A Strategic Approach to Reading Background Texts of the New Testament

While many NT scholars may know a whole lot about Matthew–Revelation, many lack the ability to pick up and read Josephus and Clement in the original Greek, or Seneca and Cicero in Latin. This reveals not just a severe lack of language ability, but, more importantly, a lack of familiarity with the ideas and historical contexts of Early Jewish, Greco-Roman, and Early Christian authors and texts.

My belief (and I’m not alone in this) is that, as a NT and Early Christian scholar, I must do more than be mindful of the vast body of literature outside the NT; I actually have to read it.

Let me show you how I developed a plan to read every background text to the New Testament.

Background

Three years ago, I came to a striking realization while sitting in the audience at a presentation at SBL in San Diego. An imperative suddenly loomed ominous over my head: I must deepen my knowledge of Early Christianity and broaden my awareness of ancient literature (Greek, Latin, Coptic, and Syriac) by whatever means possible.

I began talking with close friends, academic mentors, and other biblical scholars. I attempted to compile a set of “best practices” to undergird my Early Christian discipline and language acquisition. Some of what follows is a result of these conversations, and some is a result of my own thinking on the matter.

Since the Fall of 2014 until this very day, I have followed this schedule faithfully. Even in the midst of Ph.D. coursework, dissertation writing, and now my first academic teaching post (not to mention family, moving, etc), my dedication to this reading plan has not diminished despite many challenges. Indeed, with every passing day my exhilaration with the material has only increased.

Let’s take a look at how I structure my reading time on a daily basis.

Study Schedule

My study schedule is ritualistic and mundane. It is consistent, monotonous, and structured. I must be committed to other research, writing projects, and normal academic life.

But my commitment to my reading schedule predominates all other projects. I do not begin any other work until my daily primary literature reading is finished. One key to my success: waking up early.

In order to grow and develop as a scholar of Early Christianity, I prioritize my time in the following ways.

  • I use my phone as a timer (using Airplane Mode is helpful, but not necessary).
  • I allot 15-20 minutes per segment (see below), and I work through as much material as possible in each segment.
  • Once each segment has ended, I immediately move to the next item, even if I’m in the middle of a sentence. Seconds count here.
  • During this reading time, my Internet is off, prohibiting any email or social media.
  • I do not respond to calls or texts (unless it’s my wife) and I keep breaks to a strict minimum.
  • And of course, I begin with a nice cup of coffee.

In this way, every weekday I am reading primary literature and increasing original language acquisition.

Here’s how I break down my total reading time, which totals 1.5–2 hours every morning:

Everyday — 15–20 Minutes Each:

  1. Greek New Testament
  2. English Bible
  3. English Patristic and Early Christian Literature
  4. Greek Patristic and Early Christian Literature

Odd Calendar Days — 15–20 Minutes Each:

  1. English Greco-Roman Literature
  2. Attic Greek (eventually swapped with Syriac)
  3. German Grammar and Translation

Even Calendar Days — 15–20 Minutes Each:

  1. Latin Literature
  2. Latin Grammar (eventually swapped with Coptic review)
  3. French Grammar and Translation (eventually swapped with Italian)

How do I maintain this regime on a daily basis? By sticking to the following 4 principles:

4 Key Principles for Reading Primary Sources:

  1. Just Read. At the end of the day, the idea is reading. I read ancient language literature without a computer, and only with a lexicon. Find what works for you and just read. I read out of curiosity and intrigue.
  2. Find what works for you. This year, Peter Brown’s reading schedule surfaced, generating debates about what becoming a successful scholar in academia looks like. But it’s important to remember that maintaining a schedule like this doesn’t mean you automatically become a successful scholar; likewise, not adhering to it does not mean you are doomed to failure. Find what works for you and your research needs in terms of efficiency (what you can manage) and demand (what applies to your area of interest). Read for personal joy and intrigue, and not for a badge of honor. Maintain your speed, your rhythm, and your literature interests.
  3. Achieve awareness, not memorization or mastery. I do not pretend to remember everything I read. I do not pretend to master all that my eyes have set upon. Rather, my goal is to gain a general awareness of ancient authors and their texts.
  4. Influence your discipline through perpetual self-training. I have the ever-pressing desire to grow my abilities in my discipline. I believe that this requires me both to expand my awareness of the relevant and related literature and to persist in language acquisition.

Consistency truly pays off. Never did I think that I could work through this much literature in such a short time over the past number of years. You are slowly chipping away at a beautiful sculpture of antiquity.

Secretly, I wish I had a classics degree. But perhaps my ambitions would be tempered somewhat if I were too familiar already with these texts. There is power in novelty.

