Reading the Bible critically and religiously, with Marc Brettler
BLAIR HODGES: It’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast. Alright, so a Catholic, a Protestant, and a Jew walk into a University Conference Room. It sounds like the set up to a great joke. It’s not. It’s actually the origin story of a great book called The Bible and the Believer: How to Read the Bible Critically and Religiously. It was published in 2012 by Oxford University Press. What happens when a believer approaches their sacred text using academic tools of study? Three distinguished biblical scholars with three different religious backgrounds came together to discuss how their critical study of the Bible has enriched their religious devotion to scripture. So in this episode I’m speaking with one of the three authors of this book, Dr. Marc Brettler of Brandeis University. Dr. Brettler is a practicing Jew and a practicing university professor. He discusses the history of biblical interpretation in Jewish communities and he’ll also give a primer on what academic study of the Bible looks like today.
This episode is part one of a special two-part series focusing on the book The Bible and the Believer. I’m your host, Blair Hodges. Questions or comments about this or other episodes of the Maxwell Institute Podcast can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please don’t forget to take a second and review the podcast in iTunes.
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BLAIR HODGES: I’m joined today by the Dora Golding Professor of Biblical Studies at Brandeis University, Marc Brettler. He joins us from Massachusetts. Welcome to the Maxwell Institute Podcast, and thanks for taking the time to talk to us today.
MARC BRETTLER: Thank you very much. It’s a pleasure to talk to you.
AN ACCIDENTAL BEGINNING
HODGES: The question that we’re focused on in this episode is this: can the Bible be read both critically and religiously? Does scholarship harm religious belief, or enhance it? Does it have a mixed record? This is the focus of an excellent book that was published about two years ago by Oxford University Press. The book is called The Bible and the Believer and you, Dr. Brettler, represented the Jewish faith in that book. There was also an author who was Protestant and an author who was Catholic, so you sort of brought this together. What was the genesis of this book? And the pun is intended, what was the genesis of the book?
BRETTLER: Well I wish I could follow your pun with a better pun, but the genesis is like the genesis of many books: an accident. In 2010 I was invited, along with my two collaborators, Peter Enns and unfortunately now the late Daniel Harrington, to a small symposium at the University of Pennsylvania where we were asked to discuss this particular topic. I give a lot of talks, many of them at universities, and I suspected that we would be walking into a small room with between a dozen and twenty people.
HODGES: That’s how it usually is.
BRETTLER: That’s how it usually is. To my great surprise there were between two hundred and three hundred people there, many students, many people from the community, and that gave us all an indication that there really was significant interest in this particular topic. And we spoke, and we realized we really were able to speak to each other rather than at each other. We found the points of convergence interesting, and the points of disagreement to be very important, and already that night after dinner we started to plan the book, and the book happened. So that’s the genesis of the book.
HODGES: So the symposium ended up being an opportunity then to dialogue with people of other faiths who— we all come together on the same— Well, we think we come together on this book. We come together on what Christians call the Old Testament and what Jews often refer to as the refer to as the Hebrew Bible, or Hebrew scriptures. So when you’re going into this there was a little of anxiety maybe, or was it something you looked forward to, to joining that conversation?
BRETTLER: I’m going to answer your question in a moment. But first let me make it clear to you and to your readers that it actually is not the case that we are all talking about the same book because for Jews and Protestants the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament does indeed have the same content, but the order of the books is different. And if you were to really think about that a little bit, how you order the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament really does make a difference. Is the last section the Prophets or is the last section, as it is in the case of Judaism, the Writings?
And of course it gets even more complicated if you’re Catholic because not only do you have that difference, but the Catholics have this part of the Old Testament, the books which the Protestants will call the Apocrypha. And there are certain biblical books which really take a different form in the Catholic church versus the Protestant church and the Jewish synagogue. For example, the book of Esther and the book of Daniel have, from the Jewish and Protestant perspective, extra chapters in them that are not there in the Hebrew Bible. So it’s not exactly the same book that we were talking about, but it was largely the same book that we were talking about.
To get back to the question itself, I really had no anxiety about it. This is something that I was looking forward to. I am a believer and I am a critical scholar of the Hebrew Bible. I have been thinking about these issues for a long time. I had put down some of my thoughts concerning these issues several years earlier when I wrote a book called How to Read the Bible, later republished as How to Read the Jewish Bible, where I thought I needed to have an afterword because I knew the book would be distressing to some people, and that afterword was called “How to Read the Bible as a Committed Jew.”
So I really only thought to begin to put my thoughts together in the year 2005. That was a really brief afterword to a longer project and I saw this particular project, both the talk and then the book, as really an opportunity to develop my ideas more fully and to develop them in relation to the way the other faith groups understand these same issues. None of us was trying to convince the other people. What we were really trying to do was see what solutions we shared in common, what differences we might have, and perhaps to have the hope that given that these religions have developed somewhat separately, maybe there could be some solutions and possibilities that developed in one religious tradition that might be valid for one of the other religious traditions.
BIBLICAL CRITICISM DEFINED
HODGES: So what seems to be the main commonality between these different religious traditions is the idea that scholarship can be brought to bear on what is considered to be a sacred text and that for some believers that can be unsettling or that can present complications that seem to challenge traditional beliefs, right? So let’s back up. I think for a lot of our listeners they’re probably unfamiliar with much of biblical criticism, what used to be called higher criticism, so I wonder if you can give kind of a basic description or a definition of what biblical criticism, broadly speaking, is. Then we’ll kind of drill down from there.
