Five Books

Theophrastus has tagged me with a new meme: list at least five books that have influenced your reading of the Bible. They needn’t be restricted to Biblical studies literature, but may include religious works or works of literature.

Hmmm. Where does one begin? Closer to the beginning, I think….

Ancient Egypt
by Lionel Casson and the editors of Time-Life Books (Time-Life Books, 1965)
When I was in second and third grade, I remember going to our elementary school’s library and sitting with this book for what seemed like days. Many years later, I saw this book and a number of others books of the Great Ages of Man series to which it belongs, and promptly purchased them, as a nostalgia fix. This book was the beginning of my fascination with things ancient Near Eastern, and directly responsible for my understanding that the Bible described real places, real times, and real people, and that there were real remnants from that ancient, ancient world that were still present and that we could see and touch, and enjoy for their beauty, and wonder at their splendor. Egypt was both savior and oppressor to the Israelites, and so the connection was direct. Hearing the story of Joseph, or the story of the Exodus, my mind would fly back to the images in this book: of noble Pharaoh Khafre on the cover, with his proud chest and mystical smile, his face upturned slightly, listening to God, I always thought; to wondering at which of the Pharaoh’s crowns he wore when Moses confronted him in the palace; to picturing the beautiful, nimble chariots of the Egyptians racing along, after the poor Israelites all afoot. This book put real images in my head of real things from the ancient world, the first that this happened.

Halley’s Bible Handbook
by Henry H. Halley. Twenty-fourth edition, 1965.
I first read this book when I was 16 or 17. I still find this little book remarkable for the variety of information that Halley managed to cram into its small pages. This truly is a handbook, about 5x7x1.5 inches. As a teenager, I had no idea of all the wealth of information available on the Bible, and all the complexities of discussions going on about it. Halley does quite a good job explaining these, actually. It’s written from what was at the time a not unusual conservative stance. Even when I got it, in 1983, it was not too extraordinarily more conservative than the majority of things being published. Nowadays, it seems archaically conservative. That is as much a statement on our times and the state of the resources as it is a statement on my well-kept copy of Halley’s Bible Handbook. One of the fun things about this book is the hand-drawn line maps, which are actually quite good. Another is the selection of photographs, all black and white, many of which are from museums and universities, giving people likely their first glimpse of things like a praying statue of Gudea, or the Stele of Hammurapi. The majority of the photos, however, come from the Matson Photo Archive, the surviving negatives of which were donated to the Library of Congress, and digitized. You may browse and view the Matson Photo Archive pictures online starting here. I still enjoy looking through this book now and again, just as I still enjoy looking at the Ancient Egypt book above.

Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament
Third Edition with Supplement, by James B. Pritchard
(Princeton University Press, 1969)
My copies of this book have a history that made Theophrastus laugh. So, first I had the pair of paperbacks of ANET, which provided selected texts and some selected pictures from Pritchard’s Ancient Near East in Pictures. Within a few months, however, I was the happy owner of a full copy of the big third edition with supplement. It was a gift of Isaac Kikawada, who was a lecturer at UC Berkeley at the time and for whom I helped correct papers. He inscribed it “To Kevin. Isaac, 1987. After the Flood!” That was because this book, like many others of his, had been stacked in some part of the ground floor of the house somewhere, and a pipe in a washer broke while he was away. My book and undoubtedly many others were swollen and moldy. “Some gift!,” you might think? What undergrad could afford the full Pritchard? I certainly couldn’t. I was grateful for it. And through judiciously lying the book in the sun open to the most moldy pages, I was able to arrest the mold. It wasn’t until 2001 that I bought my own copy. I ripped Isaac’s little inscription out and pasted it into the new book, with a short explanation of its history. Anyhow, my reading, devouring more like, of Pritchard was probably the most influential set of reading I’ve done affecting my reading of the Bible. Here were the words of other ancients, from the very world of the Bible, rendered into English for us. The superficial parallels (this or that Israelite or Judahite king mentioned) didn’t interest me as much as the rhetorical structure of the writings, and the deeper similarities of worldview perceptible throughout these various writings and the Bible: the great piety and palpable pain, the real human emotion perceptible in the Sumerian Lamentations over the destruction of Sumer and Ur; the braggadocio of the Egyptian and Mesopotamian kings in their campaigns; the very human concerns recorded in the wisdom literature and letters. All of these things made the ancient Near East come alive for me, and the Bible come alive as well. It became to me not just a holy book, as surely it is, but also a writing of human beings from that ancient world, thinking and writing in the same way as their contemporaries, with the same braggadocio, the same emotion, the same prosaic concerns. These days, I would still recommend Pritchard’s ANET (as it is still a standard reference tool) and also recommend William Hallo’s Context of Scripture volumes (the paperbacks are apparently slightly revised; I think the electronic edition is, too; the hardbacks are first-edition only, as far as I know), and the entire SBL series Writings from the Ancient World, the latter of which are much easier to tote around and read under a tree. The Pritchard and Hallo books are huge. All of these books, if read not for quick and superficial parallelomaniac reasons, can aid the user in coming to an appreciation of the Bible as an ancient piece of literature. For the faithful reader, such an appreciation is also beneficial, as one comes to understand the kinds of literature included in the Bible better, and one is able to appreciate the differences from that literature, the strengths and superiorities of the Biblical literature (for some of it is certainly superior), and also the seemingly miraculous preservation of the Bible as the text of a living community of faith, while all those other texts’ civilizations and faiths are gone.

