Category Archives: Religion


2017-02-24

The Dates of the Dead Sea Scrolls

by Neil Godfrey

As set out in a previous post, when the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered they were dated on palaeographical (handwriting) analysis before the time of King Herod (37 to 4 BCE) or at least not later than the earlier years of Herod — before 20 BCE. We saw in the same post how the various scripts were subsequently recalibrated so that they brought the Dead Sea Scrolls into line with the Jewish Revolt of the late 60c CE. The handwriting styles of the Dead Sea Scrolls were aligned so that many of them were fresh and hidden in caves around 68 CE.

But how valid are the dates assigned on those palaeographic script charts? Not all scholars accept that recalibration as the final word.

 A first observation is that the small number of decades separating mid-first century CE from the time of Herod is barely greater than acknowledged  margin of error, but that is not the important point.

The important point is the circularity in which scribal hands of texts from Qumran’s caves were defined after 1951 as dated as late as the first century CE because those defining the palaeographic sequences believed Qumran scroll deposits at the time of the First Revolt had been firmly established archaeologically. No information in the years since has materially altered this epistemological circularity. Radiocarbon dates on Qumran texts that have been done until now have not altered this picture.

— Doudna, Gregory L. 2017. “Dating the Scroll Deposits of the Qumran Caves: A Question of Evidence” in The Caves of Qumran: Proceedings of the International Conference, Lugano 2014, edited by Marcello Fidanzio. Brill, Leiden, Boston. 

It was believed that a script belonged to the time of the Jewish revolt (66-70 CE).

Therefore the script was formally dated in the chart to the time of the Jewish revolt.

And the chart thereby became the standard for dating the scripts.

Here is how Frank Moore Cross chronologically aligned the different scripts of the Hebrew letter he, ה, referencing very early Aramaic texts, the Dead Sea Scrolls and later scripts.  read more »


2017-02-23

On Not Reading the Bible Too Seriously — As Its Authors Intended

by Neil Godfrey

My reflections on reading the story of Abraham setting out to sacrifice Isaac as a children’s story brought to mind a more mature understanding of the Bible’s narratives discussed by in The Mythic Past: Biblical Archaeology and the Myth of Israel by Thomas L. Thompson. (The same book is published under the title The Bible in history : How Writers Create a Past, so don’t be fooled and buy both books like I did!)

Most Christians and Jews do read the story of the “Binding of Isaac” or Akedah as it’s more technically called correctly, though perhaps not always realising it. What I mean is that most readers do not really take it literally with all its psychological horror. Most readers, correctly at the story level and as the narrator evidently intended, admire Abraham for his faithfulness and obedience. The problem, the horror, descends only when we treat it as literal history and a genuine account of a real God, and give our minds over to that same God.

Here are some of Thomas L. Thompson’s more realistic explanation of the story. By realistic I mean reading it the way the narrator presented it and no more.

The first reference comes as a comparison with the story of Saul who fails God’s test by sparing the lives of the cattle after killing the enemy soldiers. read more »


2017-02-16

Dating the Dead Sea Scrolls — #2

by Neil Godfrey

This post needs to be read in conjunction with How Dating the Dead Sea Scrolls Went Awry — #1. We concluded in that post with: “the resetting of the palaeographic dates to conform with artefacts in Qumran was based on three assumptions, all of which were “deeply flawed.”

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Assumption 1: 

All pottery more recent than the Iron Age (age of Assyria, Babylonia, etc) was the product of a settlement in the first century CE era.

Doubts: 

The second excavation (1953) uncovered activity from the first century BCE.

Recall that jar embedded in the floor of Locus 2 — it was of the same kind found in Cave 1 with the scrolls.

Coin of Antigonus II Mattathias — image from Zurqieh

Coins were found there from the time of Antigonus Mattathias, 40-37 BCE, one right beside that jar.

That jar in Qumran’s Locus 2 was now re-dated to the first century BCE. That is, that room was now BCE, not CE.

But the first century CE date held for the Qumran “community” by arguing that the room was swept clean and re-used through the first century CE by the “community” or people who would be related to the scrolls.

That is, despite the discovery of BCE setting, the CE date for the scrolls failed to budge. 1951 saw the date revised and that revision uncritically held fast despite the new archaeological discoveries.

Although excavator of the site Roland de Vaux belatedly acknowledged in a public lecture that the scroll jars in the caves were indeed from the first century BCE (1959) and eventually published the same point (1962) he never provided specific details. I can imagine that such vagueness did little to prod a critical reevaluation of the widespread acceptance of the first century CE date for the scrolls.

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Two other assumptions filled the gap left by the awareness of evidence that there was BCE settlement activity and the site was not exclusively CE.

Assumption 2: 

(a) A single group controlled and inhabited Qumran throughout the period 150 BCE to 68 CE. (Apart from a short hiatus around the turn of the century.)

(b) Scrolls would have continued to be deposited throughout the entire duration of that settlement — that is, they would have continued to be deposited up to the time of the Jewish War. 

Doubts:

This assumption likewise began to crumble:

As is well known, many archaeologists have rejected this second foundational assumption. That is, they reject a Ia/Ib or Ib/II continuity in people and function at Qumran (e.g. Bar Adon, Humbert, Hirschfeld, Magen, Peleg). (Doudna 2017, p. 241)

The following table gives us the idea: read more »


2017-02-15

Dating DSS Awry #1 — Appendix

by Neil Godfrey

This post is an appendix to How Dating the Dead Sea Scrolls Went Awry — #1.

Solomon Birnbaum’s palaeographic dating of the DSS to the mid 1st C BCE was published in the Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research No. 115 (Oct., 1949), pp. 20-22, “The Date of the Cave Scrolls“.

