Category Archives: Biblical Studies

The biggie. Much work needs to be done on the children of this category. These need to be greatly reduced in number.

Should this category include the ancient history of Palestine-Judea, including second temple era and Bar Kochba rebellion and rise of rabbinic culture? If so, should Biblical Studies itself be renamed in some way?

Review part 1: Questioning the Historicity of Jesus / Lataster.

Brill, a publisher who value[s] academic freedom and rejects attempts to silence it. . . There are others of course but [Brill is among] these academic treasures that are on the side of truth and not beholden to ideologues of any stripe. — Jim West (ThD)

The publisher Brill has forwarded me access to Raphael Lataster’s book, Questioning the Historicity of Jesus: Why A Philosophical Analysis Elucidates the Historical Discourse, for review on this blog.

Disclaimer: Raphael Lataster makes a brief but favourable mention of me in the book. I can only plead my best efforts at honest neutrality by pointing to my critical responses to another scholar, Richard Carrier, who has also spoken positively about me.

The book’s dedication honours the late Emeritus Professor Philip R. Davies, no doubt because of his courageous 2012 article in The Bible and Interpretation, Did Jesus Exist?, in which he wrote

Philip Davies

I don’t think, however, that in another 20 years there will be a consensus that Jesus did not exist, or even possibly didn’t exist, but a recognition that his existence is not entirely certain would nudge Jesus scholarship towards academic respectability. (Bolding is all quotations is mine.)

A lengthy Foreword is written by Professor James Crossley who was a student of an anti-mythicist, Maurice Casey, but also a colleague of Philip Davies. Crossley acknowledges the contributions of outsiders from the field of biblical studies such as Raphael Lataster whose doctoral dissertation was in the Analytic Philosophy of Religion in the Religious Studies department of one of the world’s top fifty universities, the University of Sydney. Crossley notes that biblical studies departments have traditionally assumed the historicity of Jesus and that challenges to this assumption have come “from outside in recent years”, and notes specifically of Lataster’s contribution:

Thinking about the challenge provided by Lataster, my take is that more scepticism is indeed needed. (p. xii)

I’m so proud of this kid.
Jim West on James Crossley

Interestingly Crossley refers to his own particular contributions to the study of Christian origins and acknowledges that we cannot be certain that the themes he raised (the Gospel of Mark’s treatment of the sabbath, purity laws and eschatology) started with a historical Jesus:

Did these issues emerge with the historical figure of Jesus? It is possible, certainly. But they could have developed in (say) the 30s or 40s CE. Moreover, people can create stories in days, never mind a decade or decades. Stories can also retain historical information. But how do we actually prove this either way once we’ve established an early tradition or theme? (pp. xii f)

Note that. Lataster, likewise, argues the agnostic position.

Instead of relentlessly focusing on reconstructing an individual, and precise claims that cannot be proven, we might instead turn our focus to a history of ideas in Christian origins and provide a more solid grounding for scholarly claims.
James Crossley

Crossley is not denying the historicity of Jesus:

As is hopefully clear, this is not a mythicist position in the sense that it does not disprove Jesus’ existence (nor does it attempt to do so) but it is a position which acknowledges that we are severely restricted in what we can say about reconstructing the life of the historical Jesus. (p. xiii)

And then makes a point I find most reassuring myself, having attempted to promote it often enough on this blog:

But this does not have to be a bad thing. Instead of relentlessly focusing on reconstructing an individual, and precise claims that cannot be proven, we might instead turn our focus to a history of ideas in Christian origins and provide a more solid grounding for scholarly claims.

This brings us to Raphael Lataster’s own Introduction. I am dwelling on both the Foreword and Introduction in this first post on Lataster’s book because the question is certainly controversial enough and misconceptions abound and need to be confronted and cleared away in order for a serious reading to happen.

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From Babylonia to Moses and Enoch to Paul: Questions

I conclude the series on From Adapa to Enoch with this post.

Ancient scribes were taught to see the world through the eyes of mythical heroes like Adapa and Enoch. They were taught to write in the voices of the likes of Adapa and Enoch. Through ritual mortals could even become the presence of those mythical figures. Even the early Christian writings declare the ability of human worshipers to bear the shining glory of God and sit with him in heavenly places. “Shining glory”, in that Mesopotamian-Persian-Hellenistic thought world was a corporeal entity that could be taken off and put on like clothing. We need to set aside our idea of dualism that posits an unbridgeable divide between the natural and supernatural realms. Dualism in the time we are discussing happened entirely within the realm of the single cosmos: the physical bore signs of the spiritual; a mortal could ascend into heaven and share in the divine glory and yet remain mortal. The entire universe was a system of signs. To be able to read the stars was to learn the language of the gods and to understand the secrets of the universe. A word had power to change the events in the physical world. The world was even created by words in the Judean myth.

Categories that are problematic for us to understand, like how a scribe could experience supernatural revelation or think that his words were of similar essence to preexisting revealed text, assume a radical distinction between the natural and the supernatural. But our Judean scribes, like Babylonian scribes, had no separate category for the merely material world as opposed to their culturally determined speech or God’s purely supernatural miracles. They had a semiotic ontology in which the universe was shaped by God in language-like ways. The … “reckoning, calculation” of speech can be implanted in the mind of the speaker of the [Thanksgiving Hymns], or God can cause him to perceive the [measurements] that govern the movement of sun and year. God organized essential pieces of human language in precisely the same way as he organized other mysteries and calculations of the universe.

(Sanders, 235. Highlighting and [] substitutions of technical expressions mine.)

If this kind of knowledge had its origins in Mesopotamia, according to the thesis argued by Seth Sanders in From Adapa to Enoch, it found its way throughout the Near East, including Judea, in the “Parchment Period”, when new writing media (script, language, container) superseded clay and cuneiform. (We are talking fifth century B.C.E.)

Judean scribes made consistent changes to the Babylonian forms of knowledge that came their way:

[I]n its adaption of Babylonian knowledge, Judea shows a pattern of narrativization. All known cases of Babylonian into Jewish literature involve a genre change into narratives of the ancient past. Whether ritual (the treaty-oaths of Esarhaddon), legal collection (the laws of Hammurapi), or astronomical and mathematical tables (Mul.Apin, Enüma Arm Enlil 14, the standard cuneiform fraction sequences), all were transformed into stories about ancestors, from Moses to Enoch to Levi. This reflects a dominant and widely recognized Judean literary value by which scribes conducted other major acts of text-building such as the Pentateuch (cf. Baden 2012, Sanders 2015, Schmid 2010).

