'How to Read the Bible' Through History

Author and scholar Marc Zvi Brettler.

Author and scholar Marc Zvi Brettler. hide caption

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The modern Bible is the product of translations and interpretations that span centuries. But a true understanding of its meaning should take into account its origins in Jewish culture, according to biblical scholar Marc Zvi Brettler, author of How to Read the Bible.

In his 400-page volume, Brettler examines the historical context — the conventions and ideology — that prevailed at the time the biblical scriptures were written. His approach underscores the literary workings of the text, and ties biblical stories to specific events.

With its emphasis on the historical-critical method, How to Read the Bible provides insight into the history of the Jewish Bible as well as that of Israel itself. The book has been hailed for its relevance to scholars and casual students alike.

Brettler, a professor of biblical literature, is the chair of the Department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University.

Excerpt: 'How to Read the Bible'

The cover.

The cover. hide caption

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Chapter 1: Reading as a Jew and as a Scholar

If "reading" is the act of making sense of a text, then each of us reads differently. Further, we each have a different conception of what the Bible is. Not surprisingly, then, we each interpret biblical texts in our own way. Of the many approaches, we can describe as a "method" only those that are rigorous and systematic.

This book presents a method of reading the Bible. It is often called "the historical-critical approach." By highlighting this method, I do not mean that it is the only way to read the Bible. Indeed, many Jews have viewed with suspicion this way of reading, rejecting it in favor of other methods. Yet I commend this approach to readers because I have found it illuminating. When the Bible is viewed in the light of this method, we see the text as meaningful, engaging, and multifaceted.

Classical Interpretation

For much of the postbiblical period, readers of the Bible have all tended to follow the same method. They have seen the Bible as a cryptic yet perfect book, of fundamental relevance to its community of interpreters. They have assumed that much of the Bible, if not all of it, came (to some extent) from God. Hence the Bible is a privileged text that should be interpreted using special rules. That is, it should not be interpreted like regular, nonbiblical texts.

This method developed during the late biblical period. As we shall see in a later chapter, one passage in the Book of Daniel explains an earlier prophecy of Jeremiah, which turned on the phrase "seventy years." Daniel interpreted this phrase to mean "seventy weeks of years," or 490 years. Normally, when an ancient Jew promised to return a borrowed ox in seventy days, it meant just that — seventy days. Yet Daniel could understand Jeremiah's "seventy" differently because the Book of Jeremiah is a biblical text, reflecting special, divine language.

Consider, too, the ancient Judean Desert community of Qumran, which thrived over a period of several centuries — from the second pre-Christian to the first post-Christian centuries. Their library — the part that is extant — is what we now call "The Dead Sea Scrolls." Like the author of Daniel, they believed in interpreting biblical books in a special way. Thus they kept a rich interpretive literature. For example, their Pesher Habakkuk, a type of commentary on the prophetic book of Habakkuk, held that their community's leader understood the true meaning of the book better than the prophet himself! The Pesher interpreted the text in relation to the interpreter's own period, more than half a millennium after Habakkuk lived.

Classical rabbinic interpretation also shared these working assumptions. Even for the Torah's legal texts, it often subverted the plain sense of words for the sake of "harmonization." That is, when texts (from divergent places and times) appeared to contradict each other, it "reconciled" them so that they would agree. For example, a slave law in Exodus 21:6 suggests that in certain circumstances a Hebrew slave serves the master "in perpetuity" (le-olam). This contradicts Leviticus 25:40, which states that masters must release all such slaves on the jubilee year (every fiftieth year). However, according to the basic assumptions, God's word must be internally consistent. Therefore the rabbis insisted that the term "in perpetuity" in Exodus means "practically (but not literally) forever" — that is, until the jubilee year. This type of interpretation is strange to the reader unused to classical Jewish (and to a large extent Christian) interpretation. But it is natural if we understand the Bible as a uniform, perfect, divine work, which may employ language in a cryptic fashion.

