Reflection: “Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel” by Lisa Zunshine

Although I typically read scholarship directly related to biblical and ancient Near Eastern studies, recent conversations inspired me to begin pushing those limitations. For one, a friend of mine with a PhD in English would frequently highlight that English Literature has already done what many biblical scholars are doing with the Bible. So, I figured reading into recent scholarship in the English literature field would be beneficial to biblical and religious studies. In this case, Zunshine’s Why We Read Fiction fits the bill.

As usual, this reflection will first provide a thorough summary. Subsequently, I will engage with specific ideas and issues, either critiquing them or showing how certain ideas would be helpful for scholars of religion.


Part I introduces Theory of Mind (ToM) and how ToM relates to reading fiction. Using an example of Peter’s trembling in Mrs. Dalloway, Zunshine suggests that recent studies in cognitive psychology show our ability “to explain behavior in terms of the underlying states of mind” (4) and offer insight into how and why we interact with literary texts. So while ToM is often discussed in social contexts, ToM can be helpful for thinking about literature, which “capitalizes on and stimulates Theory of Mind mechanisms” (10). She then offers The Curious Case of the Dog in the Night-Time to explain how ToM can work in relation to storytelling, though she carefully nuances that work in this area of cognitive studies is ongoing. Subsequently, Zunshine highlights an important distinction between literary scholars and cognitive psychologists: whereas literary scholars view one’s effortless mind-reading (i.e., ToM) on a correct-incorrect spectrum, cognitive psychologists view all mind-reading as effortless even if wrong. Next, she draws from various cognitive and literary studies to make one of her key claims (for which she offers much nuance): we read fiction because it tests and makes us aware of our mind-reading capabilities. To exemplify the value of a ToM approach, she reads Mrs. Dalloway and illustrates how we as readers engage with the process of mind-reading through Wolff’s embedded intentionalities. Foreseeing the danger of folks claiming that this ToM approach to literature may one day be the only way, she nuances her claim that this approach is one of many cognitive approaches and that many aspects remain in the realm of literary analysis. Finally, she connects her cognitive analysis to previous scholarship in order to show the importance of interdisciplinary work when it comes to literary studies (in her case with cognitive studies).

Part II shifts from generic ToM to metarepresentation: “Our metarepresentational ability allows us to store certain information/representations ‘under advisement’ [. . .]. The ‘meta’ part of the representation, that little ‘tag’ that specifies the source of the information [. . .] is what prevents the representation from circulating freely within our cognitive system and from being used as an input to ‘many inferential processes, whose outputs are inputs to others” (50). Such metarepresentation, “always context-dependent and potentially fluid” (52), relates to ToM inasmuch as we must track the sources of information when mind-reading (esp. keeping track of ourselves as the source of information as opposed to others). Next, Zunshine articulates how a damaged metarepresentational capability impacts social situations by considering 1) schizophrenia reflects one’s inability to source-monitor and 2) Katerina Ivanovna’s conflict occurs due to her inability to source-monitor. Moreover, as Zunshine shows through an example from New York Times, all people struggle with source monitoring to a degree. And “our capacity for ‘monitoring and reestablishing the boundaries within which each representation remains useful’ thus underlies crucially in our practice of literary interpretation” (64).

These observations engender a bigger theoretical question: How can metarepresentation and source-monitoring explain how we discriminate “among the levels of truth-value associated with a given representation” (72)? Here, she suggests that “our cognitive makeup allows us to stre a given representation with a very strong, perhaps permanent, source tag.” Then, “once we are decided on the overall metarepresentational framing of the giving story (a decision mediated by a variety of cultural institutions), we can process its constituents as so many architectural truths” (72). Notably, this section of Zunshine’s work was remarkably synthetic, bringing together a wide range of voices that can be helpful for theorizing more broadly on literature, truth-value, and metarepresentation.

Before shifting to a range of literature that challenges source-monitoring and ToM, Zunshine begins by showing how even a simple text without multiple levels of intentionality, like Beowulf, nonetheless reflects that our ToM and metarepresentational capacity results in the reality that one can always have a different experience reading the same fictional texts at different times in life. The next five sections go into great detail to articulate various aspects of ToM and metarepresentation through specific examples in the story of Don Quixote, Clarissa, and Lolita. In this context, she addresses Don Quixote’s story as a key example of compromised source monitoring (prior to the more extreme examples in Lolita and Clarissa), the role of an unreliable narrator in engaging and titillating our metarepresentational capacity, the implied author debates as related to the broader “function of the source-monitoring ability paid out in a very particular social environment, that is, among the people self-selected to pay attention to textual ambiguities” (81), the extreme problem of source-monitoring in Clarissa, and the also complicated and problematic source monitoring in Lolita.

Part III explores another aspect of ToM: concealing minds. She does so by examining the detective novel, which she equates to “lifting weights at the gym,” in as much as the detective genre intentionally plays with ToM and metarepresentation. After discussing key elements of detective novels, she concludes that while “all fictional narratives rely on and tease our Theory of Mind, some narratives engage to a higher degree one cluster of cognitive adaptations associated with our ToM than another cluster of such adaptations” (153). Moreover, she draws the broader conclusion that her approach to literature avoids a fear expressed by some literary critics that assuming the fictional reading and writing process is “dependent, contingent, or a mere reflection of other more basic social and psychological processes” (153) is dangerous. Instead, Zunshine argues, a ToM approach enables scholars to see “such narrative as endlessly experimenting with rather than automatically executing given psychological tendencies,” and “this approach opens new venues for literary historians wishing to integrate their knowledge of specific cultural circumstances implicated in the production of literary texts with important new insights into the workings of our brain/mind” (155).

Her final conclusion is simple: in light of an in-depth consideration of ToM and metarepresentation in relationship to literature, “we do read novel because they engage our ToM, but we are at present a long way off from rasping fully the levels of complexity that this engagement entails” (164). Put another way, fiction is a quality workout for our ToM capacities.


As implied at the outset of this review, I am less concerned with critiquing Zunshine’s work and more interested in showing the value of her work for the study of religion. So, let’s get started.

