I’m an atheist. I’ve read parts of the Bible before, but I want to tackle the whole thing this summer. Is there a study guide that I could use that discusses the literary, historical, and religious implications of the Bible without being a guide geared specifically towards Christians reading it for their religious study?
Well, Isaac Asimov was an atheist, too, and he wrote on the Bible (heck, what DIDN’T he write on?).
It’s called “Asimov’s Guide to the Bible.” You’ll learn more here:
Drat, astorian, you beat me to it. I haven’t read the book in question, but I’ve heard of it. I probably should read it sometime, though.
There’s a book called God: A Biography by Jack Miles. He attempts to read the Old Testament (actually the Hebrew Scriptures) as a literary work and describe the character of God. A lot of history is mixed in to explain what a passage would’ve meant to people during the time it was written. Miles is evidently an expert on biblical studies, including history, languages, and religion.
Depending on how much background info you’re looking for, you might consider just the Oxford Annotated Bible (either RSV or NRSV). It’s a well-respected translation, it has copious footnotes that give historical background, explain possible amiguities in the language, and give alternate translations of certain passages. Each chapter is prefaced with several paragraphs that explain what is known about the authors of the chapter, who the audience was, etc. There are chapters explaining Hebrew poetry, etc. I’ve heard it’s the standard in many seminaries.
Also, tackling the whole bible may be insufferably boring. Keep in mind that the ordering of the books is not chronological. The books of the bible are just that–seperate books that were chosen to be incorporated into a single canon. Also some of them can be flat-out mind-numbing (like the passages that explain all the nuances of Mosaic Law…).
I was disappointed in this. Dr. A was straining so hard to be inoffensive to theists that he provided only the most superficial explanations. More important, it is kind of out of date now, and does not iinclude the latest archeological results. You might want to look at a copy in the library before you buy. It is well written though, hardly surprising given the author.
For the New Testament, I’d recommend Bart Ehrman’s introduction. It’s designed as a textbook for a NT religion course, but it’s very readable and scholarly at the same time (a rare combination).
I don’t know of anything comparable for the OT. You could search online and see what texts are being used for OT courses.
The Anchor Bible is extremely well-footnoted, and it gives the information Bible specialists look for. It’s Looooooooong – each “book” of the Bible has at least one, and often several, volumes.
I’ve found the Pelican Bible Guides pretty good, too – I have one for each of the evangelists.
You may have to walkaround a few interpretations, but the above are useful guides for believers or skeptics.
Okay, that one’s right out.
I think I might start with a used copy of Asimov’s guide and go from there.
Thank you all for your suggestions! Keep 'em coming if you have more.
Some good OT commentaries & good general reading:
A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam and A New Interpretation of Genesis, both by Karen Armstrong (a former nun turned rabbinical scholar)
The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts by Neil Silberman and Israel Finkelstein (secular deconstruction of biblical anthropology and evidence)
The Oxford Companion to the Bible (separate from the Oxford Study Bible mentioned above) and The Oxford History of the Biblical World, both excellent reference sources (although the first one is quite expensive- most large libraries have it, though)
An old thread, I know; but I had to put in a plug for R. Crumb’s tour-de-force, “The Illustrated Book of Genesis”. Aside from the complete text, it also includes an interesting interpretive essay. Crumb has really refined his technique over the years; it’s a beautiful book and an interesting read.
He has a second book also CHRIST: A Crisis in the Life of God, that continues the literary biography of a God deciding to take on human flesh & dwell within creaturely limits.
The book that David Plotz wrote based on his Slate blogs about reading through the Bible was interesting.
Who Wrote the Bible?, by Richard Elliot Friedman, ISBN 0671631616. While not exactly what you’re looking for, is very interesting.
Jonathan Kirsch is a very readable Bible scholar. He hasn’t written a general bible study guide but his stuff is worth checking out. You can pick up a copy of The Harlot by the Side of the Road (one of his first and best works) really cheap on Amazon.
I don’t think this is what you’re looking for specifically, but I’ll offer it up because it’s funny and it’s written by a self-described agnostic.
The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible by A.J Jacobs. Jacobs is the editor at large for Esquire magazine. The book is not chronological or comprehensive, but he does delve into the history of certain subjects and asked questions of people that others might not have access to, when he didn’t understand something. For one year, Jacobs goes through the Bible and literally tries to apply all its concepts to himself.
I came across this tome in a thrift store, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. It only covers the Old Testament, but Plotz gives a brief summary and an excellent commentary on each chapter.
It is a fascinating read.
The articles themselves aren’t too bad, either, even if they have some broken links.* Though it is weird that he says he read the “complete Bible,” which implies he assumes his readers to be Jewish, yet constantly refers to comments from Christians, so he knows his audience includes them.
I second The Oxford History of the Biblical World.
The Robert Alter translations are pretty dense, but deeply rewarding. If you don’t want to jump directly into one of his translations, try his “The Art of Biblical Narrative.”