This is not to say that every traditional, premodern interpreter of the Bible took every word of the text according to all of these principles. Yet the few exceptions prove the rule. For example, Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra (1089–1164) suggested that someone other than Moses wrote a small number of verses in the Torah. Yet even as that commentator made sure to inform his readers of that unorthodox view, he was careful to condemn it.4 Likewise, Rabbi Samuel ben Meir (also known as "Rashbam"; 1080–1174) allowed that biblical language is not cryptic; rather, its words mean what they normally imply, even if this contradicts rabbinic tradition. Thus, he alone among the extant medieval Jewish exegetes did not find it necessary to "reconcile" Exodus 21:6 with Leviticus 25:40 (see above). However, this opinion survives in only a single medieval manuscript, and it has not appeared in most printed editions. This suggests that his approach stood at, or even beyond, the fringe of acceptable interpretation.

Only in the seventeenth century, with the rise of European rationalism, did scholars begin to question the unique, divine nature of the biblical text. Hobbes (in England) and Spinoza (in Holland) led the way. Consider the latter's magnificent Theological-Political Tractate, with its chapter called simply "Of the Interpretation of Scripture." It replaces the earlier assumptions with a single premise that allows the Bible to be seen in a new manner: "I hold that the method of interpreting Scripture is no different from the method of interpreting nature, and is in fact in complete accord with it."6 In a single sentence, Spinoza "deprivileges" the Bible. He renounces the traditional framework for biblical interpretation: The Bible is not cryptic. It no longer needs to be interpreted as a seamless whole. It is imperfect. In places it may be of historical interest only, no longer relevant to contemporary believers. In most senses, it is a book like any other.

The Historical-Critical Method

It would take two more centuries before the new working assumptions gained acceptance among Europe's rationalist intellectual elite. But once this happened, the historical-critical method took hold.

What is the historical-critical method? "Historical" refers to the view that the main context for interpretation is the place and time in which the text was composed. "Critical" simply means reading the text independently of religious norms or interpretive traditions — as opposed to accepting them uncritically. (In this context, it does not imply a judgmental or faultfinding approach, which is another meaning of the word "critical.") A main component of this approach is source criticism, also called "Higher Criticism" (which distinguishes it from the effort to establish the correct reading of the transmitted text, known as "Lower Criticism"). It seeks to identify and isolate the original sources of the biblical text as it has come down to us.

The new method crystallized in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, developing into a school of interpretation. The most influential person of this school was the German scholar Julius Wellhausen, based on his magisterial work of 1878 (translated into English as Prolegomena to the History of Ancient Israel). Indeed, it was mainly in Germany that the historical-critical movement took root, specifically in the theology departments of Protestant universities. For doctrinal reasons, Catholic scholars hardly participated in these developments until after the Vatican II pronouncements in 1965.

The Reaction Among Jews

The Jewish world, too, largely remained aloof. While a few Jewish contemporaries of Wellhausen favored his approach, others wrote polemics against him, trying to undermine his reconstruction of the text's history. These scholars continued to advocate the rabbinic mode of reading, suggesting that what Wellhausen and his colleagues saw as textual contradictions are really not contradictions at all.

The most notable attack on the historical-critical perspective came from a renowned scholar of rabbinics, Solomon Schechter. At a 1903 banquet, he offered an address titled "Higher-Criticism — Higher Anti-Semitism." He equated Wellhausen's approach with "professional and imperial anti-Semitism," calling it an "intellectual persecution" of Judaism. Schechter's essay had an immense impact on the Jewish attitude toward the Bible. Its influence seems to explain why until the present generation many professional Jewish biblical scholars have been less engaged in historical-critical study than their non-Jewish counterparts.

