My Bible – A Jew’s Perspective (RJS)

The first essay in the new book by  Marc Zvi Brettler (Brandeis University), Peter Enns (Eastern University) and Daniel J. Harrington (Boston College), The Bible and the Believer: How to Read the Bible Critically & Religiously, is by Brettler. In this essay he reflects on the development and diversity of Jewish engagement with the Scripture and what this means for the believing Jewish scholar.  The picture to the right is of a fourth or fifth century synagogue at Bar’am National Park in Israel. It was long thought to date a couple hundred years earlier, but new investigations have demonstrated that it was built later using the remains of an earlier second or third century (probably pagan Roman) structure.

I found Brettler’s essay fascinating for several reasons: the sketch of the history of Jewish thought, the similarities and differences in the approach to scripture, and the insight it provides into modern Jewish thinking. Many, perhaps 20%-25%, of my colleagues are Jewish ranging from orthodox through the variations to thoroughly secular. About the only group not represented to the best of my knowledge are the ultra-orthodox.

Rather than try to summarize the whole of Brettler’s essay, I will instead point to two of the themes he develops.  The first relates to torah or Torah, and the second to the Bible as history and science (a topic of concern in many of my posts).

Torah. In looking to the Old Testament or Hebrew Scriptures Brettler chooses to focus on the Torah or Law because this is the central document for the Jewish faith. Brettler builds a case that there was a development through the biblical texts from torah as teachings and laws, lower case, plural (torot), including parts of the Pentateuch, to the view of single divine Torah. The view of a single divine Torah was accepted in the late books of the Old Testament, especially Ezra-Nehemiah and Chronicles.

The absence of this term [the torah of Moses] in earlier prophetic material bolsters the idea that the notion of a Mosaic Torah, identical with the Pentateuch, only developed in the Second Temple period.

Once this idea of a Mosaic Torah arose, it stuck. Thus, over a dozen times the Dead Sea Scrolls (second century BCE-first CE) refer to “the Torah of Moses,” alongside less frequent references to “the Torah of God/the LORD.” … The New Testament, written in the same period, also likely assumes in places that the Torah is Mosaic (see, for example, Matt 19:8; Mark 12:26) (p. 30-31)

The notion that parts of the Pentateuch are divine revelations to Moses dates from the earliest documents – the idea of the Torah as a single document of divine revelation developed later.

The knowledge that the Torah was composite in its origin was likely lost shortly after its redaction or compilation into a single document, and, thereafter, there was no prevarication involved in speaking of the Torah, or God’s or Moses’ Torah as a unified document. This belief, developed in the Second Temple period, reached the classical rabbis and through them Maimonides and other theologians. Yet I will suggest that it is constructive to return to this “lost” knowledge about the Torah’s complex composition. (p. 31)

Maimonides (1135-1205) took this general belief in a single unified Mosaic Torah and enshrined it for years to come.  His shortened eighth and ninth principles read (p. 25):

I believe with perfect faith that the entire Torah we now possess is the one given to Moses our teacher – may he rest in peace.

I believe in perfect faith that this Torah will never be changed …

The long forms are even clearer stating that the whole Torah was given from God “through Moses who acted like a secretary taking dictation” and “this Torah was precisely transcribed from God.” (p. 34)

Brettler suggests however, that tradition aside, a more complex view of the origin of the Torah is warranted both by the internal evidence of the text itself and the external evidence in the earlier rabbis and teachers. This is not to deny either revelation or inspiration (whatever this means). A revelation through a variety of sources complied into a unified document is still a revelation from God. The Torah can be better appreciated, even by the faithful, when it is viewed through the lens of critical study. An alternative view is that “the sanctity of the text derives from the redactor, or from the community as a whole.” (p. 39)

That the inspiration of scripture derives, at least in part, from the work of the Spirit in the redaction of the text we have received is one that should resonate with Christians. Although the Jewish believer, of course, does not attach the Spirit to the process the way the Christian does.

