The Jews endured seventy years of exile in Babylon about five hundred years before the birth of Christ. The first reading at Mass this Sunday celebrates the release of these Jews from this exile by the noble king Cyrus. A number of Scripture scholars have understood that this alien existence of the Jewish people actually led to the origin of the synagogue system and to the formulation of the Bible. Since the Jews had no temple in which to worship, it makes sense that they would gather in their alien neighborhoods to pray, reflect and sing the praises of God. Such neighborhood gatherings would have led to the synagogue system known today throughout the world. Also while in exile, it is plausible that the Jews might choose to write down the prophecies and note the prodigies that had marked their history. These reminiscences of course would be the beginning of the Bible. Certainly these events could have all happened.
But Michael L. Satlow, professor of religious and Jewish studies at Brown University, in his new book How the Bible Became Holy, has a different understanding of the origins of the synagogue system and of the written Bible. The professor sees the synagogue system and the Bible beginning not in Babylon five hundred years before Christ, but in Alexandria in Egypt about two hundred years before Christ. Alexandria was a cosmopolitan city with much Greek influence. It also had a sizeable Jewish population. The Greeks there favored gymnasia where men would gather regularly to discuss the great works of Greek literature read from prized scrolls. Such gymnasium readings were really a way of life. The Greeks were proud of their writers, their poets and their philosophers. And proud of the scrolls that preserved their great works.
Alexandria’s Jews and other Jews living about the Grecian world saw the value of these regular meetings to reflect on their history and to appreciate their profound traditions. As the Greeks met in their gymnasia, the Jews began to meet in their synagogues. And as the Greeks prized their scrolls of Homer and Epicurus and Plato, so the Jews began to esteem their scrolls of Moses, Hosea and Isaiah. It was from Alexandria in Egypt that, very slowly, the synagogue system and an appreciation of written Scriptural texts worked their way back to Judea and Galilee. It was also in Alexandria that the Septuagint, an authorized version of the Old Testament in Greek, was initiated and published. This complete written text would have a profound influence on Judaism – and on Christianity.
Happily Professor Satlow has a major, if unwitting, ally in Pope Benedict XVI. Pope Benedict views the spread of Greek culture throughout the Mediterranean world as a “proto-evangelium,” a timely preparation for the spread of the Christian Gospel. The blend of faith and reason found in the mixture of Jewish piety and Greek philosophy was truly providential, in the mind of Pope Benedict. The natural principles and logical analyses discerned by Greek thinkers enabled later Christian scholars to propose Church teachings more lucidly and more systematically. The thought of Plato developed by St. Augustine and the thinking of Aristotle favored by St. Thomas Aquinas have enriched the Christian Church immensely, making more humanly reasonable the exalted revelations found in Scripture.
The late arrival of the Bible and the synagogue system into Jewish life powerfully underlines the value of oral tradition and family piety in ancient Israel and also in todays’ world. Believers learn their religion at their mother’s knee, long before they have opened their first Bible or heard their first sermon. Faith is formed by participation at worship, by celebrating the meaning of solemn feasts, by studying the handy catechism, by learning the lessons depicted in stained glass windows, church murals and artistic statuary, and especially by religious observances within the family. While Catholics have been much more exposed to Scripture since Vatican II, Catholic piety still rests greatly on tradition – sometimes spelled with a capital T and sometimes spelled with a small t. And this is nothing new. Judaism thrived for hundreds of years before completing its written texts. Apostolic Christianity flourished for decades before a Biblical pen was put to paper and for centuries before the present New Testament was assembled. “Faith comes through hearing,” St. Paul wrote, – and only then it can be enhanced through reading.