How the Bible Became Holy

A review of a new book by Michael L. Satlow, professor of religious studies and Judaic studies at Brown University

Satlow has written an interesting, provocative and wide-ranging volume on the origins of the Old and New Testaments that provides much helpful information on the history of biblical texts. However, Satlow’s aggressive (and sometime speculative) reconstruction often presses the evidence beyond what it can bear. In addition, one gets the impression that Satlow is intent on minimizing the role of Scripture in both Israel and the early church, even when the evidence could be naturally read in the other direction.


In recent years, the subject of the biblical canon has generated a tremendous amount of scholarly interest. Discussions about the biblical text have led to questions about which books (really) belong, and those questions have led to more questions about how those books have become authoritative. The latest foray into this field, How the Bible Became Holy, comes from Michael L. Satlow, professor of religious studies and Judaic studies at Brown University.

Satlow’s volume is designed to challenge what he considers to be the standard paradigm in studies of the canon, namely that “by the Hellenistic period (fourth to fifth centuries BC), almost all Jews knew of most books of the Old Testament . . . and thought them sacred” (p. 2). In contrast, Satlow argues that the biblical canon—both OT and NT—was a late bloomer at best. It did not take shape until the third century AD or later. Even Jesus himself “had a very limited knowledge of Scripture” (p. 6). But, even more important than the date of the canon, Satlow argues that these books were not typically regarded as authoritative by the Jews or the Christians that used them (at least in the normative sense). The essence of Satlow’s argument, therefore, is that the Bible as we know it today—in terms of both its scope and authority—is not what the Bible originally was like. We (Jews and Christians) have made the Bible different than it was intended to be. And this explains the title of his book, How the Bible Became Holy.

Satlow has offered a bold and provocative thesis, and it’s certainly one that will generate much discussion. At the same time, it should be acknowledged that the broad parameters of Satlow’s counter-narrative about the Bible’s origins are not new. A number of critical scholars have sought to portray the canon as a late idea, foisted upon a collection of books written for another purpose (e.g., see David Dungan’s Constantine’s Bible: Politics and the Making of the New Testament [Minneapolis: Fortress, 2006]). Indeed, as Brevard Childs observed many years ago, this approach to canon is fairly typical in higher-critical circles: “It’s assumed by many that the formation of the canon is a late, ecclesiastical activity, external to the biblical literature itself, which was subsequently imposed on the writings” (The New Testament as Canon: An Introduction[Minneapolis: Fortress, 1985], 21).

What is (somewhat) new, however, is the manner in which Satlow approaches this issue.

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