Gregory Goswell, Text and Paratext: Book Order, Title, and Division as Keys to Biblical Interpretation

Goswell, Gregory. Text and Paratext: Book Order, Title, and Division as Keys to Biblical Interpretation. Lexham Academic, 2023. xix+393 pp. Pb. $26.99   Link to Lexham Academic  Link to Logos Bible Software

Gregory Goswell wrote the Evangelical Press Study Commentary on Ezra-Nehemiah, Unceasing Kindness: A Biblical Theology of Ruth (NSBT 41, IVP Academic 2016) and God’s Messiah in the Old Testament (with Andrew Abernathy, Baker Academic 2020). He currently serves as academic dean and lecturer in Old Testament at Christ College in Sydney, Australia. This new monograph builds on work published in journal articles on paratext as a hermeneutical tool.

Goswell - Text and ParatextWhat is paratext? Goswell defines paratext as everything in a text other than the words. In this book, he focuses on the order of the books, the names of the books, and divisions of the text itself (chapters and verses). Whether a reader notices these things or not, they affect the reading and interpretation. The text is sacred, so Goswell does not suggest we tamper with that. However, a paratext, although deserving respect, is not sacrosanct. The order of the books in the Hebrew Bible or the Greek Bible should not have priority. Most Bible readers know that book titles are secondary, and chapter and verse divisions were not added until the thirteenth century. Although they are longstanding traditions, Bible readers should feel comfortable ignoring verse and chapter divisions.

Goswell suggests canonical order, book titles, and even chapter and verse divisions can be used as a hermeneutical tool because they encode the evaluations of early readers. He suggests we should ask the right questions about the shape of the text (179). For example:

  • Why are these two books placed next to each other?
  • Why is this collection of books in a particular order?
  • Is there a leading theme or character in the book that is ignored or downplayed because of the usually assigned title?
  • Why might a chapter break have been placed at this point?
  • Is the demarcated section of a text a coherent unit of meaning?

Most Bible readers are aware occasionally chapter breaks are distracting, and often break up a text that is better read as a unit. When I teach Acts, I always point out that the story of Joseph the Levite (better known as Barnabas) in Acts 4 stands in contrast to Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5. By putting a chapter break at 5:1, readers miss the important context for Ananias’s sin. There are many studies which suggested an overall editorial pattern to the Psalter. I have often suggested that reading Psalms 22 and 23 as a unit connects the suffering servant at the beginning of 22 and the victorious anointed one at the end of 23. Goswell does the same sort of thing in this book, but he considers the entire canon of scripture.

The book is divided into three sections. First, Goswell discusses the order of the books in the Hebrew Bible, the Greek Bible (Septuagint), and the New Testament. For each, there is considerable variation in the order of the books in various manuscripts or theological traditions. For example, in the Hebrew Bible, the book of Ruth is in the third section of the canon, the Writings. It is the first of the five festal scrolls (the Megillot). It appears after Proverbs and before the Song of Solomon. Is this placement important for understanding Ruth? Is she an example of the virtuous woman, the last section of the book of Proverbs? But rhe Septuagint and all modern Bibles move Ruth after Judges because the book begins with the phrase “in the time of the judges…”

In the New Testament, some ancient manuscripts place Hebrews with the Pauline letters. Acts does not follow John but appears with the Catholic epistles or occasionally the Pauline letters. Although the unit Luke-Acts is common among New Testament scholars today, the two books are separate in all manuscripts. Most scholars would agree reading the books together has been beneficial, but that benefit was not realized until scholars ignored the canonical order of the books.

The second section of the book deals with the names of the books. Sometimes the name of a book affects the way a reader approaches the book. Goswell uses the example of Ezra- Nehemiah. This is a single book in the Hebrew Bible that was divided in the Septuagint, although virtually every scholar agrees the two should be read as a unit. By calling this book Ezra- Nehemiah “subverts the ideology of the book that would focus on the parts played by other people” (100). The title directs attention to Ezra, who is not even in the book until Ezra 7-10, and Nehemiah, who only appears in the second half of the book.

For the New Testament, he points out that the traditional title “Acts of the Apostles” implies that the story is going to be about the apostles. Yet the book only tells the story of two apostles, Peter and Paul, with Paul being the main character for more than half the book. The title ignores the importance of knowing apostles like Steven, Phillip, Barnabas, or Silas. Commentaries on Acts often point out the book is more about the Holy Spirit, or the spread of the gospel, etc. Does calling the book “Acts of the Apostles” color the way we read the book?

In the third section of the book, Goswell deals with other divisions of the text, primarily chapter and verse divisions. most exegetical methods begin by carefully defining a pericope, the section of text under discussion. Seminary professors teach students in exegetical method classes to ignore the chapter and verse divisions. Goswell traces the history of text divisions in the Masoretic text. As is well-known, Stephen Langton (archbishop of Canterbury 1207-1228) created the chapter and verse divisions Bibles use today. Goswell considers these divisions to be an interpretive process. Some chapter and verse divisions do not seem to make sense. He offers examples from many books in both the Old and New Testaments. Two examples will suffice. First, the chapter division at Genesis 2:1 does not seem to make much sense. The section of Genesis seems to be 1:1-2:3 since the seventh day of creation is 2:1-3. Did Langton make a mistake by dividing the text at 2:1? Goswell suggests that this is an interpretive decision. By putting the Sabbath day in the next chapter, the Garden of Eden has “the air of sabbatical bliss” (130, citing Gordon Wenham, Torah as Story, T&T Clark 2000).

In the New Testament, scholars usually point out the first section is 1:12-2:4, and 2:14-7:4 is a separate unit (sometimes identified as a “self-contained defense of Paul’s ministry,” 161). Is this another Stephen Langton blunder, or did he have some exegetical reason for breaking the text after 1:24? Maybe, or maybe not. But Goswell thinks it is important to at least ask the question.

I will conclude with a few observations. First, most modern English Bibles are printed with paragraphs and editorial comments at the beginning of sections. These editorial comments are also paratext. I tell my students to ignore them as they read the Bible (yet a few have quoted them as if they were part of the original text). But they reflect an interpretation by a modern editor and are therefore modern examples of the kinds of paratext Goswell examines in this book. In the last few years, some publishers have produced “Readers Bibles” that do not have chapter and verse divisions at all. I find these very helpful. Reading a biblical book in the same way one might read any other book is helpful (even if you can’t find your way around the text as quickly).

Second, the use of electronic devices (phones and tablets) for reading the Bible sometimes isolates readers from the biblical context, including the paratextual features Goswell discusses in the book. Modern readers do not see where Ruth is in the Bible or notice that Hebrews is “near the back of the Bible.” By tapping directly to a passage, a reader does not notice the paragraphs or sections set out by an editor. On the one hand, this is good since it frees the reader from the paratextual features that affect their reading. But sometimes reading the Bible on a small phone misses important context.

Third, Goswell does not discuss paratext in modern Bibles. There are many Study Bibles that provide maps, charts, and notes on the biblical text. Although these are often helpful, they are paratext. They are not sacred Scripture and often affect the way readers understand the Bible. How many readers believe creation happened in 4004 BC because that was the date printed in their Scofield Reference Bible? This goes beyond the scope of Goswell’s book, but the issues he raises here certainly apply.

Conclusion: This is a fascinating book that discusses several issues that are rarely raised in hermeneutical manuals. To a certain extent, Bible readers ignore the importance of book order and are oblivious to how the name of a book colors the way they read.



NB: Thanks to Lexham Academic for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book.