Book Notes: Old Testament Introductions

*My apologies for the format of the images below. Not sure what I’ve done.

There has been a burst of new introductions both of the Old and New Testaments, and even of the whole Christian Bible. Someone told me recently there are some dozen or more New Testament intros in the past decade alone. For the past year, I’ve been casually reading through several relatively new Hebrew Bible/Old Testament introductions. I generally skip around—I’m too eager to see how they introduce methodologies, how they discuss the Deuteronomistic and Chronistic Histories, and how they treat theological interpretation—but end up reading all of them in their entirety. I’ve read shorter texts aimed at undergrads, and those for more advanced students. In only one case (below) did I find myself genuinely excited at a new product, and for this one alone would I make a change of textbook if I were teaching with some other.

First, there is Michael D. Coogan‘s shorter text from OUP, A Brief Introduction to the Old Testament: The Hebrew Bible in its Context. Some colleagues have said they’d use this for first year undergraduates, or in a course that should cover both Old and New Testaments in one term. The colour images and callouts throughout the text, along with sections of ‘Important Terms’ and ‘Questions for Review’ at the end of each chapter, are clearly aimed at new students. Coogan also gave us the VSI from OUP, The Old Testament: A Very Short Introduction, and I’d undoubtedly put this $7 gem in the hands of any lay reader wanting to understand the broad strokes of the Old Testament and Ancient Israel; but if they wanted to go just a bit further, this Brief Introduction is certainly worth consideration.

I also played around with Marvin Sweeney’s Tanak: A Theological and Critical Introduction to the Jewish Bible for a bit, but found it unfulfilling because it’s neither strong enough as a theological introduction nor as a critical introduction to the Hebrew Bible. It’s uneven, with good coverage of the Jewish exegetical tradition of, for example, the opening chapters of Genesis, but less elsewhere. There’s a good friendly argument over the merits of Sweeney’s work between Charles Halton and Jacob Wright over here. Charles is right. There’s just not enough that’s distinctively Jewish to set this book apart, and it certainly doesn’t equal the ‘theological’ reflection that one might have come to appreciate from someone like Spieckermann. As far as being a critical introduction, see below. Again, it’s just not rich enough. I love Sweeney, so I really hate that I can’t love this book.

By far the best introduction I’ve read is the newly released T&T Clark Handbook of the Old Testament edited by Jan Christian Gerz, Angelika Berlejung, Konrad Schmid, and Markus Witte. This was not even close. The English translation of this standard German text is a gift to those students not yet expected to read German. The translation is produced from the third German edition of 2008 by a number of translators, and while I cannot yet pretend to be in a position to evaluate every detail in the translation, I can suggest that there’s not a single Old Testament introduction on the market in the English-speaking world that is as substantive as this one. The biggest surprise to me was finding discussion of reception history and the inclusion of the broader canonical literature, but both are applauded. I dare say many scholars (myself among them!) would find it beneficial to read this introduction, even going over ground they think they already know. I sure learned more by reading Gerz on the DtrH. This is a serious introduction for serious students.