Some book titles are thought-provoking in and of themselves. "How the Bible Became Holy" is that kind of title. Was there a time in history when the prestige of what we call Scripture was not what it is today, when Scripture was not considered holy?
Author Michael L. Satlow asks in this new book how Jews and Christians "developed the notion that authoritative texts, or scripture, had normative authority that should guide religious practice." He argues that "Jews and Christians gave to the texts that constitute our Bible only very limited and specific kinds of authority until well into the third century C.E. and beyond."
Satlow is a professor of religious studies and Judaic studies at Brown University in Providence, R.I. In this book he writes as a historian, reaching far back into antiquity to uncover the ways our ancient religious forebears viewed Scripture. How did they regard its books in their communities at different points in time?
The biblical books did not quickly gain "an ironclad authority among Jews and then Christians in antiquity," he writes. Satlow's aim in "How the Bible Became Holy" is to illustrate how and why that gradually changed.
It is important to say something not only about what this book is, but about what it is not. It is not a study of revelation, if by that one means the content of the word of God and its meaning for our lives. It is not catechetical, not doctrinal and does not appear designed to foster biblical spirituality.
Rather, "How the Bible Became Holy" focuses on texts as such -- how biblical texts gained status over time in communities where, for example, the written word was not readily available and oral traditions were esteemed. How did biblical texts come to be accepted as guides for life in times when those with questions took them to family members and others in their communities -- in a rather non-textual world, that is?
Today, Satlow notes, the authority of religious texts tends to be taken for granted. That is, "religion, as it is commonly understood, comes out of a book." But according to "How the Bible Became Holy," a process many centuries long unfolded before the Bible attained any such status.
As the chapters of his book proceed down through the centuries of antiquity, Satlow has the opportunity to cast light on some of the remarkable people of biblical times who contributed in one way or another to that long process. A chapter on Ezra the scribe in the fifth century B.C.E. stood out for me. "Prior to Ezra, nobody (except, perhaps priests) would have thought to turn to a book or text in order to learn proper religious behaviors," Satlow states.
He has the opportunity, as well, to present quite fascinating discussions of numerous other matters. For example, what was the actual role of ancient scribes in the development of texts? How did the Sadducees and Pharisees differ in their assessments of the importance of texts in religious life? What role did the spread of synagogues play in introducing less-elite Judeans to written texts? How did early Christian writers, like St. Paul, use Scripture?
I enjoyed Satlow's discussion of the famed Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered in 1948. "To understand the development of the normative authority of the Bible," he says, "we must turn to the Dead Sea Scrolls and the community that produced them."
The scrolls, Satlow comments, show "the inner dynamics of how and why at least one Judean group increasingly turned to written texts as a source of authority."
Satlow thinks that in attaining its normative, authoritative role as a text, the Bible made a valuable contribution to society as a whole. While his book "is primarily a story about the development of textual authority in antiquity," it points also "toward the story of how it is that we in the modern West have come to live in a textual world."
This was not how things were in antiquity, "when texts and their authority played a marginal role in the lives of the vast majority of people," Satlow explains.
Today, texts pervade our societies, so much so that it may be difficult "to imagine a world in which texts play little or no role." But this, Satlow proposes, "is perhaps the Bible's greatest legacy: the radically implausible notion that one can build a community, a religion, a culture and even a country around a text."