David M. Carr is one of the top scholars of the redaction of the Pentateuch in the world. We can debate if he is in the top five or the top ten, but he is at the top of the field. I was at a social gathering where I heard, over the din of small talk, a conversation at the other end of the room about the state of Biblical studies. Specifically, I heard Professor Carr say that the old documentary hypothesis has given way to new theories. David generously agreed to a blog interview to explain the current state of scholarship to my reader. When I told Rabbi Dr Joshua Berman about the blog interview he emailed: “Wow, David is the best, he is the real thing.”
David M. Carr Ph.D. is professor at Union Theological Seminary in NY. He received his degree in Religion from Claremont Graduate University in 1988. Before coming to Union in August 1999, Dr. Carr served as full professor of Old Testament at Methodist Theological School in Ohio from 1988-1999.
Professor Carr’s book-length publications include From D to Q: A Study of Early Jewish Interpretations of Solomon’s Dream at Gibeon (Scholars Press, 1991); Reading the Fractures of Genesis: Historical and Literary Approaches (Westminster, 1996); The Erotic Word: Sexuality, Spirituality and the Bible (Oxford, 2003); Writing on the Tablet of the Heart: Origins of Western Scripture and Literature (Oxford, 2005); In October 2011 his most recent book appeared: The Formation of the Hebrew Bible: A New Reconstruction (Oxford University Press, 2011).
The reason for this interview is because if the religious community wants to respond to Biblical criticism, then it should know what it is talking about. It has to stop create homiletics about repetitions and thinking that it answers anything at all. Part of the importance of Prof. Carr is that he thinks we don’t know enough to say much with certainty about the original Mesopotamian origins of the Torah. We cannot separate it into documents and we cannot do etymological origins of texts. Carr uncovers specific evidence that the Hebrew Bible contains texts dating across Israelite history, even the early pre-exilic period (10th-9th centuries).His method is to use parallel documents, many of them works edited only in the last 40 years such as the Ugaritic texts at Ebla & Ras Shamra. Please create a religious response that includes Sinai and can work with the principles of faith, but first know the field.
As a believer, liberal Protestants only need a revelation from heaven or a Divine source, but they don’t need it to be from Sinai or Sinai as the defining moment.
David Carr’s prior book Writing on the Tablet of the Heart: Origins of Scripture and Literature (New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005) stressed that the ancient world did not think of authors and readers the way most of us do. Instead of reading a text silently, one memorized and placed on the heart the classic scriptures. Scribal authors then drew on this memorized knowledge in creating new texts. Carr compares the Bible and its transmission to scribal guilds and writing in Mesopotamia, Egypt, Ugarit, and Greece. Of his many significant observations, the following appear to encapsulate his thought: (1) Students copied texts not only to learn scribal skills but also to become educated and inculturated with the values of the society. (2) Orality and writing were not in tension, but were complementary ways of teaching the culture and recalling the literary traditions. Written texts were shaped for the goal of oral performance, if only by reflex. (3) Literacy was not the ability to read or write, but the ability to master core literature, and that made one part of the social elite. (4) Students sometimes learned texts so archaic that they seemed nonsensical, but that process taught them obedience to their society. (5) Scribes might copy a text before them, but often they generated texts by memory and hence with creativity, like a musician performing a well-known work. Thus, there was no one “original text” for literary works because minor memory variations always existed. (6) Because the Gilgamesh Epic and the Enuma Elish were used to educate students early in the curriculum, they came to be known throughout the ancient world. Thus, biblical narratives reflect the influence of these works because Israelite scribes learned to write with them. (7) In the postexilic era, scribal training increasingly became part of the priestly domain, so that selected texts reflected priestly values. These texts would evolve into the Hebrew Scriptures. (8) The Bible ultimately is an educational-inculturation corpus, not a library of texts.
Here is some praise for his works here.
For my readers looking for a reading list or summary of the state of the field, the blog Hesed we ‘Emet posted his doctoral comprehensive reading list and also posted his summaries of the reading in long and short versions. From his notes you can see the importance of Carr’s work. (One can also see how Kugel and his approach does not play a role- see prior blog post.)
1) What is the innovation of your new book on the Bible? Why is memory important?
