Another work by a French scholar (I have posted on quite a few* on this blog), and one that I am regretting not having engaged with sooner, is Simeon The Just: The Forgotten Author Of The Hebrew Bible. Author: Bernard Barc. The Preface to the book is online so I am confident in being permitted to repost it here, in translation, with attribution. It may pique your interest in knowing more about Barc’s thesis. I expect to be posting more as I continue to read and translate it. I see Barc passed away only last year. I have had the book since 2019 and am only now catching up with it so I am sorry I left it too late to take the opportunity to correspond with him.
Who is the author of the Torah, or at least its final editor? In 2000, Bernard Barc published Les arpenteurs du temps. Essai sur l’histoire religieuse de la Judée à l’époque hellénistique (The Surveyors of Time. Essay on the religious history of Judea in the Hellenistic period), published by the Zebre Press in Lausanne. Biblical research was then marked by the theory of Reichsautorization that had appeared in Germany in the 1980s: several historians, such as Ehrard Blum and Peter Frei, developed the idea that the letter of Artaxerxes I (465-424) quoted in Ezra-Nehemiah 7:11-28 was one of several testimonies to the policy of the Persian Empire to guarantee the recognition and obligation of local rights by the authorities of the empire; such a policy implied the writing down of local laws, which then took their place in Persian law; the final redaction of the Torah, which can be symbolized by the name of Ezra, should be understood in the light of this policy of Persian imperial authorization. Bernard Barc was against this perspective: the final redaction of the Torah is much later; it must be related to the high priest Simon, son of Onias II, whom the author of Sirach praises at length in chapter 50 of his book and whose activity is situated in the years 220-195 approximately. In the eyes of Bernard Barc, this Simon is none other than Simeon the Just … , whose extreme attention to the Torah is recalled at the beginning of the Pirkevot. Bernard Barc’s book has sometimes been criticized as being too much about numerology, whereas it simply takes seriously the rules of gematria in Jewish tradition. It has also been seen as the approach of a specialist in gnostic texts projecting an esoteric way of thinking onto the Bible. It is true that Bernard Barc is the editor of some of the Nag Hammadi treatises and that he has contributed to the training of several of the Quebec copyists. But he is also a first-rate Hebraist, recruited by the French University in 1967 to teach biblical Hebrew; he was of great help to me when I was editing the volume of Numbers for the collection “La Bible d’Alexandrie”, published in 1994.
In the book that he is giving today, Bernard Barc broadens his scope to include the whole of the Hebrew Bible, of which Simeon the Just is, in his eyes, the forgotten author. By this he means that nothing is left to chance in the writing of the Bible, neither the division into books, nor the division into sections, open or closed, nor the use of words, none of which is superfluous, nor their occurrence in the order of the text, nor the spelling itself, whose variations are significant. The letter is therefore fundamental. And literal reading is essential, according to the rules that Bernard Barc sets out, for example when he explains the algorithm of biblical letters. But this literal reading of the Bible of Simeon that Bernard Barc engages in has nothing to do with the literal reading of the Antiochian school of the fourth to fifth centuries or with the historical-literal reading of the Bible that has been imposed in the scholarly world since the Renaissance: it is not a question of reasoning in terms of history and historical context, but of unfolding the meaning of the text as one goes along in its reading. As a result, sometimes the literal meaning that emerges is joined with what we would call the hidden or allegorical meaning. In fact, Simeon has a project, which can be defined in two sentences: first, history unfolds according to a divine plan conceived by the Most High God and implemented by his two hypostases, Elohim and YHWH; second, the design of the Most High is manifested in creation by numbers and letter-numbers organised according to an algorithm, in particular the perfect solar year of 364 + 1 days. As a result, Simeon obeys writing constraints, which Bernard Barc summarises perfectly in §108, and which he clarifies as his work progresses. 65 tables help the reader to visualise Bernard Barc’s deconstruction of Simeon’s project.
