Biblical Authority: A Jewish Pluralistic View
I am an observant Jew: I pray each weekday morning while donning tefillin (phylacteries), I abstain from work from Friday evening through Saturday night, I do not eat any pork products or mix milk and meat, and a mezuzah adorns each of the doors of my house. I grew up in a traditional Conservative home, and through high school attended an Orthodox Jewish Day school where I learned traditional Jewish texts in their original Hebrew and Aramaic. Jewish observance has always been an important part of my life. I currently am a member of a modern Orthodox synagogue, but do not label myself as Orthodox, especially in terms of belief or opinion (doxa). In many ways, I am post-denominational, as different aspects of various Jewish denominations speak to me. I am not ordained and have never seriously considered ordination.
I began the academic study of biblical texts at age 17, as a first year student at Brandeis University, studying Psalms with Professor Nahum Sarna. It was a deeply enriching, but a somewhat traumatic experience, as I quickly realized that the traditional Jewish ascription of Psalms to David was wrong, that the Torah was not authoritative for the authors of psalms, and that modern philology was often far superior to the insights of the classical rabbis and the medieval exegetes such as Rashi. But by the time the course was over, I was convinced in the validity and conclusions of much of the historical-critical method, and I continued to study that method and ancient near eastern languages and literatures at Brandeis University and the Hebrew University at Jerusalem. As a student, I struggled to understand how I might reconcile the historical-critical method and my Jewish commitments, discussing such issues with friends and co-students; there was very little written on the topic.
My post high school education was not confessional; it differed little from my contemporaries who studied for their PhDs at the Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations Department at Harvard. I encountered biblical theology only when Professor Moshe Goshen-Gottstein taught a course on that subject at Brandeis University, but even there he did not develop his nascent ideas on Jewish biblical theology. My teacher Nahum Sarna mentioned several times that the editors of the standard Hebrew biblical encyclopedia, Encyclopedia Miqra’it, had a great deal of trouble finding biblical scholars to write articles on most theological topics, and often used scholars of later periods of Jewish studies for this purpose. The reluctance of Jewish scholars to engage in such studies has been explained very cogently by Jon Levenson.
I am one of a small number of scholars who have become interested in Jewish biblical theology, and have written and lectured on this topic; I imagine that is why I have been asked to contribute to this volume. My interest in some sense originated when I tried, as a student, to understand how Judaism and the historical-critical method fit together. Over the last fifteen years, outside of my university teaching, I have become involved in educating in totally Jewish environments: I have become involved in educating in totally Jewish environments: teaching adult Jewish education classes, serving as a scholar in residence at synagogues and other Jewish venues, talking about teaching the Bible to Jewish educators, and preaching in synagogues; this has encouraged me to ask how my academic understanding of the Bible intersects with my commitment to enhance the Jewish life of others, and has served as an impetus for me to begin to write on these issues. Co-editing The Jewish Study Bible, and writing How to Read the Bible, which I consider a Jewishly sensitive introduction to the Bible, reflect my commitment to bridging academic scholarship and the Jewish community.
I find the phrase “biblical authority” confusing and foreign—it is not part of my vocabulary either as a practicing Jew or as a biblical scholar who happens to be Jewish. Although I consider myself relatively well read in biblical studies and in religion, I have read very few of the books cited in the seven articles on biblical authority that cover forty double-columns in the Anchor Bible Dictionary, and I find the content of many of these articles as foreign to me as studies of the medieval scientific notions of ether. The opening of Goshen-Gottstein’s essay on “Biblical Authority in Judaism” suggests that my reaction as a Jewish scholar is typical; he observes: “The issue of biblical authority has never been a question which bothered Jews.”
I can venture some guesses on why this is so. Biblical authority is a different problem for Christians than for Jews, because Christian tradition understands the Old Testament plus the New Testament to comprise Scripture, and biblical authority to some extent deals with how these two very different corpora fit together as Bible. There is no problem comparable to this for Judaism: though classical Jewish tradition may speak of the written law (the Hebrew Bible or Tanakh, or often just the Pentateuch or Five Books of Moses) and the oral law (the rabbinic interpretation of the Bible as found in rabbinic literature such as the Mishnah and the Talmud), and view the two as a package, they are not a unity in the same way that the OT + NT is in Christian tradition. They do not comprise a single work, and the oral law is recognized as a type of (subservient) interpretation of the written in a way that is fundamentally different from how the NT is traditionally connected to the OT. In addition, much of the discussion of biblical authority in Christian circles focuses on the role of Jesus as the central figure of Scripture. There is nothing comparable to this core issue in Jewish tradition.