(Sanders, 232 f. My highlighting)

To sidetrack for a moment into the Sanders 2015 citation above, Sanders sees the sources of the biblical narratives as being very the classical Mesopotamian literature. For example, the Genesis story of the Noah Flood appears to be based at least in part on a source like the Epic of Gilgamesh. Where the Genesis narrative differs from any Mesopotomanian narrative model is in its doublets (everything is narrated twice) and even in the fact that many of those doublets are inconsistent or contradictory. The possibility of a Greek influence never arises. A question in my mind relates to Greek historical narratives that do contain doublets with contradictions and other inconsistencies (see, e.g. Explaining (?) the Contradictory Genesis Accounts of the Creation of Adam and Eve). Other Greek literature even sets out a narrative structure that seems to foreshadow what we read in the larger story of the Flood and return to civilization through “Babel” (see, e.g. Plato and the Bible on the Origins of Civilization). Of course the narrator keeps himself in the background in the Primary History (Genesis to 2 Kings) so there is no personal intrusion to alert readers before introducing a second (and contradictory) version of events as we find in Herodotus. Questions remain.

Question 1: How does the above Mesopotamian/Near Eastern view of the conceptual unity of the material-cultural-supernatural worlds compare with Classical Greek and Hellenistic concepts? (Do we encounter evolution of ideas?)

Question 2: If the answer to Q1 points to differences then do we see these differences surface in the canonical and extra-canonical literature up through the Hellenistic and early Roman eras?

Question 3: Can we look more closely at the claimed extension of the above ideas to their early Christian analogs (e.g. Christians now sitting on thrones in heaven and reflecting more and more of the glory of God)?

 

Becoming Like God: A History

The title is “a” history because it is an interpretation built on detailed argument that is presented for consideration by Seth Sanders in From Adapa to Enoch, a book sent to me for blog discussion by the publisher Mohr Siebeck.

I’m drawing to a close my reading this book and now come to chapter 6 with “Who is Like Me Among the Angels?” as the first part of its heading. A primary concern of the chapter is that we set aside Western ideas of dualism and explore a quite different thought-world behind ancient texts, including those we know “too well” in both the Old and New Testaments.

The chapter title is taken from the Self-Glorification Hymn from Qumran and later in the post I will outline the arguments for interpreting that hymn as intended for recitation by mere mortals like us, though ones instructed thoroughly in divine wisdom.

Baal

But first, the history. We begin with the Ugaritic (Canaanite) myth of Baal dating centuries before Judean times. An opportune moment came for would-be usurpers when Baal left his throne to journey to the underworld. The first contender failed because he was too weak: he could not run as fast as Baal or wield Baal’s lance. The second contender did not “measure up” to Baal, literally: sitting on Baal’s throne his feet did not reach the footstool and his head did not reach the top of the throne. (Measurement was an important signifier: note the details of measurements set out in Ezekiel, Enoch, Revelation.) This is a myth narrated in the third person: Baal did this, Athtar did that, etc.

Thereupon Athtar the Terrible
ascends the heights of Zaphon,
sits on Mighty Baal’s seat.
(But) his feet do not reach the footstool,
his head does not reach the top (of the seat).
(To this) Athtar the Terrible responds:
“I will not reign on the heights of Zaphon!”
Athtar the Terrible descends,
he descends from the seat of Mighty Baal,
and reigns over the earth, god of it all.

(Adapted from Sanders, p. 215)

The Light-Bringer (Isaiah)

Next, compare Isaiah’s myth of Lucifer, a myth generally thought to have derived from the sort of myth we read of in the Baal epics.

How you have fallen from heaven,
morning star, son of the dawn!
You have been cast down to the earth,
you who once laid low the nations!
Y
ou said in your heart,

I will ascend to the heavens;
I will raise my throne
above the stars of God;
I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly,
on the utmost heights of Mount Zaphon
I
will ascend above the tops of the clouds;

I will make myself like the Most High.”

(Isaiah 14:12-14)

The idea of becoming like the supreme god means ascending to the throne of god but results in being brought down to earth. (Here we have a myth narrated in the second person, addressing “you”.) In Isaiah the myth appears to express a wish for God to punish the arrogance of the power (presumably Babylon, some would argue Assyria) that would exalt itself in such a way.

The Light-Bringer (Ezekiel – a myth of wisdom)

Ezekiel sees an interesting development of this myth:

“‘Therefore this is what the Sovereign Lord says:

“‘Because you think you are wise, as wise as a god,
I am going to bring foreigners against you, the most ruthless of nations;
they will draw their swords against your beauty and wisdom
and pierce your shining splendor.
They will bring you down to the pit,
and you will die a violent death in the heart of the seas.
Will you then say, “I am a god,” in the presence of those who kill you?
You will be but a mortal, not a god, in the hands of those who slay you.

(Ezekiel 28:6-9)

Here again the “light-bringer”, Lucifer, exalts himself to the status of God and is once again mercilessly punished for his arrogance. But the significant development here is that it is not size or power that the light-bringer boasts is what makes him as god, but his wisdom, his learning.

Moses

Let’s backtrack now to Moses who in the story in Exodus did indeed become “like God” after time spent in the presence of God:

When Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the covenant law in his hands, he was not aware that the skin of his face was radiant (qaran) because he had spoken with the Lord.

(Exodus 34:29)

The word for radiant can also be understood as “horns” so it is interesting to note a Babylonian astronomy text with the same ambiguity:

If the sun’s hom (si) fades and the moon is dark, there will be deaths, (explanation:) in the evening watch, the moon is having an eclipse (and in this context,) si means “hom,” si means “shine.”

As was discussed in the earliest posts of this series such a shining or glory is something that can be added to, placed upon, taken or stolen from, a person like a garment, clothing, a crown, a sword. It was bestowed upon a Mesopotamian king when he ascended the throne.

* The Akkadian word is qarnu, cognate with the Hebrew qrn root we read in Exodus 34.

It explains that what he sees is an eclipse and that when he reads the Sumerian word si in the base text, “si means ‘horn,’* and si also means ‘shining.’” After reading the commentary, the person who sees the thin shining rim of the sun should interpret both visual and written signs as simultaneously horn and light. A second commentary adds that the lemma means “‘to daze,’ si means ‘to mask,’ si means ‘shining,’ si means ‘radiance,’ si means Tight.’”

