Behind the Scenes of the Old Testament

Interview with Jonathan S. Greer, John W. Hilber, and John H. Walton

Megan Sauter (BAR): What inspired you to create this volume?


Behind the Scenes of the Old Testament: Cultural, Social, and Historical Contexts, edited by Jonathan S. Greer, John W. Hilber, and John H. Walton (Baker Academic, 2018)

Jonathan S. Greer: I teach a core course titled “The Ancient World of the Bible,” and I always struggled when it came to textbooks—not because there aren’t any, but, rather, because I needed so many to adequately cover all of the aspects that I sought to address: geography, archaeology, ancient Near Eastern texts and iconography, etc. For a while I had in mind a “dream textbook” that would cover the breadth of material in a way that would be accessible for students in this course and others as well.

At first I had delusions that I might attempt some sort of project like this myself, but when I saw The World of the New Testament (Baker Academic, 2013), I thought how much better it would be if experts in each of the various subfields could be pulled together for it. I called up Dave Nelson at Baker to see if anything was in the works for an Old Testament counterpart, and he asked me if I wanted to tackle it. Knowing this was too big of a project to attempt alone, I went down the hall and asked my colleague John Hilber if he’d join me, and thankfully he agreed. After further conversations with Baker, we invited John Walton, and he also agreed. It’s been a pleasure to work together at the various stages in the process, from drawing up lists of potential contributors from our various circles to discussing the details of the essays.

John W. Hilber: The course syllabus for the Old Testament section of Jonathan Greer’s class became the table of contents for Behind the Scenes of the Old Testament. The rubrics surrounding “drama,” which provides the framework for the volume, was his creative impulse as well.

MS: Who is the target audience? Would BAR readers be able to pick up a copy and understand its content? Who must go out and get a copy of this book?

Greer: Well, “Who must go out and get a copy?” is a funny question to ask us, since we are highly biased and would answer, “Everyone”! To be a bit more objective, we might say anyone who wants to understand more about the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible in its ancient context. I think BAR readers would enjoy and benefit from the volume, and they will find many familiar BAR authors among our contributors.

Hilber: The intended reader is an upper division undergraduate or seminary student. A secondary audience is any biblical scholar or theologian who needs a concise introduction to one of the 66 topics addressed in the volume. The average BAR reader is already informed on many of the issues addressed, and they would benefit equally with the student or nonspecialist scholar.

John H. Walton: The BAR audience is academically inclined and is both curious and interested about these topics. Though we designed it to be a textbook, we believe that BAR readers would find it very satisfying.


John H. Walton, Jonathan S. Greer, and John W. Hilber. Photo: Robin Ngo

MS: How did you select the volume’s title and subtitle?

Greer: The title draws on the metaphor of “drama,” around which we built the structure of the volume: elements of the drama—stage (geography), sets and props (archaeology), scripts (ancient Near Eastern literature), and frames (iconography); acts and scenes (long-range and event-based histories from different perspectives); and themes (focused within religious, social, and economic institutions).

The subtitle provides more detail through commonly used, yet overlapping, categories that could in one way or another all be included under “culture.” By “culture,” we mean the institutions, art, literature, music, religion, manners, customs, histories, etc., of ancient peoples in and around the world of the Bible. Adding “social” conveys our aim to target the cultural expressions of a variety of people from various segments of society within the ancient world and the relational networks in which they were embedded. And by “historical,” we alert readers that we include coverage of portrayals of events and their physical contexts. When one opens the volume, it will be evident that we engage the topic of “history” from a variety of vantage points.

Walton: The subtitle is quite broad, but it also helps the potential reader to know what the volume is not doing. So, for example, this book is not addressing apologetics. We are offering articles that help to understand context, not articles to defend the Bible.

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MS: How long is the average chapter? How many images does it have?

Hilber: The greatest challenge for contributors and editors was to keep each essay brief. The average length is 4,000 words, or about 8 pages. Some are 6 pages, and others run 10 pages. According to the front matters, there are 79 images, but these are not distributed evenly across the volume. Chapters dealing with archaeology or iconography, for example, tend to include more images.

MS: From the table of contents, it looks like this book covers everything! How did you decide what to include? Is there anything you had to exclude for space reasons?

Greer: Inevitably, there is always more you wished you could have added or fleshed out, but we aimed to include as many of the relevant topics as we could, and we are so grateful to our many contributors who lent their expertise, as well as for Baker’s patience with many tweaks along the way.

Hilber: We tried to consider everything in the cognitive environment of ancient Israel. What do we consider for possible background when we study the Bible? One topic I can think of that we overlooked was maritime culture. There is a brief treatment in the chapter on trade, but this does not address topics like shipbuilding or naval warfare—ironic in that the cover art features a Phoenician warship!

Walton: We tried not to overlook any significant areas of discussion. What got left out was some of the rich detail that could have been offered in any of the topics we addressed. Since the contributors are all experts in their fields, it was difficult to refrain from laying out all of the evidence and depth that could lead to deeper understanding.

MS: What is your favorite chapter or section—and why?

Greer: I can’t really say, not only because I don’t want to leave anyone out, but also because each essay plays a part in the larger whole of the work.

Hilber: My personal interests lie primarily in comparative ancient Near Eastern religions, so I was very eager to see the thematic essays on Israelite religion. But an important and delightful contribution is the section on iconography, which is often neglected.

Walton: Comparative study is my discipline of choice, so I am delighted to have these essays.

MS: Did you learn anything new while editing this volume?

Greer: In nearly every essay I learned something new or saw familiar information presented in new ways. It was such a privilege and pleasure to steward these presentations from a panel of experts. The volume is what it is because of the contributors.

Hilber: It was very difficult to edit these essays for content because every contributor is a specialist at the top of their field. What could I do other than sit at the feet of these experts and learn from them?

Walton: Everyone will learn something new from these essays.

MS: With 66 chapters by 67 different contributors, how long did it take you to edit everything?

Greer: The whole project took about three and a half years and was at times a bit of a juggling act with so many moving pieces in the air—it took all three of us for sure!

Hilber: All three of us read every essay and commented, often more than once. Besides the fact that the volume is Jonathan’s brain child, he also managed a spreadsheet that tracked the production flow for each stage of editing. It is right that Jonathan’s name comes first on the cover besides the fact the “G” comes before “H” and “W”!

Walton: One of the aspects of the book that is most important is its collaborative nature. Having more than 60 scholars contribute to the book allowed us to take advantage of a wide range of expertise, as each contributor wrote about topics of their specialty. But at a second level, the three editors each represent areas of expertise that allowed us to engage with the contributors according to our specialties in the editing process. Furthermore, it meant that we each had different networks and contacts that resulted in building a strong team of contributors. The advantage of collaboration is that it makes the final product stronger than any one person could have accomplished by himself.

MS: What’s next? Will there be a Behind the Scenes of the New Testament?

Hilber: I’ve been asked this question by others. It is certainly not in my orb to consider, but Baker Academic’s The World of the New Testament is comparable.

Walton: We would welcome such a volume!

This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on April 30, 2019.

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