Tuesday, February 01, 2005

So, Who Did Write the Bible?

When people ask me about biblical criticism, I often refer them to Who Wrote the Bible,* by Richard Eliott Friedman. The book offers a clear, cogent (albeit sometimes overly simplistic) defense of the Documentary Hypothesis, and it is easy and fun to read. I'm not out to persuade anyone to accept the hypothesis -- you can believe whatever you like -- but I do get irritated when people make smug deprecating comments about that which they do not fully understand. If you're going to criticize the critics, the least you can do is a bit of background reading.

(Disclaimer: If you fear a spiritual crisis, or if your name is Meredith, you are advised to stop reading now.)

Rabbi David Gottlieb of Ohr Someach had the integrity to read Friedman's book, and he posted a fairly detailed response on his website. Unfortunately, the response is filled with misconceptions, both minor and fundamental. I thought it might be worth responding to the response. (All right, someone asked me to.)

Gottlieb writes:

In describing objections to the traditional view that Moses wrote the Five Books, Friedman includes statements “that Moses was not likely to have said,” – e.g. the statement that Moses was the humblest of all men - and the fact that Moses is referred to in the third person. But these objections ignore the real traditional view that the author of the Five Books is G-d. It is not Moses writing his own story, but G-d telling Moses [sic!] story. Thus referring Moses in the third person is fully appropriate, and there is no failure of humility on Moses part in G-d’s writing that he was humble.

I think that Rabbi Gottlieb is missing the point. Friedman is not arguing with those who claim that God is the sole Author of the Bible. There is no way to refute such a claim. An omnipotent God can write a book in several different styles, using the language of different periods, etc. etc. He can also bury dinosaur bones in the earth and alter the half-life of Carbon-14, just to trick us. A distinction must be made between critical analysis and faith. A critical reader, ideally, makes no assumptions, and accepts whatever conclusions are best supported by the evidence. A person of faith, on the other hand, interprets the evidence on the basis of a predetermined conclusion. The person of faith is satisfied with an argument of plausibility, while the critical reader demands a preponderance of evidence. I do not mean to denigrate faith, but it must be accepted for what it is.

Back to Gottlieb:

Friedman ignores – or is unaware of – the fact that it is standard practice in the Bible for the speaker to use the third person when referring to himself. For example, in Exodus 19,11, G-d is speaking to Moses and says, “… for on the third day HASHEM will descend…” In Joshua 1,9, G-d is speaking to Joshua and says, “…for HASHEM your G-d is with you…”

In both of these cases the speaker is God. The principle cannot be so easily extended to Moses.

Other examples are Exodus 24,1 and I Samuel 12,11.

I don't see the relevance of these passages.

Friedman quotes, and approves the objection of Carlstadt that “…the account of Moses’ death is written in the same style as texts that precede it. This makes it difficult to claim that Joshua or anyone else merely added a few lines to an otherwise Mosaic manuscript.” Again, this is irrelevant to the traditional view of divine authorship – who is to say that G-d will not complete His book in the same style, using a different scribe?

Agreed. However, the traditional view of divine authorship is essentially irrelevant to Friedman's argument.

But even if one assumes that the human writer of the end did so on his own, why would he not imitate the style of the whole? Indeed, Friedman himself (P. 84) uses the very same logic to explain similarities in style in the J and E documents.

Arguments from style are inherently weak. However, Gottlieb's own argument is merely one of plausibility. A critical reader assumes multiple authorship only where there is positive evidence in its favor, and such evidence is conspicuously absent from Deut. 34.

Friedman cites the objection that the phrase “until this day” [for events that occurred in the time of Moses – D.G.] implies that the writer lived at a later time. On p. 21 he says the same for “There never arose another prophet in Israel like Moses….” But again, this ignores the traditional view that the author of the text is G-d Who gave it through Moses for all future generations. Thus it is quite acceptable for there to be passages relating to the time of the later reader.

Divine vs. human authorship aside (I'd rather not beat a dead horse), the fallacy of this argument is immediately apparent to anyone who goes to the trouble of reading the relevant verses. I'll take one example of many, Gen. 35:20: "Over her grave Jacob set up a pillar; it is the pillar at Rachel's grave to this day." I've visited the supposed site of Rachel's burial, and I don't recall seeing a pillar. The verse was written for an audience living when the pillar was standing, not for us.

