Why do I make this recommendation?
(Glad you asked.)
Because it seems to me that by far most of my brothers and sisters on church pews and in the blog-O-sphere, though being good people of rich and abiding faith have very little exposure to the social context of those dusty Galilean trails and muddy Galilean sea shores where Jesus did his prophesying, healing, speaking, and leading of masses, and likewise those crowded streets of Jerusalem where he was tried and convicted. Before I was blessed with a Bible education, these things were foreign to me. I mostly was baffled by Scripture. But also I held a number of deeply misguided views which were quickly challenged and disposed of carefully.
I used to believe that Jesus came to show us how to go to heaven when we die. I used to believe that the Pharisees were “legalists” who taught that we had to obey arbitrary laws right down to the jot and tittle in order to appease an angry God who was just looking for someone to step out of line and send them to burn in hell for eternity. Jesus, however (in this view), came to free the going-to-heaven-when-you-die program from these “legalists” and instead give us a free pass to heaven if only we believe strong enough in him. In all of these elements, the point was to leave this sinful flesh in which I was trapped, which was part of the sinful and fallen creation that was destined to go up in the smoke of Judgment fires – basically dying became a goal, my life was a futile waste that should be shunned, and I had better not think I could work my way to heaven, but must have a thorough disdain for “legalists” in order to truly grasp the free gift of grace found in Jesus. As an addendum to all this, the Holy Spirit played some mysterious role which was never really ironed out clearly, though I knew enough to give a respectful nod that way while holding Pentecostal wackos in a bit of contempt for turning all things spiritual into a circus.
Now, of course, I don’t believe hardly a shred of any of that. But before I launched into critical study, I was tangled up in all of it. This reading list helped me a lot. There were other parts of my education that helped too, but these books stand out in my mind in that they effectively illuminated my path out of those misguided views and freed me from their entanglements mostly by opening up the New Testament (The Gospels particularly) in fresh ways for me to image. More down-to-earth ways, we might say. I hope recommending a few books here will aid some of my readers similarly.
I recommend Bandits, Prophets, & Messiahs by Richard Horsley as a basic historical construct of the sociological scene of 1st century Israel. This book will help you to think more critically about the way common peasants lived in that part of the world around the time of Jesus. You get a feel for all the messianic movements, revolts, and deep, burning need for, and expectation of, discerning God’s movement on behalf of his people amid prophetic insights.
I think the book is of medium difficulty, but worth the trouble with a big payoff for helping the reader imagine life in ancient Israel. I don’t wish my readers to think I endorse every word or concept in it, but be open minded and willing to think for yourself as your tour guide leads you to places you have never been. My own critical analysis of Horsley, many years after reading the book, is that he brings a sociological perspective to Bible study – almost a Marxist lens really. Ultimately sociology is not the best lens, useful as it is. However, Horsley is instrumental, in various works, for unearthing “empire” which for centuries has been buried too deep apparently for even scholarly exegesis to dig up. And, in fact, Horsley seems, as I discern things, to have influenced N.T. Wright with this aspect of his offerings. (The key difference is that Wright then employs these insights in a more richly biblical (specifically 2nd Temple Jewish) interpretation as opposed to sociological/Marxist.)
I recently recommended another book to a couple of people, far more dated, but easy to read and full of good, basic information for a new student of the New Testament. That book is Between The Testaments by D.S Russell.
If I were a novice Bible student wanting to understand the New Testament (especially the Gospels – the story of Jesus), I believe I would deeply appreciate the easy way Russell maps out the period. Once a student encounters this information, navigating a host of modern scholars and a handful of primary sources becomes quite manageable.
After investigating these books, I recommend going to the primary sources. First return to the Bible – the New Testament/Gospels especially. I say “return” because if you are reading my book list, surely you have already been reading the Bible and want to dig deeper into it. I also must stress that when you read a book of the Bible, learn to read whole books at a time. Read Matthew all in one day, then spend the rest of the week praying about what you read. What was Matthew’s Jesus like? What parts of his story surprised you? What parts were missing that you were sure you would find? Contemplate this stuff; talk about it with others. Then move on and read Mark likewise and so on. Did you find something in Mark’s Jesus that seemed to be missing from Matthew’s (and vice versa)? Let these critical questions, and others like them, guide your meditation after reading holistically.