First, the broader framework of ToM and metarepresentation is particularly helpful for thinking through book-centered religious traditions. Indeed, fiction is not necessarily “true” in the sense that it does not work to represent lived reality but rather an imaginary world. Nonetheless, Zunshine rightly highlights the tension between the “fiction-history” division as it relates to metarepresentation. Where Zunshine’s use of ToM and metarepresentation can be helpful, though, is in regard to how folks categorize and source monitor religious texts. Beyond modern fiction as a locus for metarepresentation, the same issue appears in biblical texts. For evangelical Christians, for example, the source of the biblical text is less rooted in a real individual and more rooted in a god made visible (thinking with Tanya Luhrmann’s framework). Similarly, Second Temple period literature like the book of Jubilees purports to be from God (i.e., our metarepresentational capacity is direted to tag the source of the narrative to God). I suggest a tension emerges between the god of Jubilees and the god of evangelical Christians precisely because the language for such cognitive metarepresentation is the same, but the actual sources are not. This observation is especially true when we consider evangelical Christians who often claim that Jews and Christians have the same god: even if texts overlap and the same term is used to designate the source of the particular texts, the nature of the source via metrepresentational tagging is distinct.

Second, and especialy in light of Luhrmann’s recent How God Becomes Real, the cognitive processes Zunshine introduces to the study of literature can be equally helpful for theorizing how religion works and how we determine the boundaries for what constitutes religion in the twenty-first century. As Zunshine writes, “Literature pervasively capitalizes on and stimulates Theory of Mind mechanisms that had evolved to deal with real people, even as on some level readers do remain aware that fictive characters are not real people at all” (10). These interactions through our developed ToM are delivered “by direct interactions with other people or by imaginary approximation of such interactions” (10). Key here is the idea of “imaginary approximation.” As Luhrmann shows, people make a god real by treating their imaginative faculty as if it were actually real. Thus, we can see a close relationship between the notion of fiction are representing and recreating a social environment engaging our ToM and a religious text engaging our ToM. While I have no doubts I could take these observations further, this will suffice for now.

Third, recent studies support Zunshine’s work. In a recent study on the brain and fiction, “Researchers found that the more immersed people tend to get into ‘becoming’ a fictional character, the more they use the same part of the brain to think about the character as they do to think about themselves” ( Importantly, brain imaging backed up this conclusion. As such, we can clearly see that how we process fiction and Self directly overlap. Undoubtedly, this idea ties directly into ToM and metarepresentation: as an individual begins to structure information from a novel in her brain, she ultimately thinks with the part of the brain that she uses to think about herself. Perhaps, then, our cognitive metarepresentation is not only tied up in how we perceive others but the extent to which we perceive ourselves and our relations to those sources. Returning to Luhrmann, then, we see yet again that one’s ToM in literature and the neuroscientific way of processing fiction can shed light on how our boundaries between fiction and reality are more porous than we’d like to admit in the West. (Then again, perhaps we shouldn’t talk about “fiction” and “reality” but simply of metarepresentation and physical, observable objects.) In Zunshine’s words, “The pleasure of being ‘tested’ by a fictional text . . . is thus never completely free from the danger of allowing the ‘phantoms of imagination’ too strong a foothold in our view of our social world” (19).

Admittedly, I have many more thoughts on this book, and I plan to reflect on them (or incorporate them into my own work) in the future. For now, though, these three observations suffice. Basically, Zuneshine’s work is particularly interesting in light of recent neuroscientific studies and Luhrmann’s 2020 book.


Some Thoughts on the History of Sin

Shortly after graduating from U of Chicago and into the present, one of my greatest contentions with biblical scholarship has been the uncritical use of “sin.” Simply put, folks often describe any action against God or negative action against people as a sort of sin. Such perspectives are, indeed, justifiable in certain cases. Even so, I find the sin category’s uncritical application in so many circumstances problematic. Beyond the differing Hebrew (and Greek!) terms that folks sometimes group within the broader semantic category of sin, the nature of sin differs based on context. David Lambert put forth such an argument most recently.

The problem of how scholars use sin as a category to describe actions perceived as negative, though, raises another, perhaps more integral question: To what extent do broader cultural understandings of sin influence the interpretive choices that scholars make? Only by addressing this question can we begin to reassess the nature and history of sin as a concept/action/idea/etc. in the Hebrew Bible, Jewish tradition, Christian tradition, and the ancient world more broadly.

One excellent starting point for such work is in Jean Delumeau’s Sin and Fear: The Emergence of a Western Guilt Culture; 13th-18th Centuries. Although I just started reading Delumeau’s book this morning, thus far the French historian has put forward a well-articulated argument that the contempt for the world, an idea often paired with sin and less commonly known as Du Contemptu Mundi, began with Christian monastic circles in the eleventh century and become popularized especially in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Such contempt for the world frequently explained that man “was but ‘dung’ and ‘filth” (31).

Although I’ve yet to finish the book (it is over five hundred pages long), Delumeau’s work thus far shows how sin (as a category) has existed within a particular Christian constellation of theological ideas for nearly one thousand years. This constellation undoubtedly impacted sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth century biblical scholarship. Therefore, interrogating how those ideas, forged through the trials of time, continue to influence biblical scholarship is imperative.

Moreover, his work raises questions about twenty-first-century religion more broadly. For example, to what extent does sin’s conceptualization in the thirteenth through eighteenth centuries continue to influence, directly or indirectly, contemporary discourse around sin? And although I avoid questions like the following, how might recognizing such influence enable religious communities to reconceptualize and reframe sin such that they can strive for a more equitable, healthy world?

Forthcoming (and Some Previous) Events, Articles, and Books*

I have been adding things to this list over the last month or two. As such, some events may have already happened and some articles may be old news at this point. Moreover, I include some articles and books not because they are new but because they are classics that I want to read. Enjoy!


