Review of The Formation of the Pentateuch: Bridging the Academic Cultures of Europe, Israel, and North America, ed. J. Gertz, B. Levinson, D. Rom-Shiloni, K. Schmid (Mohr Siebeck, 2016)

 

The major challenge facing current research on the Pentateuch is outlined in the introduction: “In the three major centers of research on the Pentateuch-North America, Israel, and Europe-scholars tend to operate from such different premises, employ such divergent methods, and reach such inconsistent results that meaningful progress has become impossible. The models continue to proliferate but the communication seems only to diminish” (p. 3). Thus the lofty aim of the volume, “to further the international discussion about the Pentateuch in the hope that the academic cultures in Israel, Europe, and North America can move toward a set of shared assumptions and a common discourse” (p. 4).

There can be no doubt that the massive tome represents a step in the right direction. Formation has contributions from a bevy of important scholars on topics relevant to Pentateuchal study, including empirical perspectives on the composition of the Pentateuch, narrative continuity, historical linguistics and the dating of biblical texts, Second Temple literature and Dead Sea Scrolls, evidence for redactional activity, integration of preexisting literary material, historical geography, the Former Prophets, the Law and the Prophets, and theological implications, and each section is prefaced with a helpful introduction to orient the reader, some making substantive contributions to the discussion in themselves.

The individual articles are by and large interesting, the scholarship well informed and original, and the presentation focused and succinct, which is a remarkable achievement considering the diverse backgrounds and perspectives of the contributors. I may quibble with the relevance or inclusion of certain papers, whose payoff is relatively light or whose discussion is speculative/idiosyncratic and diverts from the main themes, but such diversity and inclusiveness is perhaps a strength of the volume as well, documenting a range of views (though this is certainly not an advantage in terms of book length and price!). Formation reflects the state of contemporary Pentateuchal study and is particularly valuable for its self-conscious reflection on methodological and theoretical questions.

As far as whether any bridging of the various academic schools regarding the composition of the Pentateuch has occurred here, I am more skeptical. By my reading, the neo-documentarian and non-documentarian/source-supplement approaches are still like two ships passing in the night, both sides entrenched as ever in their fundamental assumptions about the literary formation of the Pentateuch. Thus, Formation is better seen as a prelude to future breakthroughs and mutually achieved insight than evidence of any movement toward shared methodological and theoretical principles.

Regardless, in my judgement the case for a source-supplement model comes off the stronger over the course of the volume. Carr’s discussion of documented cases of transmission history shows that scribal transmission was often fluid and characterized by secondary coordination and the partial preservation of precursor materials (pp. 87-106), which renders various arguments for a neo-Documentarian hypothesis problematic. Ska notes that the sources of the Pentateuch aside from P lack real plot continuity and that there are important breaks between narrative complexes (pp. 201-222), which militates against large-scale continuous sources in non-P. Zahn employs Qumran material to argue that significant portions of a text’s compositional history may be unrecoverable because of rewriting and interventions of various kinds that leave no trace in the textual record (pp. 491-500). Kratz proposes that the evidence for revision and supplementation in reworked Pentateuchal manuscripts from Qumran provide a model for understanding how the Pentateuch developed in earlier periods (pp. 501-24). Ska compares the MT, SP, LXX, and Qumran fragments to show that copyists and scribes worked with a degree of freedom in reproducing biblical texts (pp. 567-77).

Baden’s responses are limited to a defense of plot analysis as the key to identifying discrete sources (pp. 243-51) and the argument that gaps in literary continuity do not necessarily undermine the integrity of a source as a self-standing composition (pp. 283-92). For example, “Once the plot contradictions are resolved, if we are left with a narratively coherent text, that text can, like any text ancient or modern, accommodate stylistic and thematic and theological complexity” (p. 251). However, the resolution of contradictions into a seemingly readable text is not a reliable means for identifying continuous sources, since there are potentially many, many ways to construct such a text that do not bear on its original shape and it also ignores the diachronic complexity introduced by scribal transmission and revision as discussed by Carr and others. Baden’s point that a source may have severe gaps and still have once represented a continuous document is well taken. But he fails to note that such gaps make it all the more difficult to distinguish independent J and E documents per the neo-documentarian theory because it is difficult to know on strictly literary grounds what is continuous or discontinuous with what.

