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Professor Jonathan Burnside

Criminal Law, Criminal Justice, Jewish Law

As Professor of Biblical Law, Jonathan Burnside combines his interests in Law and Criminology with those of theology, believing that age-old questions of justice, punishment and morality require reflection within a multidisciplinary framework. His book God, Justice and Society: Aspects of Law and Legality in the Bible (2011, Oxford: Oxford University Press) received outstanding reviews internationally. A review by David M. VanDrunen, Professor of Systematic Theology and Christian Ethics at Westminster Theological Seminary, California calls it “the best book of any sort that I have read for a while” whilst a US Professor of Biblical Law (Walter C. Kaiser, Jr.) describes it as “a real tour de force.” It has also been welcomed by senior practitioners, including a Lord Justice of Appeal in the Court of Appeal (Sir Roger Toulson) who claims that the book makes “a convincing case for the contemporary relevance of the study of biblical law… which deserves to inform and provoke legal, sociological and theological debate.”

Prof. Burnside's work aims to challenge the present boundaries regarding the role of religion in the public square.  By exploring the biblical texts from the perspective of an academic lawyer, he engages with the text seriously as law – with all the diversity that implies – as against those who dismiss the biblical legal materials in part because they do not appreciate the subtlety and complexity with which this corpus of legal materials operates. As such, he seeks to build bridges between our understanding of biblical law and modern law by connecting biblical normative conventions to areas of modern law. His method illustrates some of the ways in which biblical law shared identifiable features with the phenomenon of law, in all its normative complexity. In doing so, he demonstrates some of the shortcomings of projecting an inappropriately postivitistic account of law onto the biblical texts. Instead he shows how the overall shape and direction of biblical law forms a complex signifier of legal texts that can, and should, be understood in connection with other instructional genres, including narrative, poetry and wisdom literature, approaching the texts from a range of perspectives, including legal philosophy, semiotics and the sociology of legal knowledge. His approach has potential significance not only for readings of biblical law but also for productive readings of other ancient texts which come with authority, such as Islamic legal texts. 

 

 

Jonathan says: “Biblical law is one of the most remarkable bodies of law the world has ever seen, both in terms of its endurance and cultural significance. Yet despite this, it's a subject that's not very well understood. It’s certainly one of those areas of law where perceptions are key. Even if you don’t know very much about biblical law, you'll have an opinion about it.” Part of his research is to help scholars, policy makers and interested readers get a better grip on how biblical law 'works.' Burnside argues that we should see biblical law as an integration of different instructional genres; in doing so, we are better placed to appreciate the substantive and presentational differences between biblical law and modern legal concepts and assumptions.Burnside says: "I think the task of exploring biblical law is too important to be left to lawyers – but it's also too important to be l eft to theologians! Because the better we understand law, the better we understand biblical law. That's not always how biblical law has traditionally been understood but it is, I think, part of how it needs to be understood, and the study of law helps us to do that." God, Justice and Society was the subject of a Book Colloquium, in 2012. Jewish, Muslim and Christian scholars convened at the Faculty of Divinity, University of Cambridge to present papers on the book’s implications, which are due to be published in a forthcoming, special, edition of the Journal of Political Theology.Jonathan continues to develop the relationship between law, narrative and wisdom further, by exploring how biblical law constitutes identity. In recent years, Jonathan has given a number of different talks to audiences of judges, lawyers and theologians, as well as public lectures in Hong Kong, Australia and New Zealand. “The overall reception to God, Justice and Society shows, I think, the value of a conversation between biblical law and modern law. And when we engage in that, we find that two things happen: that biblical law becomes less strange and modern law becomes less familiar. We find there is more in biblical law than we first realised, and there are aspects of modern law we see in a different light.” Professor Burnside is happy to supervise research students on subjects relating to biblical law, criminal law and criminal justice.