And Mummu, the counsellor, was breathless with agitation.
He split (Apsû’s) sinews, ripped off his crown,
Carried away his aura and put it on himself.From Enuma Elish I:66-68

Here the range of associations with “horn” is extended to the affective – the word translated “be dazed” can also mean “be numb with terror” – and the physical: light can mask, cover over, and block things like a fog. The phenomenon unifies astronomy, myth, and politics. This spectrum of associations is embodied in the Mesopotamian mythological object called the melammu, a blinding mask of light. The melammu is the property of gods, monsters, and the sun, and one is conferred by the gods on the king at his coronation. This mask of light is thus cosmic, physical, and political at once, a somatic mark of divine rulership, and it is external to the body, even alienable, as the theft of Mummu’s melammu in Enūma Elish (I 68) shows. A melammu can be stolen, but it can also be newly conferred on someone.

This mythic pattern provides the most straightforward model for understanding what happened to Moses’ face: it is not the face itself but its surface, the skin, that radiated. Moses’ physical proximity to the source of revelation added a new layer to his appearance, a physical mark of inhumanity. The Israelites feared contact with him because of his divine persona.

(Sanders, 209-210)

Moses was deemed unique for acquiring some of the glory, the radiance, of God as a consequence of being in his presence for a prolonged period.

  • “You have made my face to shine” (1 QHa 11:4).
  • “You have made my face to shine by Your covenant” (1QHa 12:6).
  • “by me You have illumined the face of the Many ( רבים ) and have strengthened them uncountable times, for You have given me understanding of the mysteries” (1QHa 12:28).
  • “You have exalted my horn ( קרני ) on high. I shine forth in sevenfold light ( אור ), in l[ight which] You have [established for Your glory ( בבודכה ).” (1QHa 15 26-27)
  • “by your glory ( כבוז־כה ), my light (אורי) shone forth.” (1QHa 17:26)

But the concept was established. We find a strong interest in the light-transformation of those learned in God’s wisdom in the Qumran (Dead Sea Scrolls) literature. Could not others come to reflect the light that had shone from Moses? Certainly, Moses’ light was pale compared to God’s, and the scribe’s light would be less still, presumably, but still possible.

In Mesopotamian versions of this mythic pattern, the divinized being is not unique; he is merely the incumbent of a role.

Qumran liturgy manifests a fascination with adopting this illuminated role. Here sectarians who recited the standard set of Hodayot [Thanksgiving] prayers meditated regularly on the possibility of acquiring a shining face, and even of God raising the hom/radiance of the speaker. . . . .

If the language allows the speaker to invoke the transformed state of Moses, it also evokes more broadly a state of enlightenment characteristic of the ideal sage.

(Sanders, 210)

Daniel Transforms Isaiah’s Servant into a Role for All Enlightened Ones

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Questions re the Mesopotamian Influence in the Hebrew Bible

Let’s look a little more closely at the parallels between the Judean literature (canonical and pseudepigraphical) and that of Mesopotamia to see what might have been going between them. It’s one thing to say that we can see signs of Mesopotamian written records in Judean writings but a critical question to ask is by what means, how, the one came in contact with and influenced the other. That is the particular question Seth Sanders explores in chapter 5 of From Adapa to Enoch. I will highlight a few of the points he raises.

Esarhaddon Inspires Yahweh

Here is an adaptation of the chart from pages 171-172:

Vassal Treaty of Esarhaddon

Deuteronomy 13

You shall not hear or conceal any, … word which is not seemly nor good to Ashurbanipal, the great crown prince designate, son of Esarhaddon, king of Assyria, your lord, either from the mouth of his enemy or from the mouth of his ally, or from the mouth of his brothers, his uncles, his cousins, his family, members of his father’s line,  
Prophets or diviners

(2) If there should arise in your midst a prophet or oneiromancer who provides a sign or portent, (3) and should the sign or portent – concerning which he had spoken to you, saying, “Let us go after other gods (whom you have not known) so that we may worship them” – come true: (4) Do not heed the oracles of that prophet or that oneiromancer … (6) And that prophet or that oneiromancer shall be put to death, for he fomented conspiracy against Yahweh …

Family members

or from the mouth of your brothers, your sons, your daughters,
Family members

(7) If your brother, the son of your mother, or your son, or your daughter, or the wife of your bosom, or your friend who is as your own self,
Prophets or diviners

or from the mouth of a prophet, an ecstatic, a diviner, or from the mouth of any human being who exists; you shall come and report (it) to Ashurbanipal, the great crown prince designate, son of Esarhaddon, king of Assyria … VTE § 10

Incitement to rebellion punished by instant death

If anyone speaks rebellion and insurrection to you, to kill … Ashurbanipal the [great prince] designate, son of Esarhaddon, …
If you are able to seize them and kill them, then you shall seize them and kill them! VTE § 12

Incitement to apostasy punished by instant death

entices you secretly, saying, “Let us go and worship other gods” – whom neither you nor your fathers have known … –
(9) Do not assent to him or give heed to him! Let your eye not pity him nor shall you show compassion nor condone him
(10) – but you shall surely kill him! (Deut 13:2-10)

Did the author of the Deuteronomy passage have a copy of the vassal treaty before him? It is unlikely. It does not appear so. Deuteronomy is evidently not a translation at any rate.

Were these simply ancient Near Eastern clichés? Furthermore, while the Hebrew-Assyrian parallels have long been assumed to derive from historical contact, questions remain about the social and physical locations of contact, especially if the thesis of literary translation is unsustainable. A convincing account requires a plausible, well-documented mode of transmission.

Examining whole parallel passages side by side in light of known patterns of textual transmission in the ancient Near East suggests that rather than cuneiform and papyrus, the relationship between the two texts can most plausibly be explained by memory transmission, based on the oral performance of the curses in a ceremony of the sort required in VTE. (p. 173)

From pages 174-175: read more »

More Thoughts on Origins of Biblical and Pseudepigraphical Literature

We have two models for the origin of the biblical and its ancillary literature.

According to Seth Sanders in From Adapa to Enoch we have a progression from the late Iron Age to the Seleucid era.

  • The early period (during the time of the kingdom of Judah before its exile) we have “public genres of power” that appear to draw upon the primarily cuneiform law codes and vassal treaties of Mesopotamia. In “Judea” these genres acquired a narrative framework.
  • Later, in the postexilic period, we find instead secret genres of knowledge that drew upon the scribal traditions of omens, astronomy, etc. The primary facilitator for this development was the spread of the Aramaic script as a common scholarly language.

 

Russell Gmirkin’s view is that the above texts of Deuteronomy and Exodus are rather products of the Hellenistic era. The elements of the political and legal documents of Mesopotamia are relatively few and subsumed within the sort of literature that Plato was promoting in Laws. The narrative framing of such laws was also enjoined by Plato.

