Cover Page




James W. Watts

















The nature of scripture

Ritual theories

The effects of ritualizing scriptures

Deuteronomy commands Torah’s ritualization

Ezra’s Torah reading

The Persian Empire and the Pentateuch

Ezra in history and tradition


Kurigalzu’s inscription

Outline of the Pentateuch’s rhetoric

Law and narrative

Eponymous ancestry in Genesis

YHWH’s reputation in Exodus

The Pentateuch’s unstated premise and enthymeme

Priestly (in)competence and priestly authority in Leviticus 10

The rhetoric of lists

Law collections in the Pentateuch

Eternal sanctions

The Letter of Aristeas 177

Dedicatory Torah plaque

Lost Samaritan books

Desecrating Torah scrolls

Fragment of Aleppo Codex as amulet

Fraudulent sales of Holocaust scrolls

The heavenly Torah

The eternal word of God in Jewish, Christian, and Muslim scriptures

Hymn, “O Word of God Incarnate”

The tablets of the commandments

The Ark of the Covenant

Torah monuments

Finding a Torah scroll in the temple

The power of sound, word, and scripture

Reading the Greek Torah

The Mishnah on reading rituals

Torah blessings in synagogue liturgy

Reading scripture aloud in ancient Christianity

A Hasmonean curriculum

Why do Jews, Christians, and Muslims chant scripture?

Biblical maps and social imagination

A Samnite reading ritual

Moses reads the covenant book

The Shema

Pentateuchal promises

Pentateuchal threats

Interpretive expertise in Ezra‐Nehemiah

Citations of the Pentateuch in later books of the Hebrew Bible

Philo of Alexandria on the Septuagint as a miracle of translation

Citing and debating Torah in 4QMMT

Rabbinic interpretation through discussion and debate

The gendering of Talmud and Tanak

Identifying with exodus Israel

Go Down, Moses

Apocalyptic eschatology

The Letter of Aristeas on food laws

The rabbis on offerings and Torah study

The Apostle Paul on the law

Adam’s sin, reason, and empirical science

Phyllis Trible on Genesis 3:16

Memory variants and historical criticism

Prophets versus Deuteronomy about written Torah

Sanctions in ancient suzerainty treaties

Sanctions in the Hebrew Bible outside the Pentateuch

The birth legend of King Sargon

Ritualizing Decalogue and Torah in Pentateuchal traditions

The Libraries of Nehemiah and Judah Maccabee

The sections of the Mishnah

Irenaeus on the necessity of four Gospels


Genealogies in Genesis

Books with more than 10 copies found among the Dead Sea Scrolls

Modern publication of significant ancient Middle Eastern texts

When Jewish and Christian scriptures changed


1.1 The three dimensions of written texts.

2.1 Barrel cylinder with a cuneiform inscription of Nebuchadnezzar II, King of Babylon from 605 to 562 bce, to celebrate the discovery of a temple foundation inscription of Naram‐Sin, King of Akkad, 1,700 years earlier. In the Israel Museum, Jerusalem.

2.2 Stone administrative tablet from Mesopotamia recording a land grant, ca. 3100–2900 bce. In the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

2.3 (a) Diorite stela of Hammurabi’s Laws, from Babylon, ca. 1700 bce. Relief at top shows King Hammurabi standing before the god Shamash. (b) The cuneiform text of the laws covers the front, back, and sides of the stela. In the Louvre, Paris.

3.1 Iconic scriptures: (a) 3.1 Sikh carrying Guru Granth Sahib, image from Imperial War Museum Q24777 Open Government Licence v1.0 via Wikimedia Commons, (b) Qur’an from India, ca. 1851, in the library of the University of Saint Andrews, Scotland,(c) Miniature Sutra, in the Korean National Museum, Seoul.

3.2 A modern mezuzah.

3.3 Relief of wheeled ark, ca. third century ce, in the synagogue at Kefer‐Nahum/Capernaum, Israel.

3.4 Gold glass bowl from Rome, ca. 300–350 ce, showing an open Torah ark with scrolls on its shelves. In the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

3.5 Torah scrolls in the ark in the Vilna Shul (synagogue) in Boston, Massachusetts, built in 1919.

3.6 A scribe copying a new Torah scroll.

3.7 (a) Clothed Torah scroll in the Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam, the Netherlands; (b) Torah case in the Yosef Caro synagogue in Tzfat/Safed, Israel.

