From the cover of “Why the Bible Began: An Alternative History of Scripture and Its Origins”
From the cover of “Why the Bible Began: An Alternative History of Scripture and Its Origins”

‘Why the Bible Began’: New book marvels at the Hebrew Bible’s formation

Attending a Biblical history scholar’s lecture at a Conservative synagogue years ago, I was struck by the attendees’ vocal resistance to insights gleaned from archaeologists over the past decades — some of which cast doubt on the historicity of parts of the Hebrew Bible.

I think this pronounced discomfort with evidence-based Biblical study, at least when it doesn’t confirm the text’s veracity, surfaces not because Jews are religious fundamentalists. Instead, it’s because this feels like a threat to our identity, which is deeply intertwined with our collective narrative. The Bible is the story we tell about ourselves.

I thought of that experience while reading “Why the Bible Began: An Alternative History of Scripture and Its Origins.” This is Jacob Wright’s ambitious presentation of how the Hebrew Bible, which consists of the Torah, Prophets and Writings, came to be and what purposes it served.

Wright, who teaches Hebrew Bible at Emory University, relies heavily on archaeological research in reconstructing the world that created the Bible and freely acknowledges the discrepancies between the Biblical account and the archaeological record. But his response to that disconnect is not the impulse to dismiss portions of the Bible as fiction, but, rather, is a sense of awe at the particular process that resulted in the unique text we have inherited.

Wright is confident that the ancient Israelites, whose existence in the land of Canaan is confirmed as early as 1207 BCE by the inscription of Merneptah, would not initially have conceived of themselves as the descendants of the 12 children of Jacob. Rather, much of what we consider to be our ancestral story, as recorded in Genesis and Exodus, was added later.

Wright observes that “as readers, we follow the biblical story from the evolution of a family to the emergence of two kingdoms. But as historians, we begin with these two kingdoms and work backwards, examining how the biblical writers imagined a common past that long antedates these kingdoms.”

The two kingdoms in question are the Southern Kingdom of Judah and the more populous Northern Kingdom of Israel. In the Biblical account, the two separate nations emerge when a single kingdom gives way to civil war during the reign of King Solomon’s son and successor, Rehoboam. However, Wright questions whether that united kingdom ever existed. Rather, he posits that the Bible’s narrative represents a later effort to consolidate the two separate kingdoms post facto through a shared memory of a golden age of unity under David and Solomon — with the goal of creating a single people.

Wright identifies two narrative strands that were essential to the Bible’s formation. What he calls the “Palace History,” composed in the Southern Kingdom of Judah, dominates the books of Samuel and Kings, extolling David and his descendants as the divinely appointed leaders of Israel, with Jerusalem as the nation’s political and religious center.

Meanwhile, what Wright terms the “People’s History,” attached to the Northern Kingdom, was unconcerned with royalty, focusing instead on the Israelites’ relationship to God. It sought to unify the people not through political formulation, but through a shared family tree and religious code.

It was after the defeats of both kingdoms — the Northern Kingdom at the hands of the Assyrians, and the Southern Kingdom subsequently at the hands of the Babylonians — that Southern scribes wove texts reflecting numerous traditions into a larger unified narrative, albeit one with seams occasionally showing.

It is of great significance to Wright that it was only after both kingdoms had been defeated that the Bible began to take its recognizable form. For Wright, this experience of loss and dislocation was a central impetus for the creation of the Bible, which was shaped from the “vantage point of the vanquished.”

Indeed, the Bible’s final segment, referred to as Ketuvim, or Writings, addresses the defeat and its aftermath directly. Wright pays particular attention to the Book of Lamentations and other texts that offer strategies for persevering in the face of devastation. For example, he highlights how the books of Daniel and Esther specifically address the experience of exile.

If there is a hero in Wright’s version of this history, it is the anonymous scribes, who over centuries formed the texts that would provide a means of sustaining their communities despite losing self-governance and even their own land. The vehicle they developed was at the time revolutionary, since theirs was not a highly literate culture: “In grappling with the consequences of defeat, these thinkers resorted to something no army could conquer: language and the power of the written word.”

We recognize this innovation in the transformative moment, whether real or embellished, captured in the Book of Ezra-Nehemiah, when throngs of people assembled in Jerusalem call upon Ezra the scribe to read aloud for the first time from the Torah scroll he has brought back from Babylon. The sudden centrality of the scroll in the life of the community is a sign of what is to come, as the Jewish experience becomes increasingly defined by our relationship to our written texts, transcending geography and political rule.

Although “Why the Bible Began” is fairly dense with information, Wright’s presentation is clear and pleasantly devoid of academic jargon. And as we reel from current events and attempt to find our own bearings in the present moment, I find a degree of hopefulness in Wright’s understanding of the Bible as an extraordinary act of reinvention in the wake of disaster.

“Why the Bible Began: An Alternative History of Scripture and Its Origins” by Jacob Wright (Cambridge University Press, 300 pages). Wright will give a virtual book talk hosted by the Jewish Community Library at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 28. Free, registration required.

Howard Freedman
Howard Freedman

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library in San Francisco. All books mentioned in his column may be borrowed from the library.