Tag Archives: Documentary Hypothesis

Rendsburg on Genesis and Gilgamesh: Misunderstanding and Misrepresenting the Documentary Hypothesis (Part 2)

[Author’s note: I wrote this back in 2014, but decided to put in on the back burner for a bit, setting the publication clock five years ahead. The post below, which auto-published yesterday, is not actually finished. I will soon submit a third part to this series, with a summation and conclusions. taw]

Hieronymus Bosch - Noah's Ark on Mount Ararat ...
Hieronymus Bosch – Noah’s Ark on Mount Ararat (obverse) – WGA2574 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Rendsburg’s thesis

As we discussed in part 1, Gary Rendsburg believes that we shouldn’t try to divide the Genesis flood story based on supposed source documents, namely the Yahwist (J) and the Priestly (P) sources. He writes:

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. Perfectly, that is, after taking into account elements found in the biblical narrative but lacking in the Babylonian story, indicated by a minus sign in the right hand column of the accompanying chart — given the distinctively Israelite theological position inherent to Genesis 6-8 . . .  (Rendsburg, 2004, p. 115-116)

We’ll save Rendsburg’s chart for the end. For now, let’s examine his argument closely and see if it holds up under close scrutiny.

Essentially, Rendsburg is offering a counter-argument to the consensus view that the redactor of Genesis pulled together two sources (J and P), which most likely both came from the earlier Babylonian and Sumerian myths. Instead, he maintains that the author of Genesis appropriated the flood story directly from the Gilgamesh epic, adding only those theological elements peculiar to the Israelite religion. His argument depends on proving the coherence and unity of the Genesis story, combined with the “perfect” correspondence between the order of events in Genesis and in Tablet XI of the Gilgamesh epic.

In his audio course on the book of Genesis, Rendsburg says:

Materials, dimensions, and decks

Now note that not only are all these [story] elements present, one by one, as we work through the two stories that we are comparing here, but that they are also in the same order. Now, in certain cases, of course, there is no opportunity for a variation in the order. That is to say, you have to build the ark before the flood comes, and the flood has to come before it lands on a mountain top, and so on. But even where there is room for variation, the two stories proceed, element by element, in the same order.

Let me give you an example of that. In the Gilgamesh story the materials, the dimensions, and the decks are given in that order; in the biblical story the materials, the dimensions, and the decks are given in that order. And of course, you may say, “Well, that’s perfectly logical — how else would you else would you instruct somebody to build a vessel?” But nevertheless, it’s still noteworthy. (Rendsburg, 2006a, 7:38, emphasis mine)

I have to confess that even if Rendsburg is correct, I don’t find his argument persuasive. Consider the possibility that the J and P source material both (independently) borrowed from the story of Utnapishtim or, for that matter, from the earlier story of Atrahasis. We could reasonably assume that each story would generally follow the same sequence, and that the redactor would have little reason to deviate from that sequence.

We should note here that with his presentation of the evidence Rendsburg is in fact trying to prove two points: first, that the flood story in Genesis is secondary to the older flood myths of Mesopotamia, and second, that the order of events in Noah’s flood tale “perfectly” parallel the events as told by Untapishtim in the Gilgamesh epic. Moreover, he argues, that perfect correspondence falls by the wayside if we try to split the Genesis story into its source components.

With all of that in mind, let’s examine his first claim, viz. that the two stories relate “materials, dimensions, and decks” in that order.  Sure enough, in Genesis here’s the order:

Materials
6:14 Make for yourself an ark of gopher wood; you shall make the ark with rooms, and shall cover it inside and out with pitch

Dimensions
6:15 This is how you shall make it: the length of the ark three hundred cubits, its breadth fifty cubits, and its height thirty cubits.

Decks
6:16 You shall make a window for the ark, and finish it to a cubit from the top; and set the door of the ark in the side of it; you shall make it with lower, second, and third decks. (NASB)

Now let’s take a look at the story as told by Utnapishtim. Ea does not directly tell our hero that a flood is coming. Rather, he talks to a reed hut, which just happens to be Utnapishtim’s dwelling. That is to say, he whispers through the wall of the hut in order to pass on his instructions. Ea says:

24. Tear down (thy) house, build a ship!
25. Abandon (thy) possessions, seek (to save) life!
26. Disregard (thy) goods, and save (thy) life!
27. [Cause to] go up into the ship the seed of all living creatures.

(Heidel, 1949, p. 81)

We already see significant differences between the two stories. God tells Noah to collect materials to build an ark, literally a box (similar to the “chest” built by Deucalion). On the other hand, Ea indirectly tells Utnapishtim to dismantle his house and build a ship.

In what order does Ea provide his ship-building instructions?

28. The ship which thou shalt build,
29. Its measurements shall be (accurately) measured;
30. Its width and its length shall be equal.
31. Cover it [li]ke the subterranean waters.’

