Thursday, 12 September 2013

Response to: "Kippah and Gown: Rethinking Orthodoxy and Biblical Criticism I"

On Torah Musings Orthodox Jewish Bible academic Joshua Berman discusses the problems of Bible criticism and argues that while many jump to criticize the Orthodox approach to the Bible less people are willing to deal with the major problems with more critical approaches. Therefore Prof. Berman takes it upon himself to give his own responses to source criticism presumably in able to buttress the Orthodox unified theory of the Pentateuch. I will analyze his "critique of source criticism" in order to show why IMHO, he fails to make convincing arguments against source criticism. This is not to say that there aren't problems with the DH and Biblical criticism. And this is also not to say that Biblical criticism is necessarily true. However the specific arguments JB presents are, in my opinion, not convincing. 
Before embarking on this discussion it is worth noting that any dichotomy between "Orthodox approach" and "source critical approach" is false. All of the arguments JB presents below represent critiques of the source critical approach. If JB is correct in his assessment then his critique would suggest that the Pentateuch was not compiled by a number of different authors, but rather was composed by one author. While this may be true, this is not the Orthodox approach. Though unity is certainly a major assumption in Orthodox Bible studies two other factors are much more important and these are 1. Divinity and 2. Composition in the time period of Moses. Disproving Bible criticism does not automatically make 1 and 2 true.
Perhaps JB has no intention of proving 1 and 2 by refuting Bible criticism but then I do have to wonder why the title of his article presents the two dichotomously: "Rethinking Orthodoxy and Biblical Criticism" and the first section is called "Orthodox Judaism and Biblical Criticism". If 
Below in red is the text of JB's third section ("III. Critiquing Source Criticism") with my comments in black. 

First, source criticism must give an accounting of the final shape of the Torah before us. If these are the works of competing and opposing historians, how and why were their conflicting histories sown together? The author of the Samaritan Pentateuch (c. 5th-4th c. BCE) was so bothered by some of these discrepancies that he edited the text to harmonize the accounts. Couldn’t the hypothesized redactor of the Torah see these problems as well? Why did he choose to retain multiple, conflicting accounts? It is often surmised that the Torah is an anthology of different traditions of Israel’s history, and that the upheaval occasioned by the destruction of the Temple and the Exile forced Israel’s leaders to bring these traditions together. This posits a form of composition that has no precedent anywhere in the ancient world. Nearly every ancient culture that we know of experienced cataclysm at one point or another in its history. 
So perhaps JB is criticizing the prevailing opinion in the field (which I must admit I am no expert in) but I do have to wonder if this argument (as well as others below) does not represent a strawman. As JB stresses many times we do not know exactly how different sources got smushed together. JB seems to assume that one editor took the pieces and sewed them together. If this is the prevailing opinion in the field then fine, I understand why it is a little strange. However I don't see why we have to assume that one author took the texts with the intention of sewing them together. I would think that it is more likely that someone merely wanted to copy a collection of different Israelite histories into one scroll or set of scrolls and this anthology was later received or believed to be one text. The conflicting histories were not sown together they were merely put together for easy reference (just like the 12 prophets are put together in one book even though each one was written by a different author). The editor had no intention of creating a new unified text but later his anthological creation was interpreted as such. This has to at least be a possibility... Also while I'm sure there are scholars that say that this hodgepodge creation is a response to some sort of an upheaval I hardly think that this particular interpretation is a necessary component of Bible criticism. 

Nowhere do we see that the embattled culture responds by assembling its conflicting historical traditions under one cover. The one distantly similar phenomenon sometimes cited as a model for this hypothesized form of redaction is in fact the most telling: In the second century, the church apologist Tatian combined the four accounts of the life of Jesus found in the gospels into a single work known as the Diatessaron. Yet, as he did so, he took four often conflicting works and endeavored to produce a harmonious narrative. The source critical approach posits exactly the opposite: originally integral and coherent narratives were combined producing disharmony.
What we do find fairly commonly, at least in the Middle Ages among Jewish scribes, is that people will often take a number of different texts written by different authors at different times and include them in one manuscript without distinguishing between different sections (although this is usually true of theological-mystical texts and not history texts I still believe that it can serve as some sort of precedent) . JB's use of the phrase "under one cover" is anachronistic IMHO. In ancient times books were not always well defined things. When someone put the five books into the Pentateuch into one "book" I do not know if his intention was to create "a book" with defined boundaries. The fact that this hodgepodge text was later interpreted as being encompassed by "one cover" does not mean that it was originally put together like this. 