To read such a book with profit, one must get rid of our usual ways of approaching the Bible. You have to accept that Simeon functions somewhat like the great rhetoricians of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries or the Oulipo, illustrated by Raymond Queneau, Georges Perec, Italo Calvino, Harry Mathews or Jacques Roubaud, among others. Simeon’s Bible is not an ordinary work of history, which investigates the past and recounts it in order to make it understandable. The past corresponds to God’s plan, which unfolds in history and which is accounted for by means of a limited number of rules of writing. Many biblical scholars will not agree to follow Bernard Barc, whose approach is too new to be immediately convincing. But even for these recalcitrant readers, there will be a good use of the book. Thus, for example, Table 15 in §93 on the explicit dates of the Bible will not fail to provoke reflection for a long time to come; why, indeed, these dates and not others? In § 216, Table 55 on a chronology of Universal History will impress even the most sceptical of readers.
I read these fascinating and abundant pages, but sometimes difficult to follow (especially § 134-141), with my questions as a specialist of the Greek Bible of the Septuagint and as a historian of the canon. In § 58, Bernard Barc suggests that the LXX was translated, not in Alexandria, but in Leontopolis, in the city of the Oniades refugees in Egypt. This is an idea that has never been put forward before. Some Septuagint scholars have argued that a rival version of the LXX, but not the LXX itself, originated in Leontopolis. Others have located the making of the Isaiah translation, and that book alone, in that city. But locating the LXX in Leontopolis and dating it to the middle of the second century contradicts all the ancient sources, which are unanimous about Alexandria and which place the translation in relation to Ptolemy Lagos or Ptolemy Philadelphus, at the beginning of the second century BC. Around 220, Demetrios the Chronographer seems to quote the text of the LXX. However, it is easy to understand why Bernard Barc favours a low date for the LXX: it allows us to attribute a central role to Simeon. But can we not imagine that Simeon is the heir of textual traditions prior to him, and of which the LXX is in certain cases the witness? Let us take the example of the five books of the Torah. In § 126-127 and 234, Bernard Barc draws attention to the fact that Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers, but not Deuteronomy, begin with the letter waw, which means “and”; it is clear that, literally, Exodus is added to Genesis; Leviticus, to Exodus; and Numbers, to Leviticus; and that Deuteronomy is not. However, the LXX offers a notable difference from the Hebrew Massoretic text: Exodus does not begin with ‘and’, kai in Greek. Where the Hebrew text offers two sets, namely the first four books and Deuteronomy, the LXX has three: Genesis, Exodus-Leviticus-Numbers, Deuteronomy. However, the Samaritan Hebrew text and the Syriac Peshitta, normally translated from the Hebrew, offer the same text as the LXX. One must therefore ask whether the LXX, the Samaritan and the Peshitta do not attest the existence of a Hebrew text prior to that of Simeon, in which the story of the creation of the world and the patriarchs was set apart from the story of Moses and the Hebrews in the desert; by adding the waw at the beginning of Exodus, Simeon would have unified these two stories; however, in both cases, Deuteronomy would have constituted a specific whole, probably because the speaker is no longer God, but Moses.
I submitted to Bernard Barc the thoughts I have just outlined. He expressed his disagreement with me, with strong arguments that I summarize in a few sentences. According to him, it is not possible for Simeon to have introduced the complex arithmological architecture of which he is the inventor into a pre-existing Hebrew text. Indeed, if Simeon’s work had consisted in refining a Hebrew text at his disposal, it would have to have already presented, with a few details, the genealogical organisation of the biblical story and the names of the characters. There would thus have existed before Simeon a text that strangely resembled that of Simeon! One can only be sensitive to this argument, while recalling that the question of the historical character of Simeon the Just is delicate, since Flavius Josephus makes him the son of Onias I and thus places him at the beginning of the third century (Jewish Antiquities XII 43). It is true that the consensus of contemporary historians rejects this testimony and that they are practically unanimous in seeing in Simeon the Just the son of Onias II, as does Bernard Barc. But what can be suggested is this: Simeon could be the last link in a line of high priests who would have worked in the same direction for a century.
