Best book summarizing current biblical scholarship?
December 5, 2011 3:35 PM   Subscribe

What book should I read to get an overview-level understanding of the current state of biblical scholarship?

As an interested layperson, I'd like to find (ideally) one or two books that I could read to get an understanding of what most researchers have discovered in studying the history of the Bible, including what most agree on, where there is disagreement, etc. I'm vaguely aware that people have done research into the authorship of particular texts (including Wikipedia-style "edit wars") - who those authors were, what their motivations were, etc. (Using grammatical or other indicators to trace the locations of edits, clean-ups, rewrites...)

I'm never going to be an expert on the subject, but like many other subjects, I'd love to be aware of what the current state of the field is. Is there a good, single "pop" level book that would clue me in? Online resources would be fine, too, but I haven't had a lot of luck searching on this topic.

I'm not interested in fundamentalist or other excessively credulous studies of the Bible; I'm fairly firmly in the camp that it's a historical human artifact and I'd like to understand better how it evolved.
posted by knave to Religion & Philosophy (23 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I am not sure this answers the question as to the current state of the field, since it has been a few years since I read these, but I LOVED Bart Ehrman's work on the editing (and, he argues, dogmatic corruption) of the Bible. "Lost Scriptures," "Lost Christianities," and "Misquoting Jesus" were engaging, enlightening reads..."The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture" is probably a stronger argument, although too technical for my limited linguistic background!
posted by mittens at 3:51 PM on December 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Hmm. Other people may have better recommendations than me, but for generally agreed upon history of the religion itself, I think the Oxford History of Christianity is pretty standard and not nearly as boring as you might think it.

Otherwise, you might want to check out the Jesus Seminar and their publications.
posted by Lutoslawski at 3:52 PM on December 5, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks, I might have over-emphasized the word "current" - I'm generally interested in what we know so far, and how we know it; not necessarily what the current hot debate is.
posted by knave at 4:06 PM on December 5, 2011

Best answer: An almost-second for Erham here, who gets his facts straight but I think sometimes grasps a bit far with his polemics. I'm not done reading it yet, but so far I can recommend Karen Armstrong's The Bible: A Biography. It looks like she's doing a pretty nice overview. When it first came out, Friedman's Who Wrote the Bible? was really excellent, but the field has moved on in some significant ways since 1987. It's hard to go wrong with The Oxford Companion to the Bible (or anything Metzger has been involved in). Finally, for how the New Testament texts were selected and cannonized, there's really nothing better than Harry Gamble's The New Testament Canon. Highly accessible, and short.

I'm going to register some objections to The Jesus Seminar guys. They have a lot of fun and like to stir the pot, but voting on whether the sayings of Jesus are authentic with colored marbles in a jar is a hell of a long way from serious, responsible literary criticism. They are like the Harlem Globetrotters of biblical scholarship--fun to watch, but not really playing a serious game. I like some of them as individual writers, but what they do together is all about publicity.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 4:10 PM on December 5, 2011 [3 favorites]

I liked Don't Know Much About the Bible.

I just found it online as a pdf.
posted by Obscure Reference at 5:39 PM on December 5, 2011

Thirding Ehrman and seconding anything at all by Armstrong.
posted by dawkins_7 at 5:55 PM on December 5, 2011

While it has been published for almost 15 years, I think you would find Raymond E. Brown's An Introduction to the New Testament a great reference for New Testament scholarship. The editorial/customer reviews speak about it better than I can.

I don't know of a comparable book for the Old Testament, but would very much like to know of one. I imagine one may be available in volumes split by genre as Brown's book is over 2" thick.
posted by metroidhunter at 6:59 PM on December 5, 2011

Although I respect Bart Ehrman, I do think he has an axe to grind. My Classics professors in college considered him a lousy scholar. I agree with Pater Aletheias above. Try to take a level-headed approach to studying this topic, as it tends to become polemic if you're not careful.
posted by uncannyslacks at 7:40 PM on December 5, 2011

Best answer: Ehrman served for years as the chair of the religious studies department at UNC. I'm stunned that a classics professor would call his scholarship lousy, and think that's grossly unfair and inaccurate. Keep in mind that Ehrman was a diehard fundamentalist who gradually realized as he studied the Bible in its original and early languages that he could no longer believe in Christianity, and doesn't hide that fact. It's why believers often criticize him for "having an axe to grind." But Pater's right: he gets his facts straight. And he writes beautifully for laypeople.

