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Book Recommendations?

March 6, 2019

I’m sometimes asked by “lay” readers for recommendations of books to introduce them reliably to this or that question or topic in the study of Christian Origins.  As I no longer teach undergrads, and have enough trouble trying to keep up with the specialist publications in the field, I often am at a loss as to what to recommend.  But one thing I can say:  The place to start on most questions/topics is a good reference work.

Reference works such as dictionaries, handbooks, encyclopedias (the label varies) are typically the place where recognized experts in the various topics addressed are commissioned to write entries that survey a given topic.  These entries typically require the contributor to include major issues, points of view, key evidence, and other matters.  Having contributed to a number of these projects of the decades myself, I can attest that they are not taken lightly and can be distinctively demanding.  You’re typically given a word-limit, which, for one thing, forces you to prioritize what is most important, especially for those whose first acquaintance with the topic will be the entry that you write.  Of course, reference works are larger than monographs and cost more.  But a good reference work is worth shelves of monographs for introductory purposes.  If you’re building a collection in a subject, the first principle of purchase should be:  Go for reputable reference works first.

So, here are a few recommendations of reference works relating specifically to the NT and Christian Origins.

  • Dictionary of Jesus and the GospelsSecond Edition. ed., Joel B. Green, et alia.  Downers Grove, IL:  InterVarsity Press, 2013.
  • Dictionary of Paul and His Letters..  ed. G. F. Hawthorne, et alia.  Downers Grove, IL:  InterVarsity Press, 1993.
  • Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Developments. ed. R. P. Martin & P. H. Davids.  Downers Grove, IL;  InterVarsity Press, 1997.
  • Eerdmans Dictionary of Early Judaism. ed. John J. Collins & Daniel C. Harlow.  Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 2010.
  • The Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Studies. ed. Susan Ashbrook Harvey & David G. Hunter.  Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2008.
  • Ancient Texts for New Testament Studies:  A Guide to the Background Literature. ed. C. A. Evans.  Peabody, MA:  Hendrickson Publishers, 2005.
  • Early Christianity in Contexts:  An Exploration across Cultures and Continents. ed. William Tabbernee.  Grand Rapids:  Baker Academic, 2014.
  • Early Christian Greek and Latin Literature:  A Literary History. ed. Claudio Moreschini & Enrico Norelli.  2 vols. Peabody, MA:  Hendrickson Publishers, 2005.  Vol. 1:  From Paul to the Age of Constantine, is especially relevant.  Introductions to the many texts produced in early Christian circles.

There are now, of course, a growing number of online reference projects.  Here are a few that I know of:

  • Oxford Online Bibliographies. here.   These are annotated bibliographies (with strict limits on the number of items to be included) on various subjects.  Click on “Biblical Studies” and follow your interests.  You have to subscribe.  It’s not free.
  • Brill Encyclopedia of Early Christianity Online.  here.  This too requires a payment to read the full articles.

For those who can handle some Koine Greek, the following are highly recommended:

  • Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament. ed. Horst Balz & Gerhard Schneider. 3 vols.  Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 1990-1993.  Modest-length entries on the Greek words used in the NT, with select bibliographies.
  • A Manual Greek Lexicon of the New Testament. 3rd edition. G. Abbott-Smith.  Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1937.  Numerous reprints of the 3rd edition.  An amazing multi-purpose tool, giving word definitions, the Hebrew of words used in the LXX, and the many references to texts make it a complete concordance of NT uses of 95% of the NT vocabulary.  The second edition is available free as a PDF here.

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  1. I’m interested in a hard-to-find anthology that I believe you and Richard Bauckham, among others, may have appeared in three or four years ago: “Why I am (Still) a Christian.”

    Do you have a link or bibliographical note for it?

  2. There’s also The Dictionary of the Bible and Ancient Media, ed. Tom Thatcher et al. (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2017), which is pricey but helpful.

  3. Matthew G Zatkalik permalink

    Which calls to my mind your diligence and generosity in providing your scholarship to the readers of this blog. Thank you for those ‘free’ but valuable resources.

  4. Does this mean that I shouldn’t ask questions about Harris’ _Ancient Literacy_ &c.? 😉

    • How did you get this from my posting? Harris’ book has been subject to quite serious critique. E.g., Mary Beard, et al., , Literacy in the Roman World, Journal of Roman Archaeology Supplement Series, no. 3 (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan, 1991)

      • BTW, I found your “Oral Fixation” article _via_ your review of Gamble’s _Books and Readers_ [], and it is SO GOOD. I wish I’d read it before I delivered a talk at a local conference here, because my paper would have been greatly tempered by it. I didn’t even know about the whole pocket of literature you were interacting with _as a school_ of sorts (though I knew a couple authors and bits — like Kelber), though I had largely adopted a lighter form of it in the paper. So many questions, and blog isn’t really the place for them. –but thank you for citing that article! It’s been hugely helpful, and I’ve already started chasing down the references you cite in the footnotes of your article.

  5. Much appreciated.

  6. Walter Cooke permalink


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