10 books that made me rethink the Bible

10 books that made me rethink the Bible November 14, 2014

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.

James Kugel, In Potiphar’s House: The Interpretive Life of a Biblical Text

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.

James Kugel, Traditions of the Bible: A Guide to the Bible As It Was at the Start of the Common Era

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.

Jon D. Levenson, Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence

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.

Paul Hanson, Dynamic Transcendence: Correlation of Confessional Heritage and Contemporary Experience in a Biblical Mode of Divine Activity

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.

Frank Moore Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel

My introduction to the seeing the Old Testament as part of its larger environment. The origin of Israelite religion is 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.

Gary Anderson, The Genesis of Perfection: Adam and Eve in Jewish and Christian Imagination

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 books shows us that addressing constructively and proactively historical criticism is not a recent trend.







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  • These are classics. I’m drawing on Leveson quite heavily.

    • Gsaseeker

      Levenson also had a profound impact on my own views. The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son was my introduction to him, but Creation and the Persistence of Evil is just an amazing work. Nothing like it.

  • Tim Sams

    This list is really very helpful, especially the annotation. It means a lot to get a list like this. Many thanks.

  • Jordan

    Reading the bible made me rethink the bible.

  • David Borger Germann

    thanks, great list. I’d add The Beginning of Wisdom by Leon Kass. thoughts?

  • gingoro

    It would be interesting to see the list from a recent Phd because then their equivalent list might be available in Kindle format. I had about 60 yards of books and only rarely buy anything in a physical book as we may have to down size. Have been putting boxes full of books out for recycling or packing others up for my grandkids.

    • Jonathan Bernier

      Finished my Ph.D. in 2012, so here you go.

      1. Richard Bauckham, The Gospels for All Christians
      2. James D.G. Dunn, Jesus Remembered
      3. Gustavo Gutierrez, Theology of Liberation
      4. Larry W. Hurtado, Lord Jesus Christ
      5. Bernard Lonergan, Method in Theology
      6. Henri de Lubac, Medieval Exegesis
      7. Ben F. Meyer, Aims of Jesus
      8. Ben F. Meyer, The Early Christians
      9. José Porfiria Miranda, Marx and the Bible
      10. John Henry Newman, The Development of Christian Doctrine

  • James

    I’ve noticed the stuff we did in graduate school way back in the dark ages (my case) has a huge effect on us still. This is natural, I suppose, but I know of pastors/professors who have advanced little in their thinking since then and seem disinterested in life long learning. For my part, the stuff I’ve learned since graduate school is of greater value but I’m thankful, like you, for a good foundation to build on.

  • I asked this question of various bibliobloggers 5 years ago and ended up receiving nearly a hundred answers, listed here: http://corthodoxy.wordpress.com/2009/06/17/so-many-books-so-little-time/

    I also compiled some summary observations here: http://corthodoxy.wordpress.com/2009/06/20/biblioblog-top-10-most-influential-authors-and-books/

  • Daniel Merriman

    I have not read the works you cited, but I have read Kugel’s “How to Read the Bible” which, to answer one commenter’s concern, is available in Kindle format. It would appear to cover at least a good number of the issues in the two earlier works of his you cite. I would give it two thumbs up, though it is not a quick read.

  • Neil Robson

    sounds like a “Hebrew Roots” view of the bible. The New Testament, with its final revelation in Jesus Christ, must be allowed to go beyond the progressive revelation of the Old Testament.Chritianity is not just a continuation of Judiasm,it is the goal that was intended for Judiasm.As the telos of the OT was the Christ of the NT,then any interpretation of the OT which does not start with Christ,is like a Jew studying the bible who has missed the out on the full revelation that comes in Christ.Heb 1:1Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, 2but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son,”

    • Gsaseeker

      Naturally, Jews do not see it that way. More importantly, I think Christians should not see it that way, for the simple reason that what you are describing is typology, while what actually happened is the inverse: the authors of the Christian scriptures were interpreting events in their time based on the accounts found in Jewish tradition, a tradition that they were still a part of. But this can also show you how very different the scholarship is from something like the Hebrew Roots movement, Sabbatarianism, etc. They also look at the Tanakh as prefiguring Christianity, but they interpret the effect of that differently.

  • Daniel Fisher

    “Sinai and Zion” sounds particularly interesting to me. Just bought a copy on Kindle.

    One question, if I may… From the synopsis about Hanson’s “Dynamic Transcendence” book, I don’t see anything there that even the more extreme fundamentalists would disagree with… This sounds pretty basic, themes I heard preached even in the most fundamentalist churches I’ve attended in the past. God gave a good law, it became empty ritual, and needs constant reform. Isaiah 1 is classic in that context; I know I heard numerous sermons on the destruction of the bronze serpent with that same conclusion. The idea of Propheticcritique Was hammered into me at my evangelical seminary. The basic description doesn’t sound categorically different than anything I might read in Calvin, Luther, or for that matter R.C. sproul or John Piper.

    Any chance you might unpack more how that book challenged you, or what specific aspect of it points to a new direction that contrasts with traditional evangelical approaches to the Bible? I’d be interested in the topic if there are unique perspectives beyond what I’m already familiar with.

  • Hallvard N. Jørgensen

    Thanks a lot, Peter! I’d really like more of this, that is presentations of books that you like. Btw I have recently read Kugel’s How to read the bible, and it made a big impact on me.

  • kittehtheo

    The book that had a great effect on how I look at the Bible was Markus Barth’s “Conversations with the Bible.

  • After I realized that there was no Nazarene reference in the Old Testament that fit “He shall be called a Nazarene,” I drove to the public library, got a book that addressed the issue, and discovered the Gospels are a collection of conflicting “pious fiction.”

    ● Randel Helms (1988) Gospel Fictions. Prometheus Books. pp. 58-59.

    And if you ever wonder why the Bible cannot keep Satan and God straight between II Sam. 24:1 and I Chron. 21:1, another great reference is chapter 4 in The River of God.

    ● Gregory Riley (2001) Chapter 4: The Devil, the Demons, and the End of the World. The River of God: A New History of Christian Origins. HarperCollins. pp. 95-96.

  • Agni Ashwin

    What? No “On the Origin of Species”?

    • Anthony Nuccio

      Why would the Origin of Species have anything to do with it? The Bible is more than just the creation stories.

  • Katie Doyle

    I would add, “Misquoting Jesus”. Explain how subjective translation have always been.

  • Joseph M

    N. T. Wright has been doing a lot on the New Testament. “How God became King” is a great popular treatment of the themes he develops more fully in “Paul and the Faithfulness of God”

  • Mark K

    I’m just scratching the surface on this list, but already “In Potiphar’s House” and “Sinai and Zion” are rocking my previous understanding. Thanks, Pete.

    By the way, I started to order “Inspiration and Incarnation” to add to my summer reading list, cuz ancient high school teachers do their best reading in the summer, and see there’s a new edition. But IT’S NOT COMING OUT TILL SEPTEMBER! Just like TBTMS. Deja vu all over again. What is it with you and September? 😉