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Looking for an Introduction

May 24, 2007

minilabyrinth.pngAs of late I’ve been looking for a good introduction to the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. Since my search for a silver bullet translation was rightly decried earlier this month, let me say at the outset that I know that I’ll never find a perfect introduction. But, there should at least be an acceptable compromise out there. In the past few weeks I’ve been reviewing several introductions and thought I’d share my findings with the world at large and those who frequent this blog in particular.


In looking for a introduction to the OT/HB, I think that it has to be something accessible to undergrads but needs to be scholarly enough to warrant using a book at all. Further, it has to be something I can teach from. (I teach using the canonical order of the Tanakh with the Deuterocanonical works added at the end. Books that stick Ruth in the middle of DtrH or place Daniel among the prophets aren’t very helpful and just wind up confusing students.) Finally, it shouldn’t be too expensive. No one likes shelling out tons of cash for a core class. (And while we’re at, I guess I should also say I’d like a pony.) The following is a list of books I’ve considered, more or less in the order that I interacted with them.

  • Marc Z. Brettler, How to Read the Bible (Philadelphia: JPS, 2005). I love this book. It’s scholarly and reasonably priced. I just can’t figure out how to teach it in the setting I’ll be lecturing in this fall. (Full disclosure: Brettler is one of my advisers.)
  • James Crenshaw, Old Testament Story and Faith (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1992). I love James Crenshaw. For the longest time I wanted to work in wisdom literature and could think of nothing better than doing my Ph.D. with him. Unfortunately, I have since become convinced that there is nothing new under the sun, at least in regards to wisdom literature. Crenshaw’s work is scholarly yet manageable. It works with how I organize my classes. One problem: it’s out of print, and Hendrickson doesn’t do print on demand. Damn.
  • Lawrence Boadt, Reading the Old Testament: An Introduction (New York: Paulist Press, 1984). While it is a bit dated, I love this book. I seriously considered using it because it is well written, has helpful charts and graphs, and contains recommended biblical texts at the beginning of each chapter and study questions at then end of each chapters. The book covers all the basis with equity and out an apparent agenda. And, it’s inexpensive. The biggest turn offs are the heavy citations of Vatican II in the early chapters (probably won’t fly with most evangelicals) and the order of the text. I got as far as actually writing a syllabus with this one, but found that I just couldn’t make it work without really confusing my students by having them jump around the book.
  • Bernard Anderson, et. al., Understanding the Old Testament (5th edition; Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2006). I learned on an earlier edition of this back when I first took intro to the OT as a college freshman. The order didn’t make sense to me then, and it still doesn’t now. I find the text scholarly yet cumbersome. With a list price of over eighty dollars, I can’t justify sticking my students with this.
  • Walter Brueggemann, An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2003). I really like the way this book is organized and how it deals with difficult literary and historical issues in a theological fashion. And it’s relatively cheap. However, it doesn’t seem to be a true “introduction” (here I might also note a similar problem with Brevard Child’s Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture). Brueggemann works with an assumed body of knowledge much higher than a first year college student (or a first year divinity student, I’d wager). The books is wonderful in what it does, and I’ll be relying on it for ideas for class lectures; but it won’t work for assigned reading to undergrads.Tremper Longman and Raymond D. Dillard, An Introduction to the Old Testament (2nd edition; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006). While I have been nursed at the teat of evangelicalism and graduated not once but twice from Fuller Theological Seminary, I have to say that I get a little worried when an introduction proudly proclaims that “It is thoroughly evangelical in its perspective.” Especially when the perspectives found in this book wouldn’t fly at Fuller: early Daniel, no sources, etc. Sorry, no can do.
  • Bill T. Arnold and Bryan E. Beyer, Encountering the Old Testament: A Christian Survey (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999). This book has a beautiful layout: full colour photos, nice charts, small chapters that begin with a list of things to be learned and end with tidy summaries. It even comes with a CD, and it is reasonably priced. Yet, I found similar problems in this volume as I did in the introduction by Longman and Dillard; which is odd because I know from having seen Bill give papers at SBL conferences that he has no problem with source criticism and sees HS as the editor of the Pentateuch. Still, sources were downplayed while Mosaic authorship of “traditions” were touted. Also, the order is according to a Protestant canon with no chapters on the Deuterocanonical text. However, this one was a real close call for me. It seems really user friendly. I just can’t get over the feeling that this textbook would make me look like the Witch King of Angmar, come to steal the faith of my students.
  • John J. Collins, Introduction to the Hebrew Bible (Minneapolis: Augsburg/Fortress: 2004). At the moment, all my hopes are riding on this book. It has the right canonical order for my teaching style. It deals with the Deuterocanonical works. It even has a CD. The big problem is that I can’t actually find it in any store in my area and my library’s copy is checked out (and is overdue by half a month!). I had perused the volume when it came out and thought that its only problem was that it was too large and too complete. However, in light of all the volumes I’ve run through, I think it’s my best choice.

And so it goes. I hope to have a copy of Collin’s introduction in hand this weekend and have a list to the bookstore by the middle of next week. However, things might still change.
If anyone knows of any secret jewel of a book that might have slipped under my radar, please let me know. As should be apparent, I am open to suggestions.