In addition, there is internal evidence for the traditional view. Genesis 22:14 says “Abraham called the name of that site “Hashem Yireh,” as it will be said this day “On the mountain Hashem will be seen.” Now the verb is in the future tense: it will be said.

Biblical Hebrew has no "future tense" per se. The verb yera'eh is in the imperfect, which is often used for future actions, but may also have a more general durative sense, describing past actions that continue into the present, or present actions that continue into the future.

Similarly, Exodus 10:14 says “[the plague of locusts] was very severe – before it there was no [plague of] locusts like it, and after it there will not be such [a plague].”

The imperfect verb in this verse describes a past action continuing into the author's present. A better translation would be, "after it there would not be such [a plague]."

Friedman cites the objection that the phrase “across the Jordan” to identify Moses location presupposes that the writer was inside the land of Israel, since that phrase refers to the east side of the Jordan. However, according to the text, Moses never entered the land of Israel. Therefore, Moses could not have written that phrase. But the phrase "across the Jordan" is in fact used to refer to the east side of the Jordan even when the speaker himself is on the east side. See Numbers 32:32: "We will cross over ... to the land of Canaan, and our possession of our inheritance [of the land] [will be] across the Jordan." The tribes of Gad and Reuven are agreeing to fight to conquer Canaan and then return to the east side to live. And they make this statement while still on the east side. Nevertheless, they call the east side, where they are standing, "across the Jordan". Moses [sic!] statement should be understood in exactly the same way.

This is a false analogy. The two and a half tribes are saying that they will live across the river from their brethren. The reference point is the territory of the other tribes. The author who wrote that Moses was speaking "from across the Jordan" was also assuming a particular reference point, for a reason: that is where he and his readers lived.

Friedman avers that “… there is hardly a biblical scholar in the world actively working on the problem who would claim that the Five Books of Moses were written by Moses – or by any one person.” Strictly speaking, Friedman is right: no one will say that the Five Books were written by one person. In context, Friedman’s statement is designed to show that the only acceptable view is that of multiple human authorship. But this is a straw man: The traditionalist will also agree with Friedman’s statement, since he holds that it was authored by G-d. Of course, Friedman may intend to exclude the traditional view also. But then he is tendentiously defining who is “really” a biblical scholar to exclude those traditionalists who know the text as well anyone else.

The key phrase here is "actively working on the problem," i.e. the problem of authorship. Those who assume that the Torah was written by Moses at God's dictation cannot be included in this category.

Friedman assigns the story of the rape of Dinah is assigned [sic!] to J, including the explanation of the possession of Shechem by conquest. According to Friedman, E contradicts this explanation by saying that the land was purchased. But neither passage has any divine name at all. So the identification of the authors is one the basis of the theory that there are two authors with their different points of view. But then this passage cannot be evidence for the theory, since it must be assumed that the theory is true in order to show that there were two authors.

This is an important point, but it is based on a fundamental misconception. The variation in divine names was the basis for some of the earliest source identifications, but it is not as central to the Documentary Hypothesis as many laypeople assume. If it were, the hypothesis would indeed be very weak. No reasonable person would argue that a single author could not refer to the Deity by multiple names. The strength of the hypothesis lies in the fact that these different names correlate with different styles, different perspectives, and, in the case of the narratives, contradictory storylines. These other criteria make source criticism possible even where God is not mentioned, or where the names He is given are irrelevant (such as after God reveals his name to Moses in Ex. 3). In this particular instance, one suspects the presence of multiple sources because two different accounts are given for the acquisition of Shechem. The next step is to figure out which source is which on the basis of the available criteria (ideology, style, etc.).

I say that this is an important point because source criticism is, in fact, largely circular. A circular argument is not "proof" in the mathematical sense, but that does not mean that it is worthless. As the old adage goes, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Take a look at Friedman's analysis of the flood narrative in Who Wrote the Bible, pp. 54-59, or in The Bible With Sources Revealed, pp. 42-47. The narrative divides neatly into two strands, each with its own characteristic language and narrative style, and each of which is more coherent than the composite text. An impartial reader will conclude that the most reasonable explanation for the present state of the text is that two versions of the story have been woven together.

