Check Your Sources!

It is frustrating when one stumbles upon a good quote, only to discovering a dubious attribution. Nijay Gupta writes about his recent discovery—an apocryphal G. K. Chesterton quote. Gupta discovered the innocent ruse because, in his own words, “I try to be a respectable scholar.” Indeed, you would think that checking your sources would be a fundamental tenant in the life of all scholars.

You would be wrong.

In an article published in the most recent issue of the Bulletin for Biblical Research, “The Ethics of Inclusion: The גר and the אזרח in the Passover to Yhwh” (23.2 [2013]: 155-66), I conclude with a quote often attributed to Hermann Cohen, a 19th-century Jewish philosopher:

The alien was to be protected, not because he was a member of one’s family, clan, religious community, or people; but because he was a human being. In the alien, therefore, man discovered the idea of humanity.

Having seen this quote in numerous studies, including one Anchor Bible commentary, you would think the source of the quote would be easy to locate. Again, you would be wrong. I spent the better part of the day tracking this quote down at the library using both digital and print media. Eventually I was force to resort to two interlibrary loan requests before I confirmed to my own satisfaction its apocryphal origins. Trying to be a respectable scholar, I included this footnote:

To my knowledge, the first attribution of this quotation to Hermann Cohen was made by J. H. Hertz in The Pentateuch and Haftorahs: Hebrew Text, English Translation, and Commentary (London: Soncino, 1937) 313. The quotation does not appear in the original publication of the Exodus commentary; Exodus (Pentateuch and Haftorahs: Hebrew Text, English Translation, and Commentary; London: Oxford University Press, 1930) 259. Hertz generally references Cohen’s “Juedische Schriften” and “Religion der Vernunft aus den Quellen des Judentums” as works he consulted in preparation of the commentary. The quotation captures well Cohen’s sentiments from the latter work in the chapter entitled “The Discovery of Man as Fellowman,” though it does not contain the quotation itself; Religion of Reason Out of Sources of Judaism (trans. S. Kaplan; 2nd ed.; American Academy of Religion Text and Translation Series 7; Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1995) 113–43, particularly pp. 125–28. Unfortunately, Hertz is not more specific about the provenance of the quotation, and I am unable to verify its authenticity.

The moral of the story is simple. Check your sources!

A Misdirected Analogy

Reading a recent published review, I came across a peculiar analogy. What does the frame-narrator of Ecclesiastes have to do with the so-called “climategate” emails?

I argue that Qohelet’s words are used to draw in an audience who finds his query and methodology compelling, only to show them that the quest is pointless. By creating a sympathetic link between the audience and the character Qohelet, the author has cleverly avoided immediately alienating the audience by simply telling them that they are wrong. The leaking of the “Climategate” emails in 2009 illustrate the power of such an approach, doing far more damage to the credibility of climate science than did the direct confrontation of numerous “climate change deniers” over many years. Similarly, the honest words of the most highly regarded sage do more to undermine the legitimacy of speculative wisdom than any direct confrontation.

In other words, just as the words of climate scientists were more damning than skeptics arguments, so also Qohelet’s own words are more damning than any rebuttal the narrator might make.  (Don’t feel bad if you couldn’t make sense of the analogy the first time through; I had to read it three of four times before it made sense.)

I find this curious, if not problematic. Did “Climategate” do damage to the credibility of climate science? No. It only hurt the public’s perception of the credibility of climate science because the public understood neither the emails targeted by skeptics and pundits nor the nature of the science in question. (In case you are not already aware, eight different committees investigating “Climategate” have found no evidence of fraud or scientific misconduct.)

I guess it is possible that the frame-narrator let Qohelet speak without a point by point rebuttal as a clever way of letting Qohelet “damage” his own credibility. But I think that, like the “Climategate scandal,” this reading betrays either the ignorance or the predisposition (or both) of those who think Qohelet’s words are self-evidently flawed.

For the Bible Tells Me So?

In Christian circles, children learn from an early age the song, “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” Setting the issue of Jesus aside for the moment, it strikes me that early Jews  and contemporary Christians have very different epistemologies. What do I mean? I don’t think that “for the Bible tells me so” was the kind of explanation that would have satisfied the curiosity of early Jewish children or adults.

