Marc Brettler

Who’s Afraid of Biblical Scholars? (with apologies to Edward Albee)

I was thrilled to learn of the Hebrew website, launched a few days ago—it will cover a chapter of the Bible five days a week from multiple perspectives. Given the frequent laments about the diminished status of the Bible in Israeli society, I opened this website with much anticipation. It is fun, esthetic, easy to navigate, and very professional, thanks to funding from the Israeli Ministry of Education and other organizations. As the site notes frequently, the Bible is, or at least should be, public property, and I hope that will thrive and continue to explore the Bible from a variety of perspectives and disciplines; after all, the Bible interpreted, has been, and continues to be, the central text of Judaism.

The site is named after the 929 chapters of the Tanach/Hebrew Bible (according to the standard Christian enumeration of the thirteenth century), and each day it provides comments and videos from scholars, public figures, rabbis, and others. It is wide-ranging, discussing the chapters from the perspective of film, art, psychology, and a variety of other disciplines. But strikingly, it hardly employs biblical scholars, who have studied these texts professionally, and know the ancient languages, cultures, and literary conventions that serve to elucidate the Bible in its original context(s). Several Israeli biblical scholars have been invited to lecture at programs sponsored by 929, but that is not sufficient—their perspectives should be an everyday element on a site that claims to move beyond traditional religious views on the Bible and prides itself in highlighting “multiple perspectives.”

Let me use Shakespeare as an analogy—he is widely recognized as the greatest English language dramatist, and we all have been deeply moved by him and have read him in different ways and have something to say about his works. But I could not imagine a Shakespeare website that lacked academic Shakespeare scholars—alongside many others, including public figures, actors, artists, directors, etc., who find him significant. These academic scholars deal with issues such as the best text of Macbeth, the sources of Hamlet, or the constraints of late sixteenth and early seventeenth century theatre on his creativity. Why should the Bible be any different?

These sorts of issues, usually subsumed under the rubric “the historical-critical” or “contextual” perspective, are barely visible on For good reasons, this method continues to be employed by most academic biblical scholars, alongside newer methods. The historical-critical method is not concerned with what the text means now and how it has been interpreted throughout the generations, but with what it likely meant in its original context, and how it came into being.

For the initial chapters of Genesis, for example, this perspective observes that Genesis 1-3 contains two different stories (Genesis 1:1-2:4a; 2:4b-3:24), offering very different perspectives on the nature of the world (well-organized in the first, and more haphazard in the second), God (majestic in the first, and an experimentalist in the second), and gender (created simultaneously in the first, while in the second man is to dominate women [3:16]), issues that are relevant to contemporary Jewish and Israeli society, the current focus of the website. The website says that it is interested in the intersection of the Bible and values, and I hope that it will also use historical-critical methods, which are well suited to uncovering the variety of values in the biblical text, to do so.

I also wish it had incorporated other elements of historical-critical study, for example examining how the Genesis creation stories relate to, and perhaps even incorporate, elements of other ancient Near Eastern stories, entering into a broader conversation about the importance of originality. It could also have also noted, e.g., that the Hebrew text of Genesis 2:2, “On the seventh day God finished the work that He had been doing,” is problematic, for God finished that work on the sixth day, and indeed the Septuagint (the ancient Greek Bible translation) and the Samaritan Torah, among other witnesses, reflect the reading “On the sixth day God finished the work that He had been doing,” which may be more original. This would have introduced readers to the history of the biblical text and the history of the Bible more generally, allowing them to see how they each fit into this rich and complex history.

Do people really care about what the Bible once meant? My experience as a teacher, author and lecturer suggests that many do. I cofounded the English website, which is a Jewishly-sensitive treatment of parashat hashavua (the weekly portion) and other biblical issues from an academic perspective. I am also on the editorial board of, a website prepared by the Society of Biblical Literature, the professional organization of biblical scholars (Professor Athalya Brenner now serves as the first Israeli president of this organization!), with substantial support from the U.S. National Endowment for the Humanities.

That site highlights the historical-critical study of the Bible among other methods. Both and have become very popular sites for English speakers interested in biblical studies. Similarly, books that I have co-edited or have written, such as How to Read the Jewish Bible (also translated into Hebrew) and The Jewish Study Bible, recently released in a second revised edition, have reached many readers who know that the meaning of the Bible has changed, and continues to change—but are nevertheless curious about its likely early or original meaning.

I do not know if the disproportionately low participation by biblical scholars originates with those who organized the website, or if various professional biblical scholars were approached and refused. But the site is only in infancy—it has well over 900 chapters to go. Its “behind the scenes” page mentions the importance of evaluation and feedback—and I hope that it will respond to these comments so that the broader public will be introduced, every day, to how academic biblical studies interprets the Bible. I also hope that will in the future offer more exposure to the historical-critical method of study, which I believe can and should play a significant role in contemporary Jewish and Israeli education.

About the Author
Marc Zvi Brettler is Bernice and Morton Lerner Professor of Jewish Studies in the Department of Religious Studies at Duke University, and the Dora Golding Professor of Biblical Studies emeritus at Brandeis University. He is author of many books and articles, co-editor of The Jewish Study Bible and The Jewish Annotated New Testament, and co-founder of
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