The best books on how to read the Bible

Michael L. Satlow Author Of How the Bible Became Holy
By Michael L. Satlow

Who am I?

No matter how you read it, the Bible is a strange book. It weaves together beautiful narratives and deadly-dull genealogies; uplifting messages with passages that many today find ethically repulsive. Yet it gained an extraordinary authority, in a predominantly pre-literate society. The question of how this happened has been an intellectual and scholarly preoccupation of mine for decades, and as a professor at Brown University I seek to bring my students and readers into this very foreign world in order to open their eyes to new possibilities in the present.

I wrote...

How the Bible Became Holy

By Michael L. Satlow,

Book cover of How the Bible Became Holy

What is my book about?

In this sweeping narrative, Michael Satlow tells the fascinating story of how an ancient collection of obscure Israelite writings became the founding texts of both Judaism and Christianity, considered holy by followers of each faith. Drawing on cutting-edge historical and archeological research, he traces the story of how, when, and why Jews and Christians gradually granted authority to texts that had long lay dormant in a dusty temple archive. The Bible, Satlow maintains, was not the consecrated book it is now until quite late in its history.

He describes how elite scribes in the eighth and seventh centuries B.C.E. began the process that led to the creation of several of our biblical texts. 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now

Why did I love this book?

James Kugel, a professor at Harvard and then Bar Ilan University in Israel, has been writing for years on how the Hebrew Bible was read and understood in antiquity. How to Read the Bible will bring you on a remarkable journey through time. Kugel selectively goes through the Hebrew Bible, contrasting how those in antiquity read, understood, and interpreted biblical stories with how modern scholars do. The book is long, and can be read in sections. Kugel’s discussions of both the academic study of the Bible and the way he understands the Bible as both a critic and an Orthodox Jew, are outstanding.

By James L. Kugel,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked How to Read the Bible as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

James Kugel’s essential introduction and companion to the Bible combines modern scholarship with the wisdom of ancient interpreters for the entire Hebrew Bible.

As soon as it appeared, How to Read the Bible was recognized as a masterwork, “awesome, thrilling” (The New York Times), “wonderfully interesting, extremely well presented” (The Washington Post), and “a tour de force...a stunning narrative” (Publishers Weekly). Now, this classic remains the clearest, most inviting and readable guide to the Hebrew Bible around—and a profound meditation on the effect that modern biblical scholarship has had on traditional belief.

Moving chapter by chapter, Harvard professor James Kugel…

Who Wrote the Bible?

By Richard Elliott Friedman,

Book cover of Who Wrote the Bible?

Why did I love this book?

Who Wrote the Bible? is my go-to book for explaining to undergraduates the classic Documentary Hypothesis, that is, the theory that describes how humans wrote and edited the Bible. Friedman’s style is clear and engaging, and he frames his explanation as an academic mystery. I (with other scholars) don’t always agree with his conclusions, but they responsible and worth considering. My students regularly note that this was their favorite book of the semester.

By Richard Elliott Friedman,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Who Wrote the Bible? as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A much anticipated reissue of Who Wrote the Bible?—the contemporary classic the New York Times Book Review called “a thought-provoking [and] perceptive guide” that identifies the individual writers of the Pentateuch and explains what they can teach us about the origins of the Bible.

For thousands of years, the prophet Moses was regarded as the sole author of the first five books of the Bible, known as the Pentateuch. According to tradition, Moses was divinely directed to write down foundational events in the history of the world: the creation of humans, the worldwide flood, the laws as they were handed…

Book cover of Adam, Eve, and the Serpent: Sex and Politics in Early Christianity

Why did I love this book?

This is another classic book that examines specifically how early Christians read the story of Adam and Eve. If you thought that the message of this story was obvious, think again. Pagels expertly guides us through the intersection of biblical interpretation, sexuality, and power, and shows how there were many different and competing Christian interpretations of this story, each of which had serious ramifications for Christian practice and life. It was not a straight path to Augustine’s theory of original sin.

By Elaine Pagels,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Adam, Eve, and the Serpent as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A National Book Award winner and New York Times bestselling author deepens and refreshes our view of early Christianity while casting a disturbing light on the evolution of the attitudes passed down to us. 

"Confirms her reputation as both a scholar and a popular interpreter.... Continuously rewarding and illuminating." —The New York Times

How did the early Christians come to believe that sex was inherently sinful? When did the Fall of Adam become synonymous with the fall of humanity? What turned Christianity from a dissident sect that  championed the integrity of the individual and the idea of free will into…

The Jewish Study Bible

By Adele Berlin (editor), Marc Zvi Brettler (editor),

Book cover of The Jewish Study Bible

Why did I love this book?

I’m going to cheat here and put this book together with two others, The Jewish Annotated New Testament and The Jewish Annotated Apocrypha. Each of these three books has the biblical text; explanatory notes that include scholarly perspectives; and a lengthy set of essays by well-noted scholars. All of these parts of the Bible were written (primarily) by and for Jews in antiquity—including much of the New Testament—and these books seek to recover how they were read and functioned in antiquity.

By Adele Berlin (editor), Marc Zvi Brettler (editor),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Jewish Study Bible as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

First published in 2004, The Jewish Study Bible is a landmark, one-volume resource tailored especially for the needs of students of the Hebrew Bible. It has won acclaim from readers in all religious traditions.

The Jewish Study Bible combines the entire Hebrew Bible-in the celebrated Jewish Publication Society TANAKH Translation-with explanatory notes, introductory materials, and essays by leading biblical scholars on virtually every aspect of the text, the world in which it was written, its interpretation, and its role in Jewish life. The quality of scholarship, easy-to-navigate format, and vibrant supplementary features bring the ancient text to life.

This second…

Book cover of A Guide for the Perplexed

Why did I love this book?

Although this is my fun pick, it is also a serious book that I use in the classroom. There have been countless attempts by modern authors to retell biblical stories. Horn’s book creatively transfers the biblical story of Joseph and his brothers to the modern period, with a feminist twist. This book is engaging and coherent enough that it can be read and enjoyed without any knowledge of the Bible or Jewish history, although such knowledge makes it all the better!

By Dara Horn,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Guide for the Perplexed as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Software prodigy Josie Ashkenazi has invented an application that records everything its users do. When she visits the Library of Alexandria as a tech consultant, she is abducted in Egypt's postrevolutionary chaos with only a copy of the philosopher Maimonides' famous work to anchor her-leaving her jealous sister Judith free to take over her life. A century earlier, Cambridge professor Solomon Schechter arrives in Egypt, hunting for a medieval archive hidden in a Cairo synagogue. Their stories intertwine in this spellbinding novel of how technology changes memory and how memory shapes the soul.

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