A starting point would be that I look to documented examples of scribal revision for models of how scribes preserved or revised texts. And one main thing I find is that even scribes reproducing a virtually identical copy of a given section of text would make the kinds of changes to texts– I call them “memory variants”– that people who have memorized texts do: they would substitute a synonym of a word for another, add or subtract minor grammatical particles, switch from one phrase to a syntactic equivalent. Apparently such scribes often did not visually copy texts they were citing or reproducing, but had memorized them and wrote them out from memory.
This fluid transmission of texts means that many criteria that scholars thought they could use for linguistic dating of texts or source identification are not as firm as we once thought.
Other things these documented examples of transmission teach us are the tendency of scribes to pollute the evidence through harmonizing texts with each other, their tendency to make small additions to texts that would be undetectable without manuscript documentation of different stages, and the way scribe/authors would only preserve parts of texts that they were otherwise appropriating large portions of. Observations like this don’t mean that we can’t continue to make plausible hypotheses about the growth of biblical texts, but it means that we now need to evaluate the evidence in biblical texts differently than we once did.
2) What is the role of historical dating of texts in your approach? And what tools do you use to date a Biblical text (parallels to other texts, Hebrew philology, and archeology)?
My main approach is to start by looking at the characteristics or “profile” of texts that we have good reason to think come from a given period. For example, can we build a profile of texts that seem to date from the Persian period as a way of potentially dating yet more texts to that period. To some extent, that may include linguistic criteria (“philological”) that scholars have used for dating texts to the Persian period before, such as significantly Aramaized Hebrew. But we must remember that the presence of Aramaic characteristics is not necessarily a sufficient criterion for dating a text to the Persian period since scribes easily could accidentally add Aramaic elements to older texts in the process of transmitting them fluidly, often by way of memory. Other important characteristics of many Persian period texts (especially later in the Persian period) are links to Priestly traditions/the temple and the project of rebuilding Jerusalem in general.
3) What historical documents and parallels need to be mastered to date Biblical texts?
I hear you asking about primary text resources, and the first thing I’d urge is immersing oneself in documented examples of scribal revision of ancient texts. I sometimes think that it would be very productive for an advanced graduate student to spend a solid year doing nothing but precisely comparing and analyzing the parallel sections of Samuel-Kings and Chronicles, also looking at the major divergences between the 4QSama manuscript and MT/Chronicles/LXX, comparing the Septuagint edition of Jeremiah with Masoretic Jeremiah, looking at the different versions of the Qumran community rule, analyzing the relationship between 3 Esdras and Ezra-Nehemiah, etc. And that’s only looking at Hebrew and Greek resources! Adding non-biblical resources, especially different editions of Mesopotamian materials adds a whole additional and often informative dimension. The more one does this, the more one gets a gut-level sense of how texts grew. And you get a lot more humility about what we do if you constantly ask the question, “would I have been able to reconstruct this growth if I didn’t have these manuscripts in front of me?”
As for non-biblical, Ancient Near Eastern “parallels,” I’d recommend the helpful overview in Kenton Sparks’ book, Ancient Texts for the Study of the Bible: A Guide to the Background Literature (Hendrickson, 2005). It gives a survey of many of the most important texts, brief discussion of them, and some good bibliography.
It takes a lot more than such primary text work, of course, to make sense of all this information. I do believe that hundreds of years of academic, historical research on the Bible has much to teach us. For example, scholars have come up with some interesting and important ideas about how to date some texts to the time of Babylonian exile even though we know very little specific about that period. The challenge is to sort the more helpful ideas from the less helpful ones. I’ve tried to do that some in my recent book on The Formation of the Hebrew Bible, but I’ll be the first to admit that my synthesis has its own strengths and weaknesses.
4) How does your new book lay to rest the older hypothesis?
