Who are the most reputable Biblical scholars?
February 5, 2014 5:18 PM   Subscribe

Who are the most reputable Biblical scholars, from various schools of thought (liberal, conservative, skeptical, etc.)

I do a fair amount of reading about Christianity, a lot of it from people with non-traditional or controversial views. Much of it is fascinating, and oftentimes I think they have a plausible theory of this or that, but then I read reviews of their book and find that critics who seem very invested in other viewpoints are ripping them to shreds.

While I am enjoying learning about alternative theories of who Jesus, Paul, James and the rest were and what they actually did/said/believed that mainstream Christianity may have gotten twisted, I'd like to not get too caught up in the theories of somebody who is generally not well respected.

I'd also like to read some conservative, orthodox views that run counter to the alternative stuff, but it seems like so many of these folks are pretty committed to the Christian mythology as written, even in the face of scholarship that suggests that certain books of the Bible were written later than generally believed, that not all of Paul's letters were written by Paul, etc.

Basically, I'd like to get a more balanced view by people who are generally well thought of. So who are these people that I should be reading?

A couple of things I've read and liked recently:

Paul and Jesus by James Tabor (one comment I read about one of his books said something like "well, Tabor is just being Tabor" in sort of an eye-rolly way as if he were a well-known crackpot)

Zealot by Reza Aslan (holy shit is this guy disliked in some circles)

Anything by Marcus Borg (I love him but he seems to be not well thought of at all by the conservative thinkers in my neck of the Episcopal church, partly because they heartily disapprove of all the liberal Episcopalians who love him)

So... who should I be reading if I want a balanced, respectable view of traditional, historical, alternative, and skeptical?

Keep in mind that I am a lay person, and while reasonably bright I don't have the background to wade through dense scholarly tomes.
posted by Serene Empress Dork to Religion & Philosophy (15 answers total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
Have I got a recommendation for you! I haven't finished it yet, but that's because it's 800 pages long and not exactly light reading (though it's very well written and even has the occasional joke): How to Read the Bible by James L. Kugel. The author is a believing Orthodox Jew who goes through the Jewish Bible (Old Testament) bit by bit, in each chapter telling you what the ancient tradition of interpretation was and what various modern (mainly Christian) scholars think, with copious footnotes so you can follow up on anything interesting. I haven't seen a bad word about it—it tends to get called things like "magisterial." Obviously it doesn't cover the New Testament, but it's a start.
posted by languagehat at 5:37 PM on February 5, 2014 [15 favorites]

Elaine Pagels, Karen Armstrong, John Dominic Crossan and John Shelby Spong are worth looking at.
posted by bunderful at 5:52 PM on February 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'll throw in plugs for Fr. Lawrence Boadt, C.S.P and Fr. Raymond Brown, S.S. as well. Both are dead, unfortunately.

Brown was one of three who edited the New Jerome Biblical Commentary. The NJBC is mostly a reference, but there are some outstanding essays in the back from a variety of scholars covering a wealth of topics. Brown also wrote An Introduction to the New Testament, also quite good.

It's worth noting that both Brown and Boadt wrote from a Roman Catholic perspective, which may or may not matter to you. Their styles are pretty academic, but I found Boadt's look at the Old Testament to be pretty approachable.
posted by jquinby at 6:42 PM on February 5, 2014

Disclaimer: I'm deeply enmeshed in the "conservative evangelical" world, but I attended a big state school (majored in Classics) and am pretty familiar with mainstream scholarship. I'm a graduate student at a Protestant seminary that adheres to the view that Scripture is inerrant and infallible.

Here are a few recommendations:

The Heresy of Orthodoxy
An Introduction to the New Testament
Who Chose the Gospels?
Whose Bible Is It?
Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments (dense)
posted by uncannyslacks at 6:44 PM on February 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

For evangelical, broadly defined, N.T. Wright is a powerhouse, and writes for both scholarly and general audiences. Left of center but far from radical, Walter Brueggemann is wonderful for Old Testament studies. In NT, Catholic Luke Timothy Johnson is great. His "Writings of the New Testament" is a standard seminary text. I also think highly of Carl Holladay, who has a more recent introductory NT text. Richard Hayes should be in the conversation as well, especially his "Moral Vision of the New Testament."

All of those I would consider generally devout but intellectual and rigorous. Those were my favorites in seminary and ministry.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 6:54 PM on February 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

I won't take it personally if this is viewed as not directly on topic, but FWIW I found this Yale Open Course to be very interesting and helpful.
posted by forthright at 7:18 PM on February 5, 2014 [5 favorites]

Biblical studies as a discipline defines itself in terms of a historical approach, as far as history can be reconstructed, in contrast to a more theological or confessional approach. For example, in Historical Jesus studies, one of the classic questions is whether a contemporary Christian, Jew, and atheist could agree on a historical reconstruction of Jesus.  Here are some biblical scholars that I'd put in that category, and titles of their blogs or books you may find useful:

Hebrew Bible/Dead Sea Scrolls - Lawrence Schiffman, Yeshiva University

New Testament and Early Christianity:

Mark Goodacre, Duke University: his NT Pod is worth a listen

Amy-Jill Levine, Vanderbilt University: The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus

Bart Ehrman, UNC-Chapel Hill: A Brief Introduction to the New Testament. Introductory textbook, well-illustrated, references to books for further exploration

Robert Miller, Juniata College, Born Divine
posted by apartment dweller at 8:33 PM on February 5, 2014

Oh, and re: James Tabor and Reza Aslan: the more historically-minded scholars I follow have reservations about Tabor's "Jesus Family Tomb" and Aslan's "Jesus as Zealot" hypotheses. The former, because his evidence is nonexistent, and the latter, because that line of thought has been pretty well worked over already without much result.

