Despite its deceptively simple title, this book ponders the thorny issue of the place of the Bible in Jewish religion and culture. By thoroughly examining the complex link that the Jews have formed with the Bible, Jewish scholar Jean-Christophe Attias raises the uncomfortable question of whether it is still relevant for them.
Jews and the Bible reveals how the Jews define themselves in various times and places with the Bible, without the Bible, and against the Bible. Is it divine revelation or national myth? Literature or legislative code? One book or a disparate library? Text or object? For the Jews, over the past two thousand years or more, the Bible has been all that and much more. In fact, Attias argues that the Bible is nothing in and of itself. Like the Koran, the Bible has never been anything other than what its readers make of it. But what they've made of it tells a fascinating story and raises provocative philosophical and ethical questions.
The Bible is indeed an elusive book, and so Attias explores the fundamental discrepancy between what we think the Bible tells us about Judaism and what Judaism actually tells us about the Bible. With passion and intellect, Attias informs and enlightens the reader, never shying away from the difficult questions, ultimately asking: In our post-genocide and post-Zionist culture, can the Bible be saved?
About the Author
Jean-Christophe Attias is Professor of Medieval Jewish Thought at the École pratique des hautes études, Sorbonne, Paris. His previous publications in English (co-written with Esther Benbassa) are: Israël, the Impossible Land (Stanford University Press, 2003); The Jews and Their Future: A Conversation on Jewish Identities (Zed Books, 2004); and The Jew and the Other (Cornell University Press, 2004).
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The Jews and the Bible
By Jean-Christophe Attias, Patrick Camiller
STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2012 Librairie Arthème Fayard
All rights reserved.
An Elusive Book?
Bible. Secularized, in everyday language, the word has become a common noun; a "bible," in lower case, is then no more than a (usually thick) work that explores a subject or a wide yet definite field of interest, enjoying a special authority for its readers. A bargain-hunter's bible, an amateur gardener's bible, a gun collector's bible, a Chinese cookery bible—the possibilities are endless. These are profane uses of the term, of course, but they already give us some idea of what ordinary mortals make of the model: the Bible. With a capital B.
The Bible is a thick work too—except when printed on the famous "bible paper," a super-lightweight grade, which seems to emphasize by contrast the richness of a content that defies compression. And it enjoys a special authority, at least in the eyes of the faithful who adhere to its teachings and seek in it their spiritual sustenance. The Bible, the actual one, is indisputably all of that, and it is not hard to recognize in the original what led to and justified the metaphorical uses made of its name.
Still, even the least sophisticated of its potential readers are well aware, or should be, that the resemblance stops there. The Bible is obviously more than that. Having just opened it or leafed through it a little, or even read a fair number of its pages, one has some difficulty identifying the "subject" or the "wide yet definite field of interest" that the Bible encompasses. Indeed, without a special shelf on "religious literature," it would be far from easy to decide where it should go in one's bookcase.
Its place is not with novels, nor does it bear an author's name; all kinds of literature are represented within it. Prose and poetry, narrative and law, feats of arms and love stories: almost nothing is missing. But that is not a defect for its readers, since the very profusion of genres maintains the illusion of a total book. A unique book. A book par excellence—does not the word "bible" simply mean "book?"—and one like no other.
But there is more. Does not its antiquity, even at a rough estimate, confer on the Bible every appearance of a "book of origins"? Whether welcomed or deplored, is it not the case that this international bestseller, translated into every language and found in countless hotel drawers around the world, is the founding text of "Western" or "Judeo-Christian" civilization, whose military, economic, cultural, and symbolic imperium has established itself over the centuries and in a way still stretches over almost the entire globe? Is this not why even readers with no religious belief continue to feel considerable respect for it, mingled with a degree of fear?
None of these assumptions stands up to scrutiny, however. First of all, the Bible is not the oldest book of our shared humanity. To be sure, with its various Hebrew and Aramaic strata, it does bring together nine centuries of literary output, starting with a few archaic hymns (e.g., the Song of Deborah in Judges 5), but closing rather late, in the second century BCE, with the Book of Daniel. In the scale of human history, that makes it a compendium of only relative antiquity.
Nor is it so voluminous. It consists of selections made by particular individuals, which doubtless add up to little in comparison with all that the vagaries of history and the omissions and injustices of later generations have eliminated. Ancient Hebrew literature was much richer and more diverse than what we find in the pages of our Bibles. The very language of the surviving body of text—a grand total of 300,000 words—is rather poor: the biblical vocabulary contains 8,000 words, including 2,100 hapax legomena (that is, terms that appear only once, whose meaning is therefore not always perfectly clear). It is thought that 68 percent of the Hebrew words in use in biblical times are absent from the Bible. Had all the author-compilers of the Hebrew Bible been keen to use the entire vocabulary at their disposal, their book would have been much larger and said many more things. Such was evidently not their intention, and economical literature may, of course, be great literature.
If the Bible is not the vast, ancient, magnificent book one likes to imagine, is it at least the founding book of a civilization that is, perhaps a little hastily, defined in a single sweep as "Western" or "Judeo-Christian"?
