MyFantasyLibraryA lot of people would read more books if they knew which ones were valuable. Some people who don’t read books about God, the Bible, Torah, theology, Messiah, faith, and similar topics don’t understand as yet what a regular diet of these books can do for your day to day life. The MJ Musings Book List is my recommendation of the most useful books about Judaism, Christianity, Messianic Judaism, and matters of faith and spirituality.

It is a practical list. So in each category I give only a top few choices and then list some other notables. There are many good books. My criteria: these are books I have read (often more than once) and found to be the most useful. Some books will be put under notable instead of being top choices because I feel they may be more academic than the typical reader would care for or they may simply be great books, but not as good as the top choices.

Being biased, I include on this list a number of my own books. I would not have written them if I didn’t think they filled an essential function for the Messianic Jewish and Jewishly informed Christian world.

Faith
• God in Search of Man, Abraham Joshua Heschel. Heschel is a writer you sip, and God in Search of Man is fine wine. It is philosophy and faith. He deals with the toughest issues of belief and points to wonder and awe and splendor in the world as signs. This is, in my opinion, a top-ten, must-have book for every thinking person of faith (and some who do not have faith).
The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis. Some residents of hell get a field trip to heaven. With a literarily informed imagination, Lewis paints a picture of faith and life in the world to come that is second to none. This is another top ten book in my mind.
• Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis. While I would not say this is Lewis’s best book, it is accessible and its topics are invaluable. Some say Lewis is a bit difficult to read but Mere Christianity is one of the easiest of his books to penetrate. The argument from desire is far and away my favorite, an idea that has captured my imagination and which greatly informs my faith.
• NOTABLES:Miracles, C.S. Lewis. Obviously, I like Lewis. Miracles will be for many a more difficult read. But it is short and profound. A Grief Observed, also Lewis. Is God a cosmic sadist or an absentee landlord? When Lewis found and lost in such a short time the love of his life, he honestly grappled with this. His reflections are honest and painful, but he dispels doubts about God’s character by the end.

Are you a book lover and an avid learner? I have two email lists you should know about. The MJ Musings email list is a weekly update, with links and extras. Sign up here. The Daily D’var is my notes on the daily readings of Torah and accompanying Gospel portions, also with my notes. Sign up here.

Spirituality
• Everyday Holiness, Alan Morinis. A practical guide to transforming your thoughts and ways with mussar. This is a modern book which draws on classic works and focuses on the practical.
• Mesillat Yesharim (The Path of the Upright), Chaim Luzzatto (the Ramchal). Be sure to get the recent JPS edition edited by and commented on by Rabbi Ira Stone. This is one of the classic texts of Mussar, a Jewish way of godliness. 
• Confessions, Augustine. There are sections you may decide to skim. This is a classic for a reason.
• The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis. Love is the number one topic in spirituality, but we often assume others rank higher (prayer). Lewis knows the literature on love but he writes without any hint of academic style.
• The Siddur. I recommend the Koren Sacks Siddur. Learn what to pray and when. It is not necessary to pray every prayer in the Siddur and it is good to learn from a Jewish or Messianic Jewish community.

Torah Study
• The Pentateuch and Haftorahs, J.H. Hertz. You need a chumash (a Pentateuch with the parallel readings in the prophets and some annotations by the rabbis). This one is, in my opinion, the best overall. I would avoid the Stone Chumash if I were you.
• FFOZ Torah Club, Vol. 1, Unrolling the Scroll, Daniel Lancaster. Not a book, but a year-long study guide.
• The JPS Torah Commentaries. The best combination of scholarship readability, rabbinic references, historical context, and literary insight. Period.
• Who Wrote the Bible, Richard Friedman. The truth, explained simply and rigorously, about how the Torah and Hebrew Bible came together.
• NOTABLES: See under “Hebrew Bible.” If you want some simple and accessible introduction to the sacrifices, Temple, purity laws, and so on, consider my book, A New Look at the Old Testament. The Commentators’ Bible, Michael Carasik. Four volumes presently and the fifth and final is in the works. The commentary of Rashi, Nachmanides, Ibn Ezra, Rashbam and a sprinkling of others is all laid out page per page. Awesome if you want to delve into the medieval commentators (not to be taken as the last word by any means, but deep and valuable for study).