Everything from The BRANE Collective; follow them! (Link)

“Where Are the Books of Job’s Daughters? Mapping the Shadow of Libraries of Antiquity” by Eva Mroczek; in Zoomland, of course, on November 18, 7 p.m. to 8:15 p.m. (Link)

“The Story of Sacrifice: New Directions in the Study of the Priestly Source,” a panel discussion of Liane Feldman’s book called, well, The Story of Sacrifice: Ritual and Narrative in the Priestly Source; November 13, 10:30 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. (EST) (Link)

Misc Links and Articles

“The Book of Jonah and the Theme of Exile” by Marian Kelsey (Link)

“Ancient Muses and Student Poets: Storytelling in Verse” by Erin Galgay Walsh (Link)

“What are ᵓElilim?” by Mark Hamilton (Link)

Mark Hamilton explores the word ᵓĕlîlîm.

“The Conflict between Adonijah and Solomon in Light of Succession Practices Near and Far” by Andrew Knapp (Link)

“La Lingua Americana: Voice and Representation in Academic Publishing” by Ella Maria Diaz (Link)

“Rahab: Between Faith and Works” by Jacob Wright (Link)

Report of the Select Committee on Intelligence by the US Senate (Link)

Andrea Seri’s review of Ea’s Duplicity in the Gilgamesh Flood Story by Martin Worthington (Link)

“Discerning False Prophecy: The Story of Ahab and the Lying Spirit” by James A. Diamond (Link)

“Steve A. Wiggins (Oxford University Press): The Editors behind the Great Books in New Testament Studies” by Nijay Gupta (Link)

“Thinking Materially: Making Ostraca in the Classroom” by Patrick Angiolillo (Link)

“The Fascination, Challenges, and Joys of Being a Historian of Ancient Israelite Religion” by Theodore Lewis (Link)

Review of Inventing the Novel: Bakhtin and Petronius Face to Face by Robert Bracht Branham, written by Thomás Fernández (Link)

“Looters Destroy 2000-Year-Old Sudan Archaeological Side in Search for Gold” by The New Arab Staff and Agencies (Link)

“New Sept Volume on Leviticus: An Interview with Mark Awabdy” by William Ross (Link)

“No more office hours! We need student hours” by an individual on Twitter (Link)

An Educator’s Handbook for Teaching about the Ancient World (vol. 1), edited by Pınar Durgun (Link)

“Some Reflections on Ariel Sabar’s Veritas” by Tony Burke (Link)

Beit Mikra – Volume 65 (2020), No. 1 (Link)

“Aural Epistemology: Hearing and Listening in the Text of the Qur’an” by Lauren E. Osborne (Link)

“Feminist Historiography and Uses of the Past” by Blossom Stefaniw (Link)

Twitter Thread by Seth Sanders (Link)

“Epidemics in Mesopotamia” by Annie Attia (Link)

“Michel Foucault – The Dynamics of Power ” by James Bishop (Link)

“Mishnah, Midrash, and How to Read Tannaitic Literature” by Ishay Rosen-Zvi (Link)

“Introduction to the Masorah: The Masorah of the Leningrad Codex in the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (BHS) Edition” by Daniel Mynatt (Link)

“Imagining History without Heroes and Villains” by Russell P. Johnson (Link)

Vasileios Liotsakis’s review of Narratology: Classics in Theory by Genevieve Liveley (Link)

“The Idea and Study of Sacrifice in Ancient Israel” by Liana Feldman, an article oriented toward undergraduates, if I recall the Twitter post correctly (Link)

Metatron, a new journal from the group Renewed Philology (Link)


The Synagogue in Ancient Palestine: Current Issues and Emerging Trends edited by Rick Bonnie et al.

The Amarna Letters: Transliterations, Translations, and Glossary of the International and Vassal Correspondence from Tell el-Amarna by Jacob Lauinger and Tyler Yoder (Link)

After the Harvest: Storage Practices and Food Processing in Bronze Age Mesopotamia edited by Noemi Borrelli and Guilia Scazzosi (Link)

Painting the Mediterranean Phoenician: On Canaanite-Phoenician Trade-nets by Dalit Regev (Link)

The Ancient South Arabian Royal Edicts from the Southern Gate of Timna and the Gabal Labah by Giovanni Mazzini (Link)

Building between the Two Rivers: An Introduction to the Building Archaeology of Ancient Mesopotamia by Stefano Anastasio and Piero Gilento (Link)

Identity in Persian Egypt: The Fate of the Yehudite Community of Elaphantine by Bob Becking (Link)

Reading Other Peoples’ Texts: Social Identity and the Reception of Authoritative Tradition edited by Ken S. Brown, Alison L. Joseph, and Brennan Breed (Link)

The Oxford History of the Ancient Near East: From the Beginnings to Old Kingdom Egypt and the Dynasty of Akkad (Vol.1), edited by Karen Radner, Nadine Moeller, and D. T. Potts (Link)

Ezekiel, Law, and Judahite Identity: A Case for Identity in Ezekiel 1–33 by Joel B. Kemp (Link)

Semitic, Biblical and Jewish Studies: In Honor of Richard C. Steiner, edited by Aron J. Koller, Mordechai Z. Cohen, and Adina Moshavi (Link)

Tales of Royalty: Notions of Kingship in Visual and Textual Narration in the Ancient Near East, edited by Elisabeth Wagner-Durand and Julia Linke (Link)

Essays on Babylonian and Biblical Literature and Religion by Tzvi Abusch (Link)

On My Right Michael, On My Left Gabriel: Angels in Ancient Jewish Culture by Mika Ahuvia (Link)

Contextualizing Jewish Temples, edited by Tova Ganzel and Shalom E. Holtz (Link)

Hebräisch: Biblisch-Hebräische Unterrichtsgrammatik by Michael Pietsch and Martin Rösel (Link)

God’s Law and Order: The Politics of Punishment in Evangelical America by Aaron Griffith (Link)

The Jewish Annotated Bibliography edited by Jonathan Klawans and Lawrence M. Wills (Link)

Three Skeptics and the Bible: La Peyrère, Hobbes, Spinoza, and the Reception of Modern Biblical Criticism by Jeffrey Morrow (Link) [Mainly included for my own interests]

The “God of Israel” in History and Tradition by Michael J. Stahl (Link)

More on the History of the Old Testament

Historiography is the narrative of what happened in history. Like any narrative, story, or account, it takes place from one particular tradition. The narrative is told from a particular perspective. One major example of this is in the Hebrew Bible itself.  The authors, editors, and compilers of the Hebrew Bible each had a particular tradition which informed their perspective. Thus, their writings and edits evident in the Hebrew Bible were historiography.

