December has finally arrived! For the last six months, I’ve felt like Old Testament is just around the corner. Finally we’re into the last loose stretch of D&C and I can put up the first Old Testament post. With the cyclic return to the Old Testament comes the perennial question, how do I make sense of this? Where should I turn to read “out of the best books”? Look no further, friend, for here is a scattered list. (I’ve been even busier than anticipated, and just don’t have time to polish or add images.)
First, though, a note. All the books below can be divided into two structural categories. There are those arranged by book, chapter, and verse, and those that are not. The first category includes commentaries, introductions, guides, histories (generally), and Study Bibles. These are the easiest books to use because you simply read them along with our schedule, or go directly to the chapter/verse you need help with. Having information so focused has a downside, namely, that it tends to be narrow.
The second category of books includes dictionaries, encyclopedias, maps, general books, monographs, journals, and most reference materials. Building a broad knowledge of the history, culture, and thought of the Israelites and their neighbors takes time, study, and reading, mostly of this second kind of book. Even though category II books often contain scriptural indexes, these are usually to verses cited in that volume, not all the verses they are applicable to. In other words, some of the most useful and broad knowledge may not have an immediate interpretive payoff.
I understand time is limited, so I’ve tried to categorize and prioritize this list to be as useful as possible. Let’s “make use of the means the Lord has provided” and get studying! (Alma 60:21)
First, and I cannot stress this enough, if there is only one thing you can do, read a second Bible translation. It will make a huge difference. (If that’s a problem for you, read this.) I should note that the increased clarity of a newer translation does not decrease the foreignness or strangeness of the Old Testament, just as, say, speaking Japanese fluently would not make you culturally fluent or comfortable. But there are great reasons for reading different, newer translations. I often deal with translation questions at my Old Testament Gospel Doctrine blog.
Picking one is potentially very difficult, so I’ll jump right to recommendations without justification.
- New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), also available with interpretive notes and essays as either the Oxford Study Bible or Harper-Collins Study Bible. This translation is very common in college courses.
- Jewish Study Bible- Old Testament only, with a Jewish translation and Jewish perspective notes. Unlike the NIV below, the JPS is not defensive at all about “weird stuff” in the Old Testament, and draws on some of the best scholarship available. A New Testament (NRSV) annotated from the same Jewish perspective is available as the The Jewish Annotated New Testament
- NIV Study Bible
– This is a conservative Evangelical publication. The translation is sometimes (often!) problematic and biased, but I like to compare its notes with the JSB above. They come from very different perspectives, and the comparison is illuminating. Sometimes I agree with one, sometimes the other. (I think the New Testament notes, particularly on Paul’s letters, are heavily Evangelical, biased, and even misleading, and I’m not alone there. I read this for the conservative perspective in the Old Testament notes.)
- NET Bible is a free online translation. Its great strength is the 60000+ notes explaining the translator choices and options. Plus, the online reading page allows a lot of nice study options. Try clicking on the Parallel tab, for example. And note the sympathetic highlighting! (Try mousing over a greek or Hebrew word, see all its other occurrences there also highlighted, and sometimes the translation in English.) When it works, it’s great!
- Faithlife Study Bible. I recommend this mainly because it’s sometimes free, and designed to expand, integrate with, and maximize use of Logos resources.
- Translations of Robert Alter- His translations are literary and well-annotated, but exist in separate volumes that don’t cover the whole Old Testament. Highly recommended, though. The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary; Ancient Israel: The Former Prophets: Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings: A Translation with Commentary; The Wisdom Books: Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes: A Translation with Commentary; The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary
Second, if you can only get two books and feel like a total Old Testament beginner, then get a Bible and Jehovah and the World of the Old Testament, a good general introduction with lots of illustrations and pictures from Deseret Book. I reviewed it very positively here. (If you have some general familiarity with Old Testament studies, skip JaWOT and get one of the academic intros below.)
