Ron Hendel on Text Criticism, Original Texts, and the Oxford Hebrew Bible

Hebrew Bible Polyglot:

Ron Hendel has made available the most recent volume of Hebrew Bible and Ancient Israel which includes his article, The Oxford Hebrew Bible: Its Aims and a Response to Criticisms.” Those familiar with the OHB project are no doubt aware of the many substantive critiques (e.g., H. G. M. Williamson) of the project as originally laid out. Hendel responds, conceding some points and defending others.

I have a couple observations from reading the article, both positive and negative. Both of these concern the issue of an “original” text. First, I note that Hendel puts appropriate emphasis on the “purely theoretical” nature of the enterprise (69).

The original is a chimera, a purely abstract goal, which can never be fully achieved, and we cannot know the extent to which we have achieved it (85). 

Practically, this means Hendel is willing to follow the critiques of those who say we must “give up” the idea of an original text (e.g., Brooke, G. J. “The Qumran Scrolls and the Demise of the Distinction Between Higher and Lower Criticism.” In New Directions in Qumran Studies: Proceedings of the Bristol Colloquium on the Dead Sea Scrolls, 8-10 September 2003, edited by J. G. Campbell, W. J. Lyons, and L. Pietersen, 26–42. LSTS 52. London: T & T Clark, 2005). Theoretically, Hendel still embraces the idea.

Second, Hendel continues to perpetuate a problem I see with Tov’s discussion of the original text which is similar to Hendel’s “archetype.” With Tov, the original status of a text is two-fold. At times, it is something achieved in the past. A scribe would have been aware that their text was “original” or copied from an “original.” At other times, it is something achieved in the present, always subject to change when new text forms require an “earlier” text that can account for all available evidence. Genetically, we can compare these two alternatives to the difference between a historical Adam and Eve on the one hand, and Y-Chromosomal Adam and Mitochondrial Eve on the other. 

In his introduction to the project, Hendel articulates his interest in the “earliest inferable textual state.” He remains committed to that idea, but he describes it in this new article as the “latest common ancestor.” (If we were using the language of science, we would speak of “the most recent common ancestor.”) This indicates that he, more so in my opinion than Tov, understands the archetype/original(Tov) as an accident of history like Y-Chomosomal Adam and Mitochondrial Eve. And yet, when he describes his goal “to come closer to the original literary composition of a book,” he is implying an original model that corresponds more to a historical Adam and Eve, a text that acheives its “original” status in history. (Tov’s perspective is biased toward this model, though he too vacillates.)

Hendel’s response makes me feel better about the OHB project, especially considering the positive response to some of the criticism it received. And yet, I remain unconvinced that Tov and Hendel have successfully responded to critiques against an original text or who have blurred the lines between textual and literary criticism.

The Temptations of Latin

One of the most penetrating book reviews I have ever read is James Kugel’s review of Michael Fishbane’s Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel. I could wax eloquent the virtues of this review, but let me for now draw attention to one particular item of interest.

In Biblical Interpretation, Fishbane uses terms borrowed from Douglas Knight’s Rediscovering the Traditions of Israel to describe the relationships between texts and their subsequent interpretations. In Knight’s work, tradition is composed of two aspects: the traditio signifies “the process (in its totality and in its details) whereby traditional material is passed from one generation to the next;” the traditum signifies “the traditional material itself that is being transmitted” (5). Fishbane conceives of innerbiblical exegesis as a literary continuation of a primarily oral understanding of the tradition-historical process. The traditium becomes the “(increasingly) authoritative teachings or traditions whose religious-cultural significance is vital (and increasingly fundamental)” while the the traditio focuses on “the concern to preserve, render contemporary, or otherwise reinterpret these teachings or traditions in explicit ways for new times and new circumstances” (8).

Kugel remarks, “Now this little bit of naming, although it might seem rather trivial at first, begins to loom a bit larger as Fishbane’s references to traditum and traditio, . . . pass from the dozens into the hundreds and (who knows?) perhaps the thousands as his study rolls on” (273). One can sense Kugel finds this “little bit of naming” somewhat taxing. This subjective dissatisfaction is followed by a more objective critique. Kugel draws attention to the fact that neither Knight nor Fishbane have used Latin terms that sufficiently distinguish themselves from one another—they do not exclusively signify the distinct concepts for which they are employed. If this were not enough, Kugel goes on to highlight how Fishbane uses the two terms in ways at odds with how he has already defined them. Essentially, traditum functions as the anterior text and the traditio functions as the posterior or interpreting text. Kugel suggests “Fishbane would have done better, I think (as future studies will do better), to forego the temptations of Latin and say a little more specifically what he means in each case” (274).

I think Kugel’s suggestion for future studies is sound. The temptations of Latin are too infrequently virtuous to be a reliable tool for academic writing, much less Stylish Academic Writing. I don’t mean to suggest that one cannot use Latin (German, French, etc.) responsibly, just that most do not. In his footnote to the previous quote, I think Kugel drives the observation home in a most poignant manner.

It is to be remarked that, quite apart from this particular issue, Fishbane does have a weakness for foreign words and phrases, and not only in Latin. Readers of scholarly books ought no doubt to be indulgent in this regard; yet one cannot but occasionally wonder if Fishbane’s saying indicia instead “clues,” au fond instead of “at bottom,” Wiederaufnahme instead of “resumption,” legenda instead of “legends” (sic), Rechtspraxis instead of “legal practice,” ab origine for “from the beginning” (i.e., ab initio?), responsum for “answer,” per definitionem for “by definition,” Umwelt for “environment,” animadversiones for “observations” etc. etc. does not more serve some obscure need in the author’s own psyche than the causes of clarity and precision.

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.

Is “Myth” in the Bible an Affront or an Affirmation?

Use the language of “myth” when describing certain parts of the Bible (e.g., Genesis 1-11) and you are sure to upset many Christians. Creation and flood narratives provide the foundation for the worldview of many sincere believers today. They struggle to see this language as anything but an affront to their cherished beliefs. No doubt many would prefer this language applied to evolutionary biology. But notice what happens when Michael Pollan does this very thing in his recently released book, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation:

Like any such theory–indeed, like evolution itself–the cooking hypothesis is not subject to absolute scientific proof. For that reason, some will no doubt dismiss it as another ‘just so’ story, Prometheus in modern scientific garb. But, really, how much more can we expect when trying to account for something like the advent of ourselves? What the cooking hypothesis gives us is a compelling modern myth–one cast in the language of evolutionary biology rather than religion–locating the origins of our species in the discovery of cooking with fire. To call it a myth is not to belittle it. Like any other such story, it serves to explain how what is came to be using the most powerful vocabulary available, which in our case today happens to be that of evolutionary biology. What is striking in this instance is that classical mythology and modern evolutionary theory both gazed into the flames of the cook fire and found there the same thing: the origins of our humanity. Perhaps that coincidence is all the confirmation we can hope for. (p 62)

And perhaps Christians should not feel so afraid of seeing this language applied also to certain biblical texts. Far from an affront to sacred Scripture, this could prove to be one of the more affirming claims made on its behalf.

More on Michael Pollan’s important book:

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.




Don’t Write *that* Dissertation!

Ferdinand de Saussure

Don’t write that dissertation. You know the one. The dissertation sounds relevant because it employs theoretical terminology, even if it is little informed by the dense literature on Theory.

This is one of the points of advice in Tara Brabazon’s Times Higher Education Article, “How not to write a PhD thesis,”

5. Use discourse, ideology, signifier, signified, interpellation, postmodernism, structuralism, post-structuralism or deconstruction without reading the complete works of Foucault, Althusser, Saussure, Baudrillard or Derrida

How to upset an examiner in under 60 seconds: throw basic semiotic phrases into a sentence as if they are punctuation. Often this problem emerges in theses where “semiotics” is cited as a/the method. When a student uses words such as “discourse” and “ideology” as if they were neutral nouns, it is often a signal for the start of a pantomime of naivety throughout the script. Instead of an “analysis”, postgraduates describe their work as “deconstruction”. It is not deconstruction. They describe their approach as “structuralist”. It is not structuralist. Simply because they study structures does not mean it is structuralist. Conversely, simply because they do not study structures does not mean it is poststructuralist.

The number of students who fling names around as if they are fashion labels (“Dior”, “Derrida”, “Givenchy”, “Gramsci”) is becoming a problem. I also feel sorry for the students who are attempting a deep engagement with these theorists.

I am working with a postgraduate at the moment who has spent three months mapping Michel Foucault’s Archaeology of Knowledge over media-policy theories of self-regulation. It has been frustrating and tough, creating – at this stage – only six pages of work from her efforts. Every week, I see the perspiration on the page and the strain in the footnotes. If a student is not prepared to undertake this scale of effort, they must edit the thesis and remove all these words. They leave themselves vulnerable to an examiner who knows their ideological state apparatuses from their repressive state apparatuses.

I’m currently in the dissertation writing stage of my degree, writing about the ways in which the term “intertextuality” gets appropriated in biblical studies. The impetus for the project arises from this very thing. People desire to use terminology that sounds very trendy and academic, intertextuality hardly being the exception. But their work poorly reflects the theory behind this language. 

With this in mind, let me leave you with two suggestions from the introduction of my project: 

  1. That intertextuality, if it has anything to contribute to biblical studies, should bring about a change in our understanding of the biblical text emerged as the first and remains the most fundamental test of any intertextual study. 
  2. Where scholars can establish their theses without reference to the concept of intertextuality—either by means of other concepts or through more traditional terminology—the presence of intertextuality is a (strictly authorial) convenience that does not change our understanding of the biblical text.