How the Bible Became Holy

Written by Michael L. Satlow Reviewed By Michael J. Kruger

In recent years, the subject of the biblical canon has generated a tremendous amount of scholarly interest. Discussions about the biblical text have led to questions about which books (really) belong, and those questions have led to more questions about how those books have become authoritative. The latest foray into this field, How the Bible Became Holy, comes from Michael L. Satlow, professor of religious studies and Judaic studies at Brown University.

Satlow’s volume is designed to challenge what he considers to be the standard paradigm in studies of the canon, namely that “by the Hellenistic period (fourth to fifth centuries BC), almost all Jews knew of most books of the Old Testament . . . and thought them sacred” (p. 2). In contrast, Satlow argues that the biblical canon—both OT and NT—was a late bloomer at best. It did not take shape until the third century AD or later. Even Jesus himself “had a very limited knowledge of Scripture” (p. 6). But, even more important than the date of the canon, Satlow argues that these books were not typically regarded as authoritative by the Jews or the Christians that used them (at least in the normative sense). The essence of Satlow’s argument, therefore, is that the Bible as we know it today—in terms of both its scope and authority—is not what the Bible originally was like. We (Jews and Christians) have made the Bible different than it was intended to be. And this explains the title of his book, How the Bible Became Holy.

Satlow has offered a bold and provocative thesis, and it’s certainly one that will generate much discussion. At the same time, it should be acknowledged that the broad parameters of Satlow’s counter-narrative about the Bible’s origins are not new. A number of critical scholars have sought to portray the canon as a late idea, foisted upon a collection of books written for another purpose (e.g., see David Dungan’s Constantine’s Bible: Politics and the Making of the New Testament [Minneapolis: Fortress, 2006]). Indeed, as Brevard Childs observed many years ago, this approach to canon is fairly typical in higher-critical circles: “It’s assumed by many that the formation of the canon is a late, ecclesiastical activity, external to the biblical literature itself, which was subsequently imposed on the writings” (The New Testament as Canon: An Introduction [Minneapolis: Fortress, 1985], 21).

What is (somewhat) new, however, is the manner in which Satlow approaches this issue. First, he deals with both Old Testament and New Testament canons in a single volume—a monumental amount of material to cover, to be sure. Most treatments of canon tend to focus on one of the testaments. Second, Satlow’s position is even more aggressive than many other critical scholars, arguing not only that the Pentateuch (or an early version of it) was not “published” until the fifth century BC but that it bore very little authority for the next five hundred years. Third, Satlow tells the story of the canon at almost a narrative level, outlining the broad history of Israel and the beginnings of the church, without engaging in the level of detailed discussion of the historical sources one comes to expect from other studies of the canon (e.g., compare to Timothy H. Lim’s recent study, The Formation of the Jewish Canon [New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013]).

I suspect this third feature of the volume is largely dictated by the first. Given that the scope of the volume covers both testaments, such detail is just not a possibility. While there is nothing inherently inappropriate about this approach (one is free to address the canon in this fashion), it does create some challenges. In particular, this approach forces Satlow to make his case more through declaration rather than through demonstration. For instance, in chapter one Satlow is so involved in the re-telling Israel’s pre-exilic story (922–722 BC) that he offers little historical documentation regarding the status of Israel’s religious texts. At one point he declares, “Israel was the place that first gave birth to some of the earliest stories and texts found in the Bible, but these texts had little authority” (p. 15). The problem, of course, is that he hasn’t shown that these texts had little authority, he has just stated it. He does offer a hypothesis about the origin of these texts, namely that they were merely “stories and legends that helped its [Israel’s] people to see themselves as part of a single people” (p. 15). And he then uses the rest of the chapter to argue that these texts were designed to promulgate a “myth of a common past” (p. 21). But, even if Satlow is correct that these texts were just created to give Israel an identity (and that is a point of serious contention amongst scholars), that does not prove that they bore no authority for the average Israelite that heard/read them.

In later chapters, Satlow continues his narrative-style survey of the development of the canon. He argues that Deuteronomy was merely a “utopian scribal fantasy” (p. 44) that was never intended to be taken seriously. Thus, Josiah’s later discovery of the scroll in the temple, and subsequent covenant ceremony, was an unprecedented “attempt to move religious authority to a written scroll” (p. 44). While Satlow is no doubt providing the standard higher-critical reconstruction here, there is (again) little demonstration of his claims. Rather, he is simply repeating the common critical viewpoint. While some readers might be satisfied with such an approach, others may have wished for more discussion of the evidence.

The status of Scripture received a later boost, argues Satlow, in the first century when the Sadducees pushed for scriptural authority over and against the Pharisees who still preferred oral/unwritten tradition. It was the Sadducees, therefore, with their aristocratic power and influence, that shifted Israel towards an interest in religious texts. Since Jesus came from Galilee, largely influenced by the Pharisees, then Satlow concludes that Scripture only “played a marginal role in his [Jesus’s] religious life” (p. 208). Sure, argues Satlow, we see Jesus “citing a few verses of Scripture,” but he never “framed his own life” around the Scriptures (p. 208).