In the final chapter of How to Read the Bible, I discuss issues that fall under the purview of biblical authority. I suggest: “The Bible is a sourcebook that I—within my community—make into a textbook. I do so by selecting, revaluing, and interpreting the texts that I call sacred.” I will clarify this statement by focusing on and expanding upon some of its core phrases, beginning from the end. My ideas should not be generalized to Judaism or even some segment of Judaism—they only reflect the thinking of one observant Jewish biblical scholar.
To my mind, the entire Hebrew Bible is sacred—this is reflected in one of the rabbinic titles for the Bible: kitvei qodesh or “holy writings.” The holiness of the Bible is connected to its canonization, though I am not prepared to say if it was canonized because it was holy, or became holy because it was canonized. But authoritative and holy are not identical ideas: authoritativeness, at least etymologically, is connected to authorship, which to my mind has nothing to do with sanctity. In addition, many Jews will treat the Bible as holy—they will kiss a copy of the Bible that falls to the ground, or will rise when a Torah scroll is raised, but they will not treat the contents of the text as authoritative.
I remain perplexed on whether or not parts of the biblical text are more sacred than others, and what this might mean. Many would consider the Torah more sacred than the other two parts of the Bible, the Prophets and Writings. Jewish law suggests this distinction in various ways: only the Torah is read in its complete form in the synagogue, there are special laws concerning writing the Torah on scrolls, halachic (Jewish legal) decisions are typically only made from the Torah, etc. However, the Prophets and Writings are just as much a part of the tripartite Tanakh or Hebrew Bible, and it is unclear what it might mean to call them “less sacred” Scripture.
Certain post-biblical texts from the classical rabbinic period (the Talmud, and various early midrashic works from the same period) are sacred as well, though they are not on par with the Bible. Movements have developed within Judaism at various times that have rejected the authority of post-biblical Jewish law; Karaism, which continues to have a small number of adherents, is the best-known of these. Part of my being a Jew rather than a Karaite means by definition that rabbinic literature has some type of sacred status for me, albeit a secondary sacred status. But only certain post-biblical books have this status. I conform, by and large, to rabbinic norms rather than the type of norms found in the Dead Sea Scrolls or in the early Jewish pseudepigraphic book of Jubilees. I find the Scrolls and Jubilees fascinating as a scholar, and they help me understand the development of Judaism, but I do not consider them sacred.
In discussing biblical authority, I insist on “interpreting the texts I call sacred.” On one level, these biblical texts must be interpreted just as all literary texts must be interpreted—there is no such thing as the transparent, perfectly clear literary text. But I would go significantly beyond that claim. As a historical-critical scholar, I believe that the Bible is a composite anthology. As a result, diverse, contradictory traditions are often juxtaposed, and this demands that the reader, using tools of interpretation, must find the more original texts, and with this awareness, must also interpret the final highly edited product. Thus, both atomistic and holistic interpretations are important for me. Finally, as a Jew, I am well aware of the rich Jewish legacy of biblical interpretation, a legacy that already began in the biblical period, and continues to this very day. As Simon Rawidowicz observed in his classic essay “On Interpretation,” post-biblical Jewry “has become a people of commentators, all postbiblical Jewish literature being a chain of commentaries on the ‘text’ and commentaries to the commentaries.” There never has been, and likely will never be “the” authoritative Jewish biblical interpretation, and even modern interpretations may be seen as potentially authoritative, following the tradition articulated most clearly in rabbinic literature: “indeed even the comments that some bright student will one day make to his teacher—were already given to Moses on Mount Sinai.” Thus, insisting that the Bible must be interpreted, rather than simply read, is a very Jewish act.
