The Most Important Primary Sources for Biblical Studies – Meme Response

A new meme challenge has been started by Kevin asking about the five most important primary sources for biblical studies NOT including the biblical text itself.  I’ve been pegged to respond, and when the number one bibloblogger for four months running tags you, you can’t help but respond with a sense of duty and great responsibility! 

Here are the rules as Kevin has laid them out:

1.) List the 5 primary sources that have most affected your scholarship, thoughts about antiquity, and/or understanding of the NT/OT. 
2.) Books from the Bible are off limits unless you really want to list one, I certainly will not chastise you for it.
3.) Finally, choose individual works if you can.  This will be more interesting than listing the entire corpus of Cicero as one of your choices.

Since my area is Hebrew Bible, this list will be focused very much in that direction.  And because this area is not my primary MO, this list may be a bit different and less specific than if I were, say, an ancient Near Eastern guy.  Here’s the list . . . .

1) The Dead Sea Scrolls: Pesharim
So, so, so hard to narrow this down to just one text.  And I don’t want the DSS to occupy all five slots, which it easily could given the rules above.  I have learned an invaluable wealth of information from the DSS.  The Community Rule (1QS), War Scroll (1QM), Hodayot (1QH), etc. have variously affected my views of Judaism during the Second Temple period, eschatology/apocalyptic, worship texts and practice, etc.  But if I had to narrow it down to one corpus of texts, I would say the pesharim.  Some of my work in the past has focused on the pesharim, namely the Habakkuk (1QpHab) and Nahum (4QNah) pesharim.  They provide valuable insight into a particular method of reading and interpreting Scripture for a specific strand of Judaism, highlight a unique perspective on how ‘Scripture’ –inasmuch as such a concept can even be spoken of here–is viewed (there are instances where the pesherist has very clearly altered the biblical text to suit his own interpretive needs), and corroborate largely the Masoretic text, evincing the great fidelity of the Masoretes in preserving the textual tradition.

2) Merneptah Stele
The earliest extra-biblical attestation of Israel, dated to approximately 1207 BCE, reveals a tremendous amount of information on Israelite origins.  Some scholars argue vociferously that Merneptah’s Israel cannot and should not be equated with biblical Israel; this is a silly notion to me, not least because there are not multiple Israel’s running around the aNE and being attested elsewhere.  At the very least, the Merneptah Stele reveals there was a religious entity (evidenced by the El theophoric name element) considered to be a distinctive people (evidenced by the determinative for ‘people’ rather than ‘land’ on the relevant line of the stele) in the central hills that was considered a worthy enough opponent to warrant Egyptian attack.

3) A variety of ancient Near Eastern texts: Gilgamesh, Adapa, Sumerian Paradise myth, etc.
This complex of texts, among others, are unique for my work in that they reveal that the phenomenon of the divine  trickster was indeed a quite prevalent motif elsewhere in the ancient Near Easter.  Such a recognition buttresses my reading of YHWH as a deceptive, trickster deity in Genesis.

4) KTU 1.15 III, 5-21 (Kirta Epic) – Ugaritic
This particular section of text narrates the deity El’s preference for reversed-birth-order in what appears to be a parallel to the biblical depiction of Jacob and Esau.  Line 16 is the relevant line, which I translate [yes, I do know Ugaritic!!]: “their  youngest, I will give her the right of the firstborn” (my vocalization: șaģirtahinna ‘abakkirannā).  It is striking that the final word, a D-stem imperfect 1cs from b-k-r “to grant primogeniture” occurs no where else in Ugaritic literature in this form.  This text bears striking affinities to the biblical account (Gen 25:22-26): 1) both present a reversed birth-order preference of the deity, and that preference is worked out in the ensuing narrative; 2) both texts employ a similar wordplay between “firstborn” (bkr) and “blessing” (brk).  There are affinities within the wider Kirta epic, as Simon Parker and Ron Hendel have pointed out.  And while I think something a bit different is going on in Gen 25:23–the divine oracle to Rebekah–that sets the stage for the rest of the Jacob cycle, the import and obvious common themes (of reversal) between the two texts cannot be undermined.

5) Josephus’ Jewish War and Antiquities
On the NT side of things, I don’t think Josephus can be undervalued.  To be sure, he is not always a trustworthy reporter of actual events, but the shear volume and quality of material he has left us presents an invaluable glance into first century, Roman-occupied Palestine.  I have especially found his mentions of Jesus . . . . albeit brief . . . . . to be quite interesting for the task of historical Jesus scholarship.

