The Timely History of a Timeless Story

By Timothy Michael LawJuly 10, 2014

How the Bible Became Holy by Michael L. Satlow

ONE SUMMER DAY in the 1980s, like many a rebellious minister’s kid looking to get a laugh from irreverence, I used my Bible as a skateboard to glide across the carpet at Vacation Bible School. I’ve never forgotten it. My father didn’t have to scold me, and the VBS teacher didn’t have to wait. An offense against the Bible exempted teachers from having to talk to parents before acting. I was yanked by my ear off of the skateboard, upbraided for my profane use of the sacred, and I vowed never again to defile God’s Holy Word.

The title of Michael Satlow’s expansive history suggests that at one time The Good Book was not holy. Theauthority that later Jewish and Christian tradition ascribed to the books that form the Bible transformed them from mere “writings” into the words of God. The modern respect for the physical book, sometimes greater than towards the message it carries, is this process’ legacy.

Satlow is on a quest to find out how textual authority emerged from cultures and peoples who, for centuries, had not a holy book but traditions and practices to guide them. Then, at some point, Jews pledged their allegiance to texts. In his telling, the few writings that existed in ancient Israel were mostly meant as the academic exercises of some literati. In scribal and temple circles they remained so until a political feud made them relevant for the common man, late in the Hellenistic period. Satlow locates the most important moment in the first century BCE, in a power struggle between two Jewish sects, the Sadducees and Pharisees. The former’s insistence on written texts — according to Satlow — eventually won, and the texts henceforth determined how Jews should live. By the second century CE, Jews had decided that a limited number of books possessed such authority and set the others aside. Yet Satlow finds the moment of unanimity on the biblical text only much later in the medieval period.

Early Christians emerged out of Judaism, developed their own writings that presented Jesus as the fulfillment of the Israelite scriptures, and later adherents began to call these texts the “New” Testament. The terminology was necessitated by the Christian appropriation of the Israelite scriptures: since the early followers of Jesus believed they foretold what came in the New, these scriptures naturally attracted the label “Old” Testament. They gained authority incrementally over several centuries, Satlow narrates, until a fourth-century bishop compiled a list with the books Christians should consider holy, which eventually led to an “official” Bible. 


Satlow sees three different types of authority of texts: oracular, literary, and normative. Each played a part in the history of the Bible’s formation. Texts that claim to deliver a message from God have oracular authority. By “literary” authority he means that when later scribes copied and integrated previous texts into new ones, the scribes did not signify that the text has control over its readers, but merely used the earlier text as a literary model. What Satlow’s study is really driving at is the third type of authority, which explains why Jews and Christians became people of the book. Normative authority commands religious followers how to live. (This type of authority is important for us today, too. For example, in modern American political discourse some use the Bible in hopes of dictating national behavior.)

Satlow contends that “for most Jews and Christians in antiquity the Bible had very little normative authority.” As he demonstrates, the “Bible” as a completed book — which is what we think of when we hear the word — did not appear until the Common Era. But the way he frames his statement flattens a much more nuanced picture of scriptural authority in antiquity. It is most certainly the case that parts of what later became the Bible had authority for both Jews and Christians even in antiquity, when the completed book had yet to appear.

Satlow then asserts that “most Jews, particularly in the land of Israel, had only a very fuzzy knowledge of scripture and certainly would not have turned to it for practical guidance” before the first century CE. But what does he mean by “scripture”? And is it different to “Bible”?

As it happens, a “Bible” is a closed book containing scriptures, but “scriptures” can refer to written or oral traditions not bound together in a book. Jews certainly would have turned to these traditions for practical guidance before the Common Era. Where Satlow sees this development much later in Greco-Roman times, others would note that the shift to text-based authority is already apparent from the biblical books of Ezra and Nehemiah. After the end of the monarchy and the Babylonian exile, in the period under Persian rule (sixth to fourth centuries BCE), Ezra reads the Torah publicly. And in both Ezra and Nehemiah, the people are coordinating their lives in obedience to it. There we see a community attempting to forge a new identity in the aftermath of exile. They do so by synthesizing and reworking earlier material. By the end they will have created the Torah, or the Pentateuch. This body of law may not have functioned as an official legal code for Jews, but it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that these scrolls now possessed authority.