Furthermore, though as a critical Bible scholar I am quite insistent on historical-critical, or better, contextual methods of interpretation, which ask what the Bible meant in its earliest context(s), as a Jew connecting the Bible to my life, I am much more open to using a wide variety of interpretive methods, even when they do violence to the “original” contextual meaning of the text. Here I follow traditional rabbinic interpretation, which was extremely open to a wide variety of interpretations and interpretive methods—almost nothing was seen as beyond the pale.
According to my view of biblical authority, it is within my right to “select” particular biblical texts as more important than others. To paraphrase American jurisprudence, not all texts are created equal. I perform this selection out of an awareness that the Bible is a contradictory anthology, and thus speaks in many voices, and if I want it to be authoritative for me (within my community), I must decide which voice is authoritative. For example, if I am going to celebrate Sukkot, the fall harvest festival, I need to decide if I should “hold the Feast of Booths for seven days” (Deut. 16:13) or if I should append to it “a complete rest on the eighth day” (Lev. 23:39). Similarly, I would have to decide if the prohibition against eating non-slaughtered meat applies only to priests, and as a non-priest I may eat a cow found dead by the side of the road (see Lev. 17:15), or if I must desist from eating all carrion (Deut. 14:21). These texts are to my mind irreconcilable, and along with tens of other examples, offer clear proof of the validity of the documentary hypothesis, the theory that the Torah is a composite document, written by different authors at different times and reflecting different interests. But how can each of these texts be authoritative, given the existence of other contradictory texts?
Let me complicate this issue further: Given that I believe in the documentary hypothesis, how should I treat a law or norm when it is represented only in one strand of the tradition, while the other strands are silent? May I select the silent strand over the explicit law? For example, the prohibition against male homosexual intercourse is found in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, in one of the Torah’s law collections, the Holiness Code or Collection. The two other great Pentateuchal law collections, in Exodus (the Covenant Collection) and Deuteronomy have no such prohibition. Perhaps I can choose their silence over the direct, repeated prohibition in Leviticus? Can the silence of two sources be more authoritative than the prohibition of one?
I also discuss “revaluing” biblical texts. Here I build on the well-known distinction of my former colleague, Krister Stendahl, who distinguished between what a text meant and what it means. Though this notion has been criticized, it remains valuable. Like my approach, it takes seriously the notion that the Bible should have a core role in the religious community. At the same time, however, it acknowledges that the Bible is an ancient text, formed in (and by) a distant community, and thus cannot be seen as timeless in a simplistic fashion.
What do I mean by creating a “textbook” from a “sourcebook”? Sourcebooks are multi-perspectival, and thus offer a suitable image for the Bible as a complex anthology, reflecting different interests, time-periods, geographical settings, classes, and perhaps genders. But it is very hard to give a sourcebook authority, precisely because it is multi-vocal rather than univocal. Thus, I suggest that whether people realize it or not, by ignoring certain passages and highlighting others, they create a textbook Bible out of the sourcebook Bible. Most people don’t do this by explicitly “whiting out” large sections of the text. Instead, they effectively white out passages by treating some as if they were written in a miniscule, impossible to read 3 point font, while others are written in a large 36 point font bold type. Thus, nothing is excised from the sourcebook—it is still all there, since the Bible cannot be changed—but only certain parts are readable, and thus intelligible and truly authoritative.
Let me offer an example of how this is done already in early rabbinic culture. As the historical-critical perspective on the Bible has pointed out, there is a clear contradiction in the Hebrew slave laws between Exod. 21:6 (see also Deut. 15:17), which says that a slave who loves his master may become a slave in perpetuity, and Lev. 25:40, which insists that such slaves are released at the jubilee year. The early rabbinic midrash, the Mekhilta, resolves this contradiction by engaging in “creative philology,” glossing the word “forever” in Exodus with “until the jubilee year.” This method is often characterized as “reconciling” the two texts, but I do not believe that this description is quite correct, for a reconciliation would involve hearing the voices of both texts, and in this case, the voice (of Exodus and Deuteronomy) that says Hebrew slaves may be slaves for perpetuity disappears, and is replaced by the voice that claims that all such slaves or servants are released at the jubilee year. In essence, the word “forever” disappears, but it cannot really disappear, since the rabbis do not literally emend away difficult or contradictory texts. Instead, I am arguing that we should view the word “forever” as a continued part of the text in Exodus and Deuteronomy, but should see it as written in such a small (3 pt) font that it cannot even be read—it virtually disappears.