(Heidel, 1949, p. 81, emphasis mine)

Ea is already discussing the dimensions and characteristics of the boat, but he hasn’t yet mentioned anything about materials. (We would remind Dr. Rendsburg that width and length are what we call “dimensions.”) In line 31 we have a clue that the boat will differ from ordinary in that it needs to be covered, presumably to keep out the coming torrential rains. Of course, since his job will be to save all life, Untapishtim’s boat will naturally need to be rather large.

We might theorize that if Utnapishtim will be using materials from his torn-down dwelling, reeds will be involved. Far from forests, the people of ancient Mesopotamia built their houses and boats out of reeds. In cases where they did use wood (e.g., for seagoing vessels), it was probably only for the keel, spars, oars, and punting poles. (See Mäkelä, 2002, for details on ancient shipbuilding in Mesopotamia.) That said, some scholars have suggested that the “water-stoppers” mentioned in line 63 refer to wedge-shaped chunks of wood driven into the seams to prevent leaking.

In fact, we have no explicit evidence of wood as a building material in the Gilgamesh epic, but we do have clues in the earlier Babylonian flood story from which it is derived. On tablet III, lines 48-51 we find:

The carpenter [carried his axe],
The reed-worker [carried his stone],
[The rich man? carried] the pitch,
The poor man [brought the materials needed].

(Foster, 1995, p. 72)
[Note: Some reconstructed texts of the Gilgamesh epic insert the lines concerning the carpenter and reed-worker above line 54. However, it is not actually part of the received text.]

Ea provides no more specifics on building the ship, although lines 50 through 53 are usually considered too fragmentary to translate. We do find out that pitch plays a role from line 54:

54. The child [brou]ght pitch,
55. (While) the strong brought [whatever else] was needful.

(Heidel, 1949, p. 82)

Utnapishtim then describes the measurements in greater detail:

56. On the fifth day [I] laid its framework.
57. One ikû [about an acre] was its floor space, one hundred and twenty cubits each was the height of its walls;
58. One hundred and twenty cubits measured each side of its decks.

(Heidel, 1949, p. 82)

So, what of Rendsburg’s claim that the two stories match perfectly when compare side by side? His first test case fails on the evidence. Ea does not follow the same pattern as God in Genesis. Indeed, we do not see references to “materials, dimensions, and decks . . . in that order.” Ea starts with a command to build a ship, and immediately starts talking about its dimensions (again, see lines 29 and 30).

As far as we can tell from the text, the god never talks about materials, presumably because Utnapishtim is building a known structure: a boat (albeit of unusual size). We do finally get references to “decks,” but not until line 58.

Wood, reeds, and pitch

Rendsburg desperately wants to find perfect correspondence — so much so that he insists on a rather unusual translation of Genesis 6:14. He writes in the course guide:

Note that all translations agree on two of the building materials for the ark: wood and pitch. The third item is the subject of some discussion, however. The consonants in the biblical text, namely, QNYM, can be read as either qinnim, “rooms, compartments” (thus the traditional rendering), or qanim, “reeds” (thus some recent translations). We favor the latter understanding, especially because reeds constitute the third building material in the Gilgamesh Epic flood narrative. (Rendsburg, 2006b, p. 16)

I won’t try to argue Hebrew with Rendsburg. I will only mention the following two points:

  1. The translation of the word in the text as “reeds” rather than “rooms” is exceedingly rare. No major translation in English uses it. In fact, other than the Everett Fox translation and commentary that Rendsburg cites, I know of no other translation that uses it.
  2. If we go with “compartments” (as the vast majority of translators do), we still have a viable parallel in the Gilgamesh epic, namely:

59. I ‘laid the shape’ of the outside (and) fashioned it [the ship]. 
60. Six (lower) decks I built into it,
61. (Thus) dividing (it) into seven (stories).
62. Its ground plan I divided into nine (sections).

(Heidel, 1949, p. 82, emphasis mine)

Hence, we have good reason to believe that the author of the P source inherited the tradition that the ship (or in his case, the ark) that saved all animal life had various sections or compartments.

Mountain landing, then birds

Where else might we find the perfect correspondence that Rendsburg craves? He continues (in his lecture):

Perhaps at the end is where we can see the room for some variation. That is to say, it might have been to send out the birds first, and then have the ark to land on a mountaintop. But no, in both stories the mountaintop landing occurs first, and then the birds are sent forth. (Rendsburg, 2006, 8:27)

In print, Rendsburg concedes the alternative order is improbable.

