Why The Bible Began?

December 29, 2023 by Jeremy Rosen
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I pick up any academic book on the Bible with trepidation. First of all, because the very term needs clarification. Are we talking about the Old Testament or the New? For Jews, there is only one Bible.

Jeremy Rosen

It is pored over by academics, fundamentalists, and theologians. All vying for absolute authority. It is indeed a magnificent collection of self-described disparate texts written in a language and languages that, like any other, have evolved and vary according to the subject matter and the context. Just as we speak different languages at work, play, and home.

The literary power of the Bible can sometimes be hinted at through, say, the King James version in English taught in my university days in the English Literature Department at Cambridge. But no translation can convey the sounds and the poetic and literary resonances of what was and continues to be an oral tradition as well as a written one. Unless approached in the original, it cannot be fully appreciated. As the old saying goes, “To translate is to betray.” No two translations are the same. And there is something multi-facetted here that has been pored over and commented on for three thousand years in different languages, on different continents, and from different perspectives. Is it a work of literature, history, law, spirituality? Is it a fossilized work of literary, poetic,  inspirational, or condemnatory?  Is it the word of God, great minds, or random scribes? It can be all of these, even God speaking directly to me (metaphorically of course).  There can be no single theory or interpretation. Indeed, the Jewish Bible cannot be fully understood by a religious person without seeing it through the eyes of later commentaries. That is what differentiates the Bible as a Jewish text as opposed to other Bibles, in the same way, that the language or languages of the Five Books of Moses are quite distinct in almost every respect to that of the later Prophets.

Spinoza was not the first in Tractatus Theologicus Politicus to suggest that Moses did not write the books attributed to him and received on Mount Sinai. Which in his day caused consternation in both Christian and Jewish circles. Two centuries later Julius Wellhausen in his Documentary Hypothesis tried to identify different authors using subject matter, different words for God, and linguistic anomalies. It has been much modified and challenged since, but the concept still dominates academic thinking.

There can be no doubt that one can detect differences in speech and style in the books of the Bible. Some unusual words and phrases can be found in books written at different times. But which came first is open to debate. Even the Rabbis of The Talmud attributed biblical books to others than the stated authors. They accepted the contributions of the Men of the Great Assembly during the Greek era. Variations were only standardized by the  Masoretes towards the end of the first millennium. What troubles me is that so many Biblical scholars express their opinions and theories as if they were gospel (sic) and the only ones that mattered. You might say that that is a fault of academia nowadays almost everywhere.

I enjoyed the book even when I disagreed with some of the interpretations. I do agree that a unique feature of the Bible (unlike any other contemporary document), is that it accepts military defeat and internal moral failure. It does not blame anyone else.  The reaction of the people to the catastrophe of exile and its genius was to rebuild and innovate as well as preserve as much as possible of the previous traditions. The slow transition from Sanctuary to Study, from Ceremonial to Communal prayer, and the importance of studying texts leads to Wright’s conclusion that sometimes failure and loss can be more creative than military success or building memorials and arches of triumph. Jewish survival has been precisely because Jews were always losers, and it was forced to re-think.

Wright has presented a cornucopia of texts and archaeological evidence to support his thesis while accepting that not finding, does not mean that nothing existed. Theories are not facts. I was reminded of the historian R.G Collingwood who said “ There is no such thing as history, only historians.” One is left with as many questions as answers.

Is the absence of evidence for mass adherence to rigid law in the Bible proof that there was none? Or was it no different to today where most Jews around the world have little commitment to Jewish practice? But that does not mean no Jews practice the religion. This leads to a fascinating conclusion that lies at the source of confusion today about Jewish identity.

To quote the author “That Israel and Judah produced a Bible is not because of an early form of monotheism or unique institutions permeated these societies. The reason is rather the generations of anonymous counter-cultural thinkers pushed against the status quo and sought real pragmatic truth that could sustain their communities in a world governed by foreign powers”(Page 468).

“The difference between patriotism and nationalism is that the Bible’s notion of peoplehood is about members of a political community coming together to make positive contributions to the wider world and for the future of our globe. To quote Jill Lepore “Nationalism is a lot about who we are not, while peoplehood is about who we are”( Wright Page 469).

This is a stimulating book. And a very good overview of Biblical texts, writers, and scribes and the problems of authorship, and sequence. But above all, I applaud Wright’s positive message of hope and resilience that resonates, particularly at this moment when Judaism is under such assault, and prejudice that tries to deny us our heritage and rights. We are reminded that Jews have been here before and yet survived.

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen lives in New York. He was born in Manchester. His writings are concerned with religion, culture, history and current affairs – anything he finds interesting or relevant. They are designed to entertain and to stimulate. Disagreement is always welcome.


One Response to “Why The Bible Began?”
  1. Lynne Newington says:

    St Jerome’s version first translated from the Hebrew [for use in the Catholic Church into Latin] only to make corrections again along the way…… .

    One full stop could change history and Christianity.

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