Satlow is absolutely right that the penchant to attribute normative authority to texts emerged later in Israel’s history, because in the earliest years only the elite could have had access to, or would have cared about, texts. He simply dates this shift too late. In a quest to pinpoint the moment when adherents viewed texts as authoritative, Satlow overlooks the persistent authority — normative, even — that they attributed to these traditions long before they were enshrined in the Bible. 

In the Hellenistic period, Satlow unpacks the tremendous significance of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which revealed that the books we call “biblical” had earlier and different versions than the ones we know today. Before their discovery (between 1946 and 1956) many had assumed a relatively straightforward line of transmission from the actual writing of the books to their collection in the Bible, but in the Scrolls scholars found texts containing alternative versions of well-known biblical books. To take this point further, the scrolls also proved that those texts we now call “biblical” were read alongside of those we now call “non-biblical,” and some of the “non-biblical” texts were more important than others that we now read in the Bible. Before the Common Era, no one was reading what we now call the Bible. 


It is clear that Satlow intends not merely to synthesize existing scholarship, but to put forward his own bold reconstructions. These are often impressive leaps of imagination that speak to Satlow’s prodigious creativity. Other assertions are impossible to accept. His treatment of one of the Jewish sects is most problematic because it depends on a dubious reading of the sources.

Satlow resurrects the Sadducees and attributes to them substantial influence in the emerging normative authority of scriptural texts. Many will recognize these nebulous characters from the New Testament’s slanted portrayal. Unfortunately, we know too little of them to be as certain as Satlow of their importance. His Sadducees are the Jews who withdrew from Jerusalem to the desert to become the now infamous Qumran community, which left behind for us the Dead Sea Scrolls. Scholars have noted parallels between the ideologies in the Qumran texts and what might be known of the Sadducees from other sources. Yet to identify the Sadducees as the Qumran community is a step few would dare to make. Similarities between texts do not mean their writers came from the same group. But this questionable method recurs as Satlow’s history unfolds.

Some aspects of the Sadducean profile he gathers from Josephus, but in the main his picture is similar to the Sadducees of Abraham Geiger’s 19th century work (though Geiger is not listed in the bibliography). The Sadducees are involved throughout Satlow’s narrative, building up to the first century BCE in which they reach their apex of political power. From around the time of their migration to Qumran — according to Satlow — they appear out of the woodwork any time there is an inkling of appreciation for textual authority. Because writings such as the Temple Scroll, Jubilees, the Testament of Levi, the Animal Apocalypse, Daniel, and 1 Maccabees “all elevate the authority of writing,” Satlow imagines their authors must be somehow related. There is uncertainty in his own claim, however, when he says that the members of this “loose group”, the Sadducees, stood behind all of these writings: “exactly how and to what degree is unclear.” That would seem to me sufficient ground to abandon the theory, but Satlow plows on. 

We know precious little about what the Sadducees thought about textual authority because we know almost nothing about the Sadducees themselves. Not a single Sadducean text survives: all of our information about this Jewish sect comes to us from outsiders and opponents who had one reason or another to discredit them. One of Satlow’s central claims is therefore difficult to accept, since he builds it upon speculation after speculation: since the Sadducees possessed “an ideological commitment to the normative authority of the text,” their political infighting with the Pharisees was a “battle for political power” that would “ultimately lead to the idea that the Bible had far-reaching normative authority.” The Pharisees and Sadducees — and perhaps numerous other groups — certainly opposed one another and probably sought to win adherents. But concluding that the emerging authority of the Bible derived directly from these skirmishes requires a vibrant imagination few readers will possess.


Later in the Common Era, we have to talk not about the authority attributed to various texts, but the final compilation of the Bible as we know it. For the Jewish evidence, the two complete Hebrew and Aramaic Bibles are found in 10th and 11th century manuscripts: the Aleppo and Leningrad codices. Satlow erroneously asserts that “Jews would not come to a final consensus about a standard Hebrew text until the 11th century CE,” because it “was only then that Maimonides … declared that one particular text — that of the Aleppo Codex— was to be considered the standard.” The prominent philosopher Maimonides, born in the 12th century, praised the Aleppo Codex after he used it. Yet as great as Maimonides’s reputation became in Jewish tradition, his comment cannot be read as proof that with him Jews had “come to a final consensus.” And the preservation of these two codices is more accidental than indicative of any grand historical moment. With regard to actual Hebrew manuscripts, there is hardly any variation between the Aleppo and Leningrad codices, and no manuscripts since the first century CE (at the latest) contain any significant divergences. We have, then, irrefutable evidence that long before the 11th century, the text was already fixed. 

