I have compiled this top ten list of important books for all serious students of Christian Origins, with a distinct emphasis on the religious, philosophical, and political world out of which Christianity emerged. Though this list include some of the best books in each possible sub-discipline of NT studies, what I have included here are some of the most monumental books of recent memory that also serve as robust gateways into the contemporary conversations held by scholars of the beginnings of Christianity.
- The Greek New Testament.
It may take a lifetime, but the goal is to read, memorize, and digest the New Testament in Greek. Start by reading a few verses a day, then a chapter, and make your way from Matthew to Revelation before you finish your PhD, and come to know how different authors feel in Greek. Read Luke 1.1-12 as your first goal:
Luke 1:1–12 (NA28)
1 Ἐπειδήπερ πολλοὶ ἐπεχείρησαν ἀνατάξασθαι διήγησιν περὶ τῶν πεπληροφορημένων ἐν ἡμῖν πραγμάτων, 2 καθὼς παρέδοσαν ἡμῖν οἱ ἀπʼ ἀρχῆς αὐτόπται καὶ ὑπηρέται γενόμενοι τοῦ λόγου, 3 ἔδοξεν κἀμοὶ παρηκολουθηκότι ἄνωθεν πᾶσιν ἀκριβῶς καθεξῆς σοι γράψαι, κράτιστε Θεόφιλε, 4 ἵνα ἐπιγνῷς περὶ ὧν κατηχήθης λόγων τὴν ἀσφάλειαν. 5 Ἐγένετο ἐν ταῖς ἡμέραις Ἡρῴδου βασιλέως τῆς Ἰουδαίας ἱερεύς τις ὀνόματι Ζαχαρίας ἐξ ἐφημερίας Ἀβιά, καὶ γυνὴ αὐτῷ ἐκ τῶν θυγατέρων Ἀαρὼν καὶ τὸ ὄνομα αὐτῆς Ἐλισάβετ. 6 ἦσαν δὲ δίκαιοι ἀμφότεροι ἐναντίον τοῦ θεοῦ, πορευόμενοι ἐν πάσαις ταῖς ἐντολαῖς καὶ δικαιώμασιν τοῦ κυρίου ἄμεμπτοι. 7 καὶ οὐκ ἦν αὐτοῖς τέκνον, καθότι ἦν ἡ Ἐλισάβετ στεῖρα, καὶ ἀμφότεροι προβεβηκότες ἐν ταῖς ἡμέραις αὐτῶν ἦσαν. 8 Ἐγένετο δὲ ἐν τῷ ἱερατεύειν αὐτὸν ἐν τῇ τάξει τῆς ἐφημερίας αὐτοῦ ἔναντι τοῦ θεοῦ, 9 κατὰ τὸ ἔθος τῆς ἱερατείας ἔλαχεν τοῦ θυμιᾶσαι εἰσελθὼν εἰς τὸν ναὸν τοῦ κυρίου, 10 καὶ πᾶν τὸ πλῆθος ἦν τοῦ λαοῦ προσευχόμενον ἔξω τῇ ὥρᾳ τοῦ θυμιάματος. 11 ὤφθη δὲ αὐτῷ ἄγγελος κυρίου ἑστὼς ἐκ δεξιῶν τοῦ θυσιαστηρίου τοῦ θυμιάματος. 12 καὶ ἐταράχθη Ζαχαρίας ἰδὼν καὶ φόβος ἐπέπεσεν ἐπʼ αὐτόν.
- NT Wright, The New Testament and the People of God
In this first instalment of Wright’s six-volume great work on early Christian history, theology, and worldviews, we get a back-stage pass to the presuppositions and major hypotheses that underpin Wright’s perspective, and reading this book has become a rite-of passage into New Testament scholarship. Part One presents his guiding principles including his adherence to Critical Realism, his worldview model, his understanding of story and literature, his views on history as a discipline, and his understanding of the ways in which worldviews and their stories give rise to theology. The second half of the book presents his major hypothesis about the success and hardships experienced by the early Christian movement in its wider cultural context: the early Christians believed that the very ancient riches of the Jewish tradition were gathered up and perfected in Jesus; God had brought about the fulfilment of his Abrahamic project––for Israel to be a blessing to the nations––and was now gathering the people of the world to Himself through his King Jesus and through the King’s community, contested on every side as they would come to be. Here is one of my favorite paragraphs:
The New Testament offers itself, both explicitly and implicitly, as a set of stories, and a single Story, which, like all stories, lays claim to attention. It does this even when treated simply as myth: someone innocent of history, but at home in the world of fairy stories, or indeed of Tolkien’s Middle Earth, could well find the New Testament powerful and evocative. This mythological power is in no way lost, but in fact enhanced, when historical study suggests that something very like this story actually happened. That, of course, is the point at which the relativist’s account of the while process is called into question, which is precisely why, in a relativistic age, the move from ‘simply myth’ to history-as-myth, or myth-as-history is so often attacked. But that is the move that our whole study suggests and commends. If we read the New Testament as it stands, it claims on every page to be speaking of things which are true in the public domain. It is not simply, like so many books, a guide for private spiritual advancement. To read it like that is like reading Shakespeare simply to pass an examination. The New Testament claims to be the subversive story of the creator and the world, and demands to be read as such. Any authority it exercises in the process will be a dynamic, not a static, authority; the New Testament will not impose itself from a great height, and to attempt to use it in that fashion is at once to falsify it. Its claim is less brittle, and, if true, more powerful. It offers itself as the true story, the true myth, the true history of the whole world. 1992. NTPG, 471.