Here is Friedman’s account of the sons of Jacob in the sources J and E. “The group of stories that invoke E are the stories of Dan, Naftali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulon, Ephraim, Manasseh, Benjamin. In short, the E group includes the names of all the tribes of Israel. The group of stories that invoke the name J are the stories of Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah. The first three of the four names on this list are the names of tribes who lost their territory and merged into other tribes. The only name of a tribe with existing territory in the J narrative is Judah. The J story goes even further to justify the ascendancy of Judah….” But this ignores the many passages in which the children are identified as twelve – Gen. 35: 23ff., 45: 8ff., 49: 1ff.

Nowhere does Friedman state that J only knew of Judah or that E only knew of the northern tribes. The issue is one of emphasis. While E is primarily interested in narrating the history of the northern tribes, J tends to focus on Judah, and depicts Judah as the "honorary firstborn."

And the blessing to Judah in chapter 49 – an essential motivation of the J source, according to Friedman – does not use J at all. Indeed, the whole context has J only once – in the blessing to Dan, who belongs to the story of E according to Friedman.

In fact, Friedman attributes the entire poem to J (see Sources Revealed, pp. 114-116).

Friedman says that J justifies Judah as king by disqualifying his three older brothers – Reuben for having had relations with Jacob’s concubine. But the sentence describing this crime – Gen. 35: 22 – is the last verse in a passage – 35: 9-22 – in which the only name that occurs is E – three times.

Gen. 35:22a is actually something of a non sequitur, and it does not contain any divine names. Vv. 9-21 are irrelevant.

According to Friedman there are two stories of Joseph being saved from the brothers – for E it is Reuben who saves Joseph; for J it is Judah. But the text uses no divine names at all. So Friedman can only distinguish the authors by assuming his theory is true. But then the title of his section – “Evidence from the stories” – is wrong. The story cannot be evidence for the theory since we have to accept the theory in order to interpret the story in accordance with the theory.

Again, the proof is in the eating. See Sources Revealed, pp. 94-95.

According to Friedman E portrays Joshua as Moses’ faithful assistant. In J Joshua plays no role. But Ex. Chapter 32 – the story of the golden calf – starts with E and then switches to J, and the verse mentioning Joshua, which occurs in the J section, has neither name.

After God reveals His name to Moses in Ex. 3, both E and P begin to use the tetragrammaton. For the purpose of source criticism, the names are irrelevant in Ex. 32.

According to Friedman the story of the golden calf is invented by priests living in the northern kingdom who have been rejected as priests by the northern king. The story is an implied critique of both north and south. But then how did it become the accepted orthodoxy? Why did not the northern priests succeed is quashing it? How did it spread to the south? Indeed, how did a brand new invented story by a small, rejected group, with clear, self-serving political motivation, get any attention at all?

These are valid questions, and they cut to the heart of what is, I believe, the central failing of Friedman's books. Political motivations can explain many things, but they cannot explain the preservation of these texts and the sacred status ultimately accorded to them by the Judahite people as a whole. The ancient Israelites were not, apparently, as cynical as R. E. Friedman.

According to Friedman Aaron is not criticized in the story of the golden calf since according to the tradition he was a high priest, and as such “…he cannot be pictured as suffering any hurt from G-d….” I suppose Friedman means this as an observation concerning the general religious mores of the times. But then we read in the recapitulation of the golden calf [Deut. 9: 20] “And G-d was outraged with Aaron to destroy him”.

E's chief consideration here is, according to Friedman, not ideological but historical:

[N]o matter how much antipathy the author may have felt toward Aaron's descendants, that author could not change the entire historical recollection of his people. They had a tradition that Aaron was an ancient high priest. The high priest cannot be pictured as suffering any hurt from God because in such a case he could not have continued to serve as high priest (p. 72).

Back to Gottlieb:

Friedman points out that the story says gods in the plural even though there is only one calf because Yerovom had two calves and the writer quoted his [sic!] in order to discredit his religious practice. But this makes the story itself incoherent. What is the polemical effect of a story that is obviously incoherent to even the casual reader?

The issue is not merely that "Yerovom had two calves," but that the words "Here are your gods, Israel, that brought you up from the land of Egypt" are identical to those used by Jeroboam in 1 Kgs. 12:28. In Friedman's words:

the writer of the golden calf account in Exodus seems to have taken the words that were traditionally ascribed to Jeroboam and placed them in the mouths of the people. This made the connection between his golden calf story and the golden calves of the kingdom of Israel crystal clear to his readers (p. 73).