Although the discussion is still highly fragmented, the future of Pentateuchal study looks brighter today because of Formation and the kind of scholarly dialogue that its organizers are encouraging, and for that they are to be thanked and congratulated.

[Note: I received a free review copy from the publisher]

Some methodological guidelines for the dating of biblical texts

One of the central preoccupations of modern biblical scholarship has been the dating of individual texts to particular historical situations or relative to other texts, as well as reconstructing their diachronic development from earlier stages to the final forms that appear in various text traditions/translations (LXX, Qumran, MT). And while I think this is a worthwhile endeavor and ultimately necessary to explain the complex literary quality of the Bible, too often hypotheses have been advanced based merely on vague historical correlation, the desire to find kernels of great antiquity, and the assumption that biblical scribes were for the most part simply editors or tradents handing down earlier tradition. At the same time, the traditional dating of biblical texts has tended to lack engagement with holistic literary and ideological analyses or fail to entertain the possibility that the scribes responsible for large-scale compositions were simply inventors of tradition.

I have a lot more I could say about this, but in the interest of encouraging more methodological rigor and self-criticism in the dating of biblical texts I thought I would offer a few basic guidelines:

1) The burden of proof is on those who would date a text earlier than its surrounding literary context;

2) Such proposals also move on a sliding scale, the earlier one dates a text relative to the major contexts for the production of the Bible (Persian and Hellenistic periods, late Judahite monarchy) the more speculative and tenuous the argument becomes;

3) To demonstrate literary discontinuity requires a higher bar of evidence than continuity, i.e. on principle readings that make sense of the text at a synchronic level are to be preferred over diachronic readings.

Chaoskampf, the Garden of Eden, and the Mountains of Lebanon

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I have a new paper up on the Garden of Eden that explores its mythological background in Canaanite-Israelite mythological tradition. Among other things, I argue that the mysterious ʾēd that comes up to water the ground in Gen 2:6 is correctly translated “flood” and that the motif hearkens back to an ancient Canaanite myth in which El created the world through defeating the primordial Sea monster. This discovery then leads me to reconstruct how the biblical Garden of Eden story has evolved over time, with particular emphasis on the identity of YHWH-Elohim and the original mountain location of Eden in Canaan. I show how at an earlier stage in the narrative the divine protagonist was likely El rather than YHWH-Elohim and that the site of Eden has been adapted from Mount Lebanon to a non-defined place somewhere on the eastern horizon.

Review of R. Kratz, Historical and Biblical Israel: The History, Tradition, and Archives of Israel and Judah (2015)

 

Historical and Biblical Israel: The History, Tradition, and Archives of Israel and Judah, by Reinhard Kratz, is a revised and enlarged English edition of a work that originally appeared in German. Following in the footsteps of the bold 19th century exegete J. Wellhausen, Kratz aims to clarify the relationship between the Israel of history and the “Israel” of the Bible and to reconstruct the historical evolution by which the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament came to be an authoritative tradition for Judaism and Christianity. The work is divided into three sections that build on one another: first, a survey of the history of Israel and Judah until the destruction of the Second Temple as the context in which the biblical tradition arose (part A), second, an investigation into the formation and literary development of that tradition (part B), and lastly, a consideration of the role of scribal archives as the setting in which biblical literature was produced, edited, and transmitted (part C).

 

Although some of the content has appeared elsewhere separately, the book represents a notable contribution by one of the foremost scholars in contemporary Hebrew Bible study. It succinctly summarizes a wide range of historical and textual research, provides a comprehensive and original synthesis of the data, and could easily function not only as an introduction to German critical scholarship but as an entree to salient discussions and primary resources by means of the thorough and up-to-date footnotes and bibliography. Historical and Biblical Israel is clearly the work of a seasoned scholar who has distilled a vast amount of learning into a rather slim and compact volume.

