Understanding the Bible as a Scripture in History, Culture, and Religion

Standards Information Network (Verlag)
  • 1. Auflage
  • |
  • erschienen am 27. April 2021
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  • 384 Seiten
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978-1-119-73035-4 (ISBN)

The Bible is a popular subject of study and research, yet biblical studies gives little attention to the reason for its popularity: its religious role as a scripture. Understanding the Bible as a Scripture in History, Culture, and Religion integrates the history of the religious interpretation and ritual uses of biblical books into a survey of their rhetoric, composition, and theology in their ancient contexts. Emphasizing insights from comparative studies of different religious scriptures, it combines discussion of the Bible's origins with its cultural history into a coherent understanding of its past and present function as a scripture.

A prominent expert on biblical rhetoric and the ritualization of books, James W. Watts describes how Jews and Christians ritualize the Bible by interpreting it, by expressing it in recitations, music, art, and film, and by venerating the physical scroll and book. The first two sections of the book are organized around the Torah and the Gospels--which have been the focus of Jewish and Christian ritualization of scriptures from ancient to modern times--and treat the history of other biblical books in relation to these two central blocks of the Hebrew Bible and New Testament. In addition to analyzing the semantic contents of all the Bible's books as persuasive rhetoric, Watts describes their ritualization in the iconic and expressive dimensions in the centuries since they began to function as a scripture, as well as in their origins in ancient Judaism and Christianity. The third section on the cultural history and scriptural function of modern bibles concludes by discussing their influence today and the controversies they have fueled about history, science, race, and gender.

Innovative and insightful, Understanding the Bible as a Scripture in History, Culture, and Religion is a groundbreaking introduction to the study of the Bible as a scripture, and an ideal textbook for courses in biblical studies and comparative scripture studies.
1. Auflage
  • Englisch
  • USA
John Wiley & Sons Inc
  • 11,59 MB
978-1-119-73035-4 (9781119730354)
weitere Ausgaben werden ermittelt
Preface 7

