Book Reviews

Book Review: Textuality and the Bible (Michael Shepherd)

Michael Shepherd is Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at Cedarville University. I first heard of Shepherd when Lindsay Kennedy reviewed Text and Canon. In Shepherd’s chapter, he “traces the exodus/new exodus theme within the compositional seas of the Twelve“ (121).

Shepherd writes with his eye on the biblical canon. In his book The Twelve Prophets in the New Testament, he argues that when the NT quotes from the Twelve minor prophets the larger context of the whole (all twelve prophets) is in view, and the NT quote and cannot be understood correctly apart from this. (He’s also written a commentary on the Twelve Minor Prophets.) In Daniel in the Context of the Hebrew Bible, rather than placing Daniel within the context of world history or the apocalyptic genre, Shepherd views Daniel through the Hebrew Bible’s lens. We interpret Daniel first by seeing how it fits into the OT’s story.

In this volume, Textuality and the Bible, Shepherd uses different approaches to show how and why we should understand the bible on its own terms. We should study the Bible to know the Bible.

Chapter One looks at how we can trust the text of the Bible. Rather than looking at the historical background of the text to understand and explain what really happened, we should look at the Bible’s interpretation of the event. For example, it would be been amazing to see the parting of the Red Sea and experience God’s power, but would I know anything about the new exodus Jesus brings? I could have stood at the crucifixion of Christ, but would I know that he was dying for the sins of the world? Doubtful. I know that because the Bible tells me so (and because he was resurrected and taught his disciples).

Shepherd shares an illustration of a Rembrandt painting used by John Sailhamer: Rembrandt was famous for his use of shadows. We have historians who could fill in the details of life in the seventeenth century and tell us what is really going on. But Rembrandt’s meaning is both in the shadows and in what we see. The shadows block out irrelevant details and help us to focus on what is relevant. If we uncovered what was irrelevant, we would lose Rembrandt’s focus.

I agree to a point. I am fascinated by canonical studies, but I do think that historical studies help us understand the Bible too. The laws of Exodus through Deuteronomy can be very strange. However, once one reads a few of the laws from the countries that surrounded Israel they understand that God’s laws to Israel were much more gracious. Israel would be a light to the nations by embodying God’s gracious laws. I am intrigued by the canonical approach and would like to see it in regards to the OT law. I don’t completely disagree with Shepherd and Sailhamer’s approach here, I just have a few questions about it.

In Chapter Two, the Bible shows a self-awareness of the bookmaking process and its importance. These writings were intended to be used by many.

Similar to the previous chapter, Chapter Three argues that the Bible was wrote with the canon in mind. The biblical canon “provides the interpretive context and structural framework for the biblical texts” (27). Shepherd writes, “The seams that connect the Torah to the Prophets (Deut 34:5–Josh 1:9) and the Prophets to the Writings (Mal 3:22 [Eng., 4:4]–Ps 1) betray the work of a composer/author” (27). The canonical text is to be studied by a wise person who waits for a “messianic prophet like Moses” who Elijah-like forerunner “will prepare the way for the Day of YHWH” (27).

In Chapter Four, Shepherd notes that interpretation isn’t about contextualizing the Bible to our daily life. Instead, we are to be contextualizing the reader to the Bible. We want the reader to be shaped by the Bible. The Bible’s texts are already application-filled, but the reader must be patient. When it comes to interpreting narrative, we need to understand how storytelling works. The Biblical writers don’t spell everything out for us. They want us to search, to hunt for the answer. Is this person a good guy, a bad guy, or something in between?

Characters are often depersonalized. In the Joseph story, the other brothers refer to Joseph the Egyptian ruler as “the man” (Gen 43:3), because by this point in their eyes he was just being difficult. Pharoah is never mentioned by name (unlike Nebuchadnezzar), which makes it easier for us to accept the divine hardening that occurs. Goliath is introduced by name in 1 Sam 17:4, but with the exception of v. 23, he is only referred to as “the Philistine.” Yes, he is the representative of the Philistines, but the reader feels virtually no remorse for this uncircumcised man. On the other hand, David is referred to by name all throughout the chapter. He ends by comparing the textual witnesses of 1 Sam 17-18.

After this, the book becomes quite technical.

Chapter Five views the book of Chronicles through the Syriac version, its dependence on the Targums (or vice versa), and its relationship with the MT.

Chapter Six, looks at the object marker for the preposition את in later biblical Hebrew.

Chapter Seven is a study in semantics for the word “love” (אהב). The word for “hate” (שנא) can often mean “reject,” yet, as Shepherd argues, in many cases אהב means “choose.” But lexicons, commentaries, and translations don’t see it that way. Shepherd looks at different instances in the OT where אהב can mean “to choose,” concluding that it means “to choose with devotion or commitment” (102). It is an act of devotion, like we often see with the word agapē (ἀγάπη, Jn 3:16; Rom 5:9; Eph 2:4; 1 Jn 4:9-10).


This is a surprisingly short book. This is not a bad thing as many of his monographs are fairly short (often less than 200 pages). That said, this is quite academic. It is important, but this sort of book is probably meant for those who have PhD’s or have spent a lot of time with the Hebraic language. I appreciate Shepherd’s work and his love for understanding the Bible as it has been recorded and given to us, and doing that requires extensive technical knowledge of the Bible, hermeneutics, textual studies and variants, and so on. Writing that down in an understandable way is no easy task. However, this book is worthwhile for those who have the interest and want to see a good example of doing textual studies as seen in the last few chapters.


  • Author: Michael B. Shepherd
  • Paperback: 122 pages
  • Publisher: Wipf and Stock (March 18, 2016)

Find it on Amazon and Wipf and Stock!

Disclosure: I received this book free from Wipf and Stock. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255

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