With biting irreverence for denominational prejudices and the pretensions of academics, Akenson renews our sense of awe before these religious works. He challenges received doctrines, arguing that the ancient Jews were indeed idol worshippers and that Saint Paul did not believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth or in the virgin birth. With wit, elegance, and clarity Surpassing Wonder makes the ancient Hebrew scriptures, the Christian New Testament, and the Talmuds of the Rabbis accessible to all and shows they can be understood only in relation to each other and against their specific historical settings. Akenson argues that each of the great texts must be considered as the product of a single author and thus as a religious invention ? that is, as a self-consciously formed unity rather than an anthology of disparate works. He also argues that the great inventor of the Hebrew scriptures should be credited with constructing the very concept of narrative history and thus the foundations of Western civilization. Using a rich and imagistic language that combines tractor mechanics, Winnie-the-Pooh, and architecture with analogies from astronomy, evolutionary biology, and economics, Akenson brings about nothing less than a radical reformation of how to think about the sacred texts. He restores their spiritual power through a just appreciation of the achievement of their authors while leaving readers to decide for themselves on the presence of a "guiding hand." Surpassing Wonder is a penetrating study of the historian's craft and a brilliant exposé of how theologians and biblical scholars abuse historical reasoning and evidence in their treatment of the sacred texts. Just as a previous reformation cast out the priestly intercessors, so Akenson casts the scholars out of the temple and lets readers in to see the texts anew. In so doing he reinvests religion with meaning for a contemporary world and shows us how Western civilization was created not by the Greeks of Athens or the patricians of Rome but by the desert worshippers of Yahweh.
Akenson recognizes that the Temple scheme, along with its metaphoric precursors and its supplementary successors, is the core of the tradition: "a concentric architecture of holiness, one that is also a genealogy of legitimacy."
Although the word "invention" may be a little alarming to those who fear that the book will treat the Bible as fiction, it instead denotes the creative element in composing historical text, the divine creativity that was expressed in the human effort to contribute these texts to posterity. But Akenson neither coddles nor argues with Biblical inerrantists and their fundamentalist kindred. In his only condescension to acknowledge that intellectual position, he remarks: "This sort of thing cannot be fought, so it is best ignored."
There is a fairly happy amount of invention in Surpassing Wonder itself, and the reader may be swept up in the fascination of the meta-historical narrative to the point where there is an expectation for some grand resolution of the story. But all that Akenson offers in closing is some ecumenist sentiments regarding commonality between Jews and Christians. To my mind, a compelling "conclusion" would emphasize the journey, rather than a destination. There is no reason to suppose that what the author terms the "Re-Invention of the Species" of sacred literature has come to a halt. Some nods to the Quran and The Book of Mormon could demonstrate how the old foundations of Hebrew scripture continue to serve as a rule and guide in the development of texts which inscribe an ongoing relationship between the human and the divine.