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Surpassing Wonder: The Invention of the Bible and the Talmuds

Surpassing Wonder: The Invention of the Bible and the Talmuds

by Donald Harman Akenson, Akenson

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Elegant and inventive, Surpassing Wonder uncovers how the ancient Hebrew scriptures, the Christian New Testament, and the Talmuds of the Rabbis are related and how, collectively, they make up the core of Western consciousness. Donald Harman Akenson provides an incisive critique of how religious scholars have distorted the holy books and argues that it was


Elegant and inventive, Surpassing Wonder uncovers how the ancient Hebrew scriptures, the Christian New Testament, and the Talmuds of the Rabbis are related and how, collectively, they make up the core of Western consciousness. Donald Harman Akenson provides an incisive critique of how religious scholars have distorted the holy books and argues that it was actually the inventor of the Hebrew scriptures who shaped our concept of narrative history—thereby founding Western culture.

Editorial Reviews

Washington Times
"Even in an era of...adventurous and ambitious Biblical scholarship...Donald Harman Akenson's Surpassing Wonder stands out for its daring self-confidence and ambition. Here is an attempt to digest all the major Biblical scholarship of the past century on the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures to produce a state-of-the-art work tracing the evolution of both early Christianity and Rabbinic Christianity from the earlier, Temple-centered Jewish faith - which Mr. Akenson terms 'Judah-ism' which was its founding matrix, or, to use his attractive conceit, 'Siloam's Teeming Pool.' For the ordinary reader, this book is the most thorough, the most open-minded and easily the most lively-written introduction to the field of Biblical scholarship yet penned."
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Akenson describes his book as a long love letter to the Tanakh, the "New Testament" and the Talmuds. Akenson focuses his study on the formation of four sets of texts that lie behind rabbinic Judaism and Christianity. He argues that the first nine books of Hebrew scripture (Genesis through Kings) are a unified invention in the form of historical writing, the product of a single great mind, gifted at once as an editor and a writer, working between the beginning of the Babylonian exile (598 B.C.) and the return to the Holy Land (550 B.C.). The books of the Bible from Genesis through Kings, Akenson contends, are the foundation upon which both Christianity and modern Judaism are built. He proceeds to examine the creative ferment out of which the "New Testament" and the Talmuds developed in the early decades of the first century A.D. The "New Testament," he contends, is a reinvention of Tanakh in which the books from Matthew to Acts are to Christian scripture what Genesis-Kings is to Hebrew scripture. In Akenson's view, modern Judaism abandons the historical narrative characteristic of Tanakh in favor of a legal document, the Mishnah, which is gradually tempered by narrative in the Babylonian Talmud. Akenson's passion for the texts translates into an eloquent plea to appreciate them as organic wholes rather than to dissect them with progressively sharper scholarly scalpels. Along with the study of texts, Akenson offers a running critical commentary on modern biblical scholarship, as well as an extended discussion of the transformation of anti-Judaism into anti-Semitism. Patient readers will be rewarded with a deeper understanding of the common textual roots of Christianity and modern Judaism. (Oct.)
Library Journal
This is a historian's refreshing account of the "invention" of three scriptures and the subsequent flowering of the religions that emerged from them. Differing from creation de novo, "invention," in Akenson's sense, collates and edits pre-existing materials and unifies them under a new, overarching scheme. Thus, the Judahite ("Old Testament") scripture was invented during the Babylonian Captivity (597-538 B.C.E.) by Judean exiles who hoped to rebuild the Jerusalem Temple as God's dwelling among men. Judeans followed their Temple-oriented faith until the Romans destroyed both temple and faith in 70 C.E. Two new faiths deriving from Judahism, namely Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism, perforce posited a new and immaterial temple where God dwelt--the human heart. In spite of its difficult subject matter, this book is a pleasure to read. Akenson (history, Queen's Univ.; research, Univ. of Liverpool) enjoys his study and shows it in lively prose. Recommended for both academic and public libraries with special interest in religion and history.--James F. DeRoche, Alexandria, VA
New York Times Book Review
"Calling the Bible and Talmud 'inventions' may sound like fighting words to a religiously sensitive audience, but here the word 'invention' is a belief-neutral description of the processes that created the Jewish and Christian foundational classics (the Hebrew Bible, the Jewish literature of the Second Temple period, the New Testament, the Mishna and the Talmuds). In Surpassing Wonder, Donald Harman Akenson, a professor of Irish history, adopts a Great Books approach to Jewish and Christian history, viewing it not as 'a chronicle of successive texts, their constant invention and reinvention.' With an imaginative use of metaphors, analogies, persuasive rhetoric and praise, he pleads with all to read these religious classics seriously, whether they grant them spiritual authority or not, because, precisely as splendid intellectual and spiritual 'inventions,' they have fascinated readers for generations and profoundly shaped Western civilization. "Akenson's interpretation of these classics if a promising start for anyone. He encourages serious, holistic reading by word and example. Religious believers may be enriched by the exposition of the 'surpassing wonder' of these human inventions, even if dissatisfied by the bracketing of some tenets of their respective faiths. Cultural critics may find an entree into more mature conversation with some texts that live on in our culture. Most important, this book will guide and stimulate ordinary readers to read on." -- The New York Times Book Review, December 13, 1998
Kirkus Reviews
Venturing as an amateur into biblical and Judaic studies, historian Akenson (Queen's University, Ontario) constructs a brilliant integrative theory of continuities and parallels between Hebrew scripture, the New Testament, and rabbinic Judaism. Within today's complex world of biblical interpretation, Akenson's book falls under the rubric of canonical criticism: the extrapolation of meanings and intents from the final (canonical) forms sacred scriptures assumed. By his own terms for his project, to uncover "the grammar of biblical invention", Akenson means to highlight both his theological neutrality on the issue of divine biblical inspiration and his awe-filled regard for the genius of the Jewish and Christian "inventors": the author/editors who shaped the disparate materials they received, both oral and written, into literary masterpieces that met historically conditioned spiritual needs. The central need in question, according to Akenson, was to replace the temple of Jerusalem, destroyed first by the Babylonians in 587 B.C., and then again by the Romans in 70 A.D., with texts whose ideas could substitute for the temple-based ritual sacrifices. Temple-substitution is the common template over which Akenson lays Hebrew scripture, the New Testament, and the rabbinic literature, with startling and provocative results. The Torah, or first five books of Moses, traditionally most revered by Jews, becomes a relatively late, politically motivated extract out of a prior unit of nine books (Genesis through Kings, in the Hebrew Bible); the physically resurrected Christ becomes a biblically ungrammatical aberrancy; and rabbininc Judaism emerges as the younger sibling of Christianity. Theintellectual shocks are hugely instructive (St. Paul conceived in relation to the gospels as the Mishnah to the Talmud), entertaining (Ecclesiastes as "camped-up staginess"), and conciliatory, for ultimately, Akenson hopes to reinvigorate Jewish-Christian dialogue with shared wonder over the literary ploys of genial scriptural redactors working common themes to opposite effect. Akenson successfully reproduces, in microcosm, an ancient world of scriptural ideas that he rightly calls "one of the greatest intellectual air shows ever conducted."

From the Publisher

"Akenson's interpretation of these classics is a promising start for anyone. He encourages serious, holistic reading by word and example. Religious believers may be enriched by the exposition of the 'surpassing wonder' of these human inventions, even if dissatisfied by the bracketing of some tenets of their respective faiths. Cultural critics may find an entree into a more mature conversation with some texts that live on in our culture. Most important, this book will guide and stimulate ordinary readers to read on." Anthony J. Saldarini in The New York Times "Even though something on the order of a million books have already been written about the Bible, Surpassing Wonder is in no way redundant. Its central arguments are powerful and unusual, and its ample endnotes and appendices alone are worth the cover price: They provide a succinct overview of just about everything anyone needs to know to pursue serious self-education in the subjects it treats, including a knockout critique of Northrop Frye's The Great Code." T.F. Rigelhoff in The Globe and Mail.

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Chapter One

Apparent Woe and Great Invention


SOMETIME IN THE MIDDLE OF THE SIXTH CENTURY BCE -- THE YEAR 550 will do as a rough marker -- the greatest religious genius whose name the world has never known, surveyed a desert. He was the son of the "diaspora," the offspring of one of the minority of Judaeans who had been forcibly removed from central Palestine by the Babylonians forty to fifty years earlier. He was of a priestly family. His father, now dead, had sired him when he was himself full of years. Trained from his earliest days to be a religious savant, the young man had become the hope not only of his own family, but of an entire phalanx of ageing priests, and, now, their children, who banded together in the city of Babylon on the river Euphrates. The older men, those who had known his father, schooled him as deeply as they could, but they recognized that even as a youth, he had an inner vision, a way of listening, and then of recasting what he heard which set him apart from the merely clever, the students who could memorize and could argue, but who rarely could understand. As he entered his twenties, increasingly the older men brought him with them, when they walked together along the banks of the Euphrates. There, alone with the grief that only those who had known the service of Yahweh in the temple of King Solomon could fully grasp, they wept, as they remembered Zion.

    The preceding description is an historical model, presented through the device of personification. It will become clear as the argument unfolds why this model -- this bundle of hypotheses-- is an appropriate one in the present state of our knowledge of biblical texts and, indeed, that it has the virtue of being parsimonious, an unusual characteristic in this particular area.

    To return. The desert our young man, now thirty, surveyed was not physical. Although later chroniclers were to dramatize the physical and social dimensions of the "Babylonian captivity," it was not by standards of the Ancient Near East (or, even, the standards of the twentieth century), a particularly nasty conquest. Only a minority, at most 10 to 20 percent of the population, actually was sent into exile. The "poorest sort of the people of the land" were left behind (II Kings 24:14) to be farmers and to tend the vineyards. Their life in a war-levelled land must have been bleak, the more so because the skilled artisans such as carpenters and blacksmiths, who could have rebuilt the city, were taken away (Jer. 24:1). But it was moderated by the Babylonian official who was in charge of the former kingdom of Judah giving to the poor land and vineyards, probably an indication that some of the lands of the exiled elite were redistributed to the poor (Jer. 39:10). No new national or ethnic group was introduced into Judea. It was not colonized in any formal sense, but rather was a tiny, poor satrapy.

    The key to understanding the Babylonian captivity is to see it from the vantage point of Babylonian realpolitik. The standard Babylonian practice was to strip conquered territories of their political and religious elites. This removed most of the potential troublemakers, the local leaders, but there was more: the very top men in the conquered societies were brought to the capital and were treated well, while they were indoctrinated in Babylonian learning, which in some areas, such as astronomy, was prodigious. Thus, King Jehoiachin, who had been on the throne of Judah in 597, was taken with his family to Babylon and treated well. He was still alive in 562 when Nebuchadnezzar died, and members of his family took a leading role not only in the exile community in Babylon, but also in Judah after the exile ended. Admittedly, King Jehoiachin's successor, and the last of King David's line, the puppet King Zedekiah, 597-586/7, was treated horribly. His sons were killed before his eyes and then he was blinded and incarcerated until he died (Jer. 52: 10-11). This, however, was not routine policy. Zedekiah was punished because he had taken an oath of loyalty to the Babylonian king and had broken it by treating with the Egyptians. (Ezekiel 17:11-24 interprets this as Yahweh's punishment for breaking of a solemn oath.) That was unusual, however. For the most part, the Babylonians treated the deported elites well, and probably used many of them, those who were not artisans, as what would today be called middle-level civil servants.

    Below the level of royalty, the displaced Judaeans were not treated badly. They were given religious toleration and were not dispersed. In addition to those who lived in Babylon proper (located in what is today the suburbs of Baghdad), another concentration of diaspora Judaeans lived in "Tel Aviv," an ancient Babylonian location of some debate, and not to be confused with the modern city of that name. There they may have been engaged in reclaiming land, a form of manual labour which must have been painful to a soft-handed elite. The key, however, is that even there the Babylonians permitted sufficient concentrations of Judaeans to coalesce, to preserve their language, and their literary and religious traditions.

    The Babylonian exiles were very conscious that they were an elite, the keepers of the nation's heritage. Yet, there was the constant danger that the "remnant" in the old homeland would eventually get above itself and take over the national patrimony, or that any other section of Judaeans, now living abroad, would seize leadership of the diaspora. The "Egyptians" were a constant worry. The Babylonian exiles' concern about their own position is clearly seen in Jeremiah (24:1-10) where an unambiguous metaphor compares the exiles with the remnant left in the land of Judah. In this vision of Jeremiah, two baskets of figs are placed before Yahweh, this occurring after the exile. One basket has very good figs, ripe; the other has figs so bad as to be inedible. The good figs were the captives of Judah who were now in exile; the evil figs were the "residue of Jerusalem, that remain in this land, and them that dwell in the land of Egypt." Ultimately, Yahweh judged one set to be evil. The other was good. These were the Babylonian exiles, and they would re-inherit Jerusalem, Yahweh promised (Jer. 24:8-10).

    So the desert that the young man of the Babylonian exile saw was not one of physical oppression, but of spiritual apprehension. He and his fellow legatees of Judah's religious aristocracy were sick to their very marrow with fear, longing, and loss. Their fears were that neither they nor their children, nor their children's children, would again see Jerusalem. Or, worse, that when they did finally see the holy mountain it would be too late: others, the stay-behind remnant of callus-handed, thick-necked peasantry would have grabbed control of the holy sites and of the ritual offices. Or perhaps it would be the untrustworthy "Egyptians," Judaeans who lived in Upper Egypt and were now beginning to lose Hebrew as their first language, and who might arrive first in Jerusalem, and seize control of religious life. These apprehensions, while having within them certain carnal aspects (no one likes to lose power, prestige, or money), were fundamentally spiritual, as were the longings of the religious leaders of the exile. A longing for God is not like any other.

    But why could not the exiled Babylonian priests get in touch with Yahweh? Was he not everywhere? Yes, but he denied them access, save through the fleeting visions of the prophets.

    They could not deal with him, because, under the covenant, he could be directly approached only one way: through an idol.

    And now that idol was broken, so fragmented that it floated as dust across the desert.

    This fact is what the young religious genius understood, and to understand that man's genius, we must break through the subsequent belief (one that has been normative for at least the last 1,500 years) that the Chosen People had no idols. They did, but they did not denominate them as such. While denouncing the iconic idols of their neighbours, the Chosen People produced an aniconic idol whose dimensions exceeded those of almost any religious artifact in ancient history: the Temple of Solomon. Just as Yahweh could be limned only in the covenant, so the covenant could be touched only in the Temple. There, in the Holy of Holies, in the tabernacle in which the earliest Israelites had travelled with their god in the Ark of the Covenant, Yahweh was physically present (see Exodus 29:42, 33:9). There one killed all manner of beasts, their blood being a direct offering to him. By an easy act of association, one did not merely worship in the Temple. One worshipped the Temple. This form of aniconic idol is not as unusual as one might think. What is unusual is the direct denial of its function. But, as we shall see, such denial of reality was one of the ways in which the ancient Hebrews and their heirs transcendent, by-passed reality.

    Surveying this spiritual wasteland, the young scholar -- he would in later times have been called a saint, a great rabbi, a sage -- made one of those leaps of faith and of human will that bend forever time's arrow in a certain direction. His decision: that he -- and if they would help him, the surviving elders from pre-exile days, and their sons, his contemporaries -- would gather up the most important things that could be known of the history and worship of his people and place it in one set of scrolls. Some things, such as the writings (or transcriptions) of the early prophets (the "Major Prophets"), already were in circulation in partial form. But other items, and these the most central to the nation's history, were in fragments. Several versions of some events were about while other, crucial matters were still only told in story form, passed from one bearded ancient to another.

    To essay such a task was heroic, to complete it divine. The hardest thing for a present-day observer to comprehend is the level of faith required. We have the knowledge that the Temple eventually was rebuilt, the idol repaired, the sacrifices reinstituted, the covenant again physically honoured, and thereby reaffirmed. However, the young man had no such foreknowledge. He was proceeding, with the same kind of faith that is ascribed to Moses, to lead the people spiritually, yet, unlike Moses, to some destination that he knew not. In collecting the central traditions of the Chosen People, in editing them so that they fit together rather better than they otherwise would, in writing down ancient oral tales and fitting them into his text, and in adding touches of his own, the young man was inventing a great religion. This is not the same as creating one; inventions are made by the imaginative recombination of pieces that are lying around a culture's workshop, with the addition of the occasional newly-machined part. This was invention, not creation.

    The only way the young man could tie everything together was by writing history. He had no choice, because that was the way his culture and his religion worked. The fragments and stories he had to work with all were historical in nature. It may sound tautological to suggest that he wrote historically, because that was the way his culture had taught him to think, but that is the case nonetheless.

    The history he wrote, this great invention, was intended, I think, to correct the recent past. That is, if one believes that Yahweh, the god of the covenant, works in human historical events (as clearly our young man did), then the only way to figure out where and why recent events had gone so terribly wrong, was to put them in the long perspective of the Chosen People's entire relationship with Yahweh. The first step to rehabilitating a pathological present was to lay down historical tram lines, parallel, straight, long, and true.

    Beyond that, his faith, I think, held out to him two hopes. One of these was that in writing down in great detail the characteristics of the Temple (parts of the Book of Kings read like the transcription of an architectural seminar), and the ways in which ritual worship had been conducted in the past (the Book of Leviticus is almost a drill-manual for priests), he was providing the blueprint for a restoration of what he believed to be the central aspects of the religion of the Chosen People. In other words, a detailed record of the past was to serve as a detailed blueprint for the future.

    If that failed -- if the Temple was never rebuilt, or if the priestly caste never made it back to Jerusalem, and they were usurped either by the "Egyptians" or by the ill-educated and instinctively-apostate peasantry who had remained in the land -- the young man had another hope. This was that the scrolls he put together, with their story of the nation's history and with their definitions of the true form of Temple worship, would themselves become the Temple. It is not such a great step from worshipping an aniconic idol to worshipping an invisible one. If the faithful among the Chosen People could not be a people of the Temple, they could become the people of the Temple's book.

    Before his hair had turned gray or his eyes dimmed, the young man had collected, with the help of his allies, young and old, the traditions and manuscripts of his people and turned them into nine scrolls, which became the first nine books of the Hebrew Bible (the Christian "Old Testament" has things out of sequence at this point); Ruth belongs later: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel (broken in early medieval times into two separate volumes) and Kings (also broken into two in the early medieval era). These nine books are a unity. They take the story of the covenant -- the interaction of Yahweh and the Chosen People -- from the creation of the earth down to the 560s BCE, when after thirty years as a prisoner in the equivalent of a gilded cage in Babylon, Jehoiachin, former King of Judah was set free. The Book of Kings ends with marvellous ambiguity. Jehoiachin, released, is set upon a throne by his Babylonian host, and it is a higher throne than that of the other conquered kings who are with him. And he was given a daily allowance of food for the rest of his life (II Kings 25:28-30). That is an end to an historical chronicle written by someone who had hope, but who had no idea of what the next chapter of the Chosen People's history would contain.


In suggesting that the first nine books of the Hebrew Bible are a unity and that they are best modelled as being the invention of a single great exilic mind, a mixture of national religious curator, seer, historian, priest (however much help he may have had from his confreres, and, however much small details of his work may have been tinkered with by later Pecksniffian minds), I am sailing broadside to several currents of scholarship. One of these is the largely unconscious but pervasive, almost instinctual, belief in modern biblical studies that authors and editors are separate categories of human beings. That is to say: the creative and the conservative do not meet in the same person. The sub-field of biblical scholarship that deals with "textual criticism," has been imprinted very strongly by people who tend to see the world as being a place where rational and non-rational forms of knowledge are sharply distinguished. In their work this has meant that hypotheses about the development of the scriptures separate very sharply writing and editing: different functions, therefore different people. This, I think, is unnecessary (and therefore by the basic test of Ockham's Razor, to be discarded) and in fact flies in the face of the single most manifest quality of the first nine books of the Hebrew scriptures: they are the work of a genius, in both the editing of old material and the inclusion of new. (Most literate North Americans will have less difficulty than the specialists in accepting this viewpoint, as they are acquainted with the career of the African-American genius, Toni Morrison. Not only did she serve for decades as one of the most active and influential of American literary editors, but for her own work received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1993.) So, we use interchangeably the terms writer-editor, author-editor, and editor-writer, editor-author: it was all a single activity, both integrative and inventive.

    Here, the word "invention" is used for the product of the great and nimble mind that produced the first nine books of the Hebrew Bible. Inventors do not create, for creation is to make something where there was nothing. Inventors use what is to hand, and then they add something of their own genius, whether it is new ways of recombining old elements, or tiny little improvements in existing parts so that what otherwise would not work does; or they take out their tools and make a part of new design and suddenly everything works. And the really good ones do so with marvellous efficiency and little flash. One thinks with admiration of the medieval inventor who first whittled from a piece of oak the eccentric cam, and attached it to the rim of a wagon wheel, thereby permitting the translation of rotary motion to linear force; on that elegant simplicity hangs all modern mechanical transportation.

    Between the very good inventors and the few really great ones, there is a line: the truly great ones instinctively and fully collaborate with their users. There is nothing more useless than a physical invention that is ahead of its time or a cultural invention that is ahead of its audience. (The sadly risible nineteenth-century Frenchman who invented a perfectly workable facsimile machine comes to mind.) If ever there was a case of successful collaboration between inventor and audience, it is the first nine books of the Hebrew Bible. Not only were they embraced by their exilic audience, they were carried, eventually, back to the city of Jerusalem where they became the reference point for the establishment of a spiritual world. One cannot read these nine books of history without entering into their world, arguing with them, interrogating them for hidden meanings. Genesis through Kings: a truly great invention.

    Another place where the idea of the first nine books of the Hebrew Bible's being a unity clashes with modern scholarship is that few of the most influential scholars see it as such -- although the idea is gaining credence quite quickly -- and that is no small problem. Here an aside is required. My view of Genesis through Kings as being a unified entity, seems on the surface to conflict with traditional Jewish scholarship, which emphasizes the first five books, the Books of Moses, as the primary unit, the one on which everything else is built. Here the problem is only apparent, for although traditional Judaism privileges the Pentateuch, and has done so since well before the Common Era, it has held equally firmly to the view that the Books of Moses and the first half of the Nevi'm -- Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings ("the Former Prophets") -- together form a larger unity that is the primary reference for the history of the Chosen People from Creation into the period of the Babylonian exile. It is distinct from the "Latter Prophets" consisting of Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel (the "Major Prophets") and the twelve books ascribed to the "Minor Prophets." This takes us back to my position, that Genesis through Kings form a single united entity. That leaves for later two very interesting historical questions: why, given their belief that the corpus of sacred literature we have been discussing was part of a larger entity, did the early "Orthodox" interpreters break out the first five books for special treatment? and when did they do this?

    The problem with modern scholarship is greater, and more difficult to define, for the scholars fight among themselves, like an ever-shifting pack of feral canines, and it is hard to focus clearly on the myriad issues involved. Fundamentally, however, two major viewpoints among non-Orthodox scholars concerning the first nine books of the Hebrew Bible have dominated the second half of the twentieth century. The first of these stems from a brilliantly succinct essay of Gerard von Rad's Das formgeschichtliche Problem des Hexateuchs of 1938. In it, von Rad bypassed the smaller issues of textual scholarship (although he was impressively skilled in those areas), and argued that certain books of the Hebrew Bible were a unity, and that this could be demonstrated on the basis of their ideological oneness. This unity was independent of what the original sources of the material were. He called the books so united the "Hexateuch" and they consisted of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy and -- this was crucial -- Joshua. The unity that he perceived was a balance of centripetal and centrifugal forces. In the centre, the pivot of his interpretation, was a "creed" which comprises Chapter 26 of the Book of Deuteronomy. But it is not a creed in the modern sense of being a theological statement. Instead, it is a statement of beliefs about Israel in history: God created the world and chose the people of Israel as his own, brought them out of Egypt, led them to freedom and eventually to settlement in the promised land. Around that hub of historical belief pivots all the narrative of Genesis-through-Joshua. The basic historical creed tethers the story of the Chosen People, like the radius of a circle, and as the narrative line races around the circumference of the circle, it has redundancies and repetitions (that is what one would expect in a story that circles on a fixed radius) yet the integrity of the narrative is undivided. But none of this works if one stops at the end of the Book of Deuteronomy, for the narrative effectively concludes with the heartbreaking vision of Moses, taken to Mount Nebo, just on the east side of the Jordan River, where he looks into the promised land, and then, this vision granted, dies. If, as von Rad argues, the fundamental historical creed includes the settling of the people in the new land, then the Book of Joshua has to be part of the circle of narrative that the historical creed defined. Hence, the Hexateuch is a unity. This I find both compelling and convincing.

    Equally, I find convincing (if less elegantly argued) the other dominant opinion of the second half of the twentieth century, that of Martin Noth, articulated in Uberlieferungsgeschichtiche Studien of 1943. Noth's argument runs as follows: (I) that although the sources that underlie Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers run into the Book of Deuteronomy (2) there begins with the first verse of Deuteronomy a separate literary unit, one that continues to the end of Kings. This unit -- Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings -- was compiled by a single writer, Noth believed, whom he called "the Deuteronomist." Later scholars have tended to see several cooperating hands, rather than a single one on the scribal scroll, but the fundamental point of Noth's argument about the unity of the "Deuteronomistic history" has carried the day. This has obvious implications for the consideration of the Books of Moses. "At the end of Numbers there is a deep incision," Noth noted. "For with Deut. 1:1 there begins the deuteronomistic historical work which fundamentally has nothing to do with the Pentateuch and became attached to it from the literary point of view only later ..."

    Thus, the two dominant approaches to the fundamental books of the Hebrew scriptures have only one thing in common: they reject the idea that the Pentateuch (the five Books of Moses) are the basic unit. Gerard von Rad's approach gives one a Hexateuch (Genesis through Joshua) and then the rest of the Former Prophets (Judges, Samuel and Kings) as separate entities. Martin Noth's approach provides us with a "Tetrateuch" (that is, Genesis through Numbers) and a deuteronomistic history that runs from Deuteronomy through Kings. Clearly, the problem is with the Book of Deuteronomy, for the two leading textual scholars of their generation read it quite differently. Yet, I think each is correct.

    If it is true (as von Rad argues) that the Book of Deuteronomy is demonstrably part of a unified entity that includes all of the Pentateuch and also the book of Joshua; and if it is also the case, as Martin Noth demonstrates, that the Book of Deuteronomy is part of a unified entity that includes the last book of the Pentateuch and all of the Former Prophets, then a reasonable suggestion is that, in fact, we are here dealing with a single historical narrative, the product of a single coherent viewpoint, that runs throughout the first nine books of the Hebrew Bible.

    In suggesting this, I am not being opportunistic. My own views of the unity of the first nine books are developed independently of the semi-syllogism given above. Frankly, I cannot see how any other hypothesis could be the first line of investigation: one has a coherent story, from creation down almost to the time of post-exilic writing and compilation, and one has a motive for the writing and editing to be done. That may be simple to state, but in historical explanations, as in mathematics, simplicity is elegance, and elegance is strength.

    Acceptance of the unity of the first nine books of the Hebrew Bible, as the invention of a single religious genius (however much he may have been helped by colleagues), is dependent upon an understanding of the wonderful flexibility of the Book of Deuteronomy. It is not one thing -- either the tie-up of the pre-history of the ancient Hebrews, or the beginning of what, in the context of the times, was the nation's "modern history" -- it is both. The editor-cum-author here knew exactly what he was doing. The Book of Deuteronomy is a strong spine with two mighty arms. That spine and those arms can support, on the one hand the first four Books of Moses, and on the other the four "Former Prophets" (Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings). There is a symmetry here that is immensely skilful. The four books on each hand balance each other; and each set of four becomes a set of five because they are thematically and historically integrated with the central volume, Deuteronomy. By using the Book of Deuteronomy in this dual role, the editor-author -- the inventor -- was carving in his own way two sets of five tablets. He, the most self-aware of historians, knew full well that he was invoking here the image of the two sets of five laws brought down by Moses from the mountain in the establishment of the Sinai covenant. The use of this image speaks well of the good sense of the inventor: he did not risk Yahweh's wrath for vain-glory by carving out ten scrolls, and thus making himself equal with Moses. But, his nine, presented in the manner he did, was very close, and close enough to tell us that he knew that he, like the Moses whom he depicts in his historical text, was creating a religion that was virtually new.

    By his recombination of existing elements and his own creative additions, he permanently replaced the religion of ancient Israel with a new one. This, because of its conceptual locus in the southern kingdom, focusing on Jerusalem, is best called "Judahism," and its followers "Judahists" or "Judahites." This is not a word trick. The new system of belief and practice has to be distinguished both from what came before it (of which, note, we have no direct knowledge, only light filtered through the writings of the Judahists). And, equally, it has to be distinguished from its successor, the great invention of the second through fifth centuries of the Common Era, "Judaism" whose followers we know as the "Jews." The difference here is not linguistic: all variants of "Jews," "Jewish," Judaism," "Judahism," trace their origins to the Hebrew word "Yehudah," referring to the tribe of Judah. The difference is historical and one of the primary rules of historical work is not to use one term for two distinct phenomena. The religion of Judah, based on Temple sacrifice to Yahweh, up to the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, is distinct historically from its descendent, the post-Temple faith, usually known as "Rabbinic Judaism."

    The first legacies of Judahism's unknown genius were fourfold. The writings that he collected from a hodge-podge of manuscripts, hand-me-down folk tales, and his own controlled creativity, remain among the most compelling historical and literary documents known to humanity. The direct rules that he preserved, modified, and promulgated, including those for priestly behaviour, maintained the Judahist faith intact (albeit with some internal strife) until 70 CE. The blueprints he provided for the re-creation of his beloved idol, the Temple, permitted its rebuilding, and there, until the year 70, the covenant between Yahweh and the Chosen People was daily confirmed. And, on a tactical level, the newly-codified story of the Chosen People, with its very strong Yahwist centre, was a tool by which heresies and "syncretistic" cults were defined, and then destroyed upon the return to Jerusalem of the exiled elite.

    One longs to know whether or not the great inventor ever saw Jerusalem. I think not, for he had to understand that the working of parallelism within his writings was not metaphorical only, but normative. He could not permit himself to enter the land of promise, even if he had the opportunity to do so, for what Moses, his consciously-defined predecessor had not done, he could not himself do. To be true to his god, he had to die on the far side of Jordan.


The great inventor was nothing if not respectful. He was as much a curator of old traditions as he was an editor, and he was more an editor than he was an author. His shaping of old stories may seem to modern eyes, almost too gentle, too respectful, for he preserves archaism and forms of words that few, if any, of his own generation fully understood. And he keeps in one long narrative duplicate versions of the same story, and these frequently do not entirely agree. (Compare, for example, Moses' extensive instructions concerning public worship in Exodus, chapters 25-31 and chapters 35-40.) But that is what historians do, even today: when their sources do not agree, they do not destroy one version and march blithely on with a false consonance. If two versions of a report are equally apposite, but incompatible with each other, the reader is not denied that knowledge. The more an historical account includes primary material, the more such dissonances are preserved.

    So, he collected stories, documents, bits of poetry, hymns, mnemonic litanies of dos and don'ts, rules for priestly ritual, and architectural details of votive structures. The final version of the inventor's great work contains plenty of clues as to how he worked. For instance, in Kings he several times cuts short what otherwise would be a long and tiresome discussion of some second-line king, with the query, are not the acts of King So-and-So "written in the book of the chronicles of the kings of Israel?" (for example II Kings 1:18; 15:26; 15:31; 15:36) or written in the "book of the chronicles of the kings of Judah?" (for example II Kings 15:36; 16:19; 20:20; 21:17; 21:25). He also refers to a volume known as the "book of the acts of Solomon" (I Kings 11:41). Clearly, he is referring to historical scrolls that he has to hand, and, further, these are not rare items. They must have been widely known within the religious elite, or he could not have referred to them with the easy confidence that his colleagues would be acquainted with them. Also, the great inventor (or perhaps one of his predecessors, for he was the final curator, editor and author of a mass of material that had been piling up for centuries), refers to some books of scripture that the ancient Israelites possessed, but which are now lost, seemingly forever. Thus in Numbers (21:14) there is a tantalizing reference to the Book of the Wars of Yahweh. In this case, our editor-author gives no hint that he has actually seen the book, and it may be that his reference is secondhand, encapsulated in an earlier scroll that he is using for part of his collection of ancient Israel's central traditions. But if so, even this is revealing: he has not tinkered with the text he has received, even if it leaves him, like us, yearning to see the original Book of the Wars of Yahweh. In a more familiar way, indicating that he has seen the original, the editor-author cites in the Book of Joshua (10:13) the contents of the Book of Jashar, which deals with Joshua's making' the sun and moon stand still so that the children of Israel could finish their slaughter of the Amorites unimpeded by nightfall.

    Part of the cultural and religious inheritance of the Chosen People was preserved orally: hymns, epic poems, short verse compositions that border on doggerel, folk tales, law cases, and, perhaps longer epics, items that came close to being sagas. The use of these items is not directly referred to in the Genesis-Kings scrolls, but it is fair to point out that transformation of oral information into written form went on well after the return to Jerusalem by the exiles. Witness here the clearest case, that of the Book of Esther which purports to give the origins for the festival of Purim. It is set entirely in post-return times (that is, after c.538 BCE) and is a folk tale of a fairly standard type: a vicious man is punished through the cunning of a virtuous woman. The Book of Esther probably was the last book to be admitted to the Hebrew canon, and is a good example of how oral material became scribally perpetuated. One could produce dozens of similar cases, if one instanced later material in the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha and the Dead Sea Scrolls. That is not necessary: the clear point is that anyone collecting and caring for the history of the Chosen People would have been aware of oral custom, and would have weighed the more important items for possible inclusion in the written word.

    All this is so obvious -- the great inventor was an historian, and how else do historians work, but by being the magpies of the intellectual world? Yet, the minute one mentions "sources," a great buzzing occurs, as if a nest of wasps were about to swarm. One has to ignore part of this swarm, the group with which there is no negotiation whatsoever: the Ultra-Orthodox Jews and their Christian counterparts, the more extreme evangelicals and their phalanx of Berserker Right outriders, the Christian fundamentalists, and especially the cadre known as "Dispensationalists." If one takes the view of various Haredi sects, the question of sources is irrelevant as they believe that the first five books of the Bible are not merely named the Books of Moses, but were actually written by his hand. That does away with any problem of sources, although it does leave the inconvenient issue of how, at the end of the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses was accurately able to report in the past tense the details of his own death. The other books of the Bible are held each to be a composition of a single person, their integrity being a function, in part, of each book's being integral to itself. No source problems, therefore. When one turns to the Christian equivalent of these beliefs, those of the keener evangelicals and fundamentalists, one finds that the source issue also disappears in this instance because of the belief in the "verbal inerrancy" of the scriptures. The Almighty dictated them to "holy men of old." (That this is roughly the same method of composition postulated for the Koran is not a point the Christian Right is disposed to dwell on.) Within the belief systems of many Orthodox and most evangelicals (and of all of the Ultra-Orthodox and a lot of the Christian Fundamentalists), to suggest, however tactfully one might do so, that the scriptures are a collection of pieces that originally were not found in their present packaging, is to invite instant denunciation. This is particularly difficult to deal with because the evangelicals, and most especially the "Dispensationalists," rearrange the Bible pretty much according to their own whim. The situation is well summarized by Jon Butler:

Then came the twin disasters of fundamentalism and dispensationalism. Fundamentalism heightened the developing antiintellectualism of evangelicalism by disguising complex, crude and controversial theological statements as literal interpretations of the Scriptures, a trend capped by the influential Scoffield Reference Bible (1909). Dispensationalism completed this canonization of Biblical mechanics by manipulating the arbitrary versification of the scriptures completed in the sixteenth century and turning the Old and New Testament into a kind of gigantic Christian puzzle, all parts interchangeable. Now, words and sentences could be manoeuvred to create and defend simplistic interpretative schemes from any angle, brushing aside the verses' original context while also rigidly classifying modern events with a few simple-minded categories.

This sort of thing cannot be fought, so it is best ignored.

    Considerably more amenable to rational discourse is the world of biblical "criticism." The word "criticism" is unfortunate, as it unfairly tars a set of scholars who, at their best, are serious appreciators of the text. In the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth, the "higher critics" (the people who worked on the big questions) were a distinct occupational category from the "lower critics" who did all the dog work of sorting out the hundreds of thousands of variant readings of the manuscripts. In fact, these are among the most impressive scholars one can encounter.) Today, that distinction has gone away, but the word "critic" still has ugly overtones, given that we are dealing with a text many people view as in some sense sacred. "Biblical scholars" will do, as the term carries no accusation of arrogance.


The first scholarly problem concerning the sources of the great invention, Genesis-Kings, is that there has yet to emerge any satisfactory method of either identifying or analyzing oral material. This has two aspects. One of these is the immediate one of identifying what elements the exilic author-editor picked up by word of mouth, from his contemporaries and from elders. He does not label his oral sources. If only he had occasionally said the equivalent of "and the troth of this is vouchsafed by ..." but he does not. It might be theoretically possible to sort out the oral sources by subtracting from the total text whatever he picked up in written sources, and then denominating the residual material as "oral" in source. That, however, is patently impossible in practice. It resembles the time-honoured way of defining miracles in the Jewish and Christian traditions -- explain everything one can by rational means and then ascribe the remainder to "miracle" -- and it is equally barren of result. Not only do we not know the full extent of the written sources which the great inventor used but, because he was also a writer, it would be impossible to determine what part of the thus-defined residual material was his own wordsmithing, and what came from oral sources.

    Where the indeterminate nature of scriptures' oral sources becomes a problem, and one that cannot be dealt with satisfactorily, is at the distant end of the time line: the period before King David, especially the stories that tell about the patriarchs, the wanderings with Moses, and the supposed conquest of Canaan by Joshua. Now, it is a truism that in a society that was overwhelmingly non-literate, the most important events were talked about, and probably passed from one generation to another and to another, before they were eventually written down. But that says nothing, really. The real question is, how long was the religious memory maintained in oral form before being written down? Even if one takes a "good old-fashioned" dating of the earliest written scriptures as being about the year 1000 BCE, in the court of the United Monarchy, this means that, if the narrative of the pre-monarchical years was not entirely a fabrication of the court historians, then the religious memory, said to cover roughly 1,000 years, was enhulled in the Hebrew equivalent of sagas and epic poetry. Fair enough: where this becomes problematic is if one abandons the "good old-fashioned dating" and asks, as scholars have, how long was the ancient oral tradition kept in that form, before being written down? One could argue for the maintenance in oral form of the saga material (and all the other folklore aggregations of a developing religion) all the way down to the eve of the Exile, or even after it. But, whether one accepts either of those extreme dates -- 1000 to roughly 550 BCE -- or anything in between, the ultimate result is the same. One ends up dealing with written texts and the earliest solid version of the central text of the Hebrew Bible comes from about 550 BCE. There is no way of validating the suppositions being made concerning the pre-biblical (meaning prewritten) history of the biblical text. Nor should one assume the antiquity of any supposedly "oral" portion of the written text: merely because an oral tradition refers to a distant era does not mean that the tradition itself originated long ago.

    All modern speculations about the formation of the Hebrew scriptures exist in the shadow of the "Documentary Hypothesis." This is doubly unfortunate in name. The speculations involved are not "documentary," for that is a term which includes probative material of all sorts, including oral. It is about documents and how they relate to each other. Moreover, it is not a hypothesis in any meaningful sense. At no time has this "hypothesis" been given operational specificity. That is, never have any of its proponents spelled out the "hypothesis" in such a way as to permit testing, by observing certain characteristics that are produced independently of the hypothesis, and thus to permit assessment of whether it is confirmed or disproved. And the necessity of framing something so basic as null-hypothesis entirely escapes the notice of the practitioners. The "documentary hypothesis," then, simply does not exist. What exists in its place is really a very useful item, as long as one understands what it is. It is an heuristic fiction, and can best be labelled the "Documents Model." Heuristic fictions, unlike hypotheses, are evaluated not by whether they are proved or disproved, but by their fecundity. And, in that context, the Documents Model is very successful indeed.

    The Documents Model is a fictive machine that has few basic parts, and these easily comprehensible. It began with two elements, which stemmed from the observation made as early as the eighteenth century that there were two gods -- or at least two names for God -- in the basic scriptures of the Hebrew Bible, most especially the Books of Moses. One of these was Yahweh. The other was Elohim, a form of the basic god-name "El" common in Palestine in the period -- roughly 1000 to 600 BCE. The biblical texts that discussed Yahweh were observed to deal favourably with the interests of the southern kingdom, Judah, and those that focused on Elohim to favour the northern kingdom, Israel. There were other distinguishing points, too numerous to mention, but the key is that a list of distinguishers, broken into two distinct columns could be adduced. Therefore, it was suggested that in Genesis, Exodus (and perhaps in subsequent books), there were two basic sets of documents underlying the final texts. These were named "Y" (meaning Yahwist; it is still usually printed as "J" in the scholarly literature, but this is an affectation. The English-language "Y" will do quite nicely) and "E." This was a sensible expedient: if one found, say, the report of a Royal Commission on the theory of government, in which some of the references to the head of government were to "the King" and most of the rest were to "the President," one might reasonably conclude that the committee had split down the centre and that some hapless civil servant had been left to tape over the differences and hope that no one noticed.

    The documents associated with "Y" and "E," however, were found not to cover the entire Books of Moses, so two other sources of documents were postulated (again, on the basis of painstaking examination of the original texts). These were said to be the Priestly Source -- "P" whose documents are concerned more than anything else with defining and protecting the professional position of the priestly caste; and the "D" source, which in its early formulation was limited to the Book of Deuteronomy. And, because the pieces still did not quite fit, a later editorial hand -- called "R" for redactor -- was postulated. "R" became the equivalent of the "miscellaneous" category in a salesman's expense account: "R" was responsible for whatever could not be accounted for elsewhere.

    Conceptually, this Documents Model was elegant, and its fecundity was amazing, for it, like Helen of Troy, launched a thousand battleships. Given its elegant simplicity -- there were only five moving parts, Y, E, P, D, and R -- one would have thought that the Documents Model could have been made to approximate one or two versions of possible historical realities. Yet, I can find only one even-moderately successful instance of an attempt at producing a version of the Books of Moses that distinguishes between the various models. This is Paul Haupt's "Polychrome Bible" of 1891, and he accomplished this task only by leaving out the Books of Exodus and Deuteronomy! Search as hard as one may, nothing turns up. Perhaps I am missing some obvious item, but unless that is the case, we are here encountering something that in most fields of historical scholarship would be taken as diagnostic: a model, fundamental to a field of study, for which no one has yet found a real-world counterpart.

    Although the Documents Model still has its uses, the present situation reminds me of a scene I witnessed one day at my farm implement dealer's. He was short of help and had hired three city lads, each a qualified motorcar mechanic. None had any experience with farm machinery. They were set to taking from its packing case a machine they had never seen before, much less operated, and they were to assemble the machine and tune it for field work. Watching them was a treat. They were good mechanics and not stupid, but each part as it came out of its package had several possible uses: industrial parts are made to fit several different places, just as religious formularies are. They argued, and they worked hard and eventually they got the thing together. (That the other mechanics, all country boys, just happily let them work away, giving each other the occasional wink, hardly needs stating; some things are universal.) Eventually, the city lads got the machine together -- it was a big self-powered haybine -- without too many pieces left over. The thing started, most of the parts moved, but the cutting head, on which everything depended, was on upside down. They went back to arguing.

    Now the argument level on the shop floor of biblical scholarship is prodigious. The Documents Model has moved from being an elegant five-part machine, to one with a thousand pieces, strewn all over the shop. For one thing, it is now generally accepted that document source Y and document source E did not just make their impact in the early parts of the Books of Moses, but are also found in Deuteronomy and also in the Book of Joshua, and possibly in Judges. Second, and much more important, the last fifty years of biblical scholarship have multiplied the sources of documents from five, to more than a score. Each has its tiny siglum, which, like the Masonic handshake, is known only to the initiates. Baruch Halpern comments ironically on the "welter of sigla" and lists some of the more prominent of the new codes -- Dtr, [Dtr.sup.1], Dtr2, [Dtr.sup.2]], Dtr(hez), Dtr(jos), Dtr(x), DtrG, DtrH, DtrN, DtrP, E(Dtr)n, E(Dtr)p, E(Dtr)x, H, H(Dtr), H(Dtr)het, H(Dtr)x, JE, M+, M-, Rdtr, Rdt3, SDeb. ... The effect of this fragmenting of the sources brings to mind Edmund Burke's denunciation of political factionalism -- "this tessellated pavement without cement," he called it. Whereas, the relationship between putative documents in the classic Documents Model had been limited (by the basics of statistical theory) to about twenty-four possible patterns, now the possible relationships spin into the thousands, and all of them based on merely heuristic original sources, of whose independent existence there is no documentation. Robert Alter, one of the pioneers of the literary study of the Bible, surveyed this scene and commented that: "In many cases a literary student of the Bible has more to learn from the traditional commentaries than from modern scholarship. The difference between the two is ultimately the difference between assuming that the text is an intricately interconnected unity, as the midrashic exegetes [Jewish textual interpreters of the Common Era] did, and assuming it is a patchwork of frequently disparate documents, as modern scholars have supposed." This has been very detrimental to historical understanding. "By its concentration on these smaller units, rather than the larger compositional units, form-criticism has ignored the possible significance for dating, origin and function of the biblical literature of the larger genres which constitute the shape of the biblical narrative," is the judgement of Philip R. Davies, who is hardly a romantic about ancient Israel. He continues: "Form-criticism largely and perhaps conveniently forgets that meaning, structure, and social setting are also dimensions of those larger compositions, and in its obsession with the "original" forms does not direct its methods to the elucidation of the larger (and less hypothetical) units. One of the major larger genres of the biblical literature is historiography, and yet this genre, without parallel in the "Ancient Near Eastern" literature, has hardly attracted until recently a fraction of the structural, rhetorical and comparative analysis of other smaller Gattungen."

    Clearly, if the text unambiguously implies a fragmentation of its origins, the biblical scholars must honour that. However, one can easily find instances in which a single verse of the Hebrew scriptures is allocated to as many as three different sources according to various scholarly criteria. This is the equivalent of watching someone who has never heard of the concept of statistical significance, work out the percentage of voters in a small sample to the twentieth place to the right of the decimal point. A lovely example is found in David Hackett Fischer's Historians' Fallacies: a sixteenth-century scholar worked out the average weight of a stone cannon ball of 10.75 inches, a highly variable object, both in density and indeed in size, to be sixty-one pounds, one ounce, two drams, one scruple and 15 685644/1414944 grains. That is what such tight parsing of "sources" by documents exegetes does: it violates a basic rule of all historical explanation, which is that if the potential random variation in any phenomenon is greater than the differences that one is defining and explaining, then the exercise has no probative value whatsoever and has to be abandoned. Real differences must exceed random probabilities, or one is not doing history, but necromancy. And, given that the Masoretic Text (which, for most parts of the Hebrew Bible is the text scholars employ) has shown itself to have literally hundreds of thousands of variants on the verse-by-verse level (and those are the ones we know about; how many other variants are lost?), then it follows that a single verse (and, in some cases, even a pericope) is too small a unit to split analytically into fragments.

    Because the Documents Model is fundamentally right-headed -- it asserts the incontrovertible argument that the Hebrew Bible which we now possess is based, at least to some extent, on earlier documents -- it warrants continual employment: some day it may stimulate a big intellectual payoff. However, for the individual who is interested in considering the first one-third of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis-Kings)as an historical narrative (which is what the scriptures announce themselves to be), then, ironically, the Documentary Model in its myriad present-day guises has little to say. This is because the question of the etiology and relationship of the various document-components of the Hebrew scriptures is completely irrelevant either to their historical accuracy or, more important, to whether or not they were believed by their audience and thus became historical realities in themselves.

    That sounds harsh, but consider: (1) The actual date of one of the documents upon which the scriptures are based, and whether or not that date is earlier or later, has no relationship whatsoever (within reasonable time limits) to whether or not the accounts are either accurate or convincing. This must be emphasized, because biblical scholars have tended to think that the earlier a document or tradition can be dated, the more historically accurate it is apt to be. They have therefore had a considerable investment in positing as early a date as possible for a given source (if the scholars are believers) or as late as possible a date (if they are skeptical of belief). The reductio ad absurdum of this process is the "eyewitness-syndrome," wherein the report of an event that someone claims to have seen is taken as being more accurate than an event a later person described from assembled evidence and circumstantial argument. We only need to remind ourselves that up to the sixteenth century, virtually every eyewitness to the operation of the solar system swore that the sun revolved around the earth. Indirect evidence, of course, was more closely correct. Further, in evolving documents, such as the scriptures were, the later editors could frequently improve accuracy, through the knowledge they had acquired from later sources. Newer sources, therefore, were often more accurate than older.

    (2) The arrangement of the relative temporal order of the sources believed to lie behind the Hebrew Bible is extrinsic to the issue of the documents' accuracy and also to whether the final unity was a convincing entity to the religious community towards which it was directed. To take an extreme example, concerning the Y source, it is the customary wisdom among biblical scholars to hold that the Yahwist documents are the oldest in the Bible (being written either just before, during, or just after the reign of King Solomon) and that one cannot explain the evolution of the Hebrew scriptures unless one starts with "Y" as the foundation stone. Yet it has been shown that a convincing arrangement of the sources can be postulated that makes the Y source a product of the last years of the kingdom of Judah and the last source to be incorporated. The point is that, fascinating as all the rearranging of the mosaic tiles of the Documents Model is, the manner in which they are combined does not in any way affect either the historical accuracy or the useability of the final product. That final product was a tool for the reconquest of Jerusalem by a narrow, highly motivated, exiled religious elite.

    (3) Nor does the Documents Model's suggestion that the history of the Bible before its final-redaction was a very fragmented entity, cut one way or the other on the historicity issue. The first reaction to biblical "criticism" of nineteenth-century believers (and the reaction today of Christian evangelicals and of Orthodox Jews) was that if there were several early sources for the Bible, then that somehow "disproved" the Bible's historical accuracy. More importantly, the Documents Model was taken by some biblical scholars as implicitly proving the opposite possibility, that the Bible was historically accurate. This does bear notice, for it is a fallacy that appears pervasively in "New Testament" studies, albeit less so in "Old." The leap of illogic here stems from the sound historical principle that two sources are better than one, and three are even better, in confirming an event: independent sources. Now, when the pioneering scholars of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries developed their Documents Model, they were quite pleased to find that (for example, for the life of Moses), they had material from two sources. So, the more they fragmented their sources, the more attestation they thought they had to events far in the past. In "New Testament" studies, which struggle with a scarcity of independent documentation that makes the difficulties with the Hebrew Bible seem trivial, a great deal of stress is laid upon "multiple attestation" for chronicling the life of Jesus. The Quest for the Historical Jesus, like the Quest for the Historical Moses, depends upon multiple attestation. Except that is not what we have when we have multiple sources that are subsumed into a single entity either by a writer-editor or by processes of discrimination whereby religious authorities, acting collectively, include only certain items in a "canon" because they are ideologically compatible one with another, and with the viewpoint of those same authorities who control the religious system. The various heuristic items posited by the Documents Model do not constitute multiple attestation, for they are not independent witnesses.

    Anyone who enjoys doing anagrams or playing with jigsaw puzzles can find a great deal of pleasure in reading biblical scholarship, for one is able to watch some first-class minds try to figure out how the Hebrew scriptures came together. However, the only intellectual constant that I have found in my reading is that through this activity runs a single principle of historical evidence, indeed the only one on which all the scholars would agree: that the report of a given historical event is always after the event. (There are a few religious zealots who claim otherwise, but they are not here germane, even if their view of biblical prophecy is diverting.) The trouble is, this is nothing that a beginning history graduate student would not know and act upon. Indeed, a real problem is that even this elementary principle is misread. David Noel Freedman, who in his generation was among the most powerful arbiters of what was and what was not first-line biblical scholarship, stated his version of this basic rule as follows: "In the Bible, historical narratives generally come down to the time of the author(s); therefore the latest episodes recorded are roughly contemporary with the writer(s) of the stories. Put another way, the work is composed or completed shortly after the last of the stories is finished, and the work may be dated accordingly. A significant burden of proof rests with those who wish to extend the period between the end of the narrative and the composition of the work." This is indeed astounding, and I can think of no other field of history wherein anyone would dare declare a similar evidentiary principle, solely upon faith. It virtually equates what is usually termed a terminus a quo, the earliest point at which something could have happened, with a terminus ad quem, the latest date at which something could have occurred. The earliest date (the point where the last episode ends) is just that: the very first possible date of composition. Why the composition should be assumed to have occurred at the earliest date in biblical history (but not in secular history) defies explanation. Indeed, it would not be unreasonable to argue that in cultures wherein the oral memory was prized, events were not written down until a generation or two after they happened, and then only because the public memory was beginning to slip somewhat, and the historical occasion needed to be frozen in time by its being written down. Actually, the only acceptable method in historical scholarship for suggesting a probable date for an occurrence is that there be some reason for the dating which is independent of the mere possible range of dates. Thus, for example, I have suggested that the author-editor of the first nine books of the Genesis-Kings volumes worked in the mid-sixth century, not because Kings ends in the 560s, but because there was a social context in that period which made his work necessary for the maintenance of his own religious polity.


In the nine books of scripture that the great editor-writer produced while in Babylonian exile, there is a grammar of invention. These are the rules of what it was permissible, and not permissible, to do in the religious culture of his time, caste, and ideology. This grammar can be inferred by our first examining, at a macro-level, what the editor-writer did in his work, and then what he did not do. This inferred grammar of invention is important in itself, but, more than that, it is potentially valuable because it may be applicable to the way religious invention occurs in the two main offshoots of the Judahist religion, namely early Christianity and Rabbinic (or "Talmudic") Judaism.

    What the author-editor wanted to achieve (and, I think did so with masterly success) was almost brutally simple. He wanted to win, and to do so decisively. So the heart of the Hebrew scriptures, Genesis through Kings, is a chronicle of victories. Some of these are clearly marked, but the most important ones are so pervasive, that they do not require labelling as such, for they become the structural warp upon which the weft of his verbal tapestry is articulated.

    The first, and most pragmatic of the victories which the editor-writer celebrates is that of Judah over Israel. He has the good sense not to be triumphalist about this, but this only makes his message more effective. The rivalry of Judah and Israel from c.928 BCE until the destruction of Israel by the Assyrians in 722/721 is chronicled with masterly economy and restraint. What is usually read as a soporific set of succession lists, enlivened by the occasional apostasy and genocide (see Appendix B), is actually masterful propaganda. This is an anachronistic term, stemming as it does from an office of the Vatican, but appropriate nonetheless. The basic chronicle of the northern kingdom -- the ten tribes -- comes to an end because "the children of Israel had sinned against the Lord their God, which had brought them out of the land of Egypt, from under the hand of Pharaoh, king of Egypt, and had feared other gods" (II Kings 17:7). They had built "high places" (meaning raised altars) in all their cities, and had set up images (idols) and sacred groves on high hills, to the worship of other (undefined) gods (II Kings: 17:8-12). So, they perished.

    The interesting point, though, is that the editor-writer of the scriptures is too shrewd to merely let the Israelites disappear. Granted, they disappear as a social group after many of them are taken captive by the Assyrians and never again rise as an independent political power. (This opens a question which most scholars avoid, given the problematic nature of the evidence: what are we to make of the Samaritans, a northern group that acquired both its own Pentateuch and Temple?) Still, if Judah and Benjamin, who take on the collective governmental name of the "kingdom of Judah," are the sole repositories after 722 BCE of the covenant, why does the editor-writer of the most important books of the Hebrew scriptures not excise altogether the subsequent reference to "Israel"? Why does he continue to refer to the Kingdom of Judah as in some sense being "Israel"? And why does he several times associate Judah with the sins of Israel? Biblical scholars have frequently explained these characteristics of the final text, by suggesting that priestly or scribal refugees from the old northern kingdom of Israel found their way south and brought with them not only their own national chronicles, but a degree of moral force that permitted them to assert the necessity of including


Meet the Author

Donald Harman Akenson teaches at Queen's University in Canada and is the Beamish Research Professor at the Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool. He is the Canada Council Molson Laureate and the author of over twenty books and novels.

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