Compare and Contrast

Kevin Wilson at Blue Cord [defunct blog] has raised some interesting and quite valid points regarding my Discoveries and Scholarship post, prompted by and added to by Charles Halton at Awilum [also defunct].

Charles nicely summarizes my point and objects to part of it with this: “One might argue that the re-evaluations have not gone far enough, fair enough. But, we see similar methodology in examining sources of documents in other ANE literature–it’s not like the Old Testament is the only ancient document that undergoes this sort of analysis.” It is definitely true that such examinations are happening now more often, seemingly exactly under the influence of Hallo’s contextual approach. I applaud this and want more of it. The in-depth examination of ancient texts, their language, their structure, and their own literary and historical context is imperative before any comparison can be made with other texts, including the Hebrew Bible. But such very welcome studies are also all very recent. Of course, the Hebrew Bible, with which western culture has been much longer familiar, has had many more such studies done, many of now-questionable value, and much solely of interest to studies on the history of scholarship. From this angle come my objections to certain fundamental elements of academic orthodoxy in Biblical studies, but in particular more widely to a certain mindset of or preference for complication over simplicity.

I chose the Documentary Hypothesis as a particularly egregious example of Theory Run Amok. Its initial basis, separating J and E by use of Y” or Elohim in the text, is, as shown by the unfortunately wasted deaths of many noble trees and many decades of work, too simplistic an approach. It is also foolish. Further refinements of the idea do not alter that fact of foundational foolishness. A stupid idea expanded is just an expanded stupid idea. The elaboration of the Documentary Hypothesis up to the present day is scandalous. Theories of P and D are equally ill-founded. It is precisely in its foundations that the Documentary Hypothesis is rotten, and this is particularly evident through the contextual approach, in which precisely studies like Tigay’s on Gilgamesh show us how an ancient Near Eastern text truly does develop through the centuries. Each version is not a patchwork quilt of discreet quotations from an older version, but each version is quite distinct, entirely rewritten. On the other hand, the story is recognizably the same. At no point in the process is anything like the Documentary Hypothesis evidenced. It is much more evident that the same process which lies behind the development of a work like the Gilgamesh Epic lies behind the development of the Pentateuch, and that we are now only aware, through the vagaries of preservation, of only the final stages of that development. That is, with the Hebrew Bible we can now deal only with essentially text-critical issues, having access to the literary development of the Pentateuch only in what is revealed by very late manuscript and versional evidence, and to an extent the wider Hebrew Bible as a whole. Can we recover or reconstruct earlier literary layers? Look at the wildly divergent texts of the Mesopotamian Flood story. I think they tell us the answer is no. No application of theory could reconstruct the Sumerian version of the tale out of the Neo-Assyrian, much less all the intervening stages. Such exemplars are particularly damning to the Documentary Hypothesis, and to the very modern assumption that lies behind it: that human ingenuity is capable of solving any puzzle placed before it, and that only this one approach to solving the puzzle is acceptable.

In addition to this issue of textual development and practices of ancient writing, there is also the issue of what historical information we have gained through the variously discovered ancient texts and how that has or has not impacted Biblical studies. While this is only a superficial treatment, we can look particularly at Isaiah. According to Biblical Studies orthodoxy, we have three Isaiahs, roughly chapters 1-39, 40-55, and 56-66, dated to the 8th century, mid-6th century and later 6th century, respectively. This tripartite separation in its commonly recognized form dates to 1892, with Bernard Duhm, who suggested Third Isaiah (for the reason, I kid not, that hills and trees are mentioned therein). But the first separation of Isaiah, which some would place with the 12th century Jewish exegete Rabbi Abraham ben Meir ibn Ezra, is attributed to J. C. Doederlein in 1775 with the suggestion for a Second Isaiah (comprising chapters 40-66). The suggestion was based upon various literary criteria, and was also influenced by a reaction to those who viewed mention of Cyrus in chapters 44 and 45 as predictive prophecy, and the destruction of Babylon (passim) as thereby being a reference to the taking of the city by Cyrus the Great of Persia. There are several problems with this, on both sides. Most notably, we now know more about the history of both Persia and Babylon through the discovery and publication of various Assyrian historical documents, documents unavailable to ibn Ezra, Doederlein, and even Duhm. From these, we learn that Babylon was completely destroyed in 689 by Sennacherib of Assyria (see COS 2.119E). We also learn that there was a Cyrus of Persia (grandfather to Cyrus the Great; see Briant, From Cyrus to Alexander, 17-18, 878, where he follows Miroschedji in not recognizing the Ashurbanipal mention as referring to Cyrus I; see also an excerpt from the Ashurbanipal text in Yamauchi, Persia and the Bible, 71; it’s unfortunately not included in either ANET or COS) active in the mid-7th century, yet who would not have sprung fully-armored from the head of Zeus the day before the first tablet mentioning him was written. Though most would place the reign of this Cyrus as near its beginning from the point of his mention by Ashurbanipal, it is equally (I think more) likely that his reign was actually rather near its end, and he would have thus been king up to a maximum of roughly 40 years before. This additional information, published only in the 1920s and 1930s, allows us to posit an Isaiah who lived and wrote in the final decades of the eighth century and the first decade or two of the seventh century. There is no absolute requirement in Isaiah’s text to posit any later interpolation, and the objection to “predictive prophecy” is a non-issue, as there was no “predictive prophecy” involved, despite millennia of misconstrual. The Bibliocentric earlier scholars who knew only of the fall of Babylon to the Persians were wrong in referring every reference in all Biblical prophetic writings to this event, forgivably not knowing of, but unforgivably not permitting the possibility of an earlier destruction, one which places “predictive prophecies” of the utter destruction in later prophets like Ezekiel and Jeremiah in a whole new light. The utter destruction of Babylon happened not long before, and it was entirely reasonable to expect it to happen again. This alone is a much more significant insight than anything learned by splitting Isaiah into three parts.

Of course, with Biblical studies having become quite a footnote mill (or for the more green of heart, a footnote recycling centre), the complications and obfuscations of elaborate, nitpickingly fussy textual dismemberment represented by the Documentary Hypothesis and other critical orthodoxies share another common factor: a lack of elegance. It is almost axiomatic that critical Biblical Studies is a field where Occam’s Razor doesn’t cut. As in the Isiaiah example I give above, with the double-edged sword of the discovery of the ancient texts, one edge being the form and the other the content of the texts, one is able to slice through the Gordian Knot of various critical orthodoxies. It is then possible to splice the rope cleanly and efficiently. Will it happen? Not likely.


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