Where Should I Start?

Where Should I Start? November 18, 2014

I received this e-mail a while back:

Professor McGrath,

I apologize for approaching you directly with my question: I realize that it’s like asking a doctor for free medical advice. Unfortunately I don’t know where to turn, in the bewildering sea of conflicting information out there. Perhaps the answer to my question would be a worthwhile topic for a blog post?

The question in a nutshell is: what books should an ordinary Bible reader read in order to appreciate the basics of textual studies, hermeneutics, and [other necessary topics]? Given that they won’t complete a theological degree, won’t learn the original languages, and have day jobs, what can we read to make ourselves into responsible Bible students, armed with at least an appreciation of what true scholarship entails, a general familiarity with the consensus of scholarship, and a basic ability to distinguish decent scholarship from quack?

To provide some background, I belong to a 19th-Century denomination that prides itself on every member being a genuine Bible student. Although our original membership engaged with the scholarship of the 19th Century, they also showed a deep suspicion and antipathy to theological education. They regarded it as a course in motivated reasoning to bolster the Church that ran whichever seminary. As a result we’ve inherited this strange mix of anti-academia bias with a devotion to our self-image as Bible students. Most of our “scholarship” since then has occurred within the echo chamber of our own community. One consequence of that is that we’ve become increasingly fundamentalist.I’ve inherited this lack of education, but I’ve tried to broaden my horizons. The trouble is that there’s an ocean of material out there, and outside academia there’s no easy way to avoid walking into the very “motivated reasoning” we’re afraid of–I could as easily find myself learning presuppositional apologetics without meaning to, as something with a sound scholarly basis behind it. Now I’m more concerned than ever, because I’ve been assigned to teach two young men preparatory classes for baptism (we practice adult baptism), and while I’m content to teach our beliefs, I’m determined to do it within the larger context of sound Biblical scholarship as much as I can. I think our beliefs will withstand this approach, and if not I’m willing to let the chips fall where they may.

So far I’ve tentatively identified Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus as a good general introduction to textual scholarship. I’ve tried to find a similar book on hermeneutics that offers a scholarly consensus with a minimum of faith-based bias, and so far the best looking one I can find is The Hermeneutical Spiral by Grant Osborne, except that the reviews suggest it may be too heavy for people who don’t know Hebrew or Greek (I speak some modern Hebrew, but know no Greek at all). Beyond those two topics, I’m not sure what else belongs in a minimal reading list for the intelligent lay person. Are there books that list genuine textual ambiguities, for example? Are there books that summarize well the historical points in the Bible that are confirmed or disconfirmed by current knowledge? Is there a best translation, or a guide to the best Biblical text for English-only speakers?

If you’re able to tackle this question, I’d be deeply in your debt. You can use this email any way you see fit, but I’d prefer to remain anonymous.

Thank you!

I thought that this was a great question, and so I would like to do two things in blogging about it. I would like to not only comment on, but also begin a discussion about, the question of where one starts when seeking to inform oneself about a new field.

As an outsider to a given field, it is very easy to either believe too much or be too skeptical. I recently looked at a violin which a luthier claimed to have produced, and the individual in question was confident that he has figured out what made Stradivarius violins so exceptional. My initial instinct was to suspect he was a crank. But then I made a comparison with my own field, and thought about how it must sound when a scholar says “I am confident that I have figured out what Jesus meant here.” There is a good chance that they are wrong, and they are equally likely to be overconfident and unduly proud. But they are probably not crazy, and certainly have better reason for confidence (although arguably also greater reason for humility) than people who do not work professionally in this area. The violin may be excellent, even if it still isn’t a Stradivarius. The scholar’s interpretation may be insightful, even if it is not the definitive answer.

So where should one start? I’d recommend beginning with one, or better yet several, widely-used textbooks on the topic. When scholars write textbooks, they want them to sell lots of copies. If the book does not reflect what most scholars conclude about key issues, then scholars are unlikely to adopt the text for their class – although do note that almost every professor comments critically on the textbook they assign at some point during the semester. Lately I’ve been using Bart Ehrman’s The Bible: A Historical and Literary Introduction.

After that, encyclopedia or dictionary articles in specialist reference works are an excellent source. The Anchor Bible Dictionary and The Oxford Guide to Ideas & Issues of the Bible are good examples of the sort of thing that I am referring to.

