The Etic, Emic, and Everything In-Between: Some Reflections on Adele Reinhartz’s Response to Daniel Boyarin

Recently, Daniel Boyarin published a book titled Judaism: The Genealogy of a Modern Notion. The goal of the book is to explore the history and usage of the term “Judaism”. Though I have admittedly not read the volume, Adele Reinhartz provides a helpful depiction of the Boyarin’s conclusions: “we “should not ascribe to a culture a category or abstraction for which that culture does not have a term.” To do so is anachronistic and therefore bad methodology. The implications for our scholarly practice is self-evident: we should not use the term Judaism when discussing premodern Jews” (Reinhartz 2019). As she notes later in her article, Boyarin’s conclusion is akin to his and Carlin Barton’s conclusion in Imagine No Religion (Fordham University Press, 2016), wherein Barton and Boyarin attempt to describe religion in antiquity without invoking modern the modern category “religion.”

Speaking of “Judaism” as a generic category, Reinhartz comments: “But does not the use of later generalizing terms give free rein to the dreaded sin of anachronism? Why, yes, of course it does. I would argue, however, that some degree of anachronism is inherent to the study of the past” (Reinhartz 2019). I am inclined to agree with Reinhartz. Various authors express similar sentiments about the category of “magic” in the recent volume titled Guide to the Study of Ancient Magic (Leiden: Brill, 2019). For example, Yuval Harari, known for his work on magic in ancient Israel and early Judaism, suggests “that an absolute split between the emic and the etic is impossible, and all attempts to trace the course of an emic approach are based on some presumption about the domain whose emic features we seek” (Harari 2019, 141).

My point in drawing attention to this is simple: many words in our vocabulary are, to echo J.Z. Smith’s perspective of religion, secondary categories [1]. Such categories don’t have a single definition; rather, they have 50 different definitions. The definitions depend on the particular contexts.

As Reinhartz and various authors in Guide to the Study of Ancient Magic point out, the modern categories which we impose on texts are exactly that. They are modern. As such, it is always a challenge to objectively describe a culture or text purely based on its internal qualities.

That is to say, it is particularly difficult to strongly distinguish between emic and etic descriptions. Difficulties distinguishing between these two anthropological approaches lead me to a comment and question worth exploring. While texts/cultures can be described with etic or emic terms, such descriptions are, in reality, too optimistic and unrealistic, as these categories are not precise. As such, how can scholars more systematically and critically map out the space between etic and emic analysis?

Admittedly, I am not incredibly conversant with anthropology. If such studies are available within anthropology, I would love to read them. On the other hand, if such studies are not available, it may be a route worth exploring. Exploring it will enable scholars to better engage with texts and cultures by more precisely defining where they stand between etic and emic [2].

[1] By contrast, though, David Frankfurter, “Ancient Magic in a New Key,” in Guide to the Study of Ancient Magic, ed. David Frankfurter (Leiden: Brill, 2019), 20, comments on “magic” as a second-order category: “While helpful initially to highlight aspects of phenomena, the term “magic” remains too vague to rely on as a genuine second-order category of description – for magic as described here essentially permeates human language, material lives, and social interactions.” That is to say, based on his definition and approach to “magic,” it is always present in societies through time and space.

[2] Though it not available to me at the moment, The Early Mediterranean World, 1200 – 600 BC (Leiden: Brill, 2018) includes helpful discussions about methodology. There may be some fruitful routes presented within the volume.