But is historiography history? In other words, in the Hebrew Bible history? The answer is simple: yes and no, and a little bit in-between. Okay, maybe that’s not a simple answer. Though, I ask that you bear with me. All will become clear soon (hopefully).

In a recently published volume about the reception of the Hebrew Bible between the 1st century CE and the 21st century, Walter Dietrich comments on the current status of how scholars understand the reliability of the Hebrew Bible.  He makes his comment in light of historiography, the notion that the writers and editors of the Hebrew Bible were telling a story from their own perspective and tradition.

“Contemporary research discussion moves between the poles of a sceptical hyper-criticism and an unbroken trust in the reliability of biblical history writing. On the one hand one thinks that it is only possible to write the history of Israel without or against the Bible and on the other hand one follows to a large degree the biblical view of history. The truth lies between these two poles. An avoidance of the use of biblical historical records is no less appropriate than their extensive and uncritical use. Many details provided by the Old Testament are plausible or have already been verified by extra-biblical sources [i.e. outside of the Bible], but many are fictional and have already been proven to be false through external evidence. There is therefore a need to find the appropriate balance of critical evaluation of biblical sources and a reasonable reconstruction of history” (HBOT, vol. III/2, pp. 468-69).

This is a somewhat complicated and dense idea. So, I shall clarify. Many people either disregard 100% or maintain 100% confidence in the Hebrew. Neither of these stances is true. Rather, the truth of the historical reliability of the Hebrew Bible is between complete skepticism and complete belief. Already, non-biblical evidence has proved that many things in the Hebrew Bible are historically accurate. Yet, non-biblical evidence has also proved that many things in the Hebrew Bible are not historically accurate. Therefore, we need have a balance between complete dependence and complete skepticism of the Hebrew Bible for reconstructing history.

This is because much of what is written in the Hebrew Bible “is characterised by a combination of historical, aesthetic, and theological objectives” (HBOT, vol. III/2, p. 469). So, the Hebrew Bible, the historical books in particular, is not just a person writing a historical document, though it does have history within it. At the same time, the Hebrew Bible is not just a person writing a theological document, though it does have theology within it. For this reason, Dietrich comments that in the Hebrew Bible “the boundaries between historical facts and literary fiction are fluid” (HBOT, vol. III/2, p. 468).

Think about, for example, how different news stations present the same story. Fox News does not present stories the same way as CNN. Likewise, CNN does not present stories the same way as MSNBC. MSNBC does not present stories the same way as Al Jazeera. Rather, each of these television stations constructs and shares a narrative based in history. Because each station approaches the issues and events differently, they each present the story in a different way.


Broadly speaking, this is how scholars attempt to understand the historical reliability of the Hebrew Bible. It is a perspective on history; yet, just as some facts presented in the news are absolutely false or skewed, the same thing happens with the Hebrew Bible.

What are your thoughts? How skeptical of the Hebrew Bible do you think we should be? Or how trusting of the Hebrew Bible do you think we should be? I’d love you hear your perspectives.



Dietrich Walter, “Historiography in the Old Testament”, in Hebrew Bible / Old Testament: The History of Its Interpretation, vol. III/2. Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2015.

On the Origins of Scripture

One way to categorize how Christians in antiquity, especially the 1st-3rd centuries CE, understood the idea of a Bible is through three categories: normative, authoritative, and Scriptural. Normative means the tradition is standard and accepted amongst many. Authoritative means the tradition is standard and carries the an authoritative status. Authoritative can either be in a written text, or not. Scriptural means the understanding of a body of literature compiled into one, coherent piece. Scriptural does include the idea of authoritative tradition; however, the movement from authoritative to Scriptural results in the importance of the written material.

One of Origen’s letters, Exhortation to Martyrdom, offers some insight into this question. I won’t cite the text for the sake of time. This is mainly because I want to work out this idea in my own head.

Throughout the letter, he consistently speaks about what Jesus spoke, what Paul spoke, and even what the book of Revelation spoke. Obviously, the “speaking” done by Paul, Jesus, and Revelation occurs through the medium of a text. On the other hand, the Hebrew Bible is a written text. When referencing the Hebrew Bible, Origen references it as a written, material thing. Although he sometimes talks about what Yahweh said to Moses, it is a reference to a story told through a written, material tradition.

In other words, references to what we call the New Testament tend to be understood stood as an authoritative tradition. Even though they have material texts, the texts are simply a medium for a spoken, authoritative tradition. Distinct from these, references to the Hebrew Bible tend to be understood as written text. These texts were written in the past and were now relevant for Origen. As far as I am aware, they are not reference as “spoken” in this letter (i.e. “Thus, Moses speaks”).

In short, based on my short reading of Origen, the New Testament traditions are part of an authoritative tradition, which found its way to Origen through text. The Hebrew Bible is part of Scriptural in the sense that it is a written, material thing. This written, material thing is the object from which Origen draws meaning from the written word for his day. In reference to New Testament literature, Origen draws from the spoken word for his day, which just happens to be spoken through a medium of literature.

Pseudepigrapha Saturday: Pseudo-Hecataeus


Pseudo-Hecataeus (henceforth Ps-Hec) is based on historian Hecataeus of Abdera from 300 BCE. Multiple fragments attest to different Ps-Hec. Unfortunately, fragments are only available via Josephus, Origen, Clement of Alexandria, and the Letter of Aristeas. The fragments offer insight into how Greeks, or non-Jews, viewed Jews around 300 BCE. Because the text is so short, as we are only looking at the fragment from the Letter of Aristeas 31, it is posted below:

“You should have accurate translations of these works, because this legislation, as it is divine, is highly philosophic and pure. However, writers, poets and most historians have not mentioned the aforesaid books and the men who have lived (and are living [1]) in accordance with them, because the views proposed in these books are in some way holy and reverent, as Hecataeus of Abdera says.” – Translation by R. Doran.

