The Bible and the Believer (2)

The Bible and the Believer: How to Read the Bible Critically and Religiously
by Mark Zvi Brettler, Peter Enns, Daniel J. Harrington

• • •

One of my tasks this year will be to work on answering the two questions that Pete Enns raises regularly in his writings and podcasts:

  1. What is the Bible?
  2. What is the Bible for?

First, we are taking up this theme by considering a book Pete co-authored with Mark Brettler and Daniel Harrington (a Jewish and Catholic scholar, respectively), called The Bible and the Believer.

The Jewish perspective on reading the Bible both critically and religiously is given by Mark Zvi Brettler. Brettler is a member of the American Academy for Jewish Research and the Council of the Society of Biblical Literature, is the Bernice and Morton Lerner Professor of Jewish Studies in the Department of Religious Studies at Duke University. He is a co-editor of the The Jewish Study Bible.

I learned a great deal that I either did not know or had forgotten about the history of Jewish experience with the Bible in reading Mark Brettler’s chapter.

Brettler says that it is the Bible as interpreted and not the text itself that has been the primary focus of the Jewish religious tradition. The plain meaning of the biblical text has not been as important as its “decoded” meaning, for the text was often viewed as a cryptic document written in special divine speech.

Religiously, one may rightly say that the Jews have been “people of the Book” because they hear the words of scripture routinely in their services and celebrations.

Yet Judaism is not interested in the Torah, or in the entire Bible, primarily in terms of what the text first meant and how it originated, namely, from a historical-critical perspective. Tikva Frymer Kensky notes that the “centrality of the Torah is more symbolic than real, more celebrated than maintained,” and Wilfred Cantwell Smith is correct in his contention in his comparative study of Scripture that “the Bible has not been particularly important in Jewish life.”

…Judaism is best understood as “the evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people,”3 which takes, and has taken, many different forms. (pp. 21-22).

This was a surprising statement to me, but, as Brettler notes, in terms of critical engagement with the text, it is only in the last few decades that Jewish scholars have become actively engaged in critical biblical study. As a result, there is little that has been explored about how biblical criticism and Jewish religious practice might relate.

In terms of relating his Jewish perspective to Christians, Mark Brettler notes that one must remember that, in some ways, we are not talking about the same Bible. The Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible) is the entire Bible. Though rabbinic tradition functions in ways that are in some ways comparable to the ways Christians view the New Testament, it does not hold the same status as “scripture” for Jews.

Jews also organize the Hebrew Bible differently — with the threefold division of Torah/Prophets/Writings rather than the fourfold Torah/History/Wisdom and Poetry/Prophet scheme of the Christian Old Testament.

Furthermore, as mentioned earlier, though the Hebrew Bible is the Jewish scripture, it has not always functioned in as central a fashion as the Bible has for Christians. The Talmud largely took over that function, and Jews, for a variety of historical reasons, did not begin to engage in critical biblical studies until after World War II in the mid-20th century.

However, in many ways, practicing Jews have had to face the same struggles as their Christian neighbors in coming to grips with critical approaches to the Bible. Though there is no “pope” or “magisterium” in Judaism, the thirteen principles of faith of Moses Maimonides (12th c) have often been considered as giving an authoritative approach to the Bible. These principles include confessing the divine origin and unchangeable nature of the Torah given by God to Moses. “I believe with perfect faith that the entire Torah we now possess is the one given to Moses our teacher—may he rest in peace,” Maimonides’ eighth principle states (p. 25).

