December 13, 1998
Editing the Word of God
A new study of the origins of Scripture and how it has changed.
By ANTHONY J. SALDARINI
Calling the Bible and Talmud ''inventions'' may sound like fighting
words to a religiously sensitive audience, but here the word
''invention'' is a belief-neutral description of the processes that
created the Jewish and Christian foundational classics (the Hebrew
Bible, the Jewish literature of the Second Temple period, the New
Testament, the Mishna and the Talmuds). In ''Surpassing Wonder,'' Donald
Harman Akenson, a professor of Irish history, adopts a Great Books
approach to Jewish and Christian history, viewing it not as ''a
chronicle of events, but a chronicle of successive texts, their constant
invention and reinvention.'' With an imaginative use of metaphors,
analogies, persuasive rhetoric and praise, he pleads with all to read
these religious classics seriously, whether they grant them spiritual
authority or not, because, precisely as splendid intellectual and
spiritual ''inventions,'' they have fascinated readers for generations
and profoundly shaped Western civilization.
To read these complex collections as literary unities Akenson must
simplify. He stresses narrative because ''the most important portions of
the Scriptures are presented as historical documents, and the most
revealing portions of both Hebrew and Christian Scriptures are found in
tightly constructed primary historical narratives.'' He artificially
unites discrete narratives into one by postulating (solely for the
purpose of analysis) a single author for the dominant narrative of the
Hebrew Bible from Genesis to Kings, as well as for the New Testament
Gospels and letters as a whole, the 60-plus legal tractates of the
Mishna and the sprawling, shifting conversations of the Babylonian
Talmud, which include technical discussions of law, charming folk tales,
intriguing interpretations of Scripture and lucid depictions of human
virtue and vice.
Akenson subordinates the sharp and inconvenient particularities and
contradictions of the texts in order to accomplish the ultimate goal of
history and human thought, interpretation of the whole. A moral end
motivates this quest for understanding because ''the acquisition of
significant bodies of knowledge in adult life'' requires an act of
volition and of ''ethical discipline'' that demands the rigors of a
pilgrimage. Thus the religious classics of the West belong to an
intertextual world in which they have been received and transformed by
later generations and stand ready to work their magic again on us.
The Bible has attracted dedicated readers in every generation, and
even in our television culture thousands of Jews have committed
themselves to a seven-year program of reading the whole Babylonian
Talmud. Akenson seeks to attract a larger audience by demonstrating the
intellectual and human worth of the biblical and Talmudic tradition.
However, he fails to provide a sustained and searching critique of the
limitations of these traditional texts and of their misuse throughout
history. He does capture much of the variety and inner strength of the
biblical tradition. The Hebrew Bible was created from pre-existing
traditional materials, which still proclaim their individuality in
language and thought. Subsequent interpretations of it in the Second
Temple period (500 B.C.-A.D. 70), the New Testament and the Rabbinic
periods used the language, symbols, thought patterns and literary forms
from the tradition in new configurations and new systems of thought
while remaining within the same grammar of biblical invention. Akenson
stresses the creative imagination of later authors, but not their
implicit dissatisfaction with the tradition, which begs to be heard.
He does not ignore dissenting voices, for he shows again and again
how later generations radically rewrote Scripture and the rabbinical
tradition even as they claimed to change nothing. He acknowledges the
persistent, irresolvable historical uncertainties that plague
interpretation of these ancient texts, but pushes them aside in favor of
listening to the primary texts ''without engaging any prior theological
or ideological commitments.'' His style and use of striking metaphors
and analogies propel this rich literature into the minds of his readers.
But other voices in the text and in the 20th century demand a more
thorough hearing. The biblical books modify, nuance and limit one
another. Communities of believers who have lived these texts also
provide a gritty commentary that qualifies the great themes of
To the historian I am making a plea for more history in his reading
of the great books. Akenson has consulted major scholars in each field
and uses their work intelligently and shrewdly. He ferrets out shoddy
historical methods and special pleading among biblical theologians and
historians, especially in a delightful 65-page appendix on the
historical Jesus. But through his own hypotheses he binds together
diverse materials at a heavy cost.
The master narrative of the Hebrew Bible, from Genesis to Kings,
provides him with a Magna Carta or Constitution of the tradition. But
the ancient tradition privileged the Torah, or Pentateuch (Genesis
through Deuteronomy), as do Jews today, and modern literary analysis
convincingly demonstrates that Joshua through Kings should be read as a
deuteronomic history, governed by the measure-for-measure theology of
Deuteronomy. Akenson's fiction of a genius who invented his master
narrative during the sixth-century B.C. exile in Babylon is just that.
His narrative trope works even less well for the New Testament and
the Talmuds. Despite his attempts to make sense of the canonical order
of the New Testament books and of the reasons why the Palestinian and
Babylonian Talmuds comment on some Mishna tractates but not others, no
clear narrative structure emerges. Admittedly, the Mishna's formulaic
linguistic worldówith concise laws, lists and crisp disputes over
cases and contradictionsóproduces an intellectual architecture
independent of narrative. But Akenson concedes that the unity of the
Babylonian Talmud is a matter of sensibility, not proof.
Akenson's interpretation of these classics is a promising start for
anyone. He encourages serious, holistic reading by word and example.
Religious believers may be enriched by the exposition of the
''surpassing wonder'' of these human inventions, even if dissatisfied by
the bracketing of some tenets of their respective faiths. Cultural
critics may find an entree into a more mature conversation with some
texts that live on in our culture. Most important, this book will guide
and stimulate ordinary readers to read on.
Anthony J. Saldarini is the author of ''Matthew's Christian-Jewish
Community'' and one of four authors of the Cambridge Bible Companion.