Well, there you have it.  That was quite the hard list to construct!  Honorable mention goes to the Septuagint for its role in textual criticism of the Hebrew Bible and its status as an earlier (though not ultimately authoritative?) rendering of the Hebrew Bible in comparison with MT, other Ugaritic texts that may inform the Hebrew Bible (of which there are many, but one should not take this too far as has, for example, Mitchell Dahood on the Psalms . . . . Ugaritic is hardly the key to all the textual difficulties of the Psalter, let alone the Hebrew Bible, especially given how little we actually know about Ugaritic and how to vocalize and translate the language), and the Elephantine Aramaic texts, which provide tremendous insight into a diaspora Jewish community.  Plus, Aramaic is just awesome!

So, what do you think?  I look forward to your responses . . . . .

I tag: Michael Whitenton, Brandon Wason, Daniel and Tonya, Calvin and Mandy, and Rob Kashow.


13 thoughts on “The Most Important Primary Sources for Biblical Studies – Meme Response

  1. Michael says:


    I’m happy to see the DSS well represented here, Josephus too. Greg Sterling has argued that Philo, though largely ignored, is indispensable for understanding the NT as a whole.

    Regarding #3 brings up an interesting question in my mind. I’ve long recently with the thoroughgoing presentation of YHWH has patient, showing steadfast love, relenting from anger, etc. Yet, there are several episodes in the Hebrew Bible that, when judging by normal standards of decency, present YHWH has anything but good. I’m thinking here of the orders of wholesale slaughter of women and children among the Canaanites. Here’s what I’m wondering (hoping?): Could it be that these episodes are owing more to a portrayal of YHWH in a manner consistent with the warlike ANE deities than to the ontology of the god of Israel? I know there’s a lot more at play here, but it’s just something that I’ve been wondering. Since I’m not Hebrew Bible scholar, I’d thought I’d run in by you.

    Does that make sense?

  2. Michael says:

    BTW – Thanks for tagging me. I most confess that when I saw Jim’s post, I thought, “Oh, oh, oh! Tag me! Tag me! Tag meeeeeeeeeee!”

    So thanks.

  3. John Anderson says:


    You’re welcome for tagging you. I look forward to your list.

    I have a deep love and appreciation for the Scrolls. Having taken a class with Lidija Novakovic (a Charlesworth student and ‘colleague’) a few years ago really opened them up to me. They are unique for a variety of reasons to be sure, but I find them fascinating because they reveal so much about both the OT and the NT. An amazing resource–probably the biggest in scholarship in a long, long time.

    As to your question about YHWH’s characterization, from an historical-critical perspective you could perhaps make that case (I haven’t looked at the issue from this direction; I’m a synchronic reader of texts, and I am much more fascinated by the ‘warty’ parts of Scripture and the fact they were canonized. The canonization of these tensions I believe is quite intentional and reveals much more than a concern for preservation of traditions. This point is all the more patent with the character Jacob, for whom Israel ends up being named.

    I also wonder about such an easy equation between problematic portrayals of YHWH and non-Israelite/Canaanite traditions or views about God. Ancient Israel’s history alone testifies to a tumultuous relationship with God. What’s more, I do think there are places where sometimes the Hebrew Bible is ‘riffing’ on these traditions and using them to say something about God’s character. I haven’t thought this out much yet, but in the texts of deception I would argue present YHWH’s complicity in deception in a much different light than other aNE examples.

    At bottom, explaining the text we have and its meaning is far more interesting to me–not to mention valuable for contemporary faith, in a way–than trying to explain HOW the text came to be. Both are interesting, but the former is much more my MO. But either way, I still don’t know that such an “apologetic” for God (and I do think, unfortunately, that is much of what scholarship is on such topics at the synchronic level) accomplishes much. In fact, I think it diminishes the vision and intent of the Hebrew Bible.

    Did you by chance, Michael, have time to read my current article, “Jacob, Laban, and a Divine Trickster: The Covenantal Framework of God’s Deception in the Theology of the Jacob Cycle” when I had it posted on my blog? If you are really interested in it (about 20 pages), let me know and I will email you it. If not, no harm.

    Does that help?

  4. John Anderson says:


    I should also clarity that in my article I do touch, in a way (though not perhaps how you would expect) on these elements of YHWH’s portrait you describe. At bottom, I argue that God’s deception or complicity in deception is connected intimately with YHWH’s covenantal fidelity, insuring the perpetuation of the ancestral promise (Gen 12:1-3), which has implications for both Israel and the entire cosmos.

  5. Michael says:

    John: Good points all around. Sorry I’m just now responding, I’ve been a bit out of touch because of the 4th.

    I am interested in your article, even more so now that you’ve piqued my interest a bit. I did download a copy, so hopefully I’ll get to it soon.

    Thanks again!