Approaching the Book of Ruth as Human to Human

Many commentators suggest the text of Ruth implies some sort of divine providence. Most recently Daniel Block suggests this idea: “Having heard the story to the end, we know the hand of God is providentially guiding the events” (2015, 37; click here for my review of his work). Daniel Hawk, similarly, considers Ruth to be filled with the Spirit of the Law as opposed to the letter of the Law (2015; click here for my review of his work). Both readings, unfortunately focus to greatly on the issue of God’s presence within the narrative. Jeremy Schipper offers an important alternative:

 “the narrator never notes the possibility of God guiding with a divine hand. In fact, “the narrator explicitly attributes to God only things that are beyond human control” (31)” – My review of Daniel Block’s Exegetical Commentary on the Old Testament: Ruth

Schipper importantly emphasizes that God’s guiding hand is not a possibility within the text, as the author no where indicates it. How, then, are we to approach the book of Ruth in terms of historical theology?

lessingAlthough separated by more than a millennium, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781) offers a potential approach to reading Ruth. In his play Nathan the Wise, Nathan, a Jew, responds to Daja’s claim that the Recha, daughter of Nathan who was saved by a Templar, should be permitted to maintain the sweet illusion that it was, in fact, an angel who saved her life. Nathan responds:

“To a human being another human being is always dearer than an angel” (Act I, Scene 1).

In other words, Nathan argues people must not always hope for some sort of supernatural salvation or miracle. For, there is more beauty in the interaction and miracle between two human beings than between a human being and an angel. Taking this into consideration, I wonder if Nathan’s model could be applied to the book of Ruth. The characters in the book of Ruth represent the role of humanity with each other, not the divine providence of God. Interactions between Ruth, Boaz, Naomi, fieldworkers, and other minor character, and the events which arise out of those interaction, result primarily due to the agency and independent actions of humans, humans whose involvement with each other is dearer than that with angels or divine providence.

UPDATE (9/19/2016):

For those who are not familiar with Nathan the Wise, I’ve attached a splendid, entertaining summary of the play.

Pseudepigrapha Saturday: Pseudo-Phocylides

Introduction to the Text: 

Pseudo-Phocylides is a text of maxims for people in their daily lives. Written between 1st century CE and BCE, the author wrote under the name Phocylides, an Ionic poet who lived in the 6th century BCE, in order to bolster the importance and value of the text. Unlike the original Phocylides, Pseudo-Phocylides merged Jewish and Greek ideas. Consequently, Pseudo-Phocylides is now “representative of that universalistic current in ancient Judaism” (Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, Volume II; P. W. van der Horst, “Pseudo-Phocylides”, p. 569).

The maxims within the 230 line poetry are remarkably poignant (at least from my modern perspective). As I read Pseudo-Phocylides, I considered how the ideas within the text are actually extremely valuable to our own society. Yet, I also recognized that many of my initial interpretations were very wrong. Certain ideas in the 21st century, for example, did not mean the same thing at the turn of the millennium.

The Threshold and Sacred Ritual: 

Line 24a is the perfect example of something which, in the 21st century, means something very different than it did in the 1st century.

Line 24a: Receive the homeless in (your) house…

Initially the maxim seems straight forward. If a homeless person needs a place to briefly stay or a place to eat, invite them in for a meal. In my interpretation, the focus is on the concept and action of inviting somebody into my house, a relatively simple and mundane act, albeit significant from a social perspective. Reception of this text in my own mind draws out the social emphasis, not any concrete, spatial reality.

In the ancient world, though, receiving the homeless was an incredibly significant act. In order to be received into a household, the homeless person had to cross a threshold, namely the entrance of the household. The threshold “defines a basic opposition between people who own a dwelling place and people who don’t”, a boundary which marks distinction between those with a dwelling place and those without. Now, in religious Greek thought, beggars all come from Zeus. To receive a beggar beyond the threshold (door) and into the dwelling place was a sacred, ritual act (Pietro Giammellaro 2013, 162). So, by receiving a beggar and permitting him/her to cross the threshold, they performed a sacred, ritual act of worship.

Because Pseudo-Phocylides was written within a Hellenistic context, namely a Jewish and Greek context, we should assume that a similar conceptual framework informed the reality of the author. The maxim “receive the homeless in (your) house” is not merely a maxim calling for good deeds; rather, it calls for sanctified and sacred ritual act within a physical space, which results in direct worship Yahweh. In terms of Judaism, it was an act which sanctified the name of God, as the homeless were implicitly sent from Yahweh.

