Two birds, one stone

I’ll dispense with two memes in this single post.

First, Nick Norelli tagged me for Five Influential Primary Sources, “sources that have most affected your scholarship, thoughts about antiquity, and/or understanding of the NT/OT.”

I list these in no particular order.

1.) The Law Code of Hammurapi: In my first year of Akkadian, we translated all the laws, but only part of the prologue, as I recall. The whole thing together gave me a great handle on the language of law. Of course, at that time I was in my second year of Biblical Hebrew, too, so the overlap when we touched on Pentateuchal legal material was enlightening. And in this I want to emphasize that it’s not the superficial parallels of similar subject matter that is so interesting. There’s very little, if any, of that kind of equation between the two corpora. But the ways the laws are constructed are similar, whether simple bipartite laws of mere protasis and apodosis, or those extended, case-like provisos, they follow particular patterns of language and syntax within each corpus that are quite similar to one another. There is also a similar method between the two of linking laws in groups by vocabulary chains, though this is not extensively used, if memory serves, coming rather in little groups. The differences between the two are equally striking. It seems fair to say, in light of the prologue and epilogue of CH that it is not a “law code” at all, but an idealized picture of the reign of Hammurapi, intended as a memorial perhaps to Shamash, god of justice. I’ve heard this said about the various other Mesopotamian “law codes” as well, that they are not law codes per se, but something else. Since th “laws” don’t appear in legal documentation, it seems a pretty safe bet that they weren’t laws per se. Anyhow, it’s interesting stuff. We either learn from CH of an ancient conception of the ideal society, or of the workaday world being “legislated” against in the “laws.” Fascinating.

2.) The Mishnah: Early on in my post-Biblical Hebrew training, we were introduced to excerpts from the Mishnah. For whatever reason, the logic of the Mishnah’s organization and the argumentation preserved in its terse style immediately made sense to me. It was also immediately clear that this was not “a bunch of made up Jewish stuff” as I’ve heard some Christian ignoramuses call it. In fact, the reliance of the Mishnah on the Bible is obvious throughout, in reliance on the Bible for proof for a particular point in argumentation, to a general influence on subject matter, and the deeper similarity in what I would call now foundational patterns. These are the underlying patterns of logic and ethics that are induced from the Biblical narrative, patterns which are used to generate new applications. In reading the Mishnah, it became clear to me that in the New Testament, most strongly in Matthew, there were halakhic discussions in the New Testament, with Jesus arguing with Pharisees, et alia, just as the Rabbis argued amongst themselves in the Mishnah. The argumentation, so-called, in Luke and Mark, on the other hand, would have gotten Him laughed out of town or ignored, and would certainly not have led to Him being popular enough to be considered a threat. (John, on the other hand, displays striking similarities in Jesus’ discourses to the Essene writings found at Qumran, particularly the ubiquitous language of light and darkness.)

3.) The Epic of Gilgamesh: Back around the time of my introduction to the Code of Hammurapi, I also was delighted to be presented with the Epic of Gilgamesh in all its confusing, incomplete, riotous glory. The presentation of the various fragments in Pritchard’s big ANET was a real delight, as was the cleaned-up presentation in Stephanie Dalley’s Myths from Mesopotamia (Oxford, 1989; there’s now a 2009 edition with more stuff in it). EG affected my approach to the Bible on several levels. Firstly, it was obvious that there were here a number of versions of one story that dated to numerous centuries (indeed, nearly two millennia!), and that these could be used to investigate the development of such writings through the ages, with a specific view toward comparison and contrast with the classic Graf-Wellhausen Documentary Hypothesis (JEDP and all that rot). Jeffrey Tigay has presented the development of the EG very well in his The Evolution of the Gilgamesh Epic, but he’s more amenable in his conclusions to the classic Graf-Wellhausen Documentary Hypothesis than I think the evidence warrants. So, while I applaud his work without hesitation, I disagree with his conclusions that EG actually supports the Documentary Hypothesis to any meaningful degree at all. In no instance are the particular mechanisms or framework of the DH itself actually supported by the EG’s evolution. Something happened, but the DH is definitely not it. Tigay allows room for as much in his Empirical Models for Biblical Criticism (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1985). First, from the Introduction (pp 19-20):

