Bible Origins — continuing Wajdenbaum’s thesis in Argonauts of the Desert

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by Neil Godfrey

This post continues with further introductory themes in Dr Philippe Wajdenbaum’s Argonauts of the Desert. The posts are archived here.

How late was the Bible? And who really wrote it?

It has become a truism that the Bible, or let’s be specific and acknowledge we are discussing the Old Testament or Jewish/Hebrew Bible, is a collection of various books composed by multiple authors over many years. All of these authors are said to have “coincidentally” testified to the one and only true God of the Jewish people. The mere fact that multiple authors spanning generations wrote complementary works all directed at the reality of this God working in human affairs is considered proof that we are dealing with a cultural and religious heritage, a common tradition belonging to a single people over time.

A few scholars have challenged that thesis and the most recently published of these is Philippe Wajdenbaum. He writes:

To have a single writer for Genesis-Kings, and possibly for other biblical books, contradicts the idea of the transmission of the divine word, and of a tradition proper to a people. (p. 11)

The idea of a single author does not conflict with the understanding that the sources of the Bible were drawn from archives of Israelite and Judahite kings as well as Mesopotamian and “Canaanite” and other sources. WP claims that the traditional scholarly hypotheses of authorship and origins of the Bible are in fact secular rationalizations of cultural myths about the Bible. But I will discuss this in a future post.

I read relatively widely from the works of the “minimalists” some years ago — Whitelam, Thompson, Lemche, Davies, and quite a few others — as well as from a number of scholars (Mandell and Freedman, Wesselius) who had offered arguments for the Primary History (Genesis to 2 Kings) being influenced by the Histories of Herodotus. I suppose I have since taken it as a given that the Old Testament was principally a product of the Persian and/or Hellenistic eras. That is, long after the fall of Israel and Judah and the Babylonian captivity. I have since been pulled up a number of times when I meet others who have never heard of such a hypothesis. To me, however, the hypothesis is sound. I have posted a sketch outline of the fundamental perspectives and evidence that underlies such an argument at http://vridar.info/bibarch/arch/index.htm

I will avoid repeating what I have posted on this work previously skip ahead to the final image and point to which those arguments are heading:

Let us imagine that Judea has now been conquered for a century and its sacerdotal class is now fully Hellenised. A man, educated in the Greek fashion, perhaps in Alexandria, has grown up learning all the Greek ‘classics’ — Homer, Hesiod, Herodotus, the great Tragic playwrights, Plato — and that which he may have read in the Alexandrian canon, established by Aristophanes of Byzantium and Aristrachus of Samothrace. He wants to create a literary work that can compete with those he has read, one that will give birth to his political and religious utopia, Israel. On the one hand, theories about the origins of the Bible tend to admit that the same writer wrote some books; on the other hand, several books and articles compare Greek myths with the Bible. It is the absence of a synthesis of all these data that is questioned here. (pp. 13-14)

Could it be the other way around?

Philippe Wajdenbaum rejects the alternative suggestion that it may have been the Greeks who were influenced by the Bible or related stories from cultures neighbouring the Jews. Essentially the reasons for resisting this idea are

  1. Greek authors were generally identifiable personally and they quite openly refer to their predecessors and contemporaries whom they emulated and imitated. They had no need to copy the Bible and leave no evidence that they had any awareness of it.
  2. The Greeks portrayed their myths through painting and sculpture and here there is no suggestion of borrowing from Jewish myths. The only contemporary images from Palestine are Canaanite relics.
  3. WP argues that “almost every chapter of the Bible corresponds to a Greek myth, whereas the opposite is not true”.
  4. Greek myths are linked together in a logical narrative progression from the birth of the Gods themselves down to the Trojan war and the beginnings of the historical era. “This rich and complex intertextuality has allowed the ‘biblical writer’ to create an original epic on a fantastic level of sophistication. We will see how the Greek mythical genealogies have been dismantled and reconstructed through a specific filter.” (p. 16)

Structural Anthropology of Claude Lévi-Strauss

I have discussed some aspects of Levi-Strausses understanding of myths in earlier posts:

The Bible’s roots in Greek mythology and classical authors (followed with an illustrating application in Greek Myths related to tales of Abraham . . .

& in more detail at:

Explaining (Gospel) Myths

The summaries are by no means complete, obviously, but open up a view of the core idea.

In accord with the principles outlined in those posts and in a few others not addressed there Wajdenbaum justifies his approach to the study of the Bible which will take the following course:

  1. The Bible will not be interpreted by itself, but will be analysed with regard to its variants, most of which are found in Greek literature;
  2. the different variants of the Greek myths will be studied;
  3. the data from the Hellenistic era will be taken into account in order to help us understand why and how the borrowing happened. (p. 17, my formatting)

(I am interested in tackling the Gospels this way, too.)

