So the Bible is “Intentionally” Ambiguous!

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by Neil Godfrey

From creazilla

How is it that there are so many different interpretations of the Bible? Surely the original authors could have written more precisely and consistently to avoid this state of affairs. But what if the earliest authors and editors of the biblical texts were working to bring divergent groups with varying traditions and practices into a kind of unity with a book they could all claim as their own? That is the view of several scholars but I will focus on just one of them, the Samaritan scholar Ruairidh MacMhanainn Bóid, in this post.

We now have to reconcile this variation within the halachic tradition with the uniformity of the text of the written Torah, which all Jews and Samaritans accept. If there are no variations in the written text, how is it that there are variations in the halachic tradition? (328 – bolding is mine in all quotations)

It may seem obvious enough that we should assume that interpretations of the text and traditions of practice were once uniform and that over time, through ignorance or carelessness, divergences set in. But this assumption falls apart when one takes the trouble to examine the evidence that informs us about those variations (Bóid 309). There is no evidence for a common tradition among either Samaritans or Jews having ever existed. I did begin to draw venn diagrams to try to grasp an overview of the range and types of disagreements and agreements among the various opinions within and between Samaritan “sects” and Jewish “sects” but the task became simply too monumental. For an overview of these disagreements begin reading at page 309 and again from 328 in the available Google pages. Here I will only point out Bóid’s conclusions.

First of all, it is now known that the Samaritan Torah was originally neither Samaritan nor Jewish, but the common property of both. (The passages commonly considered to be tendentious are discussed below). But aside from this, what concerns us at the moment are the halachic passages in the texts used by the Samaritans and Jews. Now, an examination of the two texts shows that there is very little difference in wording between the Masoretic Torah and the Samaritan one in the halachic passages, that what variants there are do not usually affect the meaning, and that there arc very few halachic differences between Samaritans and Jews that can be related to differences in the text. (329 — I will address a key “commonly considered tendentious” difference below; the specific halachic regulations Bóid is addressing have to do with the various “bodily emissions” of males and females)

So we come back to trying to understand how to explain the particular state of affairs concerning divergent practices and interpretations that arose from a common text (again, see the pages available through Google books, linked above). Bóid’s conclusion is that the different practices and understandings preceded the Torah:

The Torah, both traditional and written, is the possession of all Israel and was intended as such from the time of its composition. It has been accepted by all Israel, the ancestors of all the known and unknown Samaritan and Jewish groups and sects. When edited in its final form it would have had to be acceptable to the bearers of all the existing halachic traditions. This means that the final editors, whether they touched up an existing book, or put a book together out of existing sections, or however they did their work, were faced with the problem of producing an edition that could be used by people following different traditions of halachah. Perhaps there were already several different versions, in which crucial verses had slightly different wording in agreement with one tradition of halachah or another. How was the problem solved? (331)

Bóid finds part of the answer to that question by looking “at the qualities of the text” of the Torah itself:

The text of the halachic sections of the written Torah is normally very precise in its wording, but is cunningly ambiguous or vague on purpose in the verses that lay down a point of halachah about which there is disagreement between different Jewish groups, or different Samaritan groups, or between Jews and Samaritans. The text has been worded very carefully, it is very precisely vague and unequivocally ambiguous so that it will bear a certain number of interpretations and no more, and will agree with all the halachic traditions in mind. (331)

Precise and cunning — sounds like a lawyer.

