Book of Books Books

The World of Biblical Literature

by Robert Alter
Basic Books, 225 pp., $23.00

Reading the Book: Making the Bible a Timeless Text

by Burton L. Visotzky
Anchor, 240 pp., $12.00 (paper)

The Hebrew Bible is so called because the Greek “ta biblia” means “the books.” These books were written during a period of more than a thousand years, from the thirteenth to the second century BCE (Before the Common Era). The canon of the Hebrew scriptures was established about 100 CE. It consists of three parts, the Torah (the Law), the Nevi’im (Prophets), and the Ketuvim (Writings). In 450 BCE the prophet Ezra read to the people of Israel the Torah, that is, the first five books of the Hebrew scriptures, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. His reading established the primary text for Jews. In the first century CE certain rabbis consolidated the Torah with the Nevi’im (the books of the Prophets, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings) and with the Ketuvim (diverse writings that included the Psalms, Song of Songs, Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, Ruth, Esther, Ezra, Chronicles, and Daniel). These three groups of writings constitute the Hebrew Bible, the Tanakh.

Scholars of the Tanakh claim to be able to distinguish, on the evidence of vocabulary and style, four authors or schools of authors: J, so called because he or she or they used the divine name Jehovah or Jahweh; E, because this writer called God Elohim; D, author or authors of Deuteronomy, and P, Priestly, author or authors of most of Leviticus. In addition to these books there is midrash, the rabbinic practice of commentary, exemplification, narrative interpolation so closely related to the Torah that it can hardly be separated from it. Jews who read the Bible in this spirit and articulate their interpretation of it in detail are engaged in midrash.

Christians refer to the Tanakh, invidiously, as the Old Testament, but their access to it is not to the Hebrew or Masoretic text but to a Greek translation, the Septuagint, made in Alexandria between the third century BCE and about 132 BCE. Translations into Old Latin of the Septuagint and of the Greek of the New Testament were superseded by Saint Jerome’s Latin version in the last decade of the fourth century. Jerome had good Latin and Greek, and he learned enough Hebrew to decide that the Septuagint was unsatisfactory. His Latin translations gradually took hold, despite the fact that Augustine preferred the Septuagint, and they became by the beginning of the eighth century the basis of the Vulgate. The New Testament was established as a gathering of twenty-seven writings: the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, Epistles of Paul, John, and Peter, and the Acts of the Apostles. These circulated not only in Greek and Latin but in Syriac, Arabic, Coptic, Armenian, and many other languages. In 1516 Erasmus produced an edition of the Greek text of the New Testament with a new Latin translation that held the field for centuries. In England it gained enough credence to become the basis of the King James or Authorized Version, translated in 1611, although that version was also much indebted to William Tyndale’s of 1525. Roman Catholics, or…

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