Moreover, this theory of an anthology of histories has no external evidence. There is no epigraphic record (inscriptions or documents) from either the land of Israel, Babylon or Persia that mentions this process. There is no epigraphic evidence of either the version of history found in Devarim or of the alternative versions found in the other books as separate, independent works.Nor is there any evidence for this approach within the other books of the Tanakh itself. That is, we do not find any book outside of the Torah that seems to rely solely on the history found in Devarim or solely on the version found in the other books. The theory that the Torah represents an anthology of traditions of Israel’s history stems solely from the supposition that these histories are contradictory. Once these discrepancies are interpreted as contradictory, a hypothesis must be adduced to account for their combination under one cover.

This (since we haven't found J or E so therefore they might not exist) is an argument from silence. Arguments from silence are important historical tools but only in cases where we expect to hear noise and we only hear silence. This argument would be far more convincing if we had lots of epigraphic historical books from the time period but didn't find any independent J or E documents. However the truth is that we lack any Hebrew books from the first Temple Period. We have literally nothing, only small inscriptions on rocks and clay. But nothing that can be called a book. So I have to wonder, is the absence of evidence of J and E evidence of absence when the Torah as whole is absent from the epigraphic material from this time period? If we follow JB's argumentum ad silentio then we would have to conclude that the Torah did not exist until the Second Temple Period, which is certainly not a win for Orthodoxy.

Second, it is unclear what motivates the so-called historian who is credited with having written the accounts of Devarim. When someone wrote a history in the ancient world (and maybe also the not-so-ancient world…), it was with an agenda in mind. The difficulty this presents for the standard source critical approach is best understood with reference to a retelling of history elsewhere: the account of the two monarchies in Divrei Hayamim as opposed to the account found in Shmuel and Melakhim. Divrei Hayamim reveals several consistent phenomena that distinguish it from Shmuel and Melakhim. Divrei Hayamim recounts virtually no disparaging accounts of the life of David. Divrei Hayamim places much more emphasis on the Mikdash than is found in the earlier books. The book’s writer demonstrates a clear agenda of promoting the Davidic dynasty and temple.

But what of the hypothesized historian who composed Devarim? Here, it turns out, it is difficult to identify a consistent agenda for the details provided across its several stories. It isn’t as though Devarim is a “pro-Moshe” account while the earlier versions are “pro-Aharon,” or Devarim “pro-David” while the earlier accounts are “pro-Sha’ul.” We would expect an altered history to reflect a consistently different theme than its rejected version.
Yes almost every ancient history book has an agenda. However an agenda does not automatically equal a polemic. These are two different things and JB seems to be conflating them. Let's say Devarim had an agenda. Fine. Does this agenda have to be contrary to other agendas in other proto-Torah documents? Maybe all of the different accounts support similar agendas and were simply written by different authors with slightly different traditions? I don't see why one source MUST have a different agenda than another.

Truth be told, there is one difference that runs throughout the accounts of Devarim: Israel is consistently portrayed more negatively in the stories of Devarim than in the other accounts. For example, while God told Moshe to send spies in Bamidbar, in Devarim it is the people who push Moshe to do so. Moshe is punished for his own sins in Bamidbar but in Devarim he is punished for the people’s sin. This emphasis does not explain every detail but it is highly present in each of the retold narratives. But whose interest—priestly, Davidic, northern, southern, etc.—is served by retelling the stories in this way?
Maybe one author described Israel more harshly than the other but both wanted to promote the agenda of teaching the reader that when Israel acts bad they get punished. Again could be the same agenda and just slightly different traditions. 

Third, it is difficult to understand why the hypothesized historian chooses to rewrite precisely these seven or eight stories.

Who says he's rewriting? Maybe two authors received similar traditions and each one wrote it their own way? Or they each received slightly different traditions? Maybe the two authors never read each others works. JB is arguing with a very rigidly defined model of Bible criticism which to me seems unnecessary. Yes if the only definition of Bible criticism = a Deuteronomical author responding polemically to J and E authors and this polemical response being incorporated into a book with "one cover" then yes you might have some questions.

The author of Divrei Hayamim, too, retells history selectively, but he covers the whole period of the monarchy. In Devarim, the historian inserts changes in wholesale fashion in every story he recounts. Yet, it is also clear that he is familiar with the Exodus from Egypt and with the Patriarchs. Is it not strange that he saw fit to change so much about a seemingly minor story such as the appointing of judges but has nothing at all of his own to say about the Exodus or the Patriarchs?
Well that's because Devarim is not a history book. It is a speech which Moses is giving to Bnei Yisroel in the Midbar (most of which is about mitzvot not history!) This speech discusses history as much as it furthers the main point of Moses' speech which is "be good and keep the mitzvot or you will get in trouble in the Land". The reason he left out a detailed account of the Patriarchs is for the simple reason that it's not relevant. I dunno where JB got this idea that Devarim, acc. to Bible Criticism, has no goal whatsoever except to polemicize with the histories laid out in J E and P. If there are Bible Critics who say this then I'm very disapointed...

