How the Bible Became Holy

How the Bible Became Holy

4.7 3
by Michael L Satlow

See All Formats & Editions

In this startling reinterpretation of biblical history, a leading scholar shows how the Bible became the sacred text it is today


In this startling reinterpretation of biblical history, a leading scholar shows how the Bible became the sacred text it is today

Editorial Reviews

U.S. Catholic - Alice Camille

“[Satlow] writes for the biblically adventurous and curious reader . . . the sheer range of ideas here [is] dazzling.”—Alice Camille, U.S. Catholic
Philadelphia Inquirer - Rathe Miller

“Thorough and impressive.”—Rathe Miller, Philadelphia Inquirer
Los Angeles Review of Books - Timothy Michael Law

“Raises vital questions about one of the most important books in history. . . . [Satlow's] command of the broad outline of ancient history in this region impresses. . . . 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, Los Angeles Review of Books
JWeekly Off the Shelf - Howard Freedman

How the Bible Became Holy traces how Jewish texts in circulation across many centuries in the ancient world came to assume religious authority. Many of [Satlow's] findings were revelatory to me."—Howard Freedman, JWeekly Off the Shelf
Evyatar Marienberg

“Satlow is extremely well-versed in the scholarship and he very innovatively interprets known sources and arranges his interpretations coherently. This is a book that will shake the field.”—Evyatar Marienberg, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Bart D. Ehrman

“Satlow proposes new, interesting, and controversial answers to how and when the Bible received its authority as a ‘holy’ book. Impressive in its scope, daring in its claims, masterful in its scholarship, Satlow’s analysis reaches surprising historical conclusions that will challenge readers about how they understand the Bible—its origin, its character, and above all its status as a sacred collection of books, the ‘authoritative’ canon of Scripture.”—Bart D. Ehrman, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Karen L. King

“Michael Satlow gracefully challenges fundamental assumptions about the nature of Biblical authority in this powerful and important book. Prepare for a fascinating exploration of the changing ways in which Jews and Christians encountered the holy in divine oracles, sacred books, and the people who interpret them.”—Karen L. King, Harvard University
David Wolpe

How the Bible Became Holy is a lucid, learned and elegant guide to the history and ideas that gave us our holy books and changed the world.”—Rabbi David Wolpe, Sinai Temple, author of Why Faith Matters
A.J. Jacobs

“This remarkable book will change the way you think about the Bible.”—A.J. Jacobs, author of The Year of Living Biblically
Library Journal
Satlow (religious & Judaic studies, Brown Univ.; Creating Judaism) breezily charts the development of the Bible's textual authority from Israelite to Christian communities, a process that began in earnest almost 3,000 years ago. The author studies the evolution not only of Judeo-Christian textual cultures but also of the believing communities that were formed as well as informed through the authorization of texts. Satlow starts chronologically with the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Covenant Code (922 BCE) before moving through Hellenistic Judaism and the creation of the Greek Old Testament or Septuagint (roughly 250 BCE) to the beginnings of the closing of the canon for both Jews and Christians (third century CE). He provides a treasury of historical highlights, biblical backstories, and details of textual production as well as a sweeping overview of the struggles within Judaism and Christianity to establish the bases of their own spiritual authority. This far-too-seldom-studied area of biblical history deserves this attention and Satlow's effort does not disappoint. For those wanting more the extensive bibliography points the way. VERDICT Satlow serves as the best sort of tour guide to the history of this book called the Bible.—Sandra Collins, Byzantine Catholic Seminary Lib., Pittsburgh
Kirkus Reviews
Satlow (Religious and Judaic Studies/Brown Univ.; The Gift in Antiquity, 2013) explores the holy writings of the Bible back more than 10,000 years. The author's knowledge and his resources, both literary and archaeological, are vast. He is searching for the evolution of the Scriptures we read now, whether referred to as the Torah, the Bible or the Pentateuch or Septuagint. The question is not so much who wrote them as how they evolved into universal works of authority. Satlow specifically differentiates among normative, oracular and literary authority. These writings developed in Judah, through the Babylonian captivity, the Hellenistic period and into the time of Jesus. What we call the Bible didn't really exist until St. Athanasius of Alexandria contributed his list of the holy books in the A.D. fourth century, and it was the A.D. 11th century before there was a standard Hebrew text. These books are not historical in the truest sense; the legacy of the texts and their interpreters is their power to bring order to our world. The author traces the story of the Middle Eastern people as they jockeyed for power for centuries, always carrying their texts to new locales. The story lives thanks to the scribes, who played the largest part in maintaining, copying and, most importantly, reading the texts to their illiterate populations. Satlow's book is so packed with information that it will appeal most to scholars and those who have spent years studying religious writings. For those who rarely read the Bible and have little knowledge of ancient history, it will be confusing but edifying. In conclusion, the author writes, "[t]his is perhaps the Bible's greatest legacy: the radically implausible notion that one can build a community, a religion, a culture, and even a country around a text." Regardless of the reader's familiarity with the material, the author's expertise cannot be doubted.

