Reaching Across the Great Divide
Archaeology Review September / October 2013
The letters to the editor make clear that many of BAR’s subscribers have a religious connection to the Bible and are curious about how scholarly, historical perspectives may relate to their religious readings and may even enhance their religious beliefs. Religious communities and leaders do not address adequately these issues in a fair and representative, nonpolemical fashion. Within Judaism, for example, the study of rabbinic rather than Biblical literature has become paramount, and many fear the scholarly world and its findings.
At the same time, academic scholars are trained to ignore the religious sensitivities and commitments of their students, who, like many BAR readers, are not interested in the Bible as a “pure” academic text but rather feel that the Bible is, or might be, an important part of their life. Yet many instructors teach the Bible as a dry, arcane, ancient Near Eastern text that has little to offer to contemporary life. Shakespeare may be taught for what he teaches us about being human, but it is taboo to teach the Bible in the same way.
As a result of my engagement with these issues, I have worked on several “popular” books over the past decade (The Jewish Study Bible, The Jewish Annotated New Testament, How to Read the Jewish Bible, The Bible and the Believer). About half a year ago, I received a surprising email from David Steinberg, a rabbi in New Jersey, who expressed his pain about the absence of rabbis and Jewish organizations that publicly acknowledge how modern Biblical scholarship can be integrated into Judaism. As a result, David and I founded Torah and Academic Biblical Scholarship (TABS), with its affiliated website thetorah.com; we use “Torah” in one of its Jewish senses as not just the first five books of the Bible but the entire Hebrew Bible. Not by coincidence, this site went live just before Shavuot (Pentecost), which according to early post-Biblical Jewish tradition commemorates the giving of the Torah to the Israelites at Mt. Sinai. Through our organization, we hope to teach the broader public more about the historical and contextual interpretation of the Bible and to show how the Bible, understood using contemporary academic methods, may enhance religious life.
We aim to attract people who follow the weekly reading cycle of the Torah and read commentaries on the Torah portion. Many such commentaries, homiletical in nature, are available online, but none shows how the insights of modern Biblical scholarship may connect to the modern Jewish believer. We have commissioned weekly divrei torah, brief comments on the weekly Torah portion, from leading academic scholars. In addition, we are collecting and producing material that discusses in broad terms how the academic and religious perspectives are consistent, and how, contrary to what many people believe, academic views of the Bible may further religious insight and observance.
Although the main focus of the website is the Jewish perspective on how scholarly study of the Bible may intersect positively with religion, it is of potential benefit to readers of all religions. As I learned from coauthoring The Bible and the Believer, many of the perceived problems and solutions concerning the Bible and religious belief are shared by Jewish, Protestant and Catholic communities, and we would do well to talk to, and learn from, each other.
Let me offer one example of the intersection between traditional practices and academic insights. I will spend this September 5 and 6 celebrating Rosh Hashanah, literally “the New Year.” As a Biblical scholar, however, I know that this is historically problematic. The Bible suggests that each year began in the spring, as made clear in Exodus 12:2: “This month [Nissan—the early spring month in which Passover falls] shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you.” This is why all the festival calendars in the Bible list Passover first. In fact, Leviticus 23:24, talking about what is later called Rosh Hashanah, reads: “In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe complete rest, a sacred occasion commemorated with loud blasts.” Perhaps even more striking is the very end of Nehemiah 7 (“When the seventh month arrived”) and Nehemiah 8, which detail events that transpired on Rosh Hashanah—but they look nothing like the holiday that I celebrate!
All religions change over time. For me, understanding these changes that reflect the dynamic nature of Judaism—even knowing that I am not commemorating the Jewish new year in the same way as my ancestors—adds to my religious appreciation rather than taking away from it. I see and appreciate what embryonic elements of the Leviticus 23 festival I still observe and how the festival has been transformed over time. And the same is true of ideas that are core to my Judaism: These are enhanced by my understanding, provided by academic Biblical scholarship, of how what I believe now is related to various earlier theologies (note the plural!) found in the Bible. For after all, one of the most important contributions of Biblical scholarship is the idea that the Bible is a multifaceted, multivocal book. Different generations emphasize one Biblical tradition over another, and offer ever-fresh interpretations to this central text. We would all do well to remember this, which explains, in part, why different religions, and different groups within each religion, understand God and what God might expect from us in such different ways.
I am very appreciative that BAR has offered me the opportunity to write this column, thereby recognizing that many of its readers are interested in the religious issues raised by academic Biblical study, including archaeological finds that draw attention to serious questions about the veracity of the Bible as a historical text. I would like to offer some encouragement and resources through this column and the website thetorah.com for the many BAR readers who, like me, believe that scholarly and religious approaches to the Bible may be complementary.
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Professor Marc Zvi Brettler is Bernice & Morton Lerner 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.