National Lutheran News

An encyclopedic new resource for serious Bible students

The ELCA’s Lutheran Study Bible comes loaded with reference tools

Lutheran Study Bible, New Revised Standard Version. 2009. 2112 pages. Soft
cover, $24.99 ($18.75, 10 or more). Hardcover, $34.99 ($24.50, 10 or more).
Augsburg Fortress, Minneapolis. 612/330-3300. www.augsburgfortress.com.

This reviewer remembers vividly the day Popular Mechanics magazine for
December 2002 hit the newsstands. I was in Columbus, Ohio, spending
Christmas with my daughters. A publication dedicated to articles about
getting better car mileage and building an efficient home workshop is an
unlikely venue for a radical new portrait of Jesus. But that’s what appeared in
that month’s issue. I was so taken with the artist’s rendering — at once
appealing and shocking — that I purchased the issue and stored it in my
theological library, intermingling it with books focused on New Testament
interpretation.

Now, seven years later, I discover the same artist’s rendering is published
(see page 1548) in Augsburg Fortress’ new Lutheran Study Bible (LSB), a
massive 2,100 page volume illuminating the text of the New Revised Standard
Version of the Scriptures. LSB was created as part of “Book of Faith,” an
ambitious initiative launched by the ELCA to engage church members in
serious Bible study.

That portrait of Jesus rescues him from our unrealistic, long-cherished notion
of Jesus’ appearance — a northern European with soft, wavy hair — and
portrays him as the eastern Mediterranean peasant he actually was. It’s only
one eye-opener among many in this encyclopedic approach to Bible study.

For those who don’t want their preconceptions about God and Jesus and Bible
interpretation disturbed, this volume will not be a welcome tool. For those
who want to get up to speed on what’s been going on in responsible biblical
scholarship over the past century and more, this volume will be a welcome
arrival.

The heart of LSB is the familiar New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) text
ELCA Lutherans have been hearing read in Sunday worship for the past 20
years. It’s the basis for the lectionary readings read during the weekly divine
liturgy. The footnotes in this book are those which appear in most versions of
NRSV already available from a variety of publishers.

What’s new about LSB? Several things.

The Scripture text itself runs in columns nearest the spine (the center) of the
book on matching pages. On the outer margins (the far left and right sides)
there appears a running commentary, provided by Scripture scholars, most of
whom are college religion professors and seminary faculty from ELCA
schools. Recurring symbols alert the reader to information illuminating the
world of the Bible (the symbol is a scroll), Bible concepts (a lamp symbol),
Lutheran perspectives (Martin Luther’s rose seal), and faith reflection
questions (a pair of speech balloons, suggesting conversation).

It’s a welcome synergy to be able to read what one of the Old Testament
prophets says about the perils of cheating your neighbor, and then to find a
matching note in the margin reminding the reader what Martin Luther says
about the same thing in the Small Catechism. Such “Luther notes” abound
throughout all 66 Bible books in LSB.

Expanding the Lutheran understanding of Scripture are two lengthy inserts —
one titled “Martin Luther on the Bible” and another called “Lutheran insights
that open the Bible.”

These essays are not included just to help Lutherans feel “more Lutheran.”
They help to explain why Lutherans don’t read the Bible like a lot of
conservative Christians do. (Using Lutheran insights, one cannot, for
example, argue for a “seamless Scripture,” as though the writers show no
differences between or disagreements with one another.)

For those who may not have encountered such ideas before, LSB leads the
reader into the world of the biblical scholar. The reader is challenged to
consider the probability that there are two stories of creation in Genesis, not
one; two stories of the flood, not just one; an original integrity to Old
Testament prophetic writings, quite separate from what Christians are
inclined to do with these texts; and a matrix of strands that gave us the four
New Testament Gospels — the first three of which are evidently inter-related,
while the fourth seems to stand alone. One is helped to see that some books
(such as Jonah) are more likely story literature and most likely not actual
history.

The charts, diagrams, and maps in LSB are quite exceptional. Included is a
three-level scheme for reading through the Bible in one year. (One version
assumes reading it all; the others provide for reading selected portions.).
There are 15 pages of full-color maps. There’s also a helpful Bible history
timeline.

I have one minor quibble with LSB. In the Table of Contents (page 8) we are
given the impression that Paul the Apostle wrote all the letters from Romans
to Philemon, a set of 13 New Testament epistles. Most scholars believe there
are at least two, perhaps three, writers using Paul’s name (the Apostle being
the first of the three), but virtually nobody with scholarly acumen now
believes that the man from Tarsus wrote books like Ephesians and
Colossians. It would have been more responsible for the editors to have
indicated this.

The heart of Lutheran Bible reading is the task that Luther himself lifted up —
to lead the reader to encounter God in Christ, and to have one’s life changed
by that meeting. This book enables that process in spades.

Augsburg Fortress has created a magisterial work in LSB, one that commends
itself to thoughtful Lutheran Christians who want to grow in grace and in
their understanding of God’s divine encounter with his servant people. If this
volume raises questions the reader hadn’t considered before, all the better.
We learn and grow by stepping out of our comfort zones. So, take, read —
and get growing.