The Epistemic Standards of Biblical Scholarship
God’s Commanding Presence – Without the Commands
Benjamin Sommer’s view of the authoritativeness of the law rests ultimately on his embrace of a “participatory theology of revelation.” He is clearest about this when he writes in his summary:
Jewish law, then, receives its authority from the God who wills that Israel must obey it; but the specifics of the law were written by human beings. At Sinai, God conveyed the command, “Israel must–.” or “Love Me, by–.” or “To show your loyalty to Me you have to–.”, but the verbs that follow have been written by human beings ever since. To use Rosenzweig’s language, the command (Gebot in German) is divine, but each commandment or individual law (Gesetz in German) is human.
It will be useful to formulate Sommer’s theology more explicitly as follows: God revealed himself at Sinai by making his “commanding” presence known in an entirely non-verbal theophany to the Israelites who experienced God’s presence and who, through this experience, acquired a sense of obligation to respond to God, and who responded by writing the Torah, including all of its commandments.
A Hybrid Theological/Historical Claim
Sommer’s theology involves what I call a “hybrid” rather than a purely theological claim, because it has both theological and historical implications. The purely theological implication of Sommer’s hybrid claim is that God revealed himself at Sinai in a “commanding” non-verbal theophany. The purely historical implication is that the Israelites had a not necessarily veridical (i.e., conforming with reality) experience of a non-verbal revelation of God’s “commanding” presence at Sinai and through this not necessarily veridical experience, acquired a sense of obligation to respond to God.
The question I want to pose is whether a full embrace of biblical scholarship is consistent with believing in the historical implication of Sommer’s theology. Despite appearances, this is not identical to the question of whether biblical scholarship is consistent with the historical implications of Sommer’s theology. In order to see this we will first consider the latter question.
Does Biblical Scholarship Contradict the Historical Implications of Sommer’s Theology?
Sommer has no doubt that his theology entails no historical claims that are contradicted by biblical scholarship. In his book (p. 17) he asserts that those who believe that biblical scholarship challenges the historicity of the core elements of the biblical narrative (which include the exodus, the revelation at Sinai and the entry into Canaan) “seem to be unaware of the evidence actually available” and are “unschooled about the nature of the evidence—that is, about what the evidence can and cannot prove.” In other words, according Sommer there are simply no archaeological or historical reasons to doubt the core elements of the Bible’s presentation of Israel’s history.
Sommer’s claim may seem extreme. Surely there is plenty of historical reason to doubt much of the Bible’s description of the exodus and the revelation at Sinai—one need only consider the number of people supposedly present—and archaeology has certainly undermined the Bible’s account of the conquest of Canaan.
But this reaction ignores Sommer’s careful use of the words “core elements” when referring to Israel’s history. If one ignores the “minutiae” of the biblical narrative and focuses only on its core elements, it becomes evident that these have been untouched by archaeology and history.
A Minimal Historical Core
Here, for example, is how Sommer presents some of the core elements of the narrative:
…[A]t least some Israelites were enslaved to Egyptians and were surprisingly rescued from Egyptian bondage; that they experienced a revelation that played a crucial role in the formation of their national, religious, and ethnic identity; that they settled down in the hill country of the land of Canaan… (p. 17)
Clearly Sommer is committed to the historicity of only a slim kernel of the biblical narrative. No wonder he is confident that the narrative is safe from the slings and arrows of biblical scholarship.
Believing, Disbelieving and Suspending Belief
Nonetheless, I don’t believe Sommer is out of the woods. In discussing the relationship between biblical scholarship and biblical narrative, Sommer focuses almost completely on the question of whether biblical scholarship provides reason to disbelieve the biblical narrative. Thus, he emphasizes that no archaeological or historical evidence contradicts, undermines or disproves the core elements of the biblical narrative. And when he says there are no archaeological or historical reasons to doubt the core elements, he means no reasons that count against them. Occasionally, Sommer does refer to believing in the biblical narrative. When he does, however, he focuses on proof, saying that just as biblical scholarship cannot disprove the core elements of the narrative, neither can it prove them or tell us we should believe them.
