How the Bible Became Holy

How the Bible Became Holy

Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 368
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  • Book Info
    How the Bible Became Holy
    Book Description:

    In this sweeping narrative, Michael Satlow tells the fascinating story of how an ancient collection of obscure Israelite writings became the founding texts of both Judaism and Christianity, considered holy by followers of each faith. Drawing on cutting-edge historical and archeological research, he traces the story of how, when, and why Jews and Christians gradually granted authority to texts that had long lay dormant in a dusty temple archive. The Bible, Satlow maintains, was not the consecrated book it is now until quite late in its history.He describes how elite scribes in the eighth and seventh centuries B.C.E. began the process that led to the creation of several of our biblical texts. It was not until these were translated into Greek in Egypt in the second century B.C.E., however, that some Jews began to see them as culturally authoritative, comparable to Homer's works in contemporary Greek society. Then, in the first century B.C.E. in Israel, political machinations resulted in the Sadducees assigning legal power to the writings. We see how the world Jesus was born into was largely biblically illiterate and how he knew very little about the texts upon which his apostles would base his spiritual leadership.Synthesizing an enormous body of scholarly work, Satlow's groundbreaking study offers provocative new assertions about commonly accepted interpretations of biblical history as well as a unique window into how two of the world's great faiths came into being.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-20685-2
    Subjects: Religion, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Note on Documentation and Sources
    (pp. ix-ix)
  4. Map of the Biblical World
    (pp. x-xiv)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-10)

    The first time I tried to read the Bible I was thirteen. I had received a two-volume set of the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, for my bar mitzvah, and it was the first Bible that my family possessed. The print was small and the English translation stiff, but I was excited to finally have the opportunity to read it. The first three and a half chapters, with their dramatic accounts of creation, sin, sex, and murder, were great. That’s as far as I got. The mind-numbing list of names, of who begat whom, was jarring; it was simply too...

  6. Part I

    • 1 The Northern Kingdom: Israel, 922–722 BCE
      (pp. 13-30)

      Reflecting on the fall of the kingdom of Israel in 722 BCE, a historian from the kingdom of Judah could not resist a bit of gloating. The Assyrian conquest of Israel, the historian wrote, “occurred because the people of Israel had sinned against the Lord their God, who had brought them up out of the land of Egypt.” They sinned, and despite God’s warning to them, “they would not listen but were stubborn, as their ancestors had been, who did not believe in the Lord their God” (2 Kings 17:7, 14). The historian goes on to provide a rich and...

    • 2 The Writings of Judah: Judah, 722–586 BCE
      (pp. 31-51)

      The Israelite refugees to Judah would not have been met with a particularly warm welcome. Judah was not Israel. Lacking large areas of flat land, it depended on the hardscrabble terrace farming of its hilly terrain for subsistence. Judah also lacked easy access to the sea or major trade routes. Jerusalem, its capital, was a small city that in the mid-eighth century still lay largely within the confines of what is today called the City of David. The palace of the king of Judah was unlikely to have contained the kinds of rich ivories found in that of the Israelite...

    • 3 The Second Commonwealth: Babylonia, Persia, and Yehud, 586–520 BCE
      (pp. 52-68)

      “Israel are scattered sheep, harried by lions,” Jeremiah lamented in the beginning of the sixth century (Jeremiah 50:17). A significant number of Judahites, particularly those outside of the major areas of fighting, remained in the old province of Judah, now under Babylonian control. Others fled to Egypt ahead of the Babylonian assault. And, of course, many found themselves deported to Babylonia itself.

      It is easy to imagine that the destruction of the temple and the physical dislocations of the Judahite population caused religious trauma. Now outside of their native land and without a place in which they could sacrifice to...

    • 4 Ezra and the Pentateuch: Persia and Yehud, 520–458 BCE
      (pp. 69-84)

      By the beginning of the third century CE, Ezra the scribe had gained a status among Jews that was second only to Moses. Books of his visions circulated widely and he was so well known that a portrait of him can be found on a synagogue fresco located in a dusty town on the fringes of the Roman Empire. The rabbis bluntly declared, “Ezra would have been worthy to have received the Torah had not Moses preceded him.” It is Ezra, they say, who instituted the regular liturgical reading of the Torah.¹

      Ezra’s reputation sprang from the one thin book...

    • 5 Nehemiah to Chronicles: Yehud and Elephantine, 445–350 BCE
      (pp. 85-100)

      Ezra had come and gone, his tumultuous year in Jerusalem having made little, if any, impact. Over the next thirteen years things in Yehud quickly slid back to the way they had been. Yehud remained a semiautonomous territory that was governed by the very Judean local elite that Ezra sought unsuccessfully to undermine. It would not be until 445 BCE that the same shadowy group that produced Ezra would get another chance to mount a serious challenge to the established elite. This time a more politically savvy leader named Nehemiah had a chance to establish a polity in line with...

  7. Part II

    • 6 The Dawn of Hellenism: Judea, 350–175 BCE
      (pp. 103-123)

      It took Alexander the Great less than a decade to dismantle the Persian Empire. Born in 356 BCE in Macedonia and given the best Greek education that money could buy (Aristotle was his tutor), Alexander began his military campaigns shortly after his father, King Phillip II, was assassinated. By 332 he had broken the Persian army and moved down into Syria, the Levant, and Egypt. From Egypt, Alexander took his army east into Babylonia and Persia proper. After defeating the last Persian king, Darius III, Alexander moved further east in 327 into India. Following a mostly successful but exhausting campaign,...

