at the Gezer site in Israel, and was a contributor to the HarperCollins Bible Dictionary. Beside his editorial work on the Study Bible, he contributed the introduction and notes to the book of Lamentations.

Susan Niditch, Samuel Green Professor of Religion at Amherst College, was the second Associate Editor on the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. Ms Niditch graduated from Radcliffe College in 1972 and completed a Ph.D. in Old Testament at Harvard University in 1977. She has concentrated especially on folklore, as in Underdogs and Tricksters: A Prelude to Biblical Folklore, Harper & Row, 1987, and right after the HC Study Bible came out she published War in the Hebrew Bible: A Study in the Ethics of Violence (Oxford UP, 1993), Oral World and Written Word (Westminster, 1996), and Ancient Israelite Religion (Oxford UP, 1997). Most recently she has done a major commentary on Judges (Westminster John Knox, 2008) and more folklore motifs in “My Brother Esau Is a Hairy Man”: Hair and Identity in Ancient Israel (Oxford UP, 2008).

Eileen M. Schuller. The full version of the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible included the Deuterocanonical/Aprocryphal writings contained in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Bibles, and these were included in the HarperCollins Study Bible. The contributors of introductions and notes to these writings were overseen by Associate Editor Eileen M. Schuller. At the time the Study Bible was begun, Eileen Schuller was a newly-appointed Associate Professor of Religious Studies at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada—full professor in 1996. She had done her undergraduate work at Alberta in Classics, a Master’s in Near Eastern studies at the University of Toronto, and her Ph.D. at Harvard, concentrating on Dead Sea Scrolls. She had taught at the Atlantic School of Theology in Halifax before going to McMaster. Before the Study Bible she had published Non-Canonical Psalms from Qumran (Harvard Semitic Studies, 1986) and Post-Exilic Prophets, a popular survey (Michael Glazier, 1988). She has recently published a major review of her main area, The Dead Sea Scrolls: What Have We Learned? (Westminster John Knox, 2006).

The Editorial Board of the Study Bible also included a “Consulting Editor,” James Luther Mays, emeritus professor at Union Theological Seminary in Virginia. Mays was widely experienced in such publications and was a kind of dean of Old Testament studies in the Society of Biblical Literature, having been President of the Society in 1986, immediately following Wayne Meeks’ term as President. He was presumably a voice of wisdom and counsel along the way for the editors engaged in the main enterprise.

The Revised Edition (2006)

There were 61 contributors to the first edition of the HarperCollins Study Bible of 1993. Twenty of them had also been contributors to the Harper Bible Commentary of 1988, though often to different Biblical writings than they dealt with in the Study Bible. The Revised Edition of the Study Bible, 2006, saw 18 new contributors, most of whom only reviewed and revised the work of other contributors to the first edition. There was major continuity from the First to the Revised Editions, many contributors choosing to make no changes in their work, though a few did some serious rewriting (for example, Matthew) while the work of others was substantially revised by new contributors (for example, Joshua, Daniel, Mark).

The old editorial team was not revived for the Revised Edition. Instead, all editorial work was done by a new General Editor, Harold W. Attridge. As if Attridge had nothing to do! He had earned graduate degrees from the University of Cambridge (Marshall scholar) and Harvard University before teaching at Perkins School of Theology (1977-1985) and the University of Notre Dame, where he became Dean of the College of Arts and Letters (1985-1997). While there his most prestigious publication came out, Hebrews, in the Hermeneia series (Fortress Press 1989). From Notre Dame he moved to Yale Divinity School in 1997, served as President of the Society of Biblical Literature in 2001, and became Dean of the Divinity School in 2002. His editorship of the Revised Edition of the HarperCollins Study Bible was carried out amid his deanship responsibilities. There were no Associate Editors, and the task consisted of seeing if the original contributors were able or interested in revising their work, or in seeking new contributors to do such revising as was necessary. And then—of course—reviewing and revising the new contributions.

General Articles

In the original HarperCollins Study Bible there was only one general article, Wayne Meeks’ “Introduction.” This essay made it clear that the objective of the Study Bible was to enable the reader to “read” these ancient texts, starting with the translation, the diversity of the contents of the Biblical books, and proceeding to simple explanations of modern critical study of the scriptures, something about the communities that nurtured the scriptures, and the Society of Biblical Literature. This essay was kept unchanged in the Revised Edition.

