Bible criticism - The Jewish view

Bible Criticism
(Excerpt from One People, Two Worlds - pg. 183)

Dear Ammi,

     It seems you feel compelled by "clear evidence and reason" to deny that Moses wrote the Torah at God's behest.  You would rather espouse the theories of the Bible critics who see the Torah as an imperfectly edited composite of ancient and not so ancient records of Jewish mythology.  You state again and again that "volumes have been written ... let the readers review the evidence for themselves and decide."

     Well, then, let us start with you.  How many of these dusty volumes have you investigated carefully?  And if you yourself didn't do so, do you honestly expect others to plow through them and decide on their reliability?  No, what you've done is a clever lawyer's trick.  Point to a stack of thick books and declare that the "clear evidence" is all there, relying on the power of suggestion to "prove" your point.

     Don't invest so much faith in these Bible critics, Ammi.  They aren't worthy of it.  Professor Yechezkel Kaufman puts it very well in A History of the Jewish Faith (Hebrew):  "Biblical criticism finds itself today in a unique situation.  There is a dominant theory, yet no one knows why it dominates.  In the history of ideas, theories or concepts based on certain accepted principles often enjoy a disembodied existence long after those principles have been discredited.  This is exactly what happened to the scientific study of the Bible in our times ... [In the nineteenth century,] Wellhausen ... based his theories on an interlocking system of proofs that seemed to complement each other, forming layers of solid intellectual foundations upon which he erected the definitive edifice of his ideas.  In the meantime, however, these foundations disintegrated one by one.  These proofs were refuted outright or at least seriously questioned.  The scholars of the Wellhausen school were forced to admit that most of the proofs do not hold up under scrutiny.  Nonetheless, they did not abandon the conclusions."

     Such is the nature of pseudoscience.  Someone tossed out a bit of wild speculation, and by the time it goes around the block, it is an accepted fact; no one has the time or the inclination to check it out.  I used to wonder at  the accepted chronology of the Egyptian pharaohs; for instance, Thutmose I reigned from 1493 to 1481 B.C.E.  I asked a friend, a history professor at a university in New York, how they pin down the dates with such amazing accuracy.  He told me that some academic takes a guess, and by the time it gets into the secondary and tertiary sources, it's just a fact.  Who's going to check it out?

     I'm sure you know that the original Native Americans migrated from Siberia to Alaska across a land bridge that existed where the Bering Strait is now.  It is a well-know fact.  I suggest you read Red Earth, White Lies, by Vine Deloria, Jr., the eminent Native American author, which just tears this idea to shreds, but you'll still find it in all the textbooks.

     You and I both know that virtually none of our readers will "review the evidence for themselves."  So let us deal with some of the issues you raised.  You wrote in an earlier posting:  "Why would God have dictated to Moses two creation stories - one where the world and beasts were created first and Man last, and another where Man is created first?  Why one passage where Man and Woman are created together, as equals, and another where Man is created alone and first?"

     Let us check the classic sources.  The Midrash, quoted by Rashi, explains that the first account is general, while the second zeroes in on the man in the Garden of Eden and mentions only details of creation relevant to the story.  A very reasonable reading of the texts.  Now, if the second story is a duplicate account, as you seem to believe, why is there no mention of the creation of the sun, moon, and stars?  Why is there no mention of the creation of the fishes of the sea, only the animals and the birds?  According to the Midrash, however, this is not really a creation story.  Therefore, the animals and birds are mentioned in the context of Adam giving them names, but since Adam did not name the fishes, they are not mentioned.

     M.D. Cassuto, the prominent secular Bible scholar, also understands the "second creation account" in this way.  "The subject of this chapter is the story of the Garden of Eden, and as a preface, Scripture repeats the creation story, focusing on the creation of man.  The account differs from the  first, but there are no contradictions, just additional details."

     For some reason, however, you seem more comfortable subscribing to the view of the Bible critics that the Torah was assembled from assorted documents, and that a duplicate creation story somehow slipped through.  Well, Ammi, do you think our ancestors, those brilliant primitives who produced the most powerful and magnificent piece of literature in history, ever heard of proofreading?  If our hypothetical chief editor had just let his proofreaders take a look at it, they would have told him, "Sir! Big blooper right here in the first chapter.  Send it back to the typesetter!"

     One of the famous ideas of Julius Wellhausen and his German school of Bible criticism is the Documentary Hypothesis, the theory that the Torah is woven together from the J and E documents among others.  These great minds noticed that the Bible sometimes refers to God by the J name and sometimes by the E name.  They scratched their heads in bafflement.  And then they had a flash of dazzling insight.  There must have been different documents referring to different deities, and the hypothetical editors who blended them, in their usual sloppy style, failed to make them consistent.

     Check it out, Ammi.  I am not kidding you.  This sort of reasoning is at the foundation of Bible criticism.  This is, of course, absurd.  The Midrash (Mekhilta Beshalakh) explains that the J name is used when the attribute of mercy is active and the E name when the attribute of strict justice is active.  Every eight-year-old child in Hebrew school has always known this basic principle.  But what can you expect from German academics who didn't learn Hebrew until they were in college, had no access to the oral Torah, and never bothered to ask Jewish school teachers for the answer?

     When I attended the International Book Fair in Moscow in 1987, a professor of English from the University of Tbilisi in Soviet Georgia struck up a conversation with me.  He told me he had written a two-volume dictionary of American slang, and he wanted to check out a few things.
     "Can I ask you a question?" he asked.
     "Sure, go ahead."
     "Do you know what 'ticked off' means?"
     Of course I do, I said.  "It means 'annoyed.' "
     He shook his head. "No.  It means 'exhausted.' "
     It was my turn to shake my head.  "It means 'annoyed.' "
     "I'm afraid you're wrong.  I have made an extensive study of the expression, and all the evidence indicates that it means 'exhausted.' "
     "Tell me,"  I said, "have you ever been to the United States?"
     "No.  But what difference does it make?"
     "All the difference," I said.

     Every street urchin in the United States knows more about American slang than his hapless fellow in his study in Tbilisi.  And every child in Hebrew school knows more about the Torah than these self-appointed Bible critics.

     You have to consider the Bible critics in their historical context.  They had an agenda.  In the nineteenth century, after the fall of Napoleon, German nationalism sought expression in its pagan Teutonic roots, and it struggled to break away from the albatross of Christianity.  The political and cultural mission of Wellhausen and the other Bible critics was to discredit the Christian Bible and the foundation upon which it rests - the Jewish Bible.  every time they found a redundancy, an anomaly, or any of the other plentiful signals that call out so eloquently to Talmudists, these critics immediately discerned imperfect editing, multiple authors, and all sorts of textual flaws.  Of course, it never occurred to them that the shortcomings might be in their own understanding.  In the end, their specious conclusions were accepted as scientific fact, and religion was undermined.

     But what about your, Ammi?  Why should you parrot the enemies of Judaism and the Jewish people?  I am not concerned about the decline of Judeo-Christian values in Germany, but I am concerned about all the Jews who thought that being modern meant swallowing the bitter pill of German devaluation of the Jewish heritage.  It doesn't matter that you couch your German-inspired reading of the Torah and Jewish history in pretty words and glib platitudes.  The plain fact is that you and other Jews like you, who have been persuaded by the German Bible critics and their successors, exemplify a tragic defeat for our people.

     Even among the Bible critics themselves, many thoughtful scholars are abandoning the Documentary Hypothesis.  Listen to Cassuto on the subject: "Among the proofs that many scholars bring to support the hypothesis that the Torah is a composite drawn from multiple sources, it is worthwhile to pay special attention to the interchanging of divine names. ... Recent research has established that there is no basis for the hypothesis that [this] is an indication of multiple sources. ...  All in all, these critical theories create more difficulties than they purport to solve."

     Listen to Henri Blocher in Révélation des Origines: Le Début de la Genése (French).  "The critics, when they judge the internal phenomena [of the Bible], project into it their customs as modern Western readers and neglect all we know today of the writing customs of Biblical times.  The taste for repetition, the structure of a global statement, repeated with development, the replacement of a word by its synonyms, especially the change of a divine name in a text (i.e., the names of Osiris on the stele of Ikhernofret), are well attested characteristics of ancient Middle Eastern texts. ... The Biblical text, as it is, agrees with the literary canons of its time."

     Listen to W. F. Albright in Archaeology and the Religion of Israel.  "The Mosaic tradition is so consistent ... so congruent with our independent knowledge of the religious development of the Near east in the late second millennium B.C. that only hypercritical pseudo-rationalism can reject its essential historicity."

     Listen to Dr. Yohanan Aharoni, in Canaanite Israel during the Period of Israeli Occupation.  "Recent archaeological discoveries have decisively changed the entire approach of Bible critics.  They now appreciate the Torah as a historical document of the highest caliber. ...  No authors or editors could have put together or invented these stories hundreds of years after they happened."

     Finally, a team of Israeli and German Bible critics (reported in the Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentaliche Wissenschaft) conducted a computer analysis of the style and language of the Bible.  Although no author is rigidly consistent in the usage of word forms and stylistic expression, a reasonable percentage of similarly can be expected.  For instance, the internal percentage of similarly of Kant's words is 22, and no one questions that the works were all produced by Kant.  The internal percentage of similarity of Goethe's works is just 8, and still no one questions his authorship of all of them.  The researchers discovered that the internal percentage of similarity between the J and E documents is 82!  There is, therefore, no question that they are the product of one author.

     So you see, Ammi, I've taken your advice and checked out some of those "volumes" of yours.  I could bring you numerous additional sources if you wish, but I think this is enough.  The preponderance of evidence supports the unity of the Torah's authorship, which places it way back in antiquity and actually proves its authenticity.  How could such a fiction have been foisted on people who were practically contemporaries of the evens described?  Could you pass off a bogus issues of Time magazine whose cover story reported that an atom bomb had leveled Washington during World War II and whose publisher's message reported that copes of that issue had been distributed hot off the presses to every household, school, and library in America?

     The disdainful disregard of Jewish sources so prevalent in Bible criticism is also evident in secular interpretations of Jewish history.  There is a fast day called Asarah b'Tevet, which memorializes the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem about two and a half millennia ago.  I don't know if Reform still honors this memorial, but I am sure you have heard of it.  In the special Selichot for the fast day, we recall another tragic event that took place a few centuries later on the eight of the month of Tevet.  In about 250 B.C.E., King Ptolemy of Egypt summoned seventy Jewish elders to Alexandria and ordered them to translate the Torah into Greek for his library; the result, know as the Septuagint, was considered a national tragedy.  This event is also recorded as an awful tragedy in Megillat Taanit, composed during Mishnaic times, not more than a century or two after the fact.  Modern secular historians, however, maintain that mostly Greek-speaking Jewish people of Alexandria inspired the translation because they wanted to show their Greek neighbors that they also had a book of wisdom.  This explanation, which completely ignores Jewish sources, can only be based on speculation, yet it has entered the history books as established fact.

     Why the Sages considered the Septuagint a national tragedy is a subject for a separate discussion.  But I want to know which side you take on this question, Ammi.  Do you walk in lockstep with the orthodox secular establishment, as do just about all the secular Jewish historians, or do you give credence to the explanation given by our ancestors when national memory of the event was still fresh?

     It does not surprise me that the secular Bible critics and historians have no regard for the Jewish national memory, but I am disappointed that you are not sensitive to it.

...The first reference to the Jews outside the Bible is from the Merneptah Stele of 1235 B.C.E.  There, King Merneptah of Egypt boasted that "Israel is laid waste."...  - pg. 148

     We, the Jewish people, have always been very focused on genealogy.  A large part of the Bible is devoted to names and relationships.  Read the First Book of Chronicles!  The Talmud (Baba Batra 91a) identifies Abraham's mother as Amathalia the daughter of Karnebo.  There is no mention of this name in the Bible, and yet the Jewish transferal process preserved it orally for fifteen hundred years!  Bible critics laughed this name off as pure invention, and they proved their case by the absence of a name such as Karnebo in any Babylonian records.  Well, lo and behold, archaeologist have since discovered new Babylonian records in Ebla that mention the name Karnebo as a royal family name.  You say you would be "fascinated by archaeological proof of Abraham's existence."  How about archaeological support of Abraham's grandfather's existence?...  - pg. 119

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Archaeology and the Bible - Part 2

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Bible criticism - The Jewish view - Judaism Online