Posted by: Ken Brown | July 8, 2009

Five Influential Primary Sources

Primary Sources

I’ve been meaning to respond to Kevin Sculls’ excellent new take on the meme, this time asking for the five primary sources that have most influenced our reading of the Bible (see also Rick Brannan’s rejoinder: The Five Biblical Studies Books I’m Stupider for Having Read [err, see UPDATE below]). Here are Kevin’s rules:

  1. List the 5 primary sources that have most affected your scholarship, thoughts about antiquity, and/or understanding of the NT/OT.
  2. Books from the Bible are off limits unless you really want to list one, I certainly will not chastise you for it.
  3. Finally, choose individual works if you can.  This will be more interesting than listing the entire corpus of Cicero as one of your choices.

There have been a ton of individual passages in the Second Temple Jewish Literature that have influenced my reading of individual passages in the New Testament, but narrowing it down to specific books is difficult. I think I’m going to have to pretend the second requirement is that they not be from the Protestant Bible, because too many of the most important ones have been considered canonical by one group or another. Thus:

The Book of Jubilees This text, considered canonical by the Ethiopian Orthodoxy Church, was first introduced to me by Jim Scott, who was fascinated by it (he’d have to be–he wrote two monographs on it’s sacred geography). I now can’t help but see echoes of Jubilees everywhere, especially in Paul. Runners up would be 1 Enoch, 1 Maccabees and 2 Maccabees.

Enuma Elish By the time I read this Babylonian creation myth, I had already developed serious reservations about my old creationist views from the scientific side, but this helped finally disabuse me of the notion that Genesis 1 itself is best understood as a literal historical account (for a good recent post on this, see here). Runner up goes to the Baal Epic.

The Gospel of Thomas My first exposure to this, and non-canonical gospels in general, was a bit unfair, as it focused almost entirely on the worst aspects of the text. To this day, any time someone claims the Gnostics were egalitarian and forward thinking compared to their misogynistic orthodox opponents I can’t help but think of Thomas 114:

Simon Peter said to them, “Make Mary leave us, for females don’t deserve life.”

Jesus said, “Look, I will guide her to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every female who makes herself male will enter the kingdom of Heaven.”

Despite such late and dubious accretions, however, Thomas does provide one of our earliest non-canonical glimpses into who Jesus was thought to be, and is therefore invaluable, even if I don’t buy most of the claims made about its authenticity. Runner up goes to P. Egerton 2, and The Infancy Gospel of Thomas (for pure entertainment value).

4QMMT or “Some Works (or Precepts) of the Torah” This is a bit arbitrary, as I could easily have chosen any number of the Dead Sea Scrolls, but this was the first I read, also thanks to Jim Scott. Though I wouldn’t go so far as to say this represents the viewpoint Paul was objecting to in Galatians, it does help to explain the context of his comments about “works of the law.” Runners up would include The Rule of the Community, The Temple Scroll, The Damascus Document, The War Scroll, etc., etc.

Philo Now I’m really going to have to cheat, because it would be silly to limit Philo to one book when, I must admit,  though I’ve read large portions of all of his works, it has been mostly from searching for specific terms (such as Logos). I haven’t read any of them straight through (yeah, I really ought to do something about that). Philo has been particulalry influential in my reading of the Fourth Gospel. Though John likely was not aware of Philo’s work directly, it is clear that they are “breathing the same air,” so to speak. Runners up would be Josephus, Ben Sira, and The Wisdom of Solomon.

Finally, I’d add a collection of Rabbinic tractates we worked through in Aramaic Readings. I have no idea where my professor (Dirk Buchner) dug them up, but these stories about the Rabbis–finding the Garden of Eden, meeting the Amazons, debating circumcision with Caesar, trying to convince the Abraham to hurry up and bring the Messiah–were hilarious, and quite changed my view of Rabbinic Judaism, if not of the Bible itself.

I tag: James McGrath, Jared Calaway, Adam Couturier, Scott Bailey and Doug Chaplin. Sorry if you’ve already been tagged.

UPDATE: On further reflection, I have to agree with Mike Koke’s rant against the notion of listing books that “made me stupider,” especially if the lists are not limited to true cranks, but include legitimate and thoughtful scholars.

UPDATE 2: Rick updated his post with a number of helpful clarifications. See also the discussion on Nick Norelli’s post here.


  1. […] Brown has tagged me with the Kevin Scull variation of his original five books meme. (Thanks, Ken.) The rules […]

  2. Nice list. I must agree that the Infancy Gospel of Thomas is one of my favorite early texts. I tend to find a way to introduce it in most of my classes. It serves a number of purposes in the classroom. I like to prompt the students to speculate on why such a text was needed.

  3. […] having read.  Mike Koke published a rant inspired by the meme which caused Ken Brown to update his response to the primary sources meme.  I’ve discerned a couple of non sequiturs in these posts to […]

  4. […] Top 5 Primary Sources I have been tagged by Ken Brown for the latest meme that has been making the rounds (courtesy of Kevin Scull).  So, here is my top […]

  5. […] Ken Brown […]

  6. As a quick aside

    Jesus said, “Look, I will guide her to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every female who makes herself male will enter the kingdom of Heaven.”

    This is the doctrine of syzygy, the idea being that neither maleness or femaleness exists in higher planes (kingdom of heaven) males and females as the saved pneumatics join one another to form a syyzygy and then those syzygy join to form the pleroma (fullness). Everyone joins the one.

    Pro Borg yes, sexist no.

  7. I just got back from holidays. I’ll take a crack at this sometime this week.

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