Brettler also notes a bit later when considering the authorship of books in the Hebrew Bible that “canonicity involves authority, not inspiration.” (p. 56) The Christian view of inspiration, while having roots and parallels in Jewish thought, should not be imposed on the Jewish view of scripture.

Literalism: The Bible as History and as Science.

Jewish tradition is much less concerned with the literal truth and the historical accuracy of the biblical text than is the Protestant tradition. This is true with respect to what would typically be categorized as history and as science. (p. 52)

History proves a somewhat malleable form or truth telling. Chronicles is “a creative revision of Genesis-Kings” and the plague narratives of Exodus are recounted differently in later books. The differences do not discount the work of God in history, but display an attitude that doesn’t assign significance to the precise details.

This is because in ancient Israel, as in other premodern societies, the facts themselves or the historical events were not primary – what could be learned from the stories was primary. (p. 52)

Debates continue about what should and should not be read literally – inside and outside the Torah. But in Jewish thought there is “broad consensus … that the Bible should not always or primarily be read literally.” (p. 53) The book of Genesis was not viewed as “natural history” but as “about morality and our relationship to God.”  The primary meaning is not the surface meaning. Within Judaism therefore, even among devout Jews, scientific views of evolution and the age of the earth cause relatively little trouble. The inferences drawn by some (especially those intent on promoting ontological natural or scientific materialism) are at odds with Jewish belief – but the scientific theories themselves are not.

Does the history sketched by Brettler surprise you?

What authority should we attach to the Second Temple view of the Torah as a unified Mosaic document?

Do the references in the New Testament to the books of Moses carry separate authority or could they reflect an (inaccurate) common view of the time?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net

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  • AHH

    I was struck by this:
    This is because in ancient Israel, as in other premodern societies, the facts themselves or the historical events were not primary – what could be learned from the stories was primary.
    which I think is something we should remember when interpreting the use of the Old Testament by Paul (who was, after all, situated in the society referred to in the quote) and other NT writers.

  • Tim Atwater

    RJS thanks for this posting. Hope this is not a distraction to comment along these lines–

    AHH (#1) Paul and Jesus, like other rabbis, teachers (though much more canonically, to understate, from the Christian believer’s viewpoint) do midrash extensively —

    interpreting (inspired by God) freely —
    sometimes close to the earlier story line,
    sometimes playing rather like post-modern jazz —
    covering the chord changes, evoking the ‘original’ ‘melody’ line or plain meaning (the term would be disputed by Rabbis, I think, following Neusner, Judaism and the Interpretation of Scripture as well as Brettler, quoted here)

    for example Paul in 1 Cor 10 on the rock that was Christ
    Jesus fulfilling in John’s gospel the various festivals prescribed in Torah along with the texts that establish the same festivals (see Carson or any detailed John commentary on this)

    Beverly Roberts Gaventa’s take on Peter’s midrashing of Joel 2 at Pentecost also comes to mind…

    (I think this speaks to the primary question of ‘Literalism — the Bible as History and as Science — even if only indirectly to the three closing queries. I think many books could be written and perhaps have been written on ‘what do we mean by literal? what do we mean by history? and not being a scientist, i will leave that one in RJS’s capable hands…)

    Blessings on this conversation, which is timely…

  • Patrick

    70&132 AD forced non Christian Jews to change their view of Torah. No Jews in Jerusalem, no temple, no animal sacrifices beyond the original Babylonian dispersion = major theological problems in need of reconciliation.

  • Bill

    Would like to also point out, Matthew did some midrashing himself on the birth of the Messiah. Check out Mt 1:18-25 and all of Isaiah 7.

  • Patrick

    Bill,

    All NT authors did midrash. Peter himself did a midrash on an OT verse(I think Deuteronomy 18:15). Read Peter’s preaching in Acts in the temple, then read the verse he quotes either MSS or LXX. He made his own midrash addition to the understanding of the verse. It was an ANE Jewish thing.


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