The authority of the written word


Michael L. Satlow’s “How the Bible Became Holy” (Yale University Press, 2014) is an audacious book. Satlow, professor of Religious Studies and Judaic Studies at Brown, spells out his intentions in the introductory pages: “This book proposes a very different answer to the question of when and how the Bible gained authority.  I will argue here that Jews and Christians gave to the texts that constitute our Bible only very limited and specific kinds of authority well into the third-century and beyond. The “peoples of the book” did not know their book very well.”

Satlow tells the story of how the written texts of the Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible) and the New Testament came to be from the perspective of modern scholarship; he accepts in broad outline the Documentary Hypothesis, which sees the Torah as the stitching together of separate documents identified as J, E, D and P – and some would add H (the Holiness Code).  Nevertheless, Satlow’s primary interest is not the texts themselves but rather the historical and social contexts within which the written word of scripture gradually gains authority over the centuries.

The author distinguishes among three different types of authority: normative, “the authority to dictate our behaviors;” literary, “the common phenomenon of authors using earlier texts as models for new ones;” and oracular, the authority “assigned to a text that is thought to deliver a message, usually about the future, from the divine realm.  This is the authority that in antiquity was most commonly linked to the term ‘holy.’ ”

Satlow begins his study of the evolving Biblical texts and contexts in 922 BCE with the breakup of Solomon’s kingdom into Israel in the north and Judah in the south.  Throughout his complex and nuanced discussion, Satlow states and restates what should be obvious, but what is rarely given its due among Biblical scholars: the overwhelming majority of individuals living during the centuries of development of the written Bible were illiterate!  Only a tiny elite – the most historically significant among them, the sophrim, the scribes – could read and write. That being the case, it should come as no surprise that repeated attempts to infuse various written texts with some form of authority were almost certain to fail.

In 458 BCE, for example, Ezra, both a scribe and a priest, was sent to Jerusalem by the Persian court.  According to the book of Nehemiah, chapter 8, on Rosh Hashanah of that year, Ezra assembled the populace of the city for a public reading of some version of what is now our Torah.  Satlow comments: “The author of the chapter does not tell us why the people did not reassemble (on the next day) to continue the reading, but it is likely that the public reading – in contrast to what the author wants us to believe – was a failure.  Ezra misjudged his audience.”

“How the Bible Became Holy” is filled with surprises and ironies.  Thus, Satlow points out that “[t]he Septuagint became a holy book that Alexandrian Jews saw as essential to their identity and to their relationship to their God, even if they largely ignored its normative authority.”  That is to say, during the first century, literate Greek-speaking Jews in Egypt, who publicly read from their Greek translation of the Bible in their synagogues (a Greek word) every Shabbat, were far more deeply connected to the written word of the Bible than were their co-religionists in Judea, who, for the most part illiterate, remained largely ignorant of the Hebrew Tanakh.

Similarly, and with equal irony, first-century Judean Christians relied upon the literary and oracular authority of the Hebrew Bible in order to “prove” that Jesus’ life and death were the “fulfillment of Scripture.”

Satlow challenges conventional assumptions not only with his overarching thesis concerning “how” and “when” the Bible finally became an authoritative text; he also challenges convention with his supporting arguments.  In contrast to the more commonly held position that Qumran was populated by Essenes, he holds that the first-century Qumran community that produced the Dead Sea Scrolls were a group of breakaway Sadducees.  Moreover, when he makes the case that the Pharisees formed the core of a wealthy, conservative, tradition-bound Jerusalem aristocracy, he is taking a position that is at odds with other scholarly views of these major players in the ongoing drama of the Jewish people.

Satlow writes that “[t]oday we take for granted the religious authority of texts.” He points out that the writings of our rabbis are laced with “proof texts” from our Tanakh.  Whether intentionally or not, Satlow raises the broader question of what brings authority to the written word in general.  When the spoken word achieves written form, something magical happens.   In a literate society, the written word – as opposed to the spoken word – carries a special gravitas; it tastes of permanence. Perhaps this is why when Yiddish-speaking Jews find themselves in heated debate, a definitive way to clinch the argument is to insist, “Shteyt geschrieben!  It is written!”

JAMES B. ROSENBERG is rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim in Barrington. Contact him at