“These (books) also must be in your library in an accurate version, because this legislation, as could be expected from its divine nature, is very philosophical and genuine. Writers therefore and poets and the whole army of historians have been reluctant to refer to the aforementioned books, and to the men past (and present) who featured largely in them, because the consideration of them is sacred and hallowed, as Hecataeus of Abdera says.” – Translation by R. J. H. Shutt [2]

Pseudo-Hecataeus, 2nd Temple Period Jews, and Holy Books

The manner is which Ps-Hec presents books of the Jews demonstrates limited knowledge of Judaism [3]. His note that the books are holy and reverent is interesting because, in some ways, it reflects the historical development on the authority of scripture [4] from an external perspective. Doran and Shutt ‘s translations also differ significantly, with each drawing on differing linguistic emphases and literary focuses to guide their translations. Doran focuses more on the men who lived in agreement with the scripture, while Shutt focuses more on the men who were part of scripture. Due to the philosophical focus of Greeks, in which students sat and considered Plato, Aristotle, etc., it seems more likely that Shutt’s translation accurately translates the passage. Rather than portraying men as adhering to Scripture like Doran, Shutt appeals to Greek sensibilities regarding the consideration of ancient wisdom. This also fits with other concurrent literature in which Moses is portrayed as having taught astronomy and philosophy to Egyptians and Greek.

Essentially, if we agree with Shutt’s translation, characters in the scriptures are given a sort of a-historical, philosophical wisdom that is viable through the ages. Ultimately, the wise people of the past are the sacred and hallowed, not the scriptures themselves. Perhaps, though, this is important in the development of scripture from normative to authoritative. When prophets and characters in scripture became philosophical figures who transcended history, perhaps it was a contribution to or began the evolution of scripture from normative to authoritative by expanding understanding the sacred, holy, and reverent men of the past to the sacred, holy, reverent book from the divine [5].

[1] R. Doran, “Pseudo-Hecataeus”, ed. James H. Charlesworth, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, vol 2 (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1983), 1. Letter of Aristeas 31, n. b, demonstrates that this is a late addition.

[2] R. J. H. Shutt, “Letter of Aristeas”, ed. James H. Charlesworth, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, vol 2 (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1983).

[3] R. Doran, “Pseudo-Hecataeus”, 1. Letter of Aristeas 31, n. c.

[4] I use the term “scripture” loosely, without pre-conceived notions of exactly what books and elements composed the normative texts of the period. Scripture in the 3rd century BCE is akin to “Christianity” in the 21st century: it is a fluid term and means different things to different people.

[5] For further reading on Pseudo-Hecataeus citations in Diodorus of Sicily, see Bezalel Bar-Kochva, Pseudo-Hecataeus on the Jews: Legitimizing the Jewish Diaspora (Berkley: University of California Press, 1997), availble on the UC Books E-Collection.

“Shakespeare, the Bible, and the Form of the Book” edited by Travis DeCook and Alan Galey

ShakespeareTravis DeCook and Alan Galey (editors). Shakespeare, the Bible, and the Form of the Book. New York, NY: Routledge, 2014, 207 pp., $54.95(paperback).

*I would like to express my gratitude to Routledge for providing me with a review copy in exchange for my honest opinion.

How were the multiple forms and contested status of the Bible as the word of God taken up by Shakespeare? Politically and religiously, what elements of Shakespeare and the Bible are overlooked by modern, pre-modern, and enlightenment era readers? These are the sort of questions that this volume seek to answer in this work.

Covering an historical span from Shakespeare’s post-Reformation era to present-day Northern Ireland, the volume uncovers how Shakespeare and the Bible’s intertwined histories illuminate the enduring tensions between the materiality and transcendence in the history of the book (7).

In essence, rather than focusing on the Bible’s influence upon Shakespeare, this volume explores the complex relationship between the two through a multiple time periods. While this volume is surely pertinent to scholars of Shakespeare, I intend to focus on its value for Biblical Studies.

First of all, Shakespeare, the Bible, and the Form of the Book offers invaluable analysis of the reception of the Bible and its intertwinement with Shakespeare. For example, Andrew Murphy, in his article on Shakespeare and the Bible as the “roots of civilsation”, concludes that as Biblical literacy from early modern English translations faded, Shakespeare paradoxically became the secular divine text and “little more than a monotonous educational labor” (138). This paradoxical development offers fantastic analysis and a great starting point for projects on biblical reception. The majority of the articles within this volume contain valuable information on biblical reception, especially Randall Martin’s “Paulina, Corinthian Women, and the Revisioning of Pauline and Early Modern Patriarchal Ideology in The Winter’s Tale” and David Coleman’s “Disintegrating the Rock”.

Another major benefit of this volume are the insightful and perceptive analyses of how Shakespeare’s plays utilized not only the Geneva Bible’s text but also its glosses. In doing so, Barbara Mowat demonstrates the value of reading 17th century biblical commentaries in order elucidate often overlooked elements of Shakespeare. This approach, of course, is promising for biblical scholars. For instance, by approaching Shakespeare with the glosses of the Geneva Bible, biblical scholars can more fully explore the reception traditions behind themes and verses within the Hebrew Bible and New Testament.

Overall, Shakespeare, the Bible, and the Form of the Book is valuable to scholars of the Bible. More specifically, it provides excellent articles about reception and the Bible and Shakespeare’s intertwined roles ranging from the 16th to 21st centuries. It also provides unique insights for people performing Shakespeare. Without a shadow of doubt, this volume, edited by DeCook and Galey, is a necessity to exploring biblical reception that relates to Shakespearean literature or the Victorian era.

Upcoming Book Review on Shakespeare and the Bible

In contrast to much scholarship on Shakespeare and the Bible, “Shakespeare, the Bible, and the Form of the Book gives sustained attention to the Bible’s multiple forms and contested status, to the fraught tension between the Bible as transcendent Word of God and politically and historically mediated material text, and to how these interlinked phenomena were taken up by Shakespeare” (10). Shakespeare

I just started reading Shakespeare, the Bible, and the Form of the Book, edited by Travis DeCook and Alan Galey and published by Routledge, and look forward to reading of the nuances of history and Shakespeare which it illuminates. The review shall be up within the next few weeks!