I'll second mittens; his early books aimed at a student/popular audience - Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew and Lost Scriptures: Books that Did Not Make It into the New Testament - are excellent. Very clear, easy to digest and full of information about the history of the Bible. I've never heard any criticism of their scholarship, and would be very much interested in seeing any.

You could argue that as Ehrman got more popular and began churning out the books his style got more polemic, but you could also argue that he just stopped pulling his punches. Either way, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why is about as clear and concise an introduction to the problems of translation in the Bible's history as you're likely to find aimed at a layperson.
posted by mediareport at 8:01 PM on December 5, 2011

Seconding Ehrman, his work is exactly what you are looking for, though I'd point you towards Jesus Interrupted as the book that is more focused on your learning goals.
posted by Blasdelb at 9:28 PM on December 5, 2011

Best answer: I'm going to recommend two of Ehrman's works not yet mentioned: both are concise overviews of the current state of New Testament scholarship:
A Brief Introduction to the New Testament and The Teaching Company's The New Testament lectures. I recommend both, as they work very well together.

A few weeks ago I asked a friend of mine who is a doctoral candidate at Duke in the field of textual criticism (Ehrman's specialty--my friend has taken doctoral courses with him) which NT intro text he would recommend. Somewhat to my surprise, as my friend comes from a more conservative theological background than myself, he recommended the textbook I was already using, the aforementioned Brief Introduction to the New Testament.

Ehrman addresses exactly the issues that knave is asking about. I recommend the Brief Intro textbook instead of Ehrman's popular works because it provides a structure (with excellent photographs, maps, and illustrations) for understanding crucial concepts such as Markan priority, the synoptic problem, the religious, cultural, and historical background of the Greco-Roman world, and first century Judaism. Ehrman has a gift for simplifying complex material, including pseudonymous authorship of some of the letters attributed to Paul, and plausible historical reconstructions of how the role of women in the early church became more restricted as the church became more of a public institution. Ehrman doesn't just state his own perspective; he walks the reader through the biblical scholarship to show how scholarly consensus has been reached. He also provides, at the end of each chapter, suggested further readings by scholars other than himself.

I would also suggest that you do take a look at some of the materials of the Westar Institute which is, as has been mentioned, the home of the Jesus Seminar. I was honored to briefly know the late Bob Funk (co-founder of Westar and the Jesus Seminar), and I have been mentored and encouraged by a number of members of Westar, including Dom Crossan, Robert Miller, Arthur Dewey, Charlie Hedrick, and Lane McGaughy--who are just a few of the Fellows. These are working scholars who research, teach college students, and present their scholarship to their peers in the Society of Biblical Literature, the professional organization for biblical scholars.

The voting with colored beads on the historicity of all the sayings of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels is often misunderstood (and Bob Funk wasn't averse to publicize it in a way that the other Fellows did not always agree with). The voting on the sayings was a way to obtain scholarly consensus by at least one group of scholars, since New Testament scholars working in the area of historical Jesus studies generally tend to make their own individual determinations of which sayings are more likely to go back to the historical Jesus. (For those of you who want to get down into the roots of this branch of New Testament scholarship, it was an outgrowth of Ernst Käsemann's New Quest of the Historical Jesus of the 1950s.)

The Westar Fellows have completed the Jesus Seminar part of their work, but other New Testament research continues with the Paul Seminar (resulting in a new translation of the undisputed Pauline correspondence), the Acts Seminar (resulting in a potential redating of Acts to the second, not first, century) and the recently begun Bible Seminar (raising issues of both determining historicity of the Hebrew Bible narratives and reviewing the reception history of the biblical text).
posted by apartment dweller at 9:39 PM on December 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Specific books published by Westar that are helpful:

Born Divine: The Births of Jesus and Other Sons of God by Robert J. Miller

The Complete Gospels: Annotated Scholars Version; Robert J. Miller, editor

The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus by Robert W. Funk, Roy W. Hoover & the Jesus Seminar

Honest to Jesus: Jesus for a New Millennium by Robert W. Funk

The Jesus Seminar and Its Critics by Robert J. Miller
posted by apartment dweller at 9:53 PM on December 5, 2011

It's a bit dense and maybe a bit obvious, but the Oxford Annotated Bible has a number of great historical and interpretive essays, and great introductions giving background for each book of the Hebrew and Christian Testaments, and the Apocrypha.

Great maps too.