I don’t think it possible to lay any hypothesis permanently to rest, since hypotheses raised so far all link to different sorts of evidence in the text. That said, some of the terminological criteria most beloved by traditional source critics, e.g. variation in divine designation (YHWH versus Elohim) or terms for maidservant (‘amah versus shiphah) vary a significant amount in manuscripts that we have, let alone the centuries of textual transmission before our existing manuscripts. I still think there is strong enough evidence for distinguishing Priestly and non-Priestly traditions from one another. And I think there likely are very early chunks of material in the Bible, including parts of the Pentateuch. But the case for early, intertwined “J” and “E” sources (within the non-Priestly strand of the Pentateuch) is largely built on sand rather than rock. It pales in comparison to the case for the distinction between Priestly and non-Priestly strands in the Pentateuch.
5) What are your thoughts on American Jewish scholars or scholars in Israel? Why do the Jewish scholars seem to defend the documentary hypothesis more than non-Jewish scholars?
I don’t put a lot of stock in judging the motivations of scholars. We all have reasons, whether conscious or unconscious, for advocating certain hypotheses. That said, I sometimes wonder whether the revival of the source hypothesis among some scholars has been a scientific way of responding to a perceived drift toward widespread late dating of virtually the entire Pentateuch. And I actually share reservations about a push to see virtually the whole Pentateuch as Persian period or later. I think there are very early chunks of material in the Pentateuch, including legal and Priestly texts. I just have a lot more skepticism about being able to identify extended “J” and “E” sources and believe ever more profoundly in the need for what I call “methodological modesty” as we attempt to identify the earliest portions of the Bible (including the Pentateuch).
6) (Questions 6 from Joshua Berman) In a text with multiple layers of editing and redaction – so that there will be a so-called Deuteronomistic core to a text with, say, a priestly level of editing. The inconsistencies are resolved, according to this theory, by attributing the discordant elements to different levels of redaction. It is often asked, why then does the editor of the later level retain the material that does not square with his agenda? The standard answer that is given is that old material attains a certain status, and can only be tampered with but not removed. Do you have another approach?
I do think we need to think through our models for textual growth, especially when we are positing multiple layers which often conflict with another. How often, I wonder, could scribal groups pass a given authoritative text back and forth, each adding to a version of the text previously revised by an opposing group? I don’t know. But I do know that many (not all!) of our documented cases of scribal revision of texts involve only one or a few layers of revision, and often these layers seem to have been done by scribes with the same or a similar theological/ideological orientation.
7) (Questions 7 from Joshua Berman) To what degree can we speak of “authors” in the ancient world? More pointedly, when we see “fractures” (a Carr term) in a text could it be that we need to give more credence to the agent responsible for piecing things together as a creative agent, much as we see with the Gilgamesh epic?
I do think that ancient scribes were highly creative, even as they drew on and somewhat precisely preserved (with memory variants) earlier traditions. In this sense we can think of scribes as “authors,” albeit authors who constantly built on older oral and oral-written traditions. It was only toward the later ends of the transmission process, as scribes increasingly copied certain texts more precisely (such as the Pentateuch within the proto-Masoretic tradition) that at least some scribes just conserved and did not innovate.
8) You write that we can’t theorize from the armchair anymore about how biblical texts came to be. We need to have empirical models about how literary traditions grew in the ancient Near East. How does that inform your work and how does that contrast with prior scholars?
To some extent we still need to theorize from armchairs. I just think that we should learn as much as we can from documented (“empirical”) examples before we do so. And the more we learn from such documented examples, the more we realize the limits of our armchair theorization. We still can do it, but we will only achieve repeatable results that have some plausibility for others outside our ‘school’ if we gather a lot more data for our models than many of us are in the habit of doing.
9) How is JED + P different from JEPD? What’s the practical difference? Is the work scholars do on the basis of this theory going to be more productive than the work currently done using the older theory? How?
The main debate, as I see it, is between two models for the development of non-P materials: one that distinguishes between D, J and E, and one that distinguishes between D and other non-P materials but does not recognize early J and E sources. Usually the latter model (the one without J and E) invokes other models to explain the features used by older source critics to argue for J and E. In my view, these alternative models do a better job of explaining the evidence. But we all need a bit more humility in our claims of certainty for our hypotheses, especially hypotheses about the earliest stages of the development of the Pentateuch. In that sense, maybe the ultimate result of adopting such additional “methodological modesty” might feel frustratingly less productive!
