Choosing a Theology Textbook: Primer on Biblical Methods

Most Christian universities or colleges have introductory courses on the Bible, and this is true for a great many secular institutions as well. In giving students an “introduction” to the Bible these courses take any number of different angles or approaches. Some focus on the historical settings in which the Bible was written, its diversity of literature (genres), the history of its oral transmission, production and canonization, etc. Another approach might be to concentrate less on theories about the Bible and direct students toward the Bible itself, its central themes, story line, etc. Or various combinations of the two.

All this presents the daunting challenge of choosing the proper textbooks. I leave questions about the best angle up to you, but I will highlight a text that could efficiently introduce students to the many methods of biblical study. Even with the most eager students, nothing sucks the life from a room like the words “redaction criticism”, “form criticism”, “ideological criticism”, and “materialist readings.”  On these topics many of the textbooks I have reviewed frustratingly seem more geared toward graduate students than first year undergraduates. So I was pleased to see Corine Carvalho’s new Primer on Biblical Methods.

In just 84 pages it introduces methods of biblical study related to (1) the world behind the text (2) the world of the text (3) the world the text creates, and (4) the history of biblical interpretation. Each chapter gives practical examples and provides students with exercises that put the methods to work. Certainly no text is perfect, and I was frustrated that this one assumes the tired axiom that one should read the Bible “like any other” book (xii). I was also disappointed that Carvalho almost entirely passes over pre-critical approaches to the Bible. But even with its weaknesses, I don’t know of another book that so effectively and efficiently introduces students to the myriad of modern methods for biblical study.

If you know of one, or want to recommend a text, please tell us about it.

4 thoughts on “Choosing a Theology Textbook: Primer on Biblical Methods

    • I have thought about doing just that Mark! My challenge in teaching our introductory course to the Bible has been to balance our time between the biblical narrative itself – I want them to leave the course with a solid grasp on the grand narrative – and in helping my students to become better, more careful readers. Its a daunting task for one semester!

  1. I am sure you are familiar with “To Each Its Own Meaning: An Introduction to Biblical Criticisms and Their Application” by Steven L. McKenzie and Stephen R. Haynes. It is longer than 84 pages, but gives good examples of each of the methods. Another resource to give them is “Handbook of Biblical Criticism” by Soulen and Soulen. This not exactly a textbook, but a reference tool. It will help by being the first port of call for any exegetical issue.

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