Gmirkin’s Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible does not cover the noncanonical literature so the following diagram is my own, not Gmirkin’s. Throw the stones at me for what follows. I have, however, drawn upon other scholars who also set out reasons for their suspicions that the canonical texts were the product of the Persian and/or Hellenistic eras. (Philip Davies whom I mentioned in the previous post looks largely at the Persian era.)

I imagine that with this latter scenario there are different schools, some of them possibly opposed to each other. The diagram below makes it appear that they are contemporaneous but I do not think that should not be seen as strictly the case.

The diagram also only mentions the same texts as above (law codes and public curses) but that is only for comparison purposes. In fact just about everything from Genesis to Daniel is included here. (Philippe Wajdenbaum in Argonauts of the Desert extends the Greek influence from the legal codes to details of the narrative framework of those laws.) The pseudepigraphical texts are another story.

 

I am only running through a mind-game here. If there were in fact opposing scribal schools, and if the Greek literature was an influential factor in the formation of what became the canonical texts, do we find a glimpse of the origin of that division in the following passage of Plato’s Laws, Book 7. We know the Pentateuch condemned the study of the stars, but why?

ATHENIAN: Next let us see whether we are or are not willing that the study of astronomy shall be proposed for our youth.

CLEINIAS: Proceed.

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Who Influenced Biblical and Second Temple Jewish Literature?

I have been posting on points of interest in Seth Sanders’ From Adapa to Enoch: Scribal Culture and Religious Vision in Judea and Babylon and have reached a point where I cannot help but bring in certain contrary and additional perspectives from another work I posted on earlier, Russell Gmirkin’s Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible.

In chapter 5 Sanders sets out the view that Judean scribes in the Late Iron Age (the era of the Assyrian and Chaldean empires) took from the Mesopotamian scribal heritage “public genres of power”. Specifically:

  1. The author(s) of Deuteronomy 13 and 28 imitated the appearance of Assyrian Treaty-Oaths such as the Vassal Treaty of Esarhaddon;
  2. The author(s) of Exodus 21-24 took the Laws of Hammurabi as their model.

In the Second Temple era the interest of Judean scribes turned to genres of secret, esoteric knowledge. Specifically:

  1. The Enoch Book of Astronomy and Qumran literature on the calendar and the “watches” embraced Babylonian astronomical knowledge;
  2. The Qumran Testament of Levi incorporated Babylonian metrology (sequences of fractions and proportions in the sexagesimal system), and apparently metrology was also a part of other texts, Visions of Aram, Testament of Qahat, pseudo-Daniel although these are primarily examples of the importance of secrecy and guarding the knowledge through proper lineages.

Seth Sanders is interested in explaining the transition from the Late Iron Age Judean scribal culture to that of the Second Temple period, from genres of public power to genres of secrecy and esoteric wisdom.

As we saw in the previous post one of the most significant innovations the Judean scribes brought to the Mesopotamian material was the addition of a narrative context for the revealed laws, rituals and knowledge of the cosmos.

One question that arises and that I have not found explored in Sanders’ book is why the Judean scribes applied a significant narrative frame to their Babylonian sources. (As far as I have been able to determine Sanders addresses the function of the narrative framing but not the source-inspiration or model for the narrative framing concept.)

For example, the Laws of Hammurabi are bluntly introduced as being given by the sun god to the king. Contrast the laws of Exodus 21-24. Yes, they are delivered by the chief god but what a build-up: the Red Sea crossing, the Mount Sinai quaking, the tension between rebellious and obedient chosen people, the struggles of Moses to lead them, and so on!

But there are a few other details worth keeping in mind, too.

One: the amount of material supposedly borrowed from the vassal treaties is in fact arguably quite limited. Certainly there are clear similarities between the curses in both Deuteronomy and the treaties. But not much else that points to clear indications of direct borrowing. (Sanders also addresses the vagueness of some of the associations but I’ll discuss his answer in more detail in a future post.) Ditto for the borrowing from Mesopotamian Law Codes. Yes, there are clear links to the law of the goring ox in Exodus. But again, we soon run dry of comparable examples.

What of the prophetic literature of the Second Temple era? Mesopotamian prophecies, like the book of Daniel, “foretold” the historical events of successive kings rising up and doing good or bad things, but again there are notable differences, especially once again with the colourful narrative context of the Judean work. Sanders refers to the explanation of Matthew Neujahr in Predicting the Past in the Ancient Near East to point to similar historical circumstances in very different time periods leading to a blending of mantic/omen literature with chronicles or “historical” records.

I think an excellent explanation for the application of narrative framing of laws and other revealed knowledge is offered by Russell Gmirkin in Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible. The same thesis further explains why so little detail from Hammurabi’s code or the vassal treaties are actually found in the Pentateuch, and further yet, points out many similarities in Exodus and Deuteronomy to Plato’s discussion in Laws. Of particular importance, Plato wrote, was that law codes be presented with divine and antique authority and not as precepts newly hatched by a recent fallible generation. Myths or stories of origins were important for their presentation.

If we accept Gmirkin’s view then what we find is not a progression from “public genres of power” in the Late Iron Age to “secret and esoteric wisdom” in the Second Temple period, but rather we have different scribal schools — compare Philip R. Davies’  thesis in Scribes and Schools. To what extent these schools were contemporary I would not like to speculate, though it seems we would have to confine ourselves to the Hellenistic period unless there was more cultural overlap between Greeks and Persian dominated lands prior to Alexander’s conquests than I am aware of. At this point we are on the edge of too many questions and pathways to explore to be covered in a few short posts.

But with this interlude now done I feel I can resume posts on Sanders’ book.

-o-

See also

  1. How Does One Date the Old Testament Writings?
  2. Gmirkin: Plato and Creation of Hebrew Bible
  3. Sanders: From Adapa to Enoch

“Revealed Science” : Emergence of Jewish Science and Apocalyptic Genres

Continuing to share my reading of Seth Sanders’ From Adapa to Enoch, Scribal Culture and Religious Vision in Judea and Babylon. All posts are archived here.
“Science” will be used here as a system of exact knowledge of the physical world.
Sanders, From Adapa to Enoch

Recall from the previous post (How Science Began) that we are talking about a world that conceptualized no clear distinction between the natural and the supernatural, or between nature and culture.

Seth Sanders identifies three core areas of exact description of the physical world documented by the Priestly scholars as the earliest form of Judean “scientific knowledge” known to us:

  • Time and the Universe (Genesis 1:1 to 2:4a)
  • The Temple (Exodus 25-31)
  • The Human Body (Leviticus 12-15)

The Origins of the Universe

Genesis opens with a taxonomy of each major entity in the world and concludes with God’s word creating the sabbath day as part of the cosmos. Later in ritual texts we find that this creation has included the categories of clean and unclean animals (Leviticus 11, Deuteronomy 14), their different physical attributes being recognized since antediluvian times. (Notice that the sabbath and forbidden foods are not deemed to originate in culture but as an integral part or category of the created world itself. Creation was activated by God’s word.