Major commentaries on the books of the Bible will usually discuss key issues such as authorship and date, and even if the author of the commentary argues for a highly idiosyncratic conclusion, or a traditional view that is not accepted outside of confessional circles, you should still be able to get a clear sense of what the consensus is. They will also usually discuss variant readings and a range of different interpretations of key texts. For more detail about textual variants, there are some works which go into more detail, such as Bruce Metzger’s A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament , which essentially takes you behind the scenes of the critical edition of the Greek New Testament which he was involved in producing, to understand the rationale for the decisions the committee made. Works of this sort require knowledge of the relevant ancient language(s), but are not for that reason completely useless for those who don’t have the ideal level of competency but want to learn what they can about this subject.

I always teach students to begin by figuring out whether there is a consensus in a given field, and if so what it is. The same principles that apply to seeking medical advice apply to Biblical scholarship and any other field. You are free to make up your own mind, but if you don’t at least find out what mainstream medical expertise has to say about your condition, then you are ignoring important information.

Looking to see what translation of the Bible is recommended in most academic courses can be a good guide – the New Revised Standard Version is used in most academic study Bibles. But I always recommend comparing translations across a range of interpretative approaches and traditions, to make you aware of where various biases may be impacting the rendering in English.

What do blog readers thing? Where do you start, when looking for information about a topic?


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  • For background on the archeological research that supports the documentary hypothesis of Old Testament studies, I always recommend:

    “The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts” by Silberman and Finkelstein.

  • Good letter, interesting response. In the midst of these obnoxious ads on your site – naked feet above and home sales below, I begin with a counter.

    Your letter writer talks about preparation for baptism. This is an act of faith. Good as many of the critical texts are, few of them are a good starting place when it comes to entering into and confirming the obedience of faith. What is this Bible that the scholars tear apart letter by letter and rewrite to their (our) own presuppositions? What one starts when one studies scholarship is an argument over details. Should the Hebrew behind ‘buried with a rich man’ be rewritten (Blenkinsop 2003 Isaiah)? Or should one respect the wordplay between the wicked רשע and the rich עשר with their letters reversed? (Isaiah 53:9a). Here is a pretext for baptism into the death of Christ, buried with him that we might live with him and so on.

    One could go on and on. Personally I would not rewrite the Hebrew above or in, for another example, Psalm 139 – where REB says that the words, I awake, “make no sense”. (The REB translators are wrong again – this is the resurrection in an image and a frame for this image in the Psalms with Psalm 3).

    The problem is that scholarship in a word can be a complete distraction. How do you avoid the multitude of distractions in the pursuit of that indefinable turning to G-d that constitutes awakening? Zion laments that she is too far away from the comfort that could repair her failures. (Lamentations 1:16) – She has an appointment outside the land in a land of confusion (Babel) where she is unknown to her, under correction in her desolation. Zion is an image of church, of Jesus, and of the individual as well as a locale. Imagery and imagination is needed for the start – the very things that are crushed or overplayed in a fundamentalist upbringing – whether the fundamentals be a doctrine of ‘faith’ or ‘reading’ or of ‘skepticism’ in scholarship.

    I would suggest Bruggemann, The practice of prophetic imagination, or Rentdorf, The Canonical Hebrew Bible, A Theology of the Old Testament, or some of the work of Jacques Ellul, like his book on Prayer and Modern Man, or the Judgement of Jonah (shorter than Rentdorf).

    Where is the thinking that moves toward participation in the death of Jesus and also removes from us our natural desire to wrap it all up with ribbon so we can ignore the real problems that face us every day?

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  • Joe Weaks

    James, good job responding so far. This is what I spend much of my time doing, since I work in a congregation.

  • Tim Bulkeley

    As the others have said this is both a good question and a good answer. My own interest is in people a step or three less well educated in biblical studies. Christians whose only Bible reading has been of the “meditate on the text and whatever ideas appeal to you are what it means” sort. There seems to me to be little for them that would enable them to take the next step. That’s why I’ve been building Reading the Bible Faithfully http://bigbible.org/faithfully/

    I suspect biblical scholars want people to be like your correspondent, but most of the people I meet in church are much less scholarly!

  • Bethany

    I second “Misquoting Jesus” and also endorse Ehrman’s “Jesus Interrupted”.

    As far as the Christian Old Testament goes, I liked “Who Wrote the Bible” by Friedman as an introduction to the Documentary Hypothesis, although I’m hardly an expert on the topic: I know he has some views on the dating of P that aren’t the majority view, but he does make this clear in the book.

