It's been said that the Bible is the most popular book that no one reads. Most households own a copy—or several—but polls indicate that few people actually read it. When it comes to books about the Bible, though, people are not only buying but also reading and talking about what they've read. In fact, there are so many nonfiction books about or inspired by the Bible that covering them all would require a book of its own.
"There's always been a great interest in the Bible but, ironically, we're living at a time when biblical illiteracy is at an all-time high," said Bruce Nichols, v-p and senior editor of Simon & Schuster's Free Press. "Readers don't know chapter and verse anymore, and yet they're strangely hungry for books that address all aspects of the Bible and theories about its authorship."
That hunger prompted Free Press to release several significant Bible-related titles in 2003, including The God of Old: Inside the Lost World of the Bible by James L. Kugel, with a paperback release scheduled for July, and The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis by Leon R. Kass. Kugel replaces doctrinal definitions of God, imposed by the church and theologians throughout history, with the image of God as the early Israelites apparently conceived him: a visible being who was close at hand and would suddenly appear, unbidden, to the righteous and unrighteous alike.
"Kugel's entire work as a scholar has been in recovering the original meanings and interpretations of the Bible," Nichols said. "The God you get in Sunday school and hear about in the pews and from the pulpit is omniscient and omnipotent, but that's a radically different idea" from the Israelites' view of God. Despite Kugel's academic orientation, The God of Old is designed to appeal to nonacademic readers as well.
That's also the case for The Beginning of Wisdom, which attracts those readers who might pick up Elaine Pagels's Beyond Belief or Harold Bloom's Book of Q—although, as Nichols pointed out, Kass's 700-page volume draws out the "hardier" readers in that audience. That book has been reprinted several times since its May release; Free Press expects it to get a significant boost when it's released in paperback. "This is not a case where everything happened in two weeks. There's been a steady drum roll of sales every few weeks," Nichols said.
The success of books like Bloom's is an indication that nonscholars are becoming increasingly familiar with the source material used by biblical writers. Richard Friedman's The Bible with Sources Revealed (HSF, Dec. 2003) employs different colors, fonts and typefaces to highlight the sources known as J, E, P and D in the text of the Five Books of Moses, the first five books of the Bible. Additional material includes a "collection of evidence" to support the documentary hypothesis, based on the correlation between the text and the source material.
In the spring of 2005, the first two volumes in a joint venture between Morehouse and the Association of Anglican Biblical Scholars are expected to release: Conversations with Scripture: Mark by Marcus Borg and Conversations with Scripture:Revelation by series editor Frederick W. Schmidt. The series is geared toward laypeople and seekers alike. A comprehensive overview of scripture also likely to appeal to seekers—one that is intended to "reclaim the Bible from literalists," according to the publisher—is John A. Buehrens's June release from Beacon Press, Understanding the Bible: An Introduction for Skeptics, Seekers, and Religious Liberals. How people have read the Bible in the 500 years it has been accessible to general readers is the topic taken up in David S. Katz's God's Last Words, a March book from Yale University Press. Katz examines the trend toward textual analysis during the Renaissance; the challenges presented by scientific theories such as those posited by Newton and Darwin; the effects of discoveries in anthropology, archeology and geology; and the impact of the rise of fundamentalism.
An increasingly popular area of inquiry for lay readers is the canon of the Bible—who decided which books would be included, what was left out and why those decisions were made. Concentrating on the Hebrew Bible, Israel Knohl drew on varied elements such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, rabbinic Judaism and messianic research in his November release from the Jewish Publication Society, The Divine Symphony: The Bible's Many Voices. The book counters the currently popular view that later priests inserted text into the Torah to support the notion that a unified nation of Israel existed long before some contemporary scholars believe it did. William M. Schniedewind's How the Bible Became a Book (Cambridge Univ. Press, Apr.) traces the Israelites' transition from an oral culture to one that recognized the value of the written word, paving the way for the literature that became the Bible. Schniedewind also looks at how the Bible came to be considered sacred and at recent archeological findings that have had an impact on the canon of scripture.
Looking ahead to 2005, Harper San Francisco plans to publish a definitive work on the creation of the New Testament, Bart Ehrman's Inventing the New Testament. "It's not this complete text that everyone thinks it is," said HSF editorial director Michael Maudlin. "It's a very human document that has many variations—different versions of the same text, alterations, even some accidents in what was included. A lot of politics went into making the decisions" about which books would be part of the New Testament canon.
And a lot of male imagery and gender-specific language went into the text of the Bible, a situation that Barbara J. Monda determined to change. She took on the task of revising the Psalms from a woman's perspective in Rejoice, Beloved Woman! The Psalms Revised (Ave Maria, fall 2004), reinforcing the female image of God.