As these two interpretations demonstrate, the conceptual framework of the origin of the text is incredibly valuable. My original interpretation highlighted how it was a good deed and socially beneficial to receive the homeless. My interpretation informed by historical and textual studies of Greek culture highlighted how it was a sacred, ritual act to receive the homeless. These two interpretations are both valid; however, the latter allows us to more fully engage with the mind, context, and intentions of the author of Pseudo-Phocylides. For this reason, it is always important to consider the original conceptual environment of any text.

Sibylline Oracles: Book 3

The Sibylline Oracles are a series of prophetic texts akin to those found in Roman and Grecian literature. Non-biblical literature Sibylline oracles were prophetic texts by a female prophetess that were either used in serious crises or as political propaganda. The Sibylline Oracles in the Pseudepigrapha consist of  eight books and were written between the mid-second century B.C.E. to the seventh century C.E. These oracles combined the Mediterranean medium of a prophetic Sibyl and and incorporated them into Jewish literature. J. J. Collins notes that “willingness to incorporate material from pagan oracles shows a significant readiness to build on the common human basis of Jews and gentiles” (OTP, vol. 1, 322). Even with the shared prophetic medium, prophecy still changed and developed, reflecting the time period in which the different books were written. – The Biblical Review: click here for source.

It should be noted that this is my third time examining the Sibylline Oracles. I will primarily focus on one passage in order to illustrate why the descriptions of practices in a historical document are so significant for reconstructing an accurate portrayal of history. In book three of the Sibylline Oracles, the Sibyl writes about idolatry: “You neither revere nor fear God, but wander to no purpose, / worshiping snakes and sacrificing to cats, / speechless idols and stones statues of people” (3.29-31). Through briefly examining this passage, we will demonstrate the value of the understanding the condemnation of non-ideal practices, at least from the viewpoint of the author.

Cats and Egypt

As J. J. Collins notes, the statement about “worshiping snakes and sacrificing to cats” is a polemic specifically against Egyptians. Other portions of the text, likewise, speak specifically of events which took place in Egypt and involved Egyptians Jews. Consequently, Collins proposes that the text was composed in an Egypt. This is significant for historians. First, it provides a better understanding as to how Jewish identity, or identities, formed. There was not single strand of tradition that formed from a void of nothingness into “Judaism”; rather, ideological conflict and cultural exchange contributed the Jewish author’s ability to define identity through establishing Egypt as the Other. In this case, witnessing Egyptian culture(s), war(s), and religious practice(s) became what permitted this Sibyl of Jewish Egyptians to offer an identity for her own community.

So, when the author speaks of “worshiping snakes”, it takes on a cultural meaning because it is a polemic comment. Henceforth, from the author’s perspective, “worshiping snakes” becomes something that is outside of the boundaries of what constitutes the Sibyl’s version of Judaism. The same is true with worshiping cats.

To summarize, we are able to understand a strand of Jewish tradition and identity primarily because of their cultural exchange and polemic with Egypt. Due to these two factors, cultural exchange and polemic, people are able to form an identity with more clear boundaries as to what is correct practice and what is wrong practice.



Pseudepigrapha Saturday: The Sibylline Oracles, Book 1

Introduction to the Text:

The Sibylline Oracles are a series of prophetic texts akin to those found in Roman and Grecian literature. Non-biblical literature Sibylline oracles were prophetic texts by a female prophetess that were either used in serious crises or as political propaganda. The Sibylline Oracles in the Pseudepigrapha consist of  eight books and were written between the mid-second century B.C.E. to the seventh century C.E. These oracles combined the Mediterranean medium of a prophetic Sibyl and and incorporated them into Jewish literature. J. J. Collins notes that “willingness to incorporate material from pagan oracles shows a significant readiness to build on the common human basis of Jews and gentiles” (OTP, vol. 1, 322). Even with the shared prophetic medium, prophecy still changed and developed, reflecting the time period in which the different books were written. – The Biblical Review: click here for source.