Hebrew Bible
• A New Look at the Old Testament, Derek Leman. An easy read which will make seemingly difficult ideas simple (like the sacrifice and purity laws, the prophets, Messianic prophecy, and wisdom literature).
• Who Wrote the Bible, Richard Friedman. The truth, explained simply and rigorously, about how the Torah and Hebrew Bible came together.
• The Eerdman’s Dictionary of the Bible, ed. David Noel Freedman.If you have only one reference book, get this one or the New Bible Dictionary, eds. Marshall, Millard, and Wiseman.
• The Zondervan Atlas of the Bible. Carta has some great stuff, especially The Sacred Bridge, ed. Anson Rainey, Steven R. Notley — but it is too detailed and expensive for most users. The Zondervan atlas will cover your needs quite well.
• The JPS Commentaries. The best combination of scholarship readability, rabbinic references, historical context, and literary insight. Period.
• OTHER COMMENTARIES ON BOOKS OF THE HEBREW BIBLE
… Genesis: Three recommendations. John Walton (NIV Application Commentary) and Nahum Sarna (JPS Commentary) and the classics by Umberto Cassuto (From Adam to Noah, From Noah to Abraham).
… Exodus: Two recommendations, Nahm Sarna (JPS Commentary) and the classic commentary by Umberto Cassuto.
… Leviticus: Jacob Milgrom (Anchor-Yale) is three volumes, too much for most people. He also has a shorter commentary with Fortress Press that will do for many people who don’t need all of the detail.
… Numbers: Jacob Milgrom in the JPS Commentary series.
… Deuteronomy: Jeffrey Tigay in the JPS Commentary series or Moshe Weinfeld in the Anchor-Yale series.
… Isaiah: Probably the easiest and best starter is John Goldingay (NIBC). It is hard to find a good commentary on Isaiah. That’s why I am writing one (slowly, maybe before retirement age I will be done).
… Proverbs: Michael Fox (Anchor-Yale) is an education in wisdom, to be sure.
… Ecclesiastes: The JPS Commentary is by Michael Fox. Who could ask for more?
… Job: The NIV Application series volume by John Walton.
… Ruth: The JPS Commentary on Ruth is one of the finest commentaries I have read on any book of the Bible.

Rabbinic Lit
• Everyman’s Talmud, Abraham Cohen. It’s a topical arrangement of the theology and ideas of the Mishnah, Talmud, Midrash and some other classical rabbinic writings. It’s a perennial seller and a classic for a reason.
• Parables in Midrash, David Stern. This is David Stern the University of Pennsylvania professor (not the Messianic Jewish author). This book is delightful and will help you understand the parables of Yeshua. Not an easy read.
• The Essential Talmud, Adin Steinsaltz. Get a recent version as this one has been expanded in later editions. This is a classic explanation from an Orthodox point of view.
• NOTABLES: The Gate Behind the Wall, Samuel Heilman. A story of a Conservative Jew who enters the world of Orthodox Talmud study in Israel. Insight into the intense world of study in Judaism.

Yeshua
• Yeshua in Context, Derek Leman. This is not to claim I have written the best book ever on Yeshua. Yet my book is short, assumes a Jewish context, references the best scholarship without being academic, and gives you a ton of information in short space. I also think I manage to convey inpsiration.
• Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, Richard Bauckham. This is a top ten book and I think everyone who cares about faith in Yeshua should read it. How we really know where the stories and sayings in the Gospels came from and why we can believe them.
• Divine Messiah, Derek Leman. How we know Jesus was and is divine. Why it matters. What it means.
• Yeshua Our Atonement, Derek Leman. See more information under “Theology.”
• The King Jesus Gospel, Scot McKnight. What is the point of Yeshua having been here? What is the message? How does it compare with the “gospel” commonly found in modern churches? I might quibble with McKnight over a few points, but this is a paradigm-changing book and the change he advocates is very needed.
• The New Moses: A Matthean Typology, Dale C. Allison, Jr. This one gets a bit technical in parts. But most readers will enjoy the insights into Matthew’s literary themes and the resulting depiction of Yeshua so much they will forgive me for recommending an academic book.
• FFOZ Torah Club, Volume 4, Chronicles of Messiah. Daniel Lancaster. It’s not really a book, but a year-long course in the gospels. Lancaster brings to bear early Messianic Jewish scholarship, rabbinic literature, insights from the church fathers, and the Hebrew gospels of Franz Delitzsch for a unique reading of Yeshua’s life.
• NOTABLES: Most of the following books are too long for most readers. Some will think Raymond Brown too critical in his scholarship. N.T. Wright is so good at history, literature, and explaining things, but he is supersessionist. Nonetheless, these are all highly recommended for serious reading. The New Testament and the People of God, N.T. Wright. Jesus and the Victory of God, N.T. Wright. The Resurrection of the Son of God, N.T. Wright. The Birth of the Messiah, Raymond Brown. The Death of Messiah, Vols. 1 and 2, Raymond Brown. The Gospel According to John I-XII, Raymond Brown. The Gospel According to John, XIII-XXI, Raymond Brown.