My statement that “The Bible is a sourcebook that I—within my community—make into a textbook. I do so by selecting, revaluing, and interpreting the texts that I call sacred.” should now be more clear. Within the Bible, some texts are more equal or important than others. Unfortunately, they are not marked as such. For example, in Torah scrolls, Deuteronomy 6:4, “Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone,” a key verse for Judaism, is not printed entirely in a larger or special font or in a special color ink.
The decision of what texts are “more authoritative” than others, and which may be de-selected, or revalued or reinterpreted to mean something fundamentally different, is a complex phenomenon, which has no obvious guidelines. Perhaps within the Bible, Torah texts are more authoritative—after all, the Torah within Judaism is considered first among equals. Possibly the number of times a particular idea is mentioned should be considered. Maybe the number of different authors who mention an idea expresses that idea’s relative importance. Perhaps the number of times a verse is cited in rabbinic literature, or alternatively, in liturgical texts, is of importance. I cannot suggest one clear principle that makes a text more authoritative.
I was asked to conclude with some reflections on the hermeneutical implications of my model. Thus, I will offer some brief observations of the implications of my understanding of biblical authority for how I view and interpret biblical texts as a Jew. I will look at Exodus 20:5 (=Deut 5:9), from the Decalogue. In choosing a text from the Decalogue, and ultimately suggesting that it should not be seen as authoritative, I am being intentionally provocative.
The text reads: “You shall not bow down to them or serve them. For I the LORD your God am an impassioned God, visiting the guilt of the parents upon the children, upon the third and upon the fourth generations of those who reject Me.” I will focus on the vicarious intergenerational punishment that is explicit in this text, where God “visit[s] the guilt of the parents upon the children, upon the third and upon the fourth generations of those who reject [Him].” To what extent should I view this as authoritative biblical doctrine and as an authoritative Jewish idea?
The problem is a quite simple one: elsewhere the Bible disagrees with this doctrine. For example, Deuteronomy 7:9-10, a mere two chapters after that book’s version of the Decalogue, states:
“Know, therefore, that only the LORD your God is God, the steadfast God who keeps His covenant faithfully to the thousandth generation of those who love Him and keep His commandments, but who instantly requites with destruction those who reject Him — never slow with those who reject Him, but requiting them instantly.”
Michael Fishbane has shown that this is an explicit polemic against, a rejection of, Exodus 20:5-6; in Deuteronomy 7, which has many verbal similarities to this section of the Decalogue and is clearly citing it, there is no vicarious intergenerational punishment, and God requites sinners “instantly.” As is well-known, Ezekiel 18, which insists that “the person who sins, only he shall die” (vv. 4, 20) agrees with Deuteronomy 7 rather than the Decalogue.
As an observant Jew who takes both the Bible and the historical-critical method seriously, I see the theological difference between these texts, and perhaps could even to find a historical explanation that explains this difference. I begin to wonder which is more authoritative, or, as I expressed it earlier, which should be in larger font size, and which should be in smaller font size. I would prefer to see Deuteronomy 7 and Ezekiel 18 as the more authoritative texts, in part because they comport better with the God in which I would like to believe, and in part because in post-biblical rabbinic tradition, those texts are, by and large the “winners,” as the idea of personal responsibility “trumped” intergenerational punishment. Thus, I prefer to see Deuteronomy 7 and Ezekiel 18 as correcting the Decalogue, as being more authoritative, as being in a 36 point font.