 

What distinguishes Kratz’s reconstruction of the origin of the Hebrew Bible from other treatments is the degree to which he critically contextualizes it in the larger sweep of political, religious, and cultural history, from the earliest attestation of Israel to the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. The outline of history in part A allows him to see the biblical tradition as largely the product of a period subsequent to the destruction of the Israelite and Judahite kingdoms, when the biblical authors sought to found a new cult and religion, namely biblical Israel/Judaism. In part B the identification of pre-biblical written sources based on historical and comparative considerations is then used to determine how individual traditions were transformed over time into the books of the Bible, which process is dated according to major epochs and caesuras in Israel and Judah’s own history. Finally, in part C Kratz discusses epigraphic evidence from known centers of scribal literary production to suggest that the tradition of biblical Judaism did not become widely authoritative in Palestine or the diaspora until after the Maccabees and Hasmoneans established it as their official religion. The upshot is that while we can trace biblical tradition back to its monarchic-era roots, this religious tradition was of marginal significance in terms of its cultural impact and coexisted with the Canaanite milieu of ancient Israel and Judah that remained dominant in the region until well into the Second Temple period.

 

I think in general Kratz’s analysis is strong and well-reasoned. His integration of the Bible with primary source material is methodologically circumspect, if at times slightly optimistic about the value of the biblical narrative as a historical source. Although different scholars may not find his reconstruction to be altogether convincing, his conclusions are balanced and judicious. Kratz carefully weighs interpretive options, guides the reader through the steps of his argument, and often acknowledges when the available evidence prevents firm decision.

 

Of the various sections, part B will probably invite the most criticism, since it is here that Kratz relies upon the very complex and hypothetical enterprise of literary-historical criticism of the Bible. He does not provide detailed argumentation for his reconstruction of literary development, but only refers to previous publications, which is perhaps understandable considering the nature of the book. Nevertheless, I thought there were a number of assertions and claims made in this section that lacked persuasiveness. For example:

 

  • The biblical books’ authors and copyists arose from scribes who worked outside of state-sponsored institutions (p. 63). The criticisms leveled at the court and temple in literature set in the monarchic period in my view do not necessitate the assumption that they rejected these institutions or were unconnected with centralized institutions in the post-monarchic period. The scribal archive at Qumran seems an inadequate model for thinking about the origin of the biblical tradition.
  • The legal collection of the Covenant Code originated apart from the early Exodus narrative through a process of oral tradition (pp. 67-68, 84). As it stands, the Covenant Code appears to be a literary composition integral to the larger narrative context. Nowhere does Kratz engage with D. Wright’s proposal that the Covenant Code is literarily dependent on the Code of Hammurabi.
  • The concept of a conditional relationship with God was first developed by the prophets (p. 76). This suggestion is obviously dependent on Wellhausen, who characterized the prophets as religious innovators and the discoverers of ethical monotheism. But it can no longer be taken for granted that the books of the prophets reflect the historical situation they describe or preserve authentic original teaching. In general, the prophetic books appear to have been constructed by a later readership and so presuppose external religious development.
  • The stories of Genesis originated from oral traditions of different tribal groups in ancient Palestine (p. 81, 108). Kratz tends to assume that literary depictions of ancestral figures or regional heroes stem from a long chain of oral/written tradition. But in fact we have little evidence that this was the case, and I think this approach to tradition-criticism underestimates the ability of scribes to function as creative authors who invent tradition.
  • The exodus-conquest story is exclusively Israelite (p. 81). In the fiction of the narrative the people of Israel is inclusive of Judah (cf. Josh 7:1, 18), so the emphasis on Israel seems an inadequate basis upon which to literarily differentiate the story from the Genesis narratives.
  • The Deuteronomistic history originated around 560 BCE (p. 86). Kratz does not explain why a date immediately after the end of the monarchy is more plausible than a setting during the Second Temple, and neither does he devote much attention to clarifying the identity and origin of the Dtr authors.
  • Wisdom literature was progressively theologized (p. 91). The idea that wisdom sayings in Proverbs were originally secular and became theologized over time seems circular, since it requires judging the theological elements of the sayings as essentially secondary.
  • The redaction responsible for the primeval and patriarchal narratives is distinct from that of the exodus narrative (p. 97). While this view is common enough in European scholarship, it would have been helpful to provide more substantiation for this thesis. At least in my mind, it seems less than obvious that the patriarchal, Joseph, and exodus narratives in their earliest literary form would have had separate origins. Too often the tradition-historical approach assumes diverse origins as the only viable solution to the problem of literary fractures.

 

Despite these disagreements over literary history, Kratz can only be offered fulsome praise for his daring attempt to produce a synthetic reconstruction of the origin of the Hebrew Bible and to make it available to a broader readership. His writing is compressed and yet clear and accessible, and the glossary at the end of the book will assist those less familiar with the technical terminology of academic biblical studies. Finally, although the book is strictly historical in its interpretation of the development of the biblical tradition, the author ends with an eloquent postlude directed at those who may have concerns that the conclusions reached in the book undermine religious faith.

[Note: I received a free review copy from OUP]

Review of Thomas Römer, The Invention of God (2015)

 

In the Invention of God, Thomas Römer tackles the perennial question of the origins and evolution of the god of Israel. Incorporating a wealth of archaeological and biblical data, Römer traces the complex and multi-layered history of the deity, showing how an obscure desert war god YHWH eventually became the singular God of monotheistic religions. Although the topic has received extensive treatment in recent decades, Römer’s discussion is fresh, accessible, and state of the art, demonstrating a broad knowledge of various disciplines and fields of study and especially critical analysis of the biblical texts.
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Hannah, Samuel, and Saul in 1 Sam 1:1-2:11a*

 

hannah-praying-woodcutI have posted the first installment to my series on the literary history of 1 Sam 1:1-4:1*. The introduction to the series can be found here and the first installment on 1 Sam 1:1-2:11a* here. In order to illustrate the discussion of particular units and verses in the body of the paper and show how the textual and literary evidence all fits together, I have also created hypothetical versions of the different stages of the text here.

Some of the highlights and main contributions of my study of these chapters so far include:

–I have found two main compositional layers behind these chapters, first an early source originally belonging to a Saul narrative and then a Dtr adaptation of that source into a Samuel narrative. The Dtr adaptation is then followed by separate redactional trajectories reflected in the LXX, MT, and 4QSama.

–The early source underlies material in each of the three chapters of 1 Sam 1:1-4:1a, though it is in a fragmentary state and no longer reconstructable as a continuous narrative.

–I believe I have offered the strongest argument to date for identifying the original child of the birth story as Saul rather than Samuel, and further argue that the location of the temple that Saul was brought to was near Gibeon rather than Shiloh.

–I have found that the Samuel narrative of 1 Sam 1:1-4:1a, to distinguish it from the early source, was likely always part of a broader Dtr narrative that included parts of the book of Judges.

–The MT recension has an abbreviatory character in terms of its preservation of the earlier Dtr Samuel narrative.

–In terms of the history of ideas, the early source seems surprisingly comfortable with iconolatrous religious practice and cult, whereas the later Dtr adaptation and subsequent redaction, particularly in the MT, becomes progressively more stringent and rigorous in its theological outlook.

–The lifelong nazirite dedication of the child is likely secondary to the narrative. Originally the child was dedicated for temple service during his childhood as a form of “child sacrifice”.

–Part of the song of Hannah seems to have been original to the early source and was not imported from elsewhere, contrary to the general thinking of much critical scholarship, though it has clearly been a focus of redactional interest.