“The Jews and the Bible” by Jean-Christophe Attias

Jean-Christophe Attias. The Jews and the Bible. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2014, 256 pp., $22.95 (softcover).

The translation of Jean-Christophe Attias’ work The Jews and the Bible unlocks to English readers a broad-in-scope, fluid, and full coverage of the history of how Jews have historically related to the Bible. And as the chair of “Medieval Jewish Thought” (6th to 17th centuries) at the Ecole Partique des Hautes Etudes, Attias’ area of study is Jewish Traditions.  The Jews and the Bible covers everything from the elusiveness of the relationship between Bible and Jews to how the Bible is perceived in the modern era by Jews. Many of his conclusions are challenging to the reader and require reflection in order to fully engage with and digest his history because he operates within a Jewish framework that calls for actions.

Attias establishes the elusiveness of what “Bible” actually means from the outset of Chapter One. Such elusiveness is present in both the “varying harmonics of the words denoting the scriptural corpus in rabbinical language” (4), Christian traditions, and other sources from antiquity. With regard to the dynamics between Jews and the Bible, he notes that before the official Jewish canon was established, the text became “the key element of the dialogue between God and His people” (21), indicating that actual practice can and should do without a text. Even the establishment of “official” bibles, like the Masoretic text, could not cease various interpretative traditions and understanding of “Bible”. Attias, thus, roots his work in the ambiguous identity of “bible” and a basic understanding of the Jewish relationship to it.

Chapter Two examines Judaism’s use of the Bible as an object complex dynamic present from its historical appropriations. In his analysis, traditional Jewish “Bible objects”, like the Tefillin, Mezuzah, and Sefer Torah, contain portions of Biblical text which are paradoxically not of scriptural origin but are dependent upon scripture to maintain their Objectness. This paradoxically allows the hearer to participate in worship of the Word, the revered Object, and focus on Rabbinic material, benedictions, and Mishnaic prayers and express the importance of the Objectness of the Bible. Reasonably he concludes that the people provide life to the book, not the book to the people. His presentation is importantly focused on how Jews give life to the Book based on how people use the book as an Object. With this Objectness in mind, he proceeds to engage in the relationship between Jewish identity and the Bible.

After identifying Jewish identity as the condition of collectiveness of Jews as descendants of Abraham and Moses, and part of the continuity of Jewish history, he explores the collective identity and results of “Biblical Judaism”. Attias argues that “Biblical Judaism” and early Christian appropriations of Judaism and the Bible misappropriated the relationship by ignoring the value of Oral Tradition, or true tradition. This caused Jewish teachers to focus three primary principles in rabbinic Judaism: Oral Law which grounds Jewish identity, Written Law which should be read in light of Oral Law, and the oneness of the Oral and Written Law, emphasizing the Oral Law as the locus of identity, not the Bible. Even the Karaites, Attias argues, were not considered heretical for “Bibliocentrism”, but for denying true tradition and adding false tradition. Jewish identity is therefore dependent upon living tradition.

Moving towards the personal relationship between the Bible and Jews, Attias focuses chapter four on the relevancy of the Bible for individual Jews. For Attias, the Bible is dangerous for children because it may result in bad interpretations and not necessary for women whose focus should be on the household. Within a scholarly context it is important to Jews because it is common property for differing faiths, “imposing an exceptional duty on scholars to engage with it” (102) to draw out the supersaturated meaning of the Bible, which may only be done within a Jewish community. For the scholar, the “Spirit” of the “Flesh” that is the Bible should be found in Oral Tradition, meaning Jews assert their role over the Bible by simply commenting on it.  Overall, the commentaries, which contain Scripture, are the primary focus for Judaism. It wasn’t until the moderns (neo-Karaites) that Scripture attained a position by which the flesh and spirit of rabbinic Judaism, the Oral Traditions and commentary, was not of the utmost importance.

Chapter Five explores the triumph of the Bible in the West and Judaism and its impact on Jews. The rise of critical biblical scholarship resulted in the dismemberment of the unity of the Bible and its appropriation as a book of theologized politics. These tendencies prompted Jewish responses which contradicted and splintered Judaism with four major approaches. Of these four options, the Bible as literature became “the pillar of a modern Jewish identity” (136). Secularization, argues Attias, began with Moses Mendelssohn who, although not advocating assimilation, advocated for the culture of the Other in Jewish studies, moving the Bible from the sacred to common. Thus, the sharing of the Jewish Bible as non-Jewish dissolved tradition. Secularization then provided fuel for Zionism as the locus of Jewish identity began to be constructed around the Bible, something taken furthest by David Ben-Gurion. As the ideology progressed, the Bible as a pillar to Jewish-Israeli identity waned and became a book that separated, rather than united. It was shaken even more with scholarly claims in 1999 that the Bible was a book of non-site and not viable a pillar of Jewish identity.

The epilogue concludes the book by challenging the reader’s sensibilities regarding the Bible and Freud’s interpretations therein: “If the Bible is really the Father’s Book we [Jews] say it is, and if that Father is dead, what or whom is the Bible now the Book of” (156)? The Bible is therefore nothing without Oral Tradition, tradition which prevents the Bible’s excess violence and “seductiveness of force”. So, for Attias, living tradition alone may save the Bible, or perhaps not.

From a historical vantage point, Attias’ arguments are rooted in Jewish traditions and history. He convincingly illustrates the complex dynamics between Jews and the Bible, taking into consideration concurrent sociopolitical contexts and theological currents in Christian tradition. In drawing out the history of relationship, Attias provides reasonable ground by which to increase understandings of Jewish traditions and improve the state of multi-faith dialogue, especially with Christians. Although some statements should be tempered due to his higher view of Judaism, he suggests a provocative point regarding Christian traditions: Christians “in a way substituted Jesus and the teachings of the Church for the Oral Torah” (107). Though the statement is problematic because it assumes superiority of Jewish traditions, it does emphasize that Christianity does indeed have an “Oral Torah” of sorts, one that is only found in Church traditions. Recognition of this in multi-faith dialogue could potentially improve the quality of the dialogue through recognition of shared commonalities, namely dependence upon tradition.

