The Secular Bible:
Why Nonbelievers Must Take Religion Seriously
Jacques Berlinerblau is an associate professor at Georgetown University and a contributor to Newsweek's "On Faith" website through a blog entitled "The God Vote."
He is an atheist. Remember this part for later.
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
A Call to Interpretive Arms:
Jacques Berlinerblau opens The Secular Bible with a single assertion, “that indifference to all things religious is no longer a viable option for secularists.” (2) The influence of religious matters on virtually every sphere of public discourse is an easily observable phenomenon: wars are waged in the name of God, the legality of abortion and same sex marriage are fiercely debated, and capital punishment is endorsed or condemned on the basis of sacred texts, to name but a few. In respect to this point, Berlinerblau is undoubtedly correct. His subsequent discussion on the “secular versus religious” dichotomy is equally agreeable. (3) Secularists and religious groups are not simply separate camps set in polar opposition to one another, but rather are points in a broad spectrum of varying degrees and incarnations of belief. He cites the existence of the “secularly religious,” those who fall somewhere between the two extremes — a majority, quite possibly, of the world’s believers. In one swoop, Berlinerblau indicts both secularists and religious laypersons, insisting that the former familiarize themselves with the Bible and the latter look for readings beyond the simplistic (and often erroneous) ones perpetually supplied by religious leaders who aren’t appropriately knowledgeable about the text. He calls, then, for the development of a secular hermeneutics, a method of investigating the text that favors no reading over another, looking frankly and honestly at the realities of an incredibly complex text.
The first third of The Secular Bible concerns itself with the problem of Biblical authorship, addressing ancient, modern, and secular responses. This is key to a rational understanding of the text at large in that the Hebrew Bible claims to contain the literal words, feelings, and opinions of God, a monumental claim that is, astonishingly, taken for granted among believers. The Hebrew Bible, perplexingly, offers little help in this department. In the rare instances where an individual figure is associated with a given document, the text makes no distinction between the acts of creating the ideas of the text and the act of physically transcribing it, two very different activities. (19) In some cases, the text presents itself as having never been written by human hands at all – Moses, for instance, is said to have received the books of the law on stone tablets, a direct gift from God. A classical history of attributing the origins of given texts to monoauthorial creations, whether it be through the efforts of Moses, David, or any other figure, has its roots in Rabbinic interpretation and has persisted into the modern era among fundamentalist exegetes. (24)
Modern responses tend to reject this hypothesis, instead facing a less convenient reality: that the Hebrew Bible is riddled with contradictions, textual repetitions, and unintelligible language. (30-32) Instead, modern exegesis is couched in the documentary hypothesis, which posits a variety of authors, editors, and redactors. The J, E, D, and P sources (and their accompanying myriad of lesser, micromanaged sources) are seen not as individuals but as groups or schools, and Berlinerblau considers even this to be somewhat of a convenient oversimplification (33), claiming that “the writers, editors, and scribes that are conjectured to have participated in the process of creating Hebrew Scriptures are nameless abstractions living across hundreds of years.” (38) The process is too murky, too complex to explain even through the employment of a complex system of interpretation like the documentary hypothesis.
