Tag Archives: jacob wright

Interview with Prof. Jacob Wright of Emory University

I am amazed that the current discussion about the academic study of the Bible is so uninformed on both sides. Somebody out there must not have read my interview with David Carr, or even tried to read his book.

As background, the problems of the Bible go back to the tenth and eleventh century Islamic critiques of the Bible by Ibn Hazm and others. Second, modern figures such as Spinoza and Jean Astruc sought to understand the Bible as a human book using the same tools that we use to understand Greek and Roman books. And in the 19th century, Wellhausen popularized a theory that the Pentateuch had four authors. But the important part of his theory was that the ritual and priestly material was a priestly Pharisaic digression from the original pure faith of the prophets necessitating Christianity for a restoration. Hence, Solomon Schechter called it higher anti-Semitism, David Zvi Hoffman showed that Leviticus is not in contradiction to the rest of the story, Kaufman showed that the prophets assumed the priestly material, and Cassuto showed based on Sumerian and Akkadian sources that the divisions fail.

Well, Wellhausen was writing a century ago, with the aforementioned defenses all formulated in a post WWI climate. For at least forty years the field was already given to authors such as Gunkel who assumes the Bible is legend, the way Gilgamesh is legend. And Martin Noth who assumed most of the narrative was formulated originally as oral traditions- read here. Questions of redaction were not tied to Wellhausen, or even literary documents, but to oral traditions.

What do historians currently think about the context of the Bible? They assume that it was written between 720 BCE and 587 BCE, between the destruction of the Northern Kingdom destruction of Jerusalem, with some editing until the end of Ezra’s life circa 440 BCE. (Minimalists make it more recent and Evangelicals defend the chronological dates.) They work from parallels to Assyrian texts, the nature of script, linguistics, and reconstructed context of author. Little of this has anything to do with literary doublets. If you want to reject historical criticism, then start learning ancient linguistics and texts contemporary to the Bible. No harmonization of passages changes this dating nor does anything from Cassutto or Hoffman affect it. (However, Prof. Josh Berman is seeking to shift the discussion from Assyrians to the Hittites in 1300 BCE, an effort that may be accepted by the Orthodox but does not promise to have much of an impact on the experts. But it is better than refuting Kugel, who is not a historian of ancient Israel or source critic so the critique does not help.)

This past May there was a major conference at Hebrew University on “Convergence and Divergence in Pentateuchal Theory;” if you are interested in these topics, then that was the place to be. The conference opened up with a clear statement that there are three approaches: a Documentary approach (not based on Wellhausen but on Noth and others) where there are separate documents; a Supplementary approach, where a single document get more and more complex; and a Fragmentary approach, where we cannot separate out authors or layers anymore.

Finally returning to Cassuto, he may have rejected Wellhausen but he accepted historical context, showing that all the numbers and genealogies in Genesis do not correspond to ages and events, rather are stylized number, ten generations, twelve children. He does this by reading the ancient parallels to the Biblical story.

With this background, our blog is delighted to welcome Dr. Jacob L. Wright of Emory University, Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology and the Director of Graduate Studies in Emory’s Tam Institute of Jewish Studies. Wright is considered to be one of the most perspicacious interpreters of biblical literature working in the field today. His first book, Rebuilding Identity: The Nehemiah Memoir and Its Earliest Readers, was awarded a Templeton prize for the best first books in religion and theology. (I hope to have a follow-up post where he describes this book and his forthcoming one.) His bio was covered here at theTorah.com.

Wright is a member of a Young Israel congregation:

I’m a member of a Modern Orthodox shul (Young Israel of Toco Hills), and I usually reveal to my audience—whether it be during a shiur or at a Shabbat meal—how various biblical scholars think about the problems posed by the text. Indeed, I think it is condescending and disingenuous not to be forthright in this regard. In my experience, most observant Jews are eager to learn about the fascinating research conducted in biblical studies.

At Emory, Wright has supervised the dissertation of Rabbi Zev Farber who wrote on the traditions behind the book of Joshua.

Wright studied under Prof. Reinhard G.Kratz, who wrote The Composition of the Narrative Books of the Old Testament. Kratz argues that there are long narratives but that they do not coincide with the conventional sources and that they were heavily supplemented.(Since the dating is already assumed to be late, the Orthodox apologists are only proving a later single strong editorial hand when they resolve contradictions.)