This is obviously at odds with a critical perspective, which examines the human element in the creation, transmission, purpose and use of the text. If Maimonides is followed, his article denies the very possibility of text and source criticism. However, as critical scholars (rightly) note, even when reading what the Torah itself says about torah, that word is never used to describe the completed text of the Torah itself. It is only in much later texts that anything resembling a finished “Torah” scroll is envisioned. As Brettler says:

The Bible contains strong internal evidence that the Torah developed over time, and the idea of the Torah as divine and Mosaic developed late in the biblical period. (p. 28)

In fact, Brettler notes that dogma has not been a hallmark feature of most of Judaism, Maimonides being a notable exception. At certain other times in history, doctrinal beliefs became important in some settings, especially as Jews engaged in disputes with Christians. Mark Brettler himself is convinced that Judaism is not a religion of dogmas, and that believing in such articles as those asserting the divine origin and unchangeable nature of the Torah is not required for one to be an observant Jew.

How then can a believing Jew say that the Bible comes from God as a product of divine revelation? Brettler cites Jon Levenson to answer this question:

God’s revelation of His Torah does not come in immediate form, but through (and not despite) human language and human culture, specifically the language and culture of biblical Israel and one of its several successors, rabbinic Judaism. The biblical books, for example, are, in part, products of history, and they abundantly display the conventions of composition, attribution, and historiography of the ancient Near Eastern culture in which they emerged. Given the mediate character of revelation, it is impossible to attribute some of the commandments of the Torah to God but others to human culture. All of them deserve to be respected, read liturgically, and studied in detail, for, in theory, they are all owing to divine revelation. (p. 38)

In terms of the various branches of Judaism — Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox — there is more openness to critical study in the first two, but a variety of views. And this is seen even within Orthodox Judaism. “Also,” as Brettler reminds us, “living an observant lifestyle, more than one’s beliefs, defines Israeli Orthodox Judaism—and many of these Jews are well educated through the religious school system to understand the diversity of positions concerning issues of dogma in classical Judaism” (p. 43).

Mark Brettler summarizes his own position in three points:

1. The Torah is a composite text that came into being over time.

2. Even when the Torah came together as a text, once it was compiled or redacted, most likely in the early Second Temple period, its text remained flexible. Only after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, and perhaps as a reaction to that event, did the Torah text stabilize.

3. I was born Jewish and feel a deep devotion and commitment to Jewish tradition and practice. (p. 45)

In other words, being a practicing Jew does not depend upon one’s view of the Bible. For the observant Jew, it is the authority of rabbinic law as it has developed within the traditions of Judaism that is vital. And, since the biblical text is not the original or only source of rabbinic instruction, one’s view of its origin and nature has little bearing on actual practice. One can have a fully critical view of the text and yet continue to follow the dictates of rabbinic law.

There is more to Mark Zvi Brettler’s essay, but this is a sufficient overview for our purposes today. I will give him the final word:

The historical-critical methods and conclusions are important parts of my study of the Bible as an observant Jew. They represent the main, and often the only, position I use when I teach and when I write academic articles. They help form my identity as a Jewish biblical scholar who wants to understand what the Bible meant in its earliest periods and who tries to integrate those understandings, when possible, into my contemporary life.

As a modern Jew, deeply aware of the history of Judaism and Jewish biblical interpretation, I live under the influence of rabbinic interpretation. The Bible is an ancient text and must be updated—not through emendation or rewriting but through interpretation. In terms of practice, rabbinic law as it has developed, and continues to develop, informs my lifestyle. (p. 63)

23 thoughts on “The Bible and the Believer (2)

  1. 1. What is the Bible?

    During my time in-country, there was a rote answer to this:
    “THE! WORD! OF! GAWD!!!!!”


  2. THAT is what really attracts me to Judaism.
    We need to get some of that Jewish attitude back into the church.

    Another thing about Judaism is it’s sense of humor, including self-deprecating humor. Time to reach into the pockets of Christians carrying Holier-Than-Thou Hand Grenades and pull the pins.

    “There can be NO humor in Islam.”
    — Ayatollah Khomeini, clerical dictator of Iran


  3. I do not subscribe to the widely held notion that only God was the author and the actual writers were nothing more than scribes taking direct dictation.

    It’s called “Automatic Writing”; you find it all over The Occult.


