The best books about the Hebrew Bible

2 authors have picked their favorite books about the Hebrew Bible and why they recommend each book.

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The Hebrew Bible

By Unknown, Robert Alter,

Book cover of The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary

Because how can you have a list of the greatest Jewish books of all time without this? (apologies for putting it in last place!). The one that has defined life as we know it yet so few of us have ever really read. Actually, "reading" seems too gentle a word for what happens when you dive into this ancient text - grappling, struggling, or wrestling seem more apt. The pre-eminent scholar Robert Alter renders the ancient Hebrew into a powerful, faithful English translation which soars.

Who am I?

I’ve always believed that history isn’t a dry record of events; it’s a portal to the human soul, one that connects us to all the people who lived before. Diving into books about the history of the Jewish people connects me not only intellectually, but also emotionally. I was inspired to write Rebel Daughter as soon as I learned of the ancient gravestone of a Jewish woman. I was so intrigued by the unlikely but true love story the stone revealed that I spent the next ten years with some of the world's leading scholars and archaeologists to bring the real characters to life as accurately as possible. I have degrees from Princeton and Harvard and live in Israel.


I wrote...

Rebel Daughter

By Lori Banov Kaufmann,

Book cover of Rebel Daughter

What is my book about?

Rebel Daughter transports the reader to one of the most dramatic and momentous events in human history – the destruction of Jerusalem in the 1st century. This stunning tale of family, love, and resilience was inspired by a major archaeological discovery in southern Italy: the 2,000-year-old gravestone of Claudia Aster (Esther). The few Latin words chiseled into the ancient stone, proof of a very unlikely romance, shocked and intrigued scholars around the world.

Rebel Daughter is Esther’s story. This emotional and impassioned saga, based on real characters and meticulous research, seamlessly blends the fascinating story of the Jewish people with a timeless protagonist determined to take charge of her own life against all odds.

The Jewish Study Bible

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

Book cover of The Jewish Study Bible

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.


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. 

Sacred Witness

By Susanne Scholz,

Book cover of Sacred Witness: Rape in the Hebrew Bible

Susanne Scholz says readers should consider biblical accounts of sexual violence to be “sacred witness” to the horrific reality of rape in the biblical world and in our own world. She proposes that we wrestle with the Bible’s words, including passages that depict God as a violent aggressor, and that we should read scriptural accounts in solidarity with victims, past and present.


Who am I?

Joy Schroeder is a historian devoted to examining the experiences of women in Christianity and Judaism. With concern for female and male victims of violence, Schroeder scrutinizes historical documents to find accounts of harassment, rape, clergy sexual abuse, and other violence. She brings the historical accounts to light while critiquing the cultural patterns that perpetuate violence in our own day. In her work as a pastor and as a professor, she has worked to support victims of harassment, sexual violence, domestic violence, and child abuse. Schroeder is a professor of church history at Capital University (Columbus, Ohio), where she teaches at Trinity Lutheran Seminary and the department of religion and philosophy. 


I wrote...

Dinah's Lament: The Biblical Legacy of Sexual Violence in Christian Interpretation

By Joy Schroeder,

Book cover of Dinah's Lament: The Biblical Legacy of Sexual Violence in Christian Interpretation

What is my book about?

Dinah’s Lament explores heartbreaking biblical stories of sexual violence that were misinterpreted by Christian interpreters in antiquity, the Middle Ages, and the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation. Through the centuries, male interpreters interpreted and retold these scriptural stories in ways that revealed their own cultural assumptions about rape.

All too often, clergymen blamed victims or minimized the reality of the violence the women endured. In sermons and biblical commentaries, interpreters accused the young rape victim Dinah (Genesis 34) of provoking and enjoying a brutal attack by a powerful prince’s son. Some denied that the encounter was actually rape. In the case of an unnamed woman (Judges 19) who suffered collective rape (“gang rape”) and died following the violence, some commentators believed that the attack was God’s fitting punishment for sins she committed. Too often, the female biblical character is voiceless—emblematic of the silencing of victims throughout history. 

How to Read the Bible

By James L. Kugel,

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

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.


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. 

Holy Bible

By Unknown,

Book cover of Holy Bible

From a secular point of view, and deliberately ignoring all religious content, the Holy Bible is the only contemporaneous account of the very ancient world. Add the omitted Book of Enoch, which sits in the Bodleian, and you get a remarkable account of our communal past. No one knows just how far back we must go when discussing Genesis but within that chapter lie some very interesting thoughts on the possible answer to all the problems outlined above. Enoch, especially, describes in great detail what might have happened and, if proven to be correct, would alter our complete understanding of our origins. A very good read.


Who am I?

I began life as an apprentice motor engineer before starting my own business. Before I married, I used my holidays to visit some of the great historical sites of the Middle East, including, of course, Egypt. That first look at the pyramids, both inside and out, set me on a lifetime study of them and other sites across Europe. Relying on the physical work of others I was able to put down on paper my thoughts on a much earlier civilization that seems to have come from nowhere, erected incredible monuments, and then simply vanished. Now, I still have a very keen interest in it all and slowly I'm amassing enough material for another book.