Myths are said to be composed of small units or mythemes that Levi-Strauss compared with phonemes in language. Phonemes have no meaning on their own but only in relation to other phonemes. Likewise mythemes (small narrative units within any one myth) have “no universal or archetypal meaning” but only take their meaning in the context of each larger narrative. (I did not like that idea all those years ago — I wanted them to contain hidden archetypal or Jungian messages to unlock the meanings of life. Bad.)

According to Levi-Strauss, a myth tries to answer questions from day-to-day life yet never reaches an answer. Therefore, any new narrator of a myth will change small or large details, so much that all logical possibilities will be explored until the myth reaches exhaustion. (p. 17)

To illustrated this WP discusses the Phrixus myth beside the tale of Abraham offering Isaac as a sacrifice — an example I have discussed in some detail in two of the posts linked above.

The Questions of Diffusion and Borrowing

Are we looking at coincidence?

In an earlier post I addressed what Levi-Strauss through WP has to say about those well-known instances of quite similar myths being found among widely separated peoples. Greece and Judea, however, are very close, and since Greece colonized Judea for two centuries it is only sensible to accept that any similarities between Greek myths and the Bible are more than just coincidence.

Oral traditions or textual borrowing?

Is it possible, however, that there was a common background of mythical ideas throughout the region and Greece? In answer to this Occam’s razor makes the cut: We are dealing with texts, written texts, not oral traditions so it is simplest to presume a direct literary borrowing than to try to throw in a “missing link” of orality for which we have no evidence.

Did the Bible author merely adorn Jewish myths with a few Hellenistic details?

Philippe Wajdenbaum promises to show that there was little room for such traditions to have developed.

How can the structural method apply to a single author?

Levi-Strauss’s method applies to collective traditions as well as works of a single author. At the point an individual author’s myth stands on its own without any trace of a personal association with its author it is able to be adopted more widely as a collectively owned myth.

Any individual work is a potential myth, yet only its adoption into the collective mode actualises its ‘mythicism‘. Even if the Bible (from Genesis to Kings) were indeed written by a single author, it only later became the tradition of a people — not the other way around. (p. 21)

Discovering how the author thought and from where he borrowed

It is necessary to resist any habits to interpret myths to find their hidden meanings. Structural analysis limits itself to comparing and analysing the “language” or “music” of the myths’ forms and contents. This is the key to understanding how the author thought and from where he borrowed his ideas.

If one interprets a myth then according to Levi-Strauss’s method one is actually creating a new form of the myth. One is no longer dealing with the myth as written. (“Even structural analysis is considered to be a new version of a given myth — this having an advantage over the other versions in that it makes explicit what they only implied, and integrates them on a new level where substance and form are definitively fused. Once revealed to itself, the structure
of a myth is not capable of any new incarnation; the myth will cease to reproduce itself through infinite new versions.”)

The Documentary Hypothesis

The power of this hypothesis — that the Bible has had various editorial sources (Yahwists, Deuteronomists, Elohists and Priestly) — is overwhelming for many of us, I know. In my next post on this series I will look at how Philippe Wajdenbaum critiques this hypothesis.


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Neil Godfrey

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10 thoughts on “Bible Origins — continuing Wajdenbaum’s thesis in Argonauts of the Desert”

  1. I haven’t read any of these people you mention above, so it is interesting to have other perspectives on when the OT was written. I have been persuaded of the validity of the Documentary Hypothesis from books by Richard E. Friedman, but I’m open to the possiblity that more of the OT (besides Job, Daniel and other writings) could be from the Hellenistic era.

    My initial ‘objection’ to Genesis-Kings being a Hellenistic product are things that Friedman points out, such as puns, that indicate a northern Israelite/southern Judean literary rivalry in the “J” and “E” sources, as well as his idea that the author of Deuteronmy-Kings (“D”) was Jeremiah and/or his scribe Baruch, and that they were aware of the ‘priestly’ source (“P”). According to Friedman, the only parts of Genesis-Kings that date after the Exile are the redactions of these sources into the Torah we know today by “R” (who was possibly Ezra).

    This scenario seems so plausible to me that it will take something even more convincing to topple it in my mind (which I’m not opposed to). It goes against the more common idea that the “P” source is post-exilic, which I do not find convincng. But more exposure to other views is certainly welcome.

    1. Understand. I have also read so much (including several works by Friedman) on the Documentary Hypothesis in one form or another and have found it very difficult to exchange it for a single-author explanation. At the same time I have to acknowledge I have only read the DH as an amateur and have not taken the trouble to study the manuscripts and languages on which it is based in order to examine its strengths and weaknesses at the coal-face.

      At the same time I found the arguments for a Hellenistic dating of the Bible very strong and those for dating the Bible to the period of the kingdom of Judah (Josiah as the most common reference point) and Babylonian captivity to be more speculative than evidence-based, and even in opposition to much of the evidence.