Other aspects of their religious studies scholarship (Tabor on the Jewish-Roman world of Jesus, Aslan on Islam) are more solid.
posted by apartment dweller at 8:51 PM on February 5, 2014

I'm a non-Christian lay person. I liked Catholic theologian Hans Küng's On Being Christian which goes into great detail about, among other things, the formation of the gospels and what we know about the historical Jesus and why Christians should care. It's a kind of apologetics, definitely from a Christian perspective but written with an audience including non-Christians in mind. So not much is presupposed. If it has a flaw, it's that it is too painstaking and thorough.

Mr. Küng also has the distinction of having been prohibited from teaching by Cardinal Ratzinger before the latter became pope.
posted by bertran at 10:28 PM on February 5, 2014

Oh, I want to second the Yale Open Course forthright links to. The professor is a bit flippant, but the lectures I've watched have been quite orienting.
posted by bertran at 10:33 PM on February 5, 2014

NT Wright is superb.
posted by professor plum with a rope at 2:08 AM on February 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Lots to dig into here! I am reading reviews and filling out my Amazon wish list. Just to answer a couple of comments above, Roman Catholic perspective is fine, as is evangelical and of course Anglican. And the Yale open course is perfectly on topic. I am looking forward to viewing it.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 4:43 AM on February 6, 2014

For scholars writing accessibly, I second Bart Ehrman, Lawrence Schiffman, and Amy-Jill Levine. On the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, see also Baruch Halpern, Mark S. Smith, David M. Carr, Michael D. Coogan, Ronald Hendel, Richard E. Freedman. Prominent European scholars include Thomas Römer and Konrad Schmid.
posted by yardieprof at 8:12 AM on February 6, 2014

While Pagels and Ehrman have been huge in their fields, and popular, their best and most respected works are also unlikely to be the books you'd pick up so I cannot recommend either of them.

Classifications such as "liberal", "conservative," and "skeptical" are also not broadly useful. Say, when discussing the Historical Jesus, they are--and "skeptics" (if by "skeptics" you mean those who deny the historicity of Jesus) are a minute minority.

But these classifications quickly break down. I've read faithful Jesuits who are more liberal than some so-called liberal theologians.

You are also asking two questions--the most respected and the most accessible--so I'm going to try to address both.

I know more about NT than OT, so:

The "Liberal" School
Here, look to the major ("big-name") participants in extremely the Jesus Seminar, which among other controversial things, ranked Jesus' sayings by likelihood and denied the miracles (when trhe standard procedure has been to ignore the miracles, since an appeal to the laws of nature is useless if the source explicitly acknowledges that the claimed events broke the laws of nature). Also included Gospel of Thomas in their translation of Gospels.
-Robert W. Funk
-(sometimes accessible) Marcus Borg
-(often accessible) John Dominic Crossan (ex-priest, as an interesting bit of context)

Not members of the Seminar, but also very liberal, are:
-(generally not accessible) Schussler Fiorenza (feminist criticism)
-Richard Horsley

The "conservatives"
-Most famously, NT Wright railed against the Jesus Seminar
-Luke Timothy Johnson, a former Benedictine Monk

Not necessarily about Jesus but are highly respected
-(not accessible, to the point that a grad school class I was in uniformly gave up on him) Boyarin, with his emphasis on discourse and the mutual construction of Christianity and Judaism post-Wars, is hugely influential now
-The Historical Figure of Jesus by E. P. Sanders (accessible), in the 1960s, wrote books so influential that he basically started the 'Jesus as a Jew' perspective. See also: Peter Schaefer.
-(not accessible) Meier in his three-volume book A Marginal Jew (link to a talk of his here
-Boyarin's work on
-(often not accessible, but her articles tend to be more accessible) Annette Yoshiko Reed is great for Jewish-Christian relations
-(see caveat) April DeConick is great for Apocrypha, esp. the Gospel of Thomas. She is also the main proponent of an alternative POV on the Gospel of Judas. Some of her books are HIGHLY technical; others are not. I recommend "The Thirteenth Apostle" as an accessible text. Otherwise, read the reviews.
-(not accessible) Rodolphe Kasser, the other leading figure in Gospel of Judas studies

To people in the field, this list will be extremely scattershot. But It's just a recollection of people who were both pleasant to read and well-regarded.
posted by flibbertigibbet at 5:26 PM on February 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

Seconding the Jesus Seminar.

I've been listening to some podcast lectures by Sam Harris recently. I don't know that I would call him a biblical scholar. But he certainly has an atheist perspective on the good book — which maybe isn't so good.
posted by quadog at 9:29 PM on February 6, 2014

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