BRETTLER: Okay, sure. I’m going to do this by starting with two people who are separated from each other by about two and a half centuries. In some sense the beginning of biblical criticism is in the reformation, the year 1517, with Luther hanging up his 95 Theses and the way these ultimately were developed several centuries later in the reformation. The key to Luther was the notion of “sola scriptura.” In other words, the notion that each individual has the right, indeed the obligation, to explain scripture for himself or for herself. This was very significant with the Catholic church and I think in some sense really needs to be viewed as the beginning of critical biblical scholarship, though I’m sure Luther, had he lived to see how it developed, would not have been terribly happy with those developments.
The next key figure whom I would isolate was born as Baruch Spinoza, died as Benedict Spinoza. He lived from 1632-1677. The name change reflects the fact that he was excommunicated from the Jewish community in Amsterdam. One of the most important books that he wrote, the most important from my perspective, is called The Theological-Political Tractates in which he has a chapter called “On the Interpretation of Scripture.” In there he has a single line that I would like to read and then to talk about for a few minutes because I really think that line is the most important line for understanding the development of critical biblical scholarship.
The line I’m reading in English, not in Latin, goes like this: “Now to put it briefly, 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.” What this line does is it normalizes the Hebrew Bible. It says that the Hebrew Bible needs to be interpreted as any other book, as any other feature of nature; it does not need to be interpreted as what I would call a “privileged text,” written by an Author, with a capital “A,” but instead should be interpreted the way in which any other ancient text should be interpreted.
And of course it’s important to remember that Spinoza is living after the Renaissance, after ancient texts from the Greek world were rediscovered and were interpreted within their historical context. So what this meant was that if in an earlier interpretation of the Bible, two texts were seen as contradicting each other, and an earlier traditional interpretation, whether Rabbinic interpretation or interpretation within the church, these contradictions had to be seen as apparent contradictions and would be reconciled one way or another.
HODGES: So basically you’re saying when you look at the text you’ll find bumps in the text, or things that apparently contradict, so the assumptions of earlier readers prior to Spinoza would assume that those things were there deliberately or they signaled something. Is that right?
BRETTLER: Exactly. So they signaled something and the two texts certainly could be reconciled.
HODGES: And Spinoza was saying, “Well maybe it’s just a mistake.”
BRETTLER: Well not that it’s just a mistake. He was really saying, “Maybe this really reflects different views from different authors, different times that were incorporated into the text.” So let me give you an example. I’ll start with a rabbinic example and then we’ll go into— Spinoza doesn’t deal with a specific context, but I’ll talk about what biblical scholarship does in relation to this. Actually I’ll give you two examples if you don’t mind.
Your readers might well be familiar with the first three chapters of the book of Genesis, anyone who reads the Bible at least gets that far. If you read those chapters it is quite clear to me that there are two stories which contradict each other in those chapters. So for example, in the first chapter the order of creation is: birds, land animals, and then man and woman are created together in Genesis 1:27. While in the second and third chapter man is created, then God is looking for companionship for man, then the birds and the land animals are created, then afterwards woman is created.
Now in Rabbinic and early church interpretation these two stories were meshed together somehow, and the second story was seen as filling in certain details of the first story. So for example, the second story deals with the Garden of Eden; that’s absent in the first story. The second story deals with the expulsion of humans from the Garden of Eden, and the rabbis in the church often assumed that this happened on the sixth day of creation. They do this because they are blending together the first story, which has six days of creation, where people are created on the sixth, with the second story concerning the Garden of Eden. The two stories are intertwined interpretatively.
Following Spinoza, he did not make this specific observation about those initial chapters, but following this basic principle people then said to themselves, “Hold it. These two chapters are really telling two different stories.” It is not easy to meld them together into a single, consistent narrative. Their apparent contradictions are not apparent only, but are real contradictions. Thus they are not a single story from an Author with a capital “A,” but two different stories from different authors, lowercase “a,” different time periods, different places, different perspectives, and so forth. That can only happen post-Spinoza.
Since the Torah is a combination of narrative and law, let me give you a legal example and how it would be dealt with pre-Spinoza and post-Spinoza.
HODGES: This was assumed, by the way, that the Torah itself was supposed to have been written by Moses, right? So one author—
BRETTLER: A single author, written by Moses, not by himself, reflecting God. In the end of the Book— or, toward the middle-end of the book of Exodus, Moses is on Mount Sinai for 40 days and 40 nights and the traditional assumption is, or the question is, what was he doing there? Well he was writing down the text of the Torah, which we still have.
So let me just step back, do I have a second for a legal example as well?
HODGES: Yes, absolutely.
A LEGAL EXAMPLE
BRETTLER: So a legal example concerning slavery—a painful, and difficult issue. Slavery, or laws concerning slavery in the Bible appear three times in the Hebrew Bible. Once in Exodus 21, once in Leviticus 25, and once in Exodus chapter 15. Now in Exodus and Deuteronomy, a Hebrew slave who loves his master can say that he loves his master, his ear is pierced and he stays in the slave owner’s household as a slave of sorts. “L’olam” is the Hebrew word, which means forever, or “In perpetuity.” As opposed to that, in Leviticus chapter 25 if a person becomes impoverished and is sold as a slave, he is released in the jubilee year, which is once every 50 years, these are cycles of 50 years. Now that meant that you could not be a slave in perpetuity. How did the traditional pre-Spinoza modes of interpretation deal with that? They said, and this is found already in an early Rabbinic or Midrash interpretation, that the word “l’olam,” “forever,” does not really mean “forever,” but it means “until the jubilee year.”