I mentioned earlier that “interpreting the texts that I call sacred” is one of the methods I use when I create an authoritative textbook from a sourcebook. In this case, I might use such interpretation to make the “simple” meaning of Exodus 20:5 “go away,” just as the rabbis undid the simple meaning of “forever” in Exodus 21 and Deuteronomy 15. I would start by calling attention to the rendition of this verse in the Aramaic Targum Onkelos, the “standard” Aramaic translation of the Bible: “for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, avenging the sins of the fathers upon the rebellious children, upon the third generation and upon the fourth generation of those who hate Me, when the children follow their fathers in sinning.” This understanding is also sanctioned in the commentary of Rashi, the great medieval exegete (1040-1105) and other classical sources. This interpretation, however, is not acceptable in terms of the rules of Hebrew grammar, and is contravened by Exodus 34:7, which reads “. . . but visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations,” without the final words “of those who reject me” found in ch. 20. When I am interested in exploring issues of biblical authority as a Jew, I first use the historical-critical method to see the variety of traditions and beliefs, and using a variety of criteria, find one of these traditions (in this case that of Deuteronomy 9 and Ezekiel 18) more authoritative. One factor in the decision of which text is more authoritative is the manner in which rabbinic interpretation has already made the simple meaning of the intergenerational punishment phrases in the Decalogue disappear. Thus, I use both critical and traditional interpretation to make the judgment that the end of Exod. 20:5 should be writing in a 5 point font.
I noted above that the use or lack of use of a particular biblical text in the Jewish liturgy might influence how authoritatively it should be viewed. Though the Decalogue is no longer part of the Jewish liturgy, the attributes of God found in Exodus 34:6-7 are recited on a variety of occasions, including as part of the Torah reading on public fast days and as part of the penitential prayers (selichot) recited from before Rosh Ha-Shanah through Yom Kippur. However, when these attributes are recited, the section concerning intergenerational punishment is left out. For example, on public fasts, the congregation recites our loud the section about God’s “positive” attributes, but not those concerning vicarious punishment. The reader still recites them—the text cannot be “whited out”—but it is relegated to a secondary role through these liturgical practices, which support the notion that not all biblical texts are equally authoritative.
To summarize: Biblical authority is a foreign term to me as a Jewish biblical interpreter, and I suspect that the manner in which I have developed it is quite foreign from what it means as a technical term in Christian theology. Yet, I believe that those interpreting biblical passages as authoritative within Christian tradition may still benefit from some of these “Jewish” observations, especially on how the historical-critical method may be used in conjunction with other methods in a constructive fashion within the believing community, and how modern biblical scholarship might force believers to make choices both in the texts that we choose to value and in the interpretive methods we choose to adopt.
Several readers of an earlier draft of this essay pointed out that I hardly talk about God, either generally or as a locus of authority. This is not accidental. First of all, I see the main locus of sacredness of the biblical text to be connected to the Jewish community, and not to God. Additionally, though I am a theist, I do not claim to have a good understanding of God and the workings of the divine. Several texts that discuss God or the divine actions as “unfathomable” (Isa. 40:29; Ps. 145:3; Job 5:9; 9:10) resonate deeply with me, and I cannot begin to imagine how God is involved in the revelation of Scripture. Many liberal Jews speak of “divine inspiration” for Torah or for the entire Bible, but I find this concept fuzzy at best.
Other readers may be surprised that I do not view early texts as more authoritative than late biblical texts. In part, along with many biblical scholars, I am no longer sure how to date many texts. More significantly, however, I do not find a direct association between antiquity and authority. To my mind, even texts that are clearly secondary or editorial editions, or from late sources, are sacred. After all, sacredness comes from the community, and the Jewish community does not make value judgments about biblical texts based on scholarly understandings of their antiquity or newness. Furthermore, to the extent that Jews might evaluate biblical texts in relation to rabbinic texts, the later biblical texts, which are more proximate chronologically and more similar to rabbinic texts and norms, might be viewed as more authoritative.
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
May 28, 2013
July 28, 2020
Prof. Marc Zvi Brettler is Bernice & Morton Lerner Distinguished Professor of Judaic Studies at Duke University, and Dora Golding Professor of Biblical Studies (Emeritus) at Brandeis University. He is author, most recently, of How to Read the Jewish Bible (also published in Hebrew), co-editor of The Jewish Study Bible and The Jewish Annotated New Testament, and co-author of The Bible and the Believer. Brettler is cofounder of Project TABS (Torah and Biblical Scholarship) – TheTorah.com.
Essays on Related Topics:
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series