Product Details

Yale University Press
Publication date:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
6.20(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.20(d)

Read an Excerpt

How the Bible Became Holy



Copyright © 2014 Michael L. Satlow
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-300-17191-4


The Northern Kingdom: Israel, 922–722 BCE

Reflecting on the fall of the kingdom of Israel in 722 BCE, a historian from the kingdom of Judah could not resist a bit of gloating. The Assyrian conquest of Israel, the historian wrote, "occurred because the people of Israel had sinned against the Lord their God, who had brought them up out of the land of Egypt." They sinned, and despite God's warning to them, "they would not listen but were stubborn, as their ancestors had been, who did not believe in the Lord their God" (2 Kings 17:7, 14). The historian goes on to provide a rich and detailed list of the many ways that Israel sinned against the Lord and thus brought disaster upon itself. "None was left but the tribe of Judah alone," the historian from Judah concluded (v. 18).

This historian, of course, can hardly be trusted to provide an objective or critical account. For the past several centuries, the kingdom of Judah had looked to the far larger, stronger, and richer kingdom of Israel to the north with a combination of fear and envy. Yet not only had Israel fallen, but two decades later Jerusalem had withstood the fierce assault of its conqueror, the Assyrian army. The Lord had vindicated Judah despite the fact, as the historian nervously notes, that "Judah also did not keep the commandments of the Lord their God but walked in the customs that Israel had introduced" (v. 19). Even in the future, should the Lord abandon Judah, too, it would still be Israel's fault.

The Bible as it exists today sees Israel through the triumphalist eyes of Judah. Israel is a place of sin, a caricature important primarily as a moral warning of what happens when you displease the Lord. The story of the Lord's promise to care for the people of Israel takes place in Judah. Because the vast bulk of evidence about ancient Israel derives from the Bible—whose texts have been filtered and worked over from a Judahite perspective—historians who wish to achieve a less biased understanding of the ancient kingdom of Israel face a significant challenge. Over the last few decades, however, these historians have made significant progress by carefully teasing apart the biblical stories; analyzing linguistic clues in our extant texts; conducting linguistic analysis; studying the few ancient inscriptions that mention Israel; and comparing what we know about Israel with other local cultures and communities. They have also, most important, been aided in their task by new archaeological finds. Combined, these approaches allow us to see the basic contours of the history of Israel at this time, even if we must still use a fair bit of speculation to fill in the gaps.

And the picture of Israel that continues to emerge is very different than the one found in the Bible. Israel, not Judah, was the cultural powerhouse and political player. Judah was merely a small speck on the cultural and geopolitical map of the region, a tiny, struggling, and relatively resource-poor kingdom in the Judean hills. It is to Israel, not Judah, to which we need to look in order to understand the origins of the Bible.

Israel was the place that first gave birth to some of the earliest stories and texts found in the Bible, but these texts had little authority. The large and heterogeneous population of Israel developed stories and legends that helped its people to see themselves as part of a single people. Most of these texts and legends, traces of which can be found throughout the Bible, were far from what we would call authoritative or "holy." Nor was written law as important as it would come to be. In Israel, as in Judah and all the surrounding kingdoms, authority and the will of the Lord were not to be found in a text but in the oral pronouncements of elders, priests, and prophets. When lawsuits arose, they were solved not by a judge consulting and applying to a case a set of written legal rules but by a process of negotiation; even the much older famous code of Hammurabi should be thought of less as a modern, authoritative legal code and more as a combination of scribal exercise and set of legal guidelines that elders could use, or not, in resolving disputes. The oracles of prophets were sometimes preserved in written form, but they were used academically, as reference works. A few poems and psalms, some that could have had liturgical purposes, may also have survived the Assyrian destruction, but these would have been "authoritative" only by virtue of their antiquity, and even then mainly as part of a curriculum of study for the highly educated.