If you have read my recent article in the The Journal of Theological Studies (see here), you will have noticed my interest in the rationales that are embedded in over half of the legal prescriptions in the Hebrew Bible. However, I was not aware that this was a significant area of study for early post-biblical traditions. I am thankful to have discovered Lawrence Schiffman’s blog where he recently posted a series on the rationales for the commandments (ta`amei ha-mitzvot) in JubileesPhiloJosephus, and the Dead Sea Scrolls. In his conclusion to this series, Schiffman summarily observes that “seeking explanatory rationales for the commandments as a consistent approach and fostering the conception that such rationales can, in fact, be offered for almost all the commandments, is a product of Hellenistic Judaism in the Second Temple period.” This coincides with my own conviction that a strict divine command theory is not the proper way to interpret the function of obedience to God in the Hebrew Bible. My argument is based on how the text of Scripture presents itself, but Shiffman’s discussion suggests that early Jewish audiences were similarly (and increasingly?) in tune with the Torah’s own rationalizing tendencies.

Orders of Discourse and the Function of Obedience in the Hebrew Bible

I’m pleased to announce the publication of my article, “Orders of Discourse and the Function of Obedience in the Hebrew Bible” available in The Journal of Theological Studies 2013 64: 1-24. The brief video below reveals the genesis of and backdrop for my project.

For free full text access to the article, click one of the links below.




Hebrew Bible and Philosophy

The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture

Yoram Hazony has joined the ranks of those who aim to bridge the divide between Athens and Jerusalem. His new book The Philosophy of the Hebrew Scripture, suggests that “the biblical authors used narrative and prophetic oratory to advance universal arguments about ethics, political philosophy, and metaphysics” (i). Initial reviews are mixed, though I think the biblical studies guild will find the critical review of Jon D. Levenson particularly on point. (Hazony’s website links to numerous reviews and promotional spots.)

While I agree with Levenson on all the major points, I want to highlight a particularly positive moment in Hazony’s book. “The Hebrew Bible is the modern university’s blind side” (20). In arguing that the reason/revelation dichotomy has proved to be an unfortunate impediment to appreciating the Hebrew Bible as a philosophical text, Hazony touches on an important interpretive posture which all readers of ancient (and contemporary?) literature must adopt:

If we refused to study a great thinker every time he disagreed profoundly with our own intuitions  there would be no great philosopher left to study. Think of Plato with his divine voices, his realm of ideas, his acceptance of infanticide, and his communism. Or Newton, with his alchemy, his belief in the growth of matter, his absolute time and space, his God deducible from the laws of physics. Or Kant, with his mystical transcendental deduction, his denial that it is right to lie to save the life of one’s friend. Or of William James’s belief in the occult, or Nietzsche’s assertion that our every action is repeated in an eternally returning cycle. The first thing we learn in reading the great works of the past is that tolerating the counterintuitive is basic to the enterprise. (277 n.26; emphasis added)

That being said, I’m inclined to agree with Levenson what he identifies as a potent factor for why the wider academy ignores or disparages the Hebrew Bible: “the deep secularity of most academics, their profound unease with the notion of a personal God who acts in history, has chosen a particular people for a special covenantal relationship, and has revealed his will (much of it mysterious and seemingly unnecessary) to them.” This is not a judgment he makes in concert with Hazony. As Levenson points out, “The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture shares that unease.”

For another Jon Levenson plug, see Charles Halton’s list of books that make great holiday gifts.

My RBL Review of Gordon Wenham’s Psalms as Torah

My RBL review of Gordon Wenham’s Psalms as Torah: Reading Biblical Song Ethically is now available. It was a pleasure to review for RBL, in particular to have the space to explore the contents of the book more intensely than is typical for most venues. You can click through and read the review in full. Below is snippet in which I critique a perplexing chapter from the book about a subject I discussed recently.

Wenham explores the affinities between the Psalter’s emphasis upon law and the pentateuchal legal tradition in chapter 6, “Laws in the Psalter.” One senses a regression from the insights of the argument in the previous chapter. Wenham argues that “the psalmists know the Ten Commandments and place them at the heart of their ethical thinking” (109, emphasis added). He argues this despite the following observations: “although the Sinaitic commandments are familiar to the psalmists, the lawgiving at Sinai is rarely mentioned” (98, emphasis added); “I think that it is reasonable to say that the psalms certainly know the lawgiving at Sinai, even though they do not make much of it” (100, emphasis added); some commandments are “not directly quoted” (102); such direct quotations are “rare” (101); “the fourth and fifth commandments are relatively underplayed” (105); indeed, the fourth commandment is “completely ignored” (103). This claim concerning the importance of the Decalogue for ethical thinking in the Psalter is odd; it does not emerge from a descriptive analysis of the contents of the Psalter. Though odd, the chapter is beneficial. Wenham is honest about the varying degrees of correspondence (or lack thereof) between the ethical concerns of the Pentateuch and the Psalter, exploring also the topics of violence, retribution, and the poor and exploited. Discerning readers—and I count Wenham among them—will observe that the relationship between the Pentateuch and the Psalter is complex. Whether this complexity is respected by Wenham’s argument is questionable in my judgment.