Because I previously wrote about an aspect of the Sibylline Oracles, the I simply copied my previous introduction. This time, however, I will examine a different aspect of the oracles. In Book 1 (5-37; written before 150 CE), the creation account is presented through a Greek worldview. The Sibyl writes that “It was he who created the whole world, saying, “let it come to be” and it came to be. For he established the earth, draping it around with Tartarus, and he himself gave sweet light” (1.7b-10). Genesis 1:1-3 is similar in style: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. (2)The earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters. (3) Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light” (NASB).

Interestingly, it seems as if the Sibyl’s use of Tartarus and the rabbinic understand of deep, formless, and void (tehom, tohu, and bohu) are interrelated too a certain extent.

Tartarus and Tehom

Tartarus is the place of punishment in Greek mythology, akin to hell [1]. Although the triad of pre-creation terminology (tehomtohu, and bohu) does not explicitly relate to hell at any point in the Hebrew Bible, a concept already illusive in it, there are traditions which connect the tohu and bohu to Tartarus. In Midrash Rabbah, classical Rabbinic literature commenting on various aspects of Genesis, Rabbi Judah ben Simon (Rabbi Judah son of Simon) relates the ‘deep things’ to Gehenna, a term for hell [2]. So, there is some sort of continuity between the tradition of God “draping it around with Tartarus” in Book 1 of the Sibylline Oracles and Jewish thought of the period.

Although this is an incredibly brief, underexplored, and not well explained idea, it may be a possible route for studies in the relationship between Rabbinic literature and Jewish Pseudepigrapha.

[1] So Louw Nida, 1.25.

[2] I was only able to access Midrash Rabbah through a web archive. So, in order to locate it, search “GENESIS (BERESHITH) [I. 5-6” on this page.


J. J. Collins “Sibylline Oracles”. The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, Volume I. Hendrickson Publishers, 1983: 317-472.

“How Repentance Became Biblical” by David A. Lambert

RepentDavid A. Lambert. How Repentance Became Biblical: Judaism, Christianity, & the Interpretation of Scripture. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2015, 280 pp., $74.00 (hardcover).

David Lambert (PhD Harvard University) is currently an Assistant Professor at the University of North Carolina’s Department of Religious Studies at Chapel Hill. A brief view of his previous publications highlight his interest in penitential practices especially in the Dead Sea Scrolls and New Testament. In How Repentance Became Biblical, Lambert aims to draw out a common interpretive tendency among biblical critics, namely to read “repentance” into the Bible with a “penitential lens”. The penitential lens, though, is based on ontological principals thrust backward through history: human subjectivity, virtue, didacticism, and autonomy. Throughout the work Lambert highlights these ontological assumptions “to witness ourselves reading a variety of texts and… gamin insight into the interpretive forms cultural hegemony assumes” (6).  Opposing these ontological assumptions, he focuses on language, comparison, and other choices in the interpreter’s present to draw out alternatives to the penitential lens. Consequently his focus in How Repentance Became Biblical is he focuses upon three elements of texts commonly connected to penitential rites: to identify penitential readings and their ontological underpinnings, explore alternative readings, and examine developments in discourse of biblical literature which brought about “repentance”.

The book is divided in to three parts: Rites, Language and Pedagogy, and Religion. Parts I and II identity part of the Bible which tend to receive penitential treatment and provides alternative interpretations. Part III shifts to early Jewish sectarianism and the rise of repentance as a concept.

Chapter One focuses on fasting, a rite commonly associated with penitence, and suggests an alternative approach: “fasting is an integrated physical-emotional response to suffering, not an outward signifier of repetance”, and directly appeals to divine mercy (17). His modern-day example is helpful as notes fasting in the Hebrew Bible as more akin to modern-day hunger strikes, fasting as a manifestation of affliction with concrete effect on those who perceive it. Lambert effectively demonstrates a major tendency to read the Bible with a penitential lens.