I agree that such an order of events is far less likely than the order which appears in the biblical narrative. but it is possible nonetheless. It is therefore pertinent to point out that Genesis 8 parallels the Babylonian flood story, with the mountain top landing preceding the sending forth of the birds. (Rendsburg, 2007, p. 117)

I would argue that it simply makes more narrative sense for the flood hero to realize they’ve come to a stop, wonder about where they might be and whether it’s safe to leave, and only then hit upon the idea of using the birds. In other words, the mountain landing causes Noah and Utnapishtim to send out the birds. Hermann Gunkel comments:

The following, lovingly presented scene (6b- 12, 13b) has the goal of portraying the exceedingly great wisdom of Noah. No one in the Ark knows where they are and how things look outside. No one dares open the door—great streams of water could surge in—or take off the roof—the rain could begin again. One can look out the window, but through it one sees only the heavens above. What shall one do? How shall one learn whether the earth is dry? In this difficult situation the clever Noah knows a means. If one cannot exit oneself, one can send the birds to reconnoiter. “It was an old nautical practice, indispensable in a time which did not know the compass, to bring birds along to be released on the high seas so that the direction to land could be determined by their flight” [quoting Hermann Usener in Die Sintfluthsagen] . . . (Gunkel, 1997, p. 64, emphasis mine)

Liberation, then sacrifice

We have saved for last what Rendsburg considers his strongest argument. Again, from his audio course:

And most importantly, I think the place for . . . the best possibility of variation is the very, very end of the story where it’s very possible that the flood hero — Noah or Utnapishtim — could have done the sacrifices before letting everybody go free. But no, in both stories all are set free, and then the sacrifices occur. So I repeat the statement here: Element by element the two stories — the Gilgamesh Epic, Tablet XI (the Babylonian flood tradition), and the biblical story with Noah as its hero in Genesis 6 through 8 — tell the tale one by one, element by element in the same order. (Rendsburg, 2006a, 8:45)

He really does think it’s his strongest argument. In his 2004 article he wrote:

I refer especially to the end of the story, where both Noah and Utnapishtim could have performed the sacrifices first. While all were still on the ark, and only later everyone free. But in both cases the order is first to set everyone free and then to perform the sacrifices. In Noah’s case, in fact, the order is counterintuitive. If he first set all the animals free and then performed the sacrifices, as the story now reads, one might ask. What happened? Did he call the pure animals back in order to sacrifice them? (Rendsburg, 2004, p. 117)

Obviously, the implication is clear: Noah set all the animals free, except for the handful which he intended to sacrifice. But my point is this: if the redactor had before him two stories, the supposed J account and the supposed P account, the former including the sacrifices and the latter including the hero’s setting everyone free, I would imagine that the redactor would have woven his story with these two elements in that order the sacrifices first, while the animals were still present, and then the setting of everyone free. But such is not the case. At the end of Genesis 8. Noah first sets the animals free and then performs the sacrifices.

 


Sources

Foster, Benjamin R.

From Distant Days: Myths, Tales, and Poetry of Ancient Mesopotamia, CDL Press, 1995

Gunkel, Hermann

Genesis [Translated and Interpreted by Hermann Gunkel], trans. Biddle, Mercer University Press, 1997 (English translation of 1910 edition)

Heidel, Alexander

The Gilgamesh Epic and Old Testament Parallels, The University of Chicago Press, 1949

Mäkelä, Tommi Tapani

Ships and Shipbuilding in Mesopotamia (PDF),” Texas A&M University Graduate Thesis, 2002

Rendsburg, Gary

“The Biblical Flood Story in Light of the Gilgameš Flood Account,” pp. 115-127, Gilgamesh and the World of Assyria, ed. Azize J., Weeks N., Peeters, 2007

“Genesis 6-8, The Flood Story (Lecture 7),” The Book of Genesis, The Great Courses, 2006a

“Lecture 7: Genesis 6-8, The Flood Story,” The Book of Genesis (Course Guide), The Great Courses, 2006b

Wellhausen, Julius

Prolegomena to the History of Israel, trans. Black and Menzies, Adam and Charles Black, 1885

In My Cave

I’ve had a break from posting for a couple of days. The reason: I’ve been pulled in to reading the rest of Akenson’s book, Surpassing Wonder. Akenson is known primarily as a historian of Irish history but he has obviously kept abreast of the scholarship in biblical studies, too. What intrigued me most as I read was the striking way he presented certain views of “how the Bible came to be” that I have favoured — but his arguments were more direct and forceful than I have been prepared to acknowledge in posts.

He addresses problems with the “Documentary Hypothesis”, noting that it is not really a hypothesis but a model and should more correctly be called the Documentary Model: that is, the view that the Pentateuch and some other biblical texts are sourced from Yahwist, Elohist, Deuteronomist and Priestly sources. Now the final product may have been stitched together from such sources, but, Akenson notes, that is irrelevant to the study of the narrative and meaning of the final text as we have it. And what’s more, there was a single authorship of the nine books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings. (I’ve posted about that view of the “Primary History” before.) I especially liked Akenson’s tracing of the main stages in biblical scholarship pertaining to the “DH” since it helped me place in context several of the big name scholars I have been studying up till now.

Yes, there are archaisms in the books, and there are repetitions and contradictions, but we have some of the same sort of things in Greek histories, too, and they serve a purpose, in particular the purpose of “authenticity” as a “historical record”. The difference is that the biblical history is anonymous. And that detail, too, has the effect of adding authority to the account. Many readers, especially believers, have liked to comment on the low-key matter-of-fact way many of the more dramatic and miraculous events are described in the bible. That style, believers say (as I have done myself), suggests authenticity, too. It works as narrative history.

