Book of

Surpassing Wonder: The Invention of the Bible and the Talmuds, by Donald Harman Akenson

I grew up in a household both deeply intellectual and deeply spiritual, raised by parents (one Irish Catholic, one Swedish/German Lutheran) who take it as a given that these things can go together. My mother was a charter subscriber to the Anchor Bible, so I basically got the historical-critical approach to reading the Bible with my mother’s milk. But that was never the only approach: it was always assumed that metaphoric, literal, mystical, and all the other angles were there, too.

The modern historical-critical method reveals a huge amount of information about individual parts of the Bible. But Akenson points out in this long, complex, lively book that biblical canon is presented as unified, as a whole, and we should not get so distracted by the trees (and their leaves) that we lose track of the forest.

Akenson starts out by looking at the TaNaKh, the Hebrew Bible. He argues that:

a) Genesis-to-Kings was assembled to be a single narrative

b) the narrative was produced by an editor who lived during the Babylonian Exile

c) this editor’s work established the genre of Biblical Canon, and later works — the rest of the Tanakh, the Christian Bible, the Mishnah and the Talmuds — were written and assembled within this genre, respecting its rules.

Akenson doesn’t put the principles of the Bible genre in a single list, but we can pick them out of his text:

I. Thou Shalt Not Leave Anything Out. The editor works with a collection of texts (oral or written) that are *already* canonical, or at least where someone will complain if you leave a bit out.

One of the easiest places to see this process in action is the story of Noah. The editor was working with two sources (which modern critics call “J” and “P”), which conflicted on issues such as how many of each kind of animal went into the Ark (two? or seven for the clean animals?) and what kind of bird Noah sent out (a dove? or a raven?). He did not feel free to choose between the two accounts where they disagreed, he needed to weave them together into a single narrative that included all of both. This weaving is so seamless that no-one really noticed until the historical-critical scholars got to work on the text.

II. Thou Shalt Not Claim To Be Creative. The more creative you are, the more loudly you must claim to just be following the words of the past. Old is Good, New is Bad, so you must never call attention to the fact that you’re introducing anything new, especially when you are.

III Re-Frame. When you have to include material you don’t like, re-frame it. You can’t leave it out, but you can change the way it’s interpreted, especially the way it’s interpreted by your fellow scholars of canon.

Interesting points along the way:

1. Akenson discusses something that has always puzzled me: why does the Bible include Chronicles, which is largely a re-hash of material in Samuel, Kings, Ezra and Nehemiah? One reason, Akenson argues, is to (re)-emphasize Josiah’s discovery of the Book of the Law (2 Chron 34). This makes it easier to break off the first five books of the Tanakh as the Torah, separate from the largely historical narrative of Joshua-Kings — but breaking up the original narrative unity of Genesis-Kings. It de-politicizes the Hebrew Bible, by elevating the comparatively apolitical Torah above the political and historical material of Joshua-Kings.

2. Akenson’s treatment of the Late Temple period, c. 200 BCE – 70 CE, will strike many readers as novel, though I gather it is the standard up-to-date approach in many ways. He emphasizes how anachronistic it is to call anything from this period “Judaism” in the sense we know it now, because the Temple was *the* crucial and defining property of the religion then. Instead, he calls that religion “Judahism” (this is standard in the academic end of the field) or even “Judahisms”, to stress how great a variety of philosophies and practices fell under the “Jewish” tent, all oriented toward the Temple but burgeoning with variety on every other front.

3. Akenson makes extensive use of an analogy from Stephen J. Gould’s Wonderful Life: he compares the diversity of pre-70 Judahism with the wild variety of life in the Precambrian, which was almost annihilated by the extinction event at the end of that era. The destruction of the Temple, he argues, was like an asteroid impact: unanticipated and unpredictable, leaving only a few survivors, one of which became Rabbinic Judaism, another of which became Christianity.

Frankly, I think this analogy is in many ways ill-chosen. Wonderful Life always bugged me because Gould compared evolution to a VCR tape, which we can in our imagination re-wind and watch again for changes … but of course, the point about a tape is that *it’s the same thing every time*. Now Akenson compares the destruction of the Temple to an asteroid impact, ignoring the fact that it was not actually unpredictable or unprecedented, given past behavior of both Jews and Romans. In addition, Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity were the survivors of Judahism not IMHO by sheer luck, but because they — out of all the teaming diversity of Jewish groups before the Destruction — were the groups pre-adapted to surviving in a world with no Temple.

4. Akenson stresses a fact that is widely-acknowledged in the serious biblical studies community, but is generally not recognized by either Jews or Christians: Temple Judahism had two daughter religions, and Christianity is the elder. The Christian New Testament canon, building on the pre-Destruction works of Paul, was largely written in the century after the Destruction; the Mishnah was written down only c. 200 CE, after the catastrophe of the Bar Kokhba Revolt, which destroyed all hope that the Temple might be re-built. Rabbinic Judaism, like Christianity, is a novel, creative response by the community to the destruction of the center of their religion — though, per the Rules of Biblical Genre, denying its own creativity at every step.

Even for someone who’s read as much Biblical scholarship as I have, Surpassing Wonder is a treat: well-written and even amusing, opinionated but not (very) snide, erudite but not stuffy. I don’t by any means agree with everything Akenson says, but he always makes me think. I especially like the way Akenson treats the Talmuds as part of a single genre with the Hebrew and Christian Bibles and their Apocrypha: founded on the same unstated assumptions, but responding to a different crises and a different culture and so taking on a very different shape. His book is well-centered within the current scholarly interest in “what puts the hyphen in Judeo-Christian”, a counterweight to the conventional platitudes of popular spirituality, which conceal both differences and similarities.

This entry was posted in Long reviews, Reviews and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Terrell Suggs Jersey Ryan Kalil Jersey Alshon Jeffery Jersey Terrance Williams Jersey Virgil Green Jersey Dan Orlovsky Jersey Jordy Nelson Jersey Shane Lechler Jersey