This sense of novelty, I hope, will motivate rather than dissuade biblical scholars like myself. The schedule I propose might be out of reach for you, but yours doesn’t have to match mine.

Rather than devoting 2 hours a day, consider making a commitment of 30 minutes a day and then slowly expanding your schedule. Start with English translations of ancient Greco-Roman literature (in the Loeb series is ideal) alongside the Greek New Testament.

Regardless of how you structure your plan, the premise is still the same: simply read.

Let me now show you my current reading efforts, in the hope that you are inspired to go and do (something) likewise.

What English Primary Source Material am I currently Reading?

In previous years, I devoted exclusive attention to specific genres, religious literature, or eras. For example, I worked through all of the Oxford Annotated Apocrypha, the DSS, both volumes of the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (Charlesworth), Bauckham and Davila’s More Noncanonical Scriptures (Vol. 1), and the New Testament Apocrypha (2 Vols. Schneemelcher, Elliot, and Ehrman and Plese). I also worked through the Apostolic Fathers and myriads of 1st–5th century literature (see below for the complete list).

In 2017, I refined my goals to align with my writing interests and perceived gaps in my research. This is the year of “Greco-Roman Literature,” and I am currently working through Seneca’s On Benefits, then Pliny the Younger, Suetonius, Livy, Tacitus Agricola, Homer Odyssey, Virgil Aeneid. From there, I will begin working through one of the following Ph.D. Classical Reading lists:

My Early Christian literature reading is currently comprised of single figures and larger works. I intend to work through much of Cyril of Alexandria, Origen of Alexandria (Contra Celsum, De Principiis), Augustine (City of God), and Eusebius (Life of Constantine).

What Original Language Source Material am I currently Reading?

In previous years, I devoted attention to the Hebrew Bible, selected LXX readings, Greek Apostolic Fathers (yes, including Hermas :-|), and the Greek New Testament. In Latin, I’ve worked through portions of Cicero, Quintilian, Perpetua, Scillitan Martyrs, Patrick of Ireland, and selected portions/books in the Latin New Testament.  

Currently, I have Pliny the Younger, Epistles Book II (Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics) before me, and once finished, I plan to move on to Novatian’s De Trinitate and Cyprian’s material at the end of the year.

Beyond the Greek New Testament, I am translating scattered selections of the Greek apocryphal Gospels, Cyril of Alexandria, and then I will eventually move to Origen of Alexandria.

When working in original language texts, I sight read with a lexicon in hand. This may be a bit odd in today’s world of instant access through powerful Bible programs. But I work really hard to forego looking at software.

This requires me to linger longer in a lexicon and forces me to appreciate the slow process of reading original language texts. Because of this, I work through these texts much slower while reading the GNT twice a year.

Get to Work

To inspire those of you on the fence: here is a sampling of the material that I have worked through over the past 2 years:

Apocrypha

Apocrypha — The New Oxford Annotated Apocrypha, 4th ed.

[callout img=”https://cmrc1.logoscdn.com/www.logos.com/images/products/thumb_80573.jpeg?785472039424″ text=”See alsoDavid DeSilva’s ” link_url=”https://www.logos.com/product/80573/mobile-ed-bi291-the-apocrypha-witness-between-the-testaments?utm_source=academic.logos.com&utm_medium=blog&utm_content=2017-06-27-wilhite-reading-plan&utm_campaign=promo-logospro2017″ link_text=”The Apocrypha: Witness Between the Testaments”]

Dead Sea Scrolls

The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English, Geza Vermes, ed., Penguin Classics

Old Testament Pseudepigrapha

Old Testament Pseudepigrapha — vol. 1 and 2, ed. James Charlesworth

  • 1 Enoch
  • 2 Baruch
  • 2 Enoch
  • 3 Baruch
  • 3 Enoch
  • Apocalypse of Abraham
  • Apocalypse of Adam
  • Apocalypse of Daniel
  • Apocalypse of Elijah
  • Apocalypse of Sedrach
  • Apocalypse of Zephaniah
  • Apocryphal of Ezekiel
  • The Fourth Book of Ezra
  • Questions of Ezra
  • Revelation of Ezra
  • Sibylline Oracles
  • Testament of Adam
  • Testament of Job
  • Testament of Moses
  • Testament of Solomon
  • Testament of the Three Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob)
  • Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs
  • Treatise of Shem
  • Vision of Ezra

Old Testament Pseudepigrapha — vol. 1 More Noncanonical Scriptures, ed. Richard Bauckham, James R. Davila, Alexander Panayotov