Now clearly the rabbis are doing this because they, or the traditions they inherited, are trying to make these three legal collections into a single, unified, legal collection. And thus they are engaging in what one scholar brilliantly calls “creative philology.” Being creative in terms of what words mean, they need not mean what they usually mean. Post-Spinoza people are saying, “Hold it. Words mean what they mean.” The “olam” everywhere else in the Bible means “forever, until eternity, in perpetuity.” Therefore they would say that there is a straightforward contradiction, not an apparent contradiction between Exodus and Deuteronomy on the one hand and Leviticus on the other hand. And they will say that this contradiction exists reflects the fact that this must not be a single Author, capital “A” book, but is a book which has many authors, lowercase “a.” And that is the beginning of the historical critical method.
HODGES: So what it comes down to then as you look at these things with historical criticism you’ll notice things about the text that earlier religious believers had found other ways to deal with, or other ways to reconcile. Spinoza comes on the scene and he offers something new; he offers the position that, “Hey, maybe we should look at this as a text like all other texts and read it that way,” which kind of does away with hundreds of years of how the Bible was being read.
So when you bring those academic tools to bear on the Bible, you’re going to get criticism from multiple angles, as a believer. From one angle you’re going to hear it from believers who say, “Oh, Spinoza. Clearly this man was an atheist, he’s a non-believer, we should not give heed to these things.” But if you say, “No, it’s possible, it’s possible to read it critically and be faithful,” then you’ll hear from critics who would say, “Hey, why are you still trying to believe in this stuff? You’ve seen all this evidence that the Bible’s just created by people and that it’s not what they thought it was.” So you can get criticism from both sides. Have you felt like that?
CRITICISM ON BOTH SIDES
BRETTLER: I certainly have. The criticism that you noted is really quite sharp because it’s not that I’m going against hundreds of years of interpretation, but actually you look at Spinoza historically, I’m going against almost fifteen hundred years of interpretation, and certainly Spinoza, who was a pantheist, is not usually upheld as a central Jewish figure. You usually would not put him together in the same category as, say, someone like Maimonides, for example. So the question really becomes when a person says that they are a believer, what does that mean? And I guess to look at that in a little bit more detail, what does that mean that they believe in?
So in my case, and I really am only speaking for myself, both in this interview and in the book, which is why I called my chapter in the book “My Bible,” because I did not want to pretend that I am speaking for the entire Jewish community, which of course would be impossible. My belief concerning the origin of the Bible, or more particularly, and this is the crucial issue within the Jewish community, the origin of the first five books of the Bible, the Torah, because there really is a difference Jewishly between the origin of the Torah and the origin of all the other books because so much of Jewish law is connected to the Torah and is not connect to what is Jewishly the other parts of the canon, the Prophets and the Writing, and by the way, that’s a big difference between Judaism versus Protestantism and Christianity. I really needed to separate out the origins of the Torah from the origins of the rest of the Bible when I spoke in a way that my Protestant and Catholic colleague did not need to make that particular type of distinction.
So I do not have the traditional rabbinic beliefs about the origin of the Torah. I do not believe that the Torah reflects what God dictated in some form to Moses on Mount Sinai. I do not believe that the standard rules for interpreting the Bible, which were developed or reflected in the rabbis, where various apparent contradictions are reconciled, are the main way that I want to interpret the Bible. Yet nevertheless in some sense the Torah does reflect my ancestor’s encounter with the divine and I do believe that it is a central book for me, even though I may be interpreting it in a way that is different than the Jewish community interpreted it, let’s say, 700 years ago, and I do know that it is a central book for the Jewish community. So in that sense I am a believer. I’ll also say that the particular way in which I believe the Torah to be particularly important is one of just several ways in which people in the Jewish community whom I would call traditional Jews who nevertheless accept a critical attitude, talk about the Bible.
About a year and a half ago I cofounded a website called thetorah.com, which deals with different ways that traditional Judaism reconciles, I like that word, the belief that the Torah did not come into existence the way that the rabbis said it did but nevertheless uphold elements, or all of or most of traditional Jewish belief. On that website we outline nine different ways that modern Judaism has figured out on really keeping both sides of the equation; a belief that the Torah is the central text of Judaism and an interest in upholding traditional Jewish observance.
GAUGING INTEREST AMONG CONTEMPORARY JEWS
HODGES: Do you think a lot of contemporary Jews are interested in getting to the historical core of these things? Because biblical criticism tries to situate the Bible in its original setting and understand it according to the original people who compiled and who used it, right? So are a lot of Jews interested in that?
BRETTLER: You’re asking a great question, and you’re asking a question that really gets to my life work. If I were to answer your question honestly I think I would have to say no. In other words the bottom line is I look around me and speak to Jewish people of varying backgrounds. Their main interest, and this is something that really is very Jewish, is “what does this text mean to me?” which is just the opposite of what a historian would do. I think that that is an important question, but I also think that the question of “what did the Bible once mean?” Once people begin to think about that question is a question that many people find incredibly engaging.
