As part of my project to blog my way through the Bible, I have been reading books to educate myself about the Bible. At the same time, I have been looking for books that I can recommend to others since I know that not everyone enjoys reading text books (weirdos =P).
I have finally found two books that I can recommend. The short, sweet, easy to read book is Karen Armstrong's The Bible: A Biography. As far as I have found, there is no book that really gets the depth that I want without being a textbook, so I am also recommending a textbook: Stephen L. Harris's Understanding The Bible.
Before I get into the details, I want to explain in a bit more depth why I think every Christian should read these kind of books. (I assume that non-Christians who find the Bible an interesting topic of study do not need this persuasion.)
If you are a Christian, you probably read the Bible in a primarily devotional manner. You see the books as applying to you and your life. You interpret the books of the Bible in light the whole (e.g., seeing the Old Testament as pointing to Jesus). This is all well and good. If the Bible really is the work that you think it is, then these are proper ways of reading it.
However, there is value in understanding the Bible from literary and historical perspectives. The advantages are both of principle and of practicality. The advantages of principle are pretty simple, and you probably either agree with my perspective or not: If you are basing your life on what you read in the Bible, you have a duty to understand when and why it was written. Otherwise, you are basing your beliefs on a weak foundation and quite possibly lying to yourself.
The practical advantages are, I think, less controversial. Understanding the literary and historical origins of the Bible helps readers in a number of ways. Understanding the history behind the Bible and its composition helps it make more sense. For example, Ezra and Nehemiah are clearer when you know about the Bablyonians' exile of the bulk of the people of Judah.
Understanding the literary forms used in the books of the Bible open your eyes to the subleties of those literary forms. The apocalyptic books of Daniel and Revelations are easier to understand if you know about the genre they belong to. The wisdom books make more sense if you understand the larger tradition of wisdom literature (both Jewish and non-Jewish).
Knowing the origins of books of the Bible can clear up confusing or contradictory passages. For example, knowing that the last chapter of Romans is generally considered to be a genuine Pauline fragment from a different letter makes the awkward seam at that point less confusing.
One more thing for the Christians before getting onto the reviews. If you worry that reading these books will threaten your faith, you shouldn't. These are not books written by atheists or skeptics. They are written by authors who respect the Bible. They do not try to push a non-believing agenda. Both, especially the Harris book, often go out of their way to reconcile the best research with belief. That said, these books are based on the best contemporary research. They clearly point out that many traditional beliefs about the Bible and its origins are flat out wrong. If you find books like that, honest, respectful books that may challenge particular beliefs, to be threats to your faith, then I would urge you to consider the possibility that a challenge may do you good.
This is getting rather long. I'll put the reviews themselves in a separate post.
(Note also that I have decided to start linking to books and, since I would always link to Amazon any way, I am using Amazon associate links.)