There is one of those memes going around in which people volunteer a list of books that influenced their readings of the Bible. The rules say that works are not limited to Biblical studies literature, but can include religious works or works of literature. The list is nominally set at 5 books, but that is obviously an arbitrary number, and I have more than 5 books to list here.
Now, no one has actually nominated me for this meme, but I am going to nominate myself.
Ramban (Nachmanides) - Commentary on the Torah – by far my favorite medieval commentary – one that directly engages the commentaries of Rashi and Ibn Ezra and treats mysticism as a first class return. My preferred edition is here. A fantastic older translation is this one. A translation with more support and matching Hebrew is here. See also Michael Carasik’s beautiful presentation; Exodus and Leviticus are now (or soon will be) available.
John Milton – Paradise Lost – a poem that creates an entire world, and that comments intelligently on esoterica drawn from Jewish and Christian tradition. My favorite edition is here (which I greatly prefer to the Riverside Milton.) A very clean presentation is here. There are a vast number of commentaries on Milton – I like the older (Elledge) Norton edition (the newer Norton Teskey edition is inferior but still useful) and Fish’s first book on Milton (presenting a powerful reader-reception approach) shows his young genius; his later works have less attraction to me.
Dante – Divina Commedia – another poem that comments on everything in the world, in the process, revealing a great deal of the author’s approach to Scripture. There are many fabulous translations to choose among; Hollander’s (Inf, Pur, Par) is a nice bilingual diglot presentation; one of my friends did a nice translation of Inferno (in a bilingual diglot presentation); Ciardi’s is highly poetic and easy to read (but does not include the Italian text); Laurence Binyon’s translation is probably the most faithful (but hard to read); Singleton has the most detailed commentary in English as well as the Italian and literal translation; and the California Lecturis Dantis (Inf, Pur) series is my favorite extended discussion in English.
Augustine – Confessiones – a profound meditation on the personal response to Scripture. I recommend O’Donnell’s Latin edition for its excellent commentary (Amazon has it listed currently out of print, but you can find this for about $100 if you look around). If you want an English translation, Chadwick’s is standard (try to get it in the original handsome but unpretentious hardcover). There are many other translations to choose among; I thought Gary Wills four volume translation was well done (1, 2, 3, 4) (this has been republished in a one volume edition but missing some of Wills extra material).
Rambam (Maimonides) – Moreh Nevuchim (Guide of the Perplexed);
Averroes (Ibn Rushd) – Tahāfut al-Tahāfut (The Incoherence of the Incoherence); and
Thomas (Aquinas) – Summa Theologiæ – a great trio of deep works, discussing the links (and, the absence of links) between religion and theology, with many illuminating discussions and excurses on Scripture. The first two works also inspired me to study Arabic. The standard edition of Moreh Nevuchim is available online (vol. 1, 2, 3); my favorite English translation is by Shlomo Pines (with an intriguing long introduction by Leo Strauss) (vol. 1, 2). Standard editions of Tahāfut al-Tahāfut are here and here; the leading translation of Tahāfut al-Tahāfut is Simon van den Bergh, available online here (be sure to refer to the translation notes here). There is a nice bilingual edition of the book Tahāfut al-Tahāfut refutes, al-Ghazali’s Incoherence of the Philosophers. For Thomas there are many editions available; my own preference is the bilingual diglot Blackfriar’s edition because of its extensive notes and commentary.
Thomas (Aquinas) – Catena Aurea – Thomas’s standard collection of early Church fathers on the meaning of the Gospels – a rich and often allegorical set of meditations. I have only read this in Newman’s English translation. See also Toal’s Sunday Sermons of the Great Fathers for a more recent and somewhat similar approach. Kevin Edgecomb brought these books to my attention.
Schneur Zalman – Torah Ohr and Likkutei Torah – A collection of the great 18th century Chassidic teacher’s kabalistic explanations of Torah parshos (as well as the Song of Songs and Esther) as collected by his grandson, the Tzemach Tzedek. Hebrew editions of Torah Ohr and Likkutei Torah (vol. 1, 2) are readily available. I am unaware of English translations.
Shimon bar Yochai and his school – The Zohar – a vast collection of mystical exegesis on Torah written at the start of the Common Era. Some scholars claim this is a 13th century work by Moses de Leon. This is easily available in Aramaic from any Judaica shop. My friend Danny Matt has been establishing a critical text and his translation (in progress) is fascinating (although, in many ways, the Zohar is not translatable.) The Tishby anthology (which I have only read in English translation) is a standard introduction with many passages translated.
Louis Ginzburg – Legends of the Jews – I am a bit embarrassed by this book now, but as a child, this was one of the first books I read on the aggadic Torah. While I now think there are better introductions, it is still valuable for non-religious Jews and gentiles.
Alter & Kermode – The Literary Guide to the Bible – by far the best college level introduction to the Bible I have seen – taking a literary approach to understanding Scripture.
Gerald Hammond – Making of the Hebrew Bible – a wonderful, careful examination of 16th and 17th English translations of the Bible – reminding us of all the important points that are missed in modern translations.
James Kugel – Traditions of the Bible: A Guide to the Bible as it was at the Start of the Common Era – a wonderful modern presentation of different interpretative traditions of the Bible – both Jewish and Christian. I think this work is much stronger than Kugel’s more general work (which I do not care for) on how to read the Bible.