Commentary Magazine

Missing the Text

How the Bible Became Holy
By Michael L. Satlow
Yale University Press, 368 pages

How did the Bible originate, and how did it acquire the sanctity and authority that it has held, and still holds, for millions of people? The answers offered in the Bible itself (whether in the form of the Jewish Tanakh or of the two-testament Christian scriptures) raise questions of their own and often seem simplistic in the light of modern historical research. In this accessible volume, Michael L. Satlow, a professor of religious studies and Judaic studies at Brown University, seeks to provide answers that are more compelling for being truer to the diversity of the Bible itself and to the shifting social and historical situations of the Jews and Christians who compiled it.

In Satlow’s telling, the Bible became holy (to use his wording) only in the third century C.E., long after all the books of the Tanakh and the New Testament alike had been written. Before that, he argues, “the ‘peoples of the book’ did not know their book very well,” and biblical literature was the preserve of a very small group of scribes who had little influence on the larger society. They wrote their books “mainly as academic exercises,” mostly for each other. For everyone else, Satlow notes, “religious life was centered on the temple, its sacrifice, and local customs, not a text.”

Even in the period of the Second Temple (ca. 515 B.C.E. to 70 C.E.), in which most scholars detect a major transition toward a more text-based mode of religion, Satlow sees little change in the broad shape of Judaism (and, late in the period, nascent Christianity as well).

Although the Bible reports that a Persian emperor commissioned a Jewish priest named Ezra, “a scholar in the law of the God of heaven,” to teach and implement that law in Judah at some time in the fifth century B.C.E., Satlow insists that Ezra was “first and foremost a Persian functionary” and that “his attempt to establish the written text that he brought with him as law—his claim that the text had normative authority—was his own idea.” It was also “largely a failure.” Customary practice and oral transmission of narratives continued to reign supreme, with texts remaining of interest only to a tiny elite of government officials and professional scribes.

Half a millennium later, in the period in which Christianity originated, the situation, he contends, remained largely intact—so much so that the enduring image of Jesus as deeply engaged with scripture is the product of the Gospel writers. The historical Jesus, Satlow writes, addressed the practices of his time “on the basis of tradition rather than text.”

Things had not changed much, in Satlow’s view, a generation later, when the Jewish historian Josephus wrote that the Jews regarded only 22 books as authoritative. This was “the somewhat wishful thinking of a Jewish intellectual,” Satlow claims, for in his view “an implicit collection of texts to which most Jews would have ascribed authority is not really a canon.” All Josephus really meant was that, “unlike the Greeks, [the Jews] did not have contradictory histories.”

What, then, brought about the momentous change to the text-based religion so familiar in different ways to Jews and Christians today? In Satlow’s reconstruction, the key factor is the emergence in the second century B.C.E. of the Sadducees, a political faction or religious sect (the difference is not applicable in the context of the times) “who, in their attempt to argue against the established customs of the old aristocracy and priests, developed the notion that authoritative texts, or scripture, had normative authority that should guide religious practice.” The Sadducees and their arch-rivals the Pharisees found “a common meeting place in the court of a rich patron, the Gamaliel family,” who were, Satlow claims, “important not because of their learning but because of their money and influence” and the “official standing vis-à-vis the Roman authorities” that this afforded them. With this compromise, as he would have it, Rabbinic Judaism was born, and the characteristic Sadducean focus on scripture triumphed.

But even then, the Jews had no “formal canon,” a phenomenon that comes into being only in the fourth century—in Christianity first and only afterward in Judaism.

How the Bible Became Holy reflects well the minimalistic and secularizing impulses that have grown in influence in academic biblical studies in recent decades. It is provocative and will surely be disquieting to many religious traditionalists. Unfortunately, Satlow’s argumentation along the way is often shaky and, in a few places, seems simply wrong.

He tells us, for example, that “the idea of the survival of the soul is reported as a distinctively Pharisaic belief.” But Josephus, a contemporary of these groups, after all, ascribes the same belief to another group, the Essenes, as well.

