Biblical Scholars, Symbolic Violence, and the Modern Version of an Ancient Myth

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by Neil Godfrey

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:

“Symbolic violence is the self-interested capacity to ensure that the arbitrariness of the social order is either ignored, or posited as natural, thereby justifying the legitimacy of existing social structures.” – Wikipedia

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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Neil Godfrey

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8 thoughts on “Biblical Scholars, Symbolic Violence, and the Modern Version of an Ancient Myth”

  1. I notice that some of the recent archaeological writings of Israel Finkelstein, some of which is availible on line, argues that many of the details mentioned in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah (names, places, the wall) reflect Hasmonean realities. He argues that there was not a big enough population and structure to provide a scribal class in Persian times to produce literature.

    Philip Davies believes there was such a scribal elite in Persian times but not before, and that it was based in Benjamin. This is some explanation for the pro Benjamin and pro Saul stories in the bible, and the claim to be heirs of ancient Israel.

    Finkelstein believes the Primary history was written in the time of the later kings of Judah when refugees from the Northern kingdom came south.His explanation of how Northern and Southern traditions were melded together does not quite work.

    I think it is worth looking in detail at the back and forth of the arguments.

    1. For the benefit of those who may be new to the topic, Davies argues for the Benjamin base in The Origins of Biblical Israel and for the Persian era in Scribes and Schools and In Search of Ancient Israel. The Benjamin thesis struck me on first reading as attempting to keep a lot of plates of interpretations of disparate texts spinning at once. I would need to read it again and take much time thinking through each step before I could be comfortable with this thesis. If others have done so I would welcome hearing their views. I was more persuaded by Scribes and Schools, but wonder if the same sort of rival schools scenario could not in some form be set in a later (Hellenistic) era, too.

      Finkelstein’s The Bible Unearthed I liked for most part but he lost me when he treated Josiah and his “literary renaissance” as historical. Davies had already convinced me (In Search of Ancient Israel) that such a scenario was entirely fabricated for theological reasons. There was no revival — religious or literary — at that time. Finkelstein’s evidence cited to the contrary struck me as very thin indeed.

      Agreed, the arguments surrounding the question are well worth investigating and comparing.

  2. Just a thought occured to me. Is the Ezra Nehemiah stuff necessarily later than Deuteronomy to Kings. It used to be assumed that the books of the bible were written in historical order, but lately the view best argued is that earlier parts of Genesis were written as a prequel to the the Joseph novel (and certainly Abraham’s sojourn in Egypt is made a pre-enactment of Joseph to Moses). Perhaps the histories were gradually extended backwards from the return under Ezra/Nehemiah.

    There’s probably a lot of argument against such a theory, but perhaps it is not out of the question. I notice that dating books of the bible by the type of Hebrew used has been questioned by those who see this as different styles of Hebrew being chosen for different literary purposes.

    1. I’ve also come across arguments pointing out that the ability to date Hebrew writings by style is a chimera. The original Biblical books were quite possibly in Greek anyway. I have not read much about the arguments of how the various sections of the narratives were sequentially composed. If we are looking at a single author for the Pentateuch the question does not get off the ground anyway. I am reminded — I know I should not let it prejudice my judgement on this question — that often scholars would say the original Gospel narrative was the Passion Scene, with additional stories tagged on the front of it at a later time. But such a view overlooks the fact that the structure of a series of short episodes culminating in a detailed extended drama at the end is a standard literary structure of the day. Again — another reason biblical scholars should read more widely.

  3. “It is commonly said that the writing of history began with the Greeks. The examples of historical works in the Bible oblige us to recognize the extent to which modern habits of historical thinking and writing also have their beginnings in the Hebraic world of the Bible’s historians.” — The New Oxford RSV (1991), page 269 (OT).

    Or, perhaps, the modern habits of Bible scholars have prevented them from recognizing that the Bible’s “histories” were, in fact, directly inspired by the Greeks, and history writing really did begin with the latter after all.

      1. Yep. It’s rather shocking to realize that no one until the last 40 years recognized that narrative chronological “history” does not appear anywhere in the world until 5th Century Greece, and therefore the author of Genesis-Kings was both later than that time and derivative of that literature. Celsus had the right answer all along, but western culture was too asleep to listen to him.

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