Beyond the Book

Rethinking Religion In and Around the Bible: an interregional colloquium on the (non-)centrality of the Bible in premodern Judaism

Wednesday March 1, 2017 | 4:30pm-7:30pm | Swift Common Room (1st floor)

This regional workshop series offers a space to disarticulate the study of premodern Judaism(s) from the study of Bible. In both scholarly analysis and the popualr imagination, premodern Jewry is often envisioned as the people of the Book par excellence – a community in which both practice and belief emerge from the interpretation of Scripture.

An emerging body of new research, however, has begun to reveal that early Judaism was not always as Bible-centric as the traditional scholarly portrait suggests. Or at least that premodern Jews did not always engage with the biblical tradition in the ways that we have come to image that religious practitioners will relate to this canonical text.


Isabel Cranz
Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies, University of Pennsylvania
"Atonement and Purification: Priestly and Assyro-Babylonian Perspectives on Sin and its Consequences"

Student respondents:

  • David Harris (Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations)
  • Charles Huff (Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations)

Sarit Kattan Gribetz
Assistant Professor, Department of Theology, Fordham University
"Gender and Ancient Jewish Reading Practices"

Student respondents:

  • Liane Marquis (Hebrew Bible, Divinity School)
  • ​TBA

Sponsored by the Hebrew Bible Workshop and the American Academy of Religion.


Abstract | Isabel Cranz
Atonement and Purification: Priestly and Assyro-Babylonian Perspectives on Sin and its Consequences
The Priestly Source (P) is frequently characterized as molding ancient Israelite religion into a monotheistic, rational and non-mythological belief-system by suppressing the customs and traditions of the common populace and Israel’s surrounding nations. This view is particularly prevalent when it comes to Priestly rituals of atonement and purification which are defined as ‘monotheistic,’ ‘non-demonic’ and as a means of warding off foreign traditions. Although this understanding of P is widely accepted, new insights into the intellectual culture and scribal traditions of the ancient Near East at large necessitate a renewed evaluation of the Priestly Source and its purpose. This paper undertakes an in-depth analysis of the expiatory rituals in P against the background of expiation and purification as it is envisioned in the Assyro-Babylonian incantation-series Šurpu. The careful comparison of ritual elements characteristic of Šurpu and P respectively illustrates how each source presents only a narrow view on a much broader and multifaceted phenomena of guilt, repentance and forgiveness. Consequently, it appears that the Priestly Source was not designed to function as an all-encompassing legally binding code of conduct. Rather, we are dealing with a loose collection of texts that circumscribe the area of Priestly responsibilities which was never meant to illumine more than a fraction of the culturally diverse landscape known as Israelite religion.
Abstract | Sarit Kattan Gribetz
Gender and Ancient Jewish Reading Practices
 “Beyond the Book: Thinking Biblically without the Bible” seeks to problematize and nuance the scholarly assumption that the Bible was central for premodern Jews, who are often labeled “people of the Book.”  Who are these “people?”  This talk proposes that just as moving “beyond the Bible” expands our view of the “people of the Book,” so too does asking about who those “people” are.  I thus examine sources about late antique women’s relationships to the Bible as text, object, and genre.  If this colloquium series is an attempt to include a more diverse set of voices and identities into our account of premodern Judaism, I argue that we might need – counterintuitively – to foreground the centrality of the Bible and biblical reading practices among ancient Jewish women in order more fully to include such women into our histories.  I do so, on the one hand, by turning to instances in ancient sources that present women as engaging with the Bible as a book, and with biblical traditions, in ways that were typically associated with men, and, on the other hand, by examining ways in which these same sources insist that women’s engagement with biblical texts differed from that of men.  By comparing rabbinic and early Christian sources, I also hope to highlight the ways in which Jewish and Christian women’s relationships to their Bibles overlapped and differed.  Ultimately, my paper engages the category of gender and its place in discussions of canonicity, textuality, and transmission.