Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Old Testament: A Very Short Introduction

I had a fine time in Connecticut; made it back to Texas last night. This time around, instead of reading a little bit of this and that during my travel day, I decided to read a book from beginning to end. I picked something that I'd be sure to get through by the time I touched down in Amarillo. Here's a quick review. . . .

In 1995, Oxford University Press launched a new series called Very Short Introductions. About 200 of these little books have come out since then, everything from Ancient Warfare to Hinduism to Wittgenstein. Written by a recognized expert, each one is designed to provide "a stimulating and accessible way in to a new subject." Among the latest is The Old Testament, by Michael Coogan, Professor of Religious Studies at Stonehill College and Director of Publications for the Harvard Semitic Museum.

I teach a first-year college course on the Old Testament almost every semester. So I decided to read this book mainly because I wanted to pick up some ideas and strategies for taking on this task. I found a good bit of what I was looking for.

A fine teacher, Coogan is at his best when explaining, for example, the development and canonization of Tanak(h), sometimes called the Hebrew Bible (pp. 1-11); or how source analysis, form criticism, feminist readings, and the canonical approach might be applied to the first fifteen chapters of Exodus (43-47); or the contents of the book of Job and how that book represents a strong, dissenting voice among the many voices that can be heard in the Jewish Scriptures (106-110).

Conservative readers might be put off by any number of things in this book, like Coogan's assertion that the chronology of the Bible is often unreliable and sometimes just wrong (23), or his questioning of the existence of Abraham and the historicity of the Exodus (32). At times, I found his endorsement of Enlightenment culture a little over-the-top, like when he speaks of modern philosophy as critical thinking without presuppositions (21).

In spite of these and other possible sticking points, some of Coogan's simple categories and explanations are just so good, I plan to use them in my own teaching. Everyday Bible students might read this book to get a feel for how the Old Testament is usually studied in an academic setting. Preachers and teaching pastors can use it as a quick refresher, or to get a few tips on how to make the Old Testament not so intimidating to people in the pew.


Jim Martin said...

I appreciate this post and others like this. You help me by giving me a brief look at some book related to textual studies (or some other area).

I find it very difficult to stay as current in some of the areas in which you teach. Again--I appreciate this.

Frank Bellizzi said...

Thanks, Jim.