The Early History of Scriptural Unreason

In an influential Romantic theory, unreason is connected with the internal and the ineffable: poetry, spirituality, and even insanity are problematically intertwined as the opposites of reason and law. Early Judaism had somewhat the opposite problem: a Law that could appear fragmentary, mythological, and eminently unreasonable. Even as Philo of Alexandria recognized that the mind is not guided by rationality alone, most of his works are devoted to rationalizing the Torah.

Philo exemplifies a broader issue in the early history of Judaism: for a number of thinkers, it was precisely the written law—an external authority, not a passionate outburst from within– that confronted reason with its most challenging problems. Traditional Jewish religious reasoning is haunted by the ghost of scripture itself: a text claimed to be perfect and complete yet riddled with gaps and contradictions. The immensely fruitful problems that resulted are well known: From the Mishnah’s sabbath laws with so little scriptural support that they ‘hang by a thread’ to the creative philology of Midrash, classic Jewish argumentation must often either harmonize the Torah itself or depart from it through new legal and narrative constructions. Philo was surely right that no human mind is purely rational, but is there a special kind of unreason associated with Jewish revelation, and if so how did it arise?

Here is where we can grasp Hebrew literature’s original aporia, in the gap between the Torah and its readers that made it sometimes seem so problematic and irrational. How did the Torah first become a puzzle to its early tradents, a problem to be solved? Since the earliest works of biblical interpretation, the Torah has provoked writers who must either avoid or struggle with the strangeness of its story, where each major event from creation to Sinai happens in several incompatible ways, making it formally unlike other major ancient literatures. Scholars have typically sought literary solutions to the historical problem of the Bible’s form by rereading the Bible itself. Consensus has been achieved on the Pentateuch’s main thread: a Priestly work with a single version of Israel’s story. But over 200 years of literary study has achieved little agreement beyond this.

I see an opportunity in this impasse. Drawing on early Jewish exegesis and ancient Near Eastern evidence gives us the chance to place the Pentateuch’s strangeness in literary history. The Pentateuch’s unusual formal features have been widely recognized but never really theorized, and theorizing them puts a new range of historical data at our service. If the Pentateuch departs from other known ancient Near Eastern forms, widely recognized Pentateuchal sources such as the Priestly work do resemble these common forms. And despite evidence of exegesis in the development of biblical texts themselves, Jewish interpreters from Jubilees to Philo often found the resulting doubled stories quite troubling. This suggests that Pentateuchal composition was as different from later Jewish literary values as it was from earlier Near Eastern ones. These contrasts entail a chronology of ancient Hebrew literary values: from coherence to comprehensiveness to harmonization.

My project begins by considering a common critique of biblical criticism: does it anachronistically impose modern values of coherence on ancient Near Eastern cultures that lacked them? Part 1, “Other Bibles,” asks if the Pentateuch’s incoherence was normal in its time. A comparison suggests that it was not. In Gilgamesh’s Flood, the most prominent ancient Near Eastern version, each of six key events happen once. By contrast, in Genesis 6-9 each event happens twice, always in two distinct versions. In contrast with Tigay’s pioneering Empirical Models for Biblical Criticism, I argue that neither Gilgamesh nor comparable Mesopotamian texts show anything like Genesis’ doubling. As a cycle of preexisting texts collected into one coherent narrative, Gilgamesh resembles not the Pentateuch but sources such as the Priestly work. As with Aramaic and Ugaritic narrative, early Hebrew literature shared a common Near Eastern value of coherence. The Torah’s creators reworked their texts in an unusual way according to a new value of comprehensiveness, in which a unified view of God’s nature and actions was not a goal. With its systematic interweaving of conflicting ancient material, the Torah resembles a scholarly collection more than a theological document.

After the Pentateuch’s composition, its preference for comprehensiveness over coherence began to trouble readers who expected texts about God to be systematic, coherent, or even perfect. Part 2, “How the Torah Became Strange,” explores why and how the first known biblical interpreters set about reconciling its contradictions. Treatments of the Creation and Flood narratives by early Jewish interpreters shows how strange the Torah had grown. Texts like Jubilees, Philo’s writings on Genesis, and Josephus’ Jewish Antiquities adopted conflicting strategies, ranging from omission to harmonization to allegorical explanation. Similarly, legal texts began to undergo extensive harmonization. This process is exemplified in the Temple Scroll, which conflates ritual law from across the Pentateuch into what Bernard Levinson calls “a more perfect Torah.”

Part 3, “The Hebrew Dominant,” theorizes these changing expectations with a concept from the linguist Roman Jakobson: the dominant. This is the shifting criterion that makes literature literature, “the focusing component of a work of art: it rules, determines, and transforms the remaining components.” It explains why we see coherence not only in the first stage of Hebrew literature but also in the third. At this literature’s knowable beginnings, which created the Pentateuch’s building blocks, the value of coherence drove the integration of individual stories into larger arcs. After the Torah was completed this old value reemerged in expectations involving perfection and divine origin. Harmonization became the new—but often missing–lynchpin for the unity of Hebrew texts.

What I will ultimately be exploring is how the new theological criteria of coherence and order made the fragmentary and mythological aspects of the Torah begin to seem so disturbing. The Hebrew Law troubles Jewish reason at what should be its central pillar, its nomos. The result is the dialectic that shaped the earliest Hebrew literature.


One response to “The Early History of Scriptural Unreason”

  1. Hanan says :

    I look forward to reading the rest, so maybe this question has to wait, but I feel “comprehensiveness’ begs the question. If the priestly source was coherent, and indeed had some coherent theological goal, why – according to your theory- dump that goal for a non-goal? If people before and people after preferred coherence, why did it all of a sudden dawn on the redactors to shift values to something nobody would find “coherent” (for a lack of a better term). While you have obviously record the relevant textual problems, I feel the theory is merely shifting the goal post.

    thank you.

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