3.8 The Shrine of the Book in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

3.9 An Egyptian Book of the Dead showing, at right, the ibis‐headed scribal god, Thoth, recording human worship of the gods. In the Louvre, Paris.

3.10 A Torah scroll open to Exodus 30.

3.11 Genesis 28–29 in the Leningrad Codex (tenth century ce), in the National Library of Russia in St Petersburg.

3.12 Processing the Gospel in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem.

3.13 Lectern Bible, Saint Andrews, Scotland.

3.14 Frontispiece of the Ottonian Gospels, ca. 1000 ce, in the treasury of the Cathedral in Aachen, Germany.

3.15 Contemporary English bibles.

3.16 Mikraot Gedolot, a Rabbinic Bible, open to Exod. 13:4–6 in Hebrew and the Aramaic Targum of Onkelos, and commentaries by Rashi, Rashbam and others.

3.17 Complutensian Polyglot Bible open to Genesis 1 in Hebrew, Latin, Greek, and Aramaic, with a Latin translation of the Aramaic; in the library of Saint Andrews University.

3.18 Moses, Solon, and Confucius on the east pediment of the US Supreme Court in Washington, DC. Built in 1935.

3.19 Ten Commandments on a monument at the Texas State Capitol in Austin.

3.20 Anubis chest in the treasury of Tutankhamun’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings, Egypt. Photo by Harry Burton, 1926.

3.21 Stone sphinx throne supporting carved stelae; first millennium bce, Phoenician, in the Louvre, Paris.

3.22 Silver amulet scrolls from Ketef Hinnom; seventh to fifth century bce; in the Israel Museum, Jerusalem.

3.23 Scribe holding scroll over sarcophagus in a model of a funerary boat from the tomb of Djehuty, Egypt ca. 1962–1786 bce. In the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

4.1 Buddhist monks chanting sutras at Bodh Gaya, India.

4.2 The Theodotus Inscription, Jerusalem, mid‐first century ce; in the Israel Museum, Jerusalem.

4.3 Bible translations in Bengali, Coptic, and Chinese.

4.4 Exodus 30:22–23 in a manuscript scroll and a printed chumash.

4.5 Floor mosaic (sixth century ce) of Abraham sacrificing Isaac (Gen. 22:1–11) in the ruins of the Bet Alpha synagogue, Israel.

4.6 Moses receiving the Ten Commandments. Woodcut from an early sixteenth‐century design by Hans Holbein.

4.7 Horned Moses, ca. 1894, on Alexander Hall, Princeton University.

4.8 Moses receiving the law and giving it to the Israelites. An illuminated page from the Moutier‐Grandval Bible created in Tours, France in 835 ce.

4.9 Illustration of Tabernacle Furniture and High Priest (Exodus 25, 28).

4.10 Full‐size reconstruction of the Tabernacle (Exodus 25–40) in Timna Park, Israel.

4.11 Statue of a scribe with a baboon representing the scribal god, Thoth, sitting on or fused to his head. Egyptian, ca. 1275–1085 bce, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

5.1 Jerome at his desk. Detail of stained glass window, ca. 1490. In the Stadtschloss Museum in Weimar, Germany.187

5.2 Poster for 1960 film Exodus. Artist: Paul Bass.193

5.3 A scribe standing before Barrakib, the king of Samal. Relief from Samal/Zincirli, ca. 730 bce. In the Vorderasiatisches Museum, Berlin.225

5.4 Cuneiform tablet cataloguing 68 works of Sumerian literature, probably the collection of a temple library. From Nippur, ca. 2,000 bce. In the Louvre, Paris.226

6.1 A Megillah (Esther scroll) from Italy, ca. 1616. In the National Library of Israel.

6.2 (a) The four Gospels represented by a human‐faced angel for Matthew, a lion for Mark,(b) an ox for Luke, and an eagle for John. Details of mosaics in Santa Prassede basilica, Rome, 817–824 ce.