    I’ve been reading through the Christian Old Testament in the Jewish Study Bible, which is fantastic and which just came out in a new edition that’s supposed to be even better than the one I have. The translation I’m not sure is actually as good as the NRSV but the commentary is freaking FANTASTIC. (Lengthy, but FANTASTIC.)

    I really loved Borg’s “Reading the Bible Again for the First Time” — it’s not overstaing the case to say that reading it was a watershed moment for me in terms of thinking about both the Bible and religion more generally — but I think I’d characterize it as less about Biblical scholarship per se and more about how the author views (liberal, so maybe not what you’re looking for?) Christian faith in light of the findings of Biblical scholarship… the subtitle “Taking the Bible Seriously but not Literally” I think pretty much sums it up.

  • arcseconds

    Those are certainly good suggestions, and have that quality of being obvious once it’s been stated, so I’m wondering why I hadn’t worked this out for myself a few years ago when I was first starting to wonder about the topic!

    I’ve certainly been in the habit of reading textbooks in the past.

    I do tend to go to wikipedia if I want a quick overview of something, I must admit. However, its quality is correlated somewhat with the subject matter: on mathematical topics (to take one extreme) it seems to be very good in terms of the quality of information, often giving rigorous proofs, although the complaint that it’s not all that approachable might be held: hard to have it both ways, of course. On the other hand on topics that have popular appeal and are contentious the quality can be questionable. And on matters that are a bit obscure sometimes it can be just dead wrong.

    Also, I’ve generally found it doesn’t do justice to the range of scholarly views on a topic, and not only frequently lacks depth itself, but also doesn’t do all that well in indicating that there is depth to be had. These drawbacks are quite understandable, of course, but ought to be noted.

    Naturally one wouldn’t want to rely on wikipedia alone for anything approaching serious study.

    One can do worse that following blogs written by scholars, too! If they are genuinely engaged in their discipline, you can get exposed to quite a variety of information, including contrary views, disciplinary lore, etc. in a fairly easy-to-digest manner.

  • Ken

    I’m not sure what it says about me, but when I got to:

    As a result we’ve inherited this strange mix of anti-academia bias with a
    devotion to our self-image as Bible students. Most of our “scholarship”
    since then has occurred within the echo chamber of our own community.
    One consequence of that is that we’ve become increasingly
    fundamentalist.

    I began to wonder if this was a parody letter, and would end with the signature “Al Mohler” or some such thing.

  • Judy Redman

    The Oxford Annotated Study Bible is an edition of the NRSV that has useful introductions to each of the books, comprehensive footnotes to the text plus a range of useful more general articles at the back.

  • Marcus

    I’m a layperson who tries to study very seriously. I’ve found good quality dictionaries to be the most helpful starting point to me. I’ve found, e.g., the Eerdman’s Dictionary of Early Judaism and New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible to be super helpful especially for the bibliography at the end of each article (they’re both a bit more recent than the ABD).

    I also find the book reviews on RBL to be helpful along with blogs like yours at keeping up with what’s coming out in areas that I’m interested in. I have an amazon wishlist that I use to track out books I want to track down some day (having a spouse who is a professor is a huge boon thanks to inter-library loan).

    The last thing I would stress, even though it’s slighly off topic, is having a specific study plan. It’s hard when you’re not in a program to have the discipline to learn systematically, but its a discipline one needs to have to really grow in knowledge.

  • arcseconds

    If you don’t mind telling us, how did this person come to contact you, by the way?

    • It is a blog reader who sent me an e-mail.

      • arcseconds

        It’s certainly interesting (and a good sign) that they’ve chosen to come to you, despite the bias against the academy and the fundamentalist slant that they’re reporting in their community.

  • Sean Garrigan

    For those who want to go just a little beyond the basics, I’d recommend that they read books that cover multiple perspectives. I enjoy the “Four Views of [X]” and “Three Views of [X]” series, as they give one the opportunity to weigh the arguments for each perspective.

    Yes, I’ve taken a brief vacation from my vacation;-)

  • Paul Bruggink

    What about recommending one or more of the layman-level books on the Bible that have come out in recent years, such as Adam Hamilton’s “Making Sense of the Bible,” Scot McKnight’s “The Blue Parakeet,” Craig Blomberg’s “Can We Still Believe the Bible?,” Peter Enns’ “The Bible Tells Me So,” Christopher Hays & Christopher Ansberry’s “Evangelical Faith and the Challenge of Historical Creiticism,” Kenton Sparks’ “God’s Word in Human Words” and/or Christian Smith’s “The Bible Made Impossible”?