This is the second of four posts on reading the Bible [Post 1]. This post reviews how Jewish readers read the Bible, as discussed by Marc Zvi Brettler in the first section of The Bible and the Believer: How to Read the Bible Critically and Religiously (OUP, 2012). Brettler is the Dora Golding Professor of Biblical Studies at Brandeis University and the author of How to Read the Jewish Bible (OUP, 2007).
We Read A Different Bible
Brettler points out that Jewish readers essentially read a different Bible:
For Jews, the Hebrew Bible is the entire Bible — rabbinic tradition does not have the same status for Jews that the New Testament has for Christians. … Additionally, the order of the books of the Hebrew Bible is different from the order of the Old Testament, suggesting different emphases, and the Hebrew Bible canon in the Jewish community is tripartite — Torah, Nevi’im (Prophets …) and Ketuvim (Writings) — thus the acronym TNK, or Tanakh. This differs from the four-part Christian canon (Torah, Historical Books, Wisdom and Poetic Books, Prophets) …. Christian tradition is at best ambivalent toward “the law” (namely the Torah), while the Prophets, which lead into the depiction of Jesus in the New Testament, are considered the central part of the Old Testament. In Jewish tradition, however, the Torah has been understood as primus inter pares, first among equals. … These many differences suggest that when Jews and Christians discuss the Hebrew Bible versus the Old Testament, they are not discussing the same book by another name. (p. 23)
As for the basic question of historical versus religious reading of the text, there are different Jewish views. “Some prefer to compartmentalize scholarly knowledge and religion, simply accepting that the two function on different planes, similar to arguments in science and religion. … Others adopt a more postmodern view and insist that all need not be reconciled; it is natural to possess a ‘messy self.’” Brettler himself prefers “a more synthetic approach” in which “critical-biblical scholarship and traditional Jewish views and practices may be brought together” (p. 22).
Revelation: What Maimonides Said
Moses Maimonides (1135-1204) was an influential Jewish philosopher and theologian. His thirteen principles of faith are still viewed as authoritative by some Jews. Here is his eighth principle, addressing revelation as it pertains to the scriptures:
The Eighth Fundamental Principle is that the Torah came from God. We are to believe that the whole Torah was given us through Moses our Teacher entirely from God … through Moses who acted like a secretary taking dictation …. All came from God, and all are the Torah of God, perfect, pure, holy and true …. Anyone who says that Moses wrote some passages on his own is regarded by our sages as an atheist or the worst kind of heretic …. Every word of the Torah is full of wisdom and wonders for the one who understands it. It is beyond human understanding. (p. 34; ellipses in original)
His ninth principle goes on to declare that “this Torah was precisely transcribed from God” and that “this Torah will never be changed” (p. 25 and 34). Brettler calls these views “highly problematic” and cites both medieval and modern Jewish scholars who take the view that “the biblical text changed over time” (p. 35 and 37). Brettler’s own view: “To deny that God revealed a complete Torah to Moses on Sinai and that it has been perfectly transmitted ever since does not necessarily deny revelation” (p. 37). But how does a modern reader disentangle the divine from the human element, the revelation from the cultural baggage that accompanies it? That remains a tough issue, for Mormons as well as Jews.
Orthodox Jewish views remain close to those of Maimonides, but Conservative and Reform views are more moderate. Here is an 1885 statement from the American Reform movement: “We hold that the modern discoveries of scientific researches in the domain of nature and history are not antagonistic to the doctrines of Judaism, the Bible reflecting the primitive ideas of its own age, and a time clothing its conception of Divine Providence and Justice dealing with man in miraculous narratives” (p. 40-41).
The More Things Change
In a discussion that spans several pages, Brettler gets to the heart of the matter: For a practicing Jew in the era of modern scholarship, what is the authority of the rabbinic tradition? Here is Brettler’s summary of the tradition issue:
As I noted earlier, Judaism is “the evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people.” It began in the biblical period and has been changing ever since. As in the evolution of species, at certain points it changed slowly or not at all, while at others it transformed markedly. Times of stress and destruction, such as the destruction of the First and Second Temples, tended to cause the greatest changes. … The origins of rabbinic Judaism remain obscure, and some questions have no certain answers, such as the connection of post-Second Temple rabbinic Judaism to the Second Temple Pharisees. Nevertheless, it is clear that the development of rabbinic Judaism, whenever we may date it, reflects a period of great change. In fact, Judaism as it is now practiced is much closer to rabbinic Judaism than to its biblical precursor(s). (p. 46)
A Mormon Response
Each of Brettler’s points (and he made several other points in the course of his discussion) invite a response from the Mormon view of the Bible. First, Mormons, too, read a different Bible. Officially we have adopted the KJV, while most other denominations read a more modern translation prepared using updated biblical manuscripts. And we often displace KJV texts with JST texts (Moses instead of Genesis) or other texts produced by Joseph Smith (the Book of Abraham). Second, Mormons share the same spectrum of views on whether scriptural revelation comes word-for-word or as general ideas that get put into particular text by a human author, although most LDS opinion tends toward the conservative end of the spectrum.
Third, like the Jews, Mormons have a religious tradition, although our history is so short we often don’t recognize it as such and rarely use the term. Like Jewish tradition, Mormon religious tradition also changes over time. One can certainly talk about “Mormonism as it is now practiced” and contrast that with how Mormonism was practiced at earlier points in our short history, although some conservative Mormons are likely to flatten out that history of tradition and insist that Mormonism has always been the same. LDS leaders are, in a sense, the guardians of the Mormon religious tradition. Oddly, they seem to have little sense that there is a tradition independent of the scriptural texts or the Church as an institution.
This is evident, for example, in the ongoing discussion of the 1978 priesthood changes. It was clear there was a tradition against ordaining black men (or black men of African descent) to the LDS priesthood, but leaders had difficulty explaining it because there was no written text, no express revelation, to support that practice. And revelation, not tradition, is the lens through which leaders view LDS history and governance. Hence decades of confusion about what the priesthood ban was and how to go about changing it. These simple facts — that the priesthood ban was not based on a revelation, but that it was nevertheless an established practice of the Church — just did not add up for those using standard LDS assumptions. Rather than referring to the ban and the various justifications voiced over the years to support it as “policy” (not “doctrine”) or “folklore” (not “doctrine”) maybe it is better to simply view the ban and those justifications as false tradition that arose within the broader stream of the Mormon religious tradition. The whole episode then becomes an illustration of the presence and power of the Mormon religious tradition and the need to to distinguish false traditions from true ones, or at least false traditions from reasonable, defensible, or useful ones.