Pop Culture and Holy Writ
There's no lack of books designed to appeal to a postmodern, media-saturated society, as the recent crop of biblical pop culture books attests. Some recent titles include Robert Walsh and Richard G. Walsh's Reading the Gospels in the Dark: Portrayals of Jesus in Film (Trinity Press, Oct.), which compares cinematic portrayals with the gospel writers' depictions of Jesus, and Scripture on the Silver Screen (Westminster John Knox, Nov.) by Adele Reinhartz, in which the author discusses the ways in which the Bible is portrayed in a dozen recent movies. And while it's not about movies per se, Robert Farrar Capon's Genesis: The Movie (Eerdmans, Oct. 2003) takes a cinematic approach to reading scripture by guiding readers through the first book of the Bible as if they were watching a movie unfold.
Among upcoming titles is Tangled Up in the Bible: Bob Dylan and Scripture (Continuum, Feb.), Michael J. Gilmour's scripture-saturated look at the myriad ways the musical icon has used the language and imagery of the Bible in his prolific lyrical output.
More About the People
Just as the Bible itself is fascinating to readers, the personalities that populate its pages continue to generate interest, even after 2,000-plus years. Jesus, of course, is a favorite, and authors continue to seek out fresh perspectives on him and his life. But few are likely to equal Ahmed Osman's March release for Inner Traditions for originality. Jesus in the House of the Pharaohs theorizes that Jesus was actually King Tut and lived 1,000 years earlier than he is believed to have lived. Osman cites scripture and historical time lines to make his point and debunks the writings of Josephus, who places Jesus in Palestine during the first century A.D. "Osman shows that there are a number of references of Jesus meeting with Moses, and that later Roman historians always talk about him in the past tense," said acquisitions editor Jon Graham. "Osman has been able to come up with plausible arguments for his theory." Graham believes Osman's ideas don't seem that radical in light of the evidence he presents.
In a more traditional vein, Michael L. White's From Jesus to Christianity: How a Jewish Peasant Became the God of the Roman Empire (HSF, Aug.) looks at the "Jesus movement" within Judaism and traces the way the movement evolved into the Roman Catholic Church; HSF's Maudlin describes White's work as "an intellectual survey accessible to laypeople. Some people have gone to church all their lives and have never been given this kind of information."
Two forthcoming Eerdmans releases also focus on Jesus: Jesus Now and Then (Apr.) by Richard A. Burridge and Graham Gould looks at the way his image has changed throughout history, while a March book, The Familiar Stranger: An Introduction to Jesus by Michael J. McClymond, gives a comprehensive overview of what is actually known about Jesus.
Stephen Prothero's American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon (FSG) stirred critical acclaim when it debuted in December. Along the same lines, HSF's March release by Richard Wightman Fox, titled Jesus in America: From Columbus to Columbine, "argues that by far Jesus is the most important figure in the shaping of American history and its most influential political philosopher. It's one of the genuine distinctives of America," said Maudlin.
An upcoming title from Bruce Chilton presents the Apostle Paul as "one of the most important figures in Western history." Rabbi Paul (Doubleday, Aug.) examines the myriad images of the apostle, his contributions to the fledgling church and the doctrinal issues and problems attributed to him. Mike Evans's God Wrestling (Bethany, Feb.) looks at the biblical accounts of men who wrestled with God—most notably, Jacob and Peter—and intersperses them with anecdotes from the author's own life and from the lives of other contemporary men.
The high priest takes center stage in Helen K. Bond's Caiaphas: Friend of Rome and Judge of Jesus? (WJK, Jan.), which examines historical and literary evidence in reaching the conclusion that Caiaphas has been unjustly characterized as a malevolent participant in the crucifixion of Jesus. That book joins a similar WJK backlist title, Karen Paffenroth's Judas: Images of the Lost Disciple (2002), an attempt to separate fact from the many legends surrounding the villain whose name has become synonymous with betrayal.
Connie Glaser and Barbara Smalley's What Queen Esther Knew: Business Strategies from a Biblical Sage (Rodale, May 2003) identifies the tactics Esther employed and the traits she possessed that caused her to find favor with the king. Glaser admits that Esther was one of her first heroines as a child.
"When I heard the story again a few years ago, I saw remarkable parallels between her self-awareness, her life as an adult woman who stood up for what she believed in, and the leadership principles and lessons I was already writing about," said Glaser, who finds it significant that God is never mentioned in the book of Esther. "She learns to dig deep into her own personal resources in order to make decisions and come into her own."
In one chapter, Glaser cites three contemporary women who risked everything in making ethical decisions: whistleblowers Sherron Watkins of Enron, Coleen Rowley of the FBI and Cynthia Cooper of WorldCom. Two months after Glaser delivered her manuscript to Rodale, in a noteworthy coincidence, that trio was chosen as Time magazine's 2002 "Person of the Year." Like Esther, Glaser said, those three women had the courage to "confront the king and stand up for what they believed in." Another writer using Esther as a model is Tommy Tenney, whose Finding Favor with the King: Preparing for Your Moment in His Presence was published by Bethany House in October.
