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