Recommendations for annotated bible
April 21, 2005 9:50 AM   Subscribe

I'm interested in picking up an annotated Bible--something that treats it as a cultural document rather than the revealed word of God.

I'd be interested in something that points out what parts are understood to be actual historical events (maps would be a bonus), what parts are stolen from somebody else's mythology, how certain passages have taken on special meaning to certain groups over time, that sort of thing.

If I had to choose, I'd pick Old Testament over New, but I'd prefer a double-barrelled version. And hey, if there's something equivalent for the Koran, I'd be interested in knowing about that too.
posted by adamrice to Religion & Philosophy (16 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know about the New Testament, but the accepted best translation for the Hebrew Bible is the latest Jewish Publications Society edition. It's called the Tanakh, as the Hebew Bible is, and includes the Torah (the first five books of Moses), and then the prophets etc. The footnotes are quite dense and give a very good sense of what translation decisions were made and why. The stand alone Torah from JPS, a different book but the same translation, has maps etc. I can't find a link to that. Here's a link to the Tanakh.

I would also recommend this edition, even if you end up also buying a New Testament, because it does not have any Christian influence since it's a Jewish book.

There is a great annotated translation of the Qu'ran, but I can never remember the translator, and my copy is at my parent's house right now in storage. If you really are interested email me via my profile and I'll dig it up when I can and get back to you.
posted by OmieWise at 10:10 AM on April 21, 2005

At the risk of appearing biased for mentioning a book published by my employer, I would highly recommend the New Oxford Annotated Bible.

Otherwise, there's an article on how to choose a study bible that might be of some use.
posted by Mo Nickels at 10:40 AM on April 21, 2005

For a very negative take on it, there's always the online Skeptic's Annotated Bible.

You'd probably be more interested in Harold Bloom's The Book of J or Richard Friedman's The Bible With Sources Revealed.
posted by callmejay at 10:50 AM on April 21, 2005

I'd be interested in something that points out what parts are understood to be actual historical events (maps would be a bonus), what parts are stolen from somebody else's mythology, how certain passages have taken on special meaning to certain groups over time, that sort of thing.

To be fair, this thing you've just described is a much, much larger project than simply an "annotated bible." It actually has several fronts: the historical aspect (which actually itself has 2 faces, the bible as history and the history of biblical times), the comparative religion / philosophy aspect, and (what I understand to be) a theological aspect.

Each of these has a positively immense body of literature, and it's asking a bit much to nail them all down into one book. As for the history stuff, I would find a local college that has a course called "The Historical X", where X is some biblical figure like Jesus, Moses, Abraham, or whoever, and either take the course or go read the books on the syllabus.

For comparative and philosophical aspects, who stole what from whom, you're probably in the market for something like Freud's "Moses and Monotheism" (which argues that Moses was, in fact, the son of a Pharoah and that his religion was a reincarnation of Aton worship and which is regarded, generally, as a pile of bullshit) or Mircea Eliade's "A History of Religious Ideas". Actually, something way shorter than that and more approachable, but in the same vein; unfortunately I don't know of anything.

On preview: good call on the Book of J.
posted by rkent at 10:58 AM on April 21, 2005

You might look at Asimov's Guide.
posted by kindall at 11:03 AM on April 21, 2005

I liked Asimov's notes on the Old & New Testament.
( ISBN: 051734582X )

They're very readable, and tend towards a secular, historical exploration of the text.
posted by Crosius at 11:05 AM on April 21, 2005

For the same reasons you specified in your first sentence, the book that Mo Nickels recommends is in my apartment.
posted by safetyfork at 11:10 AM on April 21, 2005

good call on the Book of J.

No, bad call, unless all you're interested in is Harold Bloom's extremely idiosyncratic take on it, shared by nobody else.

And OmieWise, he's not interested in a translation, however good, but an annotated edition that explicitly treats the text from a literary/historical point of view ("what parts are understood to be actual historical events..., what parts are stolen from somebody else's mythology"). For the Old Testament/Torah I recommend Who Wrote the Bible?, by Richard Elliott Friedman:
Friedman carefully sifts through clues available in the text of the Hebrew Bible and those provided by biblical archaeology searching for the writer(s) of, primarily, the Pentateuch. He does so with clarity and engaging style, turning a potentially dry scholarly inquiry into a lively detective story. The reader is guided through the historical circumstances that occasioned the writing of the sources underlying the Five Books of Moses and the combining of these diverse sources into the final literary product. According to Friedman, the most controversial part of his case is the identification of the writer and date of the Priestly source. This book is neither comprehensive nor unduly complex, making it a good introductory text for beginners and nonspecialists.