- Rudolph Bultmann, The History of the Synoptic Tradition
Bultmann’s impact on biblical studies has been solar. Many still find their light in his paradigms. Most scholars still orbit around him if only to reject his frameworks. His classic book “The History of the Synoptic Tradition” attempts to get underneath the gospel texts as we now have it to the individual units or stories behind what became Matthew, Mark, and Luke. His central claim is that gentile Christians reworked the gospels so thoroughly that we must pull of a layer of excess skin off of the gospels to discover the historical Jesus and the events which undergird the gospels as we have them. Take what he says about the baptism of Jesus, for example:
Without disputing the historicity of Jesus’ baptism by John, the story as we have it must be classified as a legend. The miraculous moment is essential to it and its edifying purpose is clear. And indeed one may be at first inclined to regard it as a biographical legend; it tells a story of Jesus. Admittedly it would not do to psychologize and talk of ‘call’ story and reckon its content as a calling vision. It is characteristically different from calling stories like Isa. 6.1-13; Jer. 1.5-19; Ez.1 and 2; Acts 9.1-9; Rev. 1.9-20; Jn. 21.15-17: not only is there not so much as a word about the inner experience of Jesus, but there is also no word of commission to the person called, and no answer from him, things which we normally find in proper accounts of a call. Nor is the passage concerned with Jesus’ special calling to preach repentance and salvation, but the real subject is his being the messiah, or the Son of God, and that cannot be described as a ‘call’…The legend tells of Jesus’ consecration as messiah, and so is basically not a biographical, but a faith legend…
If then the Church felt the understandable need to antedate the messiahship of Jesus to the days of his ministry—how could his Baptism be hit upon? For the tradition as it stood, of Jesus being baptized by John, was naturally an inadequate basis. It seems to me that the reason is to be found on the one hand in the consecration o the Messiah being thought of as the work of the Spirit (c.f. Acts 4.27, 10.38), and on the other hand in the conviction that Baptism bestows the Spirit (c.f. 1 Cor. 6.11, 12.13; 2 Cor. 1.22; Acts 2.38, etc.). But since this conviction could naturally not be derived from John’s baptism, but could only, in my view, grow up in a Christian, though first in an Hellenistic environment, it follows that the Baptismal legend is firstly Hellenistic in origin. 1968. HST, 248-50.
- Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus
After a tidal wave of of books was published on the life of Jesus in the 18th and 19th centuries, Albert Schweitzer built a dam at the turn of the 20th. He put a perceived end to the popular mistake of making Jesus into our own image. More so he recovered what was already made clear a century before but had been forgotten: Jesus can only be understood in his Jewish context. After completing this sweeping critique, Schweitzer then portrays Jesus in the framework of thoroughgoing eschatology, in which Jesus appears to us as an introverted man who came to believe that he was the Messiah and needed to suffer and die to bring about God’s new age. And suffer and die he did. Jesus’s sprit lives on in the world as the central example of urgent eschatological living and suffering. Schweitzer has provided us, even a century later, with a solid foundation for studying Jesus historically, even if his own portrait of Jesus has been significantly undercut. Here are some of his famous conclusions:
The betrayal and the trial can be rightly understood only when it is realized that the public suspected nothing whatever of the messianic secret.
The same is true of the scene in the presence of Pilate. The people on that morning knew nothing of the trial of Jesus, but came to Pilate with the sole object of asking the release of a prisoner, as was the custom at the feast (Mark 15.6-8). The idea then occurred to Pilate, who was just about to hand over, willingly enough, this troublesome fellow and prophet to the priestly faction, to play off the people against the priests and work on the multitude to petition for the release of Jesus.