At this point, Satlow’s argument begins to feel seriously strained. Linking the origins of biblical authority to the Sadducees (not to mention the Sadducees link to Qumran) is pure speculation, especially given how little we know about them as a historical group. Also, his attempt to downplay the role of Scripture in the life of Jesus seems a bit disingenuous. While one might acknowledge the status of biblical texts in the pre-exilic period is less clear, there are a substantial number of texts that indicate that Jesus not only knew the Scriptures (e.g., Matt 4:4–10; 11:10; 21:13; 26:31; Mark 7:6; 9:13; Luke 22:37; John 6:32; 6:45; 8:17), but did explicitly frame his life around Scriptures (e.g., Matt. 21:42; 26:53–54; Mark 12:10; Luke 4:21; 24:44; John 5:39; 7:42). In light of these passages, Satlow’s statement that Jesus “did not particularly link his own life to Scripture” (p. 225) seems particularly stunning. In addition, more discussion needed to be given to Jesus’s express statements about the power and truth of Scripture (Mark 12:36; Matt 5:18; John 10:35; 17:17). On top of all of this, Jesus freely and regularly used the Scriptures in his debates with others, with no indication whatsoever that the Scriptures may not have been known by his audience or that their authority was a recent invention. One might also observe that all the books that Jesus quotes as Scripture happen to be found in our current OT canon, and he never quotes a book as Scripture that is not in our current OT canon—a fact that seems quite remarkable if the state of the canon was as unestablished as Satlow maintains.

Of course, Satlow responds to such evidence by arguing that these Gospel accounts cannot be trusted when they record the words of Jesus. Indeed, at one point, he claims that Mark “put Scripture in Jesus’s mouth” thus “transforming Jesus into a citer of Scripture” (p. 227). At another point, he argues that Luke put words into Jesus’s mouth about how his life fulfilled the Scriptures (p. 231). But, again, these sorts of things cannot simply be claimed. They must be demonstrated. And Satlow leaves out any sustained argument to prove that Mark and Luke are guilty as charged. In addition, it should be acknowledged that the evidence that Jesus framed his life around the Scriptures cuts across multiple gospel sources, all three Synoptics plus John. Thus, it is difficult to dismiss all of these verses as merely the later fabrications of the gospel authors.

As for the development of the New Testament canon, Satlow provides a brief overview of some of the major players in the second century, including Justin Martyr, Tatian, and Irenaeus (pp. 241–56). Although there is substantial evidence that these individuals held a high view of New Testament writings, one gets the impression that Satlow is trying to minimize this evidence at every turn. For example, when it comes to Justin Martyr, he argues that the Gospels “play a relatively minor role for him” and “didn’t play much of a role in the lives of most ordinary Christians” (p. 250). But, then Satlow just glosses over the major text that shows otherwise, namely Justin’s description of how the Gospels are read in early Christian worship services as Scripture on par with the Old Testament writings (1 Apol. 67.3). Surely this suggests that the Gospels not only possessed a high authority, but that they did play an important role in the life of ordinary Christians.

In order to downplay further the authority of New Testament writings during this time period, Satlow then argues that early Christian scribal cultural was problematic. He makes three claims: (a) Christian manuscripts were “utilitarian” and lack evidence of being written by professional scribes; (b) manuscripts were not written for public recitation; and (c) physical features of manuscripts had no (or very little) importance (pp. 255–256). However, each of these claims is in serious doubt. Graham Stanton has observed, along with many others, that the scribal hand of many early NT manuscripts is quite professional, suggesting the scribes were more well-trained than many suppose. Stanton reaches the opposite conclusion of Satlow when he states, “The oft-repeated claim that the gospels were considered at first to be utilitarian handbooks needs to be modified” (Jesus and Gospel [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press], 206). The argument that the Gospels were not written for public recitation has been taken up by a number of scholars, including Scott Charlesworth who (again) reaches the opposite conclusion of Satlow, arguing that the line spacing and reader’s aids in many gospel manuscripts suggest they were intended for public reading (“Public and Private: Second-and Third-Century Gospel Manuscripts,” in Jewish and Christian Scripture as Artifact and Canon, ed. C. A. Evans and H. D. Zacharias [London: T&T Clark, 2009], 148–175). And as for the physical features of New Testament manuscripts, Satlow is correct that they did not exhibit the elite, high-culture artistic features of some literary texts in the Greco-Roman world. But, that doesn’t mean their visual/physical characteristics played no role. Larry Hurtado has shown that early Christians valued more than the text, but also the visual and material appearance of their manuscripts, particularly as exemplified by the use of the codex, nomina sacra, and the staurogram (The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Origins [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006]).

In conclusion, Satlow has written an interesting, provocative and wide-ranging volume on the origins of the Old and New Testaments that provides much helpful information on the history of biblical texts. However, Satlow’s aggressive (and sometime speculative) reconstruction often presses the evidence beyond what it can bear. In addition, one gets the impression that Satlow is intent on minimizing the role of Scripture in both Israel and the early church, even when the evidence could be naturally read in the other direction. The broad, narrative style of the book allows him to lay out the standard higher-critical view of biblical origins, but does not provide the sort of documentation of his claims that might persuade those who don’t already share his starting point. Regardless, those in the field of biblical studies, especially those interested in the origins of the canon, will want to read and interact with this volume.

Michael J. Kruger

Michael J. Kruger
Reformed Theological Seminary
Charlotte, North Carolina, USA

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