Tag Archives: Book of Genesis

Rendsburg on Genesis and Gilgamesh: Misunderstanding and Misrepresenting the Documentary Hypothesis (Part 1)

Landscape with Noah's Thank Offering (painting...

Landscape with Noah’s Thank Offering (painting circa 1803 by Joseph Anton Koch) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Doubting the Documentary Hypothesis

Back in October of last year I mentioned that I wanted at some point in the future to take a more detailed look at Gary Rendsburg’s audio course on Genesis, with special emphasis on the Documentary Hypothesis (DH). As you recall, Rendsburg doubts many of the claims advanced by DH scholars, especially Julius Wellhausen.

While he would grant the existence of another tradition behind the book of Leviticus (i.e., the Priestly or P source), as well as behind the book of Deuteronomy (i.e., the Deuteronomist, D), Rendsburg rejects the idea of trying to separate sources in the book of Genesis. He prefers to understand the text as a unified whole.

As with many DH-doubters, Rendsburg reserves a special level of skepticism (if not outright disdain) for the notion that two separate sources comprise the story of the Great Flood (Gen. 6-9). In his 2004 article, “The Biblical Flood Story in the Light of the Gilgameš Flood Account” (in the pricey Gilgameš and the World of Assyria), Rendsburg insists that we cannot split the story into the supposed P and J (i.e., Jahwist or Yahwist) sources, because:

If one reads the two stories as separate entities, one will find that elements of a whole story are missing from either the J or the P version. Only when read as a whole does Genesis 6-8 read as a complete story, and — here is the most important point I wish to make — not only as a complete story, but as a narrative paralleling perfectly the Babylonian flood story tradition recorded in Gilgameš Tablet XI, point by point, and in the same order. (Rendsburg, 2004, p. 115)

He finds the very idea worthy of derision.

That is to say, according to the dominant view of biblical scholars, we are supposed to believe that two separate authors wrote two separate accounts of Noah and the flood, and that neither of them included all the elements found in the Gilgameš Epic, but that when the two were interwoven by the redactor, voilà, the story paralleled the Gilgameš flood story point-by-point, feature-by-feature, element-by-element. (Rendsburg, 2004, p. 116, emphasis mine)

Rendsburg unwittingly provides an object lesson in how conservative scholars habitually misunderstand and misrepresent the DH. In this and subsequent posts we’ll look at his thesis, as he put it, point by point.

Two sources: separate and complete?

Prof. Rendsburg makes the common mistake of assuming Wellhausen believed that the flood story in Genesis could be separated into two complete sources. But, in fact, he said no such thing.

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Rendsburg on Genesis and Gilgamesh: How Our Focus on the Bible Can Distort Our View of the Past

“The Book of Genesis”

An angel prevents the sacrifice of Isaac. Abra...

An angel prevents the sacrifice of Isaac. Abraham and Isaac, Rembrandt, 1634 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Recently, Gary Rendsburg’s audio course on Genesis became available at the The Great Courses web site for just $29.95, and I couldn’t resist. In future posts I would like to review this series of lectures more completely, but for now let me just say that it’s pretty good — especially with respect to internal literary analysis — but it does have some serious problems.

Professor Rendsburg, a self-confessed maximalist who believes Abraham was a historical figure and rejects the Documentary Hypothesis (DH), does acknowledge that many of his positions are not currently the consensus viewpoints, but he does an inadequate job of presenting other viewpoints. I don’t criticize him for holding contrary opinions. After all, this is Vridar. But if a lecturer is going to discuss minimalism or the DH, then he or she should at least present them fully and correctly.

Through a glass, darkly

As I said, I want take a more detailed look at Rendsburg’s course in the future, with special emphasis on the DH. However, this post is about something else altogether: namely, the way scholars steeped in either the Old Testament (or Hebrew Bible, if you prefer) or the New Testament seem to have a limited, if not skewed, understanding of the surrounding contemporaneous world.

We should of course err on the side of forgiveness, say, when a New Testament scholar expresses surprise on discovering that for many decades people have theorized that Shakespeare didn’t write the plays or the sonnets. Sure, you thought everybody knew that, but it isn’t his bailiwick. And if that same NT scholar thinks the DH can be proved by comparing variations of the divine name in the Psalms, well even there we could make excuses (but I won’t), since the OT is also not his within his realm of expertise.

However, we cannot countenance the lack of knowledge when it comes to the surrounding cultures of the subject matter that an academic claims to know on a professional, scholarly level. If you assert that you know how the ancient Hebrews or Israelites compared to their neighbors, then you’d better understand those other cultures as well as possible.

Immortality: The “ultimate quest”?

Specifically, how much emphasis did the religions of the Ancient Near East place on the attainment of eternal life? According to Rendsburg:

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Saving the Infallibility of the Bible from the Natural Sciences — Use and Abuse of the Bible, Part 2

Continuing from Part 1 of this series. . . .

The traditional use of the Bible

The central point of the previous post was that the Bible came to be viewed as having a singular message that buttressed a comprehensive an entire world view. That is, one’s larger view of the world was believed to rest on biblical authority.

