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December 13, 1998

Editing the Word of God
A new study of the origins of Scripture and how it has changed.


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 He stresses narrative because ''the most important portions of the Scriptures are presented as historical documents, and the most revealing portions of both Hebrew and Christian Scriptures are found in tightly constructed primary historical narratives.''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 intellectual history.

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 world–with concise laws, lists and crisp disputes over cases and contradictions–produces 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.

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