This way, each tradition can be supported by the text of Scripture. This explains why the text is so vague or uses wording that does not seem completely appropriate in verses on the interpretation of which there is disagreement: the disagreement is older than the present form of the verse. This explains, as well, how it is that the Pharisees (or Rabbanites) can say that the tradition is to be followed in interpreting Scripture even if a verse has to be understood in a way that seems the verse was phrased so as to make their interpretation possible, even if unnatural. It equally well explains how the Karaites and Samaritans (and apparently the Sadducees) can object to the Rabbanite theory, and maintain that their tradition never contradicts Scripture: the text of Scripture is formulated with their traditions (along with everyone else’s) in mind. We see, then, that although the two sides contradict each other over the relationship between written and oral Torah, they are both equally historically correct, and differ only in the expression of their theory. (331 – italics original)

Why not, rather, assume that the different practices arose from a common text that was interpreted differently by the founders of the various factions? Bóid’s answer is twofold:

The first is, as we have said, that differences in practice are often connected with verses the apparent meaning of which does not strongly favour one reading over another. . . .

The second phenomenon is that the verse to which the different traditions are linked and which is interpreted in one way or another is often so obscure or vague that it is hard to see how it could have got past the editors unless the wording is deliberate. The wording of the written Torah is normally very precise. (332)

But surely there are major differences that cannot be harmonized! Think of the Samaritan tenth commandment that orders an altar to be built on Mount Gerizim . . . I’ll discuss that passage in the next post. It will be demonstrated that there is nothing in the Samaritan Pentateuch that is “necessarily unacceptable to Jews, and nothing in the [Jewish Pentateuch] that is necessarily unacceptable to Samaritans.” (Bóid 340).

We conclude . . . that just as the compilation of the Pentateuch brought together and combined whatever forms of the book had been current in different parts of the country or amongst different groups, and produced a book acceptable to the whole nation, the final editors acted in the same spirit and as part of the same movement, and chose a wording in crucial places that would suit the bearers of all the variant sub-traditions of the halachah. The Pentateuch in its completed form had to be a unity in spite of its disparate sources, to fulfil its function as the version that would serve and be acceptable to the whole nation as spiritually (though not politically) united. The compilers did manage to turn the parts into a unity, integrating the different outlooks of both kingdoms [sic – Bóid appears to be assuming a text more ancient than I have been positing in recent posts] and all groups or movements or traditions, and people capable of such a compilation would have had the ability to choose the precise details of the wording of the halachic passages needed to satisfy the same disparate groups of people, and would have seen the need to do so. The compilers were the ones that integrated the sources, and were the final editors as well. (Bóid 340f).

Bóid suggests that such a work would have taken generations. I’m not so sure. It is easier to imagine diverse interests cooperating harmoniously over a shorter time span than a longer one.

Bóid also works to mollify traditionalists who prefer their sacred texts to be very, very ancient:

This is not to deny that the written Torah goes back to time immemorial, or to Moses, depending on the system of terminology: it is simply to say that various books making up the written Torah in different traditions were deliberately combined into one in a form that every Israelite could accept. Rather than suppress or ignore any tradition, the compilers and editors achieved a near-uniformity of wording in the halachic sections, a wording into which could be read (artificially if necessary) the halachah of each tradition. Where uniformity was not reached, the alternatives of wording were either inconsequential and trivial, or were both equally ambiguous . . . . (Bóid 341).

As mentioned earlier, the specific Pentateuchal topic Bóid is addressing is a narrow range of bodily cleanliness regulations. But what of the larger story narratives?

Because of the impossibility of finding an ambiguous wording of historical or chronological statements, existing differences between the source-books would have had to be allowed to stand, so that the final edited written Torah would have had to have several different recensions, according to the source of the historical sections in each case. This would not have been a serious difficulty, since in later times it has always been halachah and basic theology that have divided Israel into sects or religious factions, not disputes over historical details or the chronology of the Patriarchs, and the outlook would presumably have been the same in earlier times. (Bóid 341)

Bóid, Iain Ruairidh MacMhanainn. Principles of Samaritan Halachah. Leiden ; New York: Brill Academic Pub, 1989.

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8 thoughts on “So the Bible is “Intentionally” Ambiguous!”

  1. Neil, I would expect any document that is 3,000 years old to have lots of mysterious sayings, contradictions, commandments, rules for living, and so forth. And that only takes us back to King David. Going back to Moses (who I say was historical, even though I don’t read the Torah literally) we are closer to 3,500 years old. Going back to Abraham, possibly 4,000 years old. Now we are closer to Egypt’s Middle Kingdom.