Abbreviations of Biblical and Apocryphal Literature

1–2 Chr.
1–2 Chronicles
1–2 Cor.
1–2 Corinthians
1–2 Kgs.
1–2 Kings
1–2–3–4 Macc.
1–2–3–4 Maccabees
1–2 Pet.
1–2 Peter
1–2 Sam.
1–2 Samuel
1–2 Thess.
1–2 Thessalonians
1–2 Tim.
1–2 Timothy
Song of Songs (Song of Solomon)
Wisdom of Solomon

Abbreviations of Bible Translations

Common English Bible
New Revised Standard Version

Abbreviations in Citations of Rabbinic Literature

Babylonian Talmud
Jerusalem Talmud


The title of this book, Understanding the Pentateuch as a Scripture, requires some explanation. Chapter 1 will give attention to defining the nouns, “Pentateuch” and “scripture,” and their relationship to another name for this literature, “the Torah.” Here I need to explain why I chose this phrase for the title of this book, and particularly why “scripture” is preceded by the indefinite article, “a.”

Biblical studies is an ancient and flourishing field. Scholars put great effort into explaining the language, meaning, and history of biblical books down to their tiniest detail. They have done so for more than 2,000 years and continue to do so today. The published literature on the Pentateuch is vast, and keeps growing.

Yet little of this research focuses on how the Bible, much less the Pentateuch, functions as a scripture. Biblical scholars tend to concentrate on the meaning of biblical texts within the literary contexts of individual books and within their original historical settings in ancient Israel, Second Temple Judaism, and early Christianity.

Forty years ago, the historian of religions Wilfred Cantwell Smith criticized biblical scholars for focusing only “on the Bible in its pre‐scriptural phase.” He wanted to position biblical studies within research on religions generally, rather than just within the study of Judaism and Christianity. Smith called for studying “the Bible as scripture” in comparison with other religious scriptures, such as the Qur’an, the Vedas, the Bhagavad Gita, the Buddhist sutras, and the Sikh’s Guru Granth Sahib. He understood that a religious studies context would draw more attention to how people in various times and places have interpreted the Bible. It would also highlight how they have used it in their personal and communal rituals, in their art and theater, in their economic activities, and in their politics.

One of Smith’s students, William Graham, took such a religious studies approach to scriptures by comparing their oral performances in various traditions. Noting the importance of oral recitation to Muslims’ veneration of the Qur’an and to Hindu Brahmins’ use of the Vedas, Graham also observed the prominent role that reading scripture aloud plays in Jewish and Christian worship. He thought that modern publishing had obscured the importance of oral performance of scriptures. He argued that oral performance, more than interpretation, established and maintained a text’s status as scripture within a religious community.1

Another academic movement that takes seriously the Bible’s function as scripture is canonical criticism, which is oriented towards theology rather than religious studies. Brevard Childs wrote a book with a title similar to this one, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture (1979), in which he advocated a canonical approach to biblical interpretation. Childs argued that reading the Bible “as scripture” should focus on its theological meaning within the context of the Jewish or Christian canons as a whole. While he employed the full range of historical tools to understand the development of biblical texts, Childs emphasized that its final canonical form should be decisive for its religious meaning. Childs has been much more influential than Smith on biblical scholarship. It is fair to say, however, that neither Child’s nor Smith’s approaches dominate the field.2

What has changed in biblical research over the past 30 years is that more attention is being directed at the history of the Bible’s interpretation. Such studies often include not only its interpretation by theologians and preachers, but also its use by artists and creative writers of poetry, novels, plays, and films. This trend has spawned several new journals in the field, such as Biblical Interpretation, Postscripts: The Journal of Sacred Texts and Contemporary Worlds, and Biblical Reception. Prominent book series, such as the Blackwell Bible Commentaries, focus on reception history. Some of this research takes a theological interest in the history of Jewish and Christian religious traditions that resembles Childs’ canonical approach. But much of this research abstains from theological commitments, and discusses instead the cultural influence of the Bible in religious and secular contexts.

