Review of Gregory Goswell, Text and Paratext: Book Order, Title, and Division as Keys to Biblical Interpretation (Lexham Academic, 2022).

Gregory Goswell will be known to many readers of AP as the Academic Dean of Christ College, Sydney. Those who know him well will be aware that he has long had a special interest in the paratext of the Bible, and has published numerous articles on the subject in several different academic journals. Here, finally, for the first time Goswell’s ideas and insights are published together in a single volume. Text and Paratext  is a must-read for any student of the Bible. It is both scholarly and accessible (although it does get a bit more complex in its final section) and deals with matters not covered in any other book.

Paratext is everything in our Bibles that is added to the text, and Goswell covers three areas: the ordering of biblical books, the book titles, and textual divisions, like chapters and verses. He clearly distinguishes between the sacred text of Scripture, which is not to be tampered with, and the paratext, which “though deserving of respect, is not to be treated as sacrosanct” (p.180).

Goswell  starts off by discussing the differences between the order of Old Testament books in the Hebrew Bible and the Greek Septuagint. More importantly, he reflects on the meaning behind one book following another. In this way, the book is a bit like Stephen Dempster’s excellent Dominion and Dynasty, except that Goswell rejects the idea that the Hebrew ordering is the “real” one, and in fact – and here is where the book is particularly instructive – there is considerable variation in book order among both Hebrew and Greek manuscripts (see p. 191). For example, most Hebrew Bibles end with Chronicles, but the Leningrad Codex ends with Ezra-Nehemiah.

The Book of Ruth provides us with a good example of how different placements can have their own meaning. In our English Bibles (following the Septuagint), it comes after Judges (since it is set “when the judges judged,” Ruth 1:1) and before 1 Samuel (since Ruth is an ancestor of David, Ruth 4:17). But the David connection is also brought out in Talmud, which places Ruth immediately before Psalms. In most Hebrew manuscripts, Ruth comes after Proverbs, which makes sense because Ruth is called a “worthy woman” (Ruth 3:11), the same word used of the Proverbs 31 woman. And Ruth comes before the Song of Solomon, which highlights the romance of the book (p. 28). Goswell’s point in all this is that when a book has more than one location in canonical traditions, this is an invitation to “explore what possible light this may shed on its contents” (p. 31).

Perhaps surprisingly, a similar variation also exists in the New Testament: both the Codex Vaticanus and the Codex Alexandrinus, for example, put the Catholic epistles (James – Jude) before the Pauline epistles. For readers who did not realise this before, Text and Paratext will be an eye-opener.

As far as the usual order of New Testament books goes, Goswell describes the Book of Acts as the “glue” which ties together the Gospels and the epistles: one the one hand, the disciples mimic aspects of Jesus’ life; on the other hand, Acts introduces the authors of the epistles (especially Paul) and provides historical context (p. 61). Similarly, Goswell suggests that Hebrews is the glue that joins the Pauline and non-Pauline epistles (p. 69).

The second part of this volume is about the names of biblical books. Goswell notes that these constitute “valuable but fallible commentary on the text” (p. 121). So he views the title of Ezra-Nehemiah as misleading: it “subverts the ideology of the book that would focus on the part played by the people” (p. 99). Similarly, while not finding the title of Revelation particularly objectionable, Goswell suggests that “it has often been understood in a way that obfuscates the book’s main connection, which is to Old Testament prophecy” (p. 119).

The final section of Text and Paratext covers textual divisions. This includes chapters and verses, but Goswell takes the reader a bit deeper, and examines the traditional Jewish seder readings (in the Old Testament) and the extra textual divisions (kephalaia) in the Codex Alexandrinus (New Testament). He laments that “the usual pattern is that chapter and verse divisions are only noted by students of Scripture when they are mocked and discounted as nonsensical” (p. 171) and provides some examples of helpful chapter divisions: e.g. the chapter division at Matthew 2:1 has the effect of (a) placing 1:18-25 with the genealogy, emphasising that Jesus is the Son of David, and (b) making chapter 2 all about the clash of kings (p. 154).

Goswell’s stated goal in Text and Paratext is to “provide readers with new tools to use in seeking to understand and apply the text of Scripture” (p. 178). In this he succeeds admirably and has produced an indispensable work. It is my hope that commentaries will start including “title” and “canonical location” in their introductory material, along with authorship and date. Until that happens, however, Goswell’s work is an invitation to do our own research and study, especially when preparing to preach through biblical books.

– John Dekker is a minister of the Presbyterian Church of Australia who is currently pastoring a church in Oregon, USA. Greg Goswell supervised his PhD.