From an early date the text was fixed, and the writings doubtless possessed “authority” for early Jews. Jewish writings mention collections of authoritative books, even if the contents are not always specified. The Babylonian Talmud contains a well-known list, and this one probably comes from the second century CE, but most certainly appeared by the sixth. Another source of Jewish teaching edited in the second century, the Mishnah, cites only those books now found in the Hebrew Bible. The authority of the Jewish “Bible” had a strong foothold from an early date.


Satlow devotes much less space to the New Testament, but the brevity is partly due to its less complicated formation. Satlow’s picture of first-century CE Judaism is one whose adherents know very little of the scriptures. Jesus cites scripture in snippets, and is only portrayed once in the Gospel of Luke reading a text. Satlow reasons that Jesus’s knowledge of scripture would have been little better than the ordinary Jew. This is a remarkable claim. 

Given Satlow’s preference for controversial perspectives — such as Jesus's ignorance of scripture and the machinations of politically manipulative Sadducees — it's odd that he misses a genuine opportunity by leaving out the problem of pseudo-epigraphical Pauline writings. Early Christians attributed to Paul other works that he did not write. Later followers added them to the New Testament on the assumption that the famous apostle wrote them. These works of pseudonymous authorship open up questions about how, when, and by whom these books were chosen to become part of the Bible. Even though Christians have read them now for almost two millennia, they first appeared from the pens of imposters. Perhaps most crucially, the inclusion of works with intentionally deceptive claims to authorship raises moral as well as historical questions. 

By the end of the first century CE, followers of Jesus had produced new writings, but even as late as the third century the completecollection we now know as the “New Testament” had yet to appear. In these centuries we know Christian communities used not only the Gospels and Pauline letters that became part of the New Testament, but also other writings. Christians are familiar with the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, but fewer will have heard of the Gospels of Thomas, Peter, and Judas.

Only in later centuries did Christian intellectuals begin issuing “canon” lists — enumerating the authoritative books, by implication excluding those not listed. Scholarly discussions of these lists sometimes assume early Christians adhered to the lists and only treated as scripture those books contained within them. But Satlow rightly counters that these lists were often academic debates of the elites, rather than authoritative statements that guided actual practice. Even long into the medieval period, different scriptural collections are in use in different geographical locations: pragmatic concerns determined use more than bishops and intellectuals

Satlow’s mapping of the development of complete Bibles is useful for readers who may have assumed Jesus walked around with a black leather Bible under his arm. But the focus on the Bible as a text leads Satlow, and his readers, astray. While it is true that our surviving codices of complete Bibles are later than the third century, these are overly formal criteria to judge the measure of authority early Christians attributed to the biblical writings. Satlow’s evaluation also overlooks the importance of artifactual evidence like amulets and inscriptions that date to the early centuries and cite texts later embedded into both the Old and New Testaments.


Satlow’s reconstruction often outruns the evidence and gives in to the temptation to narrate ancient religious history through the lens of political conflicts among the elites. How the Bible Became Holy is nonetheless a book that raises vital questions about one of the most important books in history. Satlow covers a span of history from the ancient Near East to Late Antiquity, and even though the Bible is his central concern, his command of the broad outline of ancient history in this region impresses. He successfully forces us to think about how authority developed and was not intrinsic to the writings that now make up the Bible. To articulate the intricacies of the Bible’s history would overwhelm most historians. It is a complex story, but one that Satlow narrates with bold ingenuity and conviction.


Timothy Michael Law is Alexander von Humboldt Fellow in the Georg-August Universität Göttingen and editor-in-chief of the Marginalia Review of Books.

LARB Contributor

Timothy Michael Law is founder, publisher, and Editor-in-Chief of The Marginalia Review of Books. He is currently an Alexander von Humboldt Fellow in the Georg-August-Universität Göttingen, and from January 2015 he will be Lecturer in the School of Divinity in the University of St. Andrews. He is the author of When God Spoke Greek, reviewed in LARB here, and he is currently at work on a book on King Solomon.


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