Richard Hess, The Old Testament: A Historical, Theological, and Critical Introduction (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2016). xiv + 801 pp. Hb. US $49.99. ISBN: 9780801037146.
Richard Hess has published a great deal in the area of Israelite religion as well as the ancient Near Eastern context in which Israel existed. Thus, it is not surprising to learn of this new and ambitions project: a comprehensive introduction to the Old Testament.
Hess is professor of Old Testament at Denver Seminary and is firmly situated within the broad evangelical camp. He has degrees from Wheaton College, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and Hebrew Union College (PhD). He is also a full and active member of the Evangelical Theological Society.
Whereas these qualifications in the past might have branded Hess as a certain kind of Evangelical, the landscape of Evangelicalism as changed quite a bit over the years. Hess is unquestionably a firm believer, committed to interpreting the Scriptures for the life and wellbeing of the church, but he does not always take the traditional view of date and authorship. However, it must be said that he is on the whole more conservative than most biblical scholars. He often defends the unity of books, though, for example with Isaiah and Daniel, Hess does not subscribe to single authorship.
The text itself is helpfully structured. It contains an introduction and a chapter for each book of the Old Testament. The book contains black and white illustrations throughout and also has a centrally located quire of four glossy pages with full color pictures.
The introduction covers very important topics that, in my experience, are all too often left unaddressed in introductory classes. These topics include the various textual witnesses to the Old Testament. This issue very helpfully segways into other important issues such as the shape and scope, as well as the formation process, of our canon. These issues are particularly challenging in the field of Old Testament study, but are nonetheless essential for students to consider.
The chapters themselves are also very helpfully organized, and Hess provides much for the reader. He begins with an outline and summary of each book and then moves on to inform the reader as to the history of interpretation in specific modes of reading. He begins this survey with Premodern Readings and then moves on to Higher Criticism (a term that critical scholars no longer use), Literary Readings, Gender and Ideological Readings, Ancient Near Eastern Context, and Canonical Context. In almost every case, Hess presents these interpretive approaches and concludes by assessing their strengths and weaknesses. Part of the reason for this is to avoid isolating his readership and avoid controversy. Another aspect is that such an approach allows instructors to teach what they want without having to compete with Hess.
The intended audience for this book is clearly university and seminary students. Indeed, it is perfectly formatted for such an application. Its survey approach and wide scope of material will also be a welcome aspect for many Old Testament instructors. This strength is also its greatest weakness. It is so broad, that it is not very deep. The text will serve well as an introduction to the whole Old Testament, but the footnotes are barely adequate and would not serve the student well as a first step in research.
Hess has undoubtedly provided evangelicals with an immensely accessible and helpful book. He addresses each book of the Old Testament in turn and gives due treatment to all. Hess should be commended for addressing such a wide range of interpretive background for each Old Testament book, and this information will no doubt prove helpful to many students. More conservative evangelicals will struggle with his acceptance of many critical theories of composition, however the instructor will find in Hess a breadth that is unmatched in this decade.