New Understandings of the Old Testament: Jacques Cazeaux

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by Neil Godfrey

This post is a continuation of a protracted series on the views of Philippe Wajdenbaum whose doctoral thesis, arguing that a good many of the Biblical stories and laws were inspired by Greek literature, has been published as Argonauts of the Desert: Structural Analysis of the Hebrew Bible.

Several of the more recent posts have examined challenges to the traditional view that most of the Biblical books were composed during the late years of the Kingdom of Judah, in particular during the period of the Babylonian captivity, with a few latecomers in the Persian era. That conventional understanding has largely been based on an evolutionary model that sees the literature incorporated into the Bible being the result of a long process of oral traditions, variant traditions being mixed and matched by early editors with competing religious biases, and with later redactors putting finishing touches to certain books or the collection as a whole. Recent scholarship has seen explorations into the possibility the Bible was a very late composition, even later than the Persian empire, and even that the major historical portion of it, Genesis to 2 Kings, was composed by a single author. There have been an ever-increasing number of publications comparing that historical portion with Greek historical literature, in particular with the Histories of Herodotus and even later Hellenistic histories (e.g. Sara Mandell and David Freedman; Katherine Stott; J.W. Wesselius; Flemming Nielsen; Russell Gmirkin).

Jacques Cazeaux

The next few posts in this series will look at the contributions of several scholars who have led this new perspective on the Old Testament literature and whom Wajdenbaum discusses in Argonauts of the Desert: Jacques Cazeaux, Philip R. Davies, Niels Peter Lemche, Thomas L. Thompson. I may add a few posts discussing other names along the way, and sometimes supplement Wajdenbaum’s descriptions based on my own readings of their works.

Unfortunately I have read nothing by Jacques Cazeaux, though the French titles of some of his books do certainly intrigue me and I’d love to follow them up. Till then, I rely on Wajdenbaum’s synopsis of his views.

Jacques Cazeaux

Jacques Cazeaux is a philologist specializing in Plato, Philo and the Bible. He is interested in the Bible as we have it, or in its final form, as opposed to its various supposed sources. “He thinks of the Bible as a coherent and well-written book” (Wajdenbaum, p.31). According to Cazeaux the biblical author was seeking to teach that Israel’s truth lay in the fraternal unity of the twelve tribes: not a single tribe was to be lost, neither Joseph nor Benjamin. In opening chapters of Numbers, for example, the theme is Israel’s unity as all twelve tribes act as one, each prince making the same offering. (Wajdenbaum finds the foundation of these twelve tribes in Plato’s ideal laws and political structure.)

The story of the Bible is “an anti-royalist prophecy”:

From the genealogies of Genesis to 2 Kings (or rather the other way around, as the text was probably conceived to begin from Kings) through the wandering in the desert and the troubled period of the Judges, everything is prepared for the reader to admit that Israel’s truth is in the Law, and not in the possession of a land or in the ostentation of a monarchy. (p. 31)

(It might be interesting to know if many Israeli scholars, or even many conservative Christian scholars, would agree with such an understanding of the Bible’s theme.)

Wajdenbaum’s own comment:

Cazeaux seems to be right, as he only reads the biblical text rather than dissecting it into a meaningless, primitive and naïve prose.

Cazeaux thinks of the “final chronicler” used such a heavy hand in the editing of the books that he could be thought of as an author, and that he may have lived in the third century B.C.E. If so, he was surely aware of Plato’s philosophy.

According to him, the speech of Samuel decrying monarchy in 1 Samuel 8 — when Israel asks the prophet to install a king — is the core of the biblical tale. God, through Samuel, explains how the king will behave as a tyrant, appropriating both land and people. That prophecy eventually became reality when the kings of Israel brought about the fall of the country through their sins.

Retrospectively, the previous books from Genesis to Joshua can be read as participating in this long ‘prophecy’ against kingship by proposing ideal portraits of the Patriarchs — who resemble kings — and the founding of the twelve-tribe State, governed by laws. (p. 32)

Cazeaux is thus primarily interested in interpreting the final form of the Bible’s books so as to shed some light on the final intentions of its “author”. Wajdenbaum, on the other hand, is interested in identifying the Greek sources “in accordance with Cazeaux’s political reading”, and will show in his own book, Argonauts, that Samuel’s speech warning against the institution of the monarchy is based on


Some specifics

The story of Abram and Sarai in Egypt is foretelling of the Exodus that is to happen to his descendants. Abram journeys into Egypt, quarrels with the Pharaoh, Egypt is plagued, and Abram sent packing. (Other “minimalist” scholars such as Thomas Thompson have seen here the biblical theme of reiteration of the experiences of Israel, the old always being replaced by the new, failing again only to anticipate another “new Israel”, ultimately the readers for whom the stories were written.)

Cazeaux sees the kings of Israel, beginning even with David and Solomon, as Israel’s worst enemies. The faults of David and Solomon were the initial cause of the breakdown of the twelve tribe unity. Jacob’s prophecy that the tribe of Judah would be the royal tribe over the others carried the implicit prophecy of the State’s demise. Hence the wise Joseph was portrayed as “a king who is not a king”.

For Cazeaux, Genesis reflects an inverted image of monarchic Israel and Judah through the idealized portraits of the Patriarchs. A single, common message permeates Genesis-Kings: the Law is higher than the king. The Israel founded by Joshua — that if the twelve tribes without a government — should have prevailed eternally, but the violent period of the Judges led Israel to ask the prophet Samuel for a king. As Samuel foretold it, a king would bring the country to its downfall (1 Sam 8:10-18).

The Patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are the opposites of the kings, as they abdicate their power and renounce the possession of the land promised to them. . . . Even though each received a divine promise to possess the land, and all had the might to conquer it . . . they all renounce their claim.

Genesis’ happy ending in Egypt can seem somehow disappointing to a reader who does not understand why Israel stayed out of its Promised Land . . . According to Cazeaux, this end perhaps reflects how Israel’s truth lies in permanent Exile rather than in the Promised Land’s corrupting tenure. The true Promised Land of Israel is the Law . . . a guarantee of the fraternal unity of Jacob’s twelve sons. (p. 58)

The period of Judges, according to Cazeaux, functions to demonstrate “that the fraternal unity of Israel is better than kingship.” Wajdenbaum adds,
Indeed, with the exception of Abimelech, the Judges do not pretend to be kings of Israel. The book ends with a civil war in which Benjamin is almost exterminated. This story, often considered by scholars to be an addition because no ‘judge’ seems to emerge from it, in fact makes perfect sense. The next book, Samuel, explains why Israel will make itself a king, moreover one that comes from the very tribe of Benjamin, Saul.” (p. 214)

Cazeaux’s analysis of Solomon shows that the biblical author was implicitly comparing him with the Pharaohs of Egypt. This explains why Solomon is portrayed as a tyrant who leads Israel back into slavery. Cazeaux is quoted by Wajdenbaum:

The naïve temptation that leads some to transform biblical heroes into pharaohs or Egyptian characters, does not understand the context: Egypt is present everywhere in the Bible, but from the inside, the great Egyptian being Solomon. (Cazeaux, p. 382)

English: Solomon's Wealth and Wisdom, as in 1 ...
Solomon (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Next post in this series will look at Philip R. Davies.

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Neil Godfrey

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4 thoughts on “New Understandings of the Old Testament: Jacques Cazeaux”

  1. Let us hope that Jacques Cazeaux’s works get translated into English soon.

    Another book pursuing the Herodotus connection to the Bible:

    The Human and the Divine in History: Herodotus and the Book of Daniel (Library Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies) [Hardcover]
    Paul V. Niskanen (Author)


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