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Simon Holloway

What must I read in order to truly understand the Bible? Unfortunately, everything that the texts' original audiences were expected to have known and read and, sadly, that is impossible. The least I can do is approximate, but that would not allow me to include Ovid, Milton or Blake. It would, on the contrary, necessitate the inclusion of reams of ANE literature, which is a lot less fun.

I'll go with the midrashim. It won't help me understand bupkis about the Bible, but it will at least be entertaining.

Seth Sanders

Carl Schmitt, Political Theology (Torah)
Jacob Taubes, The Political Theology of St. Paul (Leviticus, Pauline Epistles)
Hobbes, Leviathan (Torah, Isaiah)
Carl Schmitt, The Leviathan in the State Theory of Thomas Hobbes (Leviathan passages)
Hermann Gunkel, Schöpfung und Chaos in Urzeit und Endzeit (Leviathan passages)
Jacob Taubes, Occidental Eschatology (Daniel, Revelation, apocrypha)
David Graeber, Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology (biblical history and law)
Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian (Job, II Samuel, II Kings)
Elliot Wolfson, Language, Eros, Being (Isaiah, Ezekiel)


Bupkis my touchekis.

The midrashim read the Bible in terms of its truth claims. That's better than most modern commentary, which pays no attention to the Sache of Ha-Torah, Ha-Neviim, ve-ha-Ketuvim. But I agree that Midrash still loses its way rather often, in the sense of how we learn to read the Hebrew Bible against its ANE background.

The value of Ovid, Milton, and Blake is that they tap into the deep structures of a great deal of mythological thinking. I don't mean mythological in a bad sense; I mean it in the same sense as C. S. Lewis, who though an atheist, became a Christian (with Tolkien's help) when he came to the conclusion that the Bible is true myth. I think that's very helpful as a background, however paradoxical that may seem from a chronological point of view, to reading the Bible.

Marshall Massey

With all due respect, I think it matters less what you read before reading the Bible, than what you read and who you talk to and what you experience in your own life, during and after your reading.

As a Conservative Friend, an admittedly rare sort of bird, I tend to read the Bible in dialogue with George Fox and Robert Barclay, as well as the Anchor Bible commentaries, the major nineteenth and twentieth century Western theologians, etc. But looking back, I am amazed how much my understanding of the Bible all through my life has been shaped by other literary sources — by all the intelligent people, from many different traditions, that I have had conversations about the Bible with — and by situations in my own life that have seemed to parallel situations in the Bible.


Thanks, Seth, for a wonderful list. You might do us all a favor and introduce some of these authors on your blog, in 500 words or less (!). Like Ben Myers just did in the case of Walter Benjamin:


I agree with you completely. I'm overemphasizing the point by speaking of priority. Experience is a great teacher, if you are a great student, and I trust you are. I note that you read deeply and widely in your own tradition - always the best place to start - and also outside of it. Here's hoping that you will contribute on these threads in the future.

Sam C

What hope then, do the billions uneducated who'll never read these works have?

That is: what exactly do you mean by "cannot understand" ?

Buck Eschaton

For me large parts of the Bible only became comprehensible after reading Rene Girard and Margaret Barker. To understand Girard though, you have to read Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, Greek drama, Faulkner, Cervantes, Flaubert, James Alison and the list could go on and on. J Duncan M Derrett has also been extremely interesting.

Adam Couturier

Dickens! I try to read Great Expectations once a semester.


Sam C,

Look at what a completely varied list in aggregate has already been offered. That will give you a clue.

So long as you are an attentive reader, of literature, philosophy, theology, or of the hard knocks of life, whatever attentive reading you have done will serve you well when you reply in some sense to the words Augustine heard, "Tolle lege."

The best reading and the best hard knocks are, I'm afraid, things that mess with your head and maybe even with your body. What I mean is that even a sunny Psalm like Psalm 23 doesn't hit home to people until they hear it at the funeral of a person whose life they cherished more than their own.

Then, all of a sudden, "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil" becomes a counter-factual cry of protest. All of a sudden, holding on to the words becomes a matter of life and death, with the struggle to hold on to them the struggle of one's life.

You can't understand Psalm 23 until you've experienced a death in the family.

See how it works now? BTW, James Agee's autobiographical novel is a great piece of work:


"To understand Girard, you have to read Shakespeare, Dostoevksy . . ." It's an infinite regress, isn't?

It is also, of course, a hermeneutical circle - a "virtuous" one, if all goes well. That is, "to understand Shakespeare and Dostoevsky, you have to read the Bible first."

Josh Alfaro


I have been reading your blog for some time now. I'm a sophmore undergrad bible major in a Great Books program (Torrey Honors @ Biola University) and i'd like to eventually specialize in OT studies. Thanks for posting this.