The greatest amount of space [in Empirical Models for Biblical Criticism] is devoted to analogues that have a bearing on the documentary hypothesis (Chapters 2-5 and Appendix). This is because of the seminal role played by this subject in modern biblical studies and because Pentateuchal criticism has been the focus of most controversy. It will be clear from my own chapters that I find the documentary hypothesis persuasive, but the reader is urged not to read this volume as essentially a defense of that hypothesis. The processes illustrated here do not exhaust the possibilities for explaining the development of biblical literature; they only scratch the surface. Even where a chapter lends support to a particular theory about a biblical composition, some other comparative model might lend equal plausibility to a competing theory or even suggest a new theory. Indeed, Alexander Rofé suggests in Chapter 4 that the supplementary hypothesis, rather than the documentary hypothesis, best explains the development of Joshua 20, and in Chapter 6 Yair Zakovitch offers a theory of assimilation to replace the documentary analysis of Genesis 34. But in addition to lending plausibility to particular theories, new or old, the volume is designed to give the reader experience with concrete models of literary development and to illustrate the kind of research that must go into interpreting the evidence that is available about these models. It is hoped that readers will be encouraged to seek more such models, especially for genres of biblical literature not covered in this volume. Experience with such models offers the biblical scholar what wide exposure to literature gives any student of that subject: a feeling for what happens in literature, and the sophistication to formulate literary theories and evaluate those of others in an informed and critical way.

More briefly, he reiterates the same possibilities in the Summary and Conclusions (p. 240):

Certainly the possibility exists that in other cases, too, analogues may suggest explanations better than those currently preferred by critics. The aim of the present volume is not to foreclose any options but to encourage those who study the evolution of biblical literature to approach this necessarily hypothetical task with the perspective and experience offered by empirical case histories.

In view of Tigay’s own statements above, those who point to either of these books of his as demonstrative proof of the objective, conclusive, and exclusionary verification of the DH have quite obviously not read them. But back to me! Secondly, the Epic of Gilgamesh is a cracking good story, and I loved reading it just for that.

4.) A particular midrash that I can’t find now. There was a particular excerpt from one of the earlier Rabbinic Midrashim that we read in the first weeks of my first semester of post-Biblical Hebrew. It included one of those great “There was a king…” parables in it. (There are far too many of those for me to recognize which it was.) Again, in reading this parable, it was a case of Jesus’ parables (the king parables are found only in Matthew) coming into full 3-D Technicolor life as part of first century Judean culture and (proto-)Rabbinic intellectual life rather than being the washed-out, incomprehensible, weird, but supposedly wise quotes that most people treated them as, as if He made up the whole genre. With this and the Mishnah and the few of the Dead Sea Scrolls we read (I remember 4QPHab and 4QFlorilegium, but there were also a few others; this was just before the DSS were generally released, so not many were available at all; actually my teacher then went down to Claremont to get copies of the microfilms for Berkeley), I was hooked. The Jewish background of the New Testament was plain to anyone familiar at all with the Hebrew writings, which the vast majority of NT people certainly were and are not. That’s a serious drawback. Since then, I ignore anyone who places more focus on works of Gentile literature as sources for the Gospels, etc, because they’re obviously idiots.

5.) Plutarch, On the Obsolescence of Oracles. This brought the world of the explosive growth of the early Church alive for me. This was a strange world, but a very religious one, and one in some ways quieter and more thoughtful than our own, as the discussions in this work show, particularly the really fun story about the death of the god Pan (you may read it here, an early entry on this here blog). Plutarch lived about 80 years, from around 45-125 AD, and was writing in the very early second century, and so gives an excellent picture of the intellectual currents of the time, when Christianity was spreading like wildfire even among the upper classes.

Rick Bannon tagged me for The Five Biblical Studies Books I’m Stupider for Having Read. That’s kind of a tough one, since I usually get rid of such books, both physically and mentally, so it’s hard to remember them all. A few do come to mind. Again, I list them in no particular order. I will rein in my habitual rhetorical exuberance, keeping the comments very short, both because it would be so easy to go on at length in regards to the shortcomings (or noncomings) of the following, and so as not to leave the reader metaphorically spittle-flecked.

1.) Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels. The combination of incoherent “writing” and Hippyscopalian religion should be banned. And no, it’s not because she’s a girl. (The same evaluation covers her The Origin of Satan, and Adam, Eve, and the Serpent. I honestly gave her a shot.)

2.) Burton Mack, Who Wrote the New Testament?: The Making of the Christian Myth. This was a tour de force of tendentious hyper-Bauristic Jesus Seminaristic line-toeing. Ultimately boring: it was perfectly nineties.

3.) Julius Wellhausen, Prolegomena to the History of Israel. Everyone’s favorite book by Uncle Jew-hater! Yay!

4.) The Archaeological Study Bible. Comment dites-vous “trainwreck”? Nice printing, though.

5.) Anchor Bible 38: Revelation by J. Massyngberde Ford. Seriously. Was that a joke?

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