Friday, June 18, 2010

The Right Writer

Someone was telling me about a new book called Who Really Wrote The Bible?, where the authors take on the Documentary Hypothesis, which states the Bible (in particular here the Five Books Of Moses) was put together from more than one sources.

I doubt very much the authors have anything serious to add to Biblical scholarship. The Documentary Hypothesis is on solid ground and has been for quite some time, while many religious people through the years have strongly opposed it for obvious but not necessarily scholarly reasons. Perhaps the authors of the book have hit on something new, but I'd guess it's more like all those people with "shocking new evidence" that Shakespeare didn't write his own plays.

So why am I bringing it up? Because, as described to me, the authors are asking was the Bible written by Moses, or is it a "forgery." Unfortunately, this is a term you run into a lot when you argue about the provenance of a religious text. Those arguing for authenticity like to claim the other side is saying it's a forgery. There's something dishonest in using that word.

If the Torah wasn't written by Moses, then I suppose you could say, in a very thin, technical sense it's a forgery. But this is not the common understanding of the term. When used today, it almost invariably implies deceit or fraud. But I don't think this debate is about a claim that the Bible, when put together so many years ago, was created by people self-consciously trying to deceive. More likely the group on that side of the argument believe it was created by reverent people who believed they were spreading the truth.

So to say "either I'm right or it's a forgery" has an unfair implication. I'd suggest that people fighting to say Moses wrote the Bible remove that word from their vocabularies.

10 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hm. "Either Moses wrote the bible, or an organized, sincere and effective group of people who loved and supported Moses wrote the bible."

Not sure it has that revolutionary zing.

I'd say it's more likely that, when they do become convinced of your argument, their response will be, "OF COURSE that's what I meant by Moses," before returning to their schtick.

4:45 AM, June 18, 2010  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The false 50/50 "either/or" dichotomy seems to confuse all discussions about religion. As in there is either a God or there isn't. True up to a point but the very questions seems to equate the two positions.

10:55 AM, June 18, 2010  
Anonymous Lawrence King said...

I think that you can make strong arguments for avoiding the word "forgery" -- and other strong arguments for using it -- when you are discussing whether Paul wrote the letters attributed to him in the New Testament. After all, these letters actually claim to be written by Paul.

But there is absolutely nothing in the Torah itself that asserts Moses as its author. The story begins long before Moses; when Moses enters the story he does so in the third person and is treated like every other character; and then he dies and is buried, and the last few verses tell what happened after he died.

Therefore, even if (worst case scenario) we suppose that the claim that Moses wrote the book was first made by someone who knew this claim was false, and who made this claim for evil and deceitful reasons, how would that make the book a forgery?

There is no signature at the base of the Great Pyramid. Suppose I announce today that the Great Pyramid was built by a man named Chorasmes-Khufo-Ramo. This is a lie. Does that make the Great Pyramid a forgery?

1:38 PM, June 18, 2010  
Anonymous Lawrence King said...

I'm arguing against LAGuy's suggestion that the Torah, if not written by Moses, might be a forgery "a very thin, technical sense". I disagree with this, unless the Great Pyramid is also a forgery in the very thin technical sense.

1:42 PM, June 18, 2010  
Blogger LAGuy said...

If I understand your argument, it has an odd result. If, as you claim, the Torah asserts no author (and it makes no sense that it's Moses anyway), then it's all those Jews and Christians claiming it was written by Moses--a tradition going back thousands of years--who are trying to foist a forgery on us.

2:51 PM, June 18, 2010  
Anonymous Lawrence King said...

First, a minor quibble. I simply do not think the word "forgery" can be used to describe the dissemination of an article. It refers to the creation of an article. If I obtain a letter written by John Adams and attempt to pass it off as a letter by Thomas Jefferson, that is fraud, but not forgery.

Also, I do agree with your basic claim that the word "forgery" is loaded and should be avoided unless we can show that something unethical was done. Biblical scholars generally use "pseudepigraphal" rather than "forged" for books containing a false attribution. But my point was that the Torah contains no attribution at all.

6:17 PM, June 18, 2010  
Anonymous Lawrence King said...

Returning to the more important issue (the one you yourself raised):

Should a religious text be seen as a fraud / deceit / forgery / scam if it is deliberately attributed to the wrong author, but was "created by reverent people who believed they were spreading the truth."

The answer depends on culture and genre. When Jay Leno says "Sarah Palin met with Dan Quayle yesterday. During the meeting, she was thinking how nice it was to be the smart one in the room," we know that the first sentence is actually true. Why? Because we know the genre of this joke, and we share certain cultural understandings of what counts as "true" in that genre. But the genre of the second sentence is totally different. Someone not from our culture might not recognize this fact!

