Ken Brown at the blog C. Orthodoxy started a meme asking bloggers involved in biblical studies what are the top 5 books or scholars which have influenced them the most. Here’s FPR’s contribution, organized by author:
- Daniel Boyarin, A Radical Jew
- Stephen Moore, God’s Gym
- Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, Rhetoric and Ethic: The Politics of Biblical Studies
- Dale Martin, The Corinthian Body
- The Postmodern Bible
No book is perfect, but these are some of my favorites. I find myself turning to them again and again. Boyarin is simply one of the most creative thinkers out there. An Orthodox Jew, he is an unconventional scholar of early Christianity, and an unconventional Orthodox Jew at that. Though many of my friends prefer Stan Stower’s Romans: A Rereading, Boyarin’s book on Paul for me got me thinking in new ways about the “New Perspective” by connecting Paul to Middle Platonism, and the political and theological implications of this kind of thinking.
Dale Martin’s reading of the Corinthian correspondence is brilliant. He puts Paul into conversation with medical writers, and help me situate Paul in new ways.
Stephen Moore’s book is simply the craziest book you’ll ever read about the New Testament (unless you read his other book, God’s Beauty Parlor). Bringing queer theory and cultural criticism to bear on the Bible, you’ll be shocked and scandalized, and you’ll never think about the atonement in the same way again.
ESF and The Postmodern Bible have been influential on me for thinking about hermeneutics and the politics of biblical interpretation. Both are excellent overviews of the main issues, and are worth a close reading.
The Yellow Dart
- Bart Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture. I first read this book on my mission, and it was my first real introduction to critical biblical scholarship, including both lower and higher criticism. This book forced me to start dealing with my scriptural texts more seriously on an intellectual level, and so this book was a critical step in my path towards studying the Bible academically.
- William Dever, Did God Have a Wife?: Archaeology and Folk Religion in Ancient Israel. Although Dever’s sharp rhetoric and lambasting of other scholars with whom he disagrees was at times tiring (although it is not quite as bad here as in some of his other works), Dever’s clear presentation of a wealth of archaeological data and discussion of “folk” religion in ancient Israel was very stimulating. It was after reading this book that I think it really dawned on me how limited, and seemingly quite late, the prophetic, Priestly, and Deuteronomistic traditions’ espousal of Yahwistic monolatry was in ancient Israel, as well as how drastically the Priestly and Deuteronomistic schools shaped later understandings of the history and religion of Israel through their texts.
- John Day, Yahweh And the Gods and Goddesses of Canaan. This is just one of my favorite books on Israelite religion in the (mostly) pre-exilic period. Day’s discussion is lucid, informed, and engaging throughout. This book also clearly demonstrated to me how indebted the biblical authors were to the wider West Semitic and ancient Near Eastern socio-religio-cultural world. (As a side note, it also really dawned on me how easily and widely very well-informed persons can disagree on various issues.)
- John Barton, Reading the Old Testament: Method in Biblical Study. Although I had previously read about and utilized various literary methods (such as source criticism, redaction criticism, and form criticism) that are commonly used in biblical studies, this book was my first real engagement with the theories that underly the methods and their application, and hence the benefits and the limitations of the methods as hermeneutical tools for understanding biblical texts.
- William Dever, Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From?. This book drastically altered my former views concerning the emergence of Israel in the land of Canaan. Given the huge impact of the Bible and its traditions about Israel on Western Culture, I think everyone needs to read this book or one like it.
- However, if I were just to list the scholars who have most influenced my understanding of the Bible, I would probably pick William Dever, N.T. Wright, Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, John Day, and either John Barton, Marc Brettler, or Mark S. Smith.
- Wayne Meeks, The First Urban Christians. This is the first book I read which made social scientific analysis of the Bible come alive for me.
- Bart Ehrman, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. Ehrman lays out the criteria he will use to analyze the historicity of the sayings and deeds of Jesus and then follows them. Too many commentators do neither and present the Jesus they want to see.
- Robert Alter, The David Story. This made me see the literary artistry of the Old Testament. I prefer Alter’s translations to his more analytical work. This makes 1 and 2 Samuel a pleasure to read.
- Richard Elliot Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible?. This book finally made me realize that the Documentary Hypothesis is not just some ivory tower abstraction, but a tool to actually understand the Bible. His analysis of Numbers 16 is very good, and makes an obscure text makes sense.
- Gerald Bray, Biblical Interpretation: Past and Present. This book provides a short summary of every major biblical commentator and approach to biblical interpretation from ancient times to the present. It made me appreciate the many and varied attempts to understand the Bible.
- Jon Levenson, Sinai and Zion: An Entry into the Hebrew Bible, which opened my eyes.
- Mark S. Smith’s works
- Theodore Mullen, The Assembly of the Gods: The Divine Council in Canaanite and Early Hebrew Literature. This was my introduction to the vast literature on the council of the gods in the Hebrew and Ugaritic material.
- Jeffrey Tigay, Empirical Models of Biblical Criticism, which showed that the kinds of editing thought to be at work in the Hebrew Bible were clearly found in other Ancient Near Eastern texts.
- The works of Nahum Sarna who in particular provided a path between scholarship and (Jewish) faith. Sarna was both a Rabbi and a PhD.
Were I to add a sixth, Robert Alter, in particular Art of Biblical Narrative, would definitely be on it. Alter showed me the beauty and logic behind the arrangement of the text, from the word level on up.
Having put this list together, I note that Smith (and maybe Mullen?) is the lone non-Jew in the group, including Robert Alter. I suspect Jewish scholarship ranks highly with me for a few reasons. Jews, being non-Christians, tend to lack the theological baggage and issues that most Christians bring to the Hebrew Bible.
Though I did Near Eastern Studies as an undergrad, I stumbled over most of these on my own early on in my graduate experience. Perhaps a professor mentioned them here or there or I wasn’t paying attention. Frankly, these are all (well, mostly) quite accessible books to non-specialists, not at all reserved for doctoral-level students, but such was the nature of my undergrad training. Fortunately, my program has been revamped considerably since I graduated, and I suspect students are now getting much broader exposure.