Why We Can’t Read the Torah: The Form of the Pentateuch and the History of Ancient Hebrew Literature
As a book, the Hebrew Bible makes offers and demands that seem to speak from nowhere, with no upper limit. It decrees laws which need no police, though some are punishable by death. Its prophets announce the overthrow of governments, as a voice speaking through the text anoints their new rulers. Its poetry places you in a dismembered and reanimated version of the present world. The last thing it seems to want you to do is appreciate it as literature, read it as art for art’s sake, musings for your spare time. The stakes are too high for that.
The Bible was allowed into the academy at the price of its disarmament. Critical scholarship drastically lowered its stakes, defusing the promises and threats with which it was armed. What is surprising is what was left.
For every hard look at the Law and Prophets revealed an incoherence at their heart: Genesis begins with the world created twice, in different ways: Isaiah disappears from the second half of his own book to be replaced by someone speaking from a new world some century and a half after his death. And for almost anything scholarship has claimed to prove about these texts, a scholar has argued the opposite: we can demonstrate that they are authentic traditions or false memories, lofty speculations or hard-nosed reforms. We can identify the pieces, but we can’t agree on where they come from or what they are for.
The Bible’s writing was not normal anywhere in the ancient world, and it did not inspire normal sorts of readership. Audiences have, since the beginning, seen the text as speaking directly to them. Since the beginning, something in the alchemy of the text’s own voice and what its audiences expect to hear has made people read it as permanently relevant…
Just uploaded: On Mesopotamian Contact with Judah, Aramaic Scribal Culture, and the Creativity of Second Temple Judaism
By popular demand, just uploaded this paper I gave at Yale last Friday. A version is in the works for the Journal of the American Oriental Society.
Just submitted an article building on the arguments of The Invention of Hebrew:
Since at least Caspari (1909), the literary quality and historical value of the Succession Narrative have been seen as existing in tension. This paper reconsiders the relationship between literariness and historicity by examining two kinds of evidence for the political audience of the story of Absalom’s revolt (2 Sam 15-19): West Semitic rhetoric and the distribution of the standardized Hebrew script. First, the narrative of Absalom’s stand employs a culturally distinctive type of political rhetoric. This vocabulary and set of tropes, specific to West Semitic literary cultures over at least a millennium, help explain the plausibility and appeal of the story’s events to an audience familiar with its ideals. Second, inscriptional evidence demonstrates that by the eighth century northern and southern Hebrew scribes shared the foundations of a common literary culture, being trained to write in precisely the same way. The data for this shared training are widely agreed on but still neglected in treatments of early Hebrew literature and historiography. Taken together, these factors suggest that the most plausible explanation of “northern” perspectives in this Judahite story is connected with the early role of Hebrew narrative prose: to circulate beyond any one narrow party to a public interested in imagining a shared, if fascinatingly disturbing past. This account also helps explain the story’s success as both literature and memory, how it found an audience beyond royal courts.
It has long been noted that biblical authors did not typically sign their work. Most worked as participants in a stream of tradition that is to us frustratingly fluid, where contributors anonymously reshaped existing texts. While most major works of biblical literature are products of this anonymous, fluid “authorship,” from the narratives of Samuel to the prophecies of Isaiah, the Pentateuch is the most challenging because it also breaks with it. The Primeval History of Genesis 1-11 is a clear example of how the Pentateuch departs from this common biblical mode of transmission. Here one previously reshaped, complete and coherent strand has then been taken and interwoven with another, sharply different but coherent strand. While literarily obvious, this departure has never been satisfyingly theorized as philology: what new kind of textual transmission does it represent? What history of text-building and reading practices was it part of?
The goal of this panel is to find ways to answer Sheldon Pollock’s call: “If we are ever to make an argument for philology’s disciplinary identity, coherence, and necessity, it must be now.” This paper responds with evidence addressing a rather large gap in his paper: his histories of European, Indian and Chinese philology begin in the early modern period. But what did philology look like in the ancient world? How did people make sense of texts in the Persian period, for example?
Interestingly, the earliest ancient Near Eastern evidence of a signature–a claim of individual participation and responsibility via the writing of one’s name–is Jewish, occurring in Persian-era legal documents. And it is connected with a strikingly new image of verbatim textual transmission, which can be tracked across different first-millennium Near Eastern scribal cultures. This paper will examine some contrasting attitudes toward textual transmission in biblical narrative with further external evidence from the Persian period to suggest a picture of the Primeval History, and perhaps the Pentateuch, as the product of a historically distinctive type of ancient Hebrew philology.
This November in the The History and Methods of Philology in Hebrew Bible Research session, which will respond to Sheldon Pollock’s 2009 “Future Philology? The Fate of a Soft Science in a Hard World” (Critical Inquiry 2009, 931-63).