Theology: What It All Means
• Divine Messiah, Derek Leman. How we know Jesus was and is divine. Why it matters. What it means.
• The King Jesus Gospel, Scot McKnight. No one excels like McKnight at making difficult theology simple. And he is always up to date on his scholarship. What did Yeshua come here to do? What does his life, death, and resurrection mean? Along with N.T. Wright’s book on justification (see below) this book will correct many of the puzzling missteps of gospel theories that have floated around in Protestantism.
• Yeshua Our Atonement, Derek Leman. When someone asks, “What benefit could there possibly be in a Messiah dying for people?” you might want to do better than look like a deer caught in headlights. What need is there for Jewish people who have Torah to also have atonement? How does Leviticus come together with the death of Messiah? What do the purity laws and priestly mysteries and Temple worship in Torah have to do with anything? Isn’t atonement so much more than Messiah’s death and forgiveness? (You bet!)
• Justification, N.T. Wright. One of the most important and certainly the dominant element in Pauline studies, justification is never explained more accurately (and not as in the Old Perspective) as in Wright’s book. I wish all theologically minded followers of Yeshua would read this book.
• The Deliverance of God, by Douglas Campbell. It’s 1,200 pages and is a difficult book to read. Why is it on the list? Because Campbell has gotten to the bottom of what Paul is really about. Misunderstanding Romans has led to misunderstanding some key issues in theology for a long time. The views of Karl Barth lie in the background of Campbell’s theology and we see God as benevolent rather than wrathful, a salvation that is free and liberating rather than legal and retributive, and so on.
• A Community Called Atonement, Scot McKnight. Get beyond the “God punished Jesus instead of us” simplistic understanding of atonement.
• The World to Come, Derek Leman. Eschatology. Short. Practical. Inspiring. Informative. Main idea: the Bible gives images of the world to come, which is physical and not ethereal, but says also that desire is a clue to what things will be like.

Practical Issues
• Divorce and Remarriage in the Church, David Instone-Brewer-. Although this book is written for Christians, Instone-Brewer is a leading expert in rabbinics and his explanation of the texts on divorce is suitable for a Messianic Jewish halakhah on the matter.

Afterlife
• The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis. It would likely pain Lewis to be put ahead of Dante here, but this book will inspire you and open your imagination far more than Dante. This is easily my favorite book of all time (well, third, behind the Bible and The Lord of the Rings). Some residents of hell get a field trip to heaven. With a literarily informed imagination, Lewis paints a picture of faith and life in the world to come that is second to none.
• The World to Come, Derek Leman. Short. Practical. Inspiring. Informative. Main idea: the Bible gives images of the world to come, which is physical and not ethereal, but says also that desire is a clue to what things will be like.

Jewish Fiction
• As a Driven Leaf, Milton Steinberg. This is the story of Elisha ben Abuyah, a Mishnaic rabbi (one of the Tannaim) judged to be a heretic (c. 130 CE). It is historical fiction at its best. There could hardly be a more poignant story, especially Rabbi Meir’s affection for his teacher even after the ban is pronounced on him. This will give you a feel for the world of the ancient rabbis.
• The Chosen, Chaim Potok. Virtually all of Chaim Potok’s novels are sympathetic portrayals of the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox world from the perspective of modernist Jews. They blend the themes of knowledge and progress nostalgic for a world of simple, Orthodox belief. Very powerful drama.

Pauline Studies
• Paul Didn’t Eat Pork, Derek Leman. The simplest and most readable portrayal you will find about the New Perspective on Paul (and the Judaism-friendly Paul).
• Paul Within Judaism, ed. Mark Nanos. Essays by scholars from the Radical New Perspective. This is a view of Paul as a Jew who remained a Jew, but who insisted that non-Jews were called by God to faith without becoming Jews themselves.
• Paul: The Jewish Teacher of Gentiles, forthcoming by Derek Leman. Okay, it doesn’t exist yet, but I am blogging about it and if you are on my email list, you will get parts of it in advance of publication.
• The Deliverance of God, by Douglas Campbell. It’s 1,200 pages and is a difficult book to read. Why is it on the list? Because Campbell has gotten to the bottom of what Paul is really about. Misunderstanding Romans has led to misunderstanding some key issues in theology for a long time. The views of Karl Barth lie in the background of Campbell’s theology and we see God as benevolent rather than wrathful, a salvation that is free and liberating rather than legal and retributive, and so on.
• The Holy Epistle to the Galatians, Daniel Lancaster. Very readable as these are sermons, but not the trite kind of sermons you might find elsewhere. These are full of literary and theological insight with a powerful application of grace to everyday living — a mature reading of Galatians.
• Reinventing Paul, John Gager. Explains theories about Paul and why the radical new perspective is a must, all in one short book.
• NOTABLES: The Irony of Galatians, Mark Nanos. The Mystery of Romans, Mark Nanos. The only reason I list Nanos’s books under “Notables” is because they are very difficult reading. But if you read academic studies and want to understand Paul, get these.