Yet this also presents a significant flaw with his work. Attias is justified in focusing on Jewish traditions, yet how he approaches traditions assumes Judaism is greater than Christianity. Rather than being an unbiased (as much as possible), historical analysis of the development of the relationship between Jews and the Bible, The Jews and the Bible is rooted in assumptions of the validity and truth about Jewish interpretation and traditions.  To write, as Attias does, that Christians replaced the Oral Torah is to assume that the Oral Torah, as a whole, has ancient roots. While some elements of the Orah Torah are surely present in the turn of the millennium, many elements were absent and are merely assumed to be present in antiquity. If he wishes to most effectively and critically discuss the historical, relational dynamics between Jews and the Bible, Attias should have explored the historicity and viability of one of his primary resources for history and Jewish tradition.

With regard his style, Attias is difficult to follow. While he does refrain to straying from his through line, namely the relationship between Jews and the Bible and its complexities, the structure of the chapters, and sections therein, are often unnecessarily extended. Attias’ style does not provide the opportunity for points to actually layer and build upon each other. In contrast to academic literature and histories whose arguments may be traced like a complicated set of connected staircases, his work is like a mountain which, although beautiful, mighty, and strong, is not easy to climb with its many sudden changes in terrain.

Overall, Attias’ work is a significant contribution to Jewish studies, religious dialogue, and the history of religion. Even with a trajectory oriented towards Judaism, he creatively and, to a certain extent, clearly demonstrates the complexities of the historical relationship between Jews and the Bible. His broad coverage of history, thorough analysis of Jewish traditions with regard to sociopolitical contexts, and ability to contextualize the role of the Bible for modern Jews are major strengths of his work, elements which the style detracts from expressing most clearly. Even so, The Jews and the Bible, while not necessarily a historical analysis that will significantly change the grounds of Jewish studies and multi-faith dialogue, is a valuable contribution to those fields and does offer unique insights about the complex dynamics, polemic activities, and religious-political issues surrounding the relationship between the Jews and the Bible.

“Revelation & Authority: Sinai in Jewish Scripture and Tradition” by Benjamin D. Sommer

Revelation & Authority: Sinai in Jewish Scripture and Tradition by Benjamin D. Sommer. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015, xviii + 419 pp., $50, cloth.

*I would like to express my gratitude to Yale University Press for providing me a review copy.

With the presence of biblical criticism seemingly undermining Jewish religiosity, Benjamin D. Sommer argues for a shift in modern Jewish though in order for Judaism to flourish. A professor of Bible at Jewish Theological Seminary, formerly he was director of the Crown Family Center for Jewish Studies, a fellow of the Tikvah Center for Law and Jewish Civilization at New York University Law School, the Israel Institute for Advanced Studies, and much more. All in all, his background permits him to speak with authority about how Jews might begin to understand revelation and authority at Sinai in light of modern biblical criticism.

Central to his argument is the participatory theory of revelation, namely that revelation in Judaism occurs “as the result of a dialogue between God and Israel”, reflecting “Israel’s interpretation of and response to that will [of God]” (2). And Sommer contends that, with regard to biblical criticism and the authority of the Bible (note that “Bible” is only in reference to the Hebrew Bible), “the tension between them need not be a fatal contradiction” (10). Chapter One distinguishes between the Bible as an artifact for biblical critics and as Scripture for religious Jews and Christians, and argues that it must be both artifact and Scripture. Sommer recognizes that because biblical criticism illuminates the Bible as “a motley accumulation of historically dependent, culturally relative textual scraps” (18), it has created disconnect between the Bible and Judaism. Yet, the illumination of the Bible as “culturally relative textual scraps” effectively recovers voices of ancient Israelites, Jewish voices of the past. Thus, his strategy explores how to read the Bible as artifact and Scripture, allowing the bible to contribute to discussion of authority, and revelation, and later Jewish thought.

Chapter Two examines maximalist and minimalist approaches to analysis of what happened at Sinai, with a primary focus on the ideas Franz Rosenzweig and Abraham Joshua Heschel, and the participatory theory of revelation. Both Jewish thinkers have suggested that the Bible and Jewish tradition are responses to God’s act of revelation. Sommer’s primary analysis is rooted in basic recognition of the nature of praises to Baal, albeit brief discussion, and of the various textual sources present in Exodus 19-24, especially focused on the ambiguity as to whether or not Israel heard the law giving at Sinai. The four positions present in the documentary sources demonstrate self-contradictory opinions. His discussion of Midrashic interpretations and the medieval biblical commentators draws out the minimalist and maximalist interpretations of the Sinai revelation in regard to the textual sources, noting preference for E “in which the people did not hear God’s voice speaking actual words” (79). Following, Sommer discusses Maimonides’ minimalist position by demonstrating that, in Maimonides’ theology, Moses authored the law rather, not God. His brief, yet detailed, discussion of Hasidic rebbe Menahem Mendel of Rymanov emphasizes that “revelation was not verbal” (94), raising questions of the Torah law’s origins and the nature of “God’s commanding but nonverbal self-disclosure” (95). Having traced the participatory theory of revelation through the minimalist traditions of Maimonides, Rymanov, and E, and the maximalist positions of D, he continues into Chapter Three.

Chapter Three explores minimalist interpretations of the participatory theory of revelation, examining the nature of non-verbal revelation. Sommer’s demonstrates through medieval Jewish thought that, for many, revelation is an act of translation, noting medieval Jewish thinkers who articulated that “prophets (non-Mosaic) received a message from God, but the formulation of that message in human language was left to the individual through whom God sent the message” (102). Because prophecy as translation is already explore extensively in medieval Jewish though, he explores how modern thinker expanded and applied prophecy as translation to Moses, especially through the works of Heschel and Rosenzweig. He especially emphasizes Heschel’s approach to prophecy as translation as correlational theology, tracing it through kabbalistic, Hasidic, modern, and ancient thought. Having established prophecy as translation in Jewish thought, he supports it by drawing out the discussion of heavenly and earthly Torahs, which Sommer shows to be prevalent in Jewish thought through Midrash Tehillim, Bereshit Rabbah, etc. He relates the distinctions between heavenly and earthly, Heschel’s Gebot and Gesetz, to ancient Near Eastern prophecy and its mixture of human and divine elements. Thus, “the bold notion of revelation that we find in the work of… Rosenzweig and Abraham Joshua Heschel recapitulates one of the most ancient Jewish understandings of revelation and the law” (120). Upon establishing this distinction between heavenly and earthly Torah in Jewish through, he proceeds to argue for no distinction between the bible and Jewish thought.