1) Why is Cassuto irrelevant for current Biblical historians?
Cassuto’s book, The Documentary Hypothesis and the Formation of the Pentateuch, is a work that many Orthodox Jews read as a response to biblical “higher criticism.” Its value for scholars in biblical studies is however quite limited: The work may contain several valuable insights, but when scholars consult it today, it is primarily from the perspective of the history of research.
Why isn’t it a standard work? There are two basic reasons:

First, most of us in the field are completely convinced that the Torah, and with it, the rest of the Tanakh, is a work of many generations of authors. There are not many points of consensus in biblical studies, but this is certainly one. If, for one reason or another, you’re not willing to accept the Pentateuch’s multi-authorship as a PhD student, you will usually choose a topic that is safe from engagement with these historical concerns.

Second, Cassuto’s book responds to a view of the Pentateuch’s origins that many working in the field today would not embrace. Most have long rejected some of the basic tenets of the Documentary Hypothesis, with its demarcation of four continuous sources and its understanding of Israel’s history that underpins the whole theory.

Some scholars still defend the theory. And many who do are American Jews. The reason why is because the epicenter of research on the Bible’s composition history remains in Continental Europe. Scholars there work with fundamentally different premises from those informing the classical Documentary Hypothesis and comes to much different conclusions from the ones Cassuto has in view in his critique.

So what does this all mean for us? If you read Cassuto as a response to “critical biblical scholarship,” find it all convincing, and then conclude that it’s perfectly reasonable to assume to date the Torah to the time of Moses, you have failed to come to terms with the way that leading scholars for the past three decades have thought about the Torah’s prehistory.

2) Why is the Pentateuch basically ascribed by scholars to the 8th to 6th centuries?
When we trace the Pentateuch’s/Torah’s origins to these centuries, we mean that many of its constituent components were put into writing at this time. These components include the stories of the Patriarchs/Matriarch cycles, the Joseph Novella, the Exodus-Conquest account, and the cores of the law codes (Deuteronomic Code, Holiness Code, and much of the Priestly legislation). The Torah continued to undergo revisions (many of which were quite significant) for the next couple of centuries.
Some of the Torah’s contents may predate these centuries. It seems quite possible that rudimentary legends of the Patriarchs/Matriarchs, of Moses, of Miriam, of Joshua, etc., as well as many of the laws (especially in the so-called Covenant Code) are older than the 8th century.

Why would the basic features of the Torah have assumed literary shape from the late 8th century and thereafter? It is because this is when the states of Israel and Judah faced momentous political challenges.
The Assyrian armies conquered the kingdom of Israel in 722 BCE. The earliest biblical authors realized that if Israel were to survive this political catastrophe, it would be in a new form: as a people without a king. Now the kings of Israel may have been the ones who originally promulgated accounts of Yhwh’s great deeds, such as the Exodus story. After all, Israel’s kings would have seen themselves as the representatives of the state’s chief deity, as was the case in directly neighboring lands. Yet what sets the pace for the formation of the biblical tradition is a demotion of the king and a shift of attention to the people as a whole (“all Israel”) under the aegis of its God. Judahite authors, already before their subjugation to Babylon in 587 BCE, inherit this “demotic” project from Israel.

The Torah is the beginning of a longer history (stretching from Breishit to Melakhim) that tells how Israel emerged and existed for a long time as a people before its kings established centralized states. The history ends with the demise of these states, affirming the central message: All Israel is in direct covenant with its God. Its kings are, accordingly, not essential to its identity and its survival. What’s determinative is the nation’s corporate adherence to the conditions of the covenant (the mitzvot).

This message, which pervades the Torah and the rest of the history, is the reason why the Torah owes its penultimate form to the 8th-6th centuries, the time when Israel and Judah ceased to be ruled by native kings.

3) What function did the Pentateuch have in society that required it to be written?
My response to this question draws directly on the points I made in the preceding one. The Torah assumes the role once played by Israel’s and Judah’s erstwhile kings, who demarcated political borders and sought to establish a collective identity for their subject. In this sense, the Torah is to be seen as a project of re-imagining Israel as a people that owes its origins and survival not to its kings (as the special representatives of the nation’s God), but rather to its God directly, and the covenant between that God and the nation as a whole (mediated solely by a prophet).
The biblical authors were seeking to fashion an unprecedented corporate identity that was able to consolidate and sustain subjugated, dispersed communities. In inventing “a people of the book,” they were guided by the intuition that disparate groups inevitably coalesce into united community as they engage in the reading of a shared text. Their efforts in collecting, editing, and expanding these writings resulted in an exceptionally rich corpus of literature, which attracted dispersed communities of readers and formed them into one people. The Bible’s model of peoplehood embraces a significant measure of diversity, an ideal exemplified in the weaving together of competing ideologies and perspectives. Although Bible is a heavily edited work, it does not speak with a single voice. Instead of one view, the biblical authors set forth a common text.