Chapter 1: Scripture and Ritual 10

The Three Dimensions of Written Texts 13

Ritualizing Scriptures in Three Dimensions 15

Jewish and Christian Scriptures 18

Manuscripts and Printing 21

Section 1: The Torah as a Scripture 24

Chapter 2: Torah and Pentateuch 25

The Pentateuch in Three Dimensions 26

Scripturalizing Torah in the Time of Ezra 29

Chapter 3: The Torah's Rhetoric 34

The Torah's Rhetoric of Origins 35

Authority, Sanctions, Readers 48

The Rhetoric of the Deuteronomistic History 62

Chapter 4: The Torah's Iconic Dimension 70

The Pentateuch's Iconic Dimension After Ezra 72

The Pentateuch's Iconic Dimension Before Ezra 92

Ancient Lost-and-Found Books 100

Chapter 5: The Torah's Expressive Dimension 105

Reading Torah after Ezra 109

Songs and Poetry in the Hebrew Bible 123

Expressing the Covenant: the Prophets 128

Expressing Torah Before Ezra 130

Chapter 6: The Torah's Semantic Dimension 138

Interpreting Life: Wisdom Literature 138

The Tanak as a Scripture 141

Promises, Threats, and Apocalyptic 146

Scripturalizing Prophets, Psalms and Wisdom 153

Interpreting Scripture: Scribes and Rabbis 160

Identifying with Israel 171

The Pentateuch Before Ezra 180

Section 2: The Gospels as a Scripture 192

Chapter 7: Rhetoric about Jesus 192

Jesus in the Gospels

Paul and his Letters

Chapter 8: The Rhetoric of the Gospels

The Gospel According to Mark

The Gospel According to Matthew

The Gospel According to Luke

The Gospel According to John

Chapter 9: The Gospels' Iconic Dimension

Irenaeus and the Four Gospels

Iconic Gospels and Bibles

Chapter 10: The Gospels' Expressive Dimension

Christian Lectionaries

Singing Christian Scriptures

The Languages of Christian Scriptures

Expert Translators

Portraying Jesus in Visual Art and Media

Chapter 11: The Gospels' Semantic Dimension

Interpreting Jesus's Death

Other Ancient Gospels

Women in the Gospels and Ancient Cultures

The Gospel before the Gospels

Writing Paul's Letters

The Search for the Historical Jesus

Section 3: The Bible as a Scripture 248

Chapter 12: The Bible's Iconic Dimension 248

Publishing Tanaks and Bibles 248

Relic Books 255

Decalogue Tablets 261

Chapter 13: The Bible's Expressive Dimension 264

The Bible in Art 264

Illustrated Bibles 267

Bible Maps 270

The Bible in Theater and Film 272

Chapter 14: The Bible's Semantic Dimension 277

Biblical Law and Authority 277

Modern Controversies about Genesis 288

Chapter 15: The History of the Bible as a Scripture 303

Scripturalization and Canonization 303

Understanding the Bible as a Scripture 304

Cited Works and Further Reading 307


Biblical studies is an ancient and flourishing field. Scholars put great effort into explaining the language, meaning, and history of biblical books down to their tiniest detail. They have done so for more than 2000 years and continue to do so today. The published literature on the Bible is vast, and keeps growing.

Yet little of this research focuses on how the Bible functions as a scripture. Biblical scholarship remains focused on interpretation, that is, on how people have understood the meaning of the Bible's words and utilized them in various ways. Much less research focuses on how people express those words in religious and secular contexts, and even less on how they make use of the physical books of Jewish and Christian scriptures: Torah scrolls, tanaks, gospels, and bibles.1

I think biblical scholars should give more attention to the Bible's function as Jewish and Christian scripture, because that is what attracts people's attention in the first place. Were it not for the Bible's contemporary prestige and influence, the field of biblical studies would be a minor part of the study of ancient Middle Eastern literature rather than a subject of popular and scholarly interest around the world.

Comparing the Bible's scriptural function with the scriptures of other religions reveals similar strategies for using sacred texts across cultures, even when the literary contents and theological meaning of the books differ dramatically. This book therefore positions biblical studies within research on religions generally, rather than just within the study of Judaism and Christianity.2 It illustrates the insights that come from studying the Bible as a scripture in comparison with other religious scriptures, such as the Qur'an, the Vedas, the Bhagavad Gita, the Buddhist sutras, and the Sikhs' Guru Granth Sahib.

This book takes a comparative approach to show that the Bible functions culturally and socially in many ways like scriptures in other religious traditions. I do not discount the importance of theological interpretation of the Bible for Jewish and Christian audiences.3 I simply think that a comparative analysis allows us to understand its influence and function in ways that theological interpretation does not.

This book also demonstrates how research on the Bible's scriptural function can integrate studies of its origins with its cultural history. The results illuminate its contemporary interpretation and ritual function in the academy, in synagogues, in churches, and in the wider culture, as well as its origins in ancient Israel and early Christianity.

This book's innovative approach to teaching about the Bible therefore presents an unusual sequence of topics for an introduction to biblical studies. It introduces readers to the contents of the Bible and also to its material forms and uses. It summarizes the history of liturgical recitations and manipulations of the Bible, as well as the history of its interpretation.

This book is organized around those parts of the Bible that have played the most central roles in the rituals, liturgies, art, and interpretations of Jewish and Christian congregations, namely, the Torah, the Gospels, and the modern pandect Bible. The fact that the nouns, "Torah" and "Gospel," and the adjective, "biblical," still get used not only for books, but also to describe a faithful way of life, points to the centrality of these scriptures in Jewish and Christian religious experience.

My discussion of the iconic, expressive, and semantic dimensions of the Torah and the Gospels starts with their use since becoming scripture before addressing questions about their origins in ancient Israel and in ancient Christianity. This sequence grounds discussion of the Bible's different dimensions in better attested periods of its history. It has the pedagogical advantage of showing readers how congregations have socialized people to focus on the original meaning of the Bible's text, before turning to discussions of those origins.

