A Very Short Introduction: The Old Testament (part book review, part rant)

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.)

Front coverAfter 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.

Timeline showing some silly things
See the timeline …

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).

Intro to Deuteronomy

See? "Traditionally attributed to Moses" rather than "written by". Not a difficult change. But an important one.

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:

  1. Back coverWhat is the Old Testament?
  2. Interpretive strategies
  3. The Old Testament and history
  4. The Old Testament and myth
  5. The Exodus from Egypt: a deep probe
  6. “Keep my commandments”: biblical law
  7. “Festivals of the Lord”: ritual in ancient Israel
  8. Prophets and prophecies
  9. Hezekiah and Sennacherib: another deep probe
  10. Poetry and dissent
  11. “Let us now praise famous men” – and women
  12. 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)?

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3 Responses to A Very Short Introduction: The Old Testament (part book review, part rant)

  1. Nicholas says:

    Well, Tim Gower’s obviously is very good. Still helpful little insights into number theory, a bit like the essays on his blog, which kept getting referenced in part III this year.

    I have somewhat more frustration with a lot of the overviews of the OT, because so many are snide or disingenously undercutting and so on. There are plenty of good books, but it just takes so much work for the poor authors to cut through the waffle and status quo, not the really militant stuff, but just the bland utter conviction that it all just can’t have happened, that it’s not a vibrant account of real encounters of cool people with God, who actually wrote about it and really did pass it on to us. That’s why it’s so hard (if not impossible) to manage a ‘neutral’ account. We can faff with ancient languages and manuscripts, but at some point thinking about who wrote it and why has to come into it, and, whether it’s dressed up in academic disinterest or slashing attack, there are a lot of people who think that the bible authors must have been spaced out prescientific twits. Some people can manage to find some kind of a middle line in books between that and actually worshipping God, but it’s pretty thin.

    It’s kind of sad to see the sixteenth and earlier centuries slated; I liked lots of those guys, and loads of them had really nuanced views of revelation and the text, more than the degree to which modern debate is polarised. Anything that gets people digging into the bible and thinking it through thoroughly, and finding out more about it has to be a good thing though.

    • Thanks for your reply – it’s good to hear your views. Are there any overviews of the Bible that you’ve come across that you would really recommend? (And I was a bit flippant about pre-17th Century – apologies!)

      I’ve grown up as a Christian knowing the Bible itself pretty well but rarely learning anything about the context of the cultures it was written in, how it was assembled, etc (I have started learning more about this here and there in the last couple of years, and in some cases finding that it can add a lot to understanding the scripture – e.g. “Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes”). At the moment what I’m looking for is an overview of how/where/why (people think) the Bible was written, just to kind of know what’s out there – and then once I have some context I can start to read more specific things. As far as I can tell, the Very Short Introduction books should do a reasonable job of giving that context (I’m currently almost finished the New Testament one).

      Thanks again for your comment – and if you have any recommendations I’d be interested in checking them out.

  2. herndonjw says:

    I don’t have much experience with the Very Short Introduction books.

    But, in the last few years, I have also become interested in gaining knowledge about the context and history of scripture and I’ve found the ESV Study Bible a really good place to start. It is full of Introductions to each book, and commentary that is relevant and thorough.

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