In this way he would have safeguarded himself on both sides. He would have condemned Jesus to please the priests, and after condemning him would have released him to please the people. The priests were greatly embarrassed by the presence of the multitude. They had done everything so quickly and quietly that they might well have hoped to get Jesus crucified before anyone knew what was happening or had had time to wonder at his non-appearance in the temple.
The priests therefore go among the people and induce them not to agree to the procurator’s proposal.
How? By telling them why he was condemned, by revealing to them the messianic secret. That changes him at once from a prophet worthy of honour into a deluded enthusiast and blasphemer. But it could also be that the ‘people’ before Pilate’s house were the mob of which the priests were certain, and whom they directed there early in the morning in order to put pressure on the governor and secure confirmation of the verdict as soon as possible.
At midday of the same day – it was 14 Nisan, and in the evening the Passover lamb would be eaten – Jesus cried aloud and expired. He had refused the sedative drink (Mark 15.23) in order to remain fully conscious to the last.” 1906 (2001). QHJ 353-54.
- Martin Hengel, Judaism and Hellenism*
- EP Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism
Sanders’s impact on Pauline studies has been nothing short of revolutionary. He firmly rejected a widespread misunderstanding of Rabbinic and Palestinian Judaism, which claimed that the Judaism of Jesus’s and Paul’s day had ossified from a religion marked by election and grace into legalism ( the attempt to perform minute additions to the Mosaic law in order to earn God’s grace.) This is not at all what we find in the Rabbis, Dead Sea Scrolls, and Pseudepigrapha, claims Sanders; rather, we find covenantal obedience to God’s law; God chose Israel and required obedience and atonement for disobedience, a sacrificial way for loyal Jews to gesture their faithfulness to God. Wanting to study Palestinian Judaism and Paul on their own terms, he offers separate studies of both (although one wishes he wrote more on Paul here). His ultimate conclusion, then, was that rather than understanding Paul as an anti-legalist or someone who misunderstood Palestinian Judaism, we should see him as shifting language and theology to a new sphere. Paul wasn’t anti-law; but whatever didn’t lead to Christ was sadly missing the point of God’s newly revealed trajectory. Here’s a classic bit of his conclusion:
Our analysis of Rabbinic and other Palestinian Jewish literature did not reveal the kind of religion best characterized as legalistic works-righteousness. But more important for the present point is the observation that in any case that charge is not the heart of Paul’s critique. As we argued in the discussion of Paul’s attitude toward the law (Chapter V, section 4), the basis for Paul’s polemic against the law, and consequently against doing the law, was his exclusivist soteriology. Since salvation is only by Christ, the following of any other path is wrong. Paul does say that faith excludes boasting, and he does warn the Jews against boasting (Romans 2.17), but the warning is not against a self-righteousness which is based on the view that works earn merit before God. The warning is against boasting of the relationship to God which is evidenced by possession of the law and against being smug about the knowledge of God’s will while in fact transgressing. Paul regarded zeal for the law itself as a good thing (Rom. 10.2; Phil. 3.6). What is wrong with it is not that it implies petty obedience and minimization of important matters, nor that it results in the tabulation of merit points before God, but that it is not worth anything in comparison with being in Christ (Phil. 3.4-11)…The law is good, even doing the law is good, but salvation is only by Christ; therefore the entire system represented by the law is worthless for salvation. It is the change of ‘entire systems’ which makes it unnecessary for him to speak about repentance or the grace of God shown in the giving of the covenant. These fade into the background because of the surpassing glory of the new dispensation (II Cor. 3.9f.). Paul was not trying accurately to represent Judaism on its own terms, nor need we suppose that he was ignorant on essential points. He simply saw the old dispensation as worthless in comparison with the new. 1977. Paul and Palestinian Judaism, 550-551.
- John Barclay, Jews in the Mediterranean Diaspora
Barclay’s “Jews in the Mediterranean Diaspora” offers a ‘comprehensive survey’ of the Judaism out of which Early Christianity emerged. Recognizing this important seedbed for Early Christianity (but also the haunting similarities between Jewish minority experience in the ancient world and modern), Barclay carefully combines history and literary analysis of diaspora Jews in the Second Temple period. Throughout he shows us that we must think of Judaism in the era as Judaisms expressing itself variously in in particular times and places. He surveys the material we have on Egypt first (since we have the most evidence from Mitzsrayim), and then he surveys Cyrenia, Syria, Asia, and final Rome. Barclay concludes with a nuanced portrait of what drew these Judaism together, mainly their ethnic bond (ancestry and customs) and secondarily social, symbolic, and practical distinctions from their surrounding environment. This book remains a must-read for anyone interested in the Judaism out of which Jesus and the early church emerged. Here is a particularly fine example of his final synthesis:
Philo occasionally acknowledges that others have a correct conception of God (Virt 65; Spec Leg 2.165), yet he refuses to accept the validity of their cult. In the later passage he credits to all, Greek and barbarian, recognition of the supreme, invisible ‘father of Gods and men’, yet he immediately convicts all non-Jews of honouring ‘created Gods’ (Spec Leg 2.165-166). If only Jews can correct this error, only the Jewish temple can be regarded as sacred to the One God. Both Philo (Spec Leg 1.67) and Josephus (C Ap 2.193) affirm that there is only ‘one temple for the One God’; were that defiled, Philo argues, there would be left no trace of the reverence paid to the one true God (Legatio 347). For all his capacity for abstraction, Philo cannot regard what goes on elsewhere as proper worship.
