Biblical Studies: No More Corrupt Than Any Other Discipline
A response to Joshua Berman’s critique of academic biblical scholarship, “The Corruption of Biblical Studies.” This reply is self-standing, but you are encouraged to read his piece before reading this response.
I was very pleased to see the significant focus on modern academic biblical scholarship in Mosaic with its publication of Joshua Berman’s article. I was also delighted to see that he refers to The Jewish Study Bible, which I co-edited with Adele Berlin, and TheTorah.com, which I co-founded with Rabbi David Steinberg. I was much less delighted, however, to see how he characterizes, indeed caricatures, biblical studies.
Biblical scholarship is highly variegated; in their political, religious, and scholarly attitudes, biblical scholars are liberal, conservative, and in-between. Books and articles with a wide variety of viewpoints are published by the leading presses and journals, though each venue determines what fits its readership best. This is not the place for a point-by-point discussion of Berman’s claims to the contrary. Rather, I would like to focus on several of his central contentions, and to offer an alternative vision of academic biblical studies.
A major thesis of Berman’s piece is that “biblical studies has never been value-free,” a statement that I fully agree with. I buy into post-modernism enough to know that my scholarship is value-laden, and indeed no one’s scholarship is value-free, though I would resist the term “tainted.” I do my best to try to understand my biases, and where appropriate, to acknowledge them, following the position of Jon Levenson, that even though “we all have biases” it is not the case that “all we have is biases.”
I wish that Berman had been up-front about his own biases and background, stating that he is an Orthodox rabbi who studied at Yeshivat Har-Etzion, and holds a Ph.D. from Bar-Ilan University, where he now teaches. Most of the faculty at Har-Etzion and Bar-Ilan reject source-criticism as an acceptable method for analyzing the Torah. Berman is thus no more objective than anyone else, and just as ideological, mixing theology, politics and scholarship.
Like Berman, I went to an Orthodox Jewish high school, which assumed that Torah speech as divine has its own rules, and that all inner-biblical contradictions are apparent only, and that the way the rabbis reconciled seemingly contradictory Torah texts is correct. I sat through the mandatory Jewish Orthodox Day School “Why biblical scholarship is wrong” sessions in my senior year. But then I started reading biblical scholarship itself, rather than articles such as Berman’s that attempt to debunk biblical scholarship, and I found the answers of biblical scholars more satisfying—both intellectually and religiously.
The Criticism of Source Criticism
The focus of Berman’s piece is source-criticism: identifying discrete parts of the Torah and when they were composed, a method of analysis that is embraced by many of the essays on TheTorah.com and in The Jewish Study Bible. Even entertaining such a notion contradicts the idea that the Torah was revealed at Sinai. So it is not surprising that an Orthodox Jew like Berman would resist it (although quite a few Orthodox Bible scholars, many of whom have written for TheTorah.com and The Jewish Study Bible, embrace various forms of source criticism).
Berman argues that biblical scholars have not, in the last two centuries, come to a clear consensus about how the Torah was (humanly) composed, what its exact sources are and how they were combined, and thus the entire theory must be wrong. He notes that even a leading biblical scholar has characterized source-critics as sharing “shades of Humpty Dumpty,” disagreeing on such basic issues as what “a source” means.
Berman is correct that mainstream biblical scholars continue to debate exactly how the Torah came into being. So what? All academics, “even” scientists, debate and refine, or even change, their positions over time. Indeed, claiming that all parts of the Torah are equally ancient and accurate because scholars cannot agree on its precise compositional development is like saying that there is no evolution because scholars debate details of that process.
Scholars do not have a precise picture of how the Torah came into being—but we do have enough evidence of the sort that Berman ignores that suggests that the Torah that we have today is not the Torah of the time of Moses—if Moses indeed existed. And this evidence takes into account the norms of ancient Near Eastern compositional techniques, as Berman correctly insists.
Source critics often begin their analysis by spotting contradictions in the Torah; for example: Must Hebrew slaves be released at the jubilee year (Leviticus 25:40) or may they serve forever (Exodus 21:6 and Deuteronomy 15:17)?
