Yesterday, I went into Heffers. I was only planning to buy one book, which is work-relevant (Amongst Mathematicians, by Elena Nardi). But once I was in there … well. (I find it very hard to resist buying books in Heffers. Partly because it is a really wonderful bookshop that I am proud to support, and partly because they always have 3 for 2 offers on.)
After ordering Amongst Mathematicians, I browsed through their selection of “A Very Short Introduction” books … and came away with: The Old Testament (#181), The New Testament (#229) and The Bible (#14) (£7.99 each, so £15.98 with 3 for 2).
(This is where the rant bit kicks in). For several years now, I have been really frustrated at the kind of notes about historical sources/text authorship/etc that you find in Bibles. I own many Bibles (6 or 7, not counting the ones that are only New Testaments) and have looked through/used many more. And frankly, the study notes, even in the ones that are supposed to be study Bibles (maybe especially in the ones that are supposed to be study Bibles), are pretty damn terrible.
My Kingsway “Life Application Study Bible” which is a fairly popular, pretty standard study Bible has timelines and charts at the beginning of it. Some of these are useful (although I don’t understand why “first time Greek men choose short haircuts” is included – apparently 490BC if anyone’s interested) but some of it is totally misleading, like giving dates for the life of Abraham or the Exodus for example. (At least they put “Creation” and “Noah’s Flood” as being undated!).
I should note that some Bibles make a better job of it – see below (from an edition of the NLT that is marketed at teens).
I think it’s a crying shame and a scandal that we (we, the Church) do not better educate ourselves/each other about the textual history and cultural context of our scriptures. As far as I can see, this diminishes our understanding of them, and leaves us more vulnerable to deliberate misunderstanding/manipulation of scripture. I guess in some ways we’re in a period of playing catch-up – until the 17th Century pretty much everyone thought that God just dictated the Bible, end of, so we didn’t need to think about its history or context much (citation: this book, page 12) – but still. We’re 3 centuries on, people!
So all of this is why I was really pleased and hopeful at discovering these books. I’ve now read The Old Testament: A Very Short Introduction by Michael Coogan (and will be reading the NT / the Bible ones soon). I very much enjoyed it and learned a lot. It is divided into 12 sections, and touches on a lot of cultural differences between the times that the authors of the Bible were living in and how we might automatically see things today (e.g. views of history and myth, not separating sacred and secular, views of what a “book” is and what it means to attribute authorship). These are the section titles:
- What is the Old Testament?
- Interpretive strategies
- The Old Testament and history
- The Old Testament and myth
- The Exodus from Egypt: a deep probe
- “Keep my commandments”: biblical law
- “Festivals of the Lord”: ritual in ancient Israel
- Prophets and prophecies
- Hezekiah and Sennacherib: another deep probe
- Poetry and dissent
- “Let us now praise famous men” – and women
- The enduring significance of the Old Testament
I also found it to be written in an excellent style – as a believer I didn’t feel that it was disrespectful towards or dismissive of Jewish and Christian beliefs, but similarly I think that someone who didn’t at all believe in the Old Testament as scripture could read the book without irritation. It’s important to keep in mind that the book is not about Christianity or Judaism (there are other Very Short Introductions for those, which I might look into at some point!) but about the text.
This is certainly a book I would recommend to anyone who wants to an introduction to what the Old Testament is and where it has come from. I would especially recommend it to Christians as I believe that we need to take the time to think about the context in which our scriptures were written and the editing processes that they have gone through. The text is very accessible – I’m not sure about the legality of reproducing a section it here, but if you look at the book on amazon.co.uk, you can read quite a few pages using their “look inside!” function. (Although I would encourage you to buy the book from a local bookshop if you have one – I worry that someday soon we will not be able to go and browse books because everyone will only spend their money online). All in all – definitely 5/5. Top marks.
Have you read any Very Short Introduction books? What did you think of them? Do you have opinions on Christians not understanding the-Bible-as-text (or any faith not understanding their-scripture-as-text)?