Nevertheless, biblical scholarship remains focused on interpretation, that is, on how people have understood the meaning of the Bible’s words and utilized them in various ways. Much less research focuses on how people perform those words in religious and secular contexts, and even less on how they make use of the physical books of Jewish and Christian scriptures: Torah scrolls, tanaks and bibles. Performance Criticism has gained a foothold among biblical scholars, but still tends to reconstruct the original performance settings of particular books more than the history of biblical performances. Outside of biblical scholarship, the rise of book history as an academic discipline has drawn attention to the history of religious publishing and reading since the adoption of mass printing in the fifteenth century. But very little has been done to integrate these strands into a unified account of how the Bible functions in religious and secular cultures as a scripture.

I was a student of Brevard Childs during my PhD studies. I was drawn to his work because he focused on scripture as the defining characteristic of the Bible. Like him, I think biblical scholars should give more attention to the Bible’s status as Jewish and Christian scripture, because that is what attracts people’s attention in the first place. Were it not for the Bible’s contemporary prestige and influence, the field of biblical studies would be a minor part of the study of ancient Middle Eastern literature rather than a subject of popular and scholarly interest around the world.

I have, however, spent my teaching career in departments of religious studies, first at Hastings College and then at Syracuse University. That context has shown me the benefits of comparing the Bible’s scriptural status with the scriptures of other religions. Comparison reveals similar strategies for using sacred texts across cultures, even when the literary contents and theological meaning of the books differ dramatically.

For the past 15 years, I have engaged with a growing number of collaborators in a research project on the social uses of books and other written texts. Originally called the Iconic Books Project, it has more recently evolved into a scholarly association, the Society for Comparative Research on Iconic and Performative Texts (SCRIPT). We do research on how physical books get manipulated and depicted as well as on oral performances and their artistic illustration, and the social effects of these activities. The early results of this research were brought together in several journal issues and then in the collection Iconic Books and Texts (2013). This collaboration continues to produce innovative research by scholars working on a wide variety of religions, cultures, and time periods.3

Understanding the Pentateuch as a Scripture brings this comparative research on textual performances and iconic books into Pentateuchal studies. Applying comparative scripture studies to the Pentateuch is productive because the Pentateuch was the first part of the Bible to function as a scripture and its example has influenced the use of all subsequent scriptures in Western religious traditions. In this book, I bring historical and literary biblical criticism and the history of the Bible’s cultural reception into interaction with the comparative study of scriptures. The results integrate what we know about the Pentateuch as an ancient Middle Eastern document with what we know about its material, oral, artistic, ritual, and interpretive uses today.

So I use an indefinite pronoun in the title of this book, “… as a Scripture,” to indicate a comparative perspective on the Pentateuch’s scriptural function. This, then, is not the canonical approach to scripture that I learned from Professor Childs. I am very grateful for his instruction and support, and I do not discount the importance of theological interpretation of the Bible for Jewish and Christian audiences. I simply think that a comparative analysis allows us to understand its influence and function in ways that theological interpretation does not.

This book introduces innovative ways of thinking about biblical literature as well as surveying established conclusions in the field. That combination might seem strange in an introductory textbook. In the field of biblical studies, however, an “introduction” has long served to provide a critical evaluation of the state of the field. It shows how biblical studies should go forward as well as surveys where it has been. This book follows in that tradition by demonstrating how the study of the Pentateuch can be re‐envisioned from a religious studies perspective on comparative scriptures. It show that research on the Pentateuch’s scriptural function can integrate investigations of its origins with its cultural history. The results illuminate its contemporary interpretation in the academy as well as in synagogues, in churches, and in the wider culture.

I hope this book will be read with interest by people in many different settings. It has, however, been organized with classroom instruction in mind. Instructors might use this book at the beginning of a course on the Hebrew Bible or Christian Bible, or to introduce or conclude a course on the Pentateuch. They could assign its chapters and sections at different times during a course, interlaced with other topics and more detailed analysis of Pentateuchal texts.