The Temple

Here we are in the realm of ritual requirements. We therefore find a quite different account of the temple and its system. Here we read not the words of an anonymous narrator but the words of God himself. God is quoted as setting out the details of the materials, measurements, layout and rituals of the tabernacle. Moses is a passive visionary because God points out that He, God, caused Moses to see it all. God has to show or reveal the heavenly model that the earthly structure and rituals are to copy. But it needs to be set out in the words of God for the reader who is not privileged to see the heavenly structure.

The Human Body

Similarly we are in the realm of ritual. The rules for bodily discharges and blemishes are likewise made known by divine commands, revelation.

Astronomical data and new information about the body introduced into Judea (using Judea throughout though in pre-Roman times Jehud may be more strictly correct) survive in such intertestamental literature as the Astronomical Book of Enoch and certain of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

It is interesting to see how this new scientific information made its entrance into the Judean world, building on the genres of existing “scientific” knowledge that we have seen in the three priestly statements above. We start with the introduction of astronomical knowledge that originated in Babylonia.

Revelation and Science are the One Genre

The Astronomical Book of Enoch begins:

The book of the courses of the luminaries of the heaven, the relations of each, according to their classes, their dominion and their seasons, according to their names and places of origin, and according to their months, which Uriel, the holy angel, who was with me, who is their guide, showed me; and he showed me all their laws exactly as they are . . . .

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James McGrath’s “particular” difficulty with “mythicism”

Where to begin?!

One of the things that makes mythicism seem particularly implausible to me is precisely the claim that Christians just think there was a historical Jesus because they are biased in favor of his existence. The historical Jesus, a figure who (among other things) was mistaken about the imminent arrival of the kingdom of God that he predicted, who fostered hopes that he would restore the dynasty of David to the throne but was executed by the Romans, is not much of a comfort to the majority of Christians. Mythicists imagine Christians saying “Well, he was mistaken and a first-century figure that we can scarcely relate to, but I take great comfort in the fact that he existed.” That just doesn’t strike me as plausible.

McGrath, Religion Prof: The Blog of James F. 2019. “When Jesus and Mythicists Are Wrong.” Religion Prof: The Blog of James F. McGrath (blog). August 26, 2019. https://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof/2019/08/journal-of-gospel-and-acts-research.html.

It’s Trumpian.

The Tone of a Mythicist-Agnostic Debate

Some of us may be interested in a somewhat objective attempt to measure the tone of the discussion on the question of Mythicist-Agnosticism as raised on the Religion Prof’s blogsite:

Current Debate Jesus Agnosticism/Mythicism – Raphael Lataster and James McGrath

The measure is from a text analysis program, the LIWC (Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count). From the How It Works site:

Basically, it reads a given text and counts the percentage of words that reflect different emotions, thinking styles, social concerns, and even parts of speech. Because LIWC was developed by researchers with interests in social, clinical, health, and cognitive psychology, the language categories were created to capture people’s social and psychological states.

See the site for more details and Interpreting LIWC Output for a description of the areas measured.

I don’t include any commenters who posted fewer than 700 words. I would be especially cautious about the two I have included that posted fewer than 1000 words.

Name of blog commenter

and number of words used

(quotations of the words of others are not included)

Analytic thinking

— the degree to which people use words that suggest formal, logical, and hierarchical thinking patterns

Authenticity
— when people reveal themselves in an authentic or honest way
Clout

— the relative social status, confidence, or leadership that people display through their writing

Tone

— the higher the number, the more positive the tone

JM’s Original Post on B&I (3043 words)
74.07% 28.08% 55.08% 39.90%
James McGrath’s Discussion (1116 words) 56.82% 55.72% 48.92% 43.75%
Tim O’Neill’s Discussion (1155 words) 51.18% 47.37% 71.04% 20.52%
Leigh Sutherland’s Discussion (1046 words) 72.07% 48.3% 44.3% 72.33%
David (778 words) 65.19% 30.06% 59.65% 39.56%
Gary (708 words) 51.67% 68.37% 61.68% 19.45%

Congratulations to Leigh for his positive contribution to the overall level and especially the tone of the discussion.

Current Debate Jesus Agnosticism/Mythicism – Raphael Lataster and James McGrath

The Bible and Interpretation website has published an article by Raphael Lataster discussing his book (published by Brill) Questioning the Historicity of Jesus: Why a Philosophical Analysis Elucidates the Historical Discourse.

Some excerpts:

Now, within five years of each other, there are two comprehensive academic monographs arguing the other way. Those wanting to know why we ought to accept the Historical Jesus’ historicity generally have to make do, if they do not directly engage with the sources themselves, with the specialist scholars merely asserting their opinions, and some popular books, like those recent ones from Ehrman and Casey.

On Bart Ehrman’s attempt to address the Christ Myth hypothesis:

Apart from his use of hypothetical sources, Ehrman highlights two key points that apparently make Jesus’ existence a sure bet. The first is Paul’s relationships with Peter and James, who surely knew a historical Jesus. The big problem is that we know of this from later documents. Ehrman and other scholars read the later documents into the earlier Epistles. Reading the Epistles without Gospel-tainted glasses will lead to some intriguing possibilities, as we shall soon see. There are other problems, too, such as the general unreliability of the Epistles (just as with the Gospels), and the fact that such passages were tampered with (as Ehrman himself published on; see his The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, Oxford University Press, 1993, pp. 238-239).

The second is that Jews would apparently never invent a suffering Messiah. This is utter nonsense. Ehrman is wrong in principle and in fact.

On Maurice Casey’s follow up diatribe:

Casey outright admits, like so many theologians and cryptotheologians, that “the criteria reasonably used by historians writing about important political figures such as Julius Caesar need modification in dealing with the historicity of Jesus” (p. 66). No Casey, you do not get to alter the rules of what is historically probable because you know that your evidence simply isn’t good enough. The other great innovation that Casey brought to the debate is the radically early dating of the Gospels, almost laughably unjustified, as well as the identification of the earliest Gospel writer.

Raphael Lataster follows with a summary of his case for “agnosticism and an alternative hypothesis”:

Thinking of early Christianity in this way address a lot of the problems with the state of the evidence. . . . [T]he Gospels are simply allegorisations of the earlier teachings, something that scholars are increasingly accepting. Did earlier Jews believe in such Celestial Messiahs? Yes! One need only turn to the fairly recently discovered intertestamental texts, to see that there were Jews who expected a Celestial Messiah who would bring abut somewhat of a spiritual victory . . . .

Interestingly, these ideas are gaining ground. Scholars in fields related to New Testament are increasingly adopting agnostic views about Jesus. Even within the field, there are scholars willing to be agnostic or sympathetic to agnosticism. I fully expect that a torrent of abuse will come my way. Though I expect that, like the Old Testament minimalists, I, and the few like me, will eventually be vindicated, fairly quickly. Even in the early years of my career, the likes of Brill, Springer, Cambridge, and Oxford are seeing the value in my research. And I see many younger New Testament scholars asking more questions about the reliability of the extant sources and oral transmission and memory. The time is ripe for change.

Very quickly a reply from James McGrath followed: Exorcising Mythicism’s Sky-Demons: A Response to Raphael Lataster’s “Questioning Jesus’ Historicity.”

You will have to read McGrath’s article for yourself lest you think any criticism I make will be an expression of personal bias. As for substantial argument McGrath falls back on Paul’s letters as the primary evidence for the historicity of Jesus without realizing that in doing so he is simply repeating the very methodological problem Lataster pointed out with this approach: it relies on interpreting Paul through much later sources like the gospels. McGrath fails to comment on the fact that the scholars he is defending against Lataster’s criticism – Ehrman and Casey – reject McGrath’s own reliance upon the epistles as the bedrock evidence for the historicity of Jesus.

The general point of McGrath’s response can best be summed up by the following . . .

Indeed, Lataster’s article consists of rhetorical ploys, insults, and insinuations far more than substantive argument, and it is thus not only appropriate but necessary to look closely at what is being said and how it is being conveyed.

Lataster resembles other prominent mythicists in his use of insult and denigration in place of argument.

. . . he is not taking the discussion at all seriously or approaching it in an appropriate academic manner.

Lataster simply does not grasp what scholarship entails at its most fundamental level, or is simply happy to engage in misrepresentation and flights of fancy if doing so seems to support his preferred ideology.

But you be the judge.

B&I posted a response by Lataster to McGrath’s article, When Critics Miss the Point About Questioning Jesus’ Historicity

Given the amount of errors McGrath makes in his response, I decided to respond, and the The Bible and Interpretation team have kindly allowed this.

Firstly, I wish to leave the rhetoric to one side. It is often unfair, and leads to unending accusations about the ‘other side’ being more polemical and many misinterpretations . . . .

and concludes with

Carrier published his academic book in 2014 and I have published mine in 2019. We are still waiting for a proper refutation of my case for agnosticism and his more ambitious case for outright mythicism. I suspect that this will never occur, because ‘at least agnosticism’ is very sensible. The sources are terrible, with the best ones being anonymous, and portraying a character reminiscent of earlier non-existent figures. The Celestial Jesus theory also seems increasingly plausible, given all we are now learning about early Christian diversity and pre-Christian Judaisms, with all their varied views about celestial beings and the Messiah. Hopefully, like Davies, Avalos, and Crossley, more scholars of the New Testament will eventually come to admit that nothing like a case for certainty about Jesus’ historical existence can be offered, and that questioning Jesus’ historicity is very reasonable indeed.

We shall see.

 

A Story of a Mother-in-law, Stopping the Sun, and Rebuilding the Temple Wall

I don’t know. If you thought Maurice Mergui’s ideas set out in my previous posts were over the top then you are going to totally freak out over this one. It comes from his book Un Étranger Sur Le Toit: Les Sources Misdrashiques Des Evangiles.

I was looking for a new interpretation of that little healing episode where Jesus goes to Peter’s house to heal his wife’s mother who has a fever. In Mark and Matthew Jesus touches her hand and the fever leaves her; she then gets up and serves everybody. (A woman’s work, etc …) In Luke we read that Jesus rebuked the fever before it left her.

Now I’ve always had a problem with this passage as it’s told in the Gospel of Mark. In just about every other healing event there is a clear symbolic factor at work. Symbolic names and actions abound. In that context there seems to be no point to the story of healing Peter’s mother-in-law. No name, no evident symbolism, no further detail or background appears in the narrative. It appears to lack the sorts of points we find in other healings.

So I had to find out if Maurice Mergui’s midrashic interpretations had anything to offer. And oh yes, his discussion goes way, way beyond anything I had expected. But that leaves me a bit wary. Has he gone way too far and in a perverse sort of way argued his point out of the realm of plausibility? I really don’t know. Which is where I came in.

So here goes.

The usual caveats apply: I was never a top-grade student in my French classes; I have not been able to track down all of his sources, in particular, an English translation of Exodus Rabbah 50; I have not read his complete chapter, let alone the entire book, so may well be missing some key details that would shift some of my understanding; and I am not even going to cover every detail within the section I have attempted to grasp (because some points still elude me); and I sometimes have suspicions that the Kindle version of the book fails to capture correctly the transliterations of the Hebrew that I would expect to see in the original. Anyone with a better grasp of French is very welcome to add to /correct whatever follows.

Here is the passage being addressed:

Matthew 8 (Mergui sees major significance in Matthew’s placing this healing immediately after the healing of the centurion’s son. I have not explored his discussion on that link, so forgive me for missing something he considers important here — at least for now.) . . .

14 When Jesus came into Peter’s house, he saw Peter’s mother-in-law lying in bed with a fever. 15 He touched her hand and the fever left her, and she got up and began to wait on him.

16 When evening came, many who were demon-possessed were brought to him, and he drove out the spirits with a word and healed all the sick

Mark 1

29 As soon as they left the synagogue, they went with James and John to the home of Simon and Andrew. 30 Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they immediately told Jesus about her. 31 So he went to her, took her hand and helped her up. The fever left her and she began to wait on them.

32 That evening after sunset the people brought to Jesus all the sick and demon-possessed.

Luke 4

38 Jesus left the synagogue and went to the home of Simon. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was suffering from a high fever, and they asked Jesus to help her. 39 So he bent over her and rebuked the fever, and it left her. She got up at once and began to wait on them.

40 At sunset, the people brought to Jesus all who had various kinds of sickness, and laying his hands on each one, he healed them. 

Mergui begins by pointing out that our little story is all very simple, straightforward, and poses no mysteries, etc. (Except that that’s what I think is so out of character for it for several reasons.) But let’s imagine a Hebrew original, Mergui proposes, and see what happens.

Key words in Hebrew all look and sound alike. Recall those posts on Charbonnel’s introductory chapters to her book on Jesus being a “midrashic” creation and especially her discussion of the importance of the sounds of Hebrew roots, usually three consonants, and the word-games that could be played with them. (Please allow me to use “midrashic” — in inverted commas — and set aside for now the questions of definition. Some prefer to add the term haggidah to it in this context but that is getting too much of a mouthful/keyboard exercise.)

So here are the key words addressed by Mergui:

mother in law: Hamot = חמות

fever: Hama (also means “sun”; though another word, shemesh, also means “sun”; and cf. Homa = “wall”): = חמה

rebuke: Heima = חמה

gets up/rises: …amod (also means “stand still”) = עמד

Okay. Now for the next bit. Some OT passages where some of those words are key:

Joshua 10

12 Then Joshua spoke to the Lord in the day when the Lord delivered up the Amorites before the children of Israel, and he said in the sight of Israel:

Sun, stand still over Gibeon;
And Moon, in the Valley of Aijalon.”
13 So the sun stood still,
And the moon stopped,
Till the people had revenge
Upon their enemies.

Malachi 4

But to you who fear My name
The Sun of Righteousness shall arise
With healing in His wings;

There are other passages, too. But we start with those.

What Mergui appears to be proposing is that the Jesus healing Peter’s mother-in-law was inspired by the “revelation” of sounds of the words suggesting that

  • the messiah, represented by the sun in the Malachi passage, would heal at a time when the sun is risen (notice that the healing miracle of Jesus is set prior to sunset; notice also that “wings” can mean the fringe of a garment and that we know of another story where a woman was healed by touching the fringe of Jesus’ garment . . . but we wander)
  • Joshua, = Jesus, commanded the sun (and note that a synonym forms a word-play with mother-in-law)
  • to “stand still” (a word that can also mean “rise up”)
  • and the healed mother-in-law set to serving them all; the word for serve, in the Hebrew, apparently is similar to the other word for “sun”, shemesh, and besides, the sun, symbolic of the messiah in Malachi, and in other passages, serves.

But what about the word fever and its sound-alike meaning wall? And not forgetting the word-play that equates the same with mother-in-law.

That brings us to that other famous miracle of Joshua, the way he got the walls of Jericho to come tumbling down. Now in the Bible we need to keep in mind that walls can be sick. Recall the laws on leprosy — “leprosy” can infect a wall (if you know your bible, since I won’t look it up just now.) Further, we read in Ezekiel 13:15 that it is quite reasonable to be angry at a wall. At this point Mergui turns to later rabbinical midrash but I am not clear on the details, not being able to find reasonably quickly an English translation of Exodus Rabbah 50. The interpretation has something to do with the need to return a cloak taken as surety for a loan to its poor owner by sunset. The rabbinic view is that this passage suggests the messiah will come “by/before sunset”. A garment is also a metonymy for the Temple: note the High Priest’s special garment. A rabbinic discussion raises the idea that the Temple walls were destroyed because of the sin of people not returning the garments held as pledges to their poor owners by sunset. So let’s come back to the wall. The rabbis, as I understand Mergui through a glass darkly, argue that repentance will lead God to restore/rebuild/get (back) up the wall that he had once rebuked. Joshua’s miracle reversed, unless you are overly picky about which walls are in question.

The punishment of the exile, it appears, will end with repentance and then the wall will be rebuilt, or “get up” again, by the command of the messiah, presumably.

So you can see why I am frustrated not having a perfectly clear understanding of Mergui’s discussion and not having access to the sources he is addressing. There is much that looks fascinating, perhaps too much so, but certainly enough to make one want to be clear about what is being argued and all its details. And to see what controls there are so we can remove questions over whether one might be able to find any interpretation we want behind a gospel passage.

But WHY would Paul be made a “Midrashic” Creation?

Maurice Mergui

I’ve been distracted from my scheduled reading and planned posts to go back and fill in some gaps to what I wrote yesterday about Paul being cut from the Saul of the OT.

This post outlines some of what I take to be the main ideas from the first part of Paul à Patras by Maurice Mergui.

Paul’s life reads like real history or real biography. Paul is a known character when we think of him alongside the persons in the gospels. The gospel figures read more like foils set up to fulfill prophecies, teach us lessons, and so forth. Even their names are often clearly symbolic and they act out the meanings of their names almost the way we expect parables or children’s stories to read. But Paul, he has a psychology — and one that we may not always like. He has a setting, a real place in history and we know the places he visits — Antioch, Athens, Rome. He has a real name, a Roman one. He has health problems. We are told of the exact street name he was to meet someone in Damascus. All this smacks of reality.

At the same time there are real quirks in the story of Acts. The account of Paul’s conversion is told to us three times; the story is told in the third person and then suddenly without explanation switches to the first. The main character is called Saul and then suddenly he is called Paul and stays with that name to the end; geographical errors appear as when Malta is set in the Adriatic; and there are contradictions to what he wrote in his letters. Paul is both diminished and exalted in our sources. But such anomalies and contradictions are considered generally at one level to be marks of authenticity.

The story of Acts itself bears reflection. From the first chapter we have the band of disciples gathered together, determined to maintain their number of 12, commissioned to preach the message of Jesus to the end of the world. They are given the miracle of tongues to make this possible. But then from chapter 9 everything focuses on just one man, a certain Paul, who persecutes the followers of Jesus, is himself converted, changes his name, and sets out to preach the gospel. And his story it is right through to the end of the book. And the turnover event was the road to Damascus experience, an event that is told to readers three times.

So what’s this all about? Why such a break or change in story half way through?

Why does Acts “lose the plot” half way through?

Maurice Mergui regrets the way many scholars have, he claims, misunderstood and misrepresented another scholar, Georges Perec. Mergui, appealing to Perec’s insights, asks us to imagine the following scenario.

Imagine that you want to produce a story that will draw simultaneously on three different themes.

  1. The grandeur and the fall of the Jewish people
  2. The reign of Death followed by the end of his power

  3. The triumph of paganism being succeeded by the universal conversion of pagans

But keep in mind: the rule is that each of these three themes must be addressed simultaneously, not one after the other, in the narrative. Mergui tells us that Perec believed that the Book of Acts achieved this three-fold aim. read more »

Paul as a Midrashic Creation

I am beginning to suspect that Nanine Charbonnel’s book on the Christ Myth theory is really something quite different from any other argument for the Jesus of the gospels having been a figure crafted entirely out of “revelation”, especially “revelation” through the Jewish Scriptures. So far I have steadily worked my way through the first part of the book in which NC presents a wide range of ways Jewish scribes of the Second Temple era wrote and interpreted their sacred books. Having since read NC’s introduction to the second part of Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier I have begun to glimpse the relevance of all of that unexpected introduction.

