Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Satlow's How the Bible Became Holy: Initial Reactions

I mentioned before how I was looking forward to reading Michael Satlow's How the Bible Became Holy. I now have it on Kindle, and I've gotten through the first 6 chapters (of 15), so I can now offer some initial reactions. So far, it's okay.

My very first reaction was actually pretty negative and had everything to do with my expectations for the book. I assumed it was going to be a work of scholarship, a scholar writing for other scholars, like Schniedewind's How the Bible Became a Book or van der Toorn's Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible or Carr's Formation of the Hebrew Bible. I think this expectation was nourished by the fact that the book is published by Yale, not to mention the book description:
Synthesizing an enormous body of scholarly work, Satlow’s groundbreaking study offers provocative new assertions about commonly accepted interpretations of biblical history as well as a unique window into how two of the world’s great faiths came into being.
It turns out, though, that this is a popularization, something along the lines of Friedman's Who Wrote the Bible? At one point Satlow asks the reader to "[p]ut yourself, for a moment, in the place of King Hezekiah of Judah at the end of the eighth century" (ch. 2, loc. 528). [That's the location number in the Kindle version; I don't know the page number for the print version.] Also there's a general lack of citation that indicates we've entered the world of popularization rather than scholarship.

Now that I've gotten used to that fact, I am enjoying the book more. I don't think I've gotten to the "provocative new assertions." So far it's a nice, well-written account of a scholar's perspective on the formation of the Bible. Some of it is helpful, some of it is interesting, some of it is just standard stuff, but it's all easy to read, so that's nice.

When I move along in the book, or get to the stuff that is provocative and new, I might check back in and offer some other reflections. Now here are a few points of interest.

Some interesting suggestions:

  • "As with the bards in ancient Greece who recited the poems of Homer, the stories of Israel were performed by professionals, undoubtedly with local variations" (ch. 1, loc. 323). In the footnote, he says: "There is, admittedly, no firm evidence for the existence of bards in ancient Israel. Nevertheless, the practice of reciting oral stories was widespread throughout antiquity and this seems to be the most plausible social context for such legends" (ch. 1 n. 7). 
  • "Jeremiah here [at Jer 8:8] might be condemning not the core of Deuteronomy itself--whose basic message and language he echoes--but the Deuteronomistic history that appropriates it" (ch. 2, loc. 781). This is an interesting contrast with, inter alios, van der Toorn, who says that Jeremiah is condemning Deuteronomy (Scribal Culture, p. 35; van der Toorn cites already Karl Marti from 1889). 
  • As for Ezra's "book of the Torah of Moses," Satlow says this was not our Pentateuch: "it seems likely that Ezra's scroll contains passages from both P and D (and H) sources, although not necessarily in the order or way that they survive in the modern Pentateuch" (ch. 4, loc 1330). "Ezra shows no familiarity at all with J or E materials. This does not mean that he did not know them or that they did not exist, but that it is likely they were not part of his scroll" (loc. 1334). He then goes on to mention the problem of scroll size in relation to containing the entire Pentateuch on a single scroll, though he acknowledges that later Jewish practice does this very thing. 
Again, this is not exactly groundbreaking stuff, but it's, perhaps, noteworthy, or at least sort of helpful to have this easy discussion from Satlow's perspective. 

A couple of weird things: 
  • "[...] the Catholic Apocrypha, a collection of originally Jewish books that have been given limited canonical authority by the Roman Catholic Church" (ch. 6, loc. 1945). Okay, first of all the "Catholic Apocrypha" encompass books that are considered canonical for more than just the Roman Catholics. At least the Orthodox also, sort of, ascribe canonical authority to them, but other groups as well. Second, what is this business of "limited canonical authority"? There might be Catholic thinkers out there who would subscribe to this position (Satlow cites none), but that is not the official position. Their description as "deuterocanonical" has nothing to do with their authority and everything to do with the chronology by which they were understood to be authoritative. Actually, Trent did not even make any distinction among the protocanonical books and deuterocanonical books, and pronounced an anathema on anyone who did not accept any of them. (At least, that's how their decision has been received, even if it was not thus originally intended; see here, pp. 91-92.) The distinction we owe to Sixtus of Siena, who explicitly says that the term 'deuterocanonical' should not be read as diminishing the status or authority of these books. 
  • "Today the book [of 1 Enoch] can be most easily found in a scholarly collection known as the Pseudepigrapha [with a reference to the Charlesworth volumes]. First composed and named in the early twentieth century, the Pseudepigrapha collects 'falsely attributed' works that date to antiquity and are not part of the contemporary standard canons" (ch. 6, loc. 2025). I simply don't know what this means. I'll give him that last part, that 1 Enoch and Jubilees and such "are not part of the contemporary standard canons," but that is quite a slight on those like the Ethiopian Christians (and perhaps others?) who accept these books as canonical. But what does Satlow mean that the Pseudepigrapha [with the capital] was first composed and named in the early twentieth century? Is this a reference to the old volumes edited by R. H. Charles? But the pseudepigrapha--the writings in the collection--certainly weren't composed at this time, and neither were they collected and named for the first time then. On the modern history of this collection and its name, which goes back to the very early eighteenth century, see this JTS article by Annette Yoshiko Reed.

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