4) Can you say more about how the origin of the Pentateuch relates to biblical history?
As we can see from early 19th century Germany and Italy, as well as from postbellum America, historians have had a critical role to play in modern political unification. They remind their readers that their fraternity predates the dissension and strife of the present. The goal of the biblical historians however was not to build a large and powerful state. What motivated them was rather the desire to consolidate a fragmented population in the face of discontinuity, displacement, and rupture.
As the first step toward an inclusive national identity, the biblical writers claimed that the states of Israel and Judah have common origins in a united kingdom. It was a great sin that caused this unity to split into two states.

Later generations of biblical authors went much further. Their expanded narrative situated the period of the political union in an extensive family history. In compiling their account, they sought to transcend divisions and demonstrate how ostensibly unconnected pasts are each part of a larger yet nevertheless unified story. The major figures of the Bible—the Patriarchs/Matriarchs, Moses and Miriam, Joshua and Caleb, etc.—represent rival traditions and competing communities. By grafting them into a single family tree and constructing an extensive unbroken narrative, the biblical authors paved the way for the corresponding communities and factions to come together as one people.
This narrative history set a precedent for the formation of other parts of the biblical corpus. The authors of the Pentateuch inserted into the national narrative a body of written laws. They formed this collection, once again, by combining what were originally separate, and in some cases competing, law codes. As we can see in the histories of England and America, the merging of disparate and rival law codes is an important step in the formation of a united people.

5) So what is your take on the Documentary Hypothesis?
As I noted, much of the most important work on the formation of the Pentateuch continues to be conducted in Continental Europe or by scholars directly influenced by their research. Their tendency is to be skeptical about the number of sources that comprise the canonical Torah. Most begin by isolating what belongs to P (the Priestly source) and then proceed to identify what remains as “pre-P,” “post-P,” or a supplement directly to the independent P source. Some are reticent to assign the remaining material to continuous sources or running narratives. Thus, most deny that a pre-P source—either the Yahwist (J source) or the Elohist (E source)—ever connected the Exodus account to the Patriarchal narratives. These two conceptions of Israel’s origins must have competed with each other until a very late point, being brought together for the first time either by P or by circles that directly anticipated P.

The tendency here has been to conceive of the entire Pentateuch in terms of discrete blocks of material that were chained together at late stages. This tendency needs to be held in check though. It seems unlikely that the exodus account ever existed independently from the conquest account found in the Book of Joshua. When God tells Moses in Exod 3:8 that he intends to bring his people from Egypt to another land, the narrative does not reach denouement until that happens under the leadership of Joshua. Hence I cannot accept the proposals that the portions of Exod 1-15 were gradually concatenated with other blocks of materials to form a larger narrative.

Today the traditional Documentary Hypothesis is witnessing a revival among Pentateuchal scholars in America. Thus, the division between the Patriarchal narratives and the Exodus account is now indisputable from a Continental perspective, but is completely dismissed by those who defend the Documentary Hypothesis and has barely been the subject of discussion.

Now there are many cases, especially in portions of Numbers, where we witness overlapping narrative threads. It’s difficult to ascribe these threads to disparate supplements, as Continental scholars are wont to do. Yet it’s also difficult to ascribe these overlapping threads to continuous sources. They surface in discrete episodes, but they don’t seem to be connected from one episode to the next.
It’s noteworthy that the episodes in question are considered by many scholars to be late compositions. What this may mean is that we have something in line with the phenomenon of “Rewritten Bible” from the late Second Temple period: As the Torah began to exert wider influence in the Second Temple period, multiple versions of prominent episodes proliferated. Instead of opting for one or the other recession, later generations incorporated pieces from what was available to them.

6) If I give you a Biblical text, how can you know if it is from the 13th century BCE? 8th century BCE? Or 6th century?
This is a big question, so let’s take one example: Jacob’s departure to Padanaram in Genesis 27-28. The older narrative presents Jacob fleeing after he deceived his father and brother. The later P narrative (Gen 27:46-28:9) offers a much different reason for his voyage: Esau marries Hittite women, and this causes anxiety for Rebekah. In response, Isaac exhorts Jacob to not marry a Canaanite woman and sends him to Rebekah’s family in Padanaram so that he would find a bride among Laban’s daughters.