Other upcoming nonfiction releases about biblical women include Schocken's paperback edition of Reading the Women of the Bible: A New Interpretation of Their Stories (June), in which Tikva Frymer-Kensky analyzes the accounts of various women in the Hebrew Bible from the perspective of four prominent roles: victim, victor, bride/wife, and voice of God; and Twelve Apostolic Women (St. Anthony Messenger, Mar.) by Joanne Turpin, who describes women mentioned in the New Testament as "buried treasure."
Finally, men and women come together in Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Naomi Rosenblatt's look at biblical couples—how they related to each other and what contemporary couples can learn from those earlier relationships. After the Apple: Love, Lust, and Longing in the Bible (Talk/Miramax, Oct. 2004) looks at such issues as infidelity and jealousy in the stories of Ruth and Boaz, David and Michal, and David and Bathsheba.
Bible Lands Today
When author Paul Perry set out to trace the supposed route of Mary, Jesus and Joseph as they fled from soldiers intent on killing the infant, little did he anticipate the fervor with which Egyptian Christians cling to fantastic tales not only of ancient miracles but also of miraculous findings in recent years. Jesus in Egypt: Discovering the Secrets of Christ's Childhood Years (Ballantine, Dec. 2003) chronicles Perry's travels and the stories and artifacts he encountered along the way: the many wells from which the family is believed to have drawn water; a case containing the bones of infants killed by Herod as he sought the death of Jesus; the site where the baby Jesus is said to have toppled the stone sculptures of idols.
Pocket Books'Men in Black Dresses: A Quest for the Future Among Wisdom Makers of the Middle East by Yvonne Seng (Nov. 2003) offers an unusual take on the Bible: wisdom gleaned from contemporary spiritual leaders in Egypt and Syria, some of whom offer a unique perspective on biblical stories, steeped in centuries of regional tradition. Like Perry, Seng discovered the very non-Western flavor of the Coptic (Egyptian) Christians and the longstanding faith traditions in places like Damascus's Street Called Straight, which is mentioned in the Bible in connection with Paul.
Phyllis Strupp looks at the role of the desert in the lives of Abraham, Moses, David, Isaiah, John the Baptist, Jesus and Mohammed—and encourages readers to embrace the tradition of desert spirituality on American soil—in The Richest of Fare: Seeking Spirituality in the Sonoran Desert (Sonoran Cross). The April release features maps and more than 50 color photos of the Sonoran Desert in Arizona.
It's not just scholars and pastors who turn to reference books about the Bible. Even the masses like to dig a bit deeper, but on a less academic level—hence the release of three related titles from Alpha Books: The Complete Idiot's Guide to Teaching the Bible by W. Terry Whalin (Aug. 2003); The Complete Idiot's Guide to the World of the Bible by Donald Ryan (Mar. 2003); and the second edition of The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Bible (2002) by James S. Bell and Stan Campbell. Bestselling author J. Stephen Lang weighs in with Talking Donkeys & Wheels of Fire: Bible Stories That Are Truly Bizarre! (Warner Faith, Sept. 2003), a collection that includes tales like "The Maltese Viper" (Paul's snakebite on Malta) and "Death by Eunuch" (the murder of Jezebel).
In a somewhat more serious but equally fascinating vein, Coined by God (Norton, Feb. 2003) is subtitled "words and phrases that first appear in the English translations of the Bible." Entries are arranged alphabetically and include both those phrases that are commonly associated with the Bible ("eye for an eye") and words that are not ("appetite," in the sense of a general desire). Authors Stanley Malles and Jeffrey McQuain look at how the words and phrases have been used in literature and continue to be used in contemporary society.
Celebrating Biblical Feasts (Bethany, Feb.) by Martha Zimmerman is designed to assist families and churches in incorporating elements of seven ancient Jewish celebrations, such as Passover, into their Christian rituals and activities. The book explains the original reasons for the feasts and the application for contemporary worshippers. Just Like Us: 15 Biblical Stories with Take-Away Messages You Can Use in Your Life by Frank Minirth, Don Hawkins and Roy Vogel (Jossey-Bass, Apr.) looks at the "ordinariness" of the people of the Bible and relates their struggles to those faced by contemporary Christians. Each chapter concludes with questions for reflection.
And while most books about the Bible draw on the past and apply the lessons learned to the present, there are always those writers who project into the future—most prominently today, Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye, with their phenomenally successful Left Behind series, which wraps up in the spring. In response—and coinciding with the scheduled release of the last book in that series, Glorious Appearing—Westview is releasing in March The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation by Barbara Rossing. The author denounces the "rapture racket" as a distortion and misinterpretation of the biblical understanding of what is known as the end times and offers an alternative interpretation that affirms the value of creation and God's love for it.
Finally, Putnam weighs in with a prophetic word from TBN broadcaster Paul Crouch, who maintains that hidden in the text of the Bible are coded messages that offer proof of the existence of God and shed light on current events as well as foretell the future. The messages, which he said use an encryption technique known as "equidistant letter sequence," could not have been deciphered in earlier times because advanced computer technology was needed to break the code. The resulting Shadow of the Apocalypse releases in February.