Chapter Two explores prayer, aptly noting its common association as penitential. Alternatively Lambert illustrates the logic of appeal behind prayer. Prayer reinforces Yahweh’s self-interest through “a mutually beneficial relationship, between the powerful and the powerless” (35). Yahweh, argues Lambert, is more interested in constancy than  sincerity or subjective quality of faith, and sin is often times nothing more than “a rhetorical strategy aimed at defusing likely criticism” (38). Portraying cries of people as desperate rather than external expression of internal repentance, Lambert also provides a valuable reconfiguration of the Judges cycle as sin-oppression-outcry-champion, a cycle focusing more on the power dynamics, the logical of appeal, and self-interest of both Israel and Yahweh. Thus, prayer is not meant “to mitigate its pain… through control over self but through social engagement – verbal articulation” (49). As I highlighted in this summary, I greatly appreciate his reconfiguration of the pre-monarchic Judges cycle as it avoids the modern penitential lens and permits a clearer view of ancient Israelite reality.

Chapter Three demonstrates how the articulation of sin, or confession, is not always about providing a statement of repentance; rather, it may be seen from three aspects: “confession as the realization of an entity’s status, as initiation of a particular social, relational state, and as participation in a broader restitutive process” (53). Lambert suggests, for example, that Joseph’s brothers confess their guilt not due to the self in them, but as declaration of existence in a state of liability and diminishment, things implicitly connected to their social standing and reality. Even in Leviticus, articulation of sin of not about consciousness of sin but the sense of danger with the presence of sin. Even David’s confession of sin to Nathan is about recognizing his diminishment and carving out a place for Yahweh to be in power. All-in-all, Lamberts alternative reading draws out the power dynamics present through the articulation of sin.

Chapter Four sifts through uses of shuv, a term commonly understood as “repent”, by reading the term as a material return, more like an appeal with a less mediated, metaphorical understanding of the inner state of repentance. This constitutes shuv as an operative image outside of covenant, especially active in the appeal and oracular inquiry. By briefly demonstrating shuv‘s relationship to materialistic, prophetic inquiry throughout the Hebrew Bible, he demonstrates early prophetic figures, Amos, Hosea, and Isaiah, utilizing shuv as a physical return to prophetic inquiry (Amos), Yahwistic cult sites (Hosea), and rhetoric of appeal to Yahweh (Isaiah). Jeremiah and the DH record a shift in shuv as a cessation of sin, a state of being rather than act of internal repentance.

Chapter Five re-frames the pedagogic evaluation of prophetic utterance by applying to the theory of divine anthropopathy to Yahweh and prophecy in the Hebrew Bible. Often times through passionate anger, Lambert argues that “oracles themselves… stake out the power of Israel’s god and the contours of his reign, his very identity, as well as the reasons for people’s current state” (101). He provides support with the Mari letters, in which the prophet’s devouring of a living lamb materializes the anthropopathy of the deity’s anger and promised devastation at the city, just like Moses’ destroying the golden calf and Samuel destroying Agag. Lambert’s analysis of Moses as Yahweh’s warrior in Exodus,  the DH rendering of prophetic words of doom with no reversal, Isaiah’s words of doom as words of power, and Jonah’s parody of prophecy effectively highlights prophecy in relation to power, namely the anthropopathism portrayed by prophets that attaches collective guilt through words of power. Problematic, though, is the historical disconnect between the letter from Mari (18th century BCE) and the historical kernels in Exodus and 1 Samuel. If Lambert is going to connect such distant literature through the phenomenon of prophecy, he must demonstrate that their was no shift or development in prophetic utterance for nearly one thousand years.