Thus, following a really great scholar of religion, Krister Stendahl, who taught for many years at Harvard Divinity School, then he was Bishop of Stockholm, then for several years he was down the hall from me at Brandeis University. He has a very famous article on biblical theology in which he argues that what biblical theology is all about is the dialogue between what the Bible meant in the past, in its original context, and what the Bible means now. So I’m persuaded by Stendahl. I think that’s what one possibility for a very mature religious perspective would look like. Now of course if you’re going to have a dialogue between what the Bible meant and what the Bible means, then having a historical understanding of the Bible is crucial because that’s the first half of this dialogue.
HODGES: Do you find it difficult to get to that point though? Do you find people who say, “No, the way we believe it today is the way they understood it back then”?
BRETTLER: Of course I confront that. But then I try to explain to people that the Bible, like any other text had a historical context. And once you explain that to people, and make some of that past realia and history come alive, then most people are willing to acknowledge, albeit often initially in a begrudging fashion, that the Bible did have an original context and it is helpful to understand it in that original context. Going back on something I said before, it can be incredibly helpful because most people in the Jewish community no longer want there to be slavery.
HODGES: Right, that’s not a difficult one.
BRETTLER: That is not a difficult one. There are more difficult ones, which maybe we won’t touch. But that one, when you suddenly place the Bible within its historical context, where that type of slavery was the norm of the ancient Near Eastern world, then suddenly the Bible does make more sense and actually becomes less problematic as an authoritative work.
WITHIN THE ACADEMY
HODGES: So, so much for people who kind of look at biblical criticism, believers who do. Let’s talk for a second too about within the academy, so when you come into the academy a lot of higher criticism, as it was originally referred to, had certain assumptions such as there aren’t miracles, so if a text describes a miracle, that’s something that didn’t happen, or at least something that we can’t verify or justify, and these types of ideas. Have you felt in your academic work that there has been resistance to a believer engaging in these texts or bringing belief along with you? Have you felt like you’ve had to leave your belief at the door of the academy or that you’ve been able to bring that into your work?
BRETTLER: I think that there are certain aspects of my belief I probably do leave at the door of the classroom, and that I should leave at the door of my classroom. On the other hand, I think that being an observant Jew and a believer in some sense is very, very helpful for me as a critical religious scholar, or a critical scholar of the Hebrew Bible because even the non-believer would have to admit this as a religious text, however you might want to define the word “religious.” But in parts of my life I understand this as a religious text, as a deeply religious text. It informs my worldview, I understand how it informs the worldview of my ancestors, and I actually think that will help people understand what the text meant.
I think that there are too many people who try to interpret the Bible who do not have any theological or religious sensitivity. I think having that sensitivity is crucial for understanding what the text is trying to say, how that text developed, how that text might have been used in its earliest community. But I do not want to be very specific about enforcing or even stating my specific Jewish positions in class because, after all, I’m teaching at a secular liberal arts institution and it is really not my place to do that. My place is to open up this text to as many people who want to read it as possible.
HODGES: That’s Marc Brettler. He’s joining us today from Massachusetts. We’re talking about the book that he contributed to; it’s called The Bible and the Believer: How to Read the Bible Critically and Religiously.
Let’s zoom in a bit on some of the tools that biblical criticism uses to analyze texts and to kind of get at the historical context and origins. I’ll throw out a few terms here and have you just give brief descriptions so people can get a sense for the type of work that biblical critics do. So let’s say, so textual criticism, philology, and form criticism, let’s start with those. Textual criticism, philology, and form criticism.
BRETTLER: Sure. Textual criticism is an attempt to create, and here it will depend whom you ask, either the best or the most original form of a text that can be done. Text criticism, as the British text critic and poet Housman noted, is somewhere between an art and a science, but you shouldn’t throw it out because it has an artistic element to it. Text criticism has become especially important since the publication of the Dead Sea Scrolls starting in 1947, where those scrolls show that the text which was standardly accepted as the Hebrew Bible text, called the Masoretic Text, had a very clear history.
So let me just give you a single example. In Exodus chapter one, it says that the number of descendants of Jacob who came down with him to the land of Egypt was seventy, “shiv’im,” seventy. The beginning of the book of Exodus is preserved in several Dead Sea Scroll fragments. Indeed, one of them does have “shiv’im,” seventy, in it. But another has “chamesh ve shiv’im,” another has “shiv’im ve chamesh,” each of which means seventy-five, which is found in some manuscripts when the New Testament quotes Exodus chapter one so there comes clear, through textual criticism that, number one, this text had not yet stabilized in let’s say the early first century of the common era, and then the second thing textual criticism will do is based on manuscript and conjecture, will try to figure out what the best or the most original reading was.
So the next thing you mentioned is philology. Philology has to do with the understanding of words using the best understanding of languages, language and grammar that we have. So one very significant advantage that we have in the 21st century over anybody who lived more than two centuries ago is that we understand the language much better through the discipline of linguistics, but in addition to that we have a large number of languages which are related to, or to use the fancier word, cognate to biblical Hebrew, that were discovered over the last few centuries.
So for example starting in the 1800s Akkadian, the main Semitic language of ancient Mesopotamia, was deciphered. Starting in the 1920s Ugaritic, a Canaanite language from a site called Ugarit or Ras Shamra in Syria, those tablets were discovered and were deciphered, and as a result of that we often can understand specific Hebrew words or specific Hebrew grammatical forms much better than we would have earlier when we had Hebrew, which of course is what most of the Bible is written in, Aramaic, which is what a small section, a small part of the Bible, several chapters were written in, and Arabic, which is a Semitic language related to Hebrew, but it is really like a second cousin once removed and is not all that close. So through the discovery of these languages we often are able to understand particular Hebrew words differently than they might have been understood years ago, we might realize that there are homonyms in a particular word and so forth. So that’s philology.
