Monday, May 29, 2006

The Jewish Da Vinci Code

There is a book that has been much touted as demonstrating the human authorship of the Torah, and I believe it is worth discussing the book because I see it as doing the opposite: demonstrating the methodological flaws in such arguments. The book is Who Wrote the Bible? by Richard Elliott Friedman. Friedman is a professor at University of California San Diego. He received his doctorate from Harvard and was a visiting fellow at Cambridge and Oxford (link). In other words, he has solid academic credentials. However, this book is a popular work, a non-technical book intended for a general readership. Thus, it purports to present cutting-edge scholarship to the layman.

In the book, Friedman frames the authorship of the Pentateuch as a mystery which he unravels one layer at a time, until he is able to identify the various authors of the Bible to the point of even being able to name them. Quite a feat, considering he is dealing with history from thousands of years ago! However, the reader with a more solid background in traditional Bible and history will be quite surprised by this book.

Click here to read moreI. Texts and Proofs

The strength of the argument of the Documentary Hypothesis (DH) -- the theory that the Pentateuch consists of multiple documents, written at different times in different places and compiled together by a redactor -- is in its simplicity. Critical scholars have identified all sorts of inconsistencies within the Bible and have utilized the DH to elegantly answer all of those issues. With the DH, all of those problems disappear. This is not to say that there are not other ways of resolving the supposed inconsistencies while still maintaining the single authorship of the Bible. All will agree that such paths exist. However, the DH is presented as being much less complex than those approaches, much more elegant, and therefore by the rules of logic it is the preferred way to solve the problems in the text.

The cogency of Friedman's case is how his theory can explain all of the inconsistencies in the text in one fell swoop. Yet, a closer look at the texts shows that the DH is not as elegant a theory as Friedman claims it is. For example, on pages 53-60, Friedman shows how the Flood story (Gen. 6:5-8:22) can be split into two stories that are sitting side by side: "The very fact that it is possible to separate out two continuous stories like this is remarkable itself, and it is strong evidence for the hypothesis." That would be true, if his claim that there are "two continuous stories" were true. However, a perusal of how Friedman broke the story into separate sources shows that they are not continuous at all. For example, 7:6 is supposed to belong to one source, 7:7 to another, 7:8-9 to the former, 7:10 to the latter, 7:11 back to the former, 7:12 to the latter, and then 7:13 and on to the former. Those aren't two continuous stories but verses plucked out of a narrative that is apparently inconsistent and confused. And then when we come to 7:16, Friedman splits the verse in half! So much for elegance and simplicity. (See also these posts on the Flood narrative: I, II, III)

But the splitting of narratives is only part of the hypothesis. Friedman turns this into a political issue. One source was supposedly written in the kingdom of Israel and another in Judah, a concept for which Friedman finds support in fascinating places. For example, the story of the birth of Jacob's sons has an interesting change in style: the first four sons (Reuben, Simeon, Levi and Judah) are born in passages that use the four-letter name of God (YKVK) while all of the other sons (Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulon, Ephraim, Manasseh, Benjamin) are born in passages that use the name Elokim. This implies that the story of the birth of the first four sons was written by an author in the kingdom of Judah while the birth of the rest of the sons was written by an author in the feuding kingdom of Israel. As Friedman puts it, "In short, the Elokim group includes the names of all of the tribes of Israel. The group of stories that invoke the name of YKVK 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 the other tribes. The only name of a tribe with existing territory in the YKVK narrative is Judah." (pp. 63-64)

At first, this seems fairly convincing. Judah's birth is told by the author writing in the kingdom of Judah while the other's births are told by the author writing in the kingdom of Israel. However, look at the passage itself (Gen. 29:31-30:24, 35:16-20, 41:50-52). Some of the sons are born with use of God's name YKVK, some with Elokim, and some without mention of God's name at all. Who is to say that the births without God's name are Elokim passages and not YKVK? Furthermore, look at the other stylistic differences, such as whether the mother's pregnancy is announced before the birth or not and whether one or two explanations are given for the son's name. The simple split of the passage into two sources fails to account for these stylistic changes.

