Thursday, May 29, 2014

Michael L. Satlow's "How the Bible Became Holy"

Michael L. Satlow is Professor of Religious Studies and Judaic Studies at Brown University. He has been awarded fellowships from the American Council of Learned Societies and the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, How the Bible Became Holy, and reported the following:
When I set out to write this book, my goal was quite modest. I was going to take the consensus positions of the voluminous scholarship on the development of the authority of the texts that would end up in the Bible, synthesize them, and make them accessible to a non-scholarly audience. Although I knew most of this scholarship well, it was not until I sat down to write that I discovered two uncomfortable truths. First, many scholarly positions in this field do not really command a “consensus”; the evidence is sparse and cryptic and allows for many competing interpretations. Second, in many cases where there was at least an emerging consensus, I found myself increasingly disagreeing. Scholarly explanations often make sense in the narrow context in which they are often considered, but when placed into a larger historical narrative that I saw developing they often fell short. Disagreeing with my colleagues, especially in areas where they are more expert than I am, made me more than a little nervous. Given that I wanted to write an accessible narrative, I often also had to dispense with the tight and technical arguments to which scholars are accustomed.

Now take page 99. Here I discuss very briefly – too briefly – a topic that has and continues to vex biblical scholars: how was the Pentateuch produced? Who redacted a set of pre-existent sources into the Torah, and when and why did he, she, or they do it? I suggest that rather than understanding the Torah to be the work of the those Israelites who had been exiled to Babylonia after the destruction of the temple in 586 BCE (a common but far from unanimous position) we see it as a work that dates from the fourth century BCE, the work of scribes and priests in Jerusalem. The Torah, with its historical arc from creation to entrance into the land of Israel, should be seen together with the books of Chronicles, which contain a similar narrative arc and which we are relatively certain was produced in fourth-century BCE Jerusalem. Both emerged from the same milieu, and both attempted to create a history of Israel out of earlier sources that served the needs of a relatively young polity in Jerusalem.

To many scholars, those are fighting words.
Learn more about the book and author at Michael Satlow's website.

--Marshal Zeringue