The Jewish Bible

A Material History

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David Stern
Samuel and Althea Stroum Lectures in Jewish Studies
  • Seattle, WA: 
    University of Washington Press
    , July
     320 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Until very recently, questions of materiality have had a negligible role in the study of sacred texts. This is understandable; after all, it is the content of these writings that has most interested readers down through the centuries. Indeed, many devout readers of texts such as the Tanakh, the Bible, or the Qur’an would insist that the message of their respective scriptures supersedes any issues of materiality—it is the revealed content which matters. Scholars, perhaps unknowingly, have contributed to this sentiment. For example, where issues of materiality have arisen in my field of biblical scholarship, this has very often been at the service of better understanding or reconstructing the text (or even recovering the supposed original text), again highlighting the focus on text and content.

This situation, however, is beginning to change. As the material turn of the past several decades has begun to influence the study of religious traditions and their texts, scholars are giving renewed attention to questions of materiality. This is the context of David Stern’s marvelous volume, The Jewish Bible: A Material History. This book, which began as the Samuel and Althea Stroum Lectures in Jewish Studies at the University of Washington in 1999, brings the reader on a journey exploring the materiality of the Jewish scriptures. From scroll, to manuscript, to the age of print, Stern delivers a well-researched yet accessible study that is both thought-provoking and visually stimulating. The term “Jewish Bible” is Stern’s attempt to encompass the broad range of forms in which the Jewish scriptures have been transmitted. Stern suggests that “the Jewish Bible’s meaning as a book, as an artifact, has changed dramatically for Jews as they have lived in varying geographical and cultural contexts through the course of history. The history of the Jewish Bible…is the story of those changing meanings” (5-6).

The book begins, as one might expect, with the scroll. Here Stern discusses the development and use of scrolls, from early uses in antiquity, to the Dead Sea Scrolls, to later rabbinic usage, while touching on issues including materials employed as well as scribal techniques in these different periods. Stern then moves to explore what he calls the “codification of the Sefer Torah” (33), the process of the Torah scroll becoming an iconic text in Judaism in the Middle Ages. This iconic function leads to issues of performativity, and Stern thus discusses the liturgical life of material Torah scrolls, from arks, to processions, to ornamental dress. The chapter concludes with a fascinating look at the Torah’s artifactual and talismanic properties in the medieval period.

In chapter 2, Stern explores the Hebrew Bible in the age of the manuscript. The chapter begins with a discussion of two key issues from the medieval period: the eventual adoption of the codex, and the development of the Masorah, the systematized collection and notation of information concerning the Hebrew text. After recounting the complex and diverse history of the Masoretic traditions, Stern explores the visual aspects of the Masoretic Bibles, from decorative borders to micrographic designs. The striking similarities between some of the visual elements in these Masoretic Bibles and in Qur’ans from this period suggest overlap between these cultures, and perhaps even “workshops that employed both Jewish and Muslim scribes and artisans” (83). Here we encounter one of the recurring themes in Stern’s volume: that the Jewish Bible has always been a product of particular cultures and locations, and often can be seen as a response to host cultures. The chapter expands on this idea, as the various forms and geographical locations of the Hebrew Bible in the medieval era are unpacked. The forms of the Jewish Bible in this period include Masoretic Bibles (usually the full Tanakh), the ḥumash (liturgical Pentateuch), and the study Bible. Stern offers a thorough discussion of the different characteristics of these texts in the centers of Sepharad and Ashkenaz, along with developments in Italy and Yemen. The resulting picture is one of diverse, creative, and contextually specific approaches to the text in the various centers of Jewish life.

The final two chapters look at the Jewish Bible since the advent of print. In chapter 3, Stern investigates the complex matrix of issues that impacted the early printing of the Hebrew Bible, including the growth of Christian Hebraism. Of particular import in this discussion are the First and Second Rabbinic Bibles, printed by Daniel Bomberg (with the help of others, including the Jewish scholar Ibn Adoniyahu) in the sixteenth century in Venice. These Bibles are important for a number of reasons, but chief among these is that the mass (and thus stable) printing of these editions would shape conceptions of the definitive Hebrew text for several centuries. The final chapter investigates the Jewish Bible since the sixteenth century, which Stern notes is “largely the story of the transformation of the Hebrew Bible into a new type of Bible, a cultural Bible” (159). This includes a lengthy discussion of the Jewish Bible in vernacular translation, from antiquity to the present day, as well as recent (and contested) projects which have created critical editions of the Hebrew text.

Stern concludes his study with an epilogue on the future of the Jewish Bible. Here he ventures briefly into the digital and online world, and the implications of these developments. It is a fitting way to end the volume, but also points to the fact that new questions concerning the materiality of sacred texts are continually emerging. In this sense, others will need to carry on the work that Stern has here so ably undertaken.

This is a fascinating, engaging, and instructive volume. The breadth of topics and traditions covered is vast, and Stern’s knowledge of and research on these issues is remarkable. Beyond the content, the volume is beautifully illustrated, with over 80 color images illuminating the various topics. A study on the materiality of the Jewish scriptures needed to be written, and we can all be thankful that it was Stern who took up the task.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Bradford A. Anderson is Lecturer in Biblical Studies at Dublin City University, Ireland.

Date of Review: 
January 25, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

David Stern is Harry Starr professor of classical and modern Jewish and Hebrew literature at Harvard University. He is the author and editor of thirteen books, including Parables in Midrash, Rabbinic Fantasies, The Washington Haggadah, and The Monk's Haggadah.

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