Israel was also far more culturally developed than Judah. More important than the actual texts that its refugees would bring to Judah were their skills, technologies, and ideas. These skills would transform Judah, and the scribes and administrators who found a new home in Judah's royal court created the conditions that would allow for the birth of authoritative texts in the seventh century BCE. To understand how this happened we must first go back a step to the beginnings of the kingdom of Israel in, if the Bible is to be trusted, the tenth century.

According to the Bible, the first Israelite monarch was Saul, who reigned in the late eleventh century BCE. Unable to establish a lasting a dynasty, he was usurped by David (ca. 1000–961 BCE). King David united the tribes and established his capital in Jerusalem, where he also purchased the land that would become the site of the central temple. He bequeathed his kingdom to Solomon, one of his many sons, who continued to rule the "United Monarchy" (as many scholars call it) from 961 to 922. Solomon built the temple in Jerusalem and greatly expanded Judah's territory.

The kingdom of Israel emerged after Solomon's death. Solomon was succeeded by his son, Rehoboam, who attempted to hold Solomon's kingdom together by force. Israel, though, revolted and chose another king, a certain Jeroboam, son of Nebat, from the tribe of Ephraim, who had served under Solomon (1 Kings 12). Thus began the two-centuries-long rift between the northern and southern kingdoms.

Such is the biblical account—but is it true? There is precious little evidence outside of the Bible to support it. An inscription found in the Israelite city of Dan dating from around 800 BCE celebrates a victory of a king named Hadad over the kings of "Israel" and "the house of David." The inscription indicates that there was a dynastic line, separate from Israel at that time, that traced its lineage back to a figure named David. Beyond that, however, the inscription does not indicate anything about David or the extent of his power. The evidence for the existence of Solomon is even more tenuous, with the biblical account sometimes in tension with archaeology. Later biblical accounts, for example, describe Solomon's palace as enormous and luxurious (1 Kings 7). The excavations in the "City of David" in Jerusalem, however, have failed to unearth any such structure. Some scholars have thus concluded that neither a United Monarchy nor a king named Solomon ever existed.

Whatever the precise origins of Israel and its connection to Judah, Israel began to emerge as a powerhouse in the mid-ninth century. The Israelites, who had been centered in the hill country of Ephraim, established a capital in Samaria (in lower Galilee). The city was magnificent, and although the fortunes of the kingdom of Israel varied over the next century, the city of Samaria itself remained the prosperous seat of the royal court of Israel. The Israelite palace in Samaria has been located by archaeologists; it is a large and elaborate structure and the many expensive ivory carvings found within it testify to the wealth of Israel's kings (figs. 1 and 2). Samaria was also the residence of many of the local elite, whose estates were located outside of the city and from which they received regular shipments of agricultural goods for their support.

However, it would be misleading to think of Samaria as the seat of a modern-day empire, such as London in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with its wealth and monuments pillaged from its colonies. The "kingdoms" of the ancient Near East, with the exception of the great world powers of the day, Egypt and Assyria, were often little more than cities with a few dependencies. In many cases we might better compare the role and power of these kings to modern-day American mayors, except that they administered far smaller budgets. While such kings were not, of course, democratically elected, they ruled largely by the consent of the city's clans. Their power was dependent on keeping the clans either satisfied with their rule or disorganized enough that they could not agree on an alternative ruler.

The kings of Israel in the ninth and eighth centuries managed to forge a confederation that went somewhat beyond this model. In expanding toward both the north and the Mediterranean coast, the Israelite kings did not conquer existing Canaanite settlements as much as they incorporated them into a single, diverse polity. The nominal seat of power resided with the Israelites in the Samarian highlands, but the functioning and integrity of the kingdom as a whole depended on the support of other peoples in the lowlands. It was a fragile union.

The Israelites established strongholds at important locations throughout the kingdom. Dan and Beit El, on the northern and southern borders, were particularly important royal cities and cultic centers. Hasor (in the north) and Megiddo (in a central location in the Jezreel Valley) too were royal strongholds. They served as strategically important defenses against external threats but also projected in a concrete and visible way the power of the Israelites to this heterogeneous population.

