As mentioned in my last post, I recently finished two books about the Bible. Karen Armstrong's The Bible: A Biography and Stephen L. Harris's Understanding The Bible. In this entry I am going to actually review the books.
Armstrong is quickly becoming one of my favorite non-fiction authors. This is because, in addition to writing about interesting topics, she is a truly superb story teller. In this book, Armstrong weaves together history, the revelations of Biblical scholarship, and the Bible itself to form the story of the Bible's writing and canonization and the different ways it has been perceived throughout history.
At a high level, all of the content in this book is in the Harris textbook, but this book is a much more interesting read. It also has a different balance. Where Harris mostly focuses on the origins and content of the Biblical texts and spends very little time on the process of canonization and the subsequent history of the Bible, Armstrong spends time on all of those things. Overall, Armstrong's book was a quick, entertaining, and educational read. If you read only one book about the Bible, I recommend this one.
The limitation of Armstrong's style is that it does not allow for much detail. She limits herself to the most generally agreed on claims of Biblical scholarship and does not spend time discussing different theories or their merits. When there are legitimate differences of opinion within the scholarly community, she limits herself to the common kernel (e.g., when discussing books with a disputed date of composition, she limits her claims of composition date to a general period).
To get those sorts of details, you are going to need a textbook. The textbook I have read and am recommending is Harris's Understanding the Bible. However, I do not think that it is particularly special. I chose it because it covers both testaments in one volume, was well rated on Amazon, and was available at my local library. Any textbook that meets those criteria will probably meet your needs.
The text includes some chapters of overview and some chapters providing historical background. However, the bulk of the text is devoted to a discussion of each book of the Bible plus the Old Testament apocrypha. Although you will certainly get more out of this book by reading the whole thing, these core chapters are structured so that each can be read on its own. For each book, there is a discussion of the historical circumstances surrounding the composition, the date (or possible dates) of composition, a discussion of authorship, a discussion of literary genre (where appropriate), and a discussion of the content of the book. Harris provides some justification for why scholarly opinion has settled as it has, and he provides an extensive bibliography for each chapter that can be used for those who want to examine the different views in more depth.
One of the most useful things I got out of both of these books was the overview of Jewish thought, especially how it evolved after the Hebrew canon was closed. I think that people who have not been educated otherwise often assume that Jewish thought stopped after what was recorded in the Bible. I know that people who use the New Testament as their main reference on Jewish thought at the time of Jesus have an unfairly negative view of the Jews of the time. Learning a little about the actual history of Jewish thought shows how many of the tenants of Christianity which people now claim were novel innovations actually followed quite directly from the thoughts of the Jewish contemporaries of Jesus and his followers.
Finally, a quick note for those who know me in real life: I own both of these books and would be happy to lend them out (although I am still actively using the Harris book for my project).