    In Egypt’s shadow were the two great Semitic Empires-in-waiting, Assyria and Babylonn, from which we obtained the first known cuneiform writing (ca. 6,000 years ago) including the mythologies of the Creation and the Great Flood. Surely, these were not exactly like our modern Book of Genesis — but they are clearly dated facsimiles.

    According to historian Will Durant (1935) the Persian Empire arose around 750 BCE, and execpt for its Indo-European language, Persian culture was a carbon copy of Assyrian culture. The architecture, the clothing, the musical instruments, some of the the myths.

    The deity of Assyria was Assura, or Ashur, or Ahura. In Persia the Ahuras were spirits, and the highest Deity was Ahura Mazda. (The Ahura spirits are also named in India’s earliest Rig Veda, but as devils. Durant noted that the Indian angels, “devas” were also named in Persian lore — as devils).

    Persian religion promoted the Last Days, a worldwide Resurrection for a Last Judgment by a mediator like Mithra, with the good sent to Paradise and the wicked send to Sheol.

    It is clear to some scholars that this theology was borrowed by the Pharisees sect of Judaism during the Greek period — but the Greeks mocked any idea of Resurrection. So, it simply took a few generations for the Persian theology to percolate into Pharisee Judaism (ACTS 23:6-8).

    In my secular reading, the Old Testament is a hodge-podge of sacred texts over a 4,000 year period (ca. 4000 BCE to 1 BCE). I don’t expect that literalism will could shed any light on it. The historical approach promises the best possible interpretation.

    1. Hi Paul — As for the topic I posted about, Bóid does not dispute a great antiquity for the biblical texts he is discussing and I think I referred to him granting they could go back to the time of Moses. But we need to deal with his argument for precise language in the halachah sections of the Pentateuch and his point about where ambiguities and clear statements both appear.

      As for my other point that I have attempted to present evidence for in other posts — a very late provenance for the Old Testament, even into Hellenistic times, I am very aware of the conventional historical views. I was brought up on them and taught them for some years. But sometimes we discover that the foundations of our views are not as strong as we had assumed. Why not take a look at Lemche’s article raising the question of the possibility of the OT being a Hellenistic book: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/233147081_The_old_testament_-a_Hellenistic_book

      Another short book, one that catalysed the current debate over the date of the OT, is In Search of Ancient Israel by Philip Davies. I see it is no longer available to read on archive.org but if you can get a hold of it it is only about 150 pages but it goes to the heart of our historical methods and where they have fallen short in the area of Biblical studies. I outlined its main arguments at https://vridar.info/bibarch/arch/index.htm

      (I incorporated your correction into your original post.)

  2. Is there any other example from the ancient world of two sects collaborating on a text that both could agree on? That strikes me as much too KumBaYa for any age before the modern one, but what do I know.

    1. The post was not about “two sects” but numerous — many more than two — points of view and traditions finding a voice in a collection of books. There were multiple Samaritan viewpoints and as there/are multiple Jewish viewpoints that are able to accept the readings in the Pentateuch even in those areas where they disagree.

      The most obvious example of a conflation of viewpoints being found in a single text is the book of Acts that allows for both a Paul figure who was both rejected by one set of Christians and embraced by another. That goes further than the limited range of halachah rules in the Pentateuch given that for Bóid the narrative parts of the Pentateuch had to remain in contradiction. But in Christianity as we know it, we also saw the conflation of different contradictory narratives put together in the canon as the five books of the Pentatuech were combined into a “single” Torah.

      Or earlier, if we leave aside the Samaritans, lets just look at the Judeans and the evolution of the Jewish Bible. It is standard wisdom that editors allowed to stand contradictory narratives alongside new narratives that they added — thus allowing multiple traditions to stand side by side. That has been the conventional wisdom of how the Bible was put together.