- Peter Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament. Enns, an Evangelical who received his PhD in Hebrew Bible at Harvard, address 3 common Evangelical problems with the Old Testament that Mormons happen to largely share, so don’t be scared off by the title. The three issues are these. First, why does the Old Testament look so much like cultures around it? Shouldn’t revelation be unique? Second, theological diversity. That is, the Bible contains multiple perspectives on the same issue, but shouldn’t revelation be entirely consistent? Last, why do the NT authors interpret the Old Testament in the problematic way that they do? Available in cheap paperback, easy to read, but thought-provoking.
- Richards and O’Brien, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes- Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible (IVP, 2012) Not strictly on the Old Testament, but very useful for becoming aware of cultural assumptions.
- Marc Zvi Brettler, How to Read the Bible (Oxford Press). A general and selective introduction, from an Orthodox Jew who is also on the cutting edge of scholarship. Easily readable, and entertaining. I’ve repeatedly used some of his examples in my own teaching.
- Ancient Israel- From Abraham to the Roman Destruction of the Temple, ed. Hershel Shanks. (Available cheapest in new form from www.bib-arch.org) You simply can’t understand the Old Testament if you don’t understand its historical sequence, which isn’t necessarily reflected in the canonical order of books. Alternates would be Miller/Hayes, History of Ancient Israel or The Oxford History of the Biblical World, ed. Michael Coogan. (Oxford Press, 2001).
- Coogan, Michael D. The Old Testament- a Historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures (New York: Oxford, 2006) Excellent, shorter than Collins below.
- John Collins, Introduction to the Hebrew Bible (Fortress Press, includes (or used to)a CD with text in Logos format, which I really like.)
Who wrote the Bible?
Lots of this information is found in some of the other books here, but this deserved its own category.
- Friedman, Richard E. Who Wrote the Bible? (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1997). Narratively traces the development and scriptural arguments for traditional source-criticism, i.e. Moses did not author the first five books of the Old Testament as we have them. Though slightly outdated, Friedman’s is probably the easiest intro to these issues.
- Also, The Bible with Sources Revealed. (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2003). Friedman’s footnoted translation of the Pentateuch with sources in different colors and source-critical commentary, along with a strong introduction on the topic.
- Barney, Kevin L. “Reflections on the Documentary Hypothesis.” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 33, no. 1 (2000): 57-99. A balanced look at the spectrum of LDS responses, what’s “at stake” for LDS, and some arguments pro and con from an LDS perspective.
- David Bokovoy’s LDS intro to this topic.
- Zondervan Illustrated Bible Background Commentary- As the title indicates, this commentary focuses on the historical and cultural background of the Bible. It’s multi-volume and does a good but uneven job.
- Oxford Companion to the Bible- This is a one-volume dictionary/encyclopedia of the Bible, which covers historical/interpretive topics as well as biblical people, places, and things.
- For commentaries in general… sigh. One-volume commentaries are almost too short to be useful, but multi-volume commentaries vary in quality so much from volume to volume that it’s hard to issue blanket recommendations. So, caveat: I have not read every volume, and can’t vouch for everything that’s in there, and everything is problematic or difficult in one way or another. Series I like and use- The JPS Torah Commentary; Anchor Bible Commentary; Word Biblical Commentary; I suspect the technicality and approach of these won’t work for most LDS (but what do I know?) Two series that LDS might find particularly helpful are the
Expositor’s Bible CommentaryNew Interpreter’s Bible and the NIV Application Commentary. The first strikes a good balance of accessibility, utility, technicality, and length. The NIVAC might be particularly useful because it is structured in a way LDS are taught to read; it offers a look at the ancient context and meaning, then explicitly tries to bridge ancient meaning with modern application. However, it comes from a conservative Evangelical press, which means we may find its applications, assumptions, or positions highly suspect or contrary to our own. Lots of these are available for electronic purchase in individual volumes, but also tend to be found in public and college libraries.
- Jon Levenson, Sinai and Zion: An Entry into the Hebrew Bible
This is an orientation to the central pillars of the Israelite mindset, which is different than ours. A very good read.