But the academic discipline of biblical scholarship has more to say about belief and evidence than whether the latter provides reason to disbelieve a claim, on the one hand, or proves or mandates believing it, on the other. It addresses as well issues concerning whether there is sufficient evidence to warrant belief. In a case, for example, where there is no reason to disbelieve a claim, but insufficient evidence to warrant believing it, the epistemic standards of biblical scholarship, tell us to withhold judgment, that is, to suspend both belief and disbelief. In such a situation one can say one has reason to doubt the claim, not in the earlier sense of having reasons that count against the claim, but in the sense of having reason to withhold judgment or suspend belief with respect to the claim.
Some Warranted Beliefs: Egyptian Bondage and Settlement of Canaan
What happens when we look at the core elements of the biblical narrative from the perspective of whether there is sufficient evidence to warrant belief? Given available evidence, for example, it would seem we are warranted in believing that “at least some Israelites were enslaved to Egyptians and were surprisingly rescued from Egyptian bondage,” so long as one recognizes that this entails, as Sommer acknowledges, nothing about the presence of Israelites in the land of Egypt. We also seem warranted, given the archaeological evidence, in believing that a group of Israelites settled down in the hill country of the land of Canaan.
What about Experiencing Revelation at Sinai?
But what about the historical claim that is logically entailed by Sommer’s theology: that the Israelites had a not necessarily veridical experience of a non-verbal revelation of God’s “commanding” presence at Sinai and acquired a sense of obligation to respond to God and God’s commandments—or the variation on this in Sommer’s core elements of the biblical narrative: that a group of Israelites experienced a revelation that played a crucial role in the formation of their national, religious and ethnic identity”?
In contrast to the exodus or conquest, not even slight evidence supports the belief in the historical content of the kernel of truth that Sommer finds in the biblical narrative of the revelation at Sinai. And not only is there no evidence to warrant this belief, there is no reason to think any such evidence will be forthcoming.
Suspending Belief in Sinai: The Mandate of Academic Biblical Scholarship
The conclusion, then, is that even though biblical scholarship has given us no reason to disbelieve the historical content of the revelation at Sinai, it does require, given the absence of (sufficient) evidence for it, that we suspend belief (as well as disbelief) in whether the historical content took place. But if so, and if, as seems clear, the occurrence of this historical content is logically entailed by Sommer’s participatory theology of revelation, it follows that the standards of academic biblical scholarship require that we suspend belief in this theology. Yet without belief in this theology, Sommer’s account of the authoritativeness of the law collapses. Hence, I conclude that Sommer has not shown that observant Judaism and modern biblical scholarship can honestly co-exist.
My response to Sommer assumes that the epistemic norms of biblical criticism alone determine the epistemic status of biblical historical claims.
Suppose one rejects this, and claims that the epistemic norms of biblical criticism only determine what the biblical historian is warranted in believing qua biblical historian. This would leave room for Sommer to adopt the principle that the biblical historian qua theologian is epistemically permitted to believe an historical claim in the absence of (sufficient) evidence so long as there is no evidence—or insufficient evidence—against the claim, and thus to believe in the Sinai event which we have admitted is not in conflict with any historical evidence.
This view has the following counterintuitive consequence: There is no single set of events that make up the history of Israel. There is a “theological history” of Israel–the history in which the biblical historian qua theologian is epistemically permitted to believe (or multiple theological histories since different theologies will permit belief in different historical claims), and a “historical history” of Israel –the history in which the biblical historian qua historian is epistemically permitted to believe.
Also, this view would not resolve the problem I have posed for Sommer. For to say—as Sommer wishes to—that one’s theology is consistent with biblical scholarship should mean that one’s theology satisfies the norms of the biblical historian qua historian. But this is precisely what I have shown is not the case for Sommer’s theology.
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
January 4, 2017
August 3, 2023
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series
Prof. Rabbi Jonathan W. Malino is Professor of Philosophy and John A. Weissenfluh Professor (Emeritus) of Ethics and Religion at Guilford College and a Research Affiliate at the Zelikovitz Center for Jewish Studies at Carleton University. He holds a Ph.D in Philosophy from Columbia University and rabbinical ordination from HUC-JIR. He has edited Judaism and Modernity: The Religious Philosophy of David Hartman and contributed “Interpretation, Modernity and the Philosophy of Judaism“ to the Cambridge History of Jewish Philosophy: the Modern Era.
Essays on Related Topics: