In Tents #29 Some Tools for Studying Scripture

At the After the AML Meeting gathering at Charlotte England’s house last year, Darlene Young asked me one of her simple questions that calls forth serious thought. (Good probing questions are one of Darlene’s talents.) “What’s your favorite translation of the Bible for studying?” “Whatever I happen to be reading at the time,” I said and named a few translations.

My answer reminds me of a story I heard from Click and Clack, the Tappett Brothers. It seems there was a pilot lost in the Pacific Northwest fog. He saw an office building, leaned out the window and said to the man in the office, “Where am I?” “You’re in a plane.” He turned the plane around headed for Sea-Tac and landed safely. “How did you know where to go?” asked his passenger. “Well, I asked where I was, and he said I was in a plane. The answer was absolutely accurate and totally useless, so I knew I was talking to MicroSoft technical support.”

My answer was also accurate–if something holds my interest long enough to be useful it becomes a favorite–but useless, so I’ll try and add to the uselessness with a list of resources I find useful. I haven’t read most of them all the way through, but they are useful. I may add links if I can find them. I’m not going to try and make a comprehensive list.

For background reading:
Title: Biblica: The Bible Atlas: A Social and Historical Journey Through The Lands of the Bible
Author: Professor Barry J. Beitzel, Chief Consultant
Publisher: Viking: Penguin Group (Australia),
Global Book Publishing
Level 8, 15 Orion Rd
Lane Cove, NSW 2066, Australia
Ph: +61 2 9425 5800
Fax: +61 2 9425 5804
Year Published: 2008
Number of Pages: 575, including gazetteer, index, and picture credits.
Binding: Hardbound
ISBN-13: 978 0 670 07203 3
Price: $50, but can be had for considerably less.

This is especially useful in treating the Bible as a history tied to a particular geographical location, if you can find it. A year or two after I reviewed it I couldn’t find it in Penguin’s catalog. Considering how much work went into this 11-lb book, you’d think they would keep it in print.

Title: Feasting Upon the Word
Author: Dennis and Sandra Packard
Publisher: Deseret Book
Year Published: 1981
Number of Pages: 242
Binding: Hardbound
ISBN10: 0-87747-879-1

Introduction to pondering and studying scripture, with some tools and examples of how to use them.

Title: Defining the Word: Understanding the History and Language of the Bible
Author: John A. Tvedtnes
Publisher: Covenant
Year Published: 2006
Number of Pages: 138
Binding: Paperback
ISBN10: 1-59811-078-0
Price: $13.95

A guide to archaic terms, Hebrew and Greek words, and words that have changed their meaning since 1611. Includes a history of the Bible in English, and the KJV translators’ epistle to the reader, which is usually not printed with the Bible.

Title: Who Wrote the Bible?
Author: Richard Elliott Friedman
Publisher: Harper and Row: Perrenial Library
Year Published: 1989
Number of Pages: 299
Binding: Paperback
ISBN10: 0-06-097214-9
Price: $9.95

When I was reading The Book of J getting ready for AML one year, I thought R seems a lot like Mormon, someone taking the sacred records of his people and combining them into a single record. I didn’t say much about that in the paper, but after I presented my paper, Dennis Clark asked me if I had read this book, explaining it was an introduction to the documentary hypothesis, the idea that the Pentateuch was drawn largely from 4 sources, J (who usually refers to the deity as Jehovah or Jahweh), E (who mostly uses Elohim), P (a writer with priestly concerns), and D (the Deuteronomist), and combined in a single source by R (the Redactor). Dennis said Friedman argues that Ezra the Scribe put together the collection down to about Kings or Chronicles after the return from Babylon. (I haven’t got that far yet.) “A prophet collects the records of his people into a single record. Does that sound familiar?” he asked.

In his commentary on The Book of J Harold Bloom says he believes J was a woman in David’s court. After writing Who Wrote The Bible? Friedman kept working with J, following his perception there was more to the story than what we find in the Pentateuch, that it does indeed continue to David. The J in Genesis is only the beginning of the story. I was talking with Dennis one day about I, II, and III Isaiah. I mentioned that I’ve heard them raised as an objection to the Book of Mormon–the idea that the portions Nephi quotes were written after 600 BC–but I’ve never heard anyone set out the reasons for splitting Isaiah, so I don’t know how to evaluate the arguments. He took me downstairs to his library and gave me a copy of Friedman’s continuation (which doesn’t seem to have much to do with Isaiah, so far, but is quite interesting). The first part is an introduction, the middle part is the restored text, and the last is an afterword and notes.

Title: The Hidden Book in the Bible
Author: Richard Elliott Friedman
Publisher: Harper San Francisco
Year Published: 1999
Number of Pages: Unpaginated
Binding: Paperback
ISBN10: 0-06-063004-3
ISBN13: $15

Since this is a scripture translation it makes a good transition from background books to translations, but first one more background book. Before I started Who Wrote The Bible? I was familiar with the outlines of the documentary hypothesis, but unaware that the 4 major sources were competing sources. For example, one source was sacred to the Northern Kingdom, one to the Southern. I thought about that when I was considering harmonies of the Gospels, and it occurred to me that they may be competing sources as well, sacred to competing early Christian sects. Which is one reason I was delighted to find the next book on the Orem Library’s sales table a year ago (already?), I look forward to reading it.