Birnbaum compared the Isaiah Scroll from Cave 1 with the Nash Papyrus. He set out key letters from each as follows:

read more »


How Dating the Dead Sea Scrolls Went Awry — #1

by Neil Godfrey

For this post I am returning to Gregory Doudna’s 2014 conference paper, Dating the Scroll Deposits of the Qumran Caves: A Question of Evidence.

In the 1990s Doudna raised the question of whether the Qumran cave scrolls had been deposited as late as the first century CE. This was the first time since the excavation of the Qumran settlement in 1951 that the question had been raised.

In this post I want to attempt to set out Doudna’s explanation of how dating the scrolls went (in his view) so wrong.

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1947 – Discovery and the first dating

When the scrolls were first discovered they were dated by Solomon Birnbaum and William F. Albright to the mid first century BCE.

This period was based on palaeographic analysis of the script.

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1949 – the first dating confirmed

read more »


2017-02-14

Qumran Not a Sectarian Community – #2

by Neil Godfrey

Continuing from Qumran Not a Sectarian Community #1 . . . .

Industrial activities

There was no lack of raw materials suitable for industrial uses in the region and we even have evidence for production of commercial resources but scholars have generally tended to downplay such activities as being only minor side-pursuits of otherwise occupied scribes. We pick up from the previous post by noting the kinds of industrial activities that one might reasonably have expected to see at Qumran as an integral extension of the Jericho royal estate and subsequently under Herod.

Keep in mind what such a list would mean for any scribe or monastic sectarian wanting to lodge there.

Leather and parchment

Sandals from Qumran — image from Pinterest

Qumran would have helped meet the high demand for leather sandals and aprons generated by the “intensive building programme of the Hasmoneans and, in particular, Herod.” Winter saw flocks brought into the area where aged animals and surplus male lambs and kids would have been slaughtered for their skins.

The production of leather was a malodorous and fly-ridden process. Not only was there the blood from the butchered beasts but the hair was removed from the hides by being soaked in dung and urine. The mid-second century CE author Artemidorus, a native of Ephesus, wrote:

‘The tannery is an irritant to everyone. Since the tanner has to handle animal corpses, he has to live far out of town, and the vile odour points him out even when hiding… The vultures are companion to the potters and the tanners since they live far from towns and the latter  handle dead bodies’ (Interpretation of Dreams I: 54; 2:20).

In the Mishnah it was written that both pottery kilns and tanneries should be at least 50 cubits from a town (Baba Bathra 1:10, 2:9); Qumran was considerably further than that from the Palaces of Jericho! Although the tanner was viewed negatively because his handling of dead animals, and the use of urine and dung in the preparation of hides, would cause him to be ritually unclean (Jeremias 1969: 301-12), nevertheless his products, from water skins to sandals and phylacteries, were in demand and the specialist preparation of parchment on which sacred texts could be written was regarded as an honourable profession. (pp. 53-4)

Early archaeologists conducted scientific tests on at nearby Eini Feshka for the possibility of a tanning operation for the production of parchment but apparently with negative results. No-one bothered with similar tests at Qumran, however, because . . . .

Analyses looking for residues from tanning were carried out at Ein Feshka but not at Qumran itself because, it was assumed, ‘the community would have been too strict to permit’ tanning there (Poole and Reed 1972: 151– 152; de Vaux 1973: 78-82). (p. 71)

Firm belief that a scribal sectarian community occupied Qumran has blinded scholars to the evidence, according to Stacey:

Although Poole and Reed contended that ‘in neither of the two “industrial” quarters has a tannery been  recognised’, they accepted that ‘many of the constituent rooms have pits, vats or cobbled floors (suggesting that wet work was carried out there)’. They recognized that water was a ‘valuable commodity’, but concluded that it  could not ‘have been spared for tanning purposes’ and that ‘the community would have been too strict to permit’ (Poole and Reed 1972: 151 –2) tanning, a conclusion clearly reached not by scientific investigation, as they only did tests in Ein Feshka, but by accepting the prevailing theory of a permanent sectarian community. Perhaps they should have stuck to their scientific guns and concluded that the limited water supply and the nature of the tanning process meant that it was unlikely that any ‘sectarian community’ ever lived at the site, and insisted that analyses were carried out on sediments at Qumran. (p. 54)

Glue  read more »


Qumran Not a Sectarian Community (Essene or Otherwise): Argument from Archaeology – #1

by Neil Godfrey
Fundamentally people will continue to accept an interpretation of the site that best satisfies their own psyche, although I hope that they will take into account my redating of its development. — David Stacey

I have frequently heard of doubts that the Qumran (the site of the Dead Sea Scrolls) consisted of Essenes or even of any sectarian community at all, but until today I have not taken time out to read some of the relevant studies. Today I have come across many arguments denying that Qumran was ever a long-term site for a religious community of any kind, and certainly not a monastic-type of sectarian one. Not even Essenes set up base there. So I’ll set out here a subsection of those arguments. I’ve been reading articles, papers and chapters that cried out for my attention directly and indirectly as a result Gregory Doudna’s 2014 conference paper, “Dating the Scroll Deposits of the Qumran Caves: A Question of Evidence” (published 2017 in the conference proceedings, The Caves of Qumran) — see the previous post — and what follows is taken from the chapter by archaeologist David Stacey in Qumran Revisited: A Reassessment of the Archaeology of the Site and its Texts, and that he has helpfully placed online at academia.

I set out here Stacey’s argument that is based entirely on the archaeological evidence without any reference to the contents of the scrolls. Of course some may object that this is not fair since the contents of the scrolls are also part of the archaeological finds and they, too, need to be taken into account. So if we read in the scrolls evidence that they were written by a sectarian community, one vehemently opposed to the Jerusalem Temple establishment, for instance, then that information cannot be ignored. Bear with me. By the time we have finished these posts we may be wondering if some of us have rather been reading stories of a sectarian and anti-priesthood community into, not in, the scrolls. One step at a time.

