Bible as Scripture, Bible as Artifact

Hindy Najman on Benjamin Sommer’s Revelation and Authority

Benjamin D. Sommer, Revelation and Authority: Sinai in Jewish Scripture and Tradition, Yale University Press, 2015, 440pp., $50
Benjamin D. Sommer, Revelation and Authority: Sinai in Jewish Scripture and Tradition, Yale University Press, 2015, 440pp., $50
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From the very inception of the discipline of biblical studies, the place of Judaism and Jewish scholars has been unclear. Some scholars, such as Israel Knohl, Michael Fishbane, or Moshe Weinfeld, have written from a Jewish theological standpoint without apology. Others have been far more skeptical, such as Jon Levenson in his position that there is no place for Jews in biblical theology. Yet figures such as Yochanan Muffs and Abraham Joshua Heschel have been important voices in North American biblical and post-biblical Jewish discourses.

There are areas of biblical scholarship which are necessarily differentiated theologically, such as Scripture, Sinai, Messiah, the place of the canon, the authority of interpretation, etc. All of these topics require attentive differentiation across theological boundaries and religious communities. And, yet, we write as scholars and we write for a community of scholars that does not presuppose confessional priority in the academy.

Benjamin Sommer has written one of the most important books as a biblicist and as a scholar of Jewish studies. He has written from a place of theology, religion, and Jewish thought. As his inspiration he has focused on figures such as Franz Rosenzweig and Abraham Joshua Heschel. His account of revelation is deeply engaged with rabbinic and later post-biblical Jewish thinkers such as Moses Maimonides, Moses Mendelssohn, and Emmanuel Levinas. His conversation partners are Jewish theologians and yet his disciplinary heroes are located in the world of academic biblical studies—these include scholars such as S. R. Driver, Moshe Weinfeld, Moshe Greenberg, and Sommer’s own doctoral adviser and teacher, Michael Fishbane.

Sommer writes for people both inside of the guild of biblical studies and outside of it. His book is accessible to lay people and clergy as well as to theologians. But this is a volume which is also perfectly pitched to scholars and students in biblical studies. Revelation and Authority is an essential book for biblical studies in the twenty-first century. Biblical studies as a field is currently at a crossroads. Nineteenth-century biblical criticism is no longer the definitive mode of textual analysis, and there is not yet a clear set of paths in biblical philology and theology. Sommer gestures towards paths not yet taken in the analysis, reception, and interpretation of the Hebrew Bible. Moreover, he raises questions about integrating the two modes of reading the Hebrew Bible: the academic or scientific approach and the theological or religious practice.

Sommer’s account is always a discourse between historically inflected biblical scholarship on the one hand and Jewish theological and religious tradition on the other. He asks, how does Judaism confront the challenge of critical scholarship? And what possibilities exist for reconciling historicism with Jewish faith and belief?

At no point in this very significant volume does Sommer shy away from the big questions or reduce his discourse to apologetics. Sommer is courageous, direct, and transparent about the challenges he is posing to Judaism. His conclusions are bold and articulate as well as humble and open to new contributions. Moreover, he is optimistic about a future for Judaism which continues to be dynamic and open to innovative vitality, fresh interpretation, and an ongoing and ever creative oral tradition of new scripture.

The thesis of the book is essentially that historical critical scholarship can be understood in the larger context of the history of Jewish text production and composition. The human dimensions of Scripture can initially destabilize religious belief and conviction, but ultimately contribute to and deepen the engagement with ancient Jewish scriptures. Scholarship has unearthed the earliest layers of midrash and creative re-interpretation and actualization of the ancient biblical traditions, a process embedded in the Torah’s history of composition itself. Through the redeployment and expansion, refinement and editing, of scripture the scribes and teachers associated with the Deuteronomic (D) and Priestly (P) schools adapted the Jahwist source to their own times and needs. Sommer repeatedly draws analogies between this inner-biblical process and later Jewish interpretative traditions all the way into the twenty-first century.