Fourth, the hypothesis of a separate and competing history is compromised by the fact that the accounts of Devarim do not constitute a stand-alone work. Divrei Hayamim never refers the reader back to Shmuel and Melakhim. Readers may make connections themselves between the texts but Divrei Haymim never asks the reader to do so. From an academic perspective, one can read Divrei Hayamim as a stand-alone history to be read entirely in place of Shmuel and Melakhim, and the story makes sense (even if Chaza”l, typically, did not read these books in this way). 
Once again Devarim is not a history book its a speech (unlike Shmuel and Divrei HaYamim which ARE history books).

Crucially, this is not so of the accounts in Devarim. Even as Devarim introduces changes, it also relies on the reader’s knowledge of the earlier versions. Devarim presupposes the reader’s ability to fill in details known to us only from earlier stories, such as the reference to Calev’s exemption from divine wrath (1:36), the sin of Baal Peor (4:3), God’s anger at Aharon (9:20) and the punishment that befell Miriam (24:9). The accounts of Devarim, therefore, are not stand-alone alternative histories but rather supplements that refer back to the earlier versions it supposedly rejects, expecting the audience to be familiar with them.
JB is assuming that Devarim is referring to the accounts of Biblical history that we have. (I.e. Bereishit-Bamidbar). However I'm gonna guess that in the time of the temple there were various traditions and ideas about Israel's past. If you go to someone today and ask them a question about Adolph Hitler, you don't generally need to explain to them that you are referring to the German fascist dictator from WWII. However this is not because you and the person you have asked read the same book or Wikipedia article about WWII but is rather just a matter of general knowledge. Similarly Devarim is clearly catering to an audience familiar with certain aspects of Biblical history. However this may be the general knowledge of the time and may not necessarily mean that the audience was meant to have read a specific account of this Biblical history. We nowadays don't have this general knowledge so we have to rely on the few specific books we have. But, I presume, things were different back then...

Fifth, the narratives of Devarim have a peculiar narratological aspect about them. Most of the stories in the Tanakh are related in third person, by what is sometimes referred to in narratological terms as the “omniscient scribe.” The “narrator” in most passages is detached and objective, representing God’s view of things, as it were. Were the accounts of Devarim the work of a competing historian, why would he present his version in the subjective voice of Moshe? Consider, especially, the fact that Moshe recounts his own failures within these narratives. These accounts are not presented as objective fact but as a call to recollection. Repeatedly, Moshe tells Israel to recall what happened ba’et ha-hi, “at that time” – some nine times over all. Wouldn’t this competing historian want to portray his version in the same authoritative voice of the “omniscient scribe” as is found nearly everywhere else?
Unless the voice of Moses, the leader of Israel and the giver of the law is more authoritative than an anonymous voice. The assumption that anonymous third person = omniscient scribe is a nice idea but it may not be true. Throughout history people have attributed books to important people to make them authoritative. Why should Devarim be any different. JB is also, once again. assuming our author of Devarim is competing with other authors, which, as I've shown, is not necessarily true.

Sixth, and finally, why is this phenomenon of extended conflicting histories limited to the Torah? We have, it is true, two histories of the monarchy, Shmuel/Melakhim and Divrei Hayamim, but those have come down to us as two separate works. Within the Torah we have two histories of the wandering in the desert – one in Shemot-Bamidbar and one in Devarim. Why don’t we have multiple versions of the accounts of the judges within the book of Judges? Or of the career of Sha”ul, within the Sefer Shmuel? If there were, in fact, competing traditions of Israel’s history that were all anthologized at a certain point in time, why are accounts retold in this fashion within a single work only in the Torah, and only with regard to a portion of the desert history?
According to many Bible scholars there are different accounts of Shaul in Sefer Shmuel. Furthermore there are, acc. to the DH multiple accounts in Genesis also and not just in the desert.  So, I have to admit, I'm not sure I understand what JB is saying.

Now, some readers might find some of these challenges more compelling than others.
I find these all very un-compelling I'm afraid.

And some will maintain that the source critical approach is still more compelling, religious belief aside, over the harmonizing strategies surveyed earlier. I would suggest that when the competing explanations before us are each problematic, a viable option is not to choose between them but to frankly admit that we don’t have good options on the table in front of us.
Or we can broaden our understanding of Bible Criticism and take account of multiple authorship without forcing the theory into a rigid untenable pattern which makes it an easy strawman for Orthodox criticism of the DH. I dunno if JB has time for anonymous bloggers such as myself but if he does I would love to hear his response even if its privately by email. 


David Sher said...

I find it rather odd that you posted this detailed critique on this site (which is seldom in use and therefore unlikely to garner comment) instead of simply posting it to the source where it is likely to get a response from Berman himself.

Post a Comment