I say read holistically as opposed to taking in bits and pieces. Such reading is called “atomizing the text”. The danger in reading that way, of course, is that you never deal with the context in which a passage fits. Instead, you take a bit out of context which of course is still quite powerful, but now you use it to suit whatever context you can dream up, or whatever context you happen to be in – and then force the text to address that unfairly. Atomizing the text like that affects the meaning quite drastically. This is a danger inherent in most meditative readings – at least if you don’t also have a good working knowledge of the original context.
Now you are ready to begin seeing the Bible, the Gospels especially, with far more clarity than those old flannel boards my Sunday school teachers used during grade school years (or Veggie Tales for that matter). And sadly, if you don’t have a formal Bible education, chances are good that as an adult your best exposure to the Bible and tools for understanding it came when you were a child. So much “best seller” Christianity just champions the cause of the old misguided views and entanglements, and thus makes a few writers a lot of money, but does very little beyond helping you meditate and pray.
Once you have reread the Gospels, I suggest you read the Maccabees, especially 1st Maccabees. You can find it in the apocrypha. If you don’t have one, you can get a cheap, paperback copy of a Catholic Bible for under $10 which will open up the Maccabees and a several other fascinating ancient books that did not make it into the canon.
Read 1st Maccabees in one sitting, if you can. I think you will find it is quite exciting. I really wish Mel Gibson would produce the movie! It is a tale of wars and victory. The Maccabee family leads a revolution against evil empires that actually wins independence for the Jews for the first time in many centuries. There is a fascinating scene early in the tale where after losing badly to these Jewish brigands, the enemy figures out that the Jews won’t fight on Saturday. It occurs to them that if they attack this band of rebels, who on a Friday whips then soundly, on a Saturday instead, then surely they won’t fight. And sure enough, they don’t. Those Jews who so valiantly fight and win any other day of the week, lay down their lives for God on Sabbath. But in so doing, the survivors begin a long-standing debate among Jews about whether it is okay to kill on the Sabbath. And of course readers familiar with Mark 3:4 and parallels, this event, and the subsequent public debate that consumes the Jews the way Roe v. Wade consumes Americans, forms a contextual backdrop to Jesus’s question!
1st Maccabees also depicts the event from which the Jews celebrate Hanukah. And you are sure to be introduced to one of the main heroes, Judas! And when you contemplate how that Judas Maccabee (“the hammer” to his friends) kicks pagan tail, wins independence for his nation that lasts more than one hundred years, AND comes about roughly 150 years before Jesus Christ comes along – THEN you can compare Judas Maccabee to Judas Iscariot. Just think about it: 150 years after the American Civil War, thousands upon thousands of parents in the American South name their sons after General Lee! It is no stretch of the imagination to think that Judas Iscariot was likewise named after this great war hero! And with this context established, we can begin to hypothesize more complex motives to Judas’s betrayal than simple greed.
But while you are reading Maccabees, also get a copy of Josephus, the ancient, Jewish/Roman historian. I recommend Josephus: The Essential Works – and abridged version full of color pictures.
Once you begin reading your New Testament with Maccabees to one side and Josephus to the other, you will find your Bible come to life in the context in which it was written! When I was in school, the instructors would tell the budding preacher/pastors to learn to preach with the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other, this way you could address the issues people are dealing with in their lives with the Word of God. And what I am suggesting here is similar, except that now you get a better understanding of the Bible by reading the equivalent of newspapers of the time in one hand and your New Testament in the other!
If you follow this reading plan, you are bound to find the Gospels in particular, the New Testament in general, and really the whole Bible too, will come alive in your hands! You will discover the JOY of learning rather than attempting to sooth your spirit with mysteries beyond your grasp, or with platitudes you learn in best seller Christianity, or arming yourself with a few texts with which to debate your politics. I trust that you will actually meet Jesus! He is the Word (John 1:1-14) that you will meet there in the Scriptures (John 5:39). He is not exactly the person you saw in the movies or on greeting cards. He has a completely different context, and when you find him in it, you will discover him in yours too.
I happen to be a major enthusiast of N.T. Wright (aka Tom Wright) and will suggest ANYTHING with his name on it! But a lot of his work is very advanced scholarly stuff. If you are familiar with all that, then you don’t need my reading list – you already have your own! But for new students and seekers, I must tell you about Tom Wright’s “For Everyone” series. He publishes a complete set of layman’s commentaries on every book of the New Testament in this series, and if you google him, you will discover them all quickly enough.
I would also like to highlight Wright’s small, but scholarly book, What St. Paul Really Said.