  4. I should have said that religious celibacy, not just monastic celibacy, is almost completely missing from Jewish Orthodox lifestyles, both today and over the entire history of Judaism, however religiously rigorous they may otherwise be. The Essenes were outliers, by any measure.


  5. I thank you for the compliment, though I’m sure it is not deserved. The situation in question is a complex one, and even more evidence for and against the culpability of the parties involved has come forward in the last day. I don’t know where the factual truth regarding how the event unfolded, or the motivations of the various parties, resides in all this. But I do know that I and many other Americans have become far too quick to pass judgment without all the facts being in, and that this readiness to pass judgment makes us easily manipulable by those on both sides of the political divide who have an agenda they want to advance. I have formed an intention to step back from being easily and/or quickly triggered. I hope others will do the same.


  6. I will concede that it is true that Jewish Orthodox lifestyles can be, in many ways, as rigorous as Christian monasticism. But monastic celibacy is the aspect that is almost completely missing from the flavors you describe, with the for-all-intents-and-purposes singular exception of the Essenes — and even the Essenes are now thought to not have all been celibate. Families with children are central to the spiritual practice of Judaism throughout the ages — any form of celibacy, including the Essenes, is really very atypical, almost an aberration, of the way spirituality is practiced in Judaism. That’s just an historical fact.


  7. It is just not called monasticism. Flavors of “ultra-Orthodox” is just as rigorous or more so than many forms of monastic lifestyles.


  8. Robert, you are one of the most clear-thinking, fair-minded people I’ve ever read on the internet. I say that as someone who would likely disagree with you on many issues if we were to sit down for conversation over coffee or tea (tho I’d greatly enjoy the visit!). I have the utmost respect for you and wanted you to know that. I look forward to reading your musings here on imonk, regardless of the subject.


  9. Christiane, I’m not sure this incident happened in exactly the way we thought it did based on the initial video available. More video has been provided, and more testimony to what happened, that seem to provide the framework for a different interpretation of the events, and it certainly was far more complicated, and involving more parties, than the initial framing of the incident suggested. As for the boy who was directly facing the Native American elder, I’m not sure his intentions or demeanor were accurately conveyed or interpreted by the framing of those who provided the initial video to the media, by the native American elder, by many in the media, or by our own reading of them. The whole situation was far more complex than initially portrayed. We are all of us too ready to judge on the basis of too little information. If we don’t start pulling back, we are headed for a world of trouble as a country. I say this as someone who despises the implied messaging behind MAGA: Not everyone who wears a MAGA hat is a racist, or bigot — if we proceed on that assumption that they are, we are part of the problem, not the solution.


  10. In addition, I’m not sure it’s accurate to call the Essenes monastic just because they lived communally and some of their members were celibate. Doing so may be an anachronism projected back through the later development of monasticism that provides the lens with which we look at the Essenes.


  11. Just wanted to add something very honest on my part:
    that seeing the Catholic school boys in their MAGA hats taunting the old man made me think again about how political is the issue of abortion in our country, and how politics has the power to brutalize even the young . . . . . it would be one thing for those boys to support life from conception to natural death; but another thing to take on the hatred of the ‘anti-abortion’ movement of the ‘Christian far-right’. That the boys were Catholic calls the Church to respond to what happened as ‘Church’, for the sake of all concerned, and in recognition that those boys were children in the care of responsible (?) adults. God have mercy!

    These are terrible times and call for reflection and then RESPONSE.


  12. Exactly. The book came from Jewish culture and written by a Jew way back when. We should interpret it the way ancient Hebrews did.


  13. The Essenes were the exception to the norm. Monasticism is extremely uncommon in the history of Judaism; you have to go back to the Essenes to find any significant example of it, and if you back further to the period before them, you will not find it at all.


  14. That is also why monasticism has been extremely uncommon, nearly absent really, in Judaism down through the centuries.


