In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Biblical Literature

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Textbooks
  • Reference Works
  • Philology/Criticism
  • Historical Context
  • Ancient Israelite Religion
  • Primary Documents from the Ancient Near East
  • Translating the Bible

Jewish Studies Biblical Literature
Robert S. Kawashima
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 October 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0028


The Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, is not so much a book as a collection of books—hence the derivation of “Bible” from the Greek term ta biblia (the books). The anthological character of the Bible is captured as well by the modern Hebrew designation TaNaKh: an abbreviation of Torah (Law), Nebiʾim (Prophets), and Ketuvim (Writings). It was composed in two languages (Hebrew and Aramaic), arguably over the course of nearly a thousand years (the 11th through 2nd centuries BCE). Furthermore, scholars have been able to discern within Biblical Hebrew three principal dialects—archaic, classical, and late—not to mention some dialectal variation between Israelite (northern kingdom) and Judahite (southern kingdom) Hebrew. The phrase “biblical literature” reminds us that the Bible is literary in nature and comprises multiple genres—prose narrative, poetry, law, proverbs, etc.—so that its analysis requires, among other things, literary methods, broadly defined. As with any ancient literature, great care must also be taken to read it within its Historical Context. And the biblical books themselves, in contrast to most of their modern-day counterparts, are not discrete compositions attributable to single authors, but complex works to which multiple authors and editors contributed, not to mention the oral traditions underlying them. Such are the contextual issues the informed reader must keep in mind when approaching biblical literature. Thus, the Bible is not a unified object studied by a single discipline. Rather, it is a miscellany of texts, each complex within itself. While it began its life in the modern university within a single well-defined discipline, philology, it has been subsequently read with a variety of goals in mind—historical reconstruction, literary interpretation, and theological reflection—making use of diverse autonomous disciplines along the way. As a result, a bibliography of modest size such as this one could not hope to trace the history of biblical studies, nor could it approach the field through even a minimal sampling of its major works, nor could it cover the biblical books one by one. Rather, taking the perspective of the student or general reader, bewildered by the dizzying array of Approaches and Methods, it provides a sequence of entryways into various aspects and dimensions of biblical literature. It will first cover so-called “traditional” concerns within biblical studies, and then give some sense of the range of approaches available for interpreting the Bible.

Introductory Textbooks

An ever-increasing number of college-level textbooks are available to the general reader. These typically provide book-by-book surveys of the Bible, explicating the critical issues scholars must confront when analyzing the biblical text. The following list has been drawn up with a view of offering a representative sample of the textbooks available. Coogan 2010 and Rendtorff 1986 are the most straightforward or general of these textbooks in terms of approach. Coogan emphasizes North American scholarship, while Rendtorff is more inflected by European scholarship. The others are more specialized in approach. Gottwald 1985 works from a sociological perspective, and Stanley 2010 from the perspective of comparative religion. Marks 2012 is a decidedly literary introduction to the Bible. Finally, Friedman 1987 is devoted entirely to source criticism.

  • Coogan, Michael D. The Old Testament: A Historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures. 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

    Coogan’s introductory textbook is both accessible and informative, being aimed largely at college undergraduates. Readers will learn about the ancient Near Eastern context of the Bible and the history of Israel, as well as the various interpretive issues surrounding contemporary biblical analysis. This textbook offers the most “mainstream” or “standard” approach of the introductions listed here.

  • Friedman, Richard Elliott. Who Wrote the Bible? Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1987.

    While not an introductory textbook per se, Friedman’s concise and highly readable book effectively introduces the general reader to modern biblical criticism, traces the broad outline of ancient Israel’s history, and of course offers possible answers to the question of who wrote the different literary works now contained within the Bible.

  • Gottwald, Norman K. The Hebrew Bible: A Socio-Literary Introduction. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985.

    Gottwald is perhaps best known for his novel thesis regarding the origin of ancient Israel, namely, as a type of peasant revolt. More broadly, he is known for approaching the Bible through the lens of social science, which is reflected in the overall framing of this textbook.

  • Marks, Herbert. The English Bible: King James Version. Vol. 1, The Old Testament. Norton Critical Edition. New York: W. W. Norton, 2012.

    Published on the 400th anniversary of the original publication of the Authorized Version, Marks’s annotated edition of the King James Version not only makes this landmark English translation available to 21st-century readers through its annotations of the translation itself, it also offers introductions to each book of the Bible as well as running commentary.

  • Rendtorff, Rolf. The Old Testament: An Introduction. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986.

    Rendtorff has been a highly influential scholar in continental, especially German-language, scholarship. His introduction is written from the perspective of this school of thought, which can be thought of as adopting Hermann Gunkel’s “tradition criticism” in place of the source-critical approach of the Documentary Hypothesis—see Philology/Criticism.

  • Stanley, Christopher. The Hebrew Bible: A Comparative Approach. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2010.

    Stanley’s textbook is noteworthy for placing the study of the Hebrew Bible within the context of comparative religion, as opposed to the more usual procedure of isolating biblical studies as an autonomous field. That is, rather than allowing the biblical corpus to shape the discussion, or the history of Israel and so forth, Stanley has shaped his presentation around the comparative study of religion itself.

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