Then carry over the style and techniques to the gospels and we have an ongoing account that sounds “genuine”. What is particularly striking in this context, furthermore, is the discussion of how Second Temple era literature managed to continue, build on, “biblical narratives” but at the same time dramatically re-write them, even introducing new characters, even spirit ones, to let God off from being blamed from some horrible decisions, and even claiming to be directly quoting God himself, without a mediator like Moses. It puts the gospels in an interesting context.

Anyway, that’s where I’ve been hiding these last couple of days. More later, I am sure.

Noah’s Birds and the Documentary Hypothesis

Noah, a few birds, and a mermaid

Neil recently posted about the Documentary Hypothesis, citing Thomas Brodie’s Genesis as Dialogue (2001), a book I enjoyed but in the end did not convince me to abandon the DH. While reading the post, one quotation caught my eye.

Nor do the two diverse types of bird (the raven and the dove, 8:6–12) mean two sources. In Tablet XI of the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Noah-like Utnapishtim sends out three diverse birds—a dove, a swallow, and a raven (Brichto, 1998, 114) — but that does not mean three sources. (Brodie 2001, p. 182)

This sort of overstatement, which comes with implicit eye-rolling and foot-tapping, plays well to the converted, but falls flat among the rest of us. Do DH adherents think there are two sources merely because there are two species of bird? Surprisingly, no.

Here are the arguments, briefly:

  1. Gen. 8:7 is self-contained.
    • Noah releases the raven.
    • The bird goes out and returns, back and forth, until —
    • “the water dried up from the earth.” The flood is over; the narrative restarts at 8:8, wherein water still covers the earth.
  2. The language in 8:7 is different from the language in 8:8.
    • Noah releases the dove from him.
    • The words translated as “earth” in this passage and in 8:7 are different.

read more »

Another look at the Documentary Hypothesis. An alternative proposal.

Were the first books of the “Old Testament” composed by “redactors” piecing together stories from different sources (that has long been the predominant view) or is it possible that they were composed by a single author or “school of authors”? The former is the documentary hypothesis. For a background on the documentary hypothesis refer to the post Who wrote the Bible? Rise of the Documentary Hypothesis. The topic has resurfaced with some recent posts (Plato and the Bible; Genesis to Kings, Authorship) that question the validity of the DH, proposing a “unitary authorship” of the Pentateuch and more. I am intrigued by the new alternative but have not yet sold my soul to it. I am not always overly enthusiastic about some of the arguments for a single authorship. So consider these posts as exploratory and informative. (But that’s what most of my posts are here, anyway.

Here I cite but one scholar’s criticism of the DH and proposal for the Flood Story in Genesis being composed from scratch as a single narrative. That is, the narrative is not a patched quilt of priestly and Yahwist sources after all. Here is Thomas Brodie’s take on the story (quoted words are in dark azure; the rest is my summary and comment.)

The deluge account contains much repetition and variation, and so some researchers have suggested that it is composed from two sources — J and P . . . .

(Brodie, 181)

Some of the examples of the repetition and variation:

  • Sometimes Yhwh, other times Elohim, are used for God. The sections with Yhwh have been attributed to the J source, Elohim sections to the P source.
  • At one time we read that two of each kind of animal was brought into the ark; later we read there were seven pairs of clean animals but only two of each unclean. The former has been attributed to the P source; the latter to J.
  • We first learn of forty days and nights of rain; later of the flood cresting after 150 days. J, then P.
  • The command for Noah to enter the ark is duplicated: 6:18–20 (P) and 7:1–3 (J).
  • Twice we read of Noah and his family entering the ark: 7:7 (J) and 7:13 (P).
  • Twice we read of God’s promise to never again destroy the earth: 8:21 (J) and 9:11 (P)

Brodie’s faults the documentary hypothesis as being based on contradictory arguments:

The final product is not an unimaginative collection of material drawn from distinct sources, but an artful unified composition arranged chiastically around the central affirmation in 8:1 that “God remembered Noah.”

This explanation, however, contains radical problems, problems that are both general and specific.

In general: the explanation is not coherent. It implies two opposite procedures — mechanical juxtapositioning (regardless of overlap or divergence) and artistic unifying. One procedure is slavish, the other imaginative. Behind these procedures are two opposite attitudes — scrupulosity and freedom. The contradiction in the explanation is far deeper than the contradictions in the text.

More specifically, the theory is not supported by the details. There are several problems (see esp. Ska, 1994; 1996, 259–260):

1. The purported J story is seriously incomplete. It contains no account of making the ark or leaving it. Such lack of completeness is not explained by a desire to avoid repetition. The author had no problem with repetition as such; some minor details occur twice.