Compare Steve Mason, Josephus, Judea and Christian Origins, p. 240:

Such a circular method — we interpret Josephus’s statements about the Essenes in light of the DSS and then use the alleged parallels to prove the identity of the two groups — could not generate stable results.

David Stacey begins by noting the circularity of the argument that the Qumran site was a base for Essenes.

Concepts found in the sectarian literature of the scrolls, and in references to Essenes by various classical authors, were freely used to interpret aspects of the archaeology of Qumran, and these interpretations then used, in a circular argument, to ‘prove’ that the site was ‘religious in character, with special ritual observances of its own’ (de Vaux 1973: 87). (Stacey, p. 71. My own bolding and formatting in all quotations)

Stacey’s background as an archaeologist is in studying sites nearby Qumran (e.g. Jericho) from the same general period. His conclusion is that the Qumran site was for most of the two centuries either side of the BCE/CE dividing line a seasonally occupied malodorous site producing leather, glue and dyes for wool. It was deserted every summer when it became “unendurably hot” for both humans and flocks.

Not a very romantic picture, is it. Stacey better have some good arguments if we wants to shatter illusions of a scholarly community happily withdrawn from the outside world and dedicated to writing and studying scrolls.

The concept of a community of poor sectarians isolated in the desert and busily writing scrolls has some obvious appeal for scholars labouring in the ivory tower of academe, or for theologians sequestered within their own esoteric communities.

Furthermore it is the romantic, mystical aura that has been generated around Qumran that sells semi-popular books, fills lecture halls, and brings in the tourist, not the unremarkable ruins themselves.

Any indication that the site may have existed solely to play a small part in the local regional economy will be resisted as an altogether too mundane concept. (p. 71)

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Not so isolated

The isolation of the site has been stressed by those who believe it was occupied by a monastic type of sect. For example on BiblePlaces.com we read:

10 miles south of Jericho, Qumran was on a “dead-end street” and provided a perfect location for the isolationist sect of the Essenes to live.

Stacey suggests that the sense of isolation at the time of the discovery of the scrolls in nearby caves was magnified by the geo-political situation at the time:

The modern geo-political situation at the time of the excavations meant that Qumran was exaggeratedly isolated, being close to a border between hostile modern states. Although the actual border between Jordan and Israel was, until 1967, some kilometres to the south (to the north of Ein Gedi) the ruggedness of the terrain south of Ein Feshka meant that Qumran was very much a border post. When I hitch-hiked to Qumran in 1964 the only vehicles in the vicinity of Qumran were military, the few people one saw were soldiers, and there were signs warning of imminent mine fields further south. Similar warnings could be seen, I later noticed, on the other side of the border, immediately north of Nahal David in Ein Gedi. This apparent isolation at the time of the excavations added artificial weight to the concept of a secluded community that had been gleaned from both the sectarian scrolls and the classical authors. (p. 7)

Stacey discusses in detail the site’s administrative and economic links to Jericho and further, quoting a line from Yizhar Hirschfeld, writes:

Qumran was only one of several sites along the western littoral of the Dead Sea to be developed during the Hasmonean period, most probably by Jannaeus [103-76 BCE], who, eventually, gained control of land to the north-east of the Dead Sea where he established a fortress at Machaerus, c. 90 BCE (War  7.6.2). Harbour installations were built at Rujm el Bahr and at Qasr el-Yehud/Khirbet Mazin (Bar-Adon 1989) and a large structure at En el-Ghuweir was built (Bar-Adon 1977).37  Further south Ein Gedi continued to be a thriving settlement. Qumran was thus ‘a  veritable maelstrom of activity rather than an isolated ascetic site’ (Hirschfeld 2004b: 213).

Similar scenarios are depicted for the later Herodian period.

To give some background to that preceding quotation notice what the Qumran tower indicates.

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The tower

Image from Virtual Qumran

read more »


2017-02-12

Dead Sea Scrolls — All Well Before Christ and the First Jewish War

by Neil Godfrey

A paper presented last the Caves of Qumran 2014 conference at Lugano, Switzerland, by Gregory L. Doudna argues that

the traditional dating of the scroll deposits of the caves of Qumran to as late as the time of the First Revolt [66-70 CE] is supported by neither evidence nor plausibility. (Doudna 2017, p.238)

Doudna’s paper makes its case through the following steps:

  1. All historical references within the Dead Sea Scrolls pertain to the second and first centuries BCE; there are no allusions to any persons or events after Herod’s taking of Jerusalem in 38 BCE.
  2. The common view that on the basis of palaeography that the scrolls date up to the time of the first Jewish revolt against Rome has been based on circularity and flawed assumptions.
  3. Flawed assumptions about the contemporaneity of two classes of phenomena: “scroll jars and scroll deposits on the one hand, and first-century CE refugees or fugitives’ fleeting use of caves on the other.”
  4. Jars of the type that contained scrolls and palaeographic dates “provide no basis for confidence that those texts were first century CE.”
  5. Biblical texts found at sites other than Qumran, between Herod and the Jewish revolt, all contain carefully copied exact-Masoretic text type (i.e. were carefully and exactly copied in agreement with the basis of our Old Testament books) yet the Qumran biblical texts are varied in their copying (i.e. they followed no standard text). The simplest explanation is that the Qumran texts represent a pre-Herodian time when the text was not standardized.
Matthew 5:18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. (NIV)

That last (fifth) point surprised this amateur. I had not been aware of the evidence that the Masoretic (Hebrew) text of the “Old Testament” was stabilised so early. As Doudna remarks, on the assumption that the Gospel of Matthew was composed in the first century,

Once this is realised, no longer will the saying of Matt. 5:18 referring to iotas and keraias in the writing of scribes scrupulously copying the books of Moses with letter-perfect accuracy, and, alluding to the decorative keraias of the most developed formal hands, be regarded as anachronistic. Matt. 5:18 may become recognised as a realistic allusion to scribal practice and ideology before the destruction of the temple, yet postdating the latest texts of Qumran. (Doudna, p. 246)

Doudna suggests that the I would like to revisit some of my recent thoughts and posts arising from Eva Mroczek’s The Literary Imagination in Jewish Antiquity to consider whether this data has implications for some aspects of just how loose were the concepts of “sacred scriptures” and “canon” in the Second Temple era.

