- Reading the Bible
"i agree that the Bible should be read like any other book. The question is: how does one read other books?" So writes the late Church historian David C. Steinmetz.1 Despite my admiration for Steinmetz, the Bible has never been "read like any other book" even if one thinks that it ought to be. In both Israel and the United States, the two most significant centers of Jewish population since the Holocaust, the Bible stood as a touchstone of national identity even before these nations won their independence. In modern Israel, one scholar has described a straightforward passage of the Bible from national midrash to existential peshat.2 [End Page 557] What had served as an organizing story for the nation from the 1920s through the early decades of the state had become from the 1970s a much more literal mandate for expansion, or, a text of undoubted literary and historical importance, but no longer the embodiment of the national spirit, much less the word of God. In a series of important works, Anita Shapira located the 1950s as pivotal decade in the evolution of the significance of the Bible in Israel.3 Before the state, Ben Gurion shared the Second Aliyah's fondness for the Bible; after the founding of the state, he came increasingly to see the Tanakh as an instrument of nation-building. Despite sharp criticism from a variety of quarters, Ben-Gurion succeeded in foisting his preference for the Bible over Das Kapital on the national psyche.4 While it is odd to begin a review essay with a ten-year-old collection, Shapira's anthology remains untranslated. An English version of The Bible and Israeli Identity would prove a valuable tool for teachers of modern Israel and the role of the Bible in modern times, especially given the pronounced maturation of these fields.
The texts in Shapira's collection bring the story of the Bible in Israel from the early Yishuv to the present. Debates abound surrounding the place and meaning of the Bible in the political, educational, and cultural spheres, but archaeology—as in the hands of Albright and Yadin—had long been seen as a bulwark of historicity. It has, perhaps surprisingly given that heritage, become the spear tip of historical minimalism in the scholarship of a younger and more skeptical generation of archaeologists. Still, a new scholarly consensus concerning the relationship of biblical and archaeological evidence has not emerged. The so-called minimalism of Israel Finkelstein and Ze'ev Herzog differs essentially from that of the minimalists of the Sheffield/Copenhagen circle. The former acknowledge that an ancient Israel actually existed and that the material artifacts say so, if less loudly than the biblical texts. They also believe that biblical Hebrew manifests different developmental layers (in other words, lexical variations are not the product of pious fraud from the Persian or Hellenistic eras as per the Copenhagen school). Both approaches depart from an [End Page 558] uncritical view of the marriage of archaeology and the biblical record, but they are not identical.5
Since the Herzliya Gymnasium controversy (1911–12), the role of the Bible in the Israeli educational system has been consistently debated. Shapira includes Ben Zion Mossinson's and Zalman Epstein's conflicting views, but the final word belonged to Ahad Ha'am (pp. 37–80). The latter rejected the lower critical practice of high schoolers in the Herzliya Gymnasium "correcting" prophetic texts and excluded source criticism from the pages of his influential journal Ha-Shiloaḥ. Yet Ahad Ha'am also called for a Jewish Bible criticism in the opening pages of his collected works and constantly deployed biblical verses, narratives, and characters...