Other New Testament
• Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, Richard Bauckham. I teach seminars on this material because in an age of skepticism it is powerful to read well-researched evidence for the hand of eyewitnesses in the gospels.
• The Jewish Annotated New Testament, eds. Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler. An unequaled resource for concise reference material on Jewish parallels and connections in the New Testament.
• The Delitzsch Hebrew Gospels, Franz Delitzsch. A Hebrew re-translation of the gospels with a new English translation by Vine of David. These are the accounts of Yeshua retroverted to Jewish narrative. It is about time the gospels were put into Jewish style.
• The Eerdman’s Dictionary of the Bible, ed. David Noel Freedman.If you have only one reference book, get this one or the New Bible Dictionary, eds. Marshall, Millard, and Wiseman.
• The Zondervan Atlas of the Bible. Carta has some great stuff, especially The Sacred Bridge, ed. Anson Rainey, Steven R. Notley — but it is too detailed and expensive for most users. The Zondervan atlas will cover your needs quite well.

Messianic Judaism
• Introduction to Messianic Judaism, eds. David J. Rudolph and Joel Willitts. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013. The best introduction to Messianic Judaism, its practices, and issues of relationship to the Jewish community and the Church.
• Postmissionary Messianic Judaism, Mark Kinzer. This should be must reading for all serious Messianic Jews and Judaically aware Christians. The gospel message is explained as a Jewish message in conformity with Torah and tradition.

Jewish-Christian Relations
• Postmissionary Messianic Judaism, Mark Kinzer. See above under “Messianic Judaism.”
• The God of Israel and Christian Theology, R. Kendall Soulen. The definitive book on erasing anti-Judaism and supersessionism from Christian thought. I wish all pastors would read this book.
• Future Israel, Barry Horner. Soulen’s book is more theological. Horner’s book is more about scriptural exposition and quoting classic Protestant preachers who loved the people of Israel. This book is a great one to give to an evangelical pastor to challenge them to reject supersessionism (replacement theology).

2nd Temple Period
• Judaism: Practice and Belief: 63 BCE – 66 CE, E.P. Sanders. This is no easy read. You may want to work slowly through it, highlight it, write key references in the front. This will inform your understanding of Pharisees and Sadducees with none of the myths of pseudo-scholarship or the taint of historical Christian misunderstandings.
• From the Maccabees to the Mishnah, Shaye Cohen. Easier to read that Sanders. Doesn’t cover as much detail, but masterfully handles the history and sources. This will help you put away myths that Yeshua was a Talmudic-style rabbi.

Other Ancient Jewish Writings
• The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, Vols. 1 and 2, ed. James Charlesworth. The definitive collection and introduction to works like Jubilees and 1 Enoch and Psalms of Solomon. Indispensable for serious study of the New Testament and Jewish context.
• The Apocrypha, NRSV Version. Just get any NRSV Bible that includes the Apocrypha and read away.

Online Information
The Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations, http://umjc.org. The Messianic Jewish Rabbinical Council, http://ourrabbis.org. MJ Studies (online papers and bibliographies), http://www.mjstudies.com. The Messianic Jewish Theological Institute, http://mjti.org. The New School for Jewish Studies, http://www.nsfjs.org. Vine of David Publications, http://vineofdavid.org. Messianic Jewish Resources (Lederer), http://messianicjewish.net.

Stuff That Should Be Here
This list needs to be expanded. Hopefully I will find time to periodically update it. I am always game for readers sending in suggestions for additions to the list.

4 Comments

  1. Dear Brother,
    I’ve come to the place in my spiritual journey, (study of the scriptures/”understanding”), where I suspect that the traditional, protestant, Christian teaching that I’ve generally been taught/managed to learn from commonly available materials, is somewhat lacking. My musings have lead me beyond what seems to be (intentionally) taught repeatedly shallowly, year after year, cycle after cycle, in Sunday School. I see a gap, or transition, between the clearly laid out laws of the Old Covenant and the complete ushering in/functioning of the Kingdom to come, where the Messiah reigns physically. I have grown to appreciate grace more and more, and hope in its covering my ignorances/misapplications! I am overwhelmed with all of the reading materials that I’ve discovered here. Do you have a suggestion as to where to start? Thank you in advance!

  2. Hi Derek,

    I don’t know if you remember me. I used to be an editor for Lederer (1995-1999), during the time that you wrote your commentary on Proverbs. Just wanted to touch base and say hello.

    L’chaim,
    Alan

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