In this post I would like to take time to grasp Doudna’s first point about the historical references and allusions in the scrolls all pertaining to the pre-Christian era. With new ideas I’m a slow and painstaking learner so to help me grasp the point I followed up the following in Doudna’s paper:

A 2003 study of Michael Wise remains the most comprehensive attempt to inventory the historical allusions in the Qumran texts. Wise counted what he defined as “first-order” allusions, and not “second order” allusions (allusions that depend on the correctness of a prior allusion identification), which Wise suggested would have increased — perhaps doubled — the numbers if that were done. Wise counted 6 allusions in the second century BCE, rising dramatically to 25 in the first century BCE ending at 37 BCE. Then, 0 for the first century CE, 0 for second century CE, etc. Other studies have found this same pattern of distribution. (Doudna, p. 239)

Off to JSTOR to locate Wise’s article, then: “Dating the Teacher of Righteousness and the Floruit of his Movement,” JBL 122 (2003): 53-87.

Wise demonstrates the history of uncertain and contradictory results from paleographic dating and writes:

Paleographic dating is imprecise because it is inherently subjective. (Wise, p. 57)

There’s an entire post there just to draw out the substance of that claim. Wise further points out the evidence against the once popular idea that there was a single community of scribes responsible for the copying of all of the scrolls.

The presence of hundreds of different hands seems inexplicable unless the majority of the scrolls originated elsewhere than at Qumran. (Wise, p. 59)

The following table is a précis of Wise’s more detailed data:dead read more »


2017-02-08

Divine Revelation Not Limited to the “Bible Canon”

by Neil Godfrey

Don’t think of books. Think of open databases, literary projects, both earthly and heavenly archives. Ben Sirach, for example, becomes a generative character or figurehead from whom writings flowed like canals from a river. That’s how Eva Mroczek, Literary Imagination in Jewish Antiquity, says we should understand the way ancient Jewish scribes (Second Temple and gospel era) thought of their writings and their literary environment.

Revelation originated from the heavens and could never be grasped in all its fulness by any mortal; there was always room for more understanding and knowledge of the spiritual. There were writings that only the chosen few saints had ever seen, writings preserved in the heavens. Enoch was secreted away and continues to write until the time of the end.

A sacred writing could never be bound complete between two covers or within a single earthly scroll. There would always be room for more revelation. Of the making of books there will be no end.

An “author”, at least the inspired author, a heavenly figure perhaps, who sowed the poetry of praise or the sayings of wisdom in a mortal scribe, might spawn many varied works over time. Hence “David” could author countless psalms, only a small sample of which were ever captured for our canon. Other Davidic psalms were extant, some were composed relatively recently. They were all in a figurative sense authored by David since psalms were attributed to him as a way of fleshing out further the character and life of David. It was not so much that David’s name was attached to a psalm to impute authority to the psalm; no, it was rather that David was associated with the psalm to enrich the narrative about David, to transform David in a way to enable him to speak to a new audience. This world of attribution was not unique to the Judea’s:

In fact, such a sense of character-driven literary creativity is attested elsewhere in the ancient world, in some theories about Homer from the Hellenistic period, where the character becomes the affective centre of the poetic creation. Poetry . . . is generated from infatuation with one of the characters, who is prior to, and drives the creation of, the narrative. (p. 56)

So in the case of the Psalms of David. . .

Making psalms “Davidic” is not precisely attribution, as little evidence exists for a claim that David personally composed the psalms, but dramatisation and historicization. But this process of dramatising and historicising psalms is motivated not by the texts of the psalms themselves, but by an interest in the character who comes to animate the texts. It is the desire to reflect and elaborate on particularly compelling aspects of David’s character — David the sufferer, the penitent, the pursued — that is behind the creation of the expanded headings. Put simply, dramatising the psalms in his voice gives this David more things to say. (p. 63)

We are not only talking about the Psalms of David and the different canonical counts of these but of the wider literary world — of writings attributed to Enoch, to Solomon, to Moses, to Abraham, to Zephaniah . . . . .

In many Second Temple texts, we see an awareness of a literary world that is ancient, varied, and not fully accessible. In texts like Enoch, Jubilees, and many traditions about the patriarchs from the Dead Sea Scrolls, for instance, we see the notion of a long history of revealed writing stretching back long before Sinai, and forming part of the stories about Israel’s ancient ancestors. We see scribes recognizing the authority and divine origin of texts like the Enoch literature, Jubilees, and these patriarchal traditions, which present themselves not as derivative of or dependent on material we now call biblical, but indeed, prior to it. And while specific texts that have come down to us, like the Enochic material, are recognizably used in other literature, early Jewish texts also mention many writings that we cannot identify with any extant texts — writings that may have been lost, like the book of Noah, or were always only imagined, like the heavenly Book of Life.11 (pp. 116f.)

The authors of the scriptures (like Jubilees and the Temple Scroll) that not part of our canonical Bible did not appear to view their work as attempts to fill in the gaps or clarify and explain the canonical texts. These non-biblical texts do not present themselves as subordinate to the Pentateuch or Prophets, buy as new revelations from a divine sourceread more »


2017-02-07

How Bible Contradictions Began

by Neil Godfrey

Even ancient scribes had problems with some of the laws that were decreed from the mouth of the Almighty himself. Take the commandment against idolatry thundered from Mount Sinai:

You are not to make yourself a carved-image
or any figure
that is in the heavens above, that is on the earth beneath, that is in the waters beneath the earth; 
you are not to bow down to them,
you are not to serve them,
for I, YHWH your God,
am a zealous God,
calling-to-account the iniquity of the fathers upon the sons, to the third and fourth generation
of those that hate me….