Such rejection of ‘alien cult’ did not have to be voiced in aggressive terms to be perceived by non-Jews as intolerance. Egyptian resentment of the fact that Jews disdained their cult is reflected in legends of Moses’ iconoclasm (e.g. Lysimachus apud Josephus, C Ap 1.309), and it is clear that the LXX translation of Exod 22.27 (‘you shall not disdain [others’] Gods’) was framed to minimize conflict on this score. Josephus admits that Jews have a reputation for ‘slighting the Divinity which others claim to honour’ (Ant 3.179), and that may be confirmed by the critical comments of Claudius (Ant 19.290) and Pliny (13.46, contumelia numinum insignis). Charges of religious exclusivity thus arise quite naturally: Josephus imagines the complaints of the Midianites, and reports those of Apion and the Ionians, that the Jews refuse to worship the same Gods as the rest of humanity (Ant 4.137-38; 12.126; C Ap 2.65-67; cf. 2.79, 117). It was a charge that Jews could not deny and struggled to empty of its ‘anti-social’ implications. 1996. Jews in the Mediterranean Diaspora, 430-31.
- Robert Grant, From Augustus to Constantine
Every student of Christian origins needs to read one book, which situates the emergence of Christianity in the totality of its religious and political environment. Grant’s sweeping book takes the reader from the beginning of August’s reign through to the Fourth Century and Constantine. Every step of the way, Grant masterfully narrates the emergence of Christianity onto the radar screen of the Roman Empire and in great detail weaves a picture of a Jewish-offshoot sect that struggles through and then pervades the lives of the Caesars. If no one has yet defined the chronological dividing line between the earliest church and the fathers, Grant shows that perhaps no line exists and that for us to understand both the founding and survival of the earliest forms of Christianity one needs to come ever closer to a mastery of over four hundred years of Mediterranean history. He finishes the text with some insightful scholarship on the internal continuities of Christianity over the course of its first four hundred years (n.b: buy the 2004 edition with eminent New Testament scholar, Margaret Mitchell’s orienting foreword on the shape and state of New Testament Studies today). Here is one of the great paragraphs:
The Christian movement came into existence soon after the fifteenth year of the Roman emperor Tiberius Caesar, who, according to the evangelist Luke (3:1-2) “the word of God came upon John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness.” In Luke’s view the date was so significant that he also mentioned the rulers of the various parts of Palestine. Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea; Herod (Antipas) tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene. The high priests were Annas (Ananos) and Caiaphas. Luke thus set the Christian movement, which he intended to describe not only in his gospel but also in the Acts of the Apostles, in a context provided by Roman administrators, client princes, and Jewish temple authorities. The fifteenth year of the Tiberius lasted form August 19 in the year 28 to August 18 in 29. It was at this point that John, whose father was a priest at Jerusalem, began to announce the necessity of baptism in view of the impending judgment of God. His baptism was not unlike that already practiced by the Qumran sectarians, except that it apparently took place only once. It also resembled the later baptism of proselytes to Judaism; perhaps he was claiming that Israel needed repentance and cleansing as much as the gentiles did. According to Luke, he also gave explicit directions for the behaviour of those who came to him. He told the “crowds” to give what they did not need to those who needed it; he told collectors of poll taxes to exact no more than their instructions required; he told soldiers not to practice looting or extortion but to be content with their wages (3.10-14). Since he also criticised the marital mixup of Herod Antipas of Galilee, he was imprisoned and later beheaded. 2004 (1970). Augustus to Constantine, 40-41.
- Hans Joseph Klauk, The Relgious Context of Early Christianity*
- Bruce Metzger, Canon of the NT: Its Origin, Deveopment and Significance*
- Raymond Brown, Introduction to the New Testament*
* Annotations Underway