A reader-friendly take on the theology of Genesis

Last Friday 3 November 2017, the latest book by Fr Antony Campbell SJ, Genesis Beyond Sources: A New Approach, was launched alongside six other books at Catholic Theological College in Melbourne, by Fr Brendan Byrne SJ.

Last Friday 3 November 2017, the latest book by Fr Antony Campbell SJ, Genesis Beyond Sources: A New Approach, was launched at Catholic Theological College in Melbourne.

It was launched by Fr Brendan Byrne SJ during what Fr Byrne described as a ‘very biblical event’ alongside six other books: Discerning the Dynamics of Jeremiah 1–25 by Rev. Assoc. Prof. Mark O’Brien OP; Thinking Faith: Moods, Methods and Mysteries. Selected Essays by Rev. Prof. Anthony Kelly CSsR; and four books by Rev. Prof. Francis J. Moloney SDB AM: Johannine Studies 1975–2017, Gospel Interpretation and Christian Life, Eucharist as a Celebration of Forgiveness, and Interpreting the Gospel and Letters of John.

The full text of Fr Byrne’s words about Fr Campbell’s book are below.

Tony’s book provides an account of the work he has been doing in collaboration with Fr Mark O’Brien OP over many years on re-thinking the Documentary Hypothesis as an explanation of the so-called ‘sources’ that most scholars found in the Pentateuch.

Tony and Mark set out the results of their collaboration in a joint work Rethinking the Pentateuch published in 2005. Tony concedes in the Introduction to this [latest] work that Rethinking the Pentateuch was a dense book and not easy of access to any apart from the dedicated scholar. Now Tony has set out to present the results of his and Mark’s work — and some further developments in their thinking — in this more reader-friendly fresh volume.

It’s indeed gratifying to all of us, Tony, that despite failing health in recent years, you have addressed that aim very successfully. I set out to read the Introduction, which is quite long, and was soon gripped, and challenged and in a way pummeled. Tony’s prose is ever lucid, at times sparkling, the content constantly unsettling.

Almost every paragraph makes you stop and think, and then, just when you have decided, ‘Yes, I’ve got it’, the next one pulls the rug out from your certainty and makes you think again. And this of course is simply a late reflection of why Tony was such a great teacher. He really kept students on their intellectual toes all the time.

What Tony makes you think about are not simply exegetical details in the text but the theological questions — quite radical theological questions (and I hit the first two syllables in that adjective theo — God questions) — that his approach to the text demands.

The approach means a move away from seeing biblical texts as end-products of various sources for present-day users to expound. Rather, they are base-texts for ancient users to hear, expanded and developed in performance and elaboration.

The duplications of various traditions in the documents, along with the brevity of most of the narrative episodes, are features that have led Tony and Mark to a whole new paradigm of interpretation in this respect — one that goes along with a broader tendency, in recent biblical studies, towards a relaxation of a tight focus upon history.

From a more theological aspect, Tony addresses the issue of the contemporary ‘desacralisation’ of Scripture and how the various texts it contains can be regarded as ‘sacred’ and in some sense ‘the Word of God’. Tony illustrates these matters in three cases taken from stories about prophets. It was here that I felt most ‘pummeled’ theologically.

I intended to leave my reading of the work there at the Introduction. However, long fascinated by the opening three chapters of the Bible, I couldn’t resist taking a peek at the opening chapter on Genesis 1-11, notably the discussion of the First Account of Creation, Gen 1:1–2:4a. I was soon entranced by so many illuminating observations, again of a highly theological nature: the implication of the plural deliberation, ‘Let us make …’; the words ‘image and likeness’ when attributed, as Tony says, remarkably to God.

Let me quote the finely worded paragraph in which Tony sums up his view of this text:

‘Given that the text of Genesis One has been so carefully crafted in the unfolding of its detail, it is unlikely that it was intended to serve as a base text for future users. It is not a story to be unfolded. It is a text to be heard and reflected on. It is supremely a piece of theology. It is for theologians to ponder, for readers to hear with both wonder and joy.’

Let me conclude with the question Tony leaves us with concerning this passage:

‘The created world, as experienced by Israel in all its turmoil and trouble, was — as experienced by faith — a world where all was in order, an ordered world emerging from the utterance of its creator. Is it possible to have one as well as the other — the world we have now, both created and disordered, both from God and from us?’

That’s an example of the existential theological questions that Tony’s masterly analysis of the text puts to us throughout the work. Here, Tony, is a most necessary, timely, and engaging climax to your lifetime of theological pondering, researching and educating. It will ensure that your contribution lives on for many Toledoth to come.

Fr Brendan Byrne SJ