(Exodus 20:4-5, Everett Fox trans)

Poor unlucky great-great-great grandchildren.

Fortunately for those innocents scribes or priests knew how to subvert God’s command.

But since they are playing with God’s own words they need to be clever enough to avoid detection.

The first rule they followed was to remain anonymous. Mustn’t make it easy for God to identify the culprit.

Just as there is not a single law in the Bible that Israelite authors do not attribute to God or his prophetic intermediary, Moses, so is the converse also true. In the entire Hebrew Bible, not a single text, legal or otherwise, is definitively attributed to the actual scribe responsible for its composition. Except for the prophets, biblical authors never speak explicitly in their own voice. Instead, they employ pseudonyms or write anonymously. Proverbs, for example, is attributed to Solomon by means of its editorial superscription (Prov. 1:1), while Ecclesiastes is similarly ascribed to “the son of David, king in Jerusalem” (Qoh. 1:1). Neither of these attributions withstands critical examination.28 Such attributions seem rather to function to lend greater authority or prestige to a literary composition by associating it with a venerable figure from the past . . . (Levinson, Bernard M. (2003). “You Must Not Add Anything to What I Command You: Paradoxes of Canon and Authorship in Ancient Israel”, Numen, 50.1, p. 15)

It was a different matter if laws were merely “man-made”. What one mortal decreed another mortal could strike out and replace. So it was, for example, with ancient Hittite laws as we see from the following case:

If anyone blinds a free person or knocks his teeth out, formerly they would pay 40 sheqels of silver, but now one pays 20 sheqels of silver. . . (Hittite Laws #7, cited in Levinson, 2003)

Inflation or the greater need to allow for knocking out the eyes and teeth of undesirables required a change in the law and it was effected as simply as the above example shows.

But one can’t be so blunt if the laws have been divinely revealed from heaven.

Before showing how the literate class managed to nullify God’s eternal words let’s see where the idea of punishing future generations originated. It did not begin with God, but God picked it up from his reading of Near Eastern treaties. read more »


2017-02-03

Myth of popular messianic expectations at the time of Jesus

by Neil Godfrey

I am copying here a post I just submitted on another forum, so with apologies to readers who have already seen this . . . .

This topic is not about “Jewish prophecies of the messiah’s arrival”. It is not about the second century Bar Kochba rebellion. Nor is it even about popular beliefs and attitudes at the time of the 66-73 CE Jewish war.

It is about the historical evidence we have or don’t have (that is the question) for:

  • widespread/popular expectations
  • of the appearance of a messiah figure to liberate Judea from Rome
  • in the early years of the first century, let’s say up to around year 30 CE

I often read and hear scholars and lay people alike saying that Palestine or the Jews generally were strongly anticipating a messianic figure to appear around the time when, lo and behold, Jesus happened to appear. This is so often said in a way that assumes it is a well-known and indisputable fact of history. But some years ago when I started looking for the evidence supporting this claim (I fully expected to find plenty) I found the task was not so easy. What was cited as evidence so often appeared to me to be vague, imprecise, ambiguous at best and very often simply not relevant — not the sort of data that historians usually like to use as foundations for hypotheses.

I have since been reassured that I was not crazy or blind by discovering several reputable scholars who do say as much: that there is scant to no evidence for

  • widespread/popular expectations
  • of the appearance of a messiah figure to liberate Judea from Rome
  • in the early years of the first century, let’s say up to around year 30 CE

I recently set out details of this [absence of] evidence in a series of blog posts responding to Richard Carrier’s arguments and supporting citations attempting to establish a popular messianic “movement” in early first century Palestine.

The details are covered in that series of posts but I will outline them here:

The Dead Sea Scrolls

Yes, there are messianic references found in some of these. But they are in fact very few compared with the total number of scrolls and surviving manuscript fragments. This relative “fewness” does not lead us to think that messianism was a particularly major preoccupation of the sectarians producing or using those scrolls (assuming “sectarians” of some sort were responsible for them).

Moreover, the messianic references that do exist do not, if I recall correctly, give any indication that a messiah was to appear “within a few years/generation” around the early first century (or any specific period). One could write of a doctrinal belief in a messianic future without being hung up about it and getting everyone around enthused to expect it to happen “any day now”.

Besides, one has to ask the extent to which the contents of the DSS throw a light on the beliefs and attitudes of the more general illiterate population.

Other Second Temple writings

The main criticisms — especially relative fewness of the references, and their generalised (nonspecific) character — raised re the DSS also apply here.

Often these writings speak of God himself directly acting in some future day of judgment. We are so accustomed to think of God doing this through a messiah that we sometimes read a messianic figure into these passages. But like the OT books, most prophecies about the “last days” do speak of God directly acting in the world and make no mention of a messianic intermediary.

Besides, is it not a giant leap to impute to the illiterate population at large certain emotional or psychological attitudes towards passages in these texts that attract our attention?

Were not those who read, studied and discussed such texts just a tiny fraction of a percent of a tiny fraction of a percent of the entire population?

The OT books

Much the same criticisms as above apply here, too. read more »


2017-01-30

The Teacher of Righteousness and Understanding the Authority of Fiction

by Neil Godfrey

One of the books I am currently reading is The Literary Imagination in Jewish Antiquity by Eva Mroczek and I was intrigued by her discussion of how the scholarly community have debated the historicity of the “Teacher” who speaks powerfully of his experiences in the Thanksgiving Hymns of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Many scholars have identified the Teacher of Righteousness (otherwise known from the Damascus Document) as the author of these hymns. Notice, for instance, the introduction to the Thanksgiving Hymns by Wise, Abegg and Cook:

The intensely personal tone of the songs known commonly as Thanksgiving Hymns stands in sharp contrast with the rest of the scrolls. The author speaks of himself in the first person and recounts an agonizing history of persecution at the hands of those opposed to his ministry. In addition, the writer describes having received an empowering spirit granting him special insight into God’s will (1QH3 4:38), opening his ears to wonderful divine mysteries (9:23), using him as a channel of God’s works (12:9), and fashioning him as a mouthpiece for God’s words (16:17). Indeed, in col. 26, he claims that no one compares with him, because his office is among the heavenly beings. These are bold affirmations for any leader, reminiscent of various messianic claimants of both ancient and more recent history.

The unique personal presentation of the work and the self-conscious divine mission of the author have led many researchers to conclude that the psalms were written by the Teacher of Righteousness himself. Some students have attempted a more refined analysis in order to isolate “true” Teacher psalms at the center of the collection (cols. 10—16 according to one, 13—16 in the eyes of another; see Hymns 10—13,15—20,23), noting that the themes of personal distress and affliction as well as the claim of being the recipient or mediator of revelation are especially strong here. Only one thing is sure: the debate will continue.

Michael Wise, Martin Abegg Jr, and Edward Cook, The Dead Sea Scrolls: A New Translation, 2005. pp. 170-71.

Eva Mroczek is writing about literary/philosophical character of Ben Sirach and finds a parallel with the Teacher of Righteousness who is sometimes said to be the author of the Thanksgiving Hymns among the Dead Sea Scrolls. From pages 98 and 99:

Another example of such a rhetorical strategy is the so-called Teacher Hymns in cols. 10-17 of the Hodayot or Thanksgiving Hymns from Qumran. These first-person compositions have been read by some Qumran scholars32 as the ipsissima verba of the Teacher of Righteousness, an enigmatic figure who appears as a founder and leader of the sectarian community in some Qumran texts. The hymns, then, were imagined to be the creative autobiographical work of this putative individual, and were mined for information about this mysterious figure’s life. For example, Michael Wise has extracted from these hymns not only data about the Teacher’s life, persecution, and exile but also insights into his spiritual life—and even his name.33

But over time, as Max Grossman has shown, scholars began to question the idea that the Teacher of Righteousness is the “author” of these texts—that this figure is a historically locatable individual who can be imagined as an individual creator of the textual products of the Qumran community.34 With regard to the poetic Thanksgiving Hymns, it is doubtful that they can be used to reconstruct the historical and interior life of a specific individual. An excellent critique of the tendency to read the Hodayot as autobiography comes from Angela Harkins,35 who argues that such a reading is rooted in Romantic ideas of individual authorship that are foreign to Jewish antiquity. . . . 

But no specific historical figure can be reconstructed from poetic hymns: they use familiar images and literary tropes, including first-person references to suffering and persecution that are not to be understood as biographical accounts of specific historical experiences. The “I” of the hymns can, instead, be understood in other ways . . . . The first-person voice is perhaps representative of the “office” of an inspired community leader and the ideal, exemplary teacher, rather than reflective of a specific historical personality.37 Or, as Harkins suggests, it is a “rhetorical persona” to be actualized by the reader in ritual performance: the reader embodies the “I,” and the text becomes an “affective script for the reader to reenact.”38

Okay, time to check out some of those end-notes. read more »


2017-01-13

The Gospels as Creative Rewriting (like rewritten biblical books)

by Neil Godfrey

Back in 2010 the University of Copenhagen published news of a project to “map the development of the four gospels in order to establish that the Gospel of Luke is not, as believed so far, a contemporary of the Gospel of Matthew, and that the shared content of the two is not to be explained by the existence of a lost scripture [i.e. Q], but by the fact that the author of St. Luke’s Gospel used St. Matthew’s Gospel as well as that of St. Mark as basis for his own scripture.” See Scholars will explode the myth of the New Testament.

(For yet another work by Morgens Müller discussed on this blog, see Paul: The Oldest Witness to the Historical Jesus.)

A Facebook reader reminded me of this post a few days ago and asked me what the outcome of this project had been. One outcome appears to be Luke’s Literary Creativity – a work edited by Mogens Müller and Jesper Tang Nielsen that I look forward to reading in the coming months. Meanwhile I can discuss another essay by Mogens Müller that appears to be related to the same project,

The New Testament gospels as Biblical rewritings : On the question of referentiality

By “the question of referentiality” Müller means the question of “whether the story told refers to real incidents.” To what, exactly, do the narrative’s episodes refer? How much is historical? How much fiction? Are our attempts to make such black and white distinctions anachronistic? Müller draws upon Ulrich Luz’s Studies in Matthew in which the gospel is compared with Greek literature that intends to reference and describe “historical” or “factual” events. Luz believes that the author of the Gospel of Matthew

must have known that in his writing, to some extent, he reshaped the Jesus-tradition or even invented it. (p.22)

Müller’s article led me to Luz’s study but it soon became obvious I would not be able to merge the two discussions into a single post. Luz’s book requires separate treatment so I will restrict this post to Müller’s article and a few of his references to Luz. The argument that arises is that the Gospel of Matthew is a re-writing of the Gospel of Mark much as

  • 1 and 2 Chronicles are re-writings of the books of Samuel and Kings,
  • or as Deuteronomy is a rewriting (possibly in King Josiah’s time?) of the Covenant narrative found in Exodus-Numbers,
  • or as Jubilees is a rewriting of Genesis-Exodus,
  • or as the Genesis Apocryphon is a rewriting of the patriarchal narratives in Genesis,
  • or as Pseudo-Philo’s Book of Biblical Antiquities and
  • Josephus’s first eleven books of Antiquities are rewritings of biblical narratives.