Having considered and critiqued the influence of a penitential lens through practices (fasting, logic of appeal, and articulation of sin), linguistic terms (shuv), and public address (pedagogy), Lambert proceeds to the articulation of redemptive expectations as communal definition, in contrast to tendencies to explore moral demands upon individuals in a community. Redemption in Jubilees, for example, aims not at redemption through the agent of repentance but God’s direct  transformation and re-creation of the community. Jubilees does, however, hint toward individual liability. Likewise, the community imagined by the Dead Sea Scrolls did not take on moral/religious desideratum for community, but assumed a transformation through things like the hadayot and immersion. Lambert’s analysis of the early Jesus movement compares the Gospels and Q to emphasize that the original “baptism of repentance” was about repentance as the consequence of baptism. Even Jesus’ ministry was not about repentance but “one of joining Jesus, attaching oneself to his body of followers” (147). Paul echoes early ideas of “repentance” as a consequence and begins to expand this idea with Hellenistic thought. All-in-all, the notion of divine re-creation is consistent in these texts. Lambert challenges readers of the New Testament to reconsider the penitential lens with clearly explained and explored alternative interpretation.

Finally, Chapter 7 locates the emergence of a “repentance” concept within 1st and 2nd century CE Jewish and Christian literature as an offspring of Hellenistic metanoia. Throughout the works of Philo and Plutarch, meanoia is the internal pain of mind that causes one to change or rethink. Philo and Joesph and Aseneth take the concept of repentance with hypostatization. Even terms like shuv become similar to menanoia resulting in the term as representing “repentance”. Rabbinic Judaism aquires repents, thus, as the concept of teshuva, which requires one to change via their own cognition. Early Christianity also comes to understand Jesus as the hypostatization of the figure Metanoia. From Hellenistic moral philosophy to Christianity and Judaism, repentance became an internal acts of change, and idea that is often, unfortunately, universalized.

As I hope is evident through this review, Lambert’s nuanced analysis explores the multitude of historical contours that tend to be flattened through a penitential lens. With clarity he brings to the fore problematic readings of the Bible and also offers a variety of alternative readings aligned more closely to the texts. Challenging the current presuppositions of mainstream scholarship and laypeople, his book is groundbreaking. Akin to Jeffrey Stackert’s A Prophet Like Moses, which is now cited in most books I have read about Hebrew Bible composition, David Lambert’s work has the potential to become integral to the forward motion of biblical studies. After all, he challenges the mere idea of repentance as a concept throughout the Hebrew Bible, something that has been essential to Christianity and Judaism for centuries.

Additionally, I greatly appreciate his work with regard to the history of biblical interpretation. His dissemination of discourse and development of biblical interpretation from the oldest portions of Hebrew Bible to 3rd century Rabbinic literature issue a starting point for many future studies on the history of biblical interpretation. In addition to critiquing and answer questions, Lambert’s work raises important questions that potentially undermine (challenge?) religious traditions and the frameworks within which they operate.

Finally, with regard to framework, he takes a great step forward in moving beyond theoretical issues with “religion” as a term for discussing the ancient world. He notes that “even while this Enlightenment-inflected definition [of religion] has been challenged on theoretical ground, it continues to inform interpretation” (121). His work explores the validity of repentance throughout biblical literature does, though, provide an alternative framework which does not assume that accounts of redemptive expectations are rooted in repentance. With this framework, I look forward to seeing how other scholars utilize it and, perhaps, reconfigure it to better describe ancient Israelite religion rather than re-describing with modern assumptions.

Especially for research issues pertain to biblical interpretation, I highly recommend How Repentance Became Biblical. The invigorating discussion and innovative analysis holds potential to significantly impact the field of biblical studies. Even if you don’t have time to read the whole book, at least be sure you understand the arguments and ideas set forth by Lambert, as you will likely encounter them in the future.


Pseudepigrapha Saturday: Treatise of Shem (Belated Edition)

Generally I post Pseudepigrapha Saturday on Saturdays. Unfortunately, due to the business of #AARSBL15 and thanksgiving time, I have been unable to post it. Well, now I present you with the exclusive “Belated Edition” of Pseudepigrapha Saturday. The only difference is that I am posting on Sunday instead of Saturday.