The original Study Bible was probably planned with the old idea in mind that it was a partner with the HarperCollins Bible Dictionary, if not also with the Bible Commentary. So viewed, the Study Bible did not need its own general articles; they were already in the Dictionary. By the time of the Revised Edition, it was decided to add some general articles, and the Revised Edition of the Study Bible has the following essays at the beginning: (1) “Strategies for Reading Scripture,” by John Barton, just over four pages; (2) “Israelite Religion,” by Ronald Hendel, five pages; (3) The Greco-Roman Context of the New Testament,” by David E. Aune, almost eight pages; (4) “The Bible and Archeology,” by Eric M. Meyers, five pages; and (5) “Archeology and the New Testament,” by Jürgen Zangenberg, five pages. These articles are orientations to large complex areas. The article on Israelite Religion is pretty vanilla and fails to catch most of the drama the subject is loaded with.

Samples of Interpretation

(From the huge range of possibilities here, topics are selected that are mostly different from those discussed in reviews of other study Bibles. NOTE: page references are to the Revised Edition of 2006, unless otherwise stated.)

Genesis Revisited.

Only one of the contributions to the First Edition of the HarperCollins Study Bible was completely replaced in the Revised Edition, the treatment of Genesis. The introduction to Genesis in the First Edition had become embroiled in analyzing “symmetries” in the literary composition of the book and seriously neglected the usual kinds of information and discussion needed. In the Revised Edition, Ronald Hendel, Professor of Hebrew Bible at University of California Berkeley, provided an introduction with sections on “The Genesis of Genesis” on sources and composition, and “Science, History, and Genesis” on the nature of the ancient lore contained in Genesis. The revision was an important improvement.

The Exodus and History.

The introduction and notes on Exodus were virtually unchanged in the Revised edition of the Study Bible. They were done by Edward L. Greenstein, then Professor of Bible at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. (He was at JTSA from 1976 until 1995, when he became Professor of Biblical Studies at Tel Aviv University in Israel.) Prof. Greenstein emphasized that the “Biblical Context” of Exodus was covenant law and repeated covenant commitments in Israel’s history. On the “Historical Context,” however, he recognized that multiple sources and a lot of legendary enhancement had gone into the text. “Comparison of Exodus with folklore and myth suggests the story is already the stuff of legend. Historical reconstruction is accordingly obstructed by a centuries-long process of literary formation that can hardly be retraced” (p. 84). Internal Biblical references to the Exodus are relatively consistent, but external evidence of its historicity is lacking.

External considerations lead many to place the historical exodus in the late thirteenth century BCE during the long reign of Rameses II, when numbers of Western Semites are known to have inhabited the Nile Delta and when conflicts with foreign labor are reported. But there is no archeological record of the exodus in Egypt, and historical references in Exodus are slim, vague, or problematic. On the other hand, a relatively large number of Egyptian personal names are found within the tribe of Levi (e.g., Moses, Aaron, Miriam, Merari, Putiel, Phinehas, Hophni). There is therefore a basis to surmise that ancestors of some Israelites, and particularly those associated with the priestly tribe, came out of Egypt. (Page 84.)

Leviticus and the Holy.

The editors recruited a scholar “considered the world’s leading expert on Leviticus” (Wikipedia on “Jacob Milgrom”) to treat that Biblical book in the Study Bible. Jacob Milgrom grew up in New York, studied at Brooklyn College and at Jewish Theological Seminary of America, and then spent most of his long career at the University of California at Berkeley, where he headed the Department of Near Eastern Studies. He retired from Berkeley in 1994, emigrated to Israel, and continued publishing his major works. These were the three-volume commentary on Leviticus in the Anchor Bible series (1998, 2000, 2000) and the more popular version, Leviticus: A Book of Ritual and Ethics (Fortress Press, 2004).

By the time Milgrom did the introduction and notes for the Study Bible his views on Leviticus were fully developed. Thus the reader gets a succinct version of those mature conclusions. Leviticus consists of P (Priestly) tradition, chapters 1-16, and H (Holiness) tradition, chapters17-27. While both traditions are about holiness in Israel, P is fundamentally about holiness for priests while H is fundamentally about holiness for the people!

