My Review of “How the Bible Became Holy”

Michael J. Kruger

Posted on

December 14, 2015

This past week, my review of Michael Satlow, How the Bible Became Holy (Yale, 2014) appeared in the latest volume of Themelios.

As the title suggests, this is yet another book (in a long list of predecessors) that insists that the idea of an authoritative Scripture is a late invention of Christians.

According to Satlow, the Bible was not originally holy. It became holy. And that didn’t even happen until well into the third century or later.

Although Satlow’s volume covers both OT and NT issues, my review addressed some weaknesses on the NT side of things:

As for the development of the New Testament canon, Satlow provides a brief overview of some of the major players in the second century, including Justin Martyr, Tatian, and Irenaeus (pp. 241–56). Although there is substantial evidence that these individuals held a high view of New Testament writings, one gets the impression that Satlow is trying to minimize this evidence at every turn. For example, when it comes to Justin Martyr, he argues that the Gospels “play a relatively minor role for him” and “didn’t play much of a role in the lives of most ordinary Christians” (p. 250). But, then Satlow just glosses over the major text that shows otherwise, namely Justin’s description of how the Gospels are read in early Christian worship services as Scripture on par with the Old Testament writings (1 Apol. 67.3). Surely this suggests that the Gospels not only possessed a high authority, but that they did play an important role in the life of ordinary Christians.

In order to downplay further the authority of New Testament writings during this time period, Satlow then argues that early Christian scribal cultural was problematic. He makes three claims: (a) Christian manuscripts were “utilitarian” and lack evidence of being written by professional scribes; (b) manuscripts were not written for public recitation; and (c) physical features of manuscripts had no (or very little) importance (pp. 255–256). However, each of these claims is in serious doubt. Graham Stanton has observed, along with many others, that the scribal hand of many early NT manuscripts is quite professional, suggesting the scribes were more well-trained than many suppose. Stanton reaches the opposite conclusion of Satlow when he states, “The oft-repeated claim that the gospels were considered at first to be utilitarian handbooks needs to be modified” (Jesus and Gospel [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press], 206). The argument that the Gospels were not written for public recitation has been taken up by a number of scholars, including Scott Charlesworth who (again) reaches the opposite conclusion of Satlow, arguing that the line spacing and reader’s aids in many gospel manuscripts suggest they were intended for public reading (“Public and Private: Second-and Third-Century Gospel Manuscripts,” in Jewish and Christian Scripture as Artifact and Canon, ed. C. A. Evans and H. D. Zacharias [London: T&T Clark, 2009], 148–175). And as for the physical features of New Testament manuscripts, Satlow is correct that they did not exhibit the elite, high-culture artistic features of some literary texts in the Greco-Roman world. But, that doesn’t mean their visual/physical characteristics played no role. Larry Hurtado has shown that early Christians valued more than the text, but also the visual and material appearance of their manuscripts, particularly as exemplified by the use of the codex, nomina sacra, and the staurogram (The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Origins [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006]).

And here is my conclusion:

In conclusion, Satlow has written an interesting, provocative and wide-ranging volume on the origins of the Old and New Testaments that provides much helpful information on the history of biblical texts. However, Satlow’s aggressive (and sometime speculative) reconstruction often presses the evidence beyond what it can bear. In addition, one gets the impression that Satlow is intent on minimizing the role of Scripture in both Israel and the early church, even when the evidence could be naturally read in the other direction. The broad, narrative style of the book allows him to lay out the standard higher-critical view of biblical origins, but does not provide the sort of documentation of his claims that might persuade those who don’t already share his starting point. Regardless, those in the field of biblical studies, especially those interested in the origins of the canon, will want to read and interact with this volume.

You can read the whole review here.

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