HODGES: So it’d be like a thousand years from now someone finds a text here in English that says, “I ate lunch. I had a quesadilla” and this person knowing nothing of Spanish or anything later discovers a text in Spanish talking about quesadillas and they say, “Oh, there’s some relation here between these languages. They’re borrowing from each other.” Is that kind of philology?
BRETTLER: That’s a big part of it, yes.
HODGES: So form criticism is the next one.
BRETTLER: Form criticism in part because its name is so opaque is a littler harder to explain. So I’m going to explain it via an analogy. When we read and interpret a particular document we look at two things: we look at what the word means and we look at the genre in which the particular words are printed. So the analogy is, you know I live not far from Boston, I will read or decode, say out loud, the same words from the first page of The Boston Globe and from the first page of the Sunday comic section in exactly the same way. If it says T-H-E P-R-E-S-I-D-E-N-T I’m going to read those words “the president” whether it’s on page one of The Globe or, let’s imagine, “Doonesbury” the comic. But coming to “Doonesbury,” that’s a different genre. That’s why form criticism is sometimes called “genre criticism.” That’s a different genre than the first page of the news. It is intending to use those same words to communicate something other than the literal truth. So what form criticism does is it breaks up pieces of the Bible and gives them genre labels. So for example, if I take a psalm and we’ll say some of the psalms are laments of the individual and some of them are hymns and that would help you understand them.
Then the second thing that form criticism does is it then tries to get behind these genre labels. It asks the question: what social situation, or what cultural situation, often the German term, “Sitz im Leben,” “situation in life,” is used in form criticism. So what “Sitz im Leben” would have engendered this particular form. So to give you a very important example concerning this, the book of Deuteronomy, the fifth book of the Torah, has almost exactly the same form as the treaties of the Assyrians, power in Mesopotamia, had with their vassals, with their subject peoples. And then you suddenly realize, oh my gosh, Deuteronomy is a treaty. But instead of being a treaty between some great Assyrian king and some power who was subservient to the king, it is a treaty between God and Israel. And then you suddenly realize, for example, that when it says in Deuteronomy 6:5 you have to love the Lord your God, it also said in the Assyrian treaties that you have to love your overlord. So love probably means the same thing in Deuteronomy 6 as it does in the Assyrian vassal treaties. And then you can go even one step further and you can ask yourself if Deuteronomy looks like an Assyrian vassal treaty then it probably came into being when the Assyrians were the overlords of the Judeans, and that would have been in the seventh century. So it not only helps us understand the book of Deuteronomy, but it helps us understand the most likely time in which it was composed.
BOOK OF JOB
HODGES: I recently read a book about the book of Job, and it’s sort of a similar thing, right? The book of Job, if people open that book and read it without understanding the context, they might take it as just another biblical book telling a historical story, but the way that Job’s framed is sort of more like a myth that original readers would have known that. If I open up a book and it says, “Once upon a time there was a magical kingdom” I know I’m reading a fairytale. The book of Job is sort of similar in that way, right?
BRETTLER: The book of Job is similar that way. Just hold on one second, I need to get a book behind me. So you were asking about the book of Job. The initial words of the book of Job in Hebrew are, “iysh hayah v’eretz-utz iyov sh’mo,” which if I translate them literally would be, “there was a man in the land of Uz, and Job was his name,” which in a sense sounds incredibly historical, but there are other hints in the book that it should not be read so historically. And indeed, there’s a brilliant translation of the book of Job by a literary scholar and translator, Stephen Mitchell, which opens up with “Once upon a time in the land of Uz, there was a man named Job.”
Now I have often wondered about this translation as a person who teaches biblical Hebrew. Because certainly if Mitchell had been in my biblical Hebrew class and he wrote this as a translation of “iysh hayah v’eretz-utz iyov sh’mo,” I would have failed him, because as a translation it should be “there was a man in the land of Uz, and Job was his name,” but on the other hand in terms of genre and what Mitchell talks about in various places, tone, he gets it just right. So what form criticism does is it gives you a sense that when you’re translating don’t only rely on terms of meaning on what each word means, but look at the form as a whole, try to understand the genre of the larger book or section as a whole. Then translate in a way that is appropriate in terms of tone for that larger composition.
HODGES: So that’s form criticism. The next ones are source criticism, redaction criticism, and rhetorical criticism. Those are the next three: source, redaction, and rhetorical.
BRETTLER: Source criticism is largely applied either to the Pentateuch, the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, or the Hexateuch, the first six books of the Bible, namely the Torah plus Joshua. It refers to the idea that the Pentateuch or the Hexateuch as we now have it, is comprised of several preexistent written sources that have been edited, compiled, or redacted together to form the book which we now have. So what source criticism tries to do is disentangle sections of the Bible and to recreate those earlier written sources, which have been combined together to our current text.
So that brings me right to our next term, which you used, which is redactional criticism. Since the person who brought these earlier written texts together is often called the redactor, and indeed even abbreviated with the letter “R.” Redaction, or redactional criticism, attempts at understanding what was the redactor trying to do when he brought these different documents together? What choices did he make? If you want to imagine an old image of a film editor. What was left on the floor? What scraps were left? If you want to imagine someone who’s mixing audio pieces. Why were these audio pieces mixed together this way rather than that way? So redactional criticism is just about always a second stage after source criticism and attempts to understand why the sources have been combined in the particular way in which they have.