2. The so-called “double” entry to the ark (7:7–9, 13–16) does not require two sources. The doubled text is part of a single coherent repetitive style — similar to the repetitiveness of Genesis 17 (17:23–27). Essentially the same is true of other so-called doublets: they are part of a coherent repetitive style. Repetition is a basic feature of narrative, especially of biblical narrative (Alter, 1981, 88–113). Repetition results from various techniques (Niccacci, 1994). The issue then is not whether there is repetition but whether it is possible to discern the repetition’s variation or purpose. The two commands about entering the ark (6:18–20; 7:1–3), for instance, have several variations of context and content, but they are sufficiently similar to build something important: the sense — amid a collapsing world — of momentum and continuity. Nor do the two diverse types of bird (the raven and the dove, 8:6–12) mean two sources. In Tablet XI of the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Noah-like Utnapishtim sends out three diverse birds—a dove, a swallow, and a raven (Brichto, 1998, 114) — but that does not mean three sources.

3. The language of some purported J material, especially as regards order and sacrifice, would normally be reckoned as late or priestly.

For these and other reasons, scholars such as Blenkinsopp (1992, 77–78) and Ska (1996, 259) have moved to the idea of a single (priestly) account, which was later retouched. In other words, rather than dividing the text fairly evenly in two, they attribute most of it to a single author and reserve just a small percentage to an editor.

So some scholars are finding the different pieces fit better as if the story was composed as a single unit from the start. Brodie lists other indicators of what he believes is a unitary narrative: read more »

Genesis to Kings, the work of a single authorship?

I am copying here a comment that Philippe Wajdenbaum made in relation to another post. (I have reformatted the original.)

Many thanks for this post, and for the quality of your blog. Russell Gmirkin’s “Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible” is a most important book that will elicit a paradigm shift in biblical studies, as seen in its current positive reception.

Here are some of my arguments for Genesis-Kings’ unity:

In “Argonauts of the Desert”, as well as in several articles, I have proposed that Genesis-Kings (also called the Primary History) is the work of a single author, or at least the same team of scholars, who took inspiration from Greek classical texts such as Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. See also:

The demonstration of Genesis-Kings’ literary unity relies first on its consistency as a continuous narrative, as shown by Spinoza (“Theological and Political Treatise”, chapter 8), and second on the distribution of its Greek-borrowed material, shown by Wesselius regarding the use of Herodotus. Whereas both placed this redaction during the Persian period, Russell Gmirkin has convincingly shown in “Berossus and Genesis, Manetho and Exodus” (2006), that the Hellenistic era offers the most plausible period for Judean and Samaritan scholars to have had access to and emulated Greek sources, most probably in the Library of Alexandria.

In my article “From Plato to Moses: Genesis-Kings as a Platonic Epic” (in “Biblical Interpretation Beyond Historicity: Changing Perspectives 7”, edited by I. Hjelm and Thomas L. Thompson, 2016, also available on the Bible and Interpretation website), I have pointed out that

  • the Pentateuch seems to borrow significantly from the Odyssey (the wanderings of the Patriarchs and Israel, Joseph’s story as a rewrite of Odysseus’ return to Ithaca),
  • whereas Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings seem to borrow predominantly from the Iliad (the many battle scenes, especially in 1-2 Samuel).

Yet, there are motifs from the Iliad in the Pentateuch and from the Odyssey in Joshua-Kings. This distribution of Homeric motifs interestingly corresponds to how Virgil modelled the first six books of the Aeneid on the Odyssey, and the six next books on the Iliad. In my opinion, this logic in the distribution of themes can be observed regarding most of the Greek sources used by the author of Genesis-Kings (such as the Greek mythical cycles of the Argonauts, Heracles, Thebes and the Trojan War), and tends to show its literary unity.

Regarding the use of Plato, I have tried to show that a “Platonic framework” encompasses Genesis-Kings. Genesis uses several myths from Plato about

  • the creation of the world (Timaeus / Gen. 1),
  • the split of a primordial androgynous human (Symposium / Gen. 2)
  • and the Golden Age (Statesman / Gen. 3; combined with Hesiod’s story of Prometheus and Pandora).

The Exodus narrative,

the liberation of slaves by a reluctant leader who had been freed beforehand, seems an adaptation of Plato’s famous Cave Allegory in Republic 7 (combined with the story of Battus, the founder of Cyrene).

After receiving some of their divine laws, some of which are borrowed from Plato’s Laws, Moses and the Israelites perform a ritual for accepting these laws (Exod. 24) that seems borrowed from a similar ceremony in Plato’s Critias.

The confection of the Tabernacle’s furniture by a craftsman based on a divine model echoes Plato’s theory of imitation of divine types in Republic 10.

The book of Joshua narrates the foundation of the Ideal twelve-tribe state, with the division of the land by lot into twelve tribes and its subdivision into paternal plots of land, according to the model found in Numbers, which is itself based on Plato’s Laws.

Judges, Samuel and Kings depict the gradual downfall of this state, due to the increasing faults of Israel and Judah’s kings. This demise of a state that should have been ideal and eternal seems borrowed from Plato’s tale of Atlantis in Critias. Solomon’s riches and grandiose temple in Kings resemble that of Atlantis, and God’s decision to destroy Israel and Judah at the hands of its enemies echoes the fate of Atlantis, punished by Zeus because its kings neglected the divine laws with the passing of generations.