Some scholars have even seen parts of Genesis 1-11 as a rewriting of the Epic of Gilgamesh. A re-writing can be found in the same book with a single narrative repeated in different ways: the Abraham and Isaac / Sarah and Rebecca narratives contain three narratives that are all duplicates – Gen. 12:10-20; 20; 26:1-11 – changing to gradually conform more and more closely to Mosaic law.

What is going on here? Why do authors feel at liberty to take existing texts and change them here and there, keeping the original outline more or less in tact but feeling free to add details and to omit others, and changing the way some stories are told so that they present readers with a new lesson that contradicts the original one?

What is going through the authors’ minds as they are reading Genesis or the Gospel of Mark and deciding what elements to change or omit and where to inject new material? Can they really be thinking that Genesis or the Gospel is a true account of historical events that must be preserved for posterity in the way a Greek or Roman historian felt a desire to preserve for posterity the best and most authoritative account of a people’s past?

To try to answer these questions it is useful to identify the characteristics of a “rewritten bible” and here Müller uses the nine characteristics singled out by Philip S. Alexander on the basis of Jubilees, Genesis Apocryphon, Pseudo-Philo’s Book of Biblical Antiquities and Josephus’s Antiquities.

  1. “Rewritten Bible” texts are narratives following a sequential chronological order;
  2. On their face, they are free-standing compositions replicating the form of the biblical books on which they are based;
  3. Despite superficial independence of form, these texts are not intended to replace, or to supersede the Bible;
  4. “Rewritten Bible” texts cover a substantial portion of the Bible;
  5. They retain the biblical order of events but can be very selective in what they represent;
  6. The intention is to produce an interpretative reading of Scripture;
  7. The narrative form means, in effect, that they can impose only a single interpretation on the original;
  8. The narrative form also precludes making clear their exegetical reasoning;
  9. “Rewritten Bible” texts draw on non-biblical sources, whether oral or written.

Müller’s conclusion:

This means that rewritten Bible texts, by their very existence, document that the texts they are rewriting have not exclusively been understood as being referential with regard to the events which have really taken place. This would have precluded the freedom of their “rewriters.”

Apparently, they are foremost perceived as theological texts, not so much aiming at information as at preaching.

Put another way: In their rewriting they intend to mirror the heavenly forces that, according to these authors, are active in their readers’ lives. Thus it is this “truth” and not some “historical” fact, they are aiming at describing. (p. 23, my bold and formatting in all quotations)

read more »


2016-12-15

Some preliminaries before resuming Gmirkin’s Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible

by Neil Godfrey

I originally wrote the following as an introduction to my next post on Russell E. Gmirkin’s new book, Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible. On reflection, it was too long to be part of a post addressing the book so here it is a separate introductory post instead.

Our historically conditioned deafness to oblique [and not so oblique] allusions in the Bible can sometimes lead us to doubt their very existence. — The New Moses (1993) p. 18

That was written by Dale C. Allison when he was arguing that the evangelist who composed what we know as the Gospel of Matthew was inspired by the story of Moses when he composed his particular Jesus figure. If it is difficult for many readers to accept that the figure of Moses was woven into the lineaments of Matthew’s Jesus, how much more difficult might it be to accept that much of the Pentateuch and other works in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament were modeled on the literary, philosophical, political and cultural worlds of the Greeks?

If that sounds like too much to take in at first consider the following:

The Religious Tolerance website lists the following evidence for Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch:

There are about two dozen verses in the Hebrew Scriptures and one dozen in the Christian Scriptures which state or strongly imply that Moses was the author. Consider the following passages from the New Living Translation (NLT):

  • Passages in the Pentateuch itself:
    • Exodus 17:14Then the Lord instructed Moses, ‘Write this down as a permanent record…‘”
    • Exodus 24:4Then Moses carefully wrote down all the Lord’s instructions.”
    • Exodus 34:27And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Write down all these instructions, for they represents the terms of my covenant with you and with Israel.‘”
    • Leviticus 1:1The Lord called to Moses from the Tabernacle and said to him, ‘Give the following instructions to the Israelites…‘”
    • Leviticus 6:8Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Give Aaron and his sons the following instructions…‘”
    • Deuteronomy 31:9So Moses wrote down this law and gave it to the priests.”
    • Deuteronomy 31:24-26When Moses had finished writing down this entire body of law in a book…
  • Passages elsewhere in the Hebrew Scriptures:
    • Joshua 1:7-8…Obey all the laws Moses gave you.
    • Joshua 8:31-34He followed the instructions that Moses the Lord’s servant had written in the Book of the Law…
    • Joshua 22:5…obey all the commands and the laws that Moses gave to you.
    • 2 Chronicles 34:14…Hilkiah the high priest…found the book of the Law of the Lord as it had been given through Moses.
  • Passages in the Gospels which show that Jesus and John the Baptizer believed Moses to be the author:
    • Matthew 19:7-8…why did Moses say a man could merely write an official letter of divorce and send her away?”, they asked. Jesus replied, Moses permitted divorce…‘”
    • Matthew 22:24Moses said, ‘If a man dies without children…‘”
    • Mark 7:10For instance, Moses gave you this law from God…
    • Mark 12:24…haven’t you ever read about this in the writings of Moses, in the story of the burning bush…
    • Luke 24:44…I told you that everything written about me by Moses and the prophets and in the Psalms must all come true.
    • John 1:17For the law was given through Moses…
    • John 5:46But if you had believed Moses, you would have believed me because he wrote about me. And since you don’t believe what he wrote, how will you believe what I say?
    • John 7:23…do it, so as not to break the law of Moses…
  • Passages elsewhere in the Christian Scriptures:
    • Acts 26:22…I teach nothing except what the prophets and Moses said would happen…
    • Romans 10:5For Moses wrote…

The earliest books of the Bible themselves tell us that they were written by Moses. See the side box for details. But we are not children so we do not blindly believe everything we read, although even children sometimes want to know how we know certain claims are true. The Book of Enoch testifies that it was written by the “seventh from Adam”/the great-grandfather of Noah and it was quoted faithfully in the New Testament (Jude 1:14 and elsewhere) as the true words of Enoch by the same kinds of people who believed Moses wrote the Pentateuch. The self-witness alone of any document or literature requires some form of independent testimony before we know how to interpret its historical value:

. . . . only in special cases does there exist a tradition about a given literary production independent of the self-witness of the literary production itself; and that the person who utilizes a literary-historical tradition must always first demonstrate its character as a historical document. General grounds of probability cannot take the place of this demonstration.