      But it is not only Bóid’s view. There are other scholars who also hold to the view that Samaritans and Judeans were collaborating on the text. I will quote a few in another post.

      Further, as Russell Gmirkin has pointed out, the Jewish story of the Seventy chosen to translate the Pentateuch all “miraculously” produced a common text sounds very like “miracularization” of the process of editing and creation that must have happened in reality.

      Since we are talking about the origins of what became known as “the religions of the book” there are not many other illustrations to draw from, but we do have in the Hellenistic era a process throughout other areas in the “Near East” creations of new narratives by means of rewriting and adding to existing myths for the sake of creating new ethnic identities.

      The difference that I have pointed out with this post is that it focusses on Samaritans and Judeans and those two groups are traditionally understood to be at such loggerheads that they could never cooperate. My point is, “Not so” — there was indeed a time when they did cooperate. (The Persian era letters found at Elephantine that were addressed to both Jerusalem and the Samaritan leaders are evidence for this, also.)

  3. My major question, though, is how the fact that they would write a text with the capability to support multiple intrerpretations fits with the origins of Judaism and Samaritanism. If these religions’ prohibitions were recenter than the traditional narrative suggests, then my question is whether the people writing the texts were also devising the religions’ prohibitions. If so, does the texts’ vagueness reflect disagreements by the people who devised the restrictions about how severe the restrictions should be?

    Or were the restrictions a recent cultural innovation which the texts’ authors were trying to justify in the scriptures which they were claiming to be older?

    1. One thing I am learning is that the traditional view of outright hostility between Jews and Samaritans came well after the Pentateuch was written. One article of interest is Alan Crown’s Redating the Schism between the Judaeans and the Samaritans (Jewish Quarterly Review, 1991). From the abstract:

      Estimates of when the Samaritans finally separated from the Judaeans vary widely. I argue that there are reasons to date that separation only to the period when it was possible to see the Samaritans as religiously and politically distinct from the Jews.

      In many respects the Samaritans of the first century were a Jewish sect, but we can trace a gradually changing relationship between Judaeans and Samaritans. It was only in the generation after Judah ha-Nasi, following the Bar Kokhba revolt, that we see the development of anti-Samaritanism in a series of negative statements by the rabbinical teachers, culminating in the ruling that the Samaritans are unquestionably to be considered as Gentiles. Likewise there is evidence from the church fathers that in the first and second centuries the Samaritans were regarded as Jews.

      Another scholar says they should not be thought of as a Jewish sect at all but as another branch of Yahwism — which accommodated multiple temples throughout its existence.

      There were variations in practice but they identified themselves as a common community nonetheless at least through to the early Hellenistic era. That’s as far as the type of halachah rules that Bóid addresses. But there were evidently more serious differences between what seems to me to be a Yahweh-alone camp and the more polytheistic embrace of Yahwism, as Russell Gmirkin has pointed out in the difference between the Genesis and Exodus narrative portrayals.

      1. With all due respect, you seem to have either misunderstood my question or decided to focus upon a subsidiary issue in my comment. My comment’s primary purpose was to address the relationship between an intentionally vague text whose antiquity is being re-evaluated and various interpretations of practises outlined in the texts. Did the practises preceed the texts, which were vague in order to reconcile various practises? Or did the text proceed the practises, with the texts’ vagueness causing different practises and interpretations to develop?

        Based upon other comments which you have made, I was under the impression that you believed that the texts came first, pointing out as you have the lack of evidence that Judaens followed the practises until the 2nd century BCE (if I recall correctly). But if the texts were deliberately written vaguely about the practises, that suggests that maybe the practises, in their diversity, predated the texts. I hope that I make more sense.

        1. The varying halachic traditions that Bóid is addressing specifically preceded the text. The text was written to accommodate and serve as a common reference point for various “factional” interests who nonetheless held a common ethnic or religious identity.

          (Sorry for misunderstanding your question earlier.)

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