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Scripture’s sacred page

05 December 2014

Anthony Phillips reads a study of how the Bible gained authority

How the Bible Became Holy
Michael L. Satlow
Yale £25
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MICHAEL SATLOW's concern is not how the Bible reached its present form, but how it acquired authority. His conclusion is 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 CE and beyond."

The author divides his study into three periods: (i) the Israelite, Judahite, and Persian periods (922-350 BCE); (ii) the Greek period up to Roman ascent in the Near East (350-63 BCE); and (iii) the Roman period (4 BCE-220 CE).

Central to his analysis is the part played by the scribes responsible for writing the texts regarded not as sacred, but as the "stuff of their trade and learning". By the time of the fall of Jerusalem, scribes would have produced a variety of texts, which, Satlow conjectures, would have been placed in the temple library. Yet there was no Bible and no sense of reliance on the authority of texts, save for prophetic oracles seen as the words of Yahweh. They were, though, subject to revision.

Satlow continues by examining the gradual build-up of the texts that would eventually form the Bible. But still the scrolls had very limited authority. It was the Sadducees who "developed the notion that authoritative texts or scripture had normative authority that should guide religious practice". Until then, the texts were regarded as material to be used for educational purposes, or consulted for oracles. Throughout his work, Satlow emphasises the very limited number of people able to read.

He discusses both the Septuagint and the Dead Sea Scrolls acknowledging that the community at Qumran had a "loose but not closed canon". Unlike the situation outside Judaea, it was only around the time of Jesus that synagogues spread out from Jerusalem as places to read and teach Torah, although the author argues that for Jesus scripture itself played a minimal part. It was Paul who first saw the meaning of Jesus's life "through the lens of scripture".

Satlow examines the four Gospels, noting that for the Synoptic authors scripture gave proof that Jesus was Messiah, while Jesus gave authority to scripture. John avoided proof texts, but used scripture to show how blind Jews were to their own authoritative texts.

The importance of the Nag Hammadi finds are then considered, followed by the attitude of Josephus, Justin Martyr, Marcion, and Irenaeus to scripture, all of whom were engaged in some form of canon formation. But Christians did not venerate the texts: it was the message that was important.

Finally, Satlow turns to the rabbis who in contrast chose text over message. While the rabbis never confronted the issue of the canon, they cited proof texts from every book of the present Jewish Bible.

In the third century CE, "the Bible" did not exist. Christians were the first to form a canon of scripture with Athanasius nominating "the precise list of books in Old and New Testaments that (right-believing) Christians should consider holy". But different forms of the Bible soon emerged so that even today there is no one authoritative Christian Bible. In contrast, Maimonides, in the 11th century CE, declared the Aleppo Codex the standard text for Judaism.

The importance of this brave and exhaustive examination can hardly be exaggerated. It deserves to be widely read. It will certainly not go unchallenged. But Satlow forces those engaged in biblical studies to question their own assumptions before they can challenge his.

Canon Anthony Phillips is a former headmaster of The King's School, Canterbury.

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