Rhetorical criticism is something which is really very different. In fact, rhetorical criticism to some extent developed as a reaction against source criticism. Source criticism takes the text apart. What rhetorical criticism, which was a term that was widely used by a scholar named James Muilenburg in the 1960s and continues to be used, is not interested in the prehistory of the text, but is interest in the rhetoric of the text as it now stands. In other words, how does the text make its mains points? Rhetorical criticism is often very related to literary study of the Hebrew Bible. What literary devices might be used that make the biblical text so effective. So that’s rhetorical criticism.
HODGES: If you can see what the compilers were doing with the text you can kind of get at the type of ideas that they were trying to or what was important to them at that time. Is that sort of rhetorical criticism then?
BRETTLER: Exactly. So redaction criticism— If you can, with some confidence, create the preexisting documents that were redacted together, one of the things that you see is that the redactor often, in putting the material together one way rather than the other, highlighted one text, one source, rather than another. So that might give us a sense of which source the redactor thought was more important. Or you might see that one text is preserved relatively whole, while another text has many pieces missing from it. That will also give you a sense of what the redactor found more important, because the text that he felt more confident editing more heavily was the text he probably thought was a less important text.
UNSCRAMBLING THE OMELET
HODGES: The criticism that’s raised at this point then is we look at these different methods and some would say, “Okay, so you’re trying to reconstruct this original text, or you’re trying to understand in these different ways. It sounds like trying to unscramble the omelet,” that’s the phrase I’ve heard people use. Like, oh you’ve got the omelet and now you’re trying to put it back in the egg, that’s just not going to work. What’s the response to that?
BRETTLER: The phrase you used, to unscramble the omelet, was used by the British structuralist anthropologist Sir Edmund Leach, and is one of my favorite phrases, and it’s simply wrong, because to me the Bible does not look like an omelet. Again, I don’t know what these different types of eggs are called in your part of the woods, but I imagine the Bible is more like what we would call here “eggs over easy.” In other words, it doesn’t look scrambled to me. I still see a yolk there, and I still see a white there, and I really see them as different entities. So I agree that it’s quite difficult to unscramble an omelet, though I‘m sure science has figured out some way of doing it, but the basic metaphor of the Bible is an omelet, or the Torah is an omelet, I think is a mistaken one.
JEWS AND DARWIN
HODGES: One of the points that I thought was interesting, and this is kind of changing up gears, but in your discussion about the historicity of the Hebrew Bible, you mention that Darwin and evolution have been overall sort of less threatening in Judaism and that that in part has something to do with how Jews often read Genesis. How do you account for that? That as Darwin came out with this theory it didn’t cause the same sort of shock waves for Jews that it did for many Christians who read Genesis differently.
BRETTLER: Much of Jewish reading of the Bible, and especially Jewish medieval reading of the Bible, takes the Bible non-literally, and in fact thinks that if you read the Bible as “only” history, or “only” science, you’re really reducing the sanctity of the Bible by seeing it as an “only” sort of text. So within Judaism there have traditionally been many ways of interpreting the Bible, and what I guess I’ll call the literal, which could include the scientific and historical, has been one of these many ways, but has never been the “only” way this text should be read. So for that reason certainly there were some shock waves, but if you compare the reception of Darwin in Judaism, even in very traditional Judaism, to its reception in some branches, especially of the Protestant church, there were never as great shock waves, there always was an ability to say the Bible was talking about a different sort of truth than historical truth or scientific truth.
LIMITS OF THE TORAH
HODGES: Speaking of these different ways to kind of understand the Bible according to Jews, some believing scholars have suggested that the Torah is something beyond the text, that it’s not necessarily limited to the written words on the page, but rather that the words on the page are trying to capture that more transcendental Torah in this imperfect human language. What do you think about that view?
BRETTLER: For me as a practicing Jew, that’s of fundamental importance. For me as a biblical scholar, that is not a view that I subscribe to. So it really depends which Marc Brettler—
HODGES: So how do you separate— I mean is it just the context you’re speaking in? How do you separate between how you would answer that question? That’s a weird way to put it.
BRETTLER: No, that’s fine. It does depend on the context in which I’m speaking and thinking. But again, just to remind you, something that I said before about Krister Stendahl. Even when I’m speaking as a contemporary Jewish believer, in which case the words on the page are never sufficient, the words are super infused with meaning as they are according to Jewish tradition, I still like seeing the way in which this text reinterpreted is in dialogue with what the text originally meant.
THREE POINTS BRIDGING ACADEMIC AND PERSONAL BELIEFS
HODGES: Toward the end of your chapter, you talk about three particular beliefs, or points, three points. The first two are scholarly beliefs and the third one is a personal religious belief, and this is how you bring these things together. Can you talk about those three points there, the scholarly and the personal religious ones that you bring together in your approach to the Bible?
BRETTLER: Sure. The first two, which are scholarly approaches, are really connected, although the first given your earlier questions has more to do with source criticism. The second has more to do with text criticism, and to some extent redactional criticism. The first is that the Torah is a composite text that came into being over time, the second is flexible, even after it came into being as a whole. Flexible for a certain period of time until it ultimately became fixed.
