Number 1 on my list of 10 books to get you started learning Bible is “The Jewish Study Bible,” edited by Adele Berlin and Marc Brettler. There are two reasons why.
First, if you want to know the Bible you have to read it — not just read about it. That means you have to pick a translation. Every English-speaking home should have a copy of the King James Bible; that translation, along with the plays of Shakespeare, is what created English literature. And it is worth reading for the beauty of the language. But if you want to be able to read the Bible to find out what happens, you need a Bible in contemporary English. Definitely for Jews, and perhaps for others as well, the best first choice the “New” Jewish Publication Society translation, and that’s the one used in the Jewish Study Bible. (“New” is in quotes because the oldest part of the NJPS, the Torah, is rapidly drawing near its 50th birthday.) The NJPS is a very reliable translation, but it’s also free enough to be very readable. There’s no “Bible English” here, just standard contemporary English.
JPS publishes its translation in a variety of formats, including Hebrew-English versions. So why the Jewish Study Bible from Oxford? That brings me to my second reason.
Christians have a much wider variety of Bibles available to them than Jews do — the market is so much bigger. One way Bible publishers differentiate their editions is by providing what Christians call “helps”: all kinds of things in addition to the Bible itself that make the Bible more comprehensible.
Well, the Jewish Study Bible is full of “helps.” Each biblical book has an introductory essay and accompanying notes that guide you through the book. But the real treasure is at the back of the JSB — maps, tables, timelines, a glossary, and 275 (count ’em, 275) pages of brief essays on everything from “Inner-biblical Interpretation” to “The Bible in the Jewish Mystical Tradition.” They are written by the top Jewish biblical scholars currently writing in English, exactly the people whose books you’ll want to read when you are ready to look more deeply into a particular topic. (As you’ll see in a few weeks, one of those books is also on my Top Ten list.) It would be intimidating to sit down and read this section right through, but it’s packaged in meal-size portions. Curious about the relationship between the Bible and the Dead Sea Scrolls? Esther Eshel will tell you the basics in 9 pages. (Want more? The one “help” this book doesn’t seem to provide is “What to Read Next.” But that’s why I’m here!)
It’s a source of great pride and pleasure to me that so many of the contributors to this Bible are my teachers and/or friends. For the price of this one book, you get an amazing introductory course to the Bible — a book that will richly repay a lifetime of study. The Jewish Study Bible is a great place to start.