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. May 25, 2007 1:04 am

    This brand-new tome might just fit the bill: John J. Collins, A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible (Fortress Press, July 2007) paperback, 320 pp., ISBN 0800662075. Pre-orderable at amazon.com for $22.80.

  2. May 25, 2007 1:08 am

    You should check out Barry Bandstra, Reading the Old Testament: An Introduction to the Hebrew Bible (3rd ed.; Wadsworth, 2004). This is a student-friendly textbook that highlights key terms, helpful timelines, and questions for review and reflection. It also includes an excellent CD-ROM with many other helps (students will especially want to make use of the concept questions and progress tests on the CD-ROM). The second edition is online at http://www.hope.edu/bandstra/RTOT/RTOT.HTM

  3. Jim permalink
    May 25, 2007 5:44 am

    Even better than ALL those is Rolf Rendtorff’s The Canonical Hebrew Bible. Best OT intro around. Bar none.

  4. May 25, 2007 8:29 am

    With all due respect to Tyler, I don’t like Bandstra’s book because it’s too expensive and the publisher has the same disease as every textbook publisher: new-edition-mania.

    With all due respect to Jim, I’d be surprised if Rendtorff’s volumes proved sufficiently accessible to undergraduates.

    A new book that I have received as a review copy but haven’t sufficiently reviewed yet is Encountering Ancient Voices by Corrine Patton. It’s from a Catholic Press and therefore includes the deuterocanonical books, but I don’t recall whether the book uses the Tanakh + deuterocanonicals sequence or the Roman Catholic canonical sequence.

    I took one look at Collins’ book and said “Nope.” I just can’t bring myself to assign a textbook that’s thicker than the New Oxford Annotated Bible. Thanks to Gordon, I’ll be on the lookout for the “brief” version.

    Three years ago I abandoned the search for an undergrad intro text as an exercise in futility.

  5. jimgetz permalink*
    May 25, 2007 9:34 pm

    Gordon, the book sounds interesting, but if Fortress runs like most publishers, I’d be worried that the book wouldn’t actually be out before classes start in August.

    Tyler, despite Christopher’s misgivings, I’ll check it out.

    Jim (West), I forgot to mention Rendtorff! I have looked at Rendtorff’s work and found it quite interesting; but much like Christopher, I thought it would be too complicated and cumbersome for undergrads. I’d love to know how you can teach with it because I’ve never seen it successfully implemented (not meant as a slam, just an unfortunate fact).

    Christopher, I’m with you on thinking that Collins’ work is just too dang big. If you’ve abandoned the search for an undergrad text, do you run with nothing but pdf’s on e-reserves or what?

  6. Phillip permalink
    May 27, 2007 11:16 pm

    I don’t see any mention here of Coogan’s recent Introduction…I used it this past semester to almost absolute mixed reviews–my students either loved it or hated it.

    Any thoughts?

  7. jimgetz permalink*
    May 29, 2007 11:01 am

    Phillip, I’m having a hard time nailing down which introduction you mean. From what I can tell, he’s got one slated to come out in the next two months, but I can’t find an intro currently in print.

  8. Phillip permalink
    May 29, 2007 7:51 pm

    Jim…The one coming out next month is a ‘Short’ Introduction…I guess in line with Ehrman’s Short Intro to the NT. Somehow Oxford has figured out there is more money to be made marketing a regular introduction and a short introduction.

    Here is the info: Michael D. Coogan, The Old Testament: A Historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

  9. jake mccarty permalink
    June 1, 2007 4:49 pm

    Collins’ new introduction. It’s outstanding. Coogan’s is also good, but Collins’ is more thourough. You’ll probably be frustrated with some of the introductory matter of Collins because he cites some of Cross’s old Ugaritic ideas that, quite frankly, are wrong and even probably abandoned by Cross himself. Thus, I’m not sure he always looked at original sources, always–but overall, the Collins introduction is the best. By far.

    Aside from the fact that Collins doesn’t always look at the original sources, his approach might irritate some people. On the one hand, he’s pretty conservative and interested in theological questions which might frustrate someone from a less theologically inclined position, while on the other hand, it’s a bit preachy and wry in its tenor. That might irritate someone from a very conservative background.

    I’d recommend Collins to a seminary student and Coogan to an undergrad.

  10. jimgetz permalink*
    June 2, 2007 8:12 am

    Jake, thanks for your thoughts. As Phillip suggested, I’ve been looking at Coogan’s book, and I can’t justify the fact it costs almost twice as much as Collins’ but contains less information.

    But, bigger isn’t always better. There’s no way that I’ll be able to get a bunch of freshmen to read Collins’ whole book and the Hebrew Bible and various first source texts (Gilgamesh, Atra-Hasis, etc.). I really wish I could be assured that either Collin’s or Coogan’s shorter introduction would be out in time to teach in the fall.

    As it is, I’m leaning towards just making students buy the New Oxford Annotated v.3.1 and using e-reserves for secondary lit.

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