At one point, Satlow argues that the Hebrew prophets, who lived, for the most part, from the ninth to the seventh centuries B.C.E., were usually functionaries of the Temple, although they existed apart from its rites. The monotheism they preached, he says, had little resonance outside elite circles.

This claim that the prophets were usually Temple functionaries and thus “part of the establishment” needs to reckon more directly with the prophetic texts, of which there are many, that deliver slashing critiques of the Temple, priests, kings, and even other prophets. All in all, prophetic literature was much more dynamic and diverse than his generalization allows. Along the same lines, in reporting that “those [prophetic] oracles that demonstrably never came to pass fell away,” Satlow ignores Biblical texts in which such oracles were updated—quite conceivably, a telltale sign of their proto-scriptural status in the minds of those who re-used them. And, to the same point, his judgment that “Ecclesiastes [or, in Hebrew, Qohelet] had no use for tradition of any kind” misses the widespread and strategic allusions to earlier biblical literature in the book by that name.

In other instances, Satlow takes positions that some may find arguable but are certainly more in doubt than his discussion suggests. He tells us, for instance, that “synagogues—whether we use the term to refer to a dedicated physical place or just an ad hoc group of Jews engaged in either prayer or the teaching of religious texts or practices—are first attested in Egypt in the third century B.C.E.” Here, Satlow extrapolates too quickly from the archaeological data. Are we really to imagine that Jews without convenient access to the Temple (even those who lived in the Galilee, for example, or in Babylonia) did not gather regularly for prayer and study long before the first identifiable synagogue remains appeared? Absence of evidence, as the saying goes, is not necessarily evidence of absence.

Satlow’s historical minimalism is most evident when it is directed against traditional religious positions. But on points that buttress his own view, our author is actually quite a maximalist, confidently making judgments on matters about which many historians would say we simply do not have the necessary information.

Satlow claims to know, for example, that texts were not important outside the Temple and palace until a very late date and that Ezra’s attempt to establish the laws of his God (whatever that meant in context) was “his own idea” and thereby lacked deep roots and resonance in Jewish tradition. This is provocative, but it’s nothing more than a theory. And Satlow claims to know vastly more about the Sadducees, Pharisees, the authorship of various Dead Sea Scrolls, and the historical Jesus—all of them topics of lively scholarly dispute for decades or even centuries—than the available evidence allows.

Satlow even claims to know that the Pharisees came from “wealthier, connected families” (the same has often been said about the Sadducees) and that it was their Sadducean rivals who pioneered the idea of scriptural authority—a key claim for which there is no clear evidence. His contention that early rabbinic Judaism resulted from a compromise between Pharisees and Sadducees does have its defenders, but it, too, is not without serious problems.

 The weaknesses run deeper. In dating the origins of the idea of biblical authority so late, Satlow fails to give attention to notions of textual authority that were, in fact, well attested long before ancient Israel ever emerged. For example, the concern of ancient Near Eastern rulers for the public deposition and exhibition of legal and diplomatic texts and for the inviolability of the inscriptions themselves suggests one key source for the later Jewish and Christian notions of scriptural authority. Within ancient Israel, the historical sequence of literature now found in the Bible offers evidence of the mounting significance and social repercussions of written texts centuries before Satlow thinks “the Bible became holy.” Whereas the prophet Jeremiah, for example, tells of devouring the words of God, his younger contemporary Ezekiel speaks, in similar language, of eating a scroll God had presented to him. About a century later, toward the end of the sixth century B.C.E., the prophet Zechariah claims to have seen “a flying scroll,” whose contents strikingly resemble the Ten Commandments.

Even if Satlow is correct in his speculation that Jesus knew very little scripture, we must not underestimate the demonstrable fact that the New Testament authors regularly make their case for him in terms that cite or echo the Jewish Bible. This does not, of course, indicate the existence of a biblical canon in the narrow sense of an officially promulgated, closed list of authoritative books. But it does yield powerful evidence for the centrality of the Jewish scriptures already in the first century C.E.—well before Satlow thinks the key shift took place—and among groups that were not sympathetic to the Sadducees who, he believes, brought it about.