Chapter Four presents Sommer’s primary claim: “there is no Written Torah; there is only Oral Torah, which starts with Genesis 1:1” (147). Prior to defense, he indicates implications for Jewish canon, namely its large matrix of rabbinic literature that has long conceptualized the dynamics of Oral Torah and revelation in many ways. Drawing on rabbinic literature and inner-biblical, midrashic exegesis, he elucidates the complex dynamics of tradition and Scripture. Put succinctly, “tradition created scriptures; the new scriptures required interpretations; the new interpretations were passed on, becoming traditions in their own right; some of these traditions became scripture” (166). In this light, Sommer argues, Written Torah should be part of Oral Torah. By considering Written Torah as part of Oral Torah, imperfections may be taken seriously even as it is embraced as authoritative.

His push for a shift in theological understanding carries implications as to whether or not the Sinai revelation ever ceased, which is the focus of Chapter Five. Sommer draws this out through the Pentateuch sources; especially D. D’s use of “today” encompasses the idea that religious meaning is reserved for an eternal now. Modern Jewish thought of Heschel and Rosenzweig echo the voice of D “enough to make one believe that the voice from Sinai never fully came to a stop” (205). Foreseeing the issue many may have with opening Jewish tradition so broadly, Sommer indicates that not all innovations are necessarily legitimate.

Chapter Six examines the implications with regard to his argument for Written Torah as Oral Torah. First, the broad scape of Jewish tradition is dialogical in nature, ranging from the Pentateuch to rabbinic literature. Following, Sommer considers this dialogical reading of scripture as tradition to be centrifugal in nature, noting that “openness to multiple viewpoints that are left as they are without harmonization is characteristic of rabbinic culture, but it dates back to at least the time of the Pentateuch’s compilation” (224). And while dialogical tradition contains those who have sought centripetal readings, multiplicity of these traditions indicates necessity for centrifugal reading in Jewish tradition. Continuing with emphasis on Rosenzweig, Sommer responds to Rosenzweig’s statement that R is the most authoritative tradition in the Pentateuch by emphasizing importance of P, D, E, and J as individual and unique Jewish traditions. Additionally, he disagrees with Rosenzweig’s attempt to primarily accentuate biblical unity in Jewish theology, but rather accentuates the disunity. Sommer then notes that a peshat, or modern critical reading, is equally important to midrashic interpretations “because they enable us to hear religious teachings that might otherwise have been neglected” (235). The implications points towards the nature of Scripture as flawed and the non-existence of “Jewish biblical theology”, but simply “Jewish theology”.

In conclusion, revision of this aspect of Jewish law is not rupture, but continuity enabling Jewish tradition to endure. Such innovations and continuations need not be a hindrance and tension in Jewish theology. Rather they should be welcomed as the interpretation of Gebot (infallible, heavenly voice) into Gesetze (fallible, human translation). Thus, according to Sommer’s appropriation of the participatory theory of revelation, Jews create Torah through centrifugal tradition and dialogue as law is revealed at Sinai within communal settings.

Above all, Sommer clearly and beautifully explores the dimensions of Jewish tradition that permit for a shift of Written Torah to Oral Torah. His unique emphasis on the centrifugal orientation of Jewish theology permits it to maintain relevancy to religious Jews. And his call for a shift in theology, towards Oral Torah only and Jewish thought only, is necessary in a Western world which tends to de-emphasize religiosity via biblical criticism. Sommer expertly considers the validity of biblical criticism, re-evaluates Jewish thought and tradition, and revives past Jewish thought to show the continuity, value, and relevance of his argument.

There are, however, two minimal critiques of his argument. First, Sommer’s analysis of Pentateuch sources in Chapter Two fails to recognize and discuss the socio-political, historical drive of each source. Such discussion is important because, while his argument does recognize the value of Jewish tradition, it fails to respond to a major source of critique against the Bible’s place in tradition. Perhaps his answer would be that the Bible is fallible, as he clearly believes. Even so, the issue of socio-political situation for Pentateuch sources should have been addressed.

Secondly, Sommer draws on D’s use of “today” to demonstrate that the Sinai revelation occurred in the eternal now, which he then relates to Rosenzweig and Heschel. Yet, with a peshat reading, D does not press for an eternal now because the idea of something occurring “to this day” occurs not only in relation to speech through the Bible. It also occurs with presence of monuments (Josh 4:9, 5:9, 8:29), names of locations (Jug 18:12), tribes (Jud 21:6), and many more contexts. Thus, in order to more fully dialogue and come to terms with modern scholarship, Sommer should have explored the dimensions of “today” through the Bible.


Regardless of these two critiques, minor points which would have at least sharpened his argument, Sommer presents a full and rich discussion about Jewish tradition and thought. His work establishes an approach to religiosity for Jews that takes seriously claims of biblical criticism. Furthermore, his revival and emphasis on Jewish thought regarding the relationship between Oral Torah and Written is unique in the sense that it offers direction and positive continuation of Jewish theology. Especially for those researching Jewish thought and theology, Sommer’s work is indispensable as a resource for the history, development, and trends in Jewish thought. His work is even more so exceptionally important for religious Jews attempting to maintain religiosity without abandoning biblical criticism. Beyond Jews, the framework Sommer proposes may even hold value for protestant Christians. Overall, Revelation & Authority by Benjamin Sommer is an incredibly unique call for theological revival, encouraging Jews to be part of participatory revelation at Sinai for today and ages to come.