I recently finished reading Jesus’ Bible: A Concise History of the Hebrew Scriptures by Christopher Dost. The book is a small one (less than 120 pages if you don’t count the preface or the bibliography) but it is packed with information, especially for those of us who know more about the Greek New Testament than we do about Hebrew manuscripts. This book was a very interesting read and I highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in learning more about how we got our Old Testament.
First, a word about the author. Chris Dost received his PhD from Jewish Theological Seminary and is a professor at Alliance Theological Seminary (New York, NY). Dr. Dost is on the cutting edge of research when it comes to the Hebrew manuscripts of the Old Testament. As the back of the book informs us, he is a participant in the preparation of Biblia Hebraica Quinta (German Bible Society, 2004-) which is one of the most extensive critical editions of the Old Testament being published to date. This guy knows his stuff.
And yet Jesus’ Bible does not read like a dense hyper-scholarly book. Dr. Dost does a good job speaking to the common man who is not a specialist. His target audience seems to be mainstream evangelicals who want to learn more about the Bible but who hold to a very “traditional” and unquestioning view of the book they carry to church on Sunday. While I do not always agree with his conclusions, Dr. Dost does do a great job
- informing his readers about the history behind the Old Testament of the Bible they carry to church,
- introducing his readers to the way that modern scholars think about/interact with the text of the OT, and
- inviting his readers to question their assumptions about the Bible that they read and love.
I encourage you to get this book if you want to learn more about the origins of your Old Testament. Because of this, I am not going to do a chapter-by-chapter summary of the book; get it and read it! That said, I do want to point out a few main topics to “whet the appetite,” so to speak.
The first chapter of the book deals with the Masoretic text (hereafter MT), which is what most people mean when they talk about “the Original Hebrew.” For those who don’t know, the ancient Hebrew language was originally written without vowels. Later on, a group of Hebrew scribes known as the Masoretes added vowels to Hebrew manuscripts, to make sure that people would continue to pronounce the Hebrew scriptures correctly. As you can see in the picture below, the vowels are the little dots and lines over/under the main letters. Most of this I knew already before opening the book.
What I didn’t know is that what we call “the original Hebrew” is actually only one version of the MT (the Tiberian version), but there are actually two other versions (the Palestinian and the Babylonian versions) of the MT. I try to be a reasonably educated student of the Bible, and I was already learning new things by the end of the first chapter!
Chapter 3 dealt with the history of Israel and Judah as nations, and how their history impacts our understanding of the OT/MT as a set of documents. This chapter especially caught my attention because this is something that I feel like many Christians overlook (or maybe it is just my personal hobby-horse). We read the Bible without stoping to realize that we are not simply reading stories: we are reading actually history that really involved real nations and real people. Understanding what was going on in Egypt or Assyria at the same time as a certain Biblical story can shed light on the historical background of what the Bible is saying.
Chapter 6 is about who wrote which books of the Bible. In this chapter Dost really challenges some commonly held ideas that “conservative Christians” have when it comes to how our Bible was written. Contrary to most evangelical conventional wisdom, Dost asserts
- that the books of the OT were not necessarily written by the people to whom they are attributed (i.e., Amos may have not necessarily written the book named “Amos”), and
- that the books of the OT were not necessarily static productions (which is to say, Moses might have written parts of Leviticus, but over the course of many years other authors redacted and added to what was written until we ended up with what we now call the book of Leviticus).
Most Christians would be very uncomfortable with this sort of reasoning. Most of us seem to think that when someone like Jeremiah wrote his book, he sat down for a couple weeks and wrote down their book. But as Dr. Dost points out, this is not necessarily what happened—and this is certainly not how mainstream Hebrew scholars think about the writing of the Hebrew Bible.
At this point I feel the need to make myself clear: I believe that everyone should read Dr. Dost’s truly great book. But that does not mean that I agree with everything that is written in it. For example, Dost points out that mainstream scholarship does not use miracles or divine intervention in order to explain historical phenomena. I completely disagree with mainstream scholarship on this point, and I am certain that most conservative Christians would be uncomfortable with the idea of shutting out the miraculous.
Just to be clear, Dost does not disbelieve in miracles either. That section is not a summary of his personal beliefs, but a summary of the way that modern scholarship studies Biblical history. Some of the most “challenging” parts of the book are not Dost’s views, but the more “mainstream” views in scholarship that we will bump up against when we begin to learn more about the Old Testament.
Jesus’ Bible is such a great book because it challenges what we believe about the Bible in a respectful and thought-provoking way. You might read the book and come away unpersuaded by certain arguments (as I did). But at least you will have taken the time to think through your Bible, and that is always a good thing.
I highly recommend Dr. Christopher Dost’s book Jesus’ Bible. You can find ordering information from his website here.