This post continues my series on Philippe Wajdenbaum’s doctoral thesis adapted for publication as Argonauts of the Desert: Structural Analysis of the Hebrew Bible. For the previous post see Collapse of the Documentary Hypothesis (1) & Comparing the Bible with Classical Greek Literature. I begin here with my concluding lines from that post:
We will find very accurate parallels [between the Bible and Plato’s political dialogues] that make that hypothesis [that the Bible is based on those and other Greek classical texts] certain. Therefore one must ask why such a comparative study with Plato has not been done before. (p. 28)
Wajdenbaum says the answer is simple:
The Bible could not resist such an analysis [comparing the Bible with classical Greek literature] as it demonstrates how almost every biblical narrative finds accurate parallels with Greek myths. If believers of Jewish and Christian faiths were aware of this, then the Bible could lose its credibility. Biblical scholarship has done all it could to maintain the Bible as a sacred text that is still relevant to modern society, as Hector Avalos argues. (p. 29)
How can such ancient texts continue to hold such an authoritative status for so many today? Wajdenbaum believes that one significant reason is that “the Bible has not yet been the object of a consistent and genuinely scientific analysis.” (p. 30)
Of course there has been a long tradition of scholarly analysis of the Bible, but that’s not necessarily the same thing. In an earlier post in this series I showed how Wajdenbaum argues that biblical criticism has generally been the construction of a variant of the Bible’s myth. Following Claude Lévi-Strauss, he argues that any retelling of a myth is itself a variant of the myth, and in rationalising the Bible’s story and self-witness of divine inspiration scholars have, in fact, only created alternative versions of those myths.
Here Wajdenbaum brings in Pierre Bourdieu:
Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has explained how university scholars use symbolic violence to ensure their authority in their field. By presenting themselves as a legitimate institution, university scholars impose an arbitrary knowledge that is recognised by the masses as legitimate.
But this intellectual domination is not completely passive; it comes from the demands of society. As both Avalos and Bourdieu . . . have put it, the media industry — the press, movies and television — plays an important role in the continuation of either the sacred character of the Bible or symbolic violence.
The biblical field created theories that have allowed the Bible to survive only because masses of believers wanted it to. (p. 29, my formatting)
Wajdenbaum does not say it (at least not here) but one is reminded of another French intellectual, Julien Benda, who spoke of the pervasive “betrayal of the intellectuals”. One sees this often enough in the political spectrum. I suppose we should not be surprised to find it as deeply entrenched in the religious one as well.
But haven’t biblical scholars picked up and run with the discoveries of science and the scientific methods themselves?
Wajdenbaum’s answer to that question is interesting:
Since science has challenged the Bible with the modern discoveries of evolution, genetics and many others, it was important to protect and ‘save’ the Bible with a discourse that took the form of science, giving it a new history different from that proposed by religious tradition. (p. 31)
This is where Philippe Wajdenbaum applies Lévi-Strauss’s understanding that a rationalisation of a myth is in fact one more variant of that myth.
Biblical criticism was in fact, says Wajdenbaum, a diversion to prevent both scholars and laity from knowing the true origins of the Bible. It was an exercise in preserving the place of the Bible in society by means of revised myths. Not that this was a conscious activity. Symbolic violence rarely works at the conscious level.
The majority of the divergent conclusions of most biblical scholars are that the original sources of the Bible have been lost, and that only they, the scholars, can find them within the biblical text. The initials of the sources (J, E, Dtr. 1, etc.) sound vaguely scientific, and the amateur will respect this seemingly solid theory when reading an annotated Bible. These notes discourage one from understanding the biblical narrative as being perfectly coherent, a fine piece of literature.
And it is the view of several scholars whose works I blog about here that the Old Testament Scriptures, in particular the section from Genesis to 2 Kings, are indeed a unified body of creative literature, several even arguing that this section is quite likely the work of a single author. It is held together by a constant theme and contains many indicators that it is indebted to Greek works composed between the fifth and third centuries BCE.
This theory, of course, clashes at almost every point with the traditional views of Biblical origins.
Traditionally, scholarship has viewed the Bible as a “primitive and naive” collection of literature. The evolutionary model has dominated. The Bible (I’m referring to the Old Testament) has been assumed to have been a primitive work that long pre-dated the Classical Greek texts of the fifth century. This model has put up blinkers against the vision of anyone who might otherwise consider the Bible as a coherent and artistic text comparable to the classical Greek works.
The sources J, E, D and P can never be discovered — unless by another lucky stone-throw into a cave to reveal a new set of scrolls — so scholars have turned to much earlier texts for comparisons: Enuma Elish (compare my recent post on this source for the Creation story of Genesis), the Epic of Gilgamesh for the account of the Flood, and the Code of Hammurabi for the laws in the Pentateuch.
Consequently, even though we already knew about similar stories and laws in the Greek tradition, they are disregarded as being more recent than the Bible, not worthy of comparison. These Mesopotamian parallels are widely accepted since Babylon plays a major role in the biblical narrative, whereas apparently Greece does not. Assyriological findings are employed to draw the Bible back to a remote past, in order to make it essentially ‘Semitic’. Any possible Western influence is rejected, and in this particular case we see the ‘Orient’ is a scholarly invention, as Said stated. The Bible must remain Semitic, oriental, old and genuine for believers. (pp. 30-31, my emphasis)
Picking up the trail of Spinoza, Voltaire and Anon
Spinoza (as discussed in an earlier post) was the first to discern evidence for a single author behind Genesis to 2 Kings. Subsequent scholars downgraded that author to the status of a “final redactor”.
Voltaire, in his parody of bishop Dom Calmert’s Dictionary of the Bible, insisted that surely it made more sense to think that the Greeks and Romans had inspired the biblical fables than the reverse.
And the anonymous author of The Treatise of the Three Imposters claimed that both the Old and New Testaments had taken from Plato (see Chapter IX).
So despite these early forays and subsequent advances of science we seem to be experiencing once again a resurgence of religious interest and devotion to the Bible as an authority by virtue of its age and oriental provenance. One reason for this resurgence, Philippe Wajdenbaum claims, is scholarship’s failure to make the Bible
the object of a consistent and genuinely scientific analysis.
Next in this series we will begin to look more closely at some of the arguments for dating the origins of the Bible to Persian times and even later.
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