  6. Aaron Rathburn says:

    John: “Honorable mention goes to the Septuagint for its role in textual criticism of the Hebrew Bible and its status as an earlier (though not ultimately authoritative?) rendering of the Hebrew Bible in comparison with MT”

    This is obviously an aside, but I’m curious your thoughts.

    The Septuagint is an earlier text, and indeed used (most?) by the NT authors themselves. Furthermore, cases have been made that the MT is even downright “doctored” rabbinically.

    In light of such points, why indeed is the Septuagint “not ultimately authoritative,” as you so aptly put it? Should it be? Should it not be?

    I’m studying canon at the moment, and your aside here made me curious as to your thoughts.

  7. John Anderson says:


    Good questions.

    I remember early on in my religious education asking the very same questions. I remember also being struck at being told, text-critically, that the LXX is not to be preferred simply because of its greater antiquity in comparison with the MT. I now realize there are a variety of reasons for this:

    1) the MT is corroborated by the DSS, and the latter highlight the fidelity of the Masoretes in preserving an ancient textual tradition.

    2) I am not familiar with the arguments of a “doctored” MT as you say, but I would say it is safe to say all texts have their own agendas, idiosyncracies, and biases that slant the text in one way or another. The LXX is likely no different.

    3) With the LXX differing significantly with some texts (Jeremiah, for an obvious example), Tov has argued in his seminal Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible that this represents but one stage in the development of the ‘final form’ of the text. So in a way one may speak of textual development (though I don’t want to propose any type of “evolutionary” view akin to what Wellhausen did with Israelite religion).

    4) The LXX reflects a composite text that was translated over a period of centuries.

    5) Tov is adamant that purported text-critical “rules” (i.e., lectio difficilior, shorter reading, etc. are preferred) are not to be followed slavishly. He argues, correctly I think, that an a priori assumption that the MT is the best witness is problematic. MT is but one among a variety of witnesses. As is the LXX. An assumption that one is or should be primary is problematic and unnecessarily prejudices the text-critical enterprise.

    I hope that is helpful. I must admit a certain level of agnosticism about the text-critical enterprise if one’s goal is to get back, scientificailly, to an Urtext. It seems to me we can indeed make strong cases for which reading is more authoritative or likely by seeking to identify a mechanism that would have led to the alteration, but I don’t think we can get to what would be called THE original text. I must admit also that I do have a certain inclination towards the MT because of the witness of the DSS, but Tov has still highlighted the need to be more cautious in using a preference for the MT as the sole factor in adjudicating text-critical matters.

    Does that help? I would very much recommend reading Tov on this. It’s dense, but probably the best and most recent treatment on the topic by an excellent scholar (despite, still, some of my misgivings about his work).

  8. Aaron Rathburn says:

    Hi John,

    Sorry for the delay in correspondence =). Thanks for the recommendation on Tov, I will have to bear that in mind when I get to dig deeper.

    You wrote: “He argues, correctly I think, that an a priori assumption that the MT is the best witness is problematic. MT is but one among a variety of witnesses. As is the LXX.”

    I think this is exactly right. Re. the “doctored” MT, it’s certainly true that all texts have their own agendas, but I think in this case it’s a bit peculiar an agenda for Christians specifically.

    I think you mentioned Richard’s blog (יהוה מלך) as one that you read in your top Christian blogs. On his blog a couple weeks ago, he had an interesting post pointing to an article on the Orthodox church’s position on the OT Canon and primacy of the Septuagint. (See his post and the link to the article here.)

    In the article, it proposes a couple interesting thoughts:

    “There were seven distinct sects of the Jews in the early first century, according to Eusebius. The different sects accepted the authority of different collections of books (e.g., the Sadducees and Samaritans accepted only the five books of the Prophet Moses, the Torah), and there were often significant differences in the composition of the books they accepted in common. Sometimes the same sect might even make use of multiple text bases, or as scholars call them, text traditions. For example, the Dead Sea scrolls, containing the sacred texts of the Essene sect of Judaism, show evidence of the Masoretic, Samaritan, and LXX text bases.

    However, with the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70, an intense standardization process began. Only the Pharisee and the Samaritan sects of Judaism survived this process. The collection of Old Testament books into what eventually became the Masoretic text was begun by the Pharisees at the Council of Jamnia, somewhere between AD 80 and 100, but was not completed until the sixth century. During this period, The Wisdom of Sirach, which was eventually excluded from the Masoretic text, was sometimes included in the Jewish canon, while Proverbs, Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, and Esther, all of which eventually found a place in that text, were sometimes excluded.

    The Pharisees wanted a standardized Hebrew text of the Old Testament partly because of the large number of Christian Jews. The older LXX version of the Old Testament contained many messianic passages that the Christians could use to convince Jews that Jesus was the Messiah. In fact, the early Christians charged that the Pharisees had deliberately truncated the canon to avoid messianic prophecy pointing toward Jesus Christ (see Justin Martyr, Trypho 71–73).