The final catastrophe of Jerusalem’s destruction by the Babylonians and the beginning of the Exile is reflected in Genesis’ narrative of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden for disobeying the divine commandment, which seems the trace of a ring composition.

Best regards,
Philippe Wajdenbaum

Keeping Up with Richard Elliott Friedman

Richard Elliott Friedman
Richard Elliott Friedman

Somebody on Facebook today posted a link to TheTorah.com that leads to an interesting article by Prof. Richard Elliott Friedman. It’s called “The Historical Exodus: The Evidence for the Levites Leaving Egypt and the Introduction of YHWH into Israel.” In it, Friedman argues that the Exodus really happened, but it was just a small group (the Levites) who did the “exodusing.”

It turns out he has a book on the way that will explain his argument in detail. No word yet on its release date, but here’s a tempting preview:

[David Noel] Freedman added that this had implications for the historicity of the exodus. Many scholars and archaeologists say the exodus never happened. 90 percent of their argument is based on the lack of artifacts in Egypt or Sinai and on finding few items of Egyptian material culture in early Israelite sites, which we would have expected if the Israelites had lived in Egypt for centuries. But that isn’t evidence against the historicity of the exodus. At most, it is evidence (more correctly: an absence of evidence) against the tremendous number of participants that the Torah pictures.

I had included the idea of a non-millions exodus in my Who Wrote the Bible? back in 1987, and I raised the idea there, just as a possibility, that the smaller exodus group was just the Levites. That possibility looks substantially more tangible today than it did in 1987.

If you’re interested in this subject, you can read an interview from spring 2014 over at ReformJuaism.org in which Friedman argues that “The Exodus Is Not Fiction.” He says: read more »

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.

read more »

Bart Ehrman’s The Bible: An Undergraduate Textbook

The Bible
The Bible

Oh, I shouldn’t have . . .

I gave myself Bart Ehrman’s new textbook, The Bible: A Historical and Literary Introduction, for Christmas. Here it is March, and I’m finally getting the chance to read it. I expect this overpriced volume has a pretty good chance of becoming the standard text in American undergraduate survey courses on the Bible. So it makes sense to find out what young students will be learning.

When I say young students, I mean the young ones sufficiently well off to be able to live on campus. As education costs here in the U.S. skyrocket, more and more first- and second-year university students are working at night and driving to junior colleges each morning. But this book speaks directly to first-year students living in dormitories. The audience is more likely Footlights College Oxbridge than Scumbag College.

Well done, Footlights! 10 points.

At the end of each chapter, Bart asks the posh kids living in dorms to “Take a Stand” on a few issues. Here’s a typical “Take a Stand” item:

Your roommate has not taken the class, but he is interested in the history of ancient Israel. He knows something (a little bit) about the time of the United Monarchy and asks which king you think was better, David or Solomon. What is your view, and how do you back it up? Give him way more information than he wants to know. (p. 112)

Which king was better? That’s a toughie. But not as tough as the questions on University Challenge.

[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ysG96dUtGh4]

Fortunately, when reading the core of the text, I can almost forget I’m reading a book targeted more at Lord Snot and Miss Money-Sterling than Mike, Rick, Vyvyan, and Neil. Unfortunately, it’s hard to overlook the mistakes I’ve found already in the early chapters.

I sweat the small stuff

It may seem inconsequential, and maybe things like this shouldn’t bother me. But I can’t help myself. On the spelling of the Hebrew word for God’s name, Ehrman writes:

read more »

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 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 to 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:

read more »

What Do We Mean by “Incompetent”?

Shemp Howard
Shemp Howard
The Forgotten Stooge
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Can’t we all just get along?

In a recent post, Tom Verenna urged us all to stop using derogatory words to describe people whom we disagree with. He did that hipster thing where his sentence gets broken up into one-word, emphatic, staccato commands:

This. Has. Got. To. Stop.

That. Is. So. Cool.

Wait a second. What, exactly, has got to stop? Oh, here it is. This:

Someone disagrees with an argument made by someone else and they decide this person must be ‘incompetent’ because their argument is different.

If you’re at all familiar with the art and science of political speech and propaganda, you will recognize that sentence as a prime example of what we call “framing.” Before explaining Neil’s complaint against McGrath’s inadequate review, Tom needs to pre-explain or frame the argument.

Tom would have us believe that Neil’s gripe has nothing to do with Dr. McGrath’s longstanding pattern of over-the-top behavior whenever he gets the slightest whiff off Jesus mythicism. Not at all. It’s about “someone” not liking someone else’s “different” argument.

A different drummer

So what is McGrath’s “different” opinion? I’m glad you asked. Let’s list a few and then discuss.

I could go on. You can find many more “scholarly observations” using fairly simple Google searches. For example, here’s how you can search for specific words, restricted to the Cakemix site:

site:www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix "mythicist"

In case after case we see that McGrath disagreed with an argument made by someone else and decided that, because his or her argument is different, that person must have psychological reasons and ulterior motives for being “wrong.” McGrath feels compelled, no doubt as a public service, to explain the personal motivations for mythicist behavior. McGrathian conjecture knows no boundaries. Perhaps they have some pathological predisposition to believe in conspiracy theories, or they have an obsession with parallelomania. Perhaps they are insane.

