I received this e-mail a while back:
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.
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?