The arrangement - Torah, Gospels, Bible - includes other biblical literature as well, so this book introduces the entirety of the Jewish and Christian canons. Like the religious traditions but unlike most other surveys of biblical literature, this book describes other biblical literature within the ritual and interpretive contexts of the Torah and the Gospels. So I also discuss the historical (Sections 2.2 and 3.3), prophetic (Sections 5.4 and 6.4.2), wisdom (Sections 6.1, and 6.4.4), and poetic literature (Sections 5.3 and 6.4.3) of the Hebrew Bible and Apocrypha. I survey apocalyptic literature in the context of earlier and later religious projections of the future (Section 6.3), and I also include a brief introduction to Rabbinic Judaism (Section 6.5.2).

The Torah Part is therefore the longest in the book because it includes the entire Hebrew Bible and surveys the history of ancient Israel. Many of these topics are necessary background for the discussion of early Christianity in the next Part as well. Part 2 on the Gospels begins by summarizing the story of Jesus and introduces Paul's letters (Section 7.2) before turning to the rhetoric and ritualization of the Gospels themselves. It includes a brief history of Christian doctrines of the atonement (Section 11.1), and introduces the non-canonical gospels about Jesus (Section 11.2). This book lists the different contents of various biblical canons near the beginning (Section 1.3) and closes with a discussion of canonization and scripturalization.

The arrangement - Torah, Gospels, Bible - also has the pedagogical advantage of saving discussion of many of the Bible's "hot-button" issues to the end. Only after readers have been exposed to the scope of the Bible's contents and its cultural history do they reach modern debates over creation and evolution around Genesis 1-2, race and gender around Genesis 3 and 9, and the influence of biblical law (Chapter 14).

Further discussion of this distinctive approach to teaching biblical studies can be found in my other textbook, Understanding the Pentateuch as a Scripture.4 Both books introduce innovative ways of thinking about biblical literature as well as surveying established conclusions in the field. That combination might seem strange for introductory textbooks. In the field of biblical studies, however, an "introduction" has long served to provide a critical evaluation of the state of the field. It shows how biblical studies should go forward as well as summarizing where the field has been. This book follows in that tradition by demonstrating how the study of the Bible can be re-envisioned from a religious studies perspective on comparative scriptures. It demonstrates that research on the Bible's scriptural function can integrate investigations of its origins with its cultural history and ritual use up to the present day.

I hope this book will be read with interest by people in many different settings. It has, however, been organized with classroom instruction in mind, as a textbook in courses about Jewish and Christian scriptures. I have included many images and quotations of ancient texts for illustration. Key names, phrases, and technical terms are underlined where they are defined or described. Quotations from ancient texts appear in italics to distinguish them from modern commentary. A list of abbreviations for the names of biblical books appears on pp. 21-22. Text boxes define key ideas and give examples referred to in the immediate context. The Table of Contents therefore provides detailed lists of boxes and figures as well as chapter subheadings to aid in constructing a course syllabus. A sample syllabus can be found at https://surface.syr.edu/rel/106/.

The literature on the Bible that this book presupposes is vast. The endnotes cite sources of direct quotations. I have also included references in the endnotes to a very small number of English-language publications where instructors can find more detailed discussions of particular issues and fuller bibliographies. Some of these texts could serve as further reading assignments to supplement the summaries in this book.


  1. 1 In this book, the terms Torah, Tanak, Gospels, and Bible are capitalized when they are used as titles of specific collections of scriptures or to refer to the idealized ideas of scripture in Jewish and Christian communities. Plural nouns that refer to physical books are lower case - torahs, tanaks, gospels, bibles - because they refer to multiple manifestations of scriptures and, in the case of gospels and bibles, may refer to several different collections (see Box 1.4, Sections 10.1, 10.7, 14.2.7, 14.2.8).
  2. 2 This approach was advocated years ago by Wilfred Cantwell Smith, "The Study of Religion and the Study of the Bible," Journal of the American Academy of Religion 39 (1971): 131-140, reprinted in Rethinking Scripture: Essays from a Comparative Perspective (ed. Miriam Levering, Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1989), 18-28. See also his essay, "Scripture as Form and Concept: Their Emergence for the Western World," in Rethinking Scripture, 29-57; and William A . Graham, Beyond the Written Word: Oral Aspects of Scripture in the History of Religion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987).
  3. 3 As exemplified,...

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