McGrath, in his review of Thomas Brodie’s memoir, made a passing reference to “the bankruptcy of Jesus mythicism,” accusing Brodie of having “complete disregard for other possibilities.” Naturally, he doesn’t indict Brodie alone — all mythicists must be tarred with the same brush.

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What Happens to the Documentary Hypothesis if the Pentateuch was written 270 BCE?

BerossusGenesisWhat happens to the Documentary Hypothesis (DH) if, as outlined in recent posts, the Pentateuch was first written in the third century BCE? That’s the first question that comes to most of us when first hearing a thesis like this. This post outlines Russell Gmirkin’s chapter on the DH, and is thus a continuation of my summary of the early sections of his book, Berossus and Genesis, Manetho and Exodus: Hellenistic Histories and the Date of the Pentateuch.

(Other posts where I have discussed the DH, including other criticisms of it, are archived in the Documentary Hypothesis archive.

See Who Wrote the Bible? The Rise of the Documentary Hypothesis for the history of the DH’s origins.

For Julius Wellhausen’s Prolegomena to the History of Ancient Israel, the sacred-texts site contains one of the easiest-to-read online versions.

Another modern book worth reading in defence of the DH is Friedman’s The Bible With Sources Revealed.)

The different sources identified in the DH are not in dispute in Gmirkin’s thesis:

This book does not take issue with the Higher Criticism’s identification of different sources in the Pentateuch, each with its own consistent vocabulary, interests and theological outlook. (p. 22)

Gmirkin describes the DH as presented by Wellhausen. Its primary fault, he argues, is that it dates the hypothetical sources by means of what is in reality an unsupported construct of Israel’s history.

The entangling of dating issues with subjective historical constructs was a major flaw in Wellhausen’s approach. The Documentary Hypothesis as developed by Wellhausen illustrates the grave danger of circular reasoning inherent in dating texts by means of a historical construct to facilitate the dating of these same texts. (p. 5)

Gmirkin’s method of dating is, as explained in previous posts in this series, a separate and independent process.

In chapter 2 Gmirkin discusses the DH in some detail. He examines its function and development as a literary and as a historical theory, then considers the historical assumptions underpinning the thesis and finally looks at the external evidence impinging upon the validity of the DH.

The Documentary Hypothesis was both a literary theory (regarding identification and dating of Pentateuchal sources) and a historical theory (regarding the evolution of Jewish religion). The authors of the DH based its history of the Jewish religion directly on the biblical account, accepting that the cultic practices successively described in Genesis, Exodus, Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings reflected sequential historical periods in Jewish history. (p. 24)

Step One: identifying the sources read more »

Why the Books of Moses should be dated 270 BCE (clue: “Rabbits”)

Promiscuous+Rabbit+Print
From https://www.jossandmain.com/

In Berossus and Genesis, Manetho and Exodus: Hellenistic Histories and the Date of the Pentateuch Russell Gmirkin presents a case for the Books of Moses, Genesis to Deuteronomy, being based largely upon the writings of Babylonian and Egyptian historians:

  • Berossus (278 BCE)
  • Manetho (ca 285 BCE)

His first task is to demonstrate that we have no evidence of any knowledge of the Pentateuch until after the appearance of those works.

In the previous post we overviewed Russell Gmirkin’s argument that there we have no evidence in Greek writings of any knowledge of the Pentateuch before the appearance of the Septuagint. Gmirkin shows that the authentic writings of Hecataeus of Abdera do reveal knowledge of Moses as a lawgiver, but the same writings do not show any knowledge of written Mosaic laws. Besides, as we will see in this post, the portrayal of Moses as the lawgiver followed the stereotypical pattern of leaders who led expeditions to found new Greek colonies: the laws were always given after the new settlement (with its cities, temple and tribal organization) was established in the new land.

This post explains how Gmirkin arrives at the date of around 270 BCE for the earliest appearance of the first books of the Bible. He concludes that

the first evidence of Pentateuchal writings is the Septuagint translation itself, probably dating to the late 270s BCE. (p. 72) read more »

The Books of Moses — Unknown 300 years Before Christ?

