Why was the Hebrew Bible written? In Why the Bible Began: An Alternative History of Scripture and its Origins (Cambridge Univ., out now), Jacob L. Wright, Hebrew Bible professor at Emory University, offers answers to a question many have never considered.
How do you go about answering why the Bible was written?
The book covers the beginning of the history of Israel, and then the defeat of two kingdoms that were divided and at war with each other—Israel in the north, and Judah in the south. I talk about their conquest by these Mesopotamian empires, and then the post-exilic period, in which people started to reinvent what it meant to be a member of Israel—meaning a political community that could exist beyond the borders of already-conquered kingdoms. I then look at how these texts came together, especially the national narrative, which stretches from the creation of the universe all the way to the destruction of Jerusalem. I examine how scribes drew from a divided past, of rivalries and of civil wars, and wove these histories, these pasts, together to create a common past. I try to show how all the disparity and the diversity of these texts have a coherence, and that coherence is around the question of what it means
to be a people.
What interests you about why the Bible was written?
In biblical studies, as well as in the larger discourse around the Bible, the Bible is often reduced to a moral code. And it does address, albeit sometimes problematically, moral issues that are relevant today: from women’s rights and patriarchy to the treatment of enemies. But for me, its larger achievement was the creation of a political community in response to defeat. It was not something that the genius of some prophets or scribes came up with just sitting in their kingdoms when all was flourishing. When the Bible is reduced to a moral code, we lose sight of that achievement. I think it’s so important for us to look at how, in the face of imminent disaster, or in the aftermath of disaster, one reinvents oneself. The Bible as a whole is a collective reinvention around the question of people, and then the question that interested me is why? Why does it happen in Israel and Judah, rather than elsewhere?
Why did it happen in Israel and Judah, and not in other ancient societies?
Maybe some other peoples did it. We don’t know about them, because their writings have been lost to us. It was a very small community of scribes, writing for themselves, who undertook to create a collective identity around the text that they created. That’s already very amazing, that they thought that their own little medium, which was not widely used—people didn’t read texts, there was no reading public at the time—that they had this vision that there could be a reading public, and that the texts could be the foundation of a political community.
How has your notion—that a national defeat was a starting point for a religion and people—resonated with non-Jews?
I taught a Coursera course that had 60,000 students enrolled. And the first day that I taught it, there were students from across the globe, including from China, Bangladesh, and Iran. I was teaching them, through these videos, about the formation of the Bible, and I wondered why they were interested in this. What interested them initially was just the history, but then a community evolved around how their own communities could do this. Then different projects developed across the world, asking what would the Bible look like in our own time for our own communities? What kind of medium would it have? I saw all that I was teaching resonated with them: the defeat, the reinvention, overcoming division, the love for neighbor, the focus on text and education as a central authority, not creeds. That blew me away, and I knew I had to run with it and finish the book.