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Teaching Institute: The Arsenal

After my last institute post describing my amateur wanderings into the thickets of biblical commentaries, I thought it might be worth actually detailing what books I use in my class prep. So I offer this as some suggestions for anyone, particuarly other Mormons (see the last few paragraphs), interested in trying to dabble in some biblical scholarship.

To reiterate from last time, I initially turned to a friend of mine whose getting his PhD studying the Hebrew Bible. While he wasn’t a New Testament guy per se, he had some good suggestions: the commentary series he suggested were the Hermenia and the Anchor Bible. Both sounded stellar, but the Hermenia was much thicker and more detailed than I could handle, and I couldn’t find the Anchor Bible series for the gospels. For a general introduction, he suggested Bart Ehrman’s (famous for “Misquoting Jesus,” pop-Bible Studies book) Introduction to the New Testament. I soon found that while I could probably use a broad introduction, the pressures for planning for each class didn’t make time for it.

So I scouted around some more on my own. One series I found especially useful is Tom Wright’s (i.e., N.T. Wright) New Testament for Everyone (see a rave review from a Mormon blogger here). They are on the far left of the picture. These short little books provide a very basic but insightful analysis of each of the books of the NT that is appropriate for, well, everyone. The anecdotes and object-lessons he uses are so conversational that his commentary wouldn’t feel out of place in a sermon, and I’ve found his perspective very enlightening and perfect for an institute audience: it helps make sense of the New Testament without losing sight of its religious importance for a believing reader. Wright’s translation is simple and straight-forward to (kind of how the original authors wrote it!). Highly recommend for, well, everyone.

The second series I’d recommend is the New Cambridge Bible Commentary, the blue and gold books in the middle. Written for “a wide range of intellectually curious individuals,” each volume has the rare virtue of being relatively short. Most commentaries can be oppressively huge and with a stack of 1000+ volumes available for each gospel (not to mention many other biblical books), it’s enough to make one throw in the towel before the game begins. The NCBC manages its information by not focusing on the minutia of language so much, which is often a point of emphasis for most commentaries. It looks at a book’s historical context, its literary unity and style, and also does a great job at situating the gospels within other pseudo-graphic and extra-biblical sources. It’s new, and only has John, Matthew, a few other books so far, but I’ve found it provides good non-theological commentary.

Some of the other commentaries I’ve arrived at thanks to a biblical commentary reference guide I found randomly at the library, which gave something like a “Top 5” best commentaries for each biblical book and a short blurb for all the others. No guide is perfect, but it did help give me a sense of which books might be worth my time. The John and Luke commentaries, by Baker and Hendrickson respectively, are older and more pastorally-inclined, but I find them as handy, middle-of-the-road commentaries. I wanted to get Raymond Brown’s commentary on John, which is supposed to be a classic, but it was checked out. I’m trying out the New International Commentary on the New Testament work on Matthew, by R. T. France, and it’s been helpful for studying the Sermon on the Mount, though I’m not overly “wowed” by it so far. The other books on the shelf (Brown’s short introduction to Johannine writings; Craig Blomberg on the parables) are books that sounded good but I probably won’t be able to crack into them much.

The last two are two bibles I’ve looked at: the NRSV Oxford edition, which is a standard for academic classes, and N.T. Wright’s (yep, him again) Kingdom New Testament. The NRSV is useful because it gives a short introduction to each book that addresses authorship, textual scholarship, and a brief overview. Plus, its language is more clear than the KJV while still retaining traditional phrasing or words where appropriate (it’s also remarkably cheap for a quality-bound book). The Kingdom New Testament is a different animal–a tad bizarre, but exciting. Wright really emphasizes the direct, plain prose that is the hallmark of the Greek. There is also no annotations or footnotes, which helps keep your reading steady. While I appreciate the “de-mystifying” of the prose, he relies on the exclamation point a lot, and it becomes distracting (was every Beatitude shouted?). I need to expand my range of translations, but the commentaries help with some of that.

Also, some resources not pictured here: my LDS scriptures, naturally, though I find that because I’m typing my notes in Evernote on my laptop, I almost always rely on the church’s online scriptures rather than cracking open my quad (whose bind is doing some cracking on its own; I’m kind of hoping an updated version is down the pipeline before I buy a new set). Sometimes I don’t even see the text in my copy of the scriptures until I open them for class.

But I would be remiss if I didn’t mention perhaps the most useful source for KJV-reading Mormons: Footnotes to the New Testament for Latter-Day Saints, edited by Kevin Barney. This is a tremendous labor of love; I can’t imagine how much time it must have taken. Barney glosses difficult KJV wording and phrases and draws on his knowledge of biblical languages to point out bad translations in the KJV or where readers should be aware of linguistic ambiguity. There are also a few theological and Restoration-scripture glosses here and there. What’s particularly useful about it, besides being in PDF (and free!) is that the base text is the same we study in class, so I keep remember what wording my students will be looking at. The footnotes are pretty dense, so it’s not handy for trying to do an initial reading of the material, but great for a second or third time through.

Some other books that I can’t really speak to but other Mormon readers might be interested in: Julie Smith’s Search, Ponder, and Pray, which is a devotional commentary on the gospels. My brother took some of Smith’s institute classes at U of Texas and raves about her. I looked at a sample on my Kindle, and while the book seems promising, the book has been so poorly formatted as an eBook (not Smith’s fault, I’m sure) that it wasn’t very accessible, on the Kindle or on my computer. It’s too bad it can’t be rereleased after it’s been better formatted; the price is certainly tempting. Another book that I haven’t gotten but would like to soon is James Faulconer’s Life of Holiness: Notes and Reflections on Romans 1, 5-8. 500 pages for just 5 chapters? I can’t wait. Maybe for Christmas. Faulconer’s Faith, Philosophy, Scripture is a great collection of essays on Mormon theology, and he’s a thoughtful interpreter of scripture.

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