Written by a professional biblical scholar, this is the first book that explores the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament through a specifically secular optic. Berlinerblau argues that secular intellectual culture is on the decline and that familiarity with religion is the only viable option for its survival.
Today’s secularists too often have very little accurate knowledge about religion, and even less desire to learn. This is problematic insofar as their sense of self is constructed in opposition to religion. Above all, the secularist is not a Jew, is not a Christian, not a Muslim, and so on. But is it intellectually responsible to define one’s identity against something that one does not understand? And what happens when these secularists weigh in on contentious political issues, blind to the religious back-story or concerns that inevitably inform these debates?
In The Secular Bible: Why Nonbelievers Must Take Religion Seriously, Berlinerblau suggests that atheists and agnostics must take stock of that which they so adamantly oppose. Defiantly maintaining a shallow understanding of religion, he argues, is not a politically prudent strategy in this day and age. But this book is no less critical of many believers, who–Berlinerblau contends–need to emancipate themselves from ways of thinking about their faith that are dangerously simplistic, irrational and outdated.
Exploring the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, from the perspective of a specialist, nonbeliever, and critic of the academic religious studies establishment, Berlinerblau begins by offering a provocative answer to the question of “who wrote the Bible?” The very peculiar way in which this text was composed provides a key to understanding its unique power (and vulnerability) in the modern public sphere. In separate chapters, he looks at how the sparse and contradictory words of Scripture are invoked in contemporary disputes about Jewish intermarriage and homosexuality in the Christian world. Finally, he examines ways in which the Qur’an might be subject to the types of secular interpretation advocated throughout this book. Cumulatively, this book is a first attempt to reinvigorate an estimable secular, intellectual tradition, albeit one that is currently experiencing a moment of crisis.
Introduction: secularists and the not-Godless world
Part I. The Composition of the Hebrew Bible
1. Who wrote the Bible? (Ancient response)
2. Who wrote the Bible? (Modern response)
3. The secular answer to “Who wrote the Bible?”
Part II. The Interpreters of the Hebrew Bible
4. Why is there so much biblical interpretation?
5. Introducing biblical scholars and secular interpretations
Part III. Politics and Scripture
6. On Jewish intermarriage: the Bible is open to interpretation
7. Same-sex eroticism and Jerry Falwell
8. The secular Qur’an?
Conclusion: beyond church and state: new directions for secularism.
In well-wrought prose and with a frolicsome sense of humor, Berlinerblau poses questions that will disquiet thinking secularists as much as they will those committed to religion. By distinguishing between what traditions say about the origin of the Bible and how they interpret it, he opens the door to making the same distinction between what critical biblical scholarship has to say about biblical origins and biblical interpretation. Berlinerblau’s book raises questions in a clever, intriguing way that will stimulate serious thought and discussion long after it is put down.
— Ziony Zevit, author of The Religions of Ancient Israel
This book would not lie flat on the desk as I was reading it, but kept jumping up trying to bite my fingers. This was, I don’t doubt, a design feature introduced by the publisher in conformity with its contents … Not only is Berlinerblau’s book passionate, vivacious, and witty, and his footnotes exceedingly learned, his gut instinct is surely right, that there is something wrong with the discipline of Hebrew Bible studies if the vast majority of its professionals are adherents to its religion. You don’t need to be questioning the bona fides of any particular individual scholar to be alarmed at the fact that most people who research on the Hebrew Bible have an investment in it, in its ‘truth’ in the broadest sense, in its value … He has applied to our discipline the Socratic principle, ‘The unexamined life is not worth living,” and made it clear to all with ears to hear that the unexamined profession is not worth professing.
— David J. A. Clines, University of Sheffield