Additionally, Benjamin is listed in the source supposedly from the kingdom of Israel, while the tribe of Benjamin was a proud part of the kingdom of Judah. And while Ephraim and Manasseh are listed in the source supposedly from the kingdom of Israel, Joseph -- their father -- is in the other source. The elegant solution of the DH is not so elegant after all. In order to explain all of these details, the hypothesis must get increasingly complex until it rivals, or surpasses, other more traditional approaches. (For a literary approach to this passage that accepts the single Divine authorship of the text, see R. Mordechai Breuer, Pirkei Bereishis, vol. 2 pp. 519-533).

Another example is the story of Korach's rebellion. According to Friedman (pp. 192-196), the Korach story is really two stories -- that of the rebellion of Dathan and Abiram against Moses and the rebellion of Korach against Aaron. Because the plot seems complicated, Friedman divides it into two separate passages that have been clumsily -- to the point of obscurity -- merged the two narratives together. This is based on two assumptions: that there were authors with different objectives, one against Moses and another against Aaron; and that a biblical plot must be simple, with clear good guys and bad guys. The latter assumption is quite presumptuous. In the real world, rebellions are based on complex considerations and the people involved usually have different motives. In fact, there is no difficulty in reading the passage straight through, utilizing literary methods to fully describe the story as it took place (see R. Elchanan Samet, Iyunim Be-Parashos Ha-Shavu'a, vol. 2 Korach -- here in Hebrew, and here abridged in English). On the former assumption, see below.

II. Creative History

Fundamental to the entire endeavor of discovering who wrote the Bible is revising the biblical history of Israel. The assumption is that the history as told in the Bible and as understood for millennia is incorrect. This leaves open the door for clever detective work in determining what is the "real" history, the hidden stories of the nation. Being that we are millennia distant from the events and there are very few records from that time, speculation on this subject is just that -- speculation.

Friedman is a master of speculation. He presents a view of history that seems to be just a collection of unproven conspiracy theories. For example, he repeatedly discusses the Mushite priests, priests descended from Moses rather than Aaron. Traditional students of the Bible will surely think, "But all priests are descended from Aaron and not Moses!" In Friedman's version of Jewish history, this is a fallacy promoted by the priests descended from Aaron, who eventually won the power struggle. Thus, the few criticisms of Aaron in the Bible are remnants from the history promoted by the Mushite priests and the few criticisms of Moses are from the hands of the Aaronide priests.

When I described the outline of this argument to my rabbi, he asked if this book is a Jewish Da Vinci code. I found that description so apt that I used it for the title of this post. Specious conspiracy theories with no historical evidence at all -- that's what these are. There is no reason that the Bible cannot occasionally criticize Moses and Aaron without these being based in epic political battles. Quite the opposite, people have been reading these stories for thousands of years and understanding them plainly.

During the time of David and Solomon, there was a rivalry between two leading priests -- Abiathar and Zadok. This is clear in the Bible. Friedman takes this rivalry and turns it into a centuries-long conflict between two competing factions of priests, with alternating periods of ascendancy. Again, this is baseless speculation along the lines of the Da Vinci Code. There is no evidence that this was anything more than a limited competition between two personalities.

However, these conspiracy theories serve as the basis for Friedman's ideas of who wrote the Bible. If one rejects Friedman's revision of history, one is left with some interesting textual phenomena that can be explained in a number of ways.

The value I find in Friedman's work is that it lays bare the specious bases of the Documentary Hypothesis. Yes, there are many important textual incongruities raised by the DH. But its proponents' claim, that it solves all of them in the simplest way and is based on historical considerations, is disproved by this popular work. Friedman's broad claims are a clear example of over-reaching and demonstrates that the DH is a complex and highly speculative explanation of a text that can be explained in other ways.

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