  • Adam Octipartite/Septipartite
  • The Apocryphon of Eber
  • The Apocryphon of Ezekiel
  • The Apocryphon of Seth
  • Aramaic Levi
  • The Aramaic Song of the Lamb
  • The Balaam Text from Tell Deir ‘Alla
  • The Book of Noah
  • The Book of the Covenant
  • The Cave of Treasures
  • A Danielic Pseudepigraphon
  • The Dispute over Abraham
  • The Eight Book of Moses
  • Eldad and Modad
  • Exorcist Psalms of David and Solomon
  • Fifth Ezra
  • The Heartless Rich Man and the Precious Stone
  • Hebrew Visions of hell and Paradise
  • The Hydromancy of Solomon
  • The Inquiry of Abraham
  • Jeremiah’s Prophecy to Pashhur
  • The Latin Vision of Ezra
  • The Life of Adam and Eve
  • Midrib Vayissua’a
  • The Nine and a Half Tribes
  • Pale Historica
  • Questions of the Queen of Sheba and Answers by King Solomon
  • Quotations from Lost Books in the Hebrew Bible
  • The Relics of Zechariah and the Boy Buried at His Feet
  • See Zerubbabel
  • The Selenodromion of David and Solomon
  • The Seventh Vision of Daniel
  • Sixth Ezra
  • Songs of David
  • The Story of Melchizedek with the Melchizedek Legend
  • The Syriac History of Joseph
  • The Testament of Job
  • The Tiburtino Sibyl
  • The Treatise of the Vessels

New Testament Apocrypha

The Apocryphal Gospels — ed. Bart Ehrman and Zlatko

New Testament Apocrypha: More Noncanonical Scriptures — ed. Tony Burke, Brent Landau

New Testament Apocrypha — 2 vols., ed. Wilhelm Schneemelcher

  • Acts of Andrew
  • Acts of John
  • Apocalypse of Paul
  • Apocalypse of Peter
  • Apocalypse of Thomas
  • Ascension of Isaiah
  • Books of Esra (5th and 6th)
  • Christian Sibyllines
  • Coptic Gnostic Apocalypse of Paul
  • Coptic Gnostic Apocalypse of Peter
  • The Correspondence between Seneca and Paul
  • The Epistle of the Laodiceans
  • The Kerygma Petri
  • The Pseudo-Titus Epistle
[callout img=”https://cmrc1.logoscdn.com/www.logos.com/images/products/thumb_45735.jpeg?678887150464″ text=”See also Rick Brannan’s ” link_url=”https://www.logos.com/product/45735/greek-apocryphal-gospels-fragments-and-agrapha-texts-and-transcriptions?utm_source=academic.logos.com&utm_medium=blog&utm_content=2017-06-27-wilhite-reading-plan&utm_campaign=promo-logospro2017″ link_text=”Greek Apocryphal Gospels, Fragments and Agrapha: Texts and Transcriptions”]

The Church Fathers

Apostolic Fathers

  • 1–2 Clement
  • Didache
  • Epistle of Barnabas
  • Epistle to Diognetus
  • Fragment of Papias
  • Fragment of Quadratus
  • Letters of Ignatius
  • Letter of Polycarp to the Philippians
  • Martyrdom of Polycarp
  • Shepherd of Hermas

1st–2nd Century

  • Aristides, Apology
  • Athenagoras, Embassy for the Christians, Resurrection of the Dead
  • Epistula Apostolorum
  • Gospel of Peter
  • Irenaeus, Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching
  • Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, 1 Apology, 2 Apology
  • Melito of Sardis, On Pascha
  • Odes of Solomon
  • Suetonius
  • Tacitus, Agricola
  • Tatian, Address to the Greeks
  • Theophilus of Antioch, To Autolycus

3rd Century

  • Passion of Perpetua and Felicity
  • Origen, Homilies to Leviticus, Contra Celsum, On the Lord’s Prayer
  • Novatian,  Trinity
  • Tertullian, Against Praxeas

4th–5th Century

  • Athanasius, On the Incarnation, Letters to Serapion
  • Augustine (4th–5th Cent), Confessions, De Trinitate
  • Didymus the Blind, On the Holy Spirit
  • Gregory of Nazianzus, Poemata Arcana, 5 Theological Orations and 2 Letters to Cleodonius (PPS)
  • Hilary of Poitiers, De Trinitate
  • Eusebius, Historia Ecclesiae
  • Basil of Caesarea, On the Holy Spirit, Homilies on the Psalms
  • Patrick of Ireland, Confessions
  • Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on John, On the Unity of Christ
[callout img=”https://cmrc1.logoscdn.com/www.logos.com/images/products/thumb_33660.jpeg?836494406656″ text=”For the ultimate reading list of Church Fathers, make use of the ” link_url=”https://www.logos.com/product/33665/fathers-of-the-church-series?utm_source=academic.logos.com&utm_medium=blog&utm_content=2017-06-27-wilhite-reading-plan&utm_campaign=promo-logospro2017″ link_text=”127-volume Fathers of the Church Series.”]

