The Bible and The Believer: How to Read the Bible Critically and Religiously

An excerpt from the chapter “My Bible: A Jew’s Perspective”


June 3, 2013

Prof.Marc Zvi Brettler


Marc Zvi Brettler


The Bible and The Believer: How to Read the Bible Critically and Religiously

The Bible and the Believer: How to Read the Bible Critically and Religiously
By Marc Zvi Brettler, Peter Enns, and Daniel J. Harrington
(Oxford University Press, 2012)
The following is an excerpt from the the chapter “My Bible: A Jew’s Perspective,” by Marc Brettler.

I find it logical, even compelling, to simultaneously uphold the discoveries of biblical criticism and to live the life of an observant Jew. The Bible itself suggests the validity of biblical criticism, indicating that the Torah came together over time and was only eventually attributed in its entirety to Moses—and thus the Bible, the key Jewish book, supports source criticism. In addition, a careful look at parallel texts in the Bible, such as Samuel-Kings and Chronicles, or Psalms 14 and 53, or 2 Samuel 22 and Psalm 18, illustrates that biblical texts changed over time, and that, inevitably, copying errors crept into the text.[1]

For me, the Bible is a sourcebook that I—within my community—make into a textbook. I do so by selecting, revaluing, and interpreting texts that I call sacred. The Bible is the collection of ancient literature that my community has sanctified. I am selective in using it since I believe that the Bible has come down to us through human hands, and (p. 57 ) that the revelation which it contains has been, to use the term of David Weiss Halivni, (deeply) “maculated” or tarnished. It is difficult to know how it should be restored, and I respect different Jews and Jewish groups who have attempted to reconstruct it in different ways—just as I hope others will respect my reconstruction, which justifies how I lead my Jewish life, based on how I have made this sourcebook, that all Jews share, into my textbook.[2]

There are no easy principles for converting this broad sourcebook, representing the varied voices within the canon, into an authoritative textbook by which a person chooses to live. Different Jewish groups, living at different times and places, have done this in different ways, and it is important for Jews to respect the various ways that this textbook construction has happened. It is crucial, however, to engage in this reworking so that the ethical problems suggested by a literal reading of certain places of the Bible—xenophobia, misogyny, homophobia—are not transferred into the textbook.

There is nothing extraordinary about this move—through its methods of interpretation, rabbinic Judaism has left behind certain biblical texts. For example, the rabbis “abolish” the horrific ḥerem or proscription law of Deuteronomy 7 and 20 by suggesting that we can no longer distinguish Canaanites and their subgroups, who are supposed to be massacred in an act of ethnic cleansing. The rabbis used interpretation to change what they perceived as wrong. The same option is available today.

I would also suggest that self-aware Jewish source-critics might say that a particular law is part of only one of many ancient traditions and should be ignored. I am not proposing that we white-out it away, removing it from the Bible (as the deist Thomas Jefferson did in his famous New Testament), but we can imagine that it is printed in tiny font that can hardly be read and followed. It is important to recognize, and to struggle with, the problematic texts contained in the Bible and not to view each as perfect or suitable. After all, even the prophet Ezekiel acknowledged that the Torah contains “no-good laws” (20:25).[3]

Careful readers of this essay will have noted that I avoided using the terms “critical” Bible study or “biblical-criticism”  or “the biblical critic” more than necessary, and I would urge others to avoid this term (p. 58 ) as well. In the introduction, we explained how this term developed and what it means as a technical term.[4] Yet it carries baggage, and most people incorrectly believe that it suggests criticizing the Bible and what it contains. Instead, this essay, like the essays of my colleagues, tries to show how the methods developed within these approaches may fit constructively with people’s religious beliefs and may even enhance them.

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 of many books and articles, including How to Read the Jewish Bible (also published in Hebrew), co-editor of The Jewish Study Bible and The Jewish Annotated New Testament (with Amy-Jill Levine), and co-author of The Bible and the Believer (with Peter Enns and Daniel J. Harrington), and The Bible With and Without Jesus: How Jews and Christians Read the Same Stories Differently (with Amy-Jill Levine). Brettler is a cofounder of


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