--Library Journal
By the way, is the annotated translation of the Qu'ran you're thinking of Muhammad Asad's? I have it, and it's fantastic (though big and expensive)... Whoa! Holy crap, I just discovered the whole thing is online! OK, it hasn't got the Arabic, there are no italics, and there are a lot of scanning errors (long a becomes d throughout, for instance, and in the second note to the Fatiha Qur'an becomes "Qur'aff," but if you can put up with that stuff there's a goldmine of commentary available for free. Definitely doesn't "treat it as a cultural document rather than the revealed word of God," though!
posted by languagehat at 12:12 PM on April 21, 2005

Another vote for the New Oxford Annotated, and I don't work for 'em. It has nice (if brief) notes on textual criticism and historical context. The one I've got is a three-in-one edition — Old, New and Apocrypha.
posted by nebulawindphone at 12:14 PM on April 21, 2005

I quite enjoyed Asimov's take on the OT. I never did get to read his NT work.
posted by five fresh fish at 1:01 PM on April 21, 2005

Thanks, everyone. A lot of interesting candidates to chew on--I'll probably have to get at least two now. The controversy surrounding Asimov's book in the reviews at amazon makes me want to read it.
posted by adamrice at 2:08 PM on April 21, 2005

Ditto the Oxford. I've seen a number of colleges and universities (including my own alma mater) use it. Also, for the historical and other analyses, go to a good (preferably academic) library and ask whether they have the Interpreter's Bible; this will not be one book, but rather an entire shelf of them, and it will be a good starting point for the sort of research you seem to want to do.
posted by ubernostrum at 6:22 PM on April 21, 2005

Ultimately, just about any annotation will be little more than someone's opinion, whether it's a pro-Christian, anti-Christian, or pro-some esoteric version of Christianity the author made up to sell books (or because he was on drugs, or because he has an overactive imagination).

If you want to compare the bible to other's mythologies, the best thing to do is to read mythology. Some basic Greek/Roman stuff, epic of Gilgamesh, that sorta stuff. Doing this with history would be a bit harder, though, I guess.

Don't be too cynical about many basic study bibles, though. Sure, the typical fundie ones are going to spend their time telling you their typical fundie interpretations in a typically fundie dumbed-down way, but from my experience my good old Zondervan NIV Study Bible tends to avoid that in favor of simple explanations of context, see also this part of the Bible for a similar theme, etc.
posted by dagnyscott at 7:45 PM on April 21, 2005

Ironically, the Jerusalem Bible, which is an official Catholic edition, has really excellent notes and annotations--in general better than the Oxford's. There's always a little theist, Catholic twist to them, but it's quite easy to read around it once you get the hang of the thing.

Tragicomically, it's agressively not based on the King James Edition (Protestants, boo!), which makes for the occasionally hilarious clunker. For example, instead of "when I walk through the valley of death..." it has "when I walk through a very dark valley...." (These quotes are from memory--don't hold me to them.)
posted by armchairsocialist at 10:27 PM on April 21, 2005

A NY Times review of the 1000 page The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary by Robert Alter, who teaches Hebrew and comparative literature at Berkeley.
posted by dmo at 4:05 AM on April 22, 2005

I am not an expert in this area, but I was looking for exactly what you describe several years ago - and was pleasantly surprised to find that the Catholic (Jesuit) commentary, "The New Jerome Biblical Commentary" was extremely scholarly with extensive reference to the original extant manuscripts, details of translation, disagreements and areas where the information we have is so corrupt as to render a good translation impossible, and so on. It is not strictly an "orthodox" Catholic perspective, but takes what I feel is a balanced approach. The authors also point out parallels or links with other ancient Near Eastern traditions at least in some cases...I now turn to it almost every time I open the Bible for greater understanding of these ancient texts. An example: for the Song of Songs (Canticle of Canticles in the Catholic parlance, I believe; I am still a KJV-toting Protestant), I learned in the New Jerome about the poem's connection with ancient Egyptian love poetry - instead of a stretched Christocentric interpretation of this sublime section of the Hebrew Scriptures as an allegory of Christ's love for the Church (which I have seen in some other commentaries). So, the New Jerome might be something to check out.
posted by Yelena at 1:00 PM on October 13, 2005

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