I regularly hear from people who are interested in Biblical Hebrew, the language in which virtually all the Old Testament was written. They usually fall into two groups: those who once learned the language, but have since forgotten much of what they learned, and those who wish to learn Hebrew for the first time.
I also receive emails from students of the Bible who wish to learn more about the Jewish background of the New Testament, as well as the intertextuality of the Old and New Testaments.
I decided, therefore, to compile this brief list of recommendations and to write a short, annotated bibliography as an easily accessible resource for readers who are non-specialists. When I come across other materials, I will update this page to include them.
Suggestions for Learning or Relearning Hebrew
- Logos Bible Software is a great place to begin because it provides numerous resources in one location. Here, you can learn the Hebrew alphabet, basic pronunciation, and see a list of grammars, dictionaries, and online language courses. Especially if you are new to Hebrew, I would begin here. Scroll down to the course options and decide which one best suits your needs.
- If you already know the basics of Hebrew, but are wanting to expand your vocabulary or sharpen your understanding of grammar or syntax, then I recommend that you sign up for the daily email from Daily Dose of Hebrew. Monday through Saturday, they will send you a link to a two-minute video clip. A teacher will read through a verse in Hebrew, translate it, and explain grammatical points. (They also provide a similar resource for readers of the Greek New Testament.) These videos are well done and very informative.
- Purchase a copy of one of the daily readers in Greek and Hebrew. The standard was Licht auf Dem Weg (German title) or Light on the Path (now out of print but you can still find used copies online). A similar resource, still available, is More Light on the Path. These will include a verse or two from the OT and NT, with grammatical and vocabulary helps.
- Once you have learned the basics of Hebrew, choose a short biblical book (like Jonah or Ruth) and translate it slowly. Read each verse aloud and use your lexicon and grammatical helps to translate. Find a commentary that addresses some of the grammatical features. And don’t worry about trying to understand all the grammatical intricacies. Just pick up as much as you can.
- If you do not want to learn Hebrew—or cannot at this time—but would like to have an electronic resource that allows you to explore the language, I highly recommend Logos Bible Software. They offer various packages, depending on your needs. See also the STEP Bible (“Scripture Tools for Every Person”), which helps readers study the Bible in conjunction with the original languages. For a free mobile app that offers limited but helpful information on the original languages, I have found the Blue Letter Bible app to be useful.
- For a devotional that focuses on a new Hebrew word every day and traces its connection to the New Testament and the ministry of Christ, see my book, Unveiling Mercy: 365 Daily Devotions Based on Insights from Old Testament Hebrew. If you are curious as to how Hebrew might be useful in your ministry, teaching, or Bible study, this resource will highlight that on a daily basis.
- For an interesting and informative history of the Hebrew language, from its ancient origins to the fascinating rise of Modern Hebrew, see The Story of Hebrew by Lewis Glinert.
The Jewish Background of the New Testament and OT/NT Intertextuality
This is a vast field of study with a seemingly limitless list of books and resources, both primary and secondary. The following volumes are therefore intended only as one narrow entry point into this broad field. Check the bibliography of any recent New Testament introduction (like The New Testament in Its World by N. T. Wright and Michael F. Bird) for other suggested reading. I have chosen to lump together intertextual studies with the Jewish background of the New Testament because I find significant overlap and dialogue between these two subjects.
James H. Charlesworth, editor, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (2 Volume set), (Tyndale, 2010). These volumes contain a vast array of primary documents, including apocalyptic literature, Testaments, expansions of the OT, and much more, many of which are alluded to in the NT. These texts are crucial to know if one want to "get in the mind" of first century Jews. This was the "popular religious literature" of the day.
Oskar Skarsaune, In the Shadow of the Temple: Jewish Influences on Early Christianity (InterVarsity Press, 2002). This is one of my favorite books on the subject. Skarsaune writes both for the expert as well as the non-expert. He covers the cultural and religious factors that shaped the first-century world; the Jewishness of the early Christian church; theological connections between the OT and NT; the distinct shaping of Christology by OT and contemporary Jewish ideas concerning Wisdom, etc.; and much more. He also includes an annotated bibliography at the end of each chapter.
Kenneth Bailey, Jesus Through Middle-Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels (IVP Academic, 2008). Bailey’s expertise on the culture of the Middle East – ancient and modern – makes his insights into the Gospels, as well as the entire NT world, invaluable. His work on the social and historical background of the parables is especially insightful.
G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Baker Academic, 2007). This is a lengthy, detailed book, by multiple authors, that works its way through each book of the NT. The authors highlight and explain how OT quotes, allusions, and echoes have shaped the writings of the NT.
Richard B. Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels (Baylor University Press, 2016). Hays has been a pioneer in the area of biblical intertextuality. As the title indicates, this work deals with how the theology and texts of Israel shaped the work of the four evangelists.
Shaye J. D. Cohen, From the Maccabees to the Mishnah (Westminster John Knox Press, 2014). This book covers the development of Judaism from 164 BC to AD 300. It is an easily readable survey of the history, texts, and religion of the Jews during this period. If you are looking for a broad overview of the period, this is the book.
N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God: Christian Origins and the Question of God, Volume 1 (Fortress Press, 1992). Because this is the first in a multi-volume series, Wright spends the first section outlining his overall theoretical approach to the subject. Not all readers will find that particularly helpful. Afterward, however, he covers first-century Judaism in the Greco-Roman world and the first Christian century. Wright’s work is accessible and highly recommended.
Lois Tverberg and Ann Spangler, Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus: How the Jewishness of Jesus Can Transform Your Faith (Zondervan: 2018). In this book, along with two others (Reading the Bible with Rabbi Jesus and Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus), Tverberg explores how knowledge of first century Jewish customs, interpretive methods, and basic worldview categories can help us better to understand the New Testament.
Matthew Thiessen, Jesus and the Forces of Death: The Gospels Portrayal of Ritual Impurity within First-Century Judaism (Baker, 2020). Building upon the work of Jacob Milgrom and other OT scholars who have mapped Israel’s understanding of holiness, Matthew Thiessen explores various narratives from the Gospels where Jesus heals those with ritual impurity. The book is a helpful introduction to Jewish teachings about holiness, the profane, and what constitutes impurity. If you want to more fully grasp the import of Jesus healing the hemorrhaging woman, performing resurrections, or healing those with skin diseases, this is a great place to start.
Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity (Eerdmans, 1987). This textbook, geared toward university or seminary level education, is a broad and helpful overview of the political, historical, cultural, and religious backdrop of the New Testament. If the topic is unfamiliar to you, then this is much more than an adequate introduction. Even if you are fairly well read on all or most of the areas that are covered, it is an invaluable summary. The book as a whole can be quite daunting, so my suggestion would be to read the sections that you find most interesting or where you find your knowledge is most lacking. The inclusion of lengthy bibliographies at the ends of the sections is a great resource for further study.
(I will add more books to this list as time goes on, but these are a helpful place to begin. Last updated: November 11, 2021)