For P, spatial holiness is limited to the sanctuary; for H it is coextensive with the promised land. As for the holiness of persons, P restricts it to priests and Nazirites…; H extends it to all of Israel. This expansion follows logically from H’s doctrine of spatial holiness: since the land is holy, all who reside on it are to keep it that way. All adult Israelites are enjoined to attain holiness by observing God’s commandments, and even resident aliens must heed the prohibitive commandments, the violation of which threatens to pollute the land for all (e.g., 18:26).

…Pollution for H is nonritualistic [i.e., caused by violating commandments rather than by impersonal ritual circumstances], as shown by … the fact that the polluted land cannot be expiated by ritual. Violations irrevocably lead to the expulsion of its inhabitants (18:24-29; 20:22). [Concerning the editing of P and H], the pervasive intrusion of H characteristics into the P text points to the strong possibility that H is not only subsequent to P but is also P’s redactor. (Page 151.)

The Book of Kings and Its “Message.”

This book is a fulcrum in the Deuteronomistic view of Israel’s history and cries out for clarity in how Israel failed in its historic destiny. The reader gets only limited help in the HarperCollins Study Bible. The book of I and II Kings (there was only one scroll until it was translated into Greek) is annotated by Robert R. Wilson, noted Old Testament scholar at Yale Divinity School from 1972 on. The problem here is that the reader gets little help with the larger units of the work. The whole of Kings has three parts: Solomon, the Divided Kingdoms, and Judah Alone. Each of these parts also has major sections: Solomon (I Kings 3-11) has an A, B, C, B’, A’ layout with the Temple at C; play on Solomon’s wealth, wisdom, and administration in the B and B’ sections; and the A section is Divine Favor (chapter 3) and A’ is the Divine Disfavor (chapter 11). This puts the “bad” part of Solomon’s reign at the end. A similar blocking out of the mass of materials dealing with Elijah, Elisha, and Jehu would help (I Kings 17-II Kings 10). The LARGER units of narrative need to be highlighted, not just a continuous string of chapter and half-chapter units. (The introduction has no outline of the book.)

It is appropriate to note here that there is no standard format for the topics and sections included in the introductions to the Biblical books. Kings has three headings in the introduction (Revised Edition): Name and Canonical Position, Literary Character, and Message. “Message” is a surprising term here. What does “Message” mean in this context? The word evokes overtones of “sermon,” message to be taken into one’s religious life. Is that what the Society of Biblical Literature really wants to offer its academically-attuned readers? Probably not. The term is probably an echo from the religious past of these Biblical scholars. (Other terms used in introductions probably with a similar meaning are “Theology,” “Significance,” and even “Content.”)

“Message” is not used in all, or even most introductions to Biblical books. It is found in Joshua in the form “Content and Message,” here in Kings simply as “Message,” and otherwise in the Old Testament only in prophetic books: Ezekiel, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Micah (“The Message”), Nahum, Zephaniah, Haggai, and Malachi. People are accustomed to prophetic books having “messages.” In the Apocrypha only III Maccabees has a “Message and Outlook.”. In the introductions to New Testament books, surprisingly no Gospels or Pauline letters have “Messages”; only the Catholic Epistles of James and I, II, and III John. These various “Messages” are probably hangovers from confessional days still around at the academic morning after.

Nevertheless, there is an important message for the academic scholar in the book of Kings: the point should be driven home repeatedly that the centralization of all sacrifice at Jerusalem—for which all Judean kings are held responsible but only Hezekiah and Josiah achieve—was socially and politically impossible until Judah was a minor little state. The entire book is structured around a utopian demand; it is projecting a late Judean cultic and political program, and a radical one at that, back onto the previous periods of the monarchy. It was an actual program in Josiah’s time, but the commentator should not give credence to the condemnation of the ages of Solomon or Jeroboam or even of Ahab by blandly accepting that late Judean doctrine.

The Unity of Isaiah—editing or a common tradition.

The long-standing modern division of the book of Isaiah into at least three parts, First, Second, and Third Isaiah, is treated in the Study Bible by J.J.M. Roberts, William Henry Green Professor of Old Testament (Emeritus in 2006) at Princeton Theological Seminary. Roberts had long been an advocate of the importance of the Zion tradition in Israelite religion, and the book of Isaiah is heavily laden with that ancient urban-oriented complex. In the Revised Edition, Roberts adds a new section to his introduction to Isaiah, entitled “An Overarching Unity.”

In the ten to fifteen years since the first edition of the Study Bible much ink had been shed arguing for various kinds of unity between the “first” Isaiah and the later parts of the book. Here Roberts listens to such arguments for unity and gives his own assessment.