10 ) How should the average person know who to trust if the field changes so often? What would you tell the simple reader who with their uneducated eyes thinks that scholars are just stating their personal opinions? How is it a scientific field?
This is a fair question. My first answer to stress those aspects of biblical scholarship that have proven to have a long shelf-life because they are built on such strong evidence, such as the distinction between exilic/post-exilic material in the book of Isaiah from a core of pre-exilic material in that book or the previously mentioned distinction between Priestly and non-Priestly strands of the Pentateuch (along with a fair amount of harmonization of each with the other). Though these distinctions have shifted some, they have held in their basic form for around two hundred years. That’s good! My hope is that the kinds of cautions and considerations I raise in my book would help us develop other broad theories about the growth of the Bible that would approach that kind of repeatability/longevity.
11) Do you have any thoughts on revelation? or the separation of history from theology?
One of the many things I appreciate about the Hebrew Bible is the way it depicts God as working through all kinds of human characters (e.g. Jacob, Joseph, King David, etc.), even some characters with base or even evil motives. As Joseph tells his brothers when they are cowering before him in Egypt afraid of his revenge for selling him into slavery, “what you planned as evil toward me, God planned as good” (Gen 50:20; see also 45:7-8). Scribes and the interpreters who shaped and sanctified the Bible may have had all kinds of motives and procedures, but God could–and I believe did–work through them in any case. And in my tradition (Christian-Quaker, originally brought up Methodist), we just pray that God likewise will work through us now as we continue to try to interpret the biblical tradition in a life-giving way. There are no textual guarantees, whether in the origination or ancient revision of the sacred text or in contemporary interpretation. We always are dependent on God making the best of our often mixed motives.
12)One of the reviews of your previous book notes that you have little to say about the attribution of the text to Moses and its sanctity as a product of Sinai. Can you say anything about the topic?
As a scholar, I’m interested in investigating the history of these beliefs about the Pentateuch. For example, we first start seeing the idea that Moses wrote the entire Pentateuch in the late Second Temple period, and that idea has its own background in the dynamics of that time. In this respect, I follow the great Jewish scholar Elias Bickerman, who suggests that Jews of that time countered Greek education centered on Homer and his epics with the idea that their Moses had written the whole Torah, a text which Hellenistic-period Jews argued was even earlier and better than the Greek classics.
I understand that others have other beliefs about these issues, but for me it is most important to recognize and stress to my students how the biblical text has come to be a medium of inspiration of Jewish and Christian communities over the centuries. I am constantly impressed and amazed at the ongoing power of these texts to speak to diverse contexts over millenia. That, for me, is what is profoundly powerful about them. In my opinion, attachment to specific authorial theories or assertions of historical accuracy often distracts from the task of seeing how one might responsibly interpret the text today.
13) If a religious scholar said that his goal was to date the core of the Pentateuch to the 13th century BCE to be contemporaneous with the Jewish dating of Moses, what advice would you give?
None of us comes to any such task without presuppositions, but I would have serious doubts about scholarship on dating that started out with the goal to date a biblical text to a particular period, whether the thirteen century BCE or the 2nd century BCE. By now in twenty + years of work, I have found myself changing my mind about dating and other issues based on the evidence before me, often in major ways. For me that is part of what distinguishes an evangelist for a particular perspective from a historian or “thinker” (which I aim to be). It is a curiosity about certain questions that powers a drive to find out more. Sometimes one is led by the evidence to conclusions that might seem odd or surprising to one’s colleagues. I’m ready at this point in my career to risk following such leads and seeing where they take me, and I learn much from the many others who do the same.
© Alan Brill 2012.
Nice interview. I have long been appreciative of Carr’s ‘Reading the Fractures of Genesis,’ given my own interests. I enjoyed reading this; thanks for posting it.
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In my opinion, the question that needs to be asked – from the perspective a “frum” skeptic – is to what degree the modern biblical scholarship should be taken seriously by someone who believes that a Divine origin of the Torah is even a possibility?
To my knowledge, all academic Biblical scholarship is based upon the assumptions that the Torah was is a product of human authorship, there were no supernatural elements in that authorship, and that supernatural events do not happen.
If you do not accept these assumptions, then modern Biblical scholarship has very little to say to you.
