It was back in the day when I believed a book was the final word. Remember those times? (I have a suspicion that many Republicans really are longing for the days of simple answers: “Smith wrote it in History of Everything so it must be true,” and such.) You’d read a book assigned in college and assume that since the author wrote a book s/he (but generally he, in my day) must be right. If college really caught on, however, you’d start comparing sources. Still, there was that one book that got you started thinking in a new way. Back in the day when I believed a book was the final word I read J. Alberto Soggin’s Introduction to the Old Testament. I remember the context well: Harrell Beck’s intro course at Boston University School of Theology. We were given a list of texts and allowed to pick. I chose Soggin.
Reading that book I realized for the first time that ancient Israel had borrowed from its even more ancient neighbors. The fact that I’d attended Grove City College and majored in religion without ever having been introduced to the idea says volumes. (Some parties, it seems, have always preferred to suppress information.) I followed it up with Helmer Ringgren’s Israelite Religion. I was hooked. If we knew that there were ancient sources, and if we knew their languages and their cultures, why hadn’t it been obvious to the general public? I started on a doctorate to uncover the truth since I couldn’t find courses on it at seminary.
We didn’t take many books with us to Edinburgh, but Ringgren was one. By then I’d begun to realize that introductions weren’t really research books. I spent my years digging deeper and deeper into ancient West Asian culture. If it’d been possible I’d be there still. Soggin and Ringgren, I realized by this point, were clearly biblical scholars, and not students of the specialized field that’s still called Ancient Near Eastern studies. But still, their books had started something. My copy of Soggin has followed the socks in the dryer, and I now realize the politics of introductory texts (if you believe it’s innocent you may be happier remaining in your bliss). Still, I owe a debt of gratitude to those scholars who wrote in accessible words aimed at the novice. Time has passed and nature has begun its own tonsure process, but this fallen monk has learned that many books are the only way of getting to the truth.