Screenwriter, film director, graduate professor in the doctoral programs of Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara, CA: best-selling author Jean-Pierre Isbouts is busy, but he recently took the time to talk to LJ about his latest title, Who’s Who in the Bible (National Geographic, 2013; see starred review, p. 138).
Your book is an unusual exploration of Bible figures because it’s arranged as a chronological narrative, rather than alphabetically, as readers may be used to. What new facts and relationships does this arrangement allow to emerge?
Actually, Who’s Who does both. It offers an A to Z index, as other reference works do, but it also provides a detailed biography of leading characters in the context of the Bible narrative.
The reason is that I think it is impossible to separate a character like Eve, Abraham, Moses, or Esther from the events in which they play such a critical role. Remember, the Bible is to a large extent a family saga—the story of a tribal community that transformed itself into a nation as it moved across the breadth of the Levant. That is why character entries in an alphabetical dictionary are often so stilted and uninspiring, because the social fabric, the relational framework that sustained these individuals, is entirely missing.
By highlighting the crucial role of key characters in the chronological narrative, as well as offering detailed entries in alphabetical order, we have tried to create a fresh, three-dimensional portrait of the Bible characters that continue to resonate with us today.
What this design also allows us to do is to relate the individual to the cultural, literary, and geographical milieu in which the stories unfold. So throughout the book, you will see beautiful maps and photography of monuments, locations, and artifacts from the Holy Land, which allow us to imagine what life in biblical times was like. Many of these images were shot just last year and are based on the latest archaeological discoveries. This makes the book an experience for the whole family, not only for adult readers but also for young children. I have two beautiful grandkids, age two and four, and I look forward to using the book to introduce them to the stories from the Bible.A fresh look at familiar figures
Which biblical figure will readers be most surprised by?
One of the things modern scholars, including myself, have tried to do in recent years is to restore the importance of women in the biblical stories. Everyone knows the story of Eve in the book of Genesis, but how many modern readers are familiar with the special role played by Hagar, Keturah, or Dinah? In Genesis, the angel tells Hagar that her son Ishmael will be the “ancestor of a multitude of nations,” just as Abraham’s son Isaac will become the progenitor of many nations as well. Indeed, Islam considers itself the spiritual heir of that ancestry. This is just one of the book’s dimensions, to show the great respect that women receive in the Bible and their crucial role in bringing about the nation of Israel.
And this role continues through the Pentateuch and the Deuteronomist history into the post-exilic literature and the New Testament. The figure of Mary Magdalene, for example, has received a lot of scholarly attention in recent years. She is increasingly seen as a pivotal character in the Gospel stories, not least because it is she (and not the Apostles) who discovers the empty tomb. In ancient Judea, the testimony of a woman had little credibility, so for the Magdalene to be chosen as witness to the quintessential event in Christianity is quite astonishing. What’s more, her native city, Magdala, was recently discovered on the shores of the Sea of Galilee and is now in the process of extensive excavation. One of the lead archaeologists in charge, Marcela Zapata Meza, was kind enough to allow me to include a photo of the current dig, so Who’s Who is the first publication to reveal what Mary’s city would have looked like.
The introduction to your title states that the book takes a non-denominational approach to this history. Is it difficult to present an academic biblical history that at times will contrast with popular beliefs?
This is the same dilemma I faced with my previous book, National Geographic’s In the Footsteps of Jesus, which is a reassessment of the historical Jesus. For this book, as well as [with] Footsteps, my focus is strictly on the biblical narrative and its historical framework. There may be many things in Christian doctrine that we can argue about, but the Scripture text itself, as well as the historical context in which these texts came about, offer a broad foundation for agreement. This dovetails with my own particular interest in the Bible. I am not a theologian; I am a historian. My passion is to understand the world in which Jesus lived and the unique circumstances that propelled a figure like David to the throne of a unified Israel. While there are no absolutes in biblical history and archaeology, there is far more agreement on the historical world of Hebrew Scripture and the New Testament than there is about the interpretation of Scripture in the centuries to follow. So I have tried to deploy the same historical methodology that I have previously used in The Biblical World and Footsteps, in order for this book to find broad acceptance among Christian as well as Jewish denominations.
As far as the latter is concerned, in structuring the book I have used the three principal divisions of the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible. This organization not only underscores the logical flow of the Bible’s narrative but also the importance of recurring themes, such as the dream of the Davidic kingdom, the importance of social justice, and the need for abiding faith in God—themes that would return in the New Testament.