I’ll save the big guns for later, but here is something, or just a morsel of something, that I picked up through beginning to read one of the works in NC’s bibliography. It’s another book in French (so again, it’s not one I can read quickly or even skim) —

What Do We Mean by Midrash?

Let’s first get the term midrash out of the way. Here I fall back on the simplest explanation of the word used by a Jewish scholar of some note, Daniel Boyarin:

Although a whole library could (and has been) written on midrash, for the present purposes it will be sufficient to define [midrash] as a mode of biblical reading that brings disparate passages and verses together in the elabora­tion of new narratives. It is something like the old game of anagrams in which the players look at words or texts and seek to form new words and texts out of the letters that are there. The rabbis who produced the midrashic way of reading considered the Bible one enormous signifying system, any part of which could be taken as commenting on or supple­ menting any other part. They were thus able to make new stories out of fragments of older ones (from the Bible itself), via a kind of anagrams writ large; the new stories, which build closely on the biblical narratives but expand and modify them as well, were considered the equals of the bibli­cal stories themselves.

(Boyarin, The Jewish Gospels, 76)

That won’t satisfy certain purists and it does conflict with my most recent posts on the term but I’m also a believer that words mean what we mean them to mean and if we can all accept for the sake of argument the use of a term for a particular purpose then we are removing an unnecessary barrier to getting a discussion under way. (Boyarin’s is also a definition that NC herself references.)

Paul’s Career Began in Scripture

Again, I emphasize I am not presenting here a full argument but merely a small detail of a much larger presentation. (I have read no more than 2% of the Kindle version of Mergui’s book.)

Paul, we all know, was originally called Saul, according to the Book of Acts.

Saul, pronounced closer to “shawl” in Hebrew, is based on the King Saul of the books of 1 and 2 Samuel.

Saul was a persecutor of the church. He bound the men and women of the Christian faith (Acts 8).

Where did that biographical detail originate? It is not in Paul’s letters: if in doubt see Paul the persecutor? and Paul the Persecutor: The Case for Interpolation. read more »

Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier. Chap 3e … A Different Kind of Literary Heritage

Nanine Charbonnel concludes her Prelude to her discussion of the gospels with a fascinating overview of literary technique that I think is not widely known outside the halls of academia. An author could compose a book in such a way that its thematic structure was a representation of . . . a topographical setting, or a building, or an animal — but not for any mundane reason. No, think of a place where God met and spoke with his people, or a sacred building like a tabernacle for the dwelling of God, or a sacrificial animal.

Mary Douglas (1921-2007) – Wikipedia

Once again NC turns to the anthropologist Mary Douglas and her book Leviticus as Literature. It is worth reading the book in its entirety in order to appreciate the anthropological foundations to her analysis. I had to pull myself away from revisiting milestone anthropological studies in order to complete this post. (There is even a book dedicated to responding to Douglas: Reading Leviticus: Responses to Mary Douglas, edited by John F. A. Sawyer. Some readers here will like to know that the last chapter in that volume is titled “Leviticus in Mark: Jesus’ Attitude to the Law”, by Alan Watson.)

Modern readers (at least most of us, I am sure) love to read from start to finish, usually as fast as comprehension will allow, with the assumption that the author has composed a linear narrative or exposition.

Now we know the Bible forbade the making of images but that did not stop authors from devising all sorts of word images. In our previous posts we have even seen how the Hebrew consonants forming words could be subject to interpretation based on their shapes and meanings (e.g. beth, meaning house). In one of our earlier posts some readers, including me, expressed some doubt that certain mystical interpretations raised by NC really did date back to the Second Temple era. We tend to think of them as kabbalistic and originating in the medieval era. NC disputed that assumption but I have not followed up her references (not wanting to take on another work of translating French at this stage). So I was intrigued to see Mary Douglas write the following:

The central idea of this book is that Leviticus exploits to the full an ancient tradition which makes a parallel between Mount Sinai and the tabernacle. Various antique transpositions between houses, bodies, and temples prepare us for believing that Ramban, the mystic philosopher and revered medieval interpreter, was drawing on very ancient traditions when he read Exodus so as to draw a parallel between the desert tabernacle and Mount Sinai. The tradition goes back to Exodus. . . . 

(Douglas, 59)

Then a few pages on,

It might well be objected that this is a medieval fantasy of no relevance for Leviticus. Ramban is the name of Rabbi Nachmanides (1194–c.1270) and his conjectures might have had nothing to do with Leviticus but come straight out of thirteenth-century mysticism. Milgrom, who is well aware of this question, considers that Ramban was drawing on an ancient tradition. He bases the interpretation on the text of Exodus itself, and particularly on the name of the tabernacle as the Tent of Meeting. After considering and dismissing several speculations on the origin of the term, he says:

‘Nevertheless, the immediate archetype for P’s Tent of Meeting is not some mythic Canaanite model or hypothetical Hittite example, but the ancient Israelite tradition of the theophany at Mount Sinai. P (Exod 24: 15b; 25: 1) concurs with and indeed incorporates the epic tradition (Exod 19. 20; 20: 1) that God descended upon Sinai . . . ’ [Milgrom 1991, 142].

This was where the initial meeting between God and Moses took place. At the end of Exodus, God transferred his earthly presence to the tabernacle in the form of fire and cloud. The tabernacle thereafter became the site of all subsequent meetings. God’s direct presence is too terrible to be endured, so it is veiled in cloud, and the holy of holies in smoke of incense. The cloud is the sign of God’s presence as he journeyed with his people in their wanderings. At Sinai when all the work of the tabernacle was finished, ‘Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled upon it and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle’ (Exod 40: 35). In Genesis smoke of sacrifice attracted God’s attention after the flood. In Exodus the incense altar was used for the priest to send up clouds of fragrant smoke (Exod 30: 7–8, 34–8; 40: 26). Smoke impedes visibility, like a cloud.

Thus, Milgrom argues, the name ‘Tent of Meeting’ gives grounds for thinking that the correspondence between tabernacle and Sinai are at least as old as Exodus. The same argument is made by Alfred Marx when he shows that God’s presence at Sinai and his presence at the altar at the time of sacrifice are to be read as strictly parallel. The mountain and the altar are figures of one another. [Grappe and Marx 1998, 24]. It could even be older, derived from the ancient symbolism of the cosmic mountain used in Canaanite religions. The idea of a cosmic centre of the world, on a raised place, on which a shrine has been built, is common around the Mesopotamian region.

(Douglas, 62 f. My bolded highlighting)

In the diagram here I have copied Mary Douglas’s illustration of the tabernacle and placed it beside a representation of Mount Sinai.

read more »