The differences between these two accounts are easy to discern. And it’s also easy to see how they relate to each other. The P version must be later because it seeks to resolve an issue posed by non-P version: Jacob, the great patriarch of Israel, was not forced to flee for his life after his objectionable behavior in securing his father’s blessing. Rather his father sent him away so that he wouldn’t mimic Esau’s objectionable behavior in marrying Hittite women.
Now some scholars take issue with scholarly consensus by claiming that P was composed before the Babylonian exile (587 BCE). But their arguments fail to convince the majority of experts. In this case, the issue is clear-cut: Intermarriage emerges as a major concern in the post-exilic period (see esp. the Book of Ezra-Nehemiah). Such was not the case when Israel and Judah enjoyed territorial sovereignty.
Embracing a simplistic division of sources, one might argue that a pre-exilic text like Deuteronomy 7 also proscribes intermarriage. But scholars have long argued—for independent reasons!—that that chapter is both late and heavily supplemented.

7) In your Huffington Post piece “The Myth of Moses” on the supplemental additions to the story of Moses, how do you know it is legend and not historically accurate or at least historically based? How do you know, and how can you know, what the ancient readers thought needed rectification?

I don’t know anything for certain. And, more importantly, I don’t think the biblical authors arbitrarily made up stories. Like the makers of later midrashic legends who treated textual difficulties by integrating/harmonizing all the facts of Mikra, the biblical writers were quite conservative. They faced problems in the text, and they sought solutions that address those problems with the least amount of invention.

Thus in the case of Moses, they needed to explain why Israel’s leader has an Egyptian name and grew up at the Egyptian court. (My approach here, it should be noted, reveals the earliest facts about Moses that the biblical authors are working with.) To address the problem, they show that Moses was not an Egyptian, but a good Israelite—and a Levite at that. He bore an Egyptian name and lived at the Egyptian court because there was a problem with his birth. Drawing on a mythic motif that is well attested in the ancient Near East, the biblical authors tell how a Levite man impregnates a Levite woman who already has a daughter. The circumstances surrounding the birth are not clear, as the authors wanted to avoid presenting his parents in an overtly negative light. In any case, Moses is abandoned in the Nile, discovered there by the Pharaoh’s daughter, given a name by her, and then brought to the Egyptian court.

A later generation of readers/authors had problems with this explanation, since it presents the nation’s venerated leader as the product of what seem to be illicit relations. Acting conservatively, they did not eradicate the earlier account but revised it by composing a preface to the story. Now we know that Moses’s mother didn’t abandon him because of issues with his birth. Rather, the Egyptian king ordered that all Israelite male newborns be tossed into the Nile. His mother technically complies with the king’s orders, since he had said nothing about placing the boys in life preservation devices before depositing them in the Nile.

The secondary preface is clever, yet it doesn’t completely eradicate the problems and it creates new ones. For example, it’s strange that the Egyptian princess recognizes that Moses is a Hebrew child but can get away with raising him at the court when the king had decreed the death of all Hebrew male infants. Also the new preface doesn’t explain the origins of Moses’s sister: the text suggests that he is the first child produced by the union of his father and mother. As to be expected, the rabbis recognized the problem, and they added another layer of interpretation—the story of Moses’s sister, now explicitly identified as the prophetic figure Miriam, chastising her father for refusing to have sexual relations with her mother after the Pharaoh’s decree.

So what my interpretation does is reveal how the problems with the identity of the historical Moses provoked a progression of literary solutions, from the earliest biblical authors to Chazal. This approach does a much better job of explaining the complexities of the text than the attempt to isolate three separate sources that emerged in absolute isolation from each other, as defenders of the Documentary Hypothesis argue. Perhaps many of your readers will find the solution offered by Chazal to be even better than mine.

8) How can one be a shomer Torah uMizvot and accept historical criticism?
Our aim should be to embrace the truth instead of engaging in apologetics. There’s absolutely no doubt in the academic community that the Torah emerged over time. One should not think that scholars in biblical studies are out to destroy faith. If some within our communities have trouble with the findings of experts (whether it be in the natural sciences or biblical studies), then they need to deal with it, instead of looking for some marginal defense attacking outdated versions of the Documentary Hypothesis written by people who know very little about current Pentateuchal research.

Let me assure you: there are many of us who are firmly committed to living a life of shomer torah umitzvot, and who are not at all bothered by the historical origins of the Torah and, indeed, have an even deeper awe and reverence for the Torah because of these historical origins.

Why is that the case? Put most succinctly, when we understand how the biblical authors responded to catastrophic defeat and destruction by developing a very sophisticated road map for the future, by reinventing Israel in many ways, and by creating what we now take for granted as nationhood we can’t help being in deeper awe of the Torah’s power and potential to keep deeply divided communities on the same “daf” and to offer them a vision of hope for the future. That is, after all, what drives the biblical project: bringing together rival communities to form a common people. And that explains why the biblical authors overcame the elitist temptation of choosing just one law code or one tradition of Israel’s origins, and instead synthesized competing law codes and traditions to form a common law collection and narrative history (even if it meant including many contradