Walter C. KAISER, Jr.: The Old Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? Downers Grove, IL: Inter Varsity Press, 2001. pp. 239. $12.99 pb. ISBN 0-8308-1975-4.
Reviewed by Robert A. KUGLER, Gonzaga University, SPOKANE, WA 99258

Kaiser offers in this little book a classic example of American Protestant evangelicals' two related concerns regarding the Bible. One care is for the Bible's relevance. Anxiety on this score is especially high when it comes to the Old Testament, a collection of books which to some modern readers seem hopelessly out of touch with any reality that concerns them. The other concern regarding the Bible is that it be proved "reliable" in the sense that its historical reports have some correspondence with actual events in the past. Here too the anxiety runs particularly high in the case of the Old Testament because of the distance in time between modern readers and the events recounted in, for instance, Genesis to 2 Kings. Kaiser treats both of these concerns by devoting a section each to the questions "Are the Old Testament Canon and Text Reliable?" "Is the History of the Old Testament Reliable?" "Is the Message of the Old Testament Reliable?" and "Is the Message of the Old Testament Relevant for Today?" A brief sketch of how Kaiser addresses the reliability and relevance of the Bible's narratives and laws suffices to show the way he works in the rest of the book.

In treating the reliability of the stories of the "patriarchs" (even the term used here reflects Protestant evangelicalism - the preferred appellation among most critics is "ancestors" if only because the stories are about men and women) Kaiser turns especially to archaeological evidence (e.g., tablets from Mari and Nuzi) and historicist readings of the narratives. He does so to confirm their close correspondence at least to the patterns of life typical of the times to which many critics assign the stories in Genesis 12-50. This he does against the grain of most other scholarly treatments of the ancestral narratives which see here less history than ancestral saga. His interest, then, is focused mostly on establishing, as much as the evidence will permit, the "factuality" of the narrative. Thus what makes the narratives in Genesis 12-50 for Kaiser and his readers reliable is some proof that they reflect to one degree or another what actually happened in the past that they appear to narrate. It seems that without such proof the ancestral narratives would not be reliable, at least for Kaiser and his readers.

When it comes to the Old Testament's relevance Kaiser begins with the assertion that the first step toward relevance is the demonstration of "reliability" detailed in the first part of the book. That being said, Kaiser knows historical reliability to be insufficient for modern readers; for example, one may rightly say, "So what if the laws of the Pentateuch really were produced through God's address to Moses? How does this make them relevant for contemporary experience?" So his next step is to show how, in fact, God's principles for human life before God are enmeshed precisely in the historical realities he uncovers in the text. Thus in his treatment of the relevance of the laws of the Torah he suggests that their particulars are not so important as the overarching notions of conduct relative to God and neighbor to which they point. In this way, Kaiser says, the Old Testament remains relevant to modern readers.

Now from this it should be clear that Kaiser's book is not interesting so much for the details of it as for the view it epitomizes. He provides striking testimony to American Protestant evangelicals' commitment to the Enlightenment principle that what is verifiable is reliable. For him and readers like him the Bible is to be held in high regard as a reliable witness because it can be "proven" to be "true." And as the example above shows, once that result has been achieved there comes an ironic twist: since the Bible is proven reliable one may then disregard the historical particulars once so important and generalize from them instead to produce the relevance of the ancient text for today. This pattern of equating reliability with historical certainty followed by abandoning history for relevance is representative of the tradition in which Kaiser stands, and is evinced well by this small volume.

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