…[T]he evidence for a thorough, intentional, coherent editing of the book as a whole is not very persuasive. Such reconstructions [which propose strong editorial unity throughout the book] are far more hypothetical than the reconstructions of traditional historical criticism…. Thus the opinion reflected in these notes is that the overarching unity of the book owes more to a common theological tradition in which all the authors stood than to any consistent and coherent editing the book has undergone. The common theological tradition and the fact that the later authors were responding to and commenting on the earlier oracles in the book are sufficient explanation for the overarching unity. (Page 914.)

Roberts retained the three sections of his old introduction, one each on First, Second, and Third Isaiah.

Matthew Joins the Empire.

Between the First Edition of the Study Bible and its Revision in 2006, Denis Duling, Professor of Religious Studies at Canisius College in Buffalo, New York, discovered that Matthew had a lot—if not to say, at least to “imply”—about the Roman Empire. Between 1993 and 2006 others had been advancing the thesis that Matthew had an extensive subtext about the Empire, particularly Warren Carter in such publications as Matthew and Empire: Initial Explorations (Trinity Press International, 2001) and Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading (Orbis Books, Maryknoll, NY, 2003). In 1993 Denny Duling had provided a helpful and well-balanced introduction to Matthew, which had little to say about the Roman Empire. However, by 2006 we get the following additions to the introduction:

The Gospel of Matthew was written by a subject of the Roman Empire, which can be described as a hierarchically ordered, commercialized, advanced agrarian (peasant) society with no middle class. [Several sentences describe the ruling classes, the underclasses, the “expendables,” subjection of women and children, rule by “client” kings, etc.]

Political resistance to Rome in the Gospel is not overt, but nonetheless suggestively implied: Jesus descends from King David…and is the promised Messiah;… he is a threat to Rome’s official ruling Herodian kings (ch. 2); his message is about the kingdom of heaven…; his predecessor, the prophet John the Baptizer, is executed by Rome’s appointed representative, Herod Antipas…; and, most important, his execution is by crucifixion…, a Roman penalty mainly for political rebels. In short, though the Matthean plot is not overtly political, economic and political issues of the larger Roman Empire are not far under the surface and should not be ignored in considering the circumstances of the Gospel’s composition. (Pages 1666-67.)

Thus does another fad take up a lot of space in the Revised Study Bible.

Mark, Well Introduced.

Some of the introductions of the original Study Bible were revised in 2006, not by the original contributors but by new ones. An example of an excellent job of rewriting by another hand is the introduction to the Gospel According to Mark. The revision was done by Adela Yarbro Collins, Buckingham Professor of New Testament Criticism and Interpretation at Yale Divinity School. (She had previously been at Notre Dame and then the University of Chicago Divinity School.) Ms Collins left the structure of the introduction in place but rewrote most paragraphs, many very substantially. Her work replaced general and flowing statements with precise and carefully referenced ones. At the time she did this revision she was finishing a landmark commentary on Mark in the Hermeneia series (Fortress Press, 2007), and the decade of probing issues and settling on mature views about the genre of Mark, about its setting and occasion, and about its style and composition gives her introduction to the Revised Edition polish and authority. She did add one new section, Relation to Other Gospels, in which she discusses and defends the Two-Source Theory, and assesses similarities and differences between Mark and John. Her rewriting of these topics turned a satisfactory introduction into an excellent one.

Paul’s Letters.

The major letters of Paul are well-worked territory in New Testament studies. Leander E. Keck, a colleague of Wayne Meeks at the Yale Divinity School (Winkley Professor of Biblical Theology, emeritus in 2006) did Romans with only modest changes in the Revised Edition. Victor Paul Furnish, University Distinguished Professor of New Testament at Perkins School of Theology, a colleague of Associate Editor Jouette Bassler, did Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, altering the introduction in the Revised Edition only by the addition of a single paragraph on “Significance.”


One of the leading scholars on the New Testament and Greco-Roman literature was recruited to do Revelation in the Study Bible: David E. Aune. Aune had been Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at Loyola University of Chicago when he first did the book of Revelation for the Study Bible. He was in the Department of Theology at Notre Dame when the Revised Edition came out. Aune had concluded some of the issues of the composition of the book of Revelation by seeing two editions of the work.