Instead, Berlinerblau makes a general assumption about the nature of the Old Testament: It was composed trans-historically by countless contributors who added to passages and juxtaposed separate texts. The original component texts that these indistinct groups pieced together were created by “an aggregate of persons trained in various scribal arts living in first millennia Palestine.” (45) These people were of varying social classes (though they were likely all men) and trained in varying literary forms. Most importantly, their theology and ideological agendas were as diverse as they texts they helped create. As such, the text “positively teems with meaning,” (47) featuring layer upon layer of often disparate sentiments and messages. Having pointed this out, however, Berlinerblau notes the opposite product of aggregative authorship – that simple explanations of meanings become difficult (or, at times, impossible) to argue, given the text’s logical inconsistencies. He argues simply that “the burden of proof lies on those who believe this to be true, asserting that one who presupposes the truth or coherency of a given Biblical text is practicing theology. (51)
Looking for clear revelations within the text, Berlinerblau argues, is an undertaking “fatally impeded” by the process through which the book as we have it has come to exist:
Superimposition and juxtaposition are the enzymes of authorial intent: they break down any meaning that was meant by the writer or editor, scattering new possibilities (and impossibilities) in their destabilizing wake. (76)
Chapters Six and Seven illustrate this point by tackling two subjects fiercely debated among religious exegetes: Jewish intermarriage and same-sex relations. The Old Testament is far from lacking in prohibitions against marrying outside of the Israelite community, yet a score of notable Biblical figures did precisely that, and to no ill effect. Berlinerblau points to the marriage between Moses and Zipporah, a Midianite, which is criticized by Miriam and Aaron. Rather than taking their side, Yahweh defends the actions of Moses and afflicts Miriam with leprosy. (93) Similarly, Esther and David become involved with non-Israelite love interests. Berlinerblau is not the first to argue that the prohibitions against intermarriage stemmed from the Rabbinic tradition, not the text itself, but he does embrace the idea. Homosexuality is handled similarly, and Berlinerblau turns to the Dutch scholar Pim Pronk to put the problem at hand succinctly: “The function of an appeal to Scripture is to reinforce the position one finds convincing before making that appeal.” (Pronk 324) The verses most often cited as evidence of the Bible’s condemnation of same-sex eroticism are tenuously translated from cryptic Hebrew phrases, allowing for a variety of interpretations. (Berlinerblau specifically addresses the vague phrase “lying downs of a woman” (103) and the words arsenokoites and malakos, the meanings of which are essentially unclear.) (108) As was the case with Jewish intermarriage, even if one accepts the interpretation of a ban against it, one must recognize the possibility of the Old Testament supporting it in practice, if not in theory. Here, we are invited to consider the relationship of David and Jonathan, whose affections for one another are regularly read as homoerotic. (105)
Chapter Eight follows these points with a discussion of Muslim extremism, employing the same basic principles of secular hermeneutics to indict fundamentalists. One can use the Qur'an to support violent, extremist sentiments, but doing so undercuts the complexity of the text at large and seeks to draw from it strikingly simple conclusions that are not so simple to find if one bases their interpretation in a rational understanding of the text.
In as much as his essential points are concerned, The Secular Bible is well argued and easily navigable. An understanding of the nature of Biblical interpretation is of astounding importance in a world so inundated with religious thought, and despite the immense complexity of the problem Berlinerblau has been able to construct a workable, defendable system through which to traverse the precarious territory that is interpretation. While Berlinerblau’s comedic jabs may be problematic at times (which will be discussed later), his energetic writing style does encourage the reader to engage with the text. The Secular Bible is, after all, a text that is quite simply enjoyable to read. Since one of Berlinerblau’s fundamental goals is to involve secularists in Biblical discourse, this should be seen as positive.
Berlinerblau’s litigious assault of the text is not without its own blind spots, however. For one, in laying out his initial foundations for how a secular exegete ought to approach Biblical study, he proposes reading with a “wincing frustration with humanity,” (8) and suggests that the Hebrew Bible be viewed in “heckle mode,” (7) both of which are sentiments expressed through the jabs he makes at his religiously-minded opposition. At points, these irreverent asides were not only an irritation but a betrayal of one of his weaknesses -- that he, too, has his own biases. It is impossible to imagine, in fact, that individuals will not, and an attempt at a completely objective view of a given text seems dangerous if the exegete cannot recognize and account for their own internalized feelings. Part of Berlinerblau’s call for a secular hermeneutics is rooted in the fact that Biblical scholars consistently bring to the table some personal, emotional connection to the book. While he concedes that this is natural and not necessarily unethical, he does suppose that letting these beliefs (or the history of former beliefs) seep into scholarly work is unacceptable. This may be an understandable worry, but it is too narrow in its focus: is Berlinerblau himself not approaching the Hebrew Scriptures from the standpoint of a non-believer?
Ultimately, The Secular Bible calls into question all traditional assumptions about the nature of religion and sacred texts. To its credit, it points a finger not only at religious fundamentalists who disguise disinformation for piety, but also for the secularists who dismiss religious thought without understanding it. If nothing else, the text is a call for a renewed scholarly interest in sacred texts by non-believers who hold them as something less than sacred, illuminating the fact that the Bible is a vast, massively complex aggregate of texts that will never be reduced to slogans on picket-signs or dismissive, too-easy remarks. Approaching a text like that with more respect from both sides of the table is a virtue that society would do well to covet.
Berlinerblau, Jacques. The Secular Bible. Why Nonbelievers Must take Religion Seriously. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
Pronk, Prim. Against Nature? Types of Moral Argumentation Regarding Homosexuality. Trans. John Vriend. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993, pp. 324-325.