We read Milton this semester, Ovid last semester, and Blake next semester. While the Western Canon has helped inform my biblical studies, a lot of the time I just find it easier to pick up insights straight from the original language, commentaries, or articles. I have a microsoft excel doc of about 2000+ books that seem interesting and worth reading in the area of biblical studies, theology, philosophy and literature. What should a young student faced with all this reading do?

I've come to the conclusion a few days ago that during grad school I should limit my reading almost entirely to biblical studies so that I can be a competent professor and scholar in the OT field and then branch out into examining the OT in light of literature, philosophy, etc when I have the leisure (hopefully!) of tenure. How does that sound? Any advice would be greatly appreciated.



Great to hear from you. The stats tell me this blog continues to pick up more and more regular readers, to whom I say: feel free to ask questions, make suggestions, etc.

I'm impressed by the depth and breadth of the Great Books program that you're in. Plus I know that Biola is a very fine institution. The program is going to help you greatly in the end, if you specialize in OT, but of course, it will only do that to the extent that you learn to think analytically and thematically (by loci).

For example, a theological locus of great importance: "sin and its remedy." A spectrum of approaches within the Bible itself - and in the Great Books. Or "eschatology, palingenesis, utopia, dystopia." You want to get to the place where you can move seamlessly from Urzeit und Endzeit per Hermann Gunkel (see Seth Sanders' recommend above) and the equivalents in whatever writer or movement you need to engage with, by choice or necessity.

You will just have to see what interests you most, and then do your best to stay well-rounded. A three-pronged approach is helpful. In order to read the Bible for all it's worth, it's helpful to:

(1) Read it against its ANE and ancient Mediterranean backgrounds (and don't forget to look at works attempting bold syntheses, such as Mark Smith and Seth Sanders; with respect to legal innovation, Bernard Levinson);

(2) Read it for itself, piece by piece and as if it were an orchestra, canonically, inscribed within two major metanarratives, the Jewish and the Christian (they overlap extensively; you might take a look at Fishbane's commentary on the Haftarot published by JPS; make sure you have a copy of the Jewish Study Bible [Oxford] to work with);

(3) Read it in light of its vast reception history in philosophy (try Pascal; always great to see how Pascal gloms on to the OT; same with Kierkegaard; try Levinas), OT theology (I'm not just talking about Brueggemann, Goldingay, and Waltke, but Levenson, Fackenheim, and Fishbane; Zenger [z"l]), systematic theology (Barth and Bonhoeffer are interesting; just examples), politics (see Seth Sanders' list; try Jacques Ellul, his commentaries).

And learn your Hebrew so you can pick up the text and read it without a dictionary. Read until the text becomes a part of you. There's nothing better.


Why restrict oneself to pre-modern works? Why not the triad: Joyce-Kafka-Proust?

A more traditional answer: Rashi-Onkelos-Sifsei Chachamin.


The traditional answer is excellent.

Joyce and Kafka are two of my favorite authors, but I'm hard put to think of ways they've helped me understand the Bible. They are authors which force a person to learn how to read as if every word mattered in five different ways.


Not even after the "Mick"-"Nick" jokes in Finnegans Wake?

(For those who haven't read FW: two of the main five characters are the twins Shem and Shaun -- Shem is Joyce himself. Shem/Shaun are compared to many famous religious pairs such as Cain/Abel, Jacob/Esau, etc. The most amusing juxtaposition is in the first section of Part II: the comparison with Mick [St. Michael] and Nick [the Devil]. This is a self-contained section of FW and was independently published in 1934 as The Mime of Mick, Nick, and the Maggies: A Fragment from Work in Progress.)

More seriously, take a gander at this


More seriously, take a gander at this unpublished appendix to James Kugel's How to Read the Bible -- in particular to the passage beginning on p. 23. Kugel hints at the triads Dante-Shakespeare-Milton and Goethe-Dostoevsky-Joyce and also makes some interesting remarks about the ultimate literary quality of the Bible.


Those are excellent triads, I concur.

The ones in the sets that have helped me the least to date in understanding the Bible are Goethe and Joyce, though I cherish both authors for other reasons.

Josh Alfaro

Mr. Hobbins,

Thank you so much for your reply. This is very helpful and encouraging.

We read Pascal this semester just recently. Absolutely great. I know I'll be picking up crumbs from under his table for a while.

I had heard of Fishbane first from your blog and used some from his Text and Texture for a paper.

Thanks again, and I hope maybe I can email you sometime in the future about ANE/Hebrew grad schools. I looked into UW-Madison and they seem to have a great program, but it seems that Dr. Fox will be retiring soon.


Who is Mr. Hobbins? Please call me John. Feel free to email me and ask questions on-blog whenever you like.

I anticipate that the UW-Madison will find an outstanding replacement for Prof. Fox. It would be foolish for the administration to do anything less. But we will have to wait and see.


Tolkien, and his disciple, Guy Gavriel Kay.

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