Schechter actually offered a fair critique of Higher Criticism as it was practiced in Germany in the late nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries. Like nearly all Christians of the time, its proponents believed in the moral superiority of Christianity to Judaism, and they used their scholarly works to illustrate this. Wellhausen, for example, likened Judaism in late antiquity to a dead tree. He applied that image vigorously, describing the late biblical book of Chronicles thus: "Like ivy it overspreads the dead trunk with extraneous life, blending old and new in a strange combination… [I]n the process it is twisted and perverted." As painful as such sentiments are for Jews, they neither diminish the brilliance of much of his Prolegomena, nor negate the correctness of its basic methodology.

Beyond the Early Biases

Schechter had warned that the historical-critical method "is seeking to destroy, denying all our claims to the past, and leaving us without hope for the future." In fact, however, the method itself is religiously neutral — neither discrediting Judaism nor promoting Christianity. Indeed, by the final decades of the twentieth century, many professional scholars, including Jews, had adopted the historical-critical method without attacking the Hebrew Bible or Judaism. These works illustrate that historical-critical methods are not by definition anti-Semitic.

I would go even further. I insist not only that the historical-critical method is neutral, but also that it can be religiously constructive — even for Jews. The last two decades have seen a remarkable resurgence in interest in ethnic and religious roots among many Americans, including American Jews. Publishers have produced an unprecedented number of books on Jewish texts, such as Barry Holtz's Back to the Sources. Serious adult Jewish education classes have reached new levels of success. Many Jews are going back to the Bible in a serious, more academic way, looking for what the Bible originally meant. They are exploring how its earlier meaning may bear on religious life as we might now live it. They do not wish to slavishly follow the norms of the Jewish past, but neither do they wish to ignore them. Such norms must first be understood before they can inform contemporary beliefs and practices.

About This Book

The purpose of this book is to show the value of reading the Bible in a historicalcritical manner. This perspective greatly enriches the text, and allows us to recover a vibrant civilization over two millennia old. Understanding the Bible in its original context allows us to understand ourselves. For then we can see where our secular civilization accords with ancient Israelite perspectives, and where it has diverged from them. It also allows us to see where Judaism has (or has not) developed beyond biblical religion. Finally, the historical-critical method lets us appreciate the Bible as an interesting text that speaks in multiple voices on profound issues. Only with the help of the historical-critical method can these different voices be fully heard and appreciated.

In presenting my case, my first task is to explain this book's title, How to Read the Bible. Thus the following chapter defines what I mean by "the Bible," and then the third chapter explains what I mean by "reading." By exploring the act of reading, it attempts to show that reading in its fullest sense is far from simple. The subsequent chapters each focus on a specific biblical text or genre, highlighting how modern biblical scholarship makes sense of that text or genre. In an afterword, I discuss how the historical-critical method can help contemporary Jews relate to the Bible as a religious text in a more meaningful way.

All told, this book is a Jewishly sensitive introduction to the historical-critical method. Remarkably, it is the first such attempt.

How to Read the Bible differs from the many so-called introductions to the Bible. Most such works survey each book of the Bible, noting the critical problems presented by each, positing when each was written, and noting how modern historical-critical scholarship approaches each. Typically, they focus on isolating and removing what is secondary in each text. For example, they "root out" whatever appears in the book of the prophet Amos that he himself did not write. These works are often reference books, rather than true introductions.

In contrast, How to Read the Bible does not attempt to cover every biblical book. Instead, it surveys representative biblical texts from different genres, to illustrate how modern scholarship has taught us to "read" these texts. Its intended audience includes the curious adult who wants to read through sections of the Bible and appreciate them within a modern framework, and the college student in an introductory Bible course. It conveys the general principles of this unfamiliar methodology. Such an introduction will enable the reader to understand more technical studies, encyclopedias, and commentaries on the Bible. Most significantly, it will prompt you to approach biblical texts with new kinds of questions, and to appreciate them in a new way.

Excerpted from 'How to Read the Bible' by Marc Zvi Brettler. Copyright (c) 2006 by Marc Zvi Brettler. Excerpted by permission of the Jewish Publication Society, publishers.

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