The traditional Jewish position on the origin of the Torah is that it was written by God – not Moses – and given to the Jewish people – through Moses – at Mt. Sinai, and that the events it described all happened in the real world. The traditional Jewish position takes for granted that the many of the teachings of the Torah were, at some point, the common heritage of all mankind (through Adam, Noah, and others).
Academic Biblical scholarship starts with a historical approach that rejects that position from the outset. Biblical scholarship has never been an attempt to disprove the traditional Jewish history of the Bible (though it was often presented that way). It is, and always has been, simply an attempt to provide a secular history.
“Biblical scholarship has never been a serious attempt to disprove the traditional Jewish history of the Bible (though it was often presented that way). ” You are simply wrong on this matter. With regard to your other point, who says that the traditional Jewish position is correct?
I’m not sure how your assertion to the contrary responds to my point. Academic Biblical scholarship has never been a serious attempt to disprove the traditional Jewish history of the Bible for the simple reason that it has never attempted to deal with that position on its own terms.
Academic Biblical scholarship has never seriously attempted to prove that God could not have written the Torah, or that God could not have revealed future events to His prophets, or that God could not have performed the miracles described in the Torah, or that the similarities between the Torah and various ancient texts (e.g. Epic of Gilgamesh and the Code of Hammurabi) may be the result of a common history and spiritual heritage shared by all mankind.
Rather academic Biblical scholarship simply assumes that these things are not possible and starts from there.
As for your question, “who says that the traditional Jewish position is correct?”, I’m not sure what relevance that has to my point. My question is what relevance can modern Biblical scholarship have to someone who doesn’t accept the assumptions of the field. I suspect that it can have none. Modern Biblical scholarship does not attack the traditional Jewish perspective, it simply ignores it.
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I have a question for Prof. Carr – David, Josh Berman here. Great interview and great book. Thanks so much for both. My question follows question # 6 in the interview: in your experience, do we see in Mesoptamian sources that editing is solely an additive affair? I know that it is common for material to be appended at the beginning or at the close of a previously exisitng work. But where we have evidence that scribes have edited the middle of a work, do we see that they only add material, but do not edit out material that does not fit with their agenda? I ask this because this is precisely the claim made by many doing redactional work on the Hebrew Bible. To wit, the claim goes that the when a priestly editor added his say, he could not edit out non-priestly material because it had attained “canonical’ status. Hence, the claim goes, we find the fingerprints of many levels of redaction in a single passage – nothing could be deleted, only added. Do Mesopotamian sources present this kind of dynamic?
Can’t propose to answer all questions here, but I’ll give a quick reply on Dr. Josh Berman’s question as I can. Briefly, documented examples from Mesopotamia and elsewhere show that the general trend was to expand on earlier sources, but there certainly are examples of omission. Indeed, when scribe-authors produced brand new works using older sources, virtually every example only involves partial preservation of the given source. Same for documented examples of conflation: scribes may have preserved a lot of sources that they intertwined into a new whole, but almost never all of them. There may be particular reasons why so much non-priestly material was preserved alongside priestly material in the final redaction of the Torah, but even there we have clear evidence that the editors dropped some material. More detail is in my latest book, but that’s my take.
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Academic scholarship tends to create parallel stovepipes. Has anyone synthesized the Greek Classicist discussion about orality to the Bible scholarship?
For an accessible introduction, see Daniel Mendelsohn’s November 7, 2011 New Yorker review of Stephen Mitchell’s new Iliad translation: http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/books/2011/11/07/111107crbo_books_mendelsohn).
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I’d like to tackle Alan Brill’s last question, slightly rephrased, in a more nuanced way: “If a religious scholar said that his scholarship was informed by the Jewish dating of Moses, and that he took that to be the 13th century BCE what advice would you give?”
My advice would be “Go for it. A scholar’s identity and passions can, indeed, sometimes be an albatross, and an impediment to good, balanced ssholarship. You will need to be judiscious in your work, and will need to affirm the clear data that do not accord with your agenda. And you mustn’t overstate the findings that do accord with your agenda.