Those words are from an academic paper delivered in 1904 by E. Schwartz: cited in a 1991 chapter by Luise Abramowski titled “The ‘Memoirs of the Apostles’ in Justin” pp.331-332 published in “The Gospel and the Gospels” ed. Peter Stuhlmacher. If you want something more recent, try Philip R. Davies in his ground-breaking 1992 work, In Search of Ancient Israel. I have outlined his essence of his argument at The Bible – History or Story? Or if you don’t want to skip to another page then read on. Davies, himself a biblical historical critic, goes for the jugular of traditional biblical historical criticism when he writes of the circularity of its methods:

This circular process [that is, assuming a self witness of a document is true and then arguing the document is true on the basis of its self-witness] places the composition of the literature within the period of which the literature itself speaks. This is precisely how the period to which the biblical literature refers becomes also the time of composition, the ‘biblical period’, and the biblical literature, taken as a whole, becomes a contemporary witness to its own construct, reinforcing the initial assumption of a real historical matrix and giving impetus to an entire pseudo-scholarly exercise in fining the literature into a sequence of contexts which it has itself furnished! If either the historicity of the biblical construct or the actual date of composition of its literature were verified independently of each other, the circle could be broken. But since the methodological need for this procedure is overlooked, the circularity has continued to characterize an entire discipline—and render it invalid.

The panoply of historical-critical tools and methods used by biblical scholars relies for the most part on this basic circularity. (Davies, 1992, p. 37)

Anyone can write a story pretending its narrator really lived in a time long ago. This can be done for any number of reasons . . . Testing the claims of our sources is not hyper-scepticism: it is the most fundamental rule of historical inquiry.

In other words, anyone can write a story pretending its author really lived in a time long, long ago. This can be done for any number of reasons ranging from entertainment to philosophical or religious instruction. Every witness in a court of law is required to establish its credibility, first at the outset by pointing to verifiable independent external witness and/or then under cross-examination. That’s not “hyper-scepticism”. Testing our source documents is common sense and the most fundamental rule both of any form of detective work and historical inquiry. It is also fundamental to basic literary analysis and criticism.

Or even more recently, move forward to 2001 and Niels Peter Lemche’s chapter, “The Bible – A Hellenistic Book”, in Did Moses Speak Attic: Jewish Historiography and Scripture in the Hellenistic Era:

It seems obvious to most scholars that our estimate of the age of a certain book of the Old Testament must be founded on information contained in the book itself and not on other information, and the estimate should certainly not be based on the existence of a historical background that may never have existed. Although seemingly self-evident, this method is not without fault, and it may easily become an invitation to ‘tail-chasing’, to quote Philip R. Davies. By this we intend to say that the scholar may soon become entangled in a web of logically circular argumentation which is conveniently called the ‘hermeneutical circle’ . . . .  Another point is that it is also supposed that the reading of a certain piece of literature will automatically persuade it to disclose its secrets — as if no other qualifications are needed.

The first point to discuss will be the circular argumentation that is based on a too close ‘reading’ of the biblical text. Here the first example will be the books of Samuel [containing the stories of Kings Saul and David]. Some assume that these books must be old simply because they say that they are old. The exegete who claims that the books of Samuel must perforce be old will . . . have to accept the claim of the books themselves by either rather naively assuming that Samuel could be the author (as the later Jewish tradition did proclaim) or by more sophisticated argumentation, for example, of the kind formerly often used to prove narratives like the ‘Succession Story’ to be old because only an eye-witness would have been acquainted with the particulars of the family of David.

How to escape this circularity?

In order to escape from the trap created by this circular method of argumentation and the rather naive understanding of the biblical text that lies at the bottom of such claims, it will be necessary to go further and find arguments not necessarily part of the biblical text itself but coming from other sources. Such information alone will be able to disclose to the reader that the books of Samuel were composed, not at the moment when Israel got its first king, but at a much later date. (pp. 292-94, my emphasis)

Scientific procedure or its reverse?

Although it has become a standing procedure in the study of the Old Testament [Gospels] to begin where we know the least and to end at the point where we have safe information in order to explain what is certain by reasons uncertain and from an unknown past, it is obvious to almost everybody else that this procedure has no claim to be called scientific. We should rather and as a matter of course start where we are best informed. Only from this vantage should we try to penetrate into the unknown past. (p. 294, my emphasis)

The Book of Daniel likewise claims to set in the time of the Babylonian empire but few critical scholars, I believe, would accept this narrative claim at face value. No doubt that’s mostly because this book gives the game away too easily by making prophecies that can be followed in our history books right up to the third century BCE. (There are historical anomalies that also betray the fiction, but alone I suspect that those anomalies would be “less persuasive” for many.)

So after the above preliminaries hopefully those for whom the idea that even the Pentateuch and other books in the Old Testament could possibly be late Hellenistic works appears to be outlandishly novel are a little more amenable at least to its possibility. I have presented aspects of the opening chapters of Russell Gmirkin’s Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible in previous posts; one more will follow soon.