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How the Bible Became Holy Paperback – April 28, 2015
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Satlow begins his study in the Northern Kingdom of Israel. The Bible was produced in a time when the vast majority of the population were illiterate. Scribes in the Southern Kingdom of Judah began to compile the books of the Bible following the Assyrian conquering of the Northern Kingdom.. It was only during the Jewish diaspora following the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem in the sixth century B.C.E. that the ancient Hebrew of the various texts was translated into Greek in Alexandria (the Greek Septuagint translation) that the Bible began to be viewed as holy and authoritative in matters of faith and practice. The development of the synagogues and the work of rabbis assisted in making the Bible holy.
As a Christian, I gained the most knowledge by reading the section on the New Testament. Dr. Satlow's account of the life of Jesus and the letters of Paul were instructive. It was not until the fourth century that the New Testament canon was completed. The book is well illustrated. It was worth the money.
So when I was in graduate school at The University of Chicago, and I had connections with the Divinity School, I became curious about how the Bible came to be. I was guided toward historians who were working with the new literary criticism and the recently-discovered ancient sources, including the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Coptic gnostic texts of Nag Hammadi. My interest continues to the present, and I've enjoyed the works, in particular, of Bart Ehrman on the New Testament. I learned a lot about how & why these texts came to be written and transmitted, as well as which books were excluded and why.
When I noticed Satlow's book, published by Yale, written by a Professor of Judaic studies at Brown, and lauded by a Harvard scholar I knew, I decided to read it, expecting the same focus -- the texts, themselves -- only concentrating more on the Old Testament and shaped by a Jewish studies/histories point-of-view..
Yes, Satlow does discuss the historical background behind many of the Bible's books, its texts. But his focus is less about the texts than about what those texts meant at various periods, and how those texts came to mean something very new in human history: Religion centered on texts seen, themselves, as holy. His title says it: Satlow gives us a history not of "what was written", but how "what was written" became holy.
In particular, he delves into how the social/political circumstances shaped these texts' journey toward holiness, and how the Bible's journey toward holiness in turn shaped its communities.
Satlow doesn't entirely ignore the texts. You will get a once-over-lightly, for example, about the various sources most modern scholars believe were incorporated into the Pentateuch (the Books of Moses, the first five books of the Old Testament). More briefly, he does the same with sources for the New Testament texts. But if you're only or mainly interested in the texts, themselves, you may find Satlow frustrating, not going into enough depth. I myself, came to it with a hope of knowing more about the texts. So I had to re-orient myself.
But once I cued in on Satlow's purpose, here, I loved it. It opened up new worlds for me. Satlow really placed the (to me) confusing history of Israel & Judah and their various conquerors into how that shaped not just what was written, but how what was written changed its meanings & its communities. My confusion about Pharisees and Sadducees really cleared up, and I began the appreciate how each, individually, and in their struggles against each other, shaped not only Jewish approaches, but our Christian approaches to both the New and Old Testaments. I began to really "get" how the Bible did become holy, because it certainly didn't start out that way.
I can see how, if this journey doesn't fascinate you like it does me, you might get bogged down in the ever-changing relationships between scribes and texts and rulers and reading publics and illiterate religious communities. But through these, Satlow really does make his points, and he cites many secondary sources, if you're interested in going further into this process.
I also found it mind-opening to see the formation of "what the Bible meant; what the Bible was assumed to be", including the New Testament, all from a Jewish historical point-of-view. It never occurred to me, for example, HOW Paul and, to some extent, Jesus were citing "scripture". Yes, I knew a fair bit about how specific books were accepted into the canon of the New Testament. But I knew little about this process in the Old Testament. And in this canon-making process, I just assumed that, from the start, from the time all these texts were first written, all of them were considered "holy" somewhat in the way that American fundamentalists or strict-construction Catholics read the Bible.
Nothing could be further from the truth. And this truth, while it didn't set me free, certainly had me thinking in some new and more thoughtful ways. (Though I'm not sure I agree with all of Satlow's interpretations. I'm still thinking about that -- which is also good.)
I fear my description makes this seem terribly dry. But unlike one reviewer, I found Satlow's writing clear and, occasionally, even fun & dryly humorous. He doesn't practice "safe text"; he boldly interprets the meaning of whatever data he does have, even when it's missing a lot. Undoubtedly, some of his interpretations will be found wrong with more sources of information. But at least to me, none of his interpretations were dull or just out-of-his-head. I got the impression that Satlow, like any good teacher I've had, aggressively stimulates his readers into their own thinking. And that, for me, was part of the book's fun!
So, if you know what you're getting, here, and if that interests you, I think you'll enjoy this book. It certainly won't bore you!