Studies in Cultic Theology and Terminology
by Jacob Milgrom. Studies in Judaism in Late Antiquity 36, series ed. Jacob Neusner. (Brill, 1983).
This was my first taste of a Brill book. Even though it was (and is) a photocopy, I was bowled over by the quality of the information. I think it’s fair to say that no one will understand the sacrificial system as presented in the Hebrew Bible without reading the articles in this collection and internalizing the methodology utilized in them, all of which were written by Jacob Milgrom. (Of course, I would say that, as Milgrom was my Hebrew Professor at Berkeley.) The volume comprises the following:
Introduction: On the Dating of P and Related Cultic Issues
1. Priestly Terminology and the Political and Social Structure of Pre-Monarchic Israel
2. The Term ʿAbodah
3. The Priestly Doctrine of Repentance
4. Sin-offering or Purification-offering?
5. Two kinds of ḥaṭṭāʾt
6. “Israel’s Sanctuary: The Priestly ‘Picture of Dorian Gray'”
7. The Paradox of the Red Cow (Num. xix)
8. A Prolegomenon to Leviticus 17:11
9. The Biblical Diet Laws as an Ethical System
10. Concerning Jeremiah’s Repudiation of Sacrifice
11. The Cultic Šegāgāh and Its Influence in Psalms and Job
12. The Alleged Wave-Offering in Israel and the Ancient Near East
13. Hattĕnûpâ
14. The Šôq hattĕrûmâ: A Chapter in Cultic History
15. Akkadian Confirmation for the Meaning of the Term tĕrûmâ

Milgrom’s method is rigorously philological. It’s all about the usage of the words, because different usage will indicate different meaning, and sometimes this meaning isn’t simply reflective of a broad lexical value for the word or term, but of a real temporal difference. It is only through the most careful and detailed attention to the text as it is that one will truly understand it. This sounds like a self-evident truth, but one would be surprised at the things some people get up to these days. Anyhow, this book transformed the formerly tedious descriptions of sacrifices in the Pentateuch into truly interesting and meaningful passages for me. And the understanding of the Israelite sanctuary as “The Priestly Picture of Dorian Gray” is truly apt: the sanctuary took on all the sins of the Land, and these were removed from the sanctuary on the Day of Atonement. The sacrificial system can be viewed as a great holiness engine, maintaining a zone of holiness so that God’s Name might dwell amongst the People. Without the properly functioning holiness engine, the Name can no longer remain, for sin encroaches on the Holy Place. So, this book likewise effected a change in my reading of the Prophets (Former and Latter, Major and Minor). The book is unfortunately hard to come by. Every once in a while, I look to find a real copy to replace my photocopy, but I’ve had no luck yet. Someday!

