A large number of folks have responded to Ken Brown’s provocative challenge to name five books which “have had the most immediate and lasting influence on how you read the Bible.” Ken has briefly cataloged most of these responses here, and has also provided a few statistics and reflections. As I considered the question, I found it difficult to limit my list to five! But here is a quintet of titles which have particularly shaped my thinking in my relatively short lifetime. If you’re not familiar with any of these, check them out as soon as possible!
Through concise, eminently readable prose, Collins guides his readers across the alien sociohistorical landscape of the Hebrew Bible with incomparable clarity and skill. Unfortunately, most readers aren’t able to experience this book as I first did: in conjunction with the weekly lectures of his yearlong course, Introduction to the Hebrew Bible. Nevertheless, there are few better ways to immerse yourself in the texts and traditions which make up the majority of the biblical corpus.
Thanks to the utter ubiquity of the written word in modern Western culture, it is easy to forget that throughout much of Christian history the familiar narratives of the Bible were primarily transmitted visually rather than verbally. Early Christian art remains a largely neglected field, but Mathews’ engaging, comprehensive study–with its compelling presentation of the plethora of ancient artistic tropes appropriated in the first depictions of Jesus–shows that these images may yield significant historical and exegetical insights.
Meeks’ The First Urban Christians served as my introduction to sociological approaches to the New Testament. Despite the meager amounts of available data, Meeks carefully crafts these few precious pieces into a viable model which sheds significant light on the composition and praxis of the first Christian communities.
While many books (including all those listed here) have contributed to my understanding of the world in which the Bible was created, Parker’s innovative approach changed the way I thought about the nature of the Bible itself. Along with Eldon Epp, he has argued persuasively that the search for the “original” reading of any given passage need not represent the sole aim of textual criticism. Indeed, such an approach obscures the fact that the original reading may be difficult or impossible to recover and that all of the assorted variants were regarded as scripture by the communities which produced and used them. The perpetual adaptation of the biblical text into other languages and editorial formats further underscores its dynamic, evolving quality. Parker’s proposals have redefined textual criticism of the New Testament and have opened new hermeneutical vistas where variants are examined in concert with one another, not in opposition to one another.
Several commentators have included Sanders’ magisterial Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion, citing its crucial role in the inauguration of the “New Perspective on Paul” and the dramatic reassessment of the nature of Second Temple Judaism. However, his study of the historical Jesus, combining the reconstructed paradigm of the Second Temple Jewish world with an emphasis upon the recorded events of Jesus’ life rather than the notoriously difficult sayings, has been more influential for me. His revival of the best aspects of the earlier work of Albert Schweitzer has been especially welcome, and his isolation of the incident within the Jerusalem Temple as the immediate cause of Jesus’ arrest and execution seems most plausible.