Revelation and Authority satisfies biblical scholars and students of the Hebrew Bible with intricate and complex engagement with the biblical texts themselves. Sommer’s extensive and detailed discussion of the Sinai pericope, and related traditions about revelation and divine presence, pervade the book. He engages biblical texts both from the perspective of later rabbinic and medieval exegetical traditions as well as deep and careful historical critical reading. Sommer outlines the goals for how to read early in the volume, and he plays fairly by the rules of his own game.

For Sommer, the Hebrew Bible is always both artifact and Scripture. He attempts to show that these conceptions not only undermine each other but also enrich each other. He argues that honestly acknowledging the artifactual side of Scripture can nuance and strengthen religious readings of the Bible. In this way, he can boldly accept and engage historical criticism and at the same time stand as a man of faith in his own tradition, committed and deeply appreciative of the life and transformation of the tradition through later expressions of biblical interpretation.

This much would have been sufficient and would have made this a great book for those engaged in understanding concepts of scripture, practices of reading, and the history of revelation in Jewish tradition. But Sommer does not end his story there. Instead, Sommer takes on the biggest contemporary questions for his own faith tradition (Judaism) and for the practice of reading Scripture as artifact. Sommer interrogates the tradition of scholarship as an insider, just as he challenges from the inside the Jewish tradition and its shying away from historicism.

By the end of the volume Sommer offers a radical and hopeful narrative about legal and theological innovation. For Sommer, the possibilities of vitality and inspiration are ongoing. He offers an account of vitality and a discourse connected to Moses that is deeply indebted to Gershom Scholem and later traditions of Jewish mysticism and philosophy. Thinkers such as Moshe Idel, Elliot Wolfson, and Shaul Magid figure prominently in his narrative as he continues to think through the contributions of Franz Rosenzweig and Martin Buber.

For Sommer, interpretation is isomorphic with translation. The work of scripture is never over insofar as he challenges the so-called dichotomy between oral and written Torah. Sommer argues with great conviction and clarity that while Jewish traditions are written, they are all part of a conversation that is already always oral and conversational. The discourse is not generated by contradiction or rejection, but rather it comes from the inevitable development, interpretation, growth, and vitality of tradition. Ultimately, for Sommer, it is precisely the growth and vitality of revelation and the dynamic of Jewish scripture that needs to be located within the tradition of the Hebrew Bible.

Sinai is not a single event, and the reception of revelation and later textual transformations of the very same narratives that retell the sinaitic, revelatory event are essential to understanding the historical composition, reception, rewriting, and performance of that text. This can occur in the hands of tradents such as rabbis, scholars, theologians, and historians. There is no question that the texts have remained alive and dynamic across the history of the biblical tradition.

Sommer’s volume focuses on the Hebrew Bible and rabbinic reception through the present day, though he attends only peripherally to the precise period of its composition and assembly, especially during the Hellenistic age. Nevertheless, Sommer gestures to that very period as one of tremendous growth and precedent for later rabbinic interpretation—which continues the very work of biblical sources such as P and D in the composition of biblical and extra-biblical traditions. Sommer signals that more can be done to understand the traditions that were not inscribed as normative Torah (e.g., he points out that Maimonides became part of “Torah” whereas Philo of Alexandria did not). But he recognizes the centrality and importance of the contribution of Second Temple literature to the formation of biblical traditions, understanding revelation and authority as dynamic and ever changing concepts in the formation of Jewish tradition.

Revelation and Authority is an essential volume for all those engaged in the study of the Hebrew Bible, biblical interpretation, Jewish thought, and biblical theology. Sommer is to be congratulated on a courageous, honest, and dynamic book. His volume belongs in that very tradition of Scripture and Artifact. It is a well-written and significant volume which will continue to serve as an important voice for those who are grappling with the place of revelation and innovation in religious traditions and biblical theology.

Hindy Najman is Oriel and Laing Professor of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture at Oriel College, University of Oxford.