But your identity and your passions can also be a scholarly asset. You will likely be driven to search avenues and develop approaches that are out of the box, that defy the consensus and that break new ground. And if you can present your findings to the wider scholarly community, which may not share your agenda, and those findigns are affirmed, you will have performed scholarhsip good service, precisely from allowing your agenda to drive your scholarship.”
I say this from my own experience. Last March, I published an article in the Journal of Biblical Literature in which I challenged forty years of consensus about the provenance of the aspostasy laws of Deut 13. The conventional wisdom had maintained that those laws were predicated on the Neo-Assyrian Succesion Treaty of Esarhaddon, of the 7th century. In that study I demonstrated that those laws bear a much greater affinity to a 15th c. Hittite document (CTH 133). I have been asked many times since the article appeared, how it was that I stumbled across a document that had been on the books for so long (published in 1970), when no one else had. And my answer is that my scholarship is infomed by my tradition, and thus, perhaps, I looked deeper and farther than others had before me. I suspect that if my identity were not informed by my religious tradition, I would not have asked those questions, and would not have done that digging. I hope that I did all this in the judiscsious fashion I outlined above. I certainly did affirm that therewere still two verses in that chapter that seem closer to the Neo-Assyrian text than to the MB Hittite one. And, in line with David Carr’s call, I made no claims about a sure dating for the text, and argued instead for “methodlogical modesty.” I know that, to date, no scholars have rejected or rebutted these findings, and that many see my study as a contribution to the field.
So for those operating with identity propelled scholarship – gender based, disability based, religiously based, atheistically based – I say, “Go for it. You just might make a major contribution. But do your work judisciously!”
On a certain level the point about Orthodox Jews and Bible Scholars coming from different perspectives is important. However the reality is that many of us do share, to a lesser or greater degree, some of the perspective of the bible critics.
However, given that Orthodox Jews are engaging academic Bible criticism, I think that this focus on the nitty gritty of identifying and dating different authors is something of a distraction from a theological pespective. I think we need to go back to Spinoza and confront his fundamental arguments against Mosaic authorship. If we don’t have responses to this, debating early or late P is really besides the point.
Moshe wrote: “I think we need to go back to Spinoza and confront his fundamental arguments against Mosaic authorship.”
I would point out that “Mosaic authorship” is not the traditional Jewish position. Judaism teaches that the Torah is a product of Divine authorship – a very different thing. To my knowledge, all of Spinoza’s arguments are against Mosaic authorship. He does not argue against the position that God authored the Torah, as his theological/philosophical position does not allow for such a possibility in the first place.
The basic premise of all of Spinoza’s arguments, with one minor exception, is that certain statements in the Torah would be anachronistic or inappropriate if Moses, the human being, were the author. These arguments have no bearing on the question of Divine authorship.
This brings us back to the basic point I have been making. Academic Biblical scholarship rejects the possibility of Divine authorship from the outset. This assumption is axiomatic to the entire field. All discussion and debate begins only after this assumption is made.
At this point, I will curtail further discussions about 17-19th century issues. The discussions of God, prophecy, and miracles as well as discussions of Voltaire, Hume, Hobbs, Spinoza, Renan, and Strauss are all fine but have nothing to do with the topic at hand and can be discussed even if one has not opened a book written in the last 150 years or read the blog post. Refutations of prophecy and miracles as well as defenses filled shelves before our great-great grandparents were born. They are worth discussing and if you want I can post about the classics of the Enlightenment.
How recent academic scholars of the biblical text use the texts edited in the 20th century to date Biblical texts is the actual topic of discussion. Please use this chance to read a book or two. Find out about the recent edited Ugaritic, Egyptian and Akkadian texts. You can catch yourself up to date by reading the comprehensives summaries. And please try to read and understand his answers about his own work before typing. This is a rare golden opportunity to find out about the last few decades from an expert historian. Professor Berman is seizing this opportunity.Please discuss Carr’s work.
Yes, historical method and Divine assumptions go right past each other- Rabbi Isaac Breuer discussed this almost 80 years ago about 19th century Biblical criticism. So if one thinks that the Holocaust was a Divine punishment because of the Zionists or anti-Zionists, then know that Divine causality rightfully has no place in historical causality based on political, social, contextual, or economic causes.
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