To be blunt, that may be no less true of Homer—or, more generally, of what might be called the Greco-Latin humanities. The Bible is at most, together with them, one of the foundations of this civilization. Moreover, its relations with them down the ages have ranged, according to the context and milieu, from open conflict to virtual osmosis. And when, from the Renaissance on, it gradually became subject to the same critical and editorial procedures that scholars applied to the pagan literature of antiquity, its text ended up losing in authority what it gained in philological correctness.
"Western civilization" and "Judeo-Christian civilization" are anyway difficult to define and do not overlap exactly. We know how much these civilizations owe to their contacts with the Muslim world, notwithstanding occasional attempts to question or deny this. Furthermore, the Bible has not played the same role for Catholics and for Protestants; it has been the catalyst of deep divisions and violent conflicts, a terrain of struggle no less than of confluence or shared identity. In the contemporary epoch, its status has largely depended on national idiosyncrasies. To take a single example, no one would dream of comparing its central place in North America to the scant respect that secular France has shown for it in recent times.
So, what are we left with? The Bible as the founding text of two of the great monotheisms: Judaism and Christianity? That is not sure either. And it is precisely this zone of uncertainty that the present work explores.
A Strangely Plural Singular
The word itself, deceptive and paradoxical, will be enough to get us started. For it is doubtful whether the Bible is actually one book. The singular number creates an illusion and obscures a complex history. "Bible" does, it is true, come from the singular Latin feminine noun biblia, but that is only the medieval latinization of a Greek neuter plural: ta biblia, "the record books." The Bible is not one book but primarily and historically a collection of books, a library.
In Western Christendom it became a book, and one book, only in the course of the High Middle Ages. This passage from plural to singular is recorded in historical time, and it was probably not determined a priori, from all eternity, by the intrinsic or "original" nature of the texts that eventually made up the Bible. In fact, it may tell us less about the idea that its readers formed of a unity underlying the collection than it does about the changing perception of it "as a book" in the most material sense of the word: "a book that will be owned, carried around and studied, not simply a sacred text whose magnificence accompanies the liturgy."
In Judaism, this unification process was never fully completed, and although the Bible has been read and interpreted "as a book," even an absolute book, for nearly two millennia, Jews have never lost sight of its heterogeneity and plural composition. Indeed, this awareness has been deliberately nurtured. This is already apparent in the varying harmonics of the words denoting the scriptural corpus in rabbinical language.
Words for the Bible
The Bible is commonly referred to as that which is read: in Hebrew, ha-Mikra, literally, "the Reading." The term serves to designate both the scriptural text as a whole and one of its minimum components; a simple verse may also be called mikra. Based on a Semitic root (kr'), also found in the Arabic Kur'an (Koran), the word evokes—especially in the language of the Bible itself—the notion of a "call" or "summons," as in the expression mikra kodesh ("holy convocation" or "religious gathering"). In fact, in rabbinical Judaism, the ritual reading of certain biblical books or fragments forms the core of the great collective celebrations of Shabbat* and the festivals; it periodically brings together the community of believers and crystallizes it regardless of age or gender.
Another word for the Bible in the rabbinical tradition is ha-Katuv: "that which is written." This term, which acquires its full meaning only in relation to that which is not written, but like the teachings of the Oral Tradition may be vested with comparable authority, serves, within the rabbinical literature, to designate and introduce a biblical quotation in support of an idea, teaching, or religious prescription. Similarly, the term ketuvim (the plural of katuv) is used for a part—only one part, not the entirety—of the canon of the Jewish Bible: the "Hagiographa" or "Ketuvim."
It can hardly be denied that, bearing in mind their ambiguous uses, neither mikra nor katuv can be reasonably presented as an equivalent of our "Bible." It is clearly not a question here of "Bible," or even of "book" in the usual sense of the word.
Other terms come closer, of course, but care needs to be taken with them too. Thus, the Hebrew singular sefer, ordinarily and correctly translated as "book," is not a particularly apt term for the Bible as a whole, rather than for that part, admittedly considered essential, which is known as the Book of Law, the Five Books of Moses, or the Pentateuch. It refers to these especially when the Pentateuch is presented in the form of the Sefer Torah, the Scroll of the Law, as it is read aloud during synagogue services. For "the Bible," the preferred term is the plural ha-sefarim ("the books") or, more precisely, sifrei ha-kodesh ("the holy books") or kitvei ha-kodesh ("the holy writings"). Hebrew seems more resistant than Latin, or English, to a slipping from the plural (ta biblia) to the singular (biblia).
Another common Hebrew term for the Bible is TaNaKh, a simple acronym, devoid of meaning in itself, constructed from the initial letters of the three words referring to the tripartite structure of Scripture: Torah, Nevi'im, and Ketuvim (the Law, Prophets, and Writings). Here, the very designation of the whole seems to have the primary function of recalling its composite character. The Book, if Book there is, is not one but at least three. And these three books, each in turn a collection of books, but ultimately part of the single biblical canon, do not at all have the same status in the eyes of rabbis, nor are they vested with the same authority. The highlighted plurality and diversity of the documents making up the Bible here go together with their arrangement in a hierarchy.