    • 7 The Maccabean Revolt: Judea, 175–135 BCE
      (pp. 124-135)

      Today, there are three popular versions of the story of the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah. The narrative that is dominant in the United States sees the clash between the forces of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the Seleucid king who assumed power in 175 BCE, and the Jews of Jerusalem as a warning story of assimilation. The evil king, aided by evil Jews, wanted to eradicate Judaism and replace it with Hellenism. The brave Maccabee brothers rose up in outrage and defeated them. The narrative most commonly known in Israel recasts the events of the Maccabean revolt as a nationalistic story of...

    • 8 The Holy Books: Judea, 135–104 BCE
      (pp. 136-152)

      The Hasmonean claim to legitimacy was tenuous. They were priests, but not of the right line. Their family had successfully fought the Seleucids, but they achieved something more akin to vassal status than true self-autonomy. They saved their compatriots from persecution, but by the reign of John Hyrcanus (135–104 BCE) that was already well in the past. They maintained power only with the tacit permission of the Seleucid king and Rome and, through their appropriation of the high priesthood, by their de facto control of the Jerusalem temple.

      As high priests, the power of the Hasmoneans depended on their...

    • 9 The Septuagint: Alexandria, Third Century BCE–First Century CE
      (pp. 153-170)

      To Philo, the Jewish philosopher writing in Alexandria in the first century BCE to first century CE, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, which would become known as the Septuagint, was perfect. The Greek translators were not translators at all “but . . . prophets and priests of the mysteries, whose sincerity and singleness of thought has enabled them to go hand in hand with the purest of spirits, the spirit of Moses.”¹

      Philo’s rapturous praise of the Greek translation was overblown but it also reflects the critical role that this document had come to play in his own...

    • 10 The Sadducees and the Dead Sea Scrolls: Judea, 104–103 BCE
      (pp. 171-188)

      At the end of the second century BCE, the Sadducees found themselves at the center of power in Jerusalem, influential in the royal court of John Hyrcanus and in control of the temple. To a large extent, this “party”—best thought of as a loose coalition of the former supporters of the Maccabees who were fighting the entrenched interests of the older aristocratic families—continued to play an important political role for the next century.

      The Sadducees, like the older aristocratic families from this period that we know of as the Pharisees, did not constitute a very coherent group. They...

  8. Part III

    • 11 Jesus and the Synagogue: Judea and Galilee, 4 BCE–30 CE
      (pp. 191-209)

      Herod had utterly transformed Jerusalem from a respectable but sleepy provincial capital into a world-class city and economic juggernaut. His building projects, which were so massive that they would continue for decades after his death, reshaped even the topography of the city. Dominated by a glittering temple built on top of a newly created artificial platform, Jerusalem expanded rapidly to support the vast numbers of workers and skilled artisans that flooded into the city. This, though, was just the start. Pilgrims, who before might never have had any desire to make the long and difficult trip to the temple, also...

    • 12 Paul: Jerusalem and Abroad, 37–66 CE
      (pp. 210-223)

      Jesus’s death must have caused quite a stir. Even if the Gospel accounts of his public trial, humiliating parade through the streets of Jerusalem, and slow and painful death on the cross overlooking Jerusalem are greatly exaggerated—as they most likely are—it was still not every day that the Romans executed an apocalyptic prophet. Jerusalem, full of pilgrims who had come for Passover, throbbed with activity. Sensing the heightened anxiety of the Roman troops, people must have asked, “Who was that man? What did he do?”¹

      Whatever answers they received, most would quickly have forgotten him. They packed up,...

    • 13 The Gospels: Judea, 66–100 CE
      (pp. 224-240)

      Paul died just a few years before the outbreak of the revolt in Judea, often called the Jewish War. The revolt against Rome, which began in 66 CE and ended for all practical purposes four years later in 70 CE with the destruction of the Jerusalem temple, reconfigured the religious landscape. For many Jews, it raised uncomfortable practical and theological questions about the continuing relationship between God and Israel. Without a temple and its sacrifices, how could they, as a people, continue to properly serve the God of Israel? Even worse, could the destruction of God’s house mean that God...

    • 14 Early Christians: Rome and Egypt, 100–200 CE
      (pp. 241-256)

      If you were a Christian in the early second century who lived in a relatively isolated, low-profile house church in a city somewhere in the Roman Empire—just an ordinary, middle-class believer with perhaps some basic literacy skills—it might never have occurred to you that the Christian world was full of different, sometimes contradictory texts. Even if that fact somehow came to your attention—maybe a visiting Christian from another community brought with him such a conflicting text—you would probably have taken it in stride. After all, why shouldn’t there be other texts?

      If, however, you were a...

    • 15 The Rabbis: Judea, 100–220 CE
      (pp. 257-275)

      To the inhabitants of Rome in the early second century CE, Judea must have seemed very far away. Three decades after the destruction of the temple there were still, it is true, a few reminders of the Roman conquest of the stubborn province. An inscription at the entrance to the Coliseum reminded the streams of spectators that the emperor Titus had funded its construction from the booty he took from Jerusalem. Small coinage that circulated widely displayed an image of a Roman soldier standing over a mourning woman who personified the defeated province of Judea (fig. 11). Many slaves brought...

  9. Epilogue
    (pp. 276-282)

    In the third century CE, “the Bible” as we know it still did not exist. There was, to our knowledge, no single codex or composition that combined all or most of the writings that comprise either the Jewish Bible (Old Testament) or the New Testament, and all the more so both together. By this time most Jews and Christians considered most of the writings that would become part of our Bible(s) as “holy” and authoritative, in one way or another. It would take another several centuries, though, for the canonical Bible to emerge.

    Christians were the first to develop a...

  10. Chronology
    (pp. 283-286)
  11. Notes
    (pp. 287-306)
  12. Bibliography
    (pp. 307-328)
  13. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 329-330)
  14. General Index
    (pp. 331-344)
  15. Index of Scripture and Other Ancient Sources
    (pp. 345-350)