- Michael Coogan, God and Sex: What the Bible Really Says
Title is self-explanatory. See review in BYU Studies
- Alter, Robert. The Art of Biblical Narrative (Basic Books, 1981).- Just as Elder Maxwell’s alliteration rarely translated well into foreign languages, many connections and hints made in Hebrew are lost in English. Alter explains the literary aspects of the text, & brings out meaning and connections lost in translation.
- Stager, Lawrence and Philip King. Life in Biblical Israel (Westminster John Knox, 2002) Focuses on material culture and daily life among the Israelites. What did they eat? How did they live? More like an encyclopedia than something you read straight through. If you’re curious about how they lived, what they ate and wore, social structures, etc., this is the book for you. Glossy, some pictures.
- James Kugel, How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture then and Now. Kugel, an orthodox Jew and emeritus prof from Harvard traces ancient Biblical interpretation from Genesis to Malachi, shows why their interpretations differ from ours. This is an excellent though challenging read, with lots of thoughtful questions. Kugel repeatedly addresses the question of belief/tradition vs. scholarship.
- Steven L. MacKenzie, How to Read the Bible: History, Prophecy, Literature–Why Modern Readers Need to Know the Difference and What It Means for Faith Today. This is similar to Marc Brettler’s volume in my shortlist, but from a different perspective. Also covers the New Testament.
- Ben Spackman “Why Bible Translations Differ: A Guide for the Perplexed” Religious Educator January 2014 (electronic available). This is a greatly expanded, edited, and footnoted version of the series of posts I did here on the difficulties of Bible translation and why English translations differ.
- Grant Hardy, “The King James Bible and the Future of Missionary Work” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 45:2 (Summer 2012), not yet available online. An earlier version appeared at ByCommonConsent. Hardy is a history professor on the east coast, author of several excellent Mormon books with Oxford press, and a counselor in his Stake Presidency.
- Philip Barlow “Why the King James Version? From the Common to Official Bible of Mormonism” Dialogue, A Journal of Mormon Thought 22:2 (Summer 1986):19-41. Barlow is LDS, used to be in the Institute system, recently moved to Utah State. See next volume.
- Phillip Barlow, Mormons and the Bible: The Place of the Latter-Day Saints in American Religion. (Oxford Press, 2013, updated edition) This is a published version of his Harvard dissertation on how LDS have viewed the Bible from Joseph Smith on down.
- John Lundquist, “The Value of New Textual Sources to the King James Bible” Ensign, August 1983.
- Kent P. Jackson, ed. The King James Bible and the Restoration. (BYU, 2011). http://rsc.byu.edu/recent/king-james-bible-and-restoration
- Royal Skousen, “Through a Glass Darkly: Trying to Understand the Scriptures” BYU Studies 26:4 (Summer 1988):3-20. Illustrates some of the problems with the KJV. http://byustudies.byu.edu/PDFLibrary/26.4SkousenThrough-9190171e-49a0-4c0b-a887-6427fbd8fce1.pdf
- Alistair McGrath, In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and How It Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture (Anchor, 2002) One of many recent books on the translation and publication process of the KJV.
- Joel Hoffman, And God Said: How Translations Conceal the Bible’s Original Meaning. A bit idiosyncratic, but useful.
- Matthews, Robert J. “A Plainer Translation” Joseph Smith’s Translation of the Bible: A History and Commentary. Provo, UT: Brigham Young University, 1985.
- Matthews, Robert J. “Why Does the LDS Edition of the Bible Not Contain All of the Corrections and Additions Made by Joseph Smith?” Ensign (June 1992). Scroll down.
- Jackson, Kent P., and Peter M. Jasinski. “The Process of Inspired Translation: Two Passages Translated Twice in the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible.” BYU Studies 42, no. 2 (2003).
- Faulring, Scott H., Kent P. Jackson, and Robert J. Matthews, eds. Joseph Smith’s Translation of the Bible: Original Manuscripts. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2004. (This and some other newer volumes available at rsc.byu.edu)
Where to get these?
Amazon, Abe.com (used), cbd.com often has good prices, and the FAIR bookstore carries many of them as well, if you’d like to support them.
I have more pre-Gospel Doctrine posts under way, but finals are weighing heavy.