This list reflects my interests in scribal culture, historical Jesus studies, and memory. I have to stress that it’s not a list of the five best books in NT studies, but the five books that I would recommend to a potential PhD student in these fields.
H. Gregory Snyder, Teachers and Texts in the Ancient World
My Doktorvater, Larry Hurtado, likes to cite Harry Gamble’s Books and Readers in the Early Church as a necessary read for any PhD student. He’s right, but before Gamble I read Snyder’s study of texts and textuality, a revised version of his Yale PhD dissertation. It changed entirely the way that I thought about the transmission of texts and, especially, the social and power structures that surround those texts in early Christianity.
Dale Allison, Constructing Jesus
Allison’s most recent tome is rightly considered a game-changer. Perhaps the most important contribution is to methodology. Allison is done with atomistic approaches to the gospel tradition. Instead, his approach is to account for large patterns in the tradition. I think this is going to be the way of the future in critical Jesus studies.
Rudolf Bultmann, History of the Synoptic Tradition
This book’s presence on the list might surprise some people since I’ve spent considerable time and effort combating form criticism in some publications. But it’s that effort that makes me appreciate all the more what Rudolf Bultmann accomplished. He’s the greatest NT scholar of the 20th century for a reason, and this book lies at the core foundation of his entire project. History of the Synoptic Tradition set the course for Gospels studies for decades because it shaped what an entire generation of critical scholars understood the Gospels to be. Its presence is still felt today.
Augustine, Harmony of the Gospels
Anthony is working on a book where he argues that historical Jesus studies really starts with Josephus. I’m open to that idea, but until he convinces me, as far as I’m concerned, it starts with Augustine’s Harmony of the Gospels. At times, he’s making precisely the type of moves that later historical Jesus scholars present as novel and original.
Stephen Neill and Tom Wright, The Interpretation of the New Testament, 1861–1986
This book is where NT Wright first calls the Third Quest the Third Quest. Scholarly attention to that little nugget often overshadows the brilliant (and interesting!) description of New Testament studies by Stephen Neill. It’s succinct, and the just the type of overview that someone entering the field needs, if nothing else to explain to others what in the world you do (or are going to do) with all your time.