    For instance, Isaiah 7:14 in the LXX says, “A virgin shall conceive and bear a son”—this clearly refers to the Virgin Birth of the Messiah. On the other hand, the Pharisees’ version of Isaiah found in the Masoretic text only mentions a “young woman.” Moreover, many of the wisdom texts from the Deuterocanonical books, particularly Sirach, were commonly used by the Church as catechetical reading for converts. It is not surprising that the Pharisees would want to exclude these “Church texts” from their official Hebrew version of the Old Testament.

    […] with the loss of their center in Jerusalem and of unified temple worship (after AD 70), preserving the Jewish faith required greater standardization. The Jews could no longer afford divisions if they were to survive as a people. Thus, they needed a collection of unproblematic texts to use in their now dispersed population and synagogue-only worship. They needed to eliminate the use within their communities of texts useful to those whom they considered heretics (e.g., Christians, Gnostics, and Hellenizers). Particularly, they did not want to use in their services texts that the Christians could use to demonstrate that Jesus Christ is the Messiah promised by the Prophets of the Old Testament. The canon, or list of accepted texts, that the Jews produced as their standard is significantly shorter than the LXX and came to be known as the Masoretic text.

    Sorry to paste so much, but it’s the abridged version so you don’t have to necessarily hit the whole article. So this is “Part A” of the interesting part. Then, here is an interesting “Part B”:

    ” The Protestant Reformers’ emphasis on original languages (coming out of their Renaissance heritage) led most of the Reformers to insist on using the Old Testament canon available to them in Hebrew, which had become standard among the Jews (the Masoretic text). During the late Middle Ages, the Germans and Englishmen who began to translate the Bible into “the language of the people” were ignorant of the importance of the LXX (or in some cases even completely ignorant of its existence). They assumed that the Hebrew Masoretic text used by the European Jews of their day was more authentic than the Latin Vulgate, which in their mind was tainted by its association with the Latin Church based in Rome.

    Although modern English translations of the Old Testament take into consideration the LXX and other text traditions, they have continued to rely principally on the Masoretic tradition. This has led to the sometimes embarrassing situation of an English Bible in which the New Testament quotations of the Old Testament are very different from the supposed “original” found in the Old Testament translation included in the same Bible. “

    There’s another interesting last 2 paragraphs, but this is so dang long already that I don’t want to paste anymore, lol.

    Any thoughts on this article?

  9. John Anderson says:


    No harm in the delay. Conversation is always good across time.

    If you enjoyed that article then yes, you should read Tov. Here are a few of my thoughts.

    1) I would disagree with the author a bit on the matter of who survived the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 CE. I would add to this list (and maybe remove Samaritans) Christians/Jewish-Christians. Read Boccacini, Segal, or Boyarin on this.

    2) One issue is to what lengths these ancient authors can be trusted. There are already many places for Josephus is deemed unreliable. I am not as up on views on Eusebius or Justin. Either way, one cannot, and should not, simply take their claims as indisputable fact. They are, however, valuable resources.

    3) I also question the easy assumption that post-70 we have Jews scrambling to remove outsiders. There seems to be some truth to this (if you accept the view of the Gospel of John as put forward by Martyn and Brown; I do not) with the Birkat ha-minim, yet I would argue against such a rigid, sharp division between Jew and non-Jew/Christians at this stage. Again, see Boccacini, Segal, and Boyarin.

    4) I remain agnostic about the ability to get to the “original” or Urtext. It seems we can fairly confidently ascertain what text is the more original by supplying a mechanism that resulted in the textual change (graphic confusion of the letters, metathesis, scribal error by haplography, dittography, etc.), but to get to THE original, I don’t think that is a very practical or feasible goal.

  10. Aaron Rathburn says:

    Hi John,

    Yes, any quest for an “Urtext” is certainly an uphill battle. Which is why I am not favourably inclined toward theological appeals to the “autographs,” either.

    And I also certainly agree on point 2, about the validity of ancient claims. It’s a shame that so many people put so much stock into ancient sources and claims of authorship and dates and such. It is pretty downright naivé, I think.

    I’m glad to have your input, because I am exploring this issue on the side right now. I’m actually a philosophy/theology student, so this is my first true foray into biblical studies to any depth. After doing some study on the subject (broadly speaking), I am drifting more toward Pete Enns’s position (et al.), and similar strains of thought on the nature of scripture.

    I’ll have to dig and do some research on your point #3. I’m sure the author of the article would agree with your assessment on point #1, surely just an omission. But I appreciate the thoughts! =)

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