It's a joy to pick up and flip around in.
posted by bardic at 10:01 PM on December 5, 2011

James Kugel's How to Read the Bible is not particularly detail-oriented in its approach, but it definitely gives an overview of the Documentary Hypothesis and similar theories and compares them to rabbinical interpretive traditions (the Bible refers only to the Hebrew Bible, here). I've read a few books for laypeople on the topic and found this to be the most thoughtful and erudite one.
posted by stoneandstar at 10:02 PM on December 5, 2011

Best answer: A couple of online resources:

The New Testament Gateway, founded and maintained by Dr. Mark Goodacre of Duke University. This is a portal site to a massive amount of online scholarship that Mark has collected.

Dr. Goodacre's NT Pod (podcast) - 57 podcasts to date on many aspects of New Testament scholarship

Not online (but available on Kindle): One of the most important books I've ever read, from a Jewish scholar of the New Testament who teaches at Vanderbilt Divinity School: The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus by Dr. Amy-Jill Levine. Extremely readable.
posted by apartment dweller at 10:05 PM on December 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: For Hebrew Bible scholarship and background on the Documentary Hypothesis (e.g., determining the likely sources, authorship, and dating of the Pentateuch), you can watch PBS's NOVA program, The Bible's Buried Secrets, online for free here.

An excellent New Testament/early Christianity PBS program, From Jesus to Christ, is available for free online viewing here.
posted by apartment dweller at 10:14 PM on December 5, 2011

Response by poster: Wow, thanks for all the great answers so far! I'm interested in the entire thing (NT & OT, especially the pentateuch), so while the resources about Jesus are interesting, I don't want to focus on the NT exclusively.
posted by knave at 11:40 PM on December 5, 2011

For just getting started, I would recommend 'The Complete Bible Handbook, An Illustrated Companion' by John Bowker. It is designed for a general audience (yes, a "pop" level book), with clear writing and of course lots of illustrations. You won't find any detailed "edit wars" in it, but there are some decent research summaries of the provenances of the various "books" in the Bible. This isn't the final word on this subject, but it would make a pretty good departure point for someone with a general interest.
posted by ovvl at 7:18 AM on December 6, 2011

Best answer: For more on the development, history, sources, and themes of the Hebrew Bible (e.g., Old Testament, Tanakh), try these sources:

The Old Testament: A Very Short Introduction by Michael Coogan (from Oxford's Very Short Introductions series). Succinct.

For more background, try Coogan's intro textbook, A Brief Introduction to the Old Testament.

For a set of great lectures, try The Teaching Company's Old Testament series by Amy-Jill Levine.

For a variety of articles on the Hebrew Bible and archaeology, check out the web site, The Bible and Interpretation (it includes New Testament scholarship as well). Go to "Most Viewed Articles" on the right side of the page to begin to navigate the site.

A Bible with academic study notes, as opposed to devotional ones, is a necessity. The Oxford Annotated NRSV, identified previously, is fine; so is the HarperCollins Study Bible (NRSV).
posted by apartment dweller at 8:24 AM on December 6, 2011

I'm stunned that a classics professor would call [Erman's] scholarship lousy, and think that's grossly unfair and inaccurate.

In part it could be the taking it to the streets approach the fellow has. His website is not exactly staid.

That said, there are scholarly reviews, mostly behind JSTOR and Projectmuse, of his work that find it a little overwrought. A fellow UNC alum and professor has this to say.

I've no dog in this fight, by the way, but I'm not surprised.
posted by IndigoJones at 8:47 AM on December 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

I expected a lot of Erman recommendations here and wasn't disappointed, but don't overlook Karen Armstrong's earlier A History of God, which spends almost all of its pages discussing the pentateuch and how it entered into and became fundamental to Judaism, Christianity and Islam. A great overview of the basic documentarian stuff, the J-E-P-D authorship, and so on.

(It also touches on Hinduism and Buddhism, but only lightly.)

It's long but very readable, not technical at all.
posted by rokusan at 1:54 PM on December 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Hello. I'm an MA student in this field (well, technically in a closely related field--Christian apocrypha--but let's call it even).

I'd agree that Bert Ehrman is a good layman's introduction, but I'm not particularly fond of his scholarship and thinks he often goes for sensationalism instead of measured discussion, but I'd still recommend "Lost Christianities" (a good introduction), and, if you start caring about specifics of the canonical texts and why scholars use certain techniques, his "Introduction to the New Testament" is really quite excellent. Just don't take his interpretations (especially of which texts are gnostic, please!) as Gospel truth (if you'll pardon the pun).