In the light of conflicting evidence for the early and late date of Revelation, it seems likely that the book was actually composed and assembled in stages over many years and was only completed in its present form toward the end of the first or the early second century CE. Though certainty is not possible, the first edition of the book probably consisted of 1.4-11; 4.1-22.5, to which 1.1-3; 1.12-3.22; 22.6-21 were added in a second edition. (Page 2087.)

The full versions of his arguments were presented at length in his three-volume commentary on Revelation published in the Word Biblical Commentary series (Nelson, 1997-1999).

Some Evaluative Comments

The HarperCollins Study Bible is the work of eighty or so established scholars from the Society of Biblical Literature. It represents the best that professional Biblical scholarship can bring together in a single enterprise (though keeping updated is a perpetual challenge for scholars). In book after book, one can be confident that the presentation here would be accepted in any mainline academic discussion. The model clientele for this work is students in colleges, universities, and seminaries.

Personal note: For years this was my Study Bible of choice. I literally wore out a copy of the First Edition of this work when I was doing lectionary studies from 2003 to 2005. After three years of heavy use at the desk—no carrying around—the binding began to dissolve and hunks of pages fell out. I mainly used the translation, which I was constantly checking against other things, but the notes at the bottom were my quick reference for other passages I knew about but needed exact citations at the moment. I used the introductions, of course, which were usually familiar territory but you never know when a new wrinkle or a surprise will show up. That is my testimonial to the usefulness of the HarperCollins Study Bible.

This Study Bible has most of the features common to such works today: Besides the essentials—the text, the introductions, the notes—it has a time-line of ancient Mesopotamia to the Roman Empire (pp. xxxiv-xxxv); it has forty or so illustrations, in-text maps, and tables (listed on p. xxix); it has eighteen color maps at the back (if they haven’t fallen out; the color maps are always the first hunk of pages to go). On charts, it is a little surprising to still find the old W.F. Albright dates in the Chronology of the Kings of the Divided Monarchy (p. 500). There have been many more recent chronologies and almost no one uses 922 BCE as the starting point of the divided monarchy any more. The Revised Edition added a concise Concordance to the NRSV, containing 75 pages of triple-column tiny-print entries.

I am ambivalent about the General Articles added to the Revised Edition, especially the Religion of Israel item. These articles look duty-driven to me: this is something we have to have, get someone to write them. However, Aune’s article on the Greco-Roman world is an excellent piece, in part because it is longer than the others. The original HarperCollins idea may have been better: read about these things in the HarperCollins Bible Dictionary.

On the selection of contributors: After I have completed this review, I have a strong sense that the old original bias of the Society of Biblical Literature still broods over this work. The northeastern United States (with southeastern Canada) is much more heavily represented than the rest of North America, either in the present locale of the scholars or as the location of their graduate studies. One could almost say the HarperCollins Study Bible is the work of Yale University, its graduates and friends.

Along the same line, when compared with the recent editions of the Oxford Annotated Bible, the HarperCollins work seems to represent a much higher percentage of seminary faculty, as opposed to colleges and non-seminary graduate schools. As with the northeastern bias, one may suppose that that’s where the quality workers are, but especially when one considers that faculty members of Evangelical seminaries are entirely omitted from the Study Bible, it seems likely that the Society includes a higher percentage of non-seminary faculty than is represented in the HarperCollins Study Bible.

Also concerning selection of contributors, the editors recruited Jewish members of the Society to do major works in the Hebrew Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Ruth are all done by Jewish scholars. (I have deliberately not attempted a complete count of contributors by religious tradition, but those stood out.)

Finally, some words about the mechanics of the finished product. As with other recent revised editions of study Bibles, the Revised Edition of the HarperCollins has sacrificed legibility and ease of use in order to cram more smaller print text onto the page. The main fonts may be smaller only in certain areas, but there is much less white space on the pages of the Revised Editions. The margins are typically a half-inch or less. No making notes in the margins here! The Revised Edition ends its text, before the Concordance, on page 2120, whereas the First Edition ended the same text on page 2346. And this is not because there were any substantial omissions from the First to the Revised; the reverse was the case. I found no introductions that had been shortened, but many that had been increased in length. The margins, and size of font in some places, have been squeezed to reduce the number of pages by 225, while the actual text has increased.

Miniscule margins, tiny print, thinner paper: these are the prices we pay to keep the cost of the Study Bible down and the publication viably competitive.

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