How the Bible Became Holy

By Michael L. Satlow

Yale University Press. 368 pp. $35

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Reviewed by Rathe Miller

This year's annual Gallup poll on religion finds that about 78 percent of Americans believe the Bible is in some way divine, with 28 percent of them believing it is the actual word of God.

I wonder what those percentages would be if those polled had read Michael Satlow's How the Bible Became Holy.

Not that facts ever got in the way of mystical belief, but learning the latest historical and archaeological evidence showing the very human process by which ancient texts became "sacred" should give at least brief pause to even the truest of believers.

I would wager that the book's title is more a marketing ploy by Yale University Press than the author's choice - it is a misnomer. More accurate would be: How the Texts That Became the Bible Slowly Acquired Authority. Or perhaps: Canonicity Happens.

Starting about 900 B.C., with the tiny kingdoms of Israel in the north and Judah, centered on Jerusalem, in the south, Satlow, a professor of religious and Judaic studies at Brown University, takes us on a 1,200-year journey through the politics, institutions, conquests, and rebellions from which these texts emerged.

The standard narrative, Satlow tells us, is that the books of the Bible were accepted as holy - more or less - at the moment of composition. The laws of the Pentateuch were the state laws of the Kingdom of Judah; the hymns and psalms were held sacred; the early followers of Jesus saw him as the fulfillment of these Holy Scriptures.

This narrative is "intellectually unsatisfying" and "improbably flat," writes Satlow. "The Bible's contradictions, repetitions, strange jumps of logic . . . can be understood as . . . a long process of different people at different times, with different interests, revising, rewriting, and adding to a received collection of texts."

Sacred authority for the texts equaled secular power for those who controlled and interpreted the texts. Satlow's narrative details how the scribes of the seventh and eighth centuries B.C. ramped up the process. Then Jewish rulers such as Josiah, Ezra, and Nehemiah attempted to control the process for their purposes, often while dominated by a parade of conquering powers including Assyria, Babylonia, Persia, and the Greeks. Ironically, not until the influence of Hellenism (350-175 B.C.) and the translation of the Hebrew texts into Greek - the Septuagint - did the texts begin to take on real authority.

Certain texts that were eventually rejected often had the same or more religious authority at the time as the texts that became canon. The centuries-long battle between what we loosely call the Pharisees and the Sadducees is a blood-soaked example of how canonicity depended on the relative power and agendas of religious factions.

For a scholar, Satlow climbs admirably far out on some theoretical limbs, the thinnest of which may be that "Jews and Christians gave to the texts that constitute our Bible, only very limited and specific kinds of authority until well into the 3rd century [A.D.] and beyond."

Even today, there are differences as to what is "sacred." Jews draw the line at the Tanakh, what Christians call "the Old Testament." To Catholics, the books of the Apocrypha (such as Tobit, Baruch, and Daniel) are holy. Few Protestant bibles include them. Books such as Enoch, Jubilees, and the Gospel of Thomas, but for a simple twist of politics, might well have been in the drawer next to your hotel bed.

By virtue of its vast scope, a book like this must be compendious in nature. There are chapters on the Maccabean Revolt, the Septuagint, and the Dead Sea Scrolls - each of which has shelves of works dedicated to it in research libraries. But for what it is - a summary account similar to Simon Schama's recent Story of the Jews - Satlow's book is thorough and impressive. (I give the edge to Schama on his lyrically entertaining writing style; but give the nod to Satlow on the depth of the research where their narratives overlap.)

Satlow's style is reminiscent of New Testament scholar Bart D. Ehrman, author of How Jesus Became God.

Both approach source material - a phrase on an ancient stele or a passage from the Jewish-Roman historian Josephus - as evidence, not proof.

The thousand-year struggle between political entities and sacred authority; how texts gained and lost "holiness" according to how their holiness served those in power; how text itself became empowered in a world where only a tiny fraction of the people were literate - that doesn't sound like a page-turner, but to anyone with an interest in the Bible, sacred or profane, it is.