Five Primary Sources Which Changed the Way I Read the Bible

Nick Norelli has tagged me in the latest meme circling the blogosphere, which means that I must respond immediately or my computer will explode or something.  Here are the rules:

  1. List the 5 primary sources that have most affected your scholarship, thoughts about antiquity, and/or understanding of the NT/OT.
  2. Books from the Bible are off limits unless you really want to list one, I certainly will not chastise you for it.
  3. Finally, choose individual works if you can. This will be more interesting than listing the entire corpus of Cicero as one of your choices.

And without further ado, here are my choices:

  • The sectarian writings of the Dead Sea Scrolls

I know that this choice is a partial violation of Rule 3, but since I read the scrolls for the first time in a single volume (Geza Vermes’ The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English) I’ll fudge it.  It would be difficult, if not impossible, to exaggerate the impact of the Dead Sea Scrolls upon the study of Second Temple Judaism.  As an undergraduate, I recall reading texts such as the Community Rule, the Damascus Document, and the War of the Sons of Light Against the Sons of Darkness and being blown away with images of ritualized obedience, multiple messiahs, and imminent eschatological expectations.  Anyone seeking to understand the Jewish milieu which included Jesus of Nazareth and his first followers must begin here.

  • The Gospel of Thomas

This text served as my introduction to the idea that early Christian writings about Jesus could adopt forms other than those found in the more familiar canonical gospels.  In rereading it on several occasions, I’ve come to appreciate how important narrative is to hermeneutics.  As many scholars have shown, portions of Thomas are likely dependent upon the synoptic gospels; as my own students have noted, however, even these words seem starker and more challenging to the reader when they appear without any narrative context.  I’ve gained more appreciation for the intellectual diversity of early Christianity as a result of my encounters with Thomas and other works.

  • Flavius Josephus, Antiquitates Judaicae

I stole this one from Nick, albeit for different reasons.  Like the Dead Sea Scrolls, Josephus offered me a window on the world of Jesus other than those of the biblical texts.  As a student of the historical Jesus and early Christianity, I’ve been keenly interested in his comments on Jesus, James the brother of Jesus, and John the Baptist, but also in the many other historical, sociocultural, and economic details which breathe new life into first-century Palestine.

  • Eusebius of Caesarea, Historia Ecclesiastica

Having read portions of the Historia Ecclesiastica for innumerable classes, I’m finally reading the complete work for the first time this summer.  It is an incredible achievement, with something to offer to students of every aspect of early Christianity.  If you don’t own an edition, run—don’t walk—to the bookstore and pick one up right now.  (Preferably not the cheap one published by Penguin Classics, although it will do in a pinch.)

  • Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis

I would not have chosen the Stromateis prior to my studies with Judy Kovacs this spring, but now I can recommend it enthusiastically.  To me, Clement represents the cream of the second-century Christian crop: a brilliant, widely read exegete heavily rooted in the Bible but capable of incorporating the best of Plato, Euripides, and other Greco-Roman authors into his arguments.  Andre Mehat once called Clement the greatest Christian theologian prior to Augustine, and I’m inclined to agree.  His conception of life as a spiritual and intellectual journey towards ultimate union with God, and the concurrent recognition that the journey is made in different ways by different individuals, still carries a great deal of relevance for the church today.

2 Responses to “Five Primary Sources Which Changed the Way I Read the Bible”

  1. 2 Matthew Burgess
    July 7, 2009 at 11:20 am

    Thank you, sir! You set a good example for me.

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July 2009


© 2006-2009, Matthew Burgess. All rights reserved. Any unauthorized use of the original content of this website is strictly prohibited. Quotations or citations should include a link to this website. The views and opinions given here are my own and do not represent those of the University of Virginia (or anyone else, for that matter).

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