As in most successful political entities, though, soft power played a far more effective role in establishing group identity and cohesion than did the threat of force. Over the course of a little more than a century, the diverse peoples of Israel developed a common historical narrative that knit them into a single polity while at the same time providing an opportunity for them to acknowledge their diversity. Out of the several dialects that they spoke, they forged a common language with which they could communicate with each other. And they came to largely accept the primacy of a single god, whom they called Elohim or YHWH, as the protector of their federation.

More than any other biblical narrative, the story of Jacob and his sons might provide a model of the Israelite strategy of forming a single identity out of a heterogeneous population. While in its present form it has been extensively reworked and edited, its core narrative appears to have been formed in Israel and is, in fact, well suited for the political situation of the ninth to eighth centuries.

According to this story, Jacob—Isaac's son and Abraham's grandson—fathers twelve sons (and one daughter) whose names become equated with the tribes. It is no coincidence that Jacob also acquires the name "Israel." The Bible reports that this renaming occurred after Jacob spent the night wresting a mysterious being. As daybreak came, the man begged to be let go: "But Jacob said, 'I will not let you go, unless you bless me.' So he said to him, 'What is your name?' And he said, 'Jacob.' Then the man said, 'You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans and prevailed'" (Genesis 32:26–28).

From then on in the Bible's narrative, Israel and Jacob are used interchangeably and apparently randomly. The northern (antiestablishment) prophet Hosea also knew of a version of this legend (Hosea 12:4). Rather than being read as a genuine historical account, this legend is best understood as a post facto attempt by Israel to understand its own name, which can be parsed in several different ways. Here it is seen as referring to "one who wrestles" with the god "El." It thus suggests that a united northern kingdom of Israel emerged out of struggle, which again, whether historically accurate or not, was (and remains) a common national narrative.

The story of Jacob's twelve sons, their internal disputes, and their alliances is an etiological one: it is meant to explain the origins of the tribal system operative at the time it was told. Judah and Benjamin were identified with the southern polity of Judah, and the biblical scenes that depict them as groveling before Joseph were most likely meant as a dig at their neighbors (Genesis 44). Joseph receives two tribal shares; there is no tribe of Joseph but instead his sons Ephraim and Manasseh become the tribal ancestors. The legend that elevates Ephraim above his older brother Manasseh (28:13–20) establishes the supremacy of Ephraim, the original Israelites from the hill country. The tribe of Manasseh, whose large territory bordered Ephraim's, was put in the position of near equal. Such a legend could help to placate the tribe of Manasseh if it felt resentment at Ephraim's political supremacy.

The myth of the "children of Israel" served a necessary strategic function. It created a collective imagined community under the direction of Ephraim, the favored descendent of Joseph, Jacob's favorite son. At the same time, it acknowledged differences between the tribes, each of which could, under the myth, have its own distinctive customs. Such a legend, current in some form, helped the members of this confederation to connect to each other. They thought themselves (whether accurately or not) to share blood, which would transcend whatever social and cultural differences they might have.

History in antiquity was about stories, and stories were meant to be told. As with the bards in ancient Greece who recited the poems of Homer, the stories of Israel were performed by professionals, undoubtedly with local variations. Although it is sometimes tempting to see these histories as royal propaganda created and propagated by authorities to justify their own power, these stories—which were constantly being recited and modified in light of the interaction between the bard and his community—are better seen as the fluid creation of a historical memory. It is a memory that could play a very useful role in establishing the community known as Israel.

In addition to a myth of a common past, language too helped to hold together this loose Israelite confederation. The peoples of Israel, like those of most other kingdoms in the region, spoke a Semitic language. The most common vernacular language was Aramaic (which had different forms), but over time kingdoms developed their own distinct dialects or languages. Hence, speakers of one Semitic dialect were often able to recognize some vocabulary and grammatical structures of another. The kingdoms around Israel spoke different forms of what scholars call Northwest Semitic. For instance, Ugarit, a city-state that existed in modern-day Syria beginning around the middle of the second millennium BCE, developed Ugaritic, and Moab (located in modern-day Jordan) spoke Moabite. Ammon (in modern-day Jordan) and Edom (also in Jordan) developed distinctive Northwest Semitic dialects. These languages were all close enough to each other that it would not have been too difficult for their speakers to understand each other.