BerossusGenesisI have been posting on the works of several scholars who argue that the Old Testament scriptures were composed much later than traditionally thought (Thompson, Davies, Lemche, Wesselius, Wajdenbaum) but there remains much more to be written about their arguments, and more published scholars to draw into the same net (Nielsen and Gmirkin are two of these). This post introduces the work of Russell E. Gmirkin. I look forward eventually to discussing where his criticisms intertwine with those of Wajdenbaum and others, and then to return to Wajdenbaum’s thesis that the Old Testament books are heavily indebted to classical Greek literature and myths. But there is much to be covered in the meantime, including further exploration into the similarities between the Histories by Herodotus and the collection of books from Genesis to 2 Kings (referred to as The Primary History) in the Bible. Gmirkin does not support the thesis that the biblical author borrowed from Herodotus, however. It’s a fascinating time to be reading a rich range of new views about the origins of the Hebrew Bible.

gmirkin
Russell Gmirkin

Russell E. Gmirkin’s book, Berossus and Genesis, Manetho and Exodus: Hellenistic Histories and the Date of the Pentateuch, has attracted wildly different reviews. One can read some of these here, here and here. But just as interesting is to read how Gmirkin himself evaluates some of the views of (at least one of) the authors of one of the particularly “bad” reviews. But for anyone interested in exploring new scholarly understandings of the Old Testament Gmirkin’s ideas will certainly be thought-provoking. (I was made aware of Gmirkin’s book through a passing comment left on this blog by Niels Peter Lemche.)

I’ve also found a Youtube video outlining key parts of his thesis. But contrary to what this video appears to imply, Gmirkin himself does not (as far as I can tell) argue for the “primacy” of the Septuagint. He writes on page 249:

From the foregoing discussion, it appears that the activities of the Septuagint scholars of 273-272 BCE included composing the Pentateuch in Hebrew as well as translating it into Greek.

He argues for the two — the Greek and Hebrew versions — appearing around the same time.

Here is how Russell Gmirkin himself introduces his thesis (my own emphasis and formatting as for all quotations):

This book proposes a new theory regarding the date and circumstances of the composition of the Pentateuch. The central thesis of this book is that the Hebrew Pentateuch was composed in its entirety about 273-272 BCE by Jewish scholars at Alexandria that later traditions credited with the Septuagint translation of the Pentateuch into Greek.

The primary evidence is

  • literary dependence of Gen 1— 11 on Berossus’s Babyloniaca (278 BCE),
  • literary dependence of the Exodus story on Manetho’s Aegyptiaca (ca. 285-280 BCE),
  • and datable geo-political references in the Table of Nations.

A number of indications point to a provenance of Alexandria in Egypt for at least some portions of the Pentateuch. That the Pentateuch, utilizing literary sources found at the Great Library of Alexandria, was composed at almost the same date as the Alexandrian Septuagint translation provides compelling evidence for some level of communication and collaboration between the authors of the Pentateuch and the Septuagint scholars at Alexandria’s Museum.

The late date of the Pentateuch, as demonstrated by literary dependence on Berossus and Manetho, has two important consequences:

  • the definitive overthrow of the chronological framework of the Documentary Hypothesis,
  • and a third-century BCE or later date for other portions of the Hebrew Bible that show literary dependence on the Pentateuch. (p. 1)

Treating the Bible like any other ancient text read more »

Biblical Scholars, Symbolic Violence, and the Modern Version of an Ancient Myth

This post continues my series on Philippe Wajdenbaum’s doctoral thesis adapted for publication as Argonauts of the Desert: Structural Analysis of the Hebrew Bible. For the previous post see Collapse of the Documentary Hypothesis (1) & Comparing the Bible with Classical Greek Literature. I begin here with my concluding lines from that post:

We will find very accurate parallels [between the Bible and Plato’s political dialogues] that make that hypothesis [that the Bible is based on those and other Greek classical texts] certain. Therefore one must ask why such a comparative study with Plato has not been done before. (p. 28)

Wajdenbaum says the answer is simple:

The Bible could not resist such an analysis [comparing the Bible with classical Greek literature] as it demonstrates how almost every biblical narrative finds accurate parallels with Greek myths. If believers of Jewish and Christian faiths were aware of this, then the Bible could lose its credibility. Biblical scholarship has done all it could to maintain the Bible as a sacred text that is still relevant to modern society, as Hector Avalos argues. (p. 29)

How can such ancient texts continue to hold such an authoritative status for so many today? Wajdenbaum believes that one significant reason is that “the Bible has not yet been the object of a consistent and genuinely scientific analysis.” (p. 30)

Of course there has been a long tradition of scholarly analysis of the Bible, but that’s not necessarily the same thing. In an earlier post in this series I showed how Wajdenbaum argues that biblical criticism has generally been the construction of a variant of the Bible’s myth. Following Claude Lévi-Strauss, he argues that any retelling of a myth is itself a variant of the myth, and in rationalising the Bible’s story and self-witness of divine inspiration scholars have, in fact, only created alternative versions of those myths.

Here Wajdenbaum brings in Pierre Bourdieu:

“Symbolic violence is the self-interested capacity to ensure that the arbitrariness of the social order is either ignored, or posited as natural, thereby justifying the legitimacy of existing social structures.” – Wikipedia

Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has explained how university scholars use symbolic violence to ensure their authority in their field. By presenting themselves as a legitimate institution, university scholars impose an arbitrary knowledge that is recognised by the masses as legitimate.

But this intellectual domination is not completely passive; it comes from the demands of society. As both Avalos and Bourdieu . . . have put it, the media industry — the press, movies and television — plays an important role in the continuation of either the sacred character of the Bible or symbolic violence. read more »