Introduction to the Text:

The Treatise of Shem follows the zodiac counterclockwise and reverses the order the Aquarius and Pisces. The first zodiac sign, Aries, begins with gloomy imagery, while the final zodiac sign in regular the regular order, Pisces, reflects a far more positive outlook. Written in the late twenties B.C.E. in Egypt, Charlesworth suggests that it demonstrates Jewish astrological concerns during the first century B.C.E. and symbolically reflects Octavian’s defeat of Mark Antony and Cleopatra at Actium (31 B.C.E.), a likely candidate for the battle which birthed the Roman Empire (See The Battle of Actium by Joshua J. Mark).


“The synagogue at Zippori (Sepphoris) provided the most recent of the zodiac mosaic discoveries, although unfortunately it is not very well preserved. In the center of the zodiac wheel, Helios once again drives his four-horse chariot, but rather than the figure of a man, the god is depicted as the sun itself.” – Source: Biblical Archaeology Society



The Treatise of Shem and the “Variegated Nature of Intertestamental Judaism”

In his introduction to the Treatise of Shem, Charlesworth notes that “Diasporic Judaism, and even Palestinian Judaism, was not guided by an established orthodoxy. The Treatise of Shem significantly improves our perception of the variegated nature of intertestamental Judaism” (OTP, vol. 1, 477). Dovetailing from this point, the Treatise of Shem also illustrates the breadth of theological convictions throughout history. Take, for example, Genesis 1:14 which notes that the sun and moon as things which give signs and seasons. This Priestly text, of course, assumes a culture with an agricultural locus; thus, to follow the signs of the sky would not seem odd. After all, the seasons, signs, times, and astrology all go hand-in-hand.

Two later texts oppose astrology. Deuteronomy 18:10-14 bans divination, something which encompasses astrology. And the book of Jubilees rejects astrology all together (OTP, vol. 1, 477). Clearly, the various traditions from biblical literature indicate that Jewish literature (however anachronistic those terms may seem) was multifaceted and inherited traditions, ideas, and religious practices from their own contexts.

Shifting to more contemporary significance, perhaps the multifaceted approach to communal religion and personal, lived religion should be embraced by religious communities of the 21st centuries. In a world of globalization, multi-religious dialogue is an absolute must. Note, though, that I am not calling for pluralism. Pluralism demands that multiple sources are all correct. I simply call for multi-religious dialogue, in which multiple sources can engage with each other to seek commonalities for moving forward and also agree to disagree about differences.

This is the sort of diversity which seems to be present in the Treatise of Shem, one of many examples of variegation in Second Temple Period Judaism. Maybe we should learn from our human predecessors and move forward with those convictions: difference within tradition is not detrimental, but good.

Note: I am aware that this post went off the main focus of my blog, but I think it is important. So I said it. I am also aware that I am not necessarily taking into account the historical relationship between the variegated forms of Second Temple Period Judaism. Even so, I believe that multi-faith dialogue is a necessity for constructing a more palatable and lively world.


Joshua J. Mark. “The Battle of Actium”. Ancient History Encyclopedia.  (accessed 11/29/2015).

J. H. Charlesworth. “Treatise of Shem”. The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, Volume I. Hendrickson Publishers, 1983: 473-486.

Walter Zanger. “Jewish Worship, Pagan Symbols”. Bible History Daily. (accessed 11/29/2015).

“How the Bible Became Holy” by Michael L. Satlow

Michael L. Satlow. How the Bible Became Holy. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014, 368 pp., $25 (softcover).

*I’d like to express my gratitude to Yale University Press for providing me with a review copy in exchange for my honest opinion.


In How the Bible Became Holy, Michael Satlow narratively presents the history, developments, and trajectories of how the Bible became an authoritative text. Unlike many books which explore the development of the Canon, or Canons for Jews and Christians, Satlow focuses on the degrees to which historical Judaism and Christianity bestowed authority to what nowadays is called the New Testament and Hebrew Bible (Old Testament).