My remarks on the history of the canon have less impact on the theses put forward by Bernard Barc. He takes the perspective of the tripartite canon, Law, Prophets and Writings, which he nowhere discusses. Yet the oldest canonical reality we reach when reading the Bible itself is either the Law or the Law and Prophets. The latter designation does not refer to two sub-corpuses, on the one hand the Law, on the other the Prophets: in 4 Maccabees 18:10-19, the Law and the Prophets include not only Genesis, Numbers and Deuteronomy, but also Isaiah, Ezekiel, Psalms, Proverbs and Daniel; in the Gospel of John 12:34 and 15:25, under the mention of the Law is actually introduced a quotation from the Psalms. We are therefore dealing, not with a bipartite Bible, but with a bi-defined or bi-referenced Bible. This bi-defined Bible is that of the tannaim, who use the expression “the Law and the Prophets”. The tripartite Bible appears only in the 200s with the amoraim, who speak of the Law and the Prophets and the Writings. The texts that canon historians cite in support of the existence of the tripartite canon from the Maccabean period only prove that the expression “the Law and the Prophets” was felt to be inappropriate to account for books that are neither of the legal nor of the prophetic kind. So what is Simeon’s canon? Is it not the one designated by the Law and the Prophets? One may wonder whether the expression “the height of the double” in Sirach 50:2, which Bernard Barc comments on in § 64-68 and in which he sees the two tablets of the Law, could not designate the bi-referential canon, the Law and the Prophets.
Bernard Barc’s book is sure to raise further questions and discussions. We have not finished remembering this great forgotten man: Simeon the Just.
Professor Emeritus at the University of Aix-Marseille
Honorary member of the University Institute of France
(chair “Hellenistic Judaism and Ancient Christianity”)
The translation is by DeepL.
The introductory chapter offers a quite new viewpoint on why Genesis, for example, contains side by side, sometimes interwoven, stories that singly appear to be in opposition to each other. The particular focus is on the story of the Flood and Noah: two gods appear, one Yahweh, the other Elohim; different commands are given, two of each kind and seven of each kind, and so forth. I have a few other works to post about first but will return to Bernard Barc before too long.
Here is a snippet from the introductory chapter to prepare you for the sort of fresh thinking that is to come:
. . . For a few more hours, I decided to assume that the text had been corrupted by its copyists, and I tried to estimate the extent of the damage that had been done to the text in the course of its transmission. To do this, I turned to the Greek translation of the Septuagint – thought to be based on an older Hebrew text than the one that has come down to us – and compared the two versions, trying to translate the Hebrew literally, without worrying about meaning, but only about syntax.
. . . In short, the Greek text had the characteristics of a scrupulous translation made on an original of excellent quality.
The Hebrew text, on the other hand, seemed to have suffered a cataclysm. From the first words its syntax was problematic. . . .
It’s a fascinating journey of exploration.
- Some of the other French scholars discussed, referenced or in the pipeline to be discussed on Vridar:
- Armand Abécassis
- Prosper Alfaric
- Leo Baeck
- Serge Bardet
- Elie Benamozegh
- Julien Benda
- Louis Benoit
- Pierre E. Bonnard
- Pierre Bourdieu
- Jean Carmignac
- Jacques Cazeaux
- Nanine Charbonnel
- Paul Louis Couchoud
- Jean Daniélou
- Bruno Delorme
- Bernard Dubourg
- Edouard Dujardin
- Émile Durkheim
- Guy Fau
- Jean-Pierre Filiu
- Michel Foucault
- Jacqueline Genot-Bismuth
- Maurice Goguel
- Charles Guignebert
- Mireille Hadas-Lebel
- Maurice Halbwachs
- Philippe Lefèbvre
- Alfred Loisy
- Jean Magne
- Jean Massonnet
- Maurice Mergui
- Michel Onfray
- Georges Ory
- Marc-Alain Ouaknin
- Salomón Reinach
- Paul Ricoeur
- Thomas Römer
- Olivier Roy
- Joseph Salvador
- Michel Serres
- Joseph Turmel
- Marie Vidal
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