I wrote...

From Whence We Came – The Biblical Age of World Enlightenment

By Robert Soper,

Book cover of From Whence We Came – The Biblical Age of World Enlightenment

What is my book about?

When seeing the Giza pyramids for the first time in 1963 I listened carefully to what the tour guide had to say. And then I looked at the Great Pyramid and to me, as an engineer, it did not add up. Since then, I've looked at other sites across the globe and again, nothing made sense. When I retired, I put it all down on paper which ended up as two controversial books on the subject.

My own research came up with credible arguments on both sides of the Darwin v Creation debate and by comparing three other massive construction projects from our own era to the Giza complex, I showed that only a very advanced hi-tech society could be responsible. It also showed irrefutable links to other sites across the globe.

Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible

By Russell E. Gmirkin,

Book cover of Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible

Along with his other book, Berossus and Genesis, Manetho and Exodus: Hellenistic Histories and the Date of the Pentateuch, Russell Gmirkin puts forward compelling evidence to show that many of the most revered works of Jewish scripture were produced after the conquests of Alexander the Great, hundreds of years later than widely believed. Relationships between the Jewish Torah and the works of Plato have long been acknowledged by scholars, dating back to antiquity. Jews had long claimed that it was Plato who had derived his concepts from their writings, but here Gmirkin shows convincingly that the relationship goes the other way around. This realization has profound implications for our understanding of the origins of Judaism and Christianity.


Who am I?

I have been fascinated by the Bible since my earliest days in Sunday school, coloring pictures of Noah’s Ark. Yet, even as a young child I was very skeptical of the Christian interpretation of biblical stories, seeing that they couldn’t possibly be true. But I’ve always respected the Bible as a literary work and sought to understand its details. In my years of researching the Bible and Christian origins, several works stand out as being particularly important in shaping my understanding of Judaism and Christianity. These are those books.


I wrote...

Deciphering the Gospels: Proves Jesus Never Existed

By R.G. Price,

Book cover of Deciphering the Gospels: Proves Jesus Never Existed

What is my book about?

The Christian Bible is one of the most fascinating and important literary creations ever produced. Like many ancient works, the Bible is filled with literary puzzles, secret codes, hidden references, and masked allegory. Deciphering the Gospels examines many aspects of the Gospel of Mark to show that the story is a fictional allegory, based not on the life of Jesus, but rather on the life of Paul. It goes on to show how understanding the fictional scenes in the Gospel of Mark changes our understanding of everything we think we know about Jesus.

God

By Jack Miles,

Book cover of God: A Biography

What kind of person is God—the God of the Hebrew Bible—and how does his personality change through time?  Here scholar and former priest Jack Miles explores with wit and insight, how God, seen as a literary character, has been constructed by various writers of the Hebrew Bible. This book brings the Bible into focus as a collection of writings that come from various times and places, each envisioning the creator whose story begins in the Garden of Eden in different ways—humanizing the texts in ways that offer new and enjoyable insights—makes reading the Bible intriguing and fun—a discovery of cultural history!


Who am I?

“And what do you do?” someone asked at a crowded reception at the NY Academy of Science. “Write—comparative religion.” Startled, he backed away, asking suspiciously, “Why religion? Are you religious?” Yes, incorrigibly—although I grew up among people who regarded religion as obsolete as an outgrown bicycle stashed in a back closet. While many of us leave institutions behind, identifying as “spiritual, not religious,” I’ve done both—had faith, lost it; then began exploring recent discoveries from Israel and Egypt—Dead Sea Scrolls, Christian “secret gospels,” Buddhist practices, asking, Why is religion still around in the twenty-first centuryWhat I love is how such stories, art, music, and rituals engage our imagination and illuminate our experience.


I wrote...

Why Religion? A Personal Story

By Elaine Pagels,

Book cover of Why Religion? A Personal Story

What is my book about?

I wrote this short, intensely personal, book  to sort out a question: after growing up in a secular, scientific post-religious family, in high school, went with some friends to an evangelical “Crusade for Christ,” and, to my own surprise and my parents’ shock, I fell right in: got “born again.” To my surprise, that opened up a new dimension of experience that I’d previously met in music, dance, poetry—until, a year later, the “Christian friends” at the evangelical church told me that a close friend who’d just been killed in a car crash was “going to hell” because he was Jewish. Shocked, I asked, "Wasn’t Jesus Jewish?" That didn’t seem to matter: I left immediately, and never went back. 

Christianity

By Diarmaid MacCulloch,

Book cover of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years

Christianity did not begin with Christ. MacCulloch, world expert on the history of the church, begins his epic tale a thousand years before the birth of Christ. Early chapters reveal Christianity’s antecedents and, over the next 1,000 pages, he takes us through the twists and turns of the early Christian church, the trials and tribulations of its members, and those who patronized and persecuted them. He explains the esoteric theological debates that tore communities apart, he follows the early missionaries into China, and he describes the divisions that formed the Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant branches. Passionate and critical, MacCulloch gets as close as seems possible to explaining what Christianity really is.