  15. “Brettler says that it is the Bible as interpreted and not the text itself that has been the primary focus of the Jewish religious tradition. The plain meaning of the biblical text has not been as important as its “decoded” meaning, for the text was often viewed as a cryptic document written in special divine speech.”

    This is consonant with the view of the ancient Christians, the first of whom were Jews, and carries over into EO. The Eastern Fathers especially took the text at face value, but that wasn’t its most important level of understanding. There was a “moral lesson” sort of level of their interpretation of certain portions of Scripture, but even more important than that was interpreting the OT through the lens of the Incarnation and Pascha (crucifixion and resurrection). Through this lens, they came to the Spiritual meaning (not like a “second storey” view over against materiality), which was the meaning they believed God wanted us to ultimately take away from the text of the OT. Everything pointed to Christ, and everything had its meaning understood in the light of Christ. That’s why the quotes of the OT used by the writers of the NT are sometimes a little different, other than that they are often from the LXX. Their interpretive grid is not literality.

    Orthodox scholars understand form criticism and the historical/critical view, and benefit from such things. However, like the bare text, they are useful only to a point. It’s the interpretive consensus of the Fathers that emerged from “reading backwards” that underlies Orthodox worship. Again, we don’t have a systematic theology; we have about three dozen worship books, and it is in them that the interpretive consensus is found. A lot of what is found in the Orthodox interpretive consensus rhymes with a good deal of what I have read in, for example, A.J. Heschel (whom I fully expect to meet on the other side of the curtain). This would certainly be the case if Christianity emerged from Judaism, and if the earliest Christian forms of thought were reflected in an expression of Christianity that has been preserved through the years…

    I know I drone on about EO, but I see so many connections to much of Jewish thought and worship in the Orthodox Church. That was the last tumbler that fell into place and unlocked the door of the Orthodox Church for me, so to speak.



  16. Evangelicals I know, even the most broadminded and kindest of them (who have not yet read N.T. Wright), recoil from any thought that “traditions of men” could possibly have been brought to bear on their on their own interpretations.



  17. Perhaps one reason for the difference is that Judaism has always been an “earthy” faith and they are much more willing and capable of accepting that God works through the ordinary things of life and that the goal is not to escape the natural into some supernatural reality.


  18. Unfortunately, self-awareness isn’t even on their radar. It would probably interfere with their sleep patterns.


  19. My impression of Judaism is that there seems to be a very strong ethical and moral quality to it, but primarily there is a sense of what it means to be ‘human’, humane. That coincides with what I have learned in Catholic teaching that faith is to be lived. ‘Tradition’ is not the enemy of the faith, but what ties a people to those who came before them and passed on the ways of praying and of interacting with others in this world with the natural dignity that is inherent in our humanity.

    for some reason, I associate the sacred Scriptures more with worship in community rather than as a ‘rule book’. If I am right, so is the Old Testament a big part of Jewish worship in community as well.


  20. This is exactly what I thought after reading Brettler. Evangelicals give lip service to “biblical authority,” but the actual authority we live by is our tradition, which has filtered the biblical text through its own theological filters and combined its teaching with all kinds of cultural enhancements.


  21. I have found that in reality most branches of Christianity (even fundamentalist evangelicalism) follow a similar model, their understanding of the Bible being highly influenced by traditions and history, though most are not nearly as self-aware as Judaism.


  22. Really good post. Explains very well one of the reasons I got into such hot water with my fellow Southern Baptist church members. They insisted on a literal interpretation of the Torah texts (6 literal day creation etc) and my stance was that we were forcing our own interpretation over that of the Jewish people – who were actually the ones that originally wrote and interpreted the text. I do not subscribe to the widely held notion that only God was the author and the actual writers were nothing more than scribes taking direct dictation.

    We do a great disservice to the Jewish people by making them nothing more than automatons in the hands of God. A faithful reading of the texts clearly disabuses this idea, and I have learned much by doing some reading of the rabbinic interpretations.


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