Earlier Jewish readers, like the ancient rabbis and the medieval interpreters, were very close readers of the biblical text, and certainly noted such contradictions, which they harmonized through interpretation into apparent contradictions. The scholar of midrash, Isaac Heinemann (1876-1957), brilliantly called their method of resolution “creative philology,” where words of the Torah, as divine speech, need not have their obvious and usual meaning—God’s use of language is privileged, not confined to human norms. Thus, according to the classical rabbis, “forever” of Exodus and Deuteronomy anomalously means there “until the Jubilee year.”
The Rabbinic vs. the Scholarly Approach
To pick up on Berman’s use of Lewis Caroll, the rabbinic method of meaning-making is similar to Humpy Dumpty, who declaims: “‘When I use a word … it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.’” I, as an observant Jew, am not deriding the rabbis, whose legal interpretations of the Torah I follow, but wish to call attention to the nature of biblical language as understood by the rabbis. But when I interpret the biblical texts as a scholar, I use normal rather than creative philology, and thus view contradictions as real, and use them to identify potentially different sources or authors. To my mind, this is the better model for explaining such contradictions.
Let me clarify what I mean through two examples of such contradictions.
The Creation Story
The first creation story (ending either in Genesis 2:3 or in the middle of 2:4—but the fact that scholars can’t “even” agree on this doesn’t prove that there is one creation story!) is contradicted by the second. They differ not only in details, but have such different styles that it is difficult for me to see them as the work of a single author (or Author). Berman mocks and caricatures the use of different divine names as a criterion for distinguishing authorship between these stories—and these two stories do consistently use different divine names—but, contrary to the common claim, this is not the main criterion used in biblical scholarship for such source differentiations.
The Truth is in the Details
Here are three significant contradictions between the two stories:
- In the first story, man and woman are created together, after the birds and land-animals, while the second story describes the creation of man, then the birds and land animals, and then woman.
- Each story uses a different verbs—the first uses bara’ for “create,” while the second never does.
- In the first story the world is created (ב.ר.א) in six days, while according to the second in Genesis 2:4b, “in the day the LORD God made (ע.ש.ה) heaven and earth,” it was made (note the different verb!) in one.
The differences and contradictions between these stories have been widely recognized, and indeed been utilized by even the most traditional scholars. (I am thinking here of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s “The Lonely Man of Faith,” which speaks of Adam I and Adam II [even though the first creation story never calls the male Adam].) Unless one comes with strong biases, these look like separate stories by different authors—and often things are what they seem.
The Blood Plague
The plague of blood is a composite text that can be easily disentangled, as I show in my “Source Criticism: It’s in the (Plague of) Blood.” Among the many differences between these two stories is that in one version the plague affects the Nile only, in the other, it affects all of Egypt; in one, Moses is the protagonist, in the other, Aaron is also involved. The story as presented is choppy. Once these two stories are disentangled, however, each story (source) reads as consistent and more or less complete and each may be connected to other pieces of the plague narrative as analyzed through source criticism.
Possible vs. Probable
I completely agree with Berman and others that the Bible must be studied as an ancient Near Eastern Text, considering the literary and other norms of those cultures. Berman highlights examples of ancient Near Eastern texts that contain contradictions, and thus suggests that such contradictions do not imply multiple authors. But his analogies are often weak, or at least should be balanced against many counter-examples or more likely probable analogies. The job of biblical scholars, like others in the Humanities, is not to suggest what is possible, but what is probable; offering a theoretically possible counter-example to the established position carries little weight.
Why Source Criticism Developed
The division of the Torah into sources was not developed by liberals to debunk traditionalism by pulling the Torah apart, but originally by rather religious scholars to explain fundamental difficulties in the text. And—here is what is more remarkable—once source criticism is applied to the entire Torah it is possible to reassemble several (yes—I am being vague and scholars continue to debate specifics!) more or less complete consistent sources that tell similar, more or less parallel, largely complete stories. Try doing that with a composition that you know is single-authored!
The Torah is Layered not Scrambled
At one point, Berman criticizes the source critical work of David Carr, a professor of Bible at NY’s Union Theological Seminary, with the quip: “Eggs cannot be unscrambled,” referring to Carr’s attempt to unscramble the Torah into its constituent sources. This analogy suggests that the text of the Torah looks like an omelet, with the yolks and whites well-mixed together. But is this so? To me, the Torah looks more like a layer-cake. Or, if we need to stay with eggs, the Torah is a sunny-side up, where it is quite easy to differentiate different strata.
