This is not my 10 “best” books list, nor am I suggesting these are “must reads” for everyone (though they are all great books).
These are books that crossed my path 20-25 years ago, mainly while in graduate school, that influenced my thinking in new and heretofore largely unexplored directions, and so opened my eyes to the larger world of the Old Testament, where it came from, and what it means to read it well.
The first 6 books are from 4 of my Harvard professors, which speaks to their formative influence.
Using the story of Joseph, Kugel lays out the dynamic world of biblical interpretation in the Second Temple and later rabbinic periods, the creative nature of midrash, and biblical “irritants” that drove early Jewish interpreters to do what they did with the biblical text as an expression of expectant reverence for their scriptural tradition. This book also helped me to begin seeing echoes of early Jewish midrash in the New Testament’s likewise midrashic, creative handling use of the Old Testament.
A massive compendium of interpretive traditions on the Pentateuch in Second Temple Judaism. The documented breadth of how Jews and Christians in antiquity read the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament is staggering, and alerted me to the flexibility and legitimate interpretive possibilities of biblical interpretation–and how seeking “one meaning” is not only a specious undertaking, but boarders on disrespect for the very nature of scripture.
Though God has ordered creation (Genesis 1), chaos survives–which is why “bad things happen” despite the ordered world God has created. Israel’s worship in the Temple, the microcosm of the created order, was a participation in the ultimate redemption of the cosmos (chaos is “neutralized in cult”). Yet, this description hardly does justice to this deceptively slim, 175 page, book. Along with other things Levenson has written, this is a model of blending together historical critical scholarship and one’s theological tradition, and was part of my early motivation for seeking similar possibilities for Christian theology.
Jon D. Levenson, Sinai and Zion: An Entry into the Jewish Bible
Responding to lapses (i.e., latent anti-Semitcism) in Christian biblical theology, Levenson articulates a distinctly Jewish biblical theology focusing on the very elements of the Hebrew Bible neglected (or vilified) in Christian theology but that are central to the Hebrew Bible: law and temple, represented by two mountains, Sinai and Zion. Seeing biblical theology done wholly apart from the categories I was accustomed to was a reorienting experience and challenged my assumed privileging of a Christian (Protestant) reading of the Old Testament.
The Mosaic Law (form) was given in conjunction with Israel’s liberation from slavery and was a mark of freedom and a covenant bond with God. Over time it became institutionalized to mere ritual and subject to prophetic critique (reform). This form/reform pattern in the Old Testament models the means by which a continued deep fidelity to the heart of any faith tradition can be sustained. The Bible, therefore, sets a precedent for the continued need for the church to reflect on and reform tradition when called for.
My introduction to the seeing the Old Testament as part of its larger ancient environment. The origin(s) of Israelite religion is (are) continuous with the Canaanite culture from which it emerged. But rather than expressing its own origins through Canaanite myth, Israel’s record is best referred to as an “epic,” which is an interpretation of historical events by means of mythic categories, thus resulting in a tension between the mythic and historical.
Michael Fishbane Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel
The Hebrew Bible is not only the foundational document for the exegetical culture of Judaism and Christianity, but an exegetical work in its own right. The Bible is a compendium of “innerbiblical exegesis,” a movement of recontextualizations of earlier material for different settings, where the authoritative text is both received and built upon, all of which continues to function as scripture. In fact, for the authoritative text to function authoritatively, it must be adapted to changing circumstances. For me, this was a big moment in seeing why the Bible looks so uneven and thus resists simple systematization–the Bible evinces growth and change.
Bringing together the depth of both Christian and Jewish traditions, Anderson offers a remarkable exposition of the Adam and Eve story that leaves one staggering at its complexities and subtleties, and what Judaism and Christianity have creatively done with it. This formative story for both faiths is neither simple to understand nor monolithic in meaning, but rather invites imaginative exploration.
Walter Brueggemann, Texts Under Negotiation: The Bible and Postmodern Imagination
Without returning to precritical naïveté, Brueggemann presents a postcritical critique of historical criticism’s claims of “objectivity” and unquestioned authority in biblical interpretation. The postmodernism shift recaptures the inevitability of local/contextual factors in accessing the Bible and the pluralistic interpretations that result (which is not dissimilar from the plurality of precritical and ancient modes of biblical interpretation).
J. Paterson Smyth, How We Got Our Bible: Thoughts for the Present Disquiet
I stumbled on this book I know not how or why, but reading it was deeply affirming. Writing in 1892, Smyth lays out with honesty and pastoral care the challenges of modern biblical scholarship and the pressing need for Christians to come to terms with it, not to disquiet the church but to help those already disquieted. “These are not the days for Christian teachers to hold their peace and risk the faith of one-half of their people by humouring the mistaken views of the other half, through fear of disquieting them” (p. 2). At times dated, the book shows us that addressing constructively and proactively historical criticism is not a recent trend.
***The post first appeared in November 2014. Here are some of my books where I lay what think it means to read the Bible well: The Bible Tells Me So (HarperOne, 2014), Inspiration and Incarnation (Baker 2005/2015), The Sin of Certainty (HarperOne, 2016), and The Evolution of Adam (Baker, 2012).***