So the implication of those two conclusions is that the Torah as I and the entire Jewish community have it, because the one thing that the entire Jewish community does agree on is what the text of the Torah, indeed the whole Hebrew Bible, is, it means that the text that we now have is not the same as the original text or earlier texts, or more original texts. Now that would make many people think if we don’t have the original text, or if you believe that historically the text has come into being over time, then why do you treat it in any special way?
My third point is I was born Jewish and feel a deep devotion and commitment to Jewish tradition and practice. So what the rest of that chapter does, which reflects what I do as an individual, is how do I bring together my feeling of being deeply Jewish and deeply devoted and committed to Jewish tradition and practice, while I know that the book to which this practice and to which these beliefs are often connected is a book which was not received for Moses on Mount Sinai, but was a book that came together over a long period of time.
I do that in my way in that chapter; other people have found other ways of doing it, but I certainly believe, and that’s why I have a whole chapter rather than one or two words, which would say “No, you can’t be a biblical historical critical scholar and a believer.” That’s not my position. So the rest of the chapter explains how I personally am able to bring these different sets of beliefs together, one of them a religious belief about the centrality of Judaism to my life, and the other a scholarly belief about how the Torah came together within history.
BRINGING TOGETHER FAITH AND SCHOLARSHIP
HODGES: So how do you do it then? What’s the secret source for you in terms of making these two worlds come together?
BRETTLER: I don’t want to claim that it’s a secret source, since it’s right there in the chapter, nor do I want to claim that it’s the only secret source, because indeed as I said, thetorah.com shows nine ways that people bring these two different spheres together. But my way is that the Torah as we now have it is central because the Torah as we now have it is the Torah that the Jewish community brought together and helped to create as the Torah. Usually when people think about Torah or Holy Scriptures and sanctity people think that the scriptures are Holy Scriptures because they are sanctified. The sanctification and holiness comes before, or is prior to, their scriptural status. I believe exactly the opposite. In other words, I believe that my community has created this set of works, now called the Torah, as scripture, and it’s as a result of the creation of the Torah by my community that it becomes holy. In other words the holiness or sacredness derives from what my community has done rather from anything that relates to revelation.
HODGES: So what’s interesting is in this book you have responses from the two other scholars that sort of add a little response to each individual chapter. Peter Enns, who is the Protestant Evangelical scholar, addresses this issue, because it sort of unsettles him. I think that as an Evangelical scholar, he says that you kind of depict the Bible more as a point of departure for reflection and devotion and worship, rather than a settled on rule book that just sets it all out there for all time. So he’s sort of unsettled by the possibility that a community could hypothetically disregard anything in that text, or even choose a whole other text; a community could gather around 7 Habits of Highly Effective People or something and make that their holy book. So his concern is about who is master and where is God in the process? How do you respond to that particular concern?
BRETTLER: So let me separate out some of the things that you said. I don’t think that you can be Jewish and have as your bible 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. I think what really makes you Jewish is that you have as your central text, the Bible. I think one fundamental difference between the way in which traditional Protestants look at the Bible and the way in which traditional Jews look at the Bible is that traditional Protestants are really most interested in the one thing that the text needs. If you’re a traditional Jew you are aware that the Bible has always been interpreted in different ways at any point in Jewish history by different people in the community. In fact, there’s a rabbinic statement which is very, very core to Judaism which says, “There are seventy faces or facets of the Torah,” which means that any certain verse or word or phrase in the Torah can be interpreted in seventy different ways.
Now for some that’s unsettling. For me, I don’t know if you can say settling, but for me that is a very, very settling notion. I think as a historian I can certainly see how Jewish interpretation of the Bible has changed over time, different periods and places, certain types of interpretation, were the ones that were more predominately practiced than others. And I see myself as a Jewish interpreter of the Bible as being a continuation of this Jewish tradition.
So I am sorry if my dear colleague and friend Pete Enns feels unsettled by this, [laughter] but for me I think that the strength of the Bible is the way in which it is able to accommodate ever-different interpretations over time. So maybe what Peter Enns sees as an unsettling weakness I see as a strength because I believe that if the Bible were only interpreted as one way over history and let’s say it would be the interpretation, I’ll just pick a year, from the year 167 C.E. Then we would have lots of problems as Jews with that interpretation because we are almost two millennia later. It’s the ability of the Bible to accommodate all these different interpretations. And it’s the ability of some texts which were once important to become less important, and for texts which were less important to become more important, that indeed has made the Bible stand the test of time.
To give just a very simple Jewish example, post-holocaust, the book of Job suddenly became much more important in the Jewish community. So I think it’s a strength that it was there, as if it was waiting to be in dialogue with perhaps the greatest theological problem in the 20th century.
HODGES: Well I’ll be talking with Peter in an upcoming episode. I’m going to run the same sort of question by him and I’ll let you know how he responds to that. So two more questions.
First, I want to say thanks a lot for taking the time to do this. This has been great. The first question I have before we wrap things up is if you have any examples of how your scholarship has impacted your devotional life. Are there things that your academic work has done that have been fulfilling for you in a religious sense?
BRETTLER: I could probably give you many examples. But let me just give you a single example from something that I’m now working on. As an observant Jew I pray daily and something that over the last few years I’ve discovered that’s been disturbing me about prayer is when most of us think about prayer it is prayer to God. Many Jewish prayers are actually about God rather than to God. Talking about God’s qualities for example. Over the last few years in my personal Jewish observant life I’ve really been wondering why can’t I use this opportunity to in some sense talk to God, with God in the second person, and why am I spending so all this time talking about God?