      It now occurs to me that I ought to have taken more time to think through the implications of these views I came to hold and to more fully grasp that a Hellenistic dating virtually precludes the foundations upon which the DH is based. Davies speaks of rival schools in Judea in dialogue with one another in the Persian period producing the biblical texts. Maybe. But again there appears to be more tenuous speculation to his arguments than I find underpinning the Hellenistic era. And Van Seters argues that the story of David owes its existence to awareness of the Persian empire and is incompatible with any idea of a small kingdom around Jerusalem 1000 bce. I have sometimes wondered if the BIble came together across the Persian and Hellenistic periods. But then I keep coming up against arguments for a Hellenistic provenance. Perhaps the most plausible explanation will be a Hellenistic provenance being produced by a people who started out as a colony originating in the early Persian period.

      Maybe it’s time for me to leave aside New Testament readings for a little while and try to catch up with some of the work done in more recent years in the OT and try to sort out things for my own satisfaction again.

  2. Hi Neil,

    Is this it? You seem to have taken a break here, but I would really like to see what his substantive arguments against the DH and for Hellenistic provenance are. I’m afraid I find what is presented in this post quite weak. That is, a psychological explanation for why exactly one scholar or another found the hypothesis compelling doesn’t tell me anything about the strength of the hypothesis itself. I consider most of the arguments here essentially ad hominem, which would be almost shocking if there were no further developments (I assume there are, and you’ll be getting back to it –forgive my impatience).

    Noting a congruence between a scholar’s faith commitments and his text-critical conclusions can certainly act as a justification for skepticism about those conclusions, but that’s just a starting point. Eventually, to make a positive case, one needs to engage the arguments without reference to their proponents’ theological predilections.

    Happy new year,

    1. No CJ, more on the way. A number of reasons for the hiatus:

      1. Responses have reminded me of the widespread extent of lack of awareness of arguments for the Bible being a Hellenistic (or Persian) production alongside the nature of archaeological evidence that has called into question the very existence of a united kingdom of Israel — or the existence of a viable Kingdom of Judah until after the first Assyrian invasion destroyed the Kingdom of Israel. I had therefore been thinking it would be wise to backtrack a little and present some of the reasons “biblical Israel” (as opposed to the historical states in Palestine) is seriously argued to have been a theological/mythical/literary/political construct.

      2. The next section in Philippe Wajdenbaum’s book addresses PW’s summaries of ideas of a number of scholars who have challenged the Documentary Hypothesis. Since I have read quite extensively most of those scholars’ published books and many articles for myself I was thinking I could do more justice to the arguments by presenting them in a little more detail by my own presentations of their views. (I have already in some of the earlier posts gone a little beyond PW’s presentation and presented quotations from some of the sources that PW only references by a bibliographic citation.) I have been hunting out of the right box my copies of the works that I thought would be the best place to start and finally recovered them only yesterday.

      3. I have also been contacted by another party expressing concern that my detailed posts could be an infringement of the author’s intellectual property rights and I have been taking a little time to think this through. One of the reasons for this blog is to share with interested lay readers who do not have normal access to scholarly research and publications the contents of some of those works that challenge longstanding popular views. (This includes some works I do not myself necessarily agree with or at least question — as I think should be clear to many.) I had only intended to cover key aspects of the introductory chapter of PW’s book (I certainly will not be able to go through all the parallels in subsequent chapters) where the foundation and rationale of the hypothesis is set out. The book is certainly priced out of the range of a popular market. Its price tag clearly markets it for academics and libraries. No academic is going to cite an amateur blog presentation of any aspects of the argument but is going to rely on their own reading of a donated, borrowed or purchased hard copy. So I don’t believe my blog posts do cut in on any IP remunerative issues.

      I think it a shame if this research is kept out of the public arena. My professional career is dedicated to facilitating open access and reuse of research publications and data so I am very aware of IP issues, but I am also very aware of the research that shows open access does increase citation and recognition of the works of academics and robs them of nothing. But the concern passed on to me is something I need to consider nonetheless.

    2. I have been chewing over the “ad hominem” suggestion here. I cannot agree. It is important to understand the views of an age — even scholarly arguments — as expressions of the culture/spirit of the age. This does carry implications for the durability of the arguments. What always worries me when I read such things is how much of my own thinking is a reflection of other ideologies or values that are part of me.

      1. I only mean that it’s possible to be right for (some of) the wrong reasons. We all have biases, no question, and we are all culture-bound to some degree. But simply because, for instance, a certain scholar may have socio-theological reasons for wishing to denigrate the law and assign it to a less “authentic” stratum of “original” Jewish monotheism, that alone cannot conclusively show that the scholar is wrong to date a certain text later if there are lines of evidence for it that have nothing to do with this bias.

        To wax metaphorical, biased assumptions may lead him to water, but he must still produce a waterproof vessel to collect it.

    1. Fixed, thanks. But I’m sure all the others in the same series need fixing, too. That’s a job for later. But all archives can always be found in the “Index of Topics” (Categories) drop down list in the right margin.

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