The first five books of the Bible are called the Torah, Hebrew for law or instruction. They are also called the Pentateuch, which is Greek for five scrolls. They are at the heart of Judaism. For Christians they are a major part of the Word of God. They tell the story God’s people from the creation of the world until its arrival under Moses to the promised land. Much of that story is familiar to us, but understanding the Pentateuch can still be challenging for modern readers. In this interview, Dr. John Bergsma will explain his pick of the books that can guide us through the Pentateuch.

Dr. John Bergsma is a Full Professor of Theology at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, in Steubenville, Ohio. He served as a Protestant pastor for four years before entering the Catholic Church in 2001. He specializes in the Old Testament and the Dead Sea Scrolls. Among his various books are Bible Basics for Catholics: A New Picture of Salvation History and A Catholic Introduction to the Bible: The Old Testament (co-authored with Brant Pitre).

  1. Pentateuch as Narrative
    by John Sailhamer
  2. The Old Testament of the Old Testament
    by R.W. Moberly
  3. Murmuring Against Moses
    by Jeff Morrow and John Bergsma
  4. A Father Who Keeps His Promises
    by Scott Hahn
  5. The Book of the Torah
    by Thomas W. Mann

What led you to become an Old Testament scholar?
I was always drawn to the Scriptures. I grew up in a devout Protestant home. My mother taught me to reading the Bible through a year, as a devotional practice, when I was twelve years old. I kept that up through my adolescence and into college. As a result, I developed a great love for Scripture. My main way of communing with the Lord—my main form of prayer—was meditation on Scripture and daily reading of it. That contributed to me feeling a call to the Ministry of the Word: to be a pastor in the denomination that I was part of. When I got into the seminary, I discovered that I had academic gifts and began to explore the possibility of getting a doctorate in theology. I had always loved languages and had a BA in classical languages. Old Testament is the most language intensive subdiscipline of theology. You need to know Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and, preferably, several languages that are cognate to Hebrew. With my proclivity for languages, it felt like a smart subdiscipline to get into.

There was a more spiritual dimension as well. Certain passages of the New Testament began to strike me very powerfully. For example, there was the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. Near the end of the parable, the rich man pleads with father Abraham to send Lazarus back to his brothers. Abraham famously says, “They have Moses and the prophets. The rich man complains, “If somebody comes back from the dead they shall believe,” and Abraham replies, “If they do not believe Moses and the prophets, they will not believe even if someone rises from the dead.” That is a very epic statement within the Gospel of Luke because it is looking forward to the resurrection of our Lord. In my own devotional reading of Scripture at that stage in my life, it struck me that the Old Testament—Moses and the prophets—is really foundational for understanding the Gospel. It struck me that part of the reason for the growth of heresies, for the evangelistic ineffectiveness of the Church in our own age, was a loss of faith in these foundational scriptural texts. That, together with statements from the Lord to that effect (e.g. “If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote of me.” John 5:46) really contributed to a sense of call to devote my life to the study and the defence of Moses and the prophets to shore up faith in these foundational scriptural books so that people could understand and appreciate the fullness of the Gospel.

Although you have selected commentaries and guides written by modern biblical scholars. Is there the one of the Church Fathers that you would single out for his commentaries on the books of the Pentateuch?
One cannot go too far wrong with Augustine. Probably, his best-known work on a Pentateuchal book is The Literal Meaning of Genesis. In terms of biblical theology, Irenaeus does a wonderful job at identifying the different covenant areas that are represented already in the Old Testament narrative. Those are two Church Fathers to start with.

In drawing up your list of five best books on the Pentateuch, you appear to have followed two principles. First, you have not picked line-by-line commentaries but studies that present the big picture of the Pentateuch taken as a whole. Second, you have taken an ecumenical approach, picking both Catholic and Protestant guides to the Pentateuch. Is this a correct description of the principles behind your selection?
No, you're correct. I tried to pick at different stages of accessibility. At one end of the spectrum, Scott Hahn's A Father Who Keeps His Promises is very readable. Upper elementary students could appreciate it as well as adults. Thomas Mann is a step up in terms of complexity and accessibility; Sailhamer one step more. Then Moberly's book is not a commentary on the whole Pentateuch but a monograph that makes a very important point about Pentateuchal interpretation. My own work, written with Jeff Morrow, is probably the densest of the different books on our on our list. It is rather technical and gets into the history of scholarship on the Pentateuch. So, I have picked books that span a wide range of readability and coverage of the Pentateuch.


Your first book, John Sailhamer’s The Pentateuch as Narrative, takes the traditional view that Moses is the human author of the first five books of the Bible, and that these constitute a single work. Is the Pentateuch a single book or five different ones? Does it have a single human author, Moses, or many different ones?
Both are true. The Pentateuch is a literary unit as a whole as well as a composition in five books. Each book has its own character and yet together they present us with a collection that has a unity to it: a beginning, an end, and narrative resolutions. An analogy would be Tolkien's famous trilogy, The Lord of the Rings. Each of the three books has a different character, and yet it contributes to an entire storyline.

I am convinced of what I would call substantial Mosaic authorship. In other words, Moses is the primary source of the material that is in the Pentateuch. This is the traditional view of the Church.

As to the author of the Pentateuch, we can recognise that there are different hands present. I am convinced of what I would call substantial Mosaic authorship. In other words, Moses is the primary source of the material that is in the Pentateuch. This is the traditional view of the Church. We can see evidence in certain instances of later hands at work: editorial remarks, glosses, and things of that nature. Theologically, what is most important is that they assert that the laws were revealed by God to Moses at Sinai. The laws are connected to the historical Moses. That is a claim that the text itself makes, whereas, for example, on the issue of the authorship of the Book of Genesis, the text itself makes no claims. We are just dealing with tradition at that point.

We can safely say that the Pentateuch did involve an editorial process, but the narrative and the structure of it also seems to be the product of a single mind because of its coherence. The Scriptures—and both Jewish and Christian tradition—give us strong reason to attribute the substantial authorship or source of most of the content to the figure of Moses.

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