The Religion of Israel: From its Beginnings to the Babylonian Exile
by Yehezkel Kaufmann, translated and abridged by Moshe Greenberg. (Schocken, 1972)
This reminds me to get the full Hebrew edition of this one, which I’ve never actually read fully, and which I remember was positively crammed with notes. Even the abridgment is astounding, however. This is essentially a history of Israel. Hayim Tadmor (z”l) actually assigned this for reading for a year-long class we had in which he covered the history of the Israelite monarchy. This was just when his Anchor Bible volume on II Kings had come out. Like some kind of groupie, I got him to sign my copy. I had just started Akkadian that year, and having a class with Tadmor was like a dream come true, as I got Hebrew (I was in second year Biblical and second year Modern at that point) and Akkadian and history all in one class: what’s not to love? And this was as an undergraduate! [I also had a year with Moshe Weinfeld (z”l) in which he covered Deuteronomy, but that wasn’t as much fun.] The Kaufmann history is solid, by which I mean quite efficiently packed with information, which is perhaps an artifact of the abridgment. There are no lengthy excurses and such in the notes, as there are in the Hebrew edition, for there are no notes. There is nothing controversial about this history, so perhaps this explains why it is generally ignored in discussions these days. But, the thing that should not be ignored is Kaufmann’s keen intellect. It is his commentary on the issues within this history that he’s constructing that is so compelling. His reasoning and argumentation are incisive and flawless. It was with this book, and within that context of Tadmor’s instruction, that I was taught and learned that it is absolutely not unintelligent to read the Bible’s narratives as written and draw history from those pages. Now, although I’ve recently picked up both Ziony Zevit’s relatively new The Religions of Ancient Israel: A Synthesis of Parallactic Approaches and Richard Hess’ Israelite Religions: An Archaeological and Biblical Survey, I haven’t yet read more than the introductions. The Zevit is a magnificent book, a work of truly anthropological value and methodology it seems. It’s very impressive, and already a classic. The Hess is much shorter, and seems to approximate a kind of new Kaufmann, as it follows in part the Biblical arrangement of historical periods, though not strictly. Now I really want to read Kaufmann again!

Well, I was going to include some more books. But I’ve run out of time!

I don’t pass on memes. I just can’t bring myself to do it, though I’ve tried, and though I do enjoy participating in them. So, the meme stops here unless you, O reader, find yourself, perhaps, on an off chance, as the case may be, meme-amenable, so that you might then take it upon yourself to contribute to this meme which could very well force you to jog down memory lane, and also, I hope, enjoy a dig through dusty bookshelves as well.


  1. There’s a “like new” copy of Milgrom’s book on Amazon for $135.21. The problem is that the binding is unknown so it might just be another photocopy. In any event, $135 doesn’t seem like any more than your average Brill book which, btw, I’m still amazed that you actually purchase!

  2. Huh, well this seems like a fun meme. Maybe I’ll do it. I don’t think I’ll ‘tag’ anyone either, but it would be fun to see Esteban’s answers!

  3. So Kevin,
    how do you earn your living? I hope it is doing something related to bible/linguistics/ANE studies, which you obviously love.


    1. Well, Dana, not yet! I’m a systems administrator. The good thing about that is that I can afford the books! The bad thing is that all my study and reading and writing time is squeezed into evenings and weekends.

      I hope to be heading out to seminary soon, for the long haul through a MA and PhD. I’ll keep people posted on that. So, I likely will end up teaching somewhere, perhaps as a parish priest and/or instructor. I have plenty of books in the pipeline, and already a chapter in a book coming out next year edited by Neusner. I’ll announce that once it’s closer to published.

  4. Nick, yeah, I should’ve specified, “a reasonably priced” copy.

    Most of the Brill books I have are ones I’ve gotten used. The COS volumes I bought in hardcover as they came out, but they’re much more expensive now than they used to be (and out of print). I’ve paid full price for those and I think only five others of the Brill books I have, all hardcovers.: Making of the New Testament Documents and History and Interpretation by E. Earle Ellis, which I bought when they were published (I think both are in paperback now); one of the volumes of Neusner’s History of the Jews in Babylonian, though I found all the rest (including an autographed copy!) used and at completely reasonable prices; and both volumes of the Williams translation of Epiphanius’ Panarion. All the other Brills I have I’ve gotten at a discount of greater or lesser extent, for new or used copies. I do draw the line when the Brill (or anyone’s) price is more than $1 per page. I see that as a ridiculous expenditure, unless it’s for something of a bibliophilic or antiquarian nature (which I’ve also indulged on occasion). I’m pretty selective, though.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *