Michael L. SATLOW. How the Bible Became Holy. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014. pp. 320. $35.00 hb. ISBN 978-0-300-17191-4. Reviewed by Alice L. LAFFEY, College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, MA 01610
To answer the question of how the Bible became holy, Satlow traces the history of the people of Israel from the division of the Kingdom (922 BCE) through the failed revolts of the second century CE to the development of Oral Torah. Through most of Israel’s history no one was asking about the holiness or sacredness of texts. In fact, texts were of secondary importance to the message they contained. They were the product of scribes and valued more by an educated elite than by a majority of the people. Their journey to becoming authoritative was slow and their journey to becoming normative/canon was even slower. There was no one magic moment for either Jews or Christians when the texts became canon/sacred. Rather, gradually texts were assumed to be sacred. But while written texts gradually increased in importance, even now believing communities, while claiming the authority, canonicity and sacredness of the written texts, differ as to which specific texts are included.
The book is divided into two parts and includes an Introduction and an Epilogue. The first part traces the Northern Kingdom (Israel, 922-722 BCE BCE); the Writings of Judah (Judah, 722-586 BCE); the Second Commonwealth (Babylonia, Persia, and Yehud, 586-520 BCE); Ezra and the Pentateuch (Persia and Yehud, 520-458 BCE); and Nehemiah to Chronicles (Yehud and Elephantine, 445-350 BCE). The second part, in nine chapters, introduces the Dawn of Hellenism (Judea, 350-175 BCE); the Maccabean Revolt (Judea, 175-135 BCE); the Holy Books (Judea, 135-104 BCE); the Septuagint (Alexandria, Third Century BCE-First Century CE); the Sadducees and the Dead Sea Scrolls (Judea, 104-103 BCE); Jesus and the Synagogue (Judea and Galilee, 4 BCE-30 CE); Paul (Jerusalem and Abroad, 37-66 CE); the Gospels (Judea, 66-100 CE); Early Christians (Rome and Egypt, 100-200 CE); and the Rabbis (Judea, 100-220 CE). If S. were not trying to document the slow evolution of the Jewish and Christian relationships to written texts as sacred, and “the notion that texts and their interpreters have power” which is, he believes, “the real important and enduring legacy of the Bible” (p. 9), the content of the chapters, especially the latter chapters, and S.’s clear and thoughtful presentation, would still be well worth the read.
This reviewer derives from a Christian community and was familiar with the differences among early Christian communities regarding the canon. While Jerome included texts first produced in Greek in his Vulgate (e.g., 1-2 Maccabees, Sirach) he did not consider them canonical. However, other Christian communities of his time did. Because the Rabbis considered dating a criterion for canonicity, for them, Ben Sira and texts produced after it did not “defile the hands,” that is, were not sacred (p. 271). Centuries later when the Reformers no longer regarded the OT texts that had originally been produced in Greek as canonical, there was historical precedent.
Yet despite differences in which texts were sacred and canonical, the written texts did grow in importance as did their interpretations. Interpretation has allowed the written texts to be shaped, re-shaped, and explained within the changing contexts of history.
Satlow began with his own question. Finding the Bible a difficult read, he wondered about its universal and lasting appeal. Probing deeper, he dared to ask how it came to hold the authority that it has, how it “became holy”, and wherein its power lies. The answer he offers, both thoughtful and provocative, challenges and complements traditional assumptions. The volume is valuable, then, on at least three levels. It provides a well-written account of Jewish and early Christian history; a plausible and coherent answer to how the Bible became holy, and a well-argued rationale for the power of the written word.