I want to thank John Anderson for reading a draft of this review and providing me with helpful feedback.

Ethics in the Wisdom Literature and the Prophets

In my ongoing assessment of the new IVP Bible Dictionary on the Prophets, I want to turn to the article on “Ethics” by M. Daniel Carroll R (185-93). I suspect that anyone familiar with the intersection of prophetic studies and Hebrew Bible ethics would agree that the editors made a wise choice in selecting Carroll for this essay. If you aren’t familiar with Carroll, you can learn more about his deep interest in ethics, in particular his interest in the ethics of immigration, at his blog Immigration and Other Matters.

In the essay I featured yesterday by Charles Halton on “Law”, Charles develops a thesis about torah in the prophets by walking through the prophetic corpus, inductively exposing readers to a wealth of secondary literature. Carroll’s essay, in contrast, programmatically explores the secondary literature on ethics in the prophets, thus inductively exposing readers to the ethical contents of the prophets. In my estimation, the unique demands of each topic are well suited to the approach each author adopted. Carroll’s essay is divided into three parts, “Concerns of Past Research,” “Recent Studies of Prophetic Ethics,” and “New Directions in Scholarship.” The scope of this article is both wide and deep. Carroll capably presents a wide variety of scholars and approaches while probing the subject both deeply and critically.

Carroll is not afraid to challenge comfortable notions and established traditions. Responding to scholarly explanations about the diverse and supposedly disparate ethical traditions behind suspected textual layers of or redactions to prophetic books, Carroll writes:

The density of the message of a book may have another explanation. Complexity is not contrary to ethical coherence, but rather can testify to the moral nuancing, the difficulties of real-life situations, and the simultaneous multiple personal and social ethical debates common to all communities (188).

I do not get the impression from Carroll’s essay that one can take the unity of the prophetic texts for granted, nor that historical critical insights are insignificant for interpreting the prophetic books and their ethics. This is not an apologetic argument, at least not for traditional notions of authorship and/or dating. In fact, I detect the absence of any apologetic when Carroll discusses feminist and ideological studies. This is particularly noteworthy given the the frequent “subversive readings” produced by these situated readers and Carroll’s passive presentation of their work in the field. This is not an essay that will leave the Christian reader unchallenged!

One can sense the strength of this essay when it is compared against its companion in the IVP Dictionary on the Wisdom, Poetry and Writings by C. Hassell Bullock. In the conclusion to his essay, he writes:

Although the motif of obedience to God’s commands is not an explicit theme throughout the Wisdom literature, wisdom’s teachings are premised upon it. I have suggested that obedient response to wisdom’s instruction is none other than an adaptation of the legal system of the Torah, with its ethical claims in the forefront. This response, laid out in the opening chapters of the Torah, underwrites the entirety of wisdom ethics or any other ethical representations of the OT. It is premised upon the nature of the God whose demands, first revealed in Scripture as putting his imprimatur of goodness on the world that he created. So God’s subjects should obey his commandments because he is good (200).

This is a peculiar argument, undoubtedly conservative and fundamentalist. It fails to reckon with the diversity of Hebrew Bible ethics and the complicated text critical issues that challenge its logic. Is there an established written torah, fully formed upon which the Israelite sages could draw to premise their moral expectations? Even if such a torah existed, there still remains the question of why the sages, who explicitly and frequently appeal to the moral order of creation, would feel obliged to establish their ethic upon Sinai! (The apostle Paul on more than one occasion prefers arguments rooted in creation to that of Sinai, promise over law!) Contrast this with Carroll’s article where one might more naturally expect an appeal to a written torah and Sinai:

The criticism of the approach that links prophetic teaching to specific laws is that the prophets primarily refer to moral principles instead of explicit legislation, hence the generalities in the language of their moral censure. . . . It is more realistic to say that the ethical message of the prophets cannot be limited to any one theological tradition . . . . The prophets would have moved and spoken within a moral universe into which multiple theological emphases fed. They argued on the basis of the range of theological material available to them to communicate the divine word (187).

This initial observation, that the prophets are not specifically linked to Sinai, further reinforces the prophetic conception of torah outlined in Charles’s “Law” essay.

These represent (and I am excluding here Bullock’s article) the highest quality material one is likely to find in this or any comparable Bible dictionary. I truly hope there is more where this came from!