Nineham gives “an example of how such a feeling arose”:

If the Bible spoke of angels, and these were interpreted in what then seemed the only way possible, as a group of hypostases, or entities, then it could easily seem as if the existence of the chain itself was a part of the biblical revelation, or at any rate an indisputable deduction from it. (p. 62)

The challenges of the natural sciences

As we all know, Copernicus and Galileo were the first to challenge seriously the Biblical view of the place of earth amidst the heavens. In the nineteenth century geology and evolutionary biology struck blows at the Bible’s creation narrative. The church’s reactions we also know well:

[I]t is instructive to notice the extent to which, both in the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, the immediate and passionate reaction of the Church was to try to defend the statements of the Bible in every sphere. (p. 63)

John Keble, 1792-1866.

John Keble, 1792-1866. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

John Keble of the nineteenth century has left a useful trivia quote:

When God made the stones he made the fossils in them. (Presumably in order to test the faith of nineteenth century scientists!)

But the Bishop Wilberforces and Philip Henry Grosses could not win. It became increasingly clear, however slowly in some quarters, that flat denial of what the natural sciences had to come to understand was not going to prevail.

The early chapters of Genesis were at stake. The Bible was supposed to be authored by God and incapable of untruths.

Introducing the “true myth” read more »

Explaining (?) the Contradictory Genesis Accounts of the Creation of Adam and Eve

The Genesis

Image via Wikipedia

What does one make of the two opposing accounts of the creation of humans in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2?

In Genesis 1 God manages to fit in the making of the first man and woman — “in his own image”! — just at the close of the last day of creation. Gary Greenberg suggests that this concept of a male and female being made in the image of a single God is borrowed from Egypt’s hermaphroditic deities.

But the very next chapter (i.e. 2!) presents a quite different view of the creation of our species. Dr McGrath has posted a quite nice chart highlighting both the similarities and the contrasts of the two creations. But let me draw attention to a point that is not so immediately clear in this quite nice chart. In Genesis 1 all the animals are created before the man and the man (and woman) is created as an afterthought at the end of the day. In Genesis 2 Adam is created before all other animals.

What is going on here? I would like to go on beyond Dr McGrath’s interests in these conflicting accounts, however, and ask how we might account for them appearing as they do as the first two chapters of our Bible. (Dr McGrath in his blog post only addresses grist for his anti-creationist mill. But creationists can come and go and it is nothing notable to expose the flaws of one who has never learned to question his or her faith. I am more interested in explaining what we do have as our religious and cultural heritage.)

I’ll introduce my post by pasting here the comment I left on Dr McGrath’s blog (slightly edited).

Jan-Wim Wesselius’s “The Origin of the History of Israel: Herodotus’s Histories as Blueprint for the First Books of the Bible” discusses such adjacent accounts that give variant explanations for events from the perspective of comparison with “Histories” by Herodotus. The most obvious difference between the two works (Histories and Primary History –  i.e. Genesis to 2 Kings) is that the Greek work is structured around an intrusive narrator (who is himself a character in the work, and not the real author — I have discussed some of the scholarship about this on my own blog over the years) while the Primary History of the Hebrews is an exercise in studied anonymity. Bernard Levinson in “Deuteronomy and the Hermeneutics of Legal Innovation” offers us a plausible explanation for this contrasting anonymity.

But the point is that two contrasting accounts are often found side by side in the Primary History and that this is consistent with Hellenistic historiographical practices — with the only difference being the intrusion/absence of a narrator’s voice.

In this case, given the parallelisms, we are also faced with the strong likelihood that we are not looking at independent traditions that somehow were forced together, but at a single authorial creator behind them both. This is consistent with more recent studies (albeit admittedly minority ones at this point) that do argue that Primary History is, after all and just as Spinoza himself originally opined, the work of a single author. That it is also the product of Hellenistic times is the solutions Mr Ockham would like best, too.

Let’s look at Dr Wesselius’s treatment of the conflicting creation-of-humans accounts: read more »

Which “Bone” Was Eve Made From?

Bawdy BibleThe creation and Adam and Eve narratives are often said to be nice moral tales that convey spiritual truths. Being myth does not disqualify them from containing meaningful messages for modern readers.

So at wedding ceremonies and in sunday school classes bible-believers are regaled with the “beautiful story” of the God practising a bit of psychic surgery as his hand penetrates Adam’s side to pull out a rib which he used to create Eve. And since this story is not something that has been uncovered in modern times among cuneiform tablets alongside myths of sea-monsters and sky-gods, but is one we have been as familiar with as our soft pillows and teddy bear toys since childhood, we call it a “beautiful metaphor” of the marriage relationship.

And I suspect many theologians would prefer to keep it that way. Meaningful myth or symbol is sophisticated. Literal images of God taking the penis bone from Adam and using it to create Eve, thus explaining both marriage and the reason males of humans alone (almost) lack this bit of anatomy would probably go a long way to discrediting not only a “beautiful and meaningful story”, but opening up a few more people’s minds to the irrelevance of the Bible in an enlightened age.

I’m probably the last to know this little tidbit of trivia, but thanks to chance I recently discovere in a bookshop The Uncensored Bible: The Bawdy and Naughty Bits of the Good Book by John Kaltner, Stephen L. McKenzie and Joel Kilpatrick. John Shelby Spong calls it “a terrific book!”; Jonathan Kirsch, “smart, savvy, scholarly, and funny, all at once”; and Jonathan Reed, “Based on the best contemporary scholarship of the Bible — but funny as hell!” How could I resist it?

Which “Bone” Was Eve Made From?

So what’s wrong with the rib meaning the rib? read more »