From my recent study of the book of Psalms, I’m now writing part of a commentary on Psalms, I’ve realized that Psalms does this very often. I’ve begun to explore the reasons why this happens in Psalms. The reason stated very broadly is when you talk about God you are then forming a community of like-minded people who have the same things to say about God. And that’s an amazingly important social function. As a result of that, when I pray and I talk about God in the third person in some o the Jewish prayers, those prayers are now much more meaningful for me. So that’s one example of how my scholarly life can have an impact on my personal Jewish life.
HODGES: Has there been any way in which it’s been harmful? Or made it more of a struggle to be religious?
BRETTLER: Certainly not harmful. Struggle is a useful word. I think struggle in religion is a good thing. I don’t believe in simple religion. I believe in changing over time. So certainly my beliefs as a biblical scholar have changed over time. Particular beliefs that I have as a Jew, but I think that that’s something very constructive for me and quite honestly I believe very broadly that there’s something very constructive for anyone who is a religious believer that these beliefs mature and stew and change over time as we grow older and we confront different texts and different ideas.
HODGES: So there is a risk, there is a risk that you could lose something cherished there though too, right? I mean it is possible.
BRETTLER: It is always possible. I don’t think it’s going to happen with me. When I teach this material I try to teach it in a way which I believe makes it safe so that I do not teach, ever, with the hope that I am going to change someone’s cherished religious beliefs and make them less religious or non-religious. But I think the advantage is that you gain, from my perspective, a much deeper and more mature understanding of your religious tradition.
HODGES: So the last questions actually launches directly off of that. In your particular interaction in this book where you worked with a Catholic and a Protestant scholar and how they read the Bible as compared to your own tradition, did you learn anything surprising in that engagement that you hadn’t considered before, or that has changed your view about any particular part of what it means to read the Bible as a believer?
BRETTLER: I don’t think any of my beliefs were changed, but what I really did realize, and this in some ways comes back to something you asked in your very first question, is that we are not really reading the same Bible by which I mean, not only what I answered then, that the Jewish Hebrew Bible is different in order than the Christian Bible, or that there may be different books or chapters in the Catholic Old Testament. But at least in two ways the Jewish Bible is different.
The first one is totally obvious, but was not really as obvious to me until I was in dialogue with my two colleagues. Namely just how different it is to read the Old Testament as part of a larger bible which contains the New Testament. A book which I co-edited ten years ago was The Jewish Study Bible, and it’s a biblical interpretation by Jews that deals with some Jewish perspectives. The experience of writing this book was like my favorite letter after I co-edited that particular book, where somebody wrote to me and said before reading the interpretation in The Jewish Study Bible on the suffering servant passage of Isaiah she had never realized that it is possible to read these passages without reference to Jesus. Now I’m very happy that the annotations in that bible helped her realize this, but the Hebrew Bible versus the Old Testament just means such different things on whether or not you have Jesus anywhere in your mind as you’re reading this book.
The second thing that’s occurred to me is a major difference. Within Jewish tradition even though there are three parts of the canon: the Torah, prophets, and writings, the Torah is really the first among equals. It is more, to use a word that makes me a little nervous because I’m never really sure what it means, it is more authoritative, it is more important, it is read much more often liturgically, it is studied more often Jewishly. The Christian tradition has a very different emphasis on what the most important books of the Bible are.
HODGES: Yes, I think they call that “the canon within the canon,” right?
BRETTLER: Exactly. It’s as if in each religious tradition if you could take the 100 verses that you think are most important and you bolded them, I think something that would be quite significant, this would be a great project for someone to do, is to see if there’s any overlap between the Jewish best 100 verses the Catholic and Protestant most important 100 verses. So that really shows you how even if each religious community says the Bible is central, what they make out of the Bible, which texts they claim are the most central, the ones they read, the ones they study are different for each of the communities and that makes a huge difference.
HODGES: I like that. That’s another benefit of inter-religious dialogue. When you can learn more about the canon within the canon that other people pay attention to, Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, or whatever else.
Just to close up here, we talked today with Dr. Marc Brettler. He contributed to the book The Bible and the Believer: How to Read the Bible Critically and Religiously, and he also mentioned during the interview that he has a website, thetorah.com, where you can learn more about different ways to read the Bible. Do you have any other projects that you would like to promote before we close?
BRETTLER: Nothing to promote, but I’ll just say that one of the wonderful outcomes of working on The Bible and the Believer is that I’ve also worked together with Amy-Jill Levine, who is a professor of New Testament at Vanderbilt University, where we put together a book called The Jewish Annotated New Testament, which really shows you that you do not have to be of a particular religious tradition in order to interpret books which have become central to that religious tradition. So I’m a great believer in the importance of both the Hebrew Bible and New Testament to the broader American community. I hope that more people may, as a result of this interview, pick up the Bible, read it, understand it, and engage with it in one form or another.
HODGES: Thank you, Dr. Brettler.
BRETTLER: Thank you very much. It’s been a pleasure. Your questions have really been wonderful. Thank you.
HODGES: That was part one of our two part series on The Bible and the Believer: How to Read the Bible Critically and Religiously. In part two we will speak with Peter Enns. He’s the Protestant representative in this book. He teaches Biblical Studies at Eastern University. That’s up ahead on the Maxwell Institute Podcast.