Few books elicit as much attention, interpretation, and dispute as the Bible.
Should it be studied as a historical text? A divine revelation? An interesting collection of stories? Whether your answer is all, or none, of the above, the Bible still is worth studying, says Dr. Marc Brettler, who will be Gesher Shalom’s scholar in residence December 1 and 2.
“The Bible is the central Jewish text, and a text that is too often discussed without being read,” Dr. Brettler said. He hopes that his lectures will encourage people to “engage more, understand more, and then go out and read more of the Bible in a serious fashion.”
Dr. Brettler — the Bernice and Morton Lerner Professor of Jewish Studies in the Department of Religious Studies at Duke University and former chair of the Department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University — has taught and written widely on the subject. Given the Bible’s complexity, it is not surprising that A&E produced a television series called “Mysteries of the Bible.” It also is not surprising that Dr. Brettler appeared on that show.
A graduate of Brandeis University who has taught at Brandeis, Yale, Brown, Wellesley, and Middlebury, Dr. Brettler is author or co-editor of “The Jewish Study Bible,” “How to Read the Bible,” “The Jewish Annotated New Testament,” “The Bible and the Believer: How to Read the Bible Critically and Religiously,” “Biblical Hebrew for Students of Modern Israeli Hebrew,” “The Creation of History in Ancient Israel,” and “Reading the Book of Judges.”
In the four lectures he will deliver in Fort Lee, he will explore how the Bible came about, in what sense it is true, and how works such as the Dead Sea scrolls have contributed to our understanding of the text.
Dr. Brettler grew up as a traditional observant Jew in Brooklyn “and the New Testament was not a part of my life, I’m still an observant Jew but I’ve gained an appreciation” of the Christian Bible, he said. Indeed, his first Friday evening lecture is called “How Did a Nice Jewish Boy from Boro Park Come to Co-Edit the Jewish Annotated New Testament?”
“It’s one of the most important sources of Jewish history for the first century of the Common Era,” Dr. Brettler said. “If we want our neighbors to appreciate the Jewish religion, it’s important to appreciate their most central document.” The idea for this book was his — a concept he developed while co-editing “The Jewish Study Bible.” In his view, “It’s important for Jews to have more appreciation for the New Testament and for Christians to understand the New Testament as a Jewish book.” After all, he explained, “Jesus was Jewish and Christianity developed afterwards as a movement within Judaism. It was not in competition.”
Dr. Brettler said his studies have given him a much greater appreciation of the diversity of Jewish practice and belief not just today, but historically. “The academic study of the Bible encourages me to see diversity within the Bible, although it is often seen as monolithic and authoritative,” he said. “Whether in practice or belief, there’s almost no issue concerning which we can say, in one way, ‘The Bible says…’”
Dr. Brettler’s second Friday night lecture, “How Did the Bible Become the Bible,” will explore the idea that “while Jews agree on almost nothing, they all share the same Bible. When we go from one shul to another, we are reading exactly the same text.” In Judaism, that text has three parts — historical, wisdom, and prophetic writings. The Christian Bible “with four parts, has things arranged differently.”
On Saturday morning, Dr. Brettler will tackle perhaps one of the most difficult questions raised about the Bible: Is it true? And, indeed, does that matter? “I’ll talk about different types of truth,” he said, for example, “whether the Bible is historically true. The evidence we have suggests that portions of the Bible are historically accurate while some are not. How do we balance those two findings?”
Does it matter? “It’s very complicated in an era of ‘fake news,’” he said. “It’s fine with me if the Bible is ‘simply’ a teaching tool. Understanding it as a history textbook is fundamentally problematic.” In studying the Bible academically, “I try to be objective to the extent it is possible,” he said, noting once again the complexity of the project. “I realize that there are texts that are problematic. We have to understand the difference between what the Bible meant and what it means.”
Dr. Brettler said that many of the perspectives he has developed in this area can be found on the website TheTorah.com, which he co-founded. It contains both his ideas and those of others. Among the questions addressed there are “how this academic way of understanding the Bible can fit in contemporary Jewish life.” He pointed out that the emphasis in part of the Jewish world on the historical truth of the Bible “was not originally a Jewish interest but has been influenced by Protestants.”
On Saturday afternoon, Dr. Brettler will look at “the implication of archeological discoveries and the decipherment of ancient Near Eastern texts for our understanding of the Bible, and its truth.” Addressing the importance of the Dead Sea Scrolls, he noted that “it really changed our understanding of how the Bible became the Bible,” particularly as relates to what was included and what was left out. “It [also] changed our understanding of the precise wording of the biblical texts — which words were in and which were out. It was also a very important source for how the Bible was interpreted in early times.”
Who: Dr. Marc Brettler
What: Will deliver four lectures about the Bible
When: On December 1 and 2
Where: The JCC of Fort Lee/Congregation Gesher Shalom,
1449 Anderson Ave.
For information: Call (201) 947-1735 or go to geshershalom.org