Hebrew—if we can use the term a little loosely for the moment—was the vernacular language of both Israel and Judah. The very first written evidence of Hebrew is an inscribed limestone tablet known as the Gezer calendar, which dates from the tenth century. This fragment is a partial list of months and the agricultural activities associated with each one. Several scholars believe that it served no practical purpose; according to one, the calendar "has the appearance of a non-scribal learning tool, teaching writing as an entertainment, not an instrument." The Gezer calendar (found in Judah) is written in a script that most think can be called paleo-Hebrew, although it shares close affinities to, and was probably derived from, Phoenician. The Gezer calendar is similar enough to the few other Hebrew inscriptions that date from this time to suggest that the writers of these texts formed a loose craft network, like potters and metal workers.


Excerpted from How the Bible Became Holy by MICHAEL L. SATLOW. Copyright © 2014 Michael L. Satlow. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Michael L. Satlow is Professor of Religious Studies and Judaic Studies at Brown University. He lives in Providence, RI.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Post to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews

How the Bible Became Holy 4.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
FrancescaFB More than 1 year ago
Was it man’s choice that made the Bible holy, or God’s intervention with the writers that made it so? The Bible became an authoritative book because of certain texts which men of authority chose to be included in the Bible. These men and their communities chose which texts were most important, authoritative, and holy, and which were not, however, it relied on the favorites of those communities which it served, and thus these texts became revered. Mr. Satlow explains how these collections of writings by scholarly scribes evolved. They are not meant to be historical evidence of events, but to relay customs and beliefs of their time. I found it extremely enlightening to discover that the ability to read, write, and possess these texts was considered prestigious during this time in history. Although HOW THE BIBLE BECAME HOLY is an impressive scholarly work, I find it somewhat unacceptable that Mr. Satlow would state that Jesus was not knowledgeable about Scripture. He was well educated in the Jewish faith. There is no historical reason or explanation that He was not. I can accept that the disciples, who for the most part were uneducated and illiterate laborers and fishermen, not being knowledgeable regarding scriptural texts, but I cannot support his assertion that Jesus had no education or familiarity with the tenets of the religion he was raised with. Mr. Satlow’s research is indeed impressive; however, he clearly states he has never read the Bible. I find this so odd and difficult to understand that the primary subject of this book, the Holy Bible, was never regarded as worthy of his time and attention. His thoughts and impressions of the Holy Bible would have been a welcomed addition to his epilogue. Another oddity is that Mr. Satlow does not discuss the First Council of Nicaea, a council of Christian bishops and held in 325CE, overseen by Roman Emperor Constantine. One of its responsibilities was to determine which gospels, books, and epistles were to be included in what is now the New Testament of the Bible, thus determining and finalizing their reverence. HOW THE BIBLE BECAME HOLY is an excellent read for those interested in the subject, but it is not as thorough as I had hoped.
WJO More than 1 year ago
This is a groundbreaking work of modern biblical exegesis. Michael Satlow takes us along for the journey as he traces the path through time and geography of the Hebrew Bible's trip from orally transmitted traditions and a sparse collection of texts in the ninth century BCE to the 3rd. and 4th century CE when it and the Christian Canon achieved their current status as Holy Books. Professor Satlow emphasizes the all too human forces sans divine intervention which directed the Bible's path to "holiness"; he writes with muted ironic humor, relaxed assurance and confident authority. What a piece of work!
A_Sloan More than 1 year ago
Interesting and Intellectual In "How the Bible Became Holy", author and religious studies professor Michael Satlow answers what he feels are important questions regarding the Bible. Since recently finished Abraham in History and Tradition, it was a welcome change to discuss how the Bible came to be regarded as an authoritative text follows by millions, rather than analyzing how and why the various stories in the Bible were compiled. This book is not for those interested in light reading, but for those who want to delve into an in-depth examination of how ancient people and communities made the Bible what it is today. Satlow takes readers from 9th century BCE to 3rd century CE and follows how the religious texts that both Jews and Christians regard as holy started out as collections of writing by and for scholarly scribes (not intended to be historical records) and evolved with the spread of knowledge and the desire for intellectual prestige. A particularly interesting tidbit is Satlow's assertion that Jesus himself was unfamiliar with scripture, as were most of his disciples. He claims that the people of the time understood his message, but not his connections to scripture and that this only came about later. (interesting... right?) As a professor of religious studies, Satlow explains in his introduction that his primary sources in writing this book were literary and archaeological, but admits that he has never read the Bible from cover to cover because the "engaging stories come to a screeching halt." It might have added weight to his findings had he taken the time to actually read the Bible, regardless of how extensive the rest of his research was.