Title: The Four Witnesses: The Rebel, the Rabbi, the Chronicler, and the Mystic
Author: Robin Griffith-Jones
Publisher: Harper San Francisco
Year Published: 2000
Number of Pages: 405
Binding: Hardback
ISBN10: 0-06-251647-7

I need to post this, so I’ll save the translations for next time. Happy flying in the fog till then, though I don’t know that the next part will blow the fog away.

So, what are your favorite tools for studying scripture?

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6 Responses to In Tents #29 Some Tools for Studying Scripture

  1. Brad says:

    Good list – the Tvedtnes book looks interesting. I struggle sometimes with the fact that we only use the KJV translation – so many words have changed over time and we pay so little attention to that (

    I would add these – my list is a bit more slanted to the OT since that’s what has been keeping me busy lately.

    Israel/ANE Background
    Finkelstein/Silberman – The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts.

    Shanks – Ancient Israel: From Abraham to the Roman Destruction of the Temple.

    Coogan – The Oxford History Of The Biblical World (mostly OT, though there are a couple of chapters on the NT – but they aren’t the best part of this book).

    Intros to the OT
    Levenson – Sinai and Zion: An Entry into the Jewish Bible (good perspective on importance of temples in Israel)

    McKenzie – How to Read the Bible: History, Prophecy, Literature–Why Modern Readers Need to Know the Difference, and What It Means for Faith Today

    Anything by Robert Alter – especially the Art of Biblical Narrative and the Art of Biblical Poetry.

    Intros to the NT
    Ehrman – The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings (some people may have issues with Ehrman – he’s not a believer, but I think he takes a respectful stance towards the scriptures – but if the idea that some of the books of the NT were not written by the people we ascribe them to, then you’ll want to skip this one)

    Hardy – Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Guide (along with his Reader’s Edition of the BOM)

    Hayes/Holloday – Biblical Exegesis (great overview/introduction to the different forms of biblical criticism)

    Translations – I hardly ever use the KJV anymore for personal reading/studying. For general translations I use the NRSV as well as the JPS (for OT).

    • Ehrman did something that made me wonder–in the only book by him that I’ve read so far.

      He was talking about how Christ would refer to “the Son of Man,” and he asserted that this “Son of Man” was someone that Christ was saying would come after Christ.

      Made me wonder how much else he didn’t “get.”

      • Harlow Clark says:

        Thanks for your comment. Based on some things Ehrman says in the Lost Christianities lectures, I gather that who a phrase like “Son of Man” refers to my have been one of those matters of pretty hot debate in the first and second centuries. We’re not always sure of the nature of the debates because a lot of the scriptures of the groups that didn’t become orthodox Christianity are lost.

        A lot of what we have of their scriptures are quotations preserved in polemics (true of Greek literature too–the only fragments we have of some writers are what critics quoted). Though Ehrman doesn’t expand a lot on this, we have no guarantee the quotes accurately reflect what the sects in question believed. Imagine the picture we would have of LDS doctrine if the only Mormon texts are what were preserved in anti-Mormon polemics.

        Ehrman has the tools to understand the fracturing of early Christianity, but he doesn’t have the interpretive framework to understand it in terms of cycles of apostasy and restoration. But it’s not a matter of not grasping the obvious. Things that are obvious to us are often obvious because we have a framework that helps us interpret them.

        I’ll be talking a bit about in my next post about using Latter-day revelation as a tool to understand the Bible.

    • Harlow Clark says:

      Thanks for your list of sources, Brad. Ehrman is an interesting character. I heard somewhere that he considers himself a believer of sorts, but that may be Dan Brown. When I was listening to Ehrman’s 24 lectures on Lost Christianities I noticed he doesn’t talk about Christians in the third person. He says “we” a lot, that is he talks about us and our Bible, and how our tradition would be different if, say, the Gospel of Barnabbas had been included in our New Testament. I don’t know if he’s talking about western civilization in general, but he doesn’t use language that distances himself from Christianity.

      I noticed the same thing when I was reading Willis Barnstone’s translation The New Covenant vol 1, Gospels and Apocalypse. He doesn’t present himself as a Christian, but several of his comments are phrased as a believer would phrase them.

      As for the KJV. it deserves extended comment, so I’ll save that for my next posting, or the one after that. If you really want to understand English language literature you have to have some grounding in the KJV, but it can be a daunting book. I’ve found it most accessible aurally. The Church recorded it, I think with Lael J Woodbury, first on records then casettes. I downloaded it to my smartphone and have listened several times. It’s about 70 hours all together. I went to the link on the other day and they are in process of moving to a new site. It says the recordings are available on iTunes, but I couldn’t find them. That is, the link redirects to the iTunes home page.

  2. Th. says:


    I’ve been asked this question a few times, but I don’t have the breadth of experience to answer it well. Here’s to hoping I remember this post next time someone asks me.

  3. Harlow Clark says:

    Thanks, Th. I’m touched by your comment. I’ve found that one benefit of making lists is finding that your experience is broader than you think. I suppose you could call it the Count Your Many Blessings principle. (As I told my beloved Alzheimer’s ward it was only maybe a year ago that I realized that song was not original to Latter-day Saints, when Lake Wobegon’s Hopeful Gospel Choir started singing it.)

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