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Don’t Let Tradition Shelve the Bible

During my first year of ministry, Chris visited the youth group. He grew up in a Catholic family and had just graduated from CCD, the Catholic catechism class. Chris knew many things about his religion. However, it quickly became apparent he knew little about the Bible.

I wondered, How could a young man spend years learning the doctrines of his faith, even memorizing lengthy catechisms, yet not read the Bible—the alleged source of those doctrines––for himself? And I asked whether my little Baptist church could fall into the same trap. Even those who claim the Bible as the supreme authority can effectively “close the book” by valuing our preferences and traditions over the wisdom within it.

Rebecca Scharbach Wollenberg’s The Closed Book: How the Rabbis Taught the Jews (Not) to Read the Bible challenges typical evangelical views about the formation of the canon and rabbinic hermeneutics. Along the way, she presents an age-old story that resonates with the way some churches––both ancient and modern––have replaced the Bible with tradition. Her portrayal of that shift in another tradition provides a helpful lesson for contemporary believers.

Confused Canon

Evangelicals often talk about the high view of Scripture among Jewish scholars and teachers. But we should recognize that stories about the meticulous preservation of the Masoretic text, for example, come from one significant strand of the broader Jewish tradition. In other strands, Wollenberg argues, rabbinic traditions effectively marginalized the text of the Hebrew Bible.

In this scholarly book, Wollenberg, associate professor of Judaic studies at the University of Michigan, examines oft-neglected rabbinic writings and traditions that appear to evidence a “third Torah.” The “first Torah” is the first five books of the Bible. The second is the more fluid traditions of rabbinic Oral Torah. The “third Torah,” then, refers to “memorized spoken formulas of the biblical tradition” that soon became to many rabbinic authorities a distinct version of biblical revelation (3). This “third Torah” became a kind of living bridge between the written scrolls and the Oral Torah.

Using these memorized spoken formulas—which may or may not accurately reflect the written revelation—rabbis effectively “sidelined and restricted the written text of the Hebrew Bible as a source of communal information” (18). To put it in a way that might sound more familiar to our Reformation-sensitive ears: some rabbis sidelined the written authority of Scripture with a developed tradition carefully controlled by religious authorities.

These rabbis actively discouraged informational reading from the written text by placing restrictions on reading Scripture at certain times and on certain days, and proscribing the circulation of vernacular copies of texts (18). This approach essentially “closed the book,” so the written text became secondary to the traditions of oral recitation and the memorized formulas.

Closing the Book

The Closed Book highlights two major reasons why some sections of Judaism drifted from the central authority of the Torah: (1) they doubted the text and (2) they feared the text.

Wollenberg examines Jewish traditions, demonstrating that some view the Bible as “an imperfect document, ravaged by history, cut off from the divine, and reworked (perhaps even composed anew) by human hands” (28). Certainly, such a view of the text would generate great doubt in its authority. It’d be natural for such a questionable document to be ignored or read as mere literature. Wollenberg’s argument illustrates the reason evangelicals celebrate the truthfulness and integrity of Scripture.

Wollenberg’s argument illustrates the reason evangelicals celebrate the truthfulness and integrity of Scripture.

She notes many rabbinic stories that highlight the dangers of careless handling of Scripture. According to some traditions, “individuals die from simple physical proximity with the copies of the biblical text” because of its sacredness (81). In other cases, Wollenberg argues, “the biblical books themselves [are represented] as the malicious actors” against faithful Jews when they were read by heretics or even Christians (63).

The texts allegedly caused harm to individuals or the broader community when they were misinterpreted. This perceived danger of misreading Scripture led some Jewish authorities to “close the book” to their communities. Though the people were protected from danger, they were required to rely on an alternative source for spiritual direction (i.e., the memorized sayings of the rabbinical authorities).

Contemporary Danger

The way we view the canon of Scripture directly affects what we do with the Bible. Even if there are inherent dangers to reading Scripture (such as a higher degree of accountability and a more intimate knowledge of our sin; Rom. 3:20), it’s through the words of the Bible that we find life and relationship with God (Ps. 119:116).

The postexilic community of believers immediately began applying the written Torah to their new lives, adapting it in application and through principle rather than changing the actual text of Scripture (e.g., Ezra 3:1–4). According to Scripture, it was the law that Ezra was skilled at and studied, which is a model for contemporary believers to emulate (7:10).

Today, few evangelicals would admit we “close the book” because we fear it. Yet some evangelical circles seem to treat the Bible as if only the “experts” can interpret it correctly. Church leaders need to correct errant interpretations when they arise (Titus 1:9), but we must be careful that this draws people deeper into Scripture rather than cutting them off from it. A church’s constitution, confession, or catechism can have great value for discipleship, but they should never substitute for an open Bible.

Some evangelical circles seem to treat the Bible as if only the ‘experts’ can interpret it correctly.

The Closed Book will be of primary interest to academics willing to slog through abstract nouns and long sentences. Her broad claims that rabbis didn’t read the Bible as a “perfect” book need further scrutiny, though she provides evidence that at least some Jewish authorities had such views. Her chapter on the symbolic relationship between the Torah scroll and the human body (not a chapter for the prudish) sexualizes the subject matter. But between the lines of this volume, careful readers will find a warning against marginalizing the Bible.

Traditions and accumulated wisdom can be helpful, but they cannot compare with wonder at the text of Scripture. The Bible is most powerful when it’s read and applied (Heb. 4:12; 1 Pet. 1:23).

I remember the delight in Chris’s eyes when he was handed his first real copy of the Bible. He expressed wonder after reading through the Gospel of John in a single week, then Genesis the next, marveling at the life-giving stories within God’s Word. This is the joy of true discipleship. It’s through the Word that the Lord gives life (James 1:18, 21). May we keep it ever open before us.


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