Shawn J. Wilhite is currently Assistant Professor of Christian Studies at California Baptist University in Riverside, California. Wilhite holds a Th.M. and is currently a Ph.D. Candidate (2017) at Southern Seminary in New Testament and Early Christianity. His books include “I am Patrick”: Life and Theology Patrick of Ireland (Christian Focus, 2014), a forthcoming commentary on the Didache in The Apostolic Fathers Commentary Series (of which he is editor), and The Apostolic Fathers Greek Reader (Glossa House, 2016). He also edits for and co-organizes The Center for Ancient Christian Studies.

An earlier version of this article first appeared on Shawn’s professional blog, Doctrinae Coram Deo.


Eager to start a similar reading plan? Or create one of your own with modern theologians?

Check out this video by the Logos Pro team, demonstrating the fully-customizable reading plans possible in Logos 7:

 

 

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16 comments
  • I really appreciate this challenge. I just finished Athanasius’ “On the Incarnation of the Word,” and am starting some Christological works by Gregory of Nyssa right now. Thanks again.

  • I mainly enjoyed the YouTube link to the Navy Seals telling me to wake up at 4:30 am and quit eating chocolate chip cookies.

    Really great post. Inspiring and helpful.

  • A useful post, but I believe that most scholar would, even if following your advise, persist in their inability to read Seneca in Greek since all of his works are in Latin.

  • Good article and lists, however, I saw no Josephus or Philo — so important for New Testament studies.

  • Thank you for this encouraging post. With my current responsibilities I can only manage a half hour or so a day. This post has encouraged me to use that time aggressively.
    Loved the SEAL Team video. Can’t agree more with rising early. I think that you will find that, if questioned, all successful people are early risers, even on their off days.

  • This is really inspiring. Thanks for posting! I’m not a professional scholar, only a pastor, but I went through McLean’s book, Hellenistic and Biblical Greek: A Graduated Reader. It was a great way to get started reading Greek outside of the New Testament. After McLean I’ve gone through several Loeb Classical volumes. One of my favorite things to do over the past year is to go through the later volumes of the Cambridge Ancient History and then after reading them, go through several of the primary resources that were related to the period. I’ve thought in a very different way about the NT and it’s reception since then. I feel an “awareness” that I would have never had if I just stayed in the NT only (to use your term).

    • Helpful comment, thanks Jason. Your approach is commendable, and seems to be contributing to your appreciation for and understanding of the NT. Keep up the good work.

  • Shawn, you wrote that youI “read ancient language literature without a computer, and only with a lexicon.” So, what lexicon(s) do you use?

    Thanks for this article. I too now wake up at 4:30am and start reading after my morning prayers, and once I’m done reading I head out for a run or off to jiu-jitsu class.

    • Hi, Thomas:

      Great question and I’m happy to share what I have used over the past couple of years. I move through a couple of lexicons in order to gain better familiarity with the style and contribution of each.

      Starting out in the GNT, I had great success and regularly recommend the abbreviated Danker published with Chicago University Press (http://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/C/bo6830408.html).

      However, this did not help me with the patristic readings or LXX literature. For these, I have moved between Lampe, Patristic Lexicon, and all three versions of LSJ (Big LSJ, Middle Liddell, and the smaller version). Currently, I am making regular use of Middle Liddell for all my Greek readings (GNT, Patristics, LXX, and Classical Greek literature). Though it doesn’t have every word that I need for the LXX or Patristic literature, it suffices for my needs with an occasional missing entry.

      For Latin, because I often travel in the morning to a coffee shop instead of using my Study, I will take an abbreviated Latin lexicon. For the most part, I have been pleased with Lewis, An Elementary Latin Dictionary (https://global.oup.com/academic/product/an-elementary-latin-dictionary-9780199102051?prevNumResPerPage=20&lang=en&cc=us).

  • Hi Shawn. Thanks for this…it’s got me stirred up to buckle down. One question: what is “the DSS”? Thanks.

    • Peter: the DSS is shorthand for the Dead Sea Scrolls. We have a few other posts on theLAB discussing what they are and how best to study them. Just search “DSS” on the site. Enjoy!

      • Ah, yes. Thanks! I searched google for “DSS” and didn’t get anything that seemed applicable. Never thought to search theLAB for it but will do.

Written by Shawn Wilhite
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