Back to Gottlieb, again:

According to Friedman there is a difference between J and E concerning idol worship and manufacture. J forbids only molten statues. E prohibits both moten and gold-plated statues. Friedman’s explanation: Yerovom’s calves were molten while Solomon’s cherubs were gold-plated. Thus J condemns only Yerovom’s practice in the north – that fits J as a southern source. E condemns both – that fits E as a northern source criticizing both north and south. But the original cherubim of Moses were in fact solid gold – see Ex. 25:18 and 37:6 – and those passages are J.

The Hebrew term is miqshah, usually translated "beaten work," which may refer to gold leaf. In any case, the verses that Gottlieb cites are P, not J.

Furthermore, the text in I Kings 8:1-4 says explicitly that Solomon put the aron of Hashem – whose cover is the molten cherubim – in his temple.

There is no reference to the material of which the cherubim are made in this passage.

According to Friedman, “E rather attributes much importance to the Tent of Meeting….but it is never mentioned in J.” [Friedman’s italics.] Now there must be some mistake here – there are many passages in which the only name is J in which the Tent of Meeting is mentioned, for example: Ex. 30: 16, 18; 40: 7, 30; and especially 33: 7 where it gets its name!

The mistake is Gottlieb's. These passages are P.

According to Friedman, J is sympathetic to women and E is not. But see Ge. 21:1-13 – the passage begins with J, but it is E who commands Abraham to obey Sarah, and the passage continues with E saving Hagar. And see 31:1-16 – when Jacob’s uncle and cousins turn against him, and G-d commands him to return home, Jacob invites his wives to a private conference in which he describes the facts and the women give their free consent [“All the G-d has told you to do, do!”]. This is exemplary consideration for his wives – and aside from one J at the beginning, the whole passage is E.

Friedman never claims that E is unsympathetic to women. His claim is that J's stories are "much more concerned with women and . . . sensitive to their needs" [italics mine] than E's. That said, I basically agree with Gottlieb. This argument is silly.

One standard problem with all of this is the inconsistencies [sic!] in the character of the imagined editor. He preserved both documents because the people were familiar with them – but he cut and pasted them so that the result was very different from each. He cut and pasted to avoid doubts concerning authenticity, but he left in obvious contradictions and redundancies – precisely the material that leads the “critics” to doubt authenticity.

Interesting, isn't it? The redactor seems to have been more concerned with preserving the sacred texts than with ironing out the contradictions. One might reasonably ask why he would have bothered combining them at all, and indeed, this has been the subject of much historical conjecture. My favorite theory is that Artaxerxes called upon the various peoples of his empire to compile written collections of their local laws (see Ez. 7:23-26). The Judahites, for whatever reason, included their historical texts in this volume.

Another standard problem is to identify the editor. In chapter 13 Friedman votes for Ezra. But this creates an historical problem. In Ezra’s time most Jews were living in Babylon, there was a sizable community in Alexandria, there was the community in the land of Israel, and smaller communities elsewhere. None of these communities is supposed to have the five Books, since that text has not been invented yet. And different groups supported different texts [p. 225]. Now Ezra is creating a major revolution: replacing all the partial texts with a brand new text. There is no discussion of this event anywhere – no record of objections, those who accepted and those who rejected the text, no celebration of the new text, no myth of Ezra’s holiness etc. etc. I suggest that this silence of the historical record is enough by itself to reject Ezra – and anyone else living in a time to which these facts apply.

I suggest that any such objections would have been suppressed.

One final observation: Friedman remarks that in the world that produced the Bible “[p]robably the most important single thing was religion.” Yet the motivations that Friedman assigns to the writers of the various texts are political, economic, and personal. There is no pure religious motivation at all. I think that is very strange. Well, not so strange – I can easily understand why it appeals to Friedman and his colleagues. It casts religion in a thoroughly modern image, their own image. But it is surely very suspect as a reasonable reconstruction of the psychology of 2500 years ago, as Friedman’s own remark above attests.

Again, I agree that Friedman is often too cynical. However, I am skeptical of the notion of "pure religious motivation" in any context, particularly a context in which religion permeates every aspect of life. It can hardly be denied that religious people often conflate their own will with that of the Almighty. I could easily begin a discussion of contemporary politics right now, but this post is long enough as it is.

* The title is misleading. Who Wrote the Torah, or Who Wrote the Pentateuch, would have been more accurate. The former, I suppose, sounded too Jewish, and the latter would have made the average layperson scratch his head, so Friedman ended up with a gross inaccuracy. That's what happens when you write for the masses.

1 comment:

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