As for the notion that what became biblical literature had been the concern of only a tiny elite until the time of the Roman empire, it is as difficult to give a decisive refutation of such a claim as it is to marshal empirical evidence in its support. But again, there are characteristics in biblical texts themselves that speak strongly against it. The prophetic application of language found in the Torah to the people as a whole—very prominent, for example, in Ezekiel— casts substantial doubt on Satlow’s minimalism.

Examples like this, in fact, draw attention to the deepest problem with his volume: the failure to take sufficient account of the development of the biblical books over time, the impulses that drive their continuing composition over the centuries, and the presupposition of social authority on which these impulses are based. In the last analysis, it strains credibility to the breaking point to claim that the Jewish Bible became holy because a politically connected rabbinic elite succeeded in foisting its ideas upon masses who were at best indifferent and at worst gullible.

At the very beginning of his book, Satlow writes, with admirable modesty, “I confess that to this day I have not read the Bible, or even a single testament, cover to cover.” At the end, speaking of those who study the Bible, “analyzing its words for messages about what will happen or seeking direction in what we (as a community or an individual) should do in a particular situation,” he writes: “In the circles in which I travel, few read the Bible or any other text this way.” Both observations conform perfectly to what one would predict of a professor in an Ivy League university. The problem is that the central preoccupation of Satlow’s How the Bible Became Holy concerns a very different culture from that of the contemporary secular academy: How can we do justice to the ways Jews and Christians in antiquity read their respective scriptures—ways of reading that actually generated much of the literature of both collections and that differ profoundly from those dominant in the academy today?

To answer this question, we must first recognize that the early Jews and Christians did so within a rich and complex interpretive tradition and in interaction with other sources of authority. That includes, in the case of rabbinic Jews, the Oral Torah, the collection of practices and beliefs that were not in the texts but became common law. To grasp this reality requires much more of scholars (whether personally religious or not) than reading the Bible cover to cover: It requires that they enter into it with heightened attention to the particularity of its language and to the complex relationships among its parts. A focus on political history and broad generalizations at a considerable remove from the literature itself will not suffice.

For Satlow, it turns out, the political dimension is a matter of more than historical importance; its relevance is also contemporary. He ends his book by pointing out that the same dynamics that he finds problematic in antiquity are in evidence today:

The United States is itself a nation founded on a text, and it is the interpretation of that text that confers power. Most such authoritative readings of the U.S. Constitution by the Supreme Court spring from an oracular mode of reading. It is especially apparent in the legal idea of “originalism,” which sees the judicial task as recovering the true meaning and intention behind the Constitution (or any statute). The Constitution is seen as a perfect document written by perfect authors whose will must be recovered.

Here, Satlow has it backwards. Originalists do not characteristically maintain that the documents and authors are perfect. Rather, their core conviction is that the original meaning or intention must be regulative. They have no problem with the fact that the Constitution allows itself to be amended, as indeed has happened 27 times but would never have happened if the Constitution had been regarded as a perfect text authored by perfect men. For that reason, the correct analogue within biblical studies to Constitutional originalism is, ironically, the method that dominates in most universities and, in fact, sets the framework for Satlow’s own work: historical criticism.

This is the method that seeks to understand the scriptures in the context of their original authors, without prematurely harmonizing the individual texts to any continuing tradition or to the scholar’s personal convictions—religious, political, social, or other. It turns out that when historical criticism is properly applied to the question of how biblical texts came to be seen as sacred and authoritative, it gives us an image of the interaction of text, tradition, and community that is much subtler and more complex—and vastly more interesting—than the one this book reconstructs.

About the Author

Jon D. Levenson is the Albert A. List Professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard University and the author, most recently, of Inheriting Abraham: The Legacy of the Patriarch in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (Princeton University Press).

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