Verification of Sources from the Bible Itself
The idea that the Torah developed over time is confirmed by evidence in the Bible itself. The Book of Kings, which was completed during the Babylonian exile (see its final verses), never uses the term “Torah” in reference to our Five Books of Moses, though it does in reference to Deuteronomy (see 2 Kings 14:6 and Deuteronomy 24:16), implying that some form of Deuteronomy is the “Torah” for the author of Kings.
In contrast, the Book of Chronicles, several centuries later, unlike Kings uses the term Torah many times in reference to the Torah as we more or less know it—including what is called the Priestly material (P—large parts of Leviticus, Numbers and smaller sections of Genesis and Exodus, and a snippet at the end of Deuteronomy). This seems to suggest that the earlier author of Kings did not have our Torah, or consider it authoritative, while the later author of Chronicles did.
Other evidence from comparing Kings and Chronicles substantiates this. 2 Chronicles 6 and 1 Kings 8 both record Solomon’s prayer upon inaugurating the Temple. Both texts refer back to God’s message to his father David, that his descendants must follow God, but they do so using different language:
1 Kings 8:25
רַק אִם יִשְׁמְרוּ בָנֶיךָ אֶת דַּרְכָּם לָלֶכֶת לְפָנַי כַּאֲשֶׁר הָלַכְתָּ לְפָנָי.
if only your descendants will look to their way and walk before Me as you have walked before Me.
2 Chronicles 6:16
רַק אִם יִשְׁמְרוּ בָנֶיךָ אֶת דַּרְכָּם לָלֶכֶת בְּתוֹרָתִי כַּאֲשֶׁר הָלַכְתָּ לְפָנָי.
if only your children will look to their way and walk in the path of My Torah as you have walked before Me.
If the author of Kings had the Torah, why did he not frame his comment, like Chronicles, using the term “Torah”? The evidence seems to strongly imply (note—I am not using the word “prove”)—that the earlier author of Kings did not know the Torah as we have it, while the later author of Chronicles did.
Near Eastern Analogies
Much of Berman’s work is centered on using ancient Near Eastern analogies to “prove” the Torah’s antiquity and unity. This was not the focus of his essay, so I will touch on it only very briefly. Other scholars have debated his specific analogies, especially how tight and compelling they are, and have pointed out that he often ignores counter-analogies. Instead of asking which analogies might explain the Bible, scholars must ask which analogies best explain the Bible.
Thus, the Mosaic piece never refers to a well-known fact, amply attested in ancient Near Eastern studies, that some ancient Near Eastern texts were edited and re-edited over time, and that sometimes two pre-existent texts were combined to form a new text; the inclusion of the originally independent story about the slaying of the monster Huwawa in the Gilgamesh epic is a single example of this. In a later period, the four gospels were combined into a single composition, the Diatessaron. For most scholars, these cases offer an important analogy or model for how the Torah was composed.
Biblical Scholarship within the Humanities
Biblical scholarship is a discipline of the Humanities, where we must (proudly) acknowledge that we deal with likelihoods rather than scientific proofs. Like many academic fields, we collect evidence, debate what is evidence, debate how evidence should be interpreted, and consider how different pieces of evidence should be weighed—all the time trying to factor in our own biases, our own humanity.
We must each be honest about our presuppositions, and less certain that we have discovered the correct answer, though we must present the most likely solution. We must be civil. And most importantly, for those of us who care about the Bible, its original meaning, and its composition, we must acknowledge that, as we try our best to find the most plausible answer, we will never answer such questions with certainty.
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Prof. Marc Zvi Brettler is Bernice & Morton Lerner Distinguished Professor of Judaic Studies at Duke University, and Dora Golding Professor of Biblical Studies (Emeritus) at Brandeis University. He is author, most recently, of How to Read the Jewish Bible (also published in Hebrew), co-editor of The Jewish Study Bible and The Jewish Annotated New Testament (with Amy-Jill Levine), and co-author of The Bible and the Believer (with Peter Enns and Daniel J. Harrington), and The Bible With and Without Jesus: How Jews and Christians Read the Same Stories Differently (with Amy-Jill Levine). Brettler is cofounder of Project TABS (Torah and Biblical Scholarship) – TheTorah.com.