When Thucydides relates the dialogue between the Athenians and the Melians, his audience knew that he wasn't claiming to have a word-for-word transcript. If an educated Greek reader of Thucydides discovered that the actual words of the dialogue were slightly different, they would not consider him to be a liar. If they discovered that the entire episode was fictional and Melos had never existed, they would have considered him a liar. (In fact, we know a great deal about what standards the Hellenic and Hellenistic world expected from historians, due to Lucian of Samosata's How To Write History.)

The same applies to authorship. Suppose a book begins with "The words of Jeremiah the son of Hilkiah, of the priests that were in Anathoth in the land of Benjamin," but it was really written by Baruch, a disciple of Jeremiah, after his death, and written out of respect for Jeremiah's memory. Or suppose that a letter begins with "Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the commandment of God our Saviour, and Lord Jesus Christ, which is our hope; unto Timothy, my own son in the faith," but it was really written after the deaths of both Paul and Timothy, with the intention of causing people to actually believe that Paul himself wrote it. Would those count as forgeries?

The answer can only be found once we understand what the standards of the time actually were with regard to such questions. These standards might have any number of criteria: the intention of the misattribution, whether the attributed author is alive, died recently, died long ago, or never existed; what purpose is being served; and many other factors.

Suppose the Torah was assembled from diverse sources, and then promulgated by a group of priests who publicly claimed Moses wrote it and tried to persuade people that this was literally true, and they did so in order to justify a war, then would this be a forgery? Suppose their goal was to unify Israel and Judah and end war, and they honestly believed that the texts which they had glued together all originally traced back to Moses in different forms? Would either of these be a forgery / fraud? It depends on the standards of the time.

In the 18th century, many scholars decided that most Biblical books were not by their purported authors, and were not literally true, and dismissed them as fraudulent. In 1840, Ferdinand Baur accepted the same premise, but argued that ancient standards of authorship and historicity were looser than ours, and that such inaccuracies did not diminish the value of those books; this eventually became the view of a great number of Jewish and Christian Biblical scholars. Meanwhile, the Fundamentalists rejected the premise itself. And yet none of these groups actually did much research into how ancient people actually judged such matters. That research was finally done in the 20th century, and very few Biblical scholars bothered to read the results of that reasearch.

6:17 PM, June 18, 2010  
Blogger LAGuy said...

I agree when we're trying to determine the honesty and intent of ancient sources, we need to use ancient measures. It was a different time and modern concepts of historical accuracy may have (in face, were) very different. And even if they wanted to be accurate, it was much harder to get correct information.

Thucydides was one of the first historians, and I suppose you'd call him more accurate than previous writers, but the limits of his knowledge, many of which were recognized in his day, have to be understood. (There's still a lot of debate about how accurate the Funeral Oration is--there's conjecture among some that it was a ritual sort of speech that all citizens might have know well.)

However, if you're trying to look into accuracy, modern methods of measurement seem proper. There's a lot we can't know about the ancient world, simply due to lack or records and different standards of accuracy, but we can try to make the best guess available using all we know today.

12:39 AM, June 19, 2010  
Anonymous Lawrence King said...

I agree. That's why we must always distinguish between (1) the historical accuracy of a narrative or an attribution of authorship [which in principle is an objective question that should be determined using our best existing methods]; (2) how people at the time would have understood such things (including their ethical standards); and (3) what special religious or divine status we accord to these texts.

These three questions are logically independent. There may be dependencies between them, but such dependencies need to be demonstrated, not assumed.

1:35 PM, June 19, 2010  
Anonymous Bruce said...

A commentator on my blog asked me about my impressions of this book (I have not read it).

http://www.threejews.net/2010/05/jewish-particularity-cant-we-live.html#disqus_thread

Here is my response (based only on the website:

A quick look at the authors indicates that they have no training or experience in this field, but instead have studied Judaism.

[...]

A quick look at the excerpts indicates that the authors are fundamentalists (in the non-pejorative sense) who believe that the Torah is "true" (and we should be Orthodox) or "false" (and it is all a fraud and life has no meaning). This is a reductionist fallacy known as the fallacy of the excluded middle. My blog is an attempt to demonstrate why.

One of their blurb points is "Learn how the multiple-authorship theory depends on a simple misconception of the Hebrew names for God." Despite their use in naming the J and E sources, the names of God are not the central feature of the DH. As REF [Richard Elliot Friedman] notes in his introduction to The Bible With Sources Revealed, the argument for the DH is the cumulative weight of lots of different independent arguments, all pointing more or less the same way.

I haven't read it, but based on the website, the book looks amateurish.

8:55 AM, June 22, 2010  

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