Who am I?

I'm an anthropologist on a mission to discover how people have used, and abused, law over the past 4,000 years. After a decade in a wig and gown at the London Bar, I headed back to university to pursue a long-standing interest in Tibetan culture. I spent two years living with remote villagers and nomads, freezing over dung fires, herding yaks, and learning about traditional legal practices. Now, based at the University of Oxford, I’ve turned to legal history, comparing ancient Tibetan texts with examples from all over the world. The Rule of Laws brings a long sweep of legal history and its fascinating diversity to a wide audience.


I wrote...

The Rule of Laws: A 4,000-Year Quest to Order the World

By Fernanda Pirie,

Book cover of The Rule of Laws: A 4,000-Year Quest to Order the World

What is my book about?

The epic story of the ways in which people have used laws to forge civilizations.

Rulers throughout history have made law. But laws were never simply instruments of power. They also offered diverse people a way to express their visions for a better world. I trace the rise and fall of the sophisticated legal systems that underpinned ancient empires and religious traditions. I describe tribal assemblies, farmers, and merchants who turned to law to define their communities, and I reveal the legal efforts that people repeatedly make to control their leaders. The rule of law has ancient origins, I conclude, but it Is not inevitable. Laws can only make the world better if we understand where they have come from and how they could have been different.

Religion and Its Monsters

By Timothy K. Beal,

Book cover of Religion and Its Monsters

Reader beware: hic sunt dracones (here, there are dragons). In his excellent book, Beal covers topics that many people will find controversial: the monstrosity of God and Christ, Dracula’s connection with Hebrew Bible, and the rise of monstrous identification. Throughout, Beal traces delicate historical threads to link topics across time that highlight both his understanding of biblical material and knowledge of modern film and literature. Sometimes the monsters that we ignore are the ones that dwell the closest to us….


Who am I?

What could possibly captivate the mind more than monsters? As a kid, I eagerly consumed books from authors like R.L. Stine, Stephen King, and HP Lovecraft. I watched George Romero, Wes Craven, and John Carpenter, and played games like Dungeons and Dragons, Vampire: The Masquerade, and The Call of Cthulhu. When I discovered monster studies in my PhD years—a way to read monsters as cultural productions that tell us something about the people that create them—I was hooked. Ever since, I get to continue reading my favorite books, watching my favorite movies, and playing my favorite games. It’s just that now someone’s paying me to do it.


I wrote...

Margaret's Monsters: Women, Identity, and the Life of St. Margaret in Medieval England

By Michael E. Heyes,

Book cover of Margaret's Monsters: Women, Identity, and the Life of St. Margaret in Medieval England

What is my book about?

Margaret’s Monsters explores the monstrous features of the Life of one of the most popular saints in medieval England. Analyzing these monsters helps modern readers to understand what, at first, appears to be a paradox: that Margaret was both a patron saint to lifelong virgins and the patron saint of mothers in labor. I show that changes to the monsters of Margaret’s Life—the dragon that swallows her whole, the black demon who invades her prison cell, and Olibrius, a monster in human guise—allow authors to speak to specific audiences, to tailor Margaret’s message to small populations of people, and fundamentally change Margaret’s role as a saint. These changes allowed medieval women to make use of this remarkable saint to shape their sexuality and gender roles. 

The Social Universe of the English Bible

By Naomi Tadmor,

Book cover of The Social Universe of the English Bible: Scripture, Society, and Culture in Early Modern England

At the heart of the Reformation in England was an insistence that people be allowed access to Scripture in their own language, but translation was invariably a selective and creative process. Tadmor brilliantly shows how the translators of the Hebrew Bible (‘Old Testament’) remade the ancient world in the image of contemporary Tudor society, editing out many references to slavery and polygamous marriage, and merging together distinct forms of political governance through consistent reference to the authority of a ‘prince’. The findings are eye-opening, and the book should be required reading for modern biblical fundamentalists.


Who am I?

Peter Marshall is Professor of History at the University of Warwick, co-editor of the English Historical Review, and the author of nine books and over sixty articles on the religious and cultural history of early modern Europe. His authoritative account of the Reformation in England, Heretics and Believers, was awarded the Wolfson History Prize in 2018. Peter is a native of the Orkney Islands, and currently writing a book on the islanders’ experiences in the Reformation era.


I wrote...

Heretics and Believers: A History of the English Reformation

By Peter Marshall,

Book cover of Heretics and Believers: A History of the English Reformation

What is my book about?

Centuries on, what the Reformation was and what it accomplished remain deeply contentious. Peter Marshall’s sweeping new history—the first major overview for general readers in a generation—argues that sixteenth-century England was a society neither desperate for nor allergic to change, but one open to ideas of “reform” in various competing guises. King Henry VIII wanted an orderly, uniform Reformation, but his actions opened a Pandora’s Box from which pluralism and diversity flowed and rooted themselves in English life.

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