He emphasizes three major elements in his narrative history. First, the texts which became later tradition, texts which were bestowed authority, were done so by economically secure peoples. Second, the texts are filled with and are the result of political and social conflict. Third, he focuses on the dynamics between the official and un-official religiosity throughout history. Through illustrating these three major factors in the development of the Bible as an authoritative text, he offers thought provoking analysis of theologized history and, for readers with Judeo-Christian sentiments, challenges the basic and standard understandings of the Bible’s history.

Part I focuses on the emergence of the Israel as distinct tribal units till the exilic period. Part II covers the rule of Alexander and dawn of Hellenism, to the emergence of the major socio-theological Jewish parties into the 1st century CE. Finally, Part III, having established various authoritative trajectories in Parts I and II, explores the developments of early Christianity and Judaism, namely the early Christian letters and emergence of Rabbinic Judaism.

Satlow’s work is fantastic because his presentation does not simplify the complexities of how the bible became holy, nor does he examine every crack and crevice. With great clarity, he presents the complexities whilst avoiding dense, scholarly language. In effect, his approach to writing opens up his work to a wider variety of audiences who seek to under the Bible more. Additionally, his work recognizes that many of the suggestions and historical constructs are conjectural. By recognizing this within the work itself, he protects himself from critics who may read How the Bible Became Holy as a polemic against the “inerrant, Christian holy book”. Satlow seeks an honest, open presentation of the history of how the Bible attained authoritative status and he achieves this monumentally challenging goal in his book.

Over all, How the Bible Became Holy is a essential read for everybody. Yes. Everybody. It is understandable enough that the average adult can comprehend the information. It is scholarly enough that the average student can engage with it and understand the history. Although it may not be resourceful for furthering study in the academia, Satlow writes with such clarity and conversational tone that it is an important book to those beginning any study regarding the Bible, whether it be theological studies or history.

“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.

Jewish Ideological and Scriptural Literalism

Recently, James McGrath reposted Daniel McClellan’s comment on the myth of scriptural literalism. McGrath conveniently created meme of one of McClellan’s comments, on which I will comment.

I must say that I love the succinctness of McClellan’s comment. However, one issue I’ve noticed through following discussion about scriptural literalism, or ideological literalism, is the narrow scope towards Christianity. This is a place where, perhaps, Jewish-Christian dialogue in necessary. In his recently translated work The Jews and the Bible (published in French in 2012 and English in 2015), Attias explores historical relationship between the Hebrew Bible and Jews. Near the end of his work, he comments on how modern Israel’s use of the Bible.

What the average Israeli saw ultimately as an innocent text, which he had got to know at school as the founding document of the people and a component of his identity, suddenly morphed into highly explosive material in the hands of sorcerer’s apprentices all the more alarming for their extreme religiosity. “The Bible ceased to be a common heritage, and from a book that in large measure united people it became one that separated them.” – Jean-Christophe Attias in “The Jews and the Bible”

Why does this matter to discussions of ideological literalism? As he notes, the Bible, which had originally united people, separated people as their own ideological ideas developed. This resulted in some extreme religiosity (perhaps scriptural/ideological literalism, or fundamentalism?) that splintered the unity of Jews. It happened within a specific cultural context and was the result of claiming the Bible’s fundamental status due to a certain ideology. Of course, even to this day the effects are felt in the complexities of the Jewish-Palestinian conflict.

Thus, “Scriptural literalism”, only made possible by ideological literalism, is not merely a Christian phenomenon. Although I wholeheartedly believe that others recognize this, it must be engaged with and included in discussion. Jewish history, which is often closely knitted with concurrent Christian history, contains primary examples of the struggle about how to understand the Bible. What is its place? Too what extent is it, to use the words of Attias, the locus of identity? What happens when the Bible becomes the locus of identity? These are all issues that Judaism has dealt with and may potentially inform and effect how Christianity deals with the issue of ideological fundamentalism and literalism.