I'd recommending steering clear of the Jesus Seminar as their work--and its implications--is not necessarily immediately accessible to laymen. If you want to go there, however, "The Give Gospels" is where you should be.

I assume you care mostly about the New Testament? If not, please let me know and I'll find some lovely sources on the Documentary Hypothesis for you.

So, a breakdown:

THE QUEST FOR THE HISTORICAL JESUS, aka "who was Jesus, really?" Often relies on the Gospels (with occasional appearances of the Pauline epistles) and apocryphal texts. Often gets into details of why some passages are more trustworthy than others. Almost never trusts the Gospel of John (and explains why). The tendency for the page 50 years (since Jewish scholars got involved, post-Holocaust) is towards acknowledgement of Jesus' fundamental Jewishness (thanks, E. P. Sanders!) and discussing how that may be elided by the texts as we know them.

For laymen, Dominic Crossan is often a good choice. His books are often written in a very approachable style, especially "Jesus: a Revolutionary Biography." He's fairly controversial, especially for his leading in the Jesus Seminar and a tendency to sensationalize. If you want context for this debate, Luke Timothy Johnson's "The Real Jesus" is an excellent layman's introduction to the whole thing, best read alongside Crossan (and not necessarily on its own).

For a totally different approach, Bruce Chilton's "Rabbi Jesus" is also a fairly easy read. It is also hugely imaginative (read: he fills in details with his imagination to present a biography), and very very controversial because of his willingness to spin a yarn.


Ehrman's "Introduction to the New Testament" or Powell's "Introducing the New Testament: A Historical, Literary, and Theological Survey." I think Ehrman's is broader and therefore more useful.

WHAT'S THE DEAL WITH THE GOSPEL OF JOHN? Why isn't John treated like the other Gospels?

Definitely Brown and Maloney's "An Introduction to the Gospel of John," but preferably after you read either Ehrman or Powell, which will explain the basics so you're not dazed.


First, who was Paul? Ignoring Acts as unreliable (rightly), Murphy-O'Connor's work "Paul: A Critical Life" is an excellent introduction.

Otherwise, I'd suggest just sticking with the explanations in Ehrman/Powell unless you really love reading Greek.


I must confess my ignorance. Seriously, I got no nuthin'. Stick with Ehrman and Powell.


Something I can do!

Best overall intro: Even though it only covers apocryphal gospels, I STRONGLY recommend Paul Foster's "The Apocryphal Gospels: A Very Short Introduction."

It has 3 benefits:
1) very short and accessible
2) surprisingly precise given how small it is
3) neutral and scholarly

Collections of the actual texts: Ehrman's "Apocryphal Gospels" is great, but only includes the Gospels (which is a common enough problem in studies of apocrypha, let me tell you). J. K. Elliot's work "The Apocryphal New Testament" is essentially a slight modernization of a much earlier work, so a lot of the translations are... out-of-date, but it's still a good collection.

Gospel of Judas: Oh god, everyone's divided pretty much 50/50. In one corner, arguing that the Gospel of Judas paints Judas as evil, you have April Deconick (among others) with "The Thirteenth Apostle." In the other corner, you have Kasser (a juggernaut) and Wurst (and the National Geographic team), arguing that the GoJ paints Judas as a saint, with their book "The Gospel of Judas" (which also contains their translation of the Gospel of Judas).

Gnosticism & Nag Hammadi: Ugh. Karen King's "What is Gnosticism" is a nice introduction, but remember that an intro to gnosticism is much like an intro to quantum physics: prepare to get confused regardless, and King is not necessarily writing for a layman, so some things will have to wizz past you and you'll have to trudge on. I've heard good things about Marvin Meyer's "The Gnostic Discoveries."

I covered the most controversial ones up there, tell me if you want anything else!
posted by flibbertigibbet at 6:30 PM on December 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Well, let me rephrase. The Gospel of Judas argument probably isn't 50/50, but you do have everyone (except for one scholar I know) setting up very decisively in either Kasser's or DeConick's camp.

Also, almost no one is arguing that it has any historical use for the life of Judas or Jesus. Apocryphal texts are rarely considered valid historical sources for anything except the community that wrote, copied, and used them. (Heck, this can be said of the Gospel of John as well).
posted by flibbertigibbet at 6:36 PM on December 6, 2011

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