Chapter 1 introduces the concepts that are crucial to this book’s approach: the idea of scripture, comparative scriptures studies, and the meaning of the words “Pentateuch” and “Torah.” It also introduces the time of Ezra, 2,400 years ago, when the Pentateuch first began to function as a scripture. Chapter 2 then surveys the contents of the Pentateuch from literary and rhetorical perspectives, which it introduces and defines. My expectation in writing this chapter is that it will accompany assignments to read large parts, preferably all, of the Pentateuch.

Chapters 3, 4, and 5 analyze how the Pentateuch functions as a scripture in each of the dimensions defined in Chapter 1: the iconic, performative, and semantic dimensions. Each chapter first describes the Pentateuch’s ritualization “after Ezra,” that is, after the time that it began to function as scripture up to the present day. Only then does attention turn to the time “before Ezra,” that is, before the Pentateuch was scripturalized. It is this period that has traditionally received most of the attention of biblical scholars. Presenting the history of the Pentateuch in this sequence allows students to compare cultural history with historical criticism directly. Class discussion will likely include frequent consideration of the relative amounts of evidence for various periods and scripturalizing activities, of the different kinds of historical arguments that various kinds of evidence and periods require, and of the significance of particular developments for shaping the meaning and use of the Pentateuch and Bible in the present day.

Chapter 6 briefly extends this book’s analysis to the larger scriptures of Judaism and Christianity. It suggests a historical template for understanding key moments in the scripturalization of other biblical books in the developing Jewish and Christian traditions.

I have included many images and quotations of ancient texts for illustration. Text boxes appear periodically to define key ideas and give examples referred to in the immediate context. The table of Contents therefore provides a detailed list of the chapter subheadings to aid in constructing a course syllabus. A sample syllabus for assigning this book in a Hebrew Bible course can be found at

The literature on the Pentateuch that this book presupposes is voluminous. I have cited in the “Cited Works and Further Reading” sources of direct quotations. I have also included references to a very small number of English‐language publications where instructors can find more detailed discussions of particular issues and fuller bibliographies. Some of these texts could also serve as further reading assignments to supplement the summaries in this book.


Many people have generously supported my work on this book and the longer research projects that contribute to it. I am very grateful to all those scholars who have joined me in the research of the Iconic Books Project and in SCRIPT. They are too many to mention, but I should especially single out Dorina Miller Parmenter, S. Brent Plate, Yohan Yoo, and Jason Larson. My colleagues in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University have been generous with their time and support for my projects. I especially appreciate the support for SCRIPT and Iconic Books by Joanne Waghorne, Philip Arnold, and Zachary Braiterman, and the valuable feedback from the members of Lemadim Olam. The College of Arts and Sciences of Syracuse University enabled me to write this book by granting a research leave for the 2015–16 academic year, and the Käte Hamburger Kolleg in the Center for Religious Studies at Ruhr University Bochum enabled its rapid progress with a generous visiting fellowship during that year. I am very grateful to Dean Karin Ruhlandt in the College at Syracuse and to Professors Volkhard Krech and Christian Frevel in Bochum, as well as to all the participants in the 2015–16 seminar on the theme of “religion and the senses.” I am most grateful to my wife, Maurine, who accompanied me to Germany and has participated gamely in too many conversations about the Pentateuch.

This book culminates and summarizes much of my previous research on scriptures and on the Pentateuch. It therefore includes many ideas and arguments that I have published previously in articles and books. References to those works appear where appropriate in the lists of “Cited Works and Further Reading.” I have occasionally reproduced paragraphs previously published elsewhere. I am grateful to the publishers of the following works for permission to reproduce these selections here:

  • “Narrative, Lists, Rhetoric, Ritual and the Pentateuch as a Scripture,” in The Formation of the Pentateuch (ed. Jan C. Gertz et al.; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2016), 1135–45.
  • “From Ark of the Covenant to Torah Scroll: Ritualizing Israel’s Iconic Texts,” in Ritual Innovation in the Hebrew Bible and Early Judaism (ed. Nathan MacDonald; BZAW 468; Berlin: De Gruyter, 2016), 21–34.
  • “Ritual Legitimacy and Scriptural Authority,” Journal of Biblical Literature 124/3 (2005), 401–417.

English quotations of biblical verses are my translations unless otherwise noted. Photographs are my own except as noted.