Amateur Biblical Studies, Part 1

I am not a biblical scholar, and I have never taken a class in anything related to biblical studies. So, what I am about to say may be worth every penny you are paying. Having said that, I think that it is possible for a motivated amateur to get a basic education in biblical studies on the cheap and in his/her spare time. I wanted to list 10 resource which I have found to be the most helpful and the most effective for getting educated in the world of academic biblical studies. I’ll list the first five resources in this entry, and the second five in the next entry.

The first five resources are a series of lectures produced by The Teaching Company. Visit the website if you want more information about them. In a nutshell they hire university lecturers to prepare and give courses and tape them doing this. All of their courses are excellent. I always buy the mp3 versions of the lectures which I download to my iPod. The beauty of this is that I have been able to take courses from top notch professors while running and cleaning the toilet (though not both at the same time). The only downside is that you cannot ask questions at the end of the lecture, though this also means that you don’t have to listen to people pose stupid questions. Each lecture series comes with an extensive set of lecture notes, bibliography, and recommended readings. Anyway, here are the five lecture series I would recommend to an amateur biblical scholar.

1) Old Testament by Amy-Jill Levine, professor at the Vanderbilt Divinity School. She covers the basics of source criticism, form criticism, literary analysis, archaeology and a lot more. The lectures on Covenant and Law are worth the price of admission alone. This was not the first lecture series on biblical studies that I listened to, but it was the one which most motivated me to take up biblical studies as a hobby.

2) Beginnings of Judaism by Isaiah M. Gafni at Hebrew University, Jerusalem. Most of the course covers Jewish history during the second temple period (516 BCE – 70 CE) along with a prologue lecture or two on the exile and an epilogue lecture or two on the rise of Rabbinic Judaism and the Bar Kokhba revolt (132 CE – 135 CE). Again the lectuer is excellent. The course is particularly valuable because it covers the time period between the Old and New Testaments, a subject which is never covered in a Sunday School class. It also covers a good chunk of non canonical works (Ben Sira, Tobit, Jubilees, 1 Enoch, The Dead Sea Scrolls, etc). I highly recommend it.

3) Historical Jesus by Bart Ehrman, professor at UNC Chapel Hill. He is the author of Misquoting Jesus and many other popular books on New Testament subjects. He is also a very good lecturer. The biggest strong point of the course is that he spends a good deal of time explaining the historical sources for Jesus, he develops in detail the historical methodology he will be using to investigate the historical Jesus, and puts Jesus in the context of 1st century Palestine. Only then does he delve into what he thinks one can learn about the historical Jesus using the approach he describes.

4) Jesus and the Gospels by Luke Timothy Johnson, professor at Emory University Divinity School. Listen to this one and the previous one back to back because Johnson is highly critical of the approach that Bart Ehrman takes in trying to discover the historical Jesus. Johnson’s approach it what he describes as literary in that he looks at each of the canonical gospels in detail to bring out what each is trying to say. His lecture on the Synoptic Problem is the best I have heard or read. He also covers apocryphal/pseudepigraphical gospels such as the Gospels of Thomas, Phillip, and Peter.

5) Story of the Bible also by Luke Timothy Johnson. Johnson covers the story of the biblical text itself, instead of the story inside the text. He covers development of the text along with canonization and translation. The high points are when he discusses how the Bible has been interpreted and used in late antiquity, the middle ages, and in the modern period. Particularly good are his lectures on “Englishing the Bible” and on the three critical periods of Renaissance, Reformation, and Enlightenment and what they meant for biblical use and interpretation. If you think that the KJV is the cat’s meow, please listen to this series of lectures.

A word about price. Never pay more than $34.95 for a set of 24 lectures. While that may seem pricey, just remember that tuition at even the cheapest state universities is going to be over $1000 for 5 courses, probably more like 2-3 thousand, plus gas, drive time, and parking fees. Also, if you can’t afford it, many public libraries carry the CD versions of these courses. Just don’t violate copyrights while you use them.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Amateur Biblical Studies, Part 1

  1. Thanks for the list, David. I listened to the CD version (from the library) of Luke Timothy Johnson’s The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels and found it very informative — I’m guessing that covers much the same material as in item number 4 of your list.

  2. There’s a lot of stuff available on iTunes from various universities as well.

  3. I wasn’t impressed with Levine’s OT series. I thought her choice of topics and approach quite odd at times, as well as what she chose to say about them. That said, it’s better than nothing, I suppose.

  4. Nitsav,

    I wouldn’t recommend any of these series to people who already know about the field. Also, OT is such a huge topic that any approach to it will be selective at best, but you already knew that.