David Lambert. How Repentance Became Biblical: Judaism, Christianity, and the Interpretation of Scripture. Oxford University Press: 2015.
Repentance is often assumed to be a fundamental, scriptural part of ancient Jewish and Christian piety. In How Repentance Became Biblical, David Lambert argues that, rather than an inherently biblical concept, “repentance” came to be understood as such in a long process that continued into late antiquity. Lambert first focuses synchronically on biblical rituals before turning to diachronic readings of biblical texts and, in the final section of the book, tracing the later intellectual genealogy of repentance as an idea through rabbinic and early Christian texts.
Lambert divides his text into three parts. Part One, “Rites”, focuses on three rites in the Hebrew Bible that have traditionally been associated with repentance: fasting, appeal, and articulating sin. First, in an “attempt to formulate an alternative, nonpenitential, overall account of fasting” (p. 15), Lambert argues that fasting manifests in contexts where characters are asking for mercy or for justice in response to calamity, whether that calamity is self-inflicted or not. Fasting is, then, “a manifestation of distress rather than an outward expression of internal feelings” (p. 31). Second, Lambert argues that the process of appeal in biblical texts “does not appear to derive its logic as a verbal expression of internal states. It is rather a series of strategies for encapsulating material realities, for communicating distress to a deity who is deemed empowered to help. Even allusions to sin appear to be a way of packaging suffering, merging cause and symptom in a plea for relief” (p. 49). Third, he notes that the articulation of one’s sin materially diminishes the person in question. All three of these chapters and the rites they focus on effect material states in enmeshed social relations. Furthermore, they orient themselves around the needs of communication rather than a reflection of a private, interior soul or self (cf. 1 Sam 2:25).
Part Two, “Language and Pedagogy,” explores some of the translation choices and interpretive expectations that cumulatively make the concept of “repentance” appear as a natural or inherently ‘biblical’ concept. Lambert argues that a “univocal approach to language, [exemplified by] the nominalization of shuv, is in keeping with the general need of ideology to establish as universal the linguistic signs upon which it depends” (p. 88). This chapter shifts to a more diachronic perspective, characteristic of the latter half of the book. He argues that in texts written before the book of Jeremiah, the phrase “(re)turn to YHWH,” which is often translated as repent or return to covenantal obedience, should be instead understood in conjunction with the logic of appeal. In oracles after Jeremiah, in contrast, the phrase seems to be understood in more abstract terms as “a resumption of a prior relationship” (p. 88). In late biblical texts the term signifies a cessation of sin, related to but not the same thing as “repentance” proper. Lambert further explores how biblical texts are read as pedagogical, focusing on the way prophetic literature is read like sermons. He suggests an alternative framework, reading prophetic literature in terms of power and the efficacy of prophetic speech. He argues strongly that “divine anger, as a mode of rectification, aims at the destruction, not the edification, of its object. Rebellion against the deity requires a reactivation of divine power through acts of mastery” (p. 117).
Continuing the diachronic tendency of Part Two, Part Three focuses on post-biblical and late antique texts and the ways in which repentance develops in this period. First, Lambert examines how agency has been understood as integral to late Second Temple texts read as concerned with repentance. Rejecting this, he suggests the category of agency is relatively unimportant. Rather, an alternative paradigm of “divine re-creation of human nature” emerged, seen in texts such as the hodayot and New Testament (pp. 138, 142ff). Building on this, Lambert constructs an alternative genealogy of repentance, finding “mental pain” in Plutarch, locating the idea of repentance in Philo, and tracing the concept of repentance in rabbinic Hebrew (teshuva), Septuagint Greek (strefo), and New Testament Greek (metaneo) alongside the biblical shuv. He argues that a semantic shift in late Second Temple texts lays the groundwork for a new identification of “shuv” with repentance. This shift coincides with the emergence of new technologies for control of the self which are not dependent on external forces but enable participation in religious communities (p. 187).
One of the core strengths of How Repentance Became Biblical is that Lambert not only asserts the importance of alternate reading strategies for texts that can ossify within myopic inherited assumptions, but also provides quite a few such alternative readings. Further, his models have persuasive, explanatory power; his reading of the book of Jonah in chapter two, for instance, is brilliant.
He also helpfully articulates the danger of assuming the external is only a blank cipher of internal states or essential cores, an assumption that guides many of the readings he cites throughout the book. His emphasis on material conditions and power relations help clarify a set of terms for which there is an otherwise heterogeneous set of uses (shuv, fasting, articulating sin, etc). These efforts are not without certain risks. Some readers might not concur that “we” understand repentance in precisely the way Lambert defines it. Furthermore, the first three chapters detail a synchronic model for an otherwise confusing set of ritual practices, but this stands in some tension with his diachronic strategies deployed in the second half of the book. Finally, in his critique of mind/body dualism, Lambert contrasts modern expectations of ‘repentance’ and interiority with ancient evidence, but does not address historical data that stands between modern readers and the late antique sources he reads so ably.
Useful for students of the Hebrew Bible, certainly, but also for students of early Christianity, rabbinics, and the ancient Mediterranean world, this book asks and invites more questions- about interiority, about repentance, about reading the Bible historically and how it has historically been read- than it answers. To that end, it usefully opens conversations that might otherwise remain foreclosed.
Jillian Stinchcomb is a PhD candidate at the University of Pennsylvania. She is writing her dissertation on the Queen of Sheba and biblical reception history. firstname.lastname@example.org