In this context, the Pentateuch enjoys absolute preeminence. In antiquity, it rather than the Bible was the common ground for all the Jewish sects, tendencies and "heresies," however tense and conflictual their relations with one another. In the Jewish literature in Greek, from the end of the second century BCE on, the Pentateuch alone is called he biblos, "the Book." And for Philo of Alexandria (13 BCE to 54 CE), the leading representative of Hellenistic Jewish culture, who read it in Greek translation, the Pentateuch or the Law of Moses was always the only "Scripture." Although he sometimes mentions other books, all his commentaries bear on it—apparently because he thought it the only one worthwhile.
Rabbis never challenged this preeminence, even after a much larger canon of holy books was finalized. The Sefer Torah, the Scroll of the Law read at services, must unfailingly contain all five books of the Penta teuch—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy—none of which may be copied separately. On the other hand, according to a talmudic teaching, "the Pentateuch, Prophets, and the Hagiographa must be written in separate books," and in the twelfth century, long after the codex form had been adopted for nonliturgical uses (which favored the grouping of biblical books in a single volume), the philosopher, physician, and halakhist* Moses ben Maimon, or Maimonides (1138–1204; also referred to by the acronym for Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon: RaMBaM), still seems to have recommended that the Bible be copied in three different volumes.
The privileged position of the Pentateuch is not the only sign that a sense of the disparateness, or even fragmentariness, of the biblical corpus was deliberately maintained. The Pentateuch is itself made up of five distinct books. And, just as the word TaNaKh, denoting the Bible as a whole, stubbornly reminds us of its composite character, there is a traditional formula for the Pentateuch that displays the same exemplary ambiguity: hamishah humshei Torah, literally "the five fifths of the Law." What should we understand by this? That the Pentateuch is both five and one, that it is one only on the condition that it is five, and that these five fifths together inextricably constitute the Law. And they constitute the whole Law, since it is contained in its entirety in those five books. This inevitably raises the question of the status of the other books of the Jewish biblical corpus: the books of the prophets and the Hagiographa. Are they not the Law?
A Heterogeneous and Hierarchical Corpus
The canonization of the Hebrew Bible—that is, the establishment of a biblical corpus of sacred writings, to the exclusion of all others, by rabbinical Judaism—was a lengthy and complex process. The Torah, the core of Mosaic Revelation, was the first to receive this consecration. In the form that we know it today, the Pentateuch made its appearance between the Exile (586 BCE) and the beginning of the Hellenistic period, and was probably finalized in the last third of the fourth century BCE. The importance of the Law in Judean society after the return from Babylon (538 BCE)—some writers have spoken of a "nomocracy"—gave a powerful stimulus to the crystallization and stabilization of the text. Critics generally find there a high degree of coherence, arguing that the initially disparate materials comprising it were manifestly edited in such a way that they became a book.
This does not mean that contradictions, duplication, and inconsistencies simply disappeared—far from it. For the editing work did not result in—and probably never aimed at—an absolutely perfect fusion of the different textual traditions, or an elimination of the diversity of style and inspiration reflected in them. More generally, the literary characterization of the whole remains a matter of debate.
In terms of material, the Pentateuch is divided almost equally between legislative and narrative texts. It tells of the history of the world, especially of the people of Israel, from the creation of heaven and earth down to the death of Moses. But one also finds there an impressive number of legal requirements and religious practices, in an order of exposition that (at least for today's reader) is not always transparent. In this respect, the Book of Leviticus—the third of the five books—introduces a clear and excessively long break in the narrative structure of the Pentateuch, which ancient and modern commentators have had some difficulty in explaining.
It has been suggested that the Pentateuch may at first have been a narrative, to which legal sections were then added to the point where they became essential; or else that it was originally a book of law that was then endowed with a narrative framework over the centuries. In Hebrew, however, the very word Torah—whose first testified use to designate the Pentateuch dates from the second century BCE—evidently refers to something other and more than a history, but also to something other and more than a law. This ambiguous literary status allowed the Christian tradition to interpret the Pentateuch as an ancient history of Israel, whereas Judaism saw it first of all as the Book of the Law.
Whatever the ambiguity of its literary status, it appears that the Pentateuch is the (direct or indirect) result of Persia's promulgation of a "law of the Jews," valid for all of them living in the satrapy of Syria, in line with the well-attested policy of officially sanctioning local laws. This would explain the nonprophetic, even anti-eschatological, tone of this document—the fact that it contains virtually nothing that might have been interpreted as a challenge to Persian power, and does not include traditions relating to Israel's territorial conquests or testifying to its ambition to establish a sovereign state. All this may be found in another segment of the canon, with less authority, agreed upon at a later date.
Excerpted from The Jews and the Bible by Jean-Christophe Attias, Patrick Camiller. Copyright © 2012 Librairie Arthème Fayard. Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents
Note on Transcriptions and Biblical and Rabbinical Quotations,
1. An Elusive Book?,
2. Bible Object, Bible in Pieces,
3. The Improbable Locus of an Identity,
4. Reading the Bible at the Risk of Heresy,
5. The Bible of the Moderns,