[Paleopsych] Book World: In the Beginning

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In the Beginning

    Reviewed by Mark Oppenheimer
    Sunday, May 22, 2005; BW08

    A History of the Scriptures Through the Ages
    By Jaroslav Pelikan. Viking. 274 pp. $24.95

    The Turning Point in Western History
    By David Klinghoffer. Doubleday, 247 pp. $24.95

    Women in the Bible -- Timeless Stories of Love,
    Lust, and Longing
    By Naomi Harris Rosenblatt. Miramax. 264 pp. $23.95

    Many authors who write about the Bible are so tendentious that their
    books are worthless; other writers are thoughtful and well-meaning but
    nonetheless argue as much from faith as from evidence. Which is why
    any syllabus of religion reading should begin with a book that teaches
    humility, reminding us how difficult it is even for the faithful to
    get at God's words. After all, God is perfect, but translators and
    scribes are not. One such book is Whose Bible Is It ?, a new history
    of how the Bible was written, redacted and translated into its present
    editions, written by the esteemed church historian Jaroslav Pelikan.

    The book is far from perfect, but fortunately Pelikan is at his best
    where most readers will be at their worst: in antiquity. He begins
    with lucid, succinct explanations of the Hebrew Bible's translation
    into its first Greek edition, known as the Septuagint, then into
    Jerome's Latin version, the Vulgate. A fluent reader of Hebrew, Greek
    and Latin (and, for what it's worth, German, Italian, French, Russian,
    Slavonic and Czech), Pelikan is good at unsettling our notions of what
    the Bible really says. By the end of the 4th century, there were
    competing Hebrew, Latin and Greek versions of every major book of the
    Bible, and almost nobody could read them all and compare. Few Greeks
    would know, as Pelikan does, that what they read as "They have pierced
    my hands and feet," a line from the 22nd psalm that Jesus cries on the
    cross in the New Testament, was originally rendered by Hebrew scribes
    as "Like lions [they maul] my hands and feet" -- which, lacking the
    "piercing," seems much less like an Old Testament foreshadowing of the

    But as Pelikan moves beyond antiquity, what promised to be a handy
    history of Bible translations becomes less thorough and more
    eccentric. He spends too little time, for example, on the numerous
    Bible translations published during the Reformation and the
    Renaissance, and he pays almost no attention to the 20th-century
    English versions of the Bible. Many of these are not new translations
    but editions of a standard translation annotated for particular niche
    audiences; the Christian publishing house Zondervan offers, for
    example, a Mom's Devotional Bible , a Recovery Devotional Bible , a
    Sports Devotional Bible and dozens more like them. While Pelikan may
    find these editions tangential to a narrative focused on figures like
    Luther, Gutenberg and Calvin, they are immediately relevant to many
    Christians' experience of the Bible today.

    Pelikan essays some pet scholarly theories, and many readers may not
    realize when he is moving from a recitation of acknowledged fact to an
    assertion of opinion. It is by no means obvious, for example, that the
    Babylonian Talmud -- the systematic compendium of Jewish law and
    teachings completed around the year 600 -- is some sort of analogue to
    the New Testament, just because they are both extensions of the Old
    Testament. This is Pelikan's most original point, one he repeats
    several times -- for example, "According to Judaism, the written Torah
    is made complete and fulfilled in the oral Torah, so that the Talmud
    is in many ways the Jewish counterpart to the New Testament." He is at
    his queerest in noting that New Testament expositor Martin Luther King
    Jr. marched for civil rights alongside a "scion of the Talmud," Rabbi
    Abraham Joshua Heschel -- a great Jewish teacher, to be sure, but not
    known as a Talmudist, except in the sense that all rabbis are "scions
    of the Talmud."

    Pelikan's juxtaposition is appealing -- look at the variety of wonders
    the Old Testament has made possible! -- but ultimately silly. The
    Talmud can be contemptuous of Christianity, and its main purpose is to
    adumbrate rules for living that -- it so happens -- Christians dismiss
    as legalistic, outmoded and unnecessary. Pelikan's commitment to this
    pairing surely derives from his well-meaning ecumenism: He is rightly
    lauded for his promotion of religious tolerance and his opposition to
    anti-Semitism, and this book concludes with a charge to read the Old
    and New Testaments and "to interpret them and reinterpret them over
    and over again -- and ever more studiously to do so together." Whose
    Bible Is It? will surely aid in that project. But it would be a more
    bracing, intellectually gratifying read if Pelikan were a tad less
    earnest -- and if he were franker, with himself and with us, about his

    What Pelikan does for the history of Bible, David Klinghoffer has done
    better for the history of Jews' resistance to Christianity. Why the
    Jews Rejected Jesus is an ambitious survey of a big topic, but
    Klinghoffer's frank conviction lends his material urgency and
    narrative verve; it's fun to read the words of someone so sure that
    he's right. An observant and politically conservative Jew, Klinghoffer
    is not one to wear his learning lightly; his column in the Jewish
    weekly the Forward is by turns smart and annoying, and he is never
    caught in the embarrassing position of giving his opponents the
    benefit of the doubt. But perhaps that makes him the perfect man to
    write a book on a topic so difficult. Given the influence of Mel
    Gibson, the medieval but still lingering "blood libel" that Jews use
    the blood of Christian infants to bake their Passover matzahs, and the
    notorious fraud known as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion that
    purported to expose a sinister Jewish cabal, Klinghoffer has decided
    that the Jews need to re-learn the ancient art of the disputation, the
    debate between Christianity and Judaism.

    Roman emperors used to force Jews to debate Christians in public, as a
    kind of sport. Klinghoffer also takes obvious pleasure in the mere
    unsheathing of his sword, but he has other, more pressing goals. He is
    tired of Jews who don't know their history and so say things like,
    "Jews have never proselytized." He is disappointed in Jews' ignorance
    of their own scripture, which Christians have for millennia twisted to
    what he considers heretical ends. And he is fed up with Jews ("Reform
    Jews," one can almost hear him hiss) ill-equipped to refute the
    apologia of Christian evangelists.

    Klinghoffer is a lively historian, and he's much fairer than his
    right-wing journalism would lead one to expect. His book is at once a
    primer on scripture, a vivid picture of the ancient and medieval
    dialogue between Jews and Christians, and a theological explication of
    why Christians' messianic claims have made so little sense to Jews.
    The most salient reason Jews didn't believe Jesus was the messiah,
    Klinghoffer persuasively argues, is that the Hebrew Bible, in books
    like Ezekiel, makes it quite clear what the reign of the messiah will
    look like -- and Jesus has accomplished nothing of the kind. There has
    been no ingathering of the exiles, no eternal peace, no rebuilding of
    the Temple -- none of the things the messiah was supposed to bring.
    And no interpretive trickery by Christians can get around that fact.

    Klinghoffer's principal appeal is not to the intellect but the gut. He
    has the courage to say what many Jews silently believe: This whole
    Christian thing just doesn't make much sense. It doesn't feel like the
    messiah has come; it's unlikely God would ever become human; and,
    above all, we like our religion and see no good reason to abandon it.
    The book's major weakness, though, is that in summing up all the
    reasons that Jews reject Jesus, Klinghoffer fails to include the most
    important reasons of all: simple and profound faith, emotions like
    loyalty, love, nostalgia and guilt, and cherished cultural traditions
    like Passover Seders and latkes at Hanukkah time. Klinghoffer's
    intellectual pugnacity leads him to miss these far homelier reasons
    that Jews don't choose apostasy.

    And these affective Jews, as we could call them, are the ones most
    likely to enjoy Naomi Harris Rosenblatt's After the Apple .
    Rosenblatt's common-sense explications of Bible stories involving
    women are not meant for scholars or amateur disputationists, but they
    may be just the thing for spiritually curious women (or men) seeking
    role models or inspiration. It's never a bad time to re-visit Sarah's
    jealousy of Hagar, Ruth's loyalty to Naomi or Esther's resourcefulness
    in facing the genocidal Haman. Moreover, Rosenblatt, a
    Washington-based psychotherapist, avidly looks for contemporary
    lessons in these old stories. Although her therapeutic style can rob
    the Bible of its grandeur and mystery -- Sarah is "a role model for
    women . . . fortunate to live more than a third of their lives after
    childbearing age" -- she speaks to a kind of religious person more
    common than the rationalist readers that Pelikan and Klinghoffer seem
    to be after. Rosenblatt writes for people who want comfort and
    guidance from God. She is telling us that the Hebrew Bible is a joy to
    read. She's assuring us of something Pelikan and Klinghoffer surely
    believe but never come right out and say: The reason we translate the
    Bible -- and the reason we fight over it -- is that its wisdom
    persists. ·

    Mark Oppenheimer is the author of "Thirteen and a Day: The Bar and Bat
    Mitzvah Across America."

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