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My Favorite Books for Studying the Old Testament

Ever since my freshman year’s seminary teacher taught us a lesson on Deborah (our Deborah wrote a fabulous post about this OT story), I’ve loved the Old Testament. I loved it even more once I got to college and graduate school where I discovered books that made the stories all the more clear and real to me. Here are some of my favorite resources that I use when I study the Old Testament.

Note: These books won’t really help give you answers in Gospel Doctrine class, but they do help with understanding the history, culture, and alternative translations of the Old Testament.

The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha
Edited by Michael D. Coogan, et al
By far, my favorite and most used resource when studying the scriptures. The footnotes are great. The language is modern without feeling sacrilegious (I’m sure it’s just me, but having grown up with the King James Version, I often have a hard time with bibles that don’t say, “thee” and “ye.”). If you want an alternative bible to our KJV, I highly, highly recommend this one.

Tanakh: a New Translation of the Holy Scriptures, the New JPS Translation According to the Traditional Hebrew Text
By the Jewish Publication Society
My second favorite bible only because it doesn’t have the New Testament and Apocrypha. The footnotes aren’t as exhaustive as the Oxford edition, but they do offer helpful alternative literal translations of tricky words. This version of the Tanakh is also one of the most commonly used by academics.

The New Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible: Classic Edition
This book indexes every word in the Bible, which is handy for someone like me who tends to only remember paraphrases of scriptures I want to find. It also provides the Hebrew or Greek definition these words.

Who Wrote the Bible?
By Richard E. Friedman
Essential for understanding the basics of biblical criticism and authorship. I think it’s fascinating to see who wrote or edited parts of the Old Testament (surprise, Moses wasn’t the author of the first five books). It was one of the first books that taught me that even the Bible has biases in its writing.

The Oxford Companion to the Bible
By Bruce M Metzger and Michael D Coogan
Think of it as your Bible Dictionary but more thorough. This book provides nice concise definitions written by scholars (My Biblical Hebrew professor wrote Jezebel’s entry!).

And for a more feminist slant:
Searching the Scriptures: a Feminist Commentary, Volume 2
Edited by Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza
Volume 2 has women analyzing the various texts in the Old and New Testaments. The essays on the passages are enjoyable to read and thoroughly researched. (Volume 1 is more of an overview of the voices of feminism—still worthwhile, but not a direct textual analysis.)

Biblical Women in the Midrash
By Naomi M. Hyman
I don’t know if this book is even still in print, but I love it…it has chapters on women in the Bible, starting out with the story from the Bible, then rabbinic commentary, followed up by modern feminist commentary (in the forms of essays, poems, songs)—very cool.

Jewish Women in Greco-Roman Palestine
by Tal Ilan
Uses primary sources to give a thorough description of women during the biblical (Old and New Testaments) time periods. It can get a little dense, but I found it ultimately worthwhile for painting a good picture of women’s status.

I’d love to hear your favorites, too!

EmilyCC

EmilyCC works for a national non-profit and lives in Phoenix, Arizona with her spouse and three children. She is a former editor of Exponent II and a founding blogger at The Exponent.

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  1. Bookslinger says:

    I find that a parallel Bible is essential for reading much of the OT. The KJV translators just weren’t as good at Hebrew as they were with Greek. And ancient Hebrew was just not all that amenable to translation.

    Aside from the occasional translation errors, Hebrew idioms and King James English idioms can really throw me for a loop.

    My current favorite parallel Bible is Zondervan’s “Today’s Parallel Bible” that has the KJV, NIV, NLT, and NASB. ISBN: 0310918367, in hardback, $31.49 from Amazon including shipping.

    NIV = New International Version. Most of my “What does that mean?” questions about the KJV are answered here. This is probably the best modern English translation, and is easily the most popular and widely used. The NIV is mostly a word-for-word translation, but on rare occasions uses thought-for-thought when the idiom used loses its meaning in English.

    NLT = New Living Translation, a paraphrase, though now they call it a “thought for thought” translation. This version is a descendant of “The Living Bible” but a tighter/closer translation that doesn’t go as far afield as TLB did. I turn to this translation when I still don’t understand the imagery or idiom used in the NIV.

    NASB = New American Standard Bible. This translation is a descendant of the Revised Standard Version (RSV) of the 1950’s, and the American Standard Version (ASV) of 1901 which was the parent of the RSV.

  2. Steven B says:

    You might enjoy Women’s Rights in the Old Testament by James R. Baker. It is out of print, but available used at Amazon.

  3. Caroline says:

    Emily,
    I’m impressed by your collection of Old Testament scholarly books. Wow. Did you come accross these during your classes at theology school? I have to admit that I don’t have one scholarly book about the old testament, though I really do rather like that particular book of scripture. Lots more stories about women there than in BOM or D&C.

    I’m slightly more up on my NT (Have you read “When Women Were Priests”? It’s fabulous) and definitely more up on Mormon women’s history.

  4. EmilyCC says:

    Bookslinger and Steven B, thanks for the books. I’m excited to look into them.

    Caroline, I love, love When Women Were Priests! Since you liked that book, you should check out Ilan’s book. Those two remind me of each other, just cover different time periods.

    I think the more general references I came across as a religious studies undergrad, but the feminist stuff I got as a grad student (my undergrad school didn’t have a Women and Religion class–crazy, huh?!).

    Now that I’m out of school, I’m pretty lazy about finding quality material. Although I did find a couple feminist books as I wrote this blog that I’m going to look more closely at to see if they’re worth recommending.

  5. Mike Kessler says:

    The View from a Jew: I’m Jewish, but it seems relevant here because, if you want to look at the “Old Testament” solely on its own rather than through the lens of the KJV or BoM, to see it more like it was seen 2,000 years ago, I’d say your choice of the JPS transalation of the Tanakh is excellent. But I also like The Jewish Study Bible: Featuring the Jewish Publication Society Tanakh Translation, because it’s the same as the Tanakh but with liner notes, and lots of them, to provide context in our modern world. Then, there’s Standing Again at Sinai: Judaism from a Feminist Perspective by Judith Plaskow, which posits the idea that next to all of those named men in the “Old Testament” was an unnamed woman who was equally as notable, but not noted because of her gender. Very few women in the “Old Testament” survive through more than three or four verses, and “Standing Again At Sinai” addresses that. It’s a dense read but so powerful that it caused my synagogue to completely reorganize about 15 years ago, and at that time we introduced many new readings about women so they would no longer be invisible.

  6. Kiskilili says:

    Hey, Emily! I’m glad to see you’re doing well in sunny Arizona. Congratulations on Asher’s birth! (We took Hebrew together in divinity school. :))

    Thanks for the recommendations. I thought I would add that Michael Coogan recently published a very thorough, readable introduction: _The Old Testament: A Historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures_.

  7. Harijans says:

    ACK Please stop the recommendations!!

    You must keep in mind that when Emily and I move, I get to lift the heavy boxes, of which most are filled with Emily’s theology collection.

    I want to thank you all for adding a few more pounds to the next move:)

    I obviously have read non of these text, and have never even finished the OT cover to cover, instead I married Emily so that she can answer any strange question I might have, and she does an excellent job. Thank goodness for marriage!!

  8. EmilyCC says:

    Mike, thanks for your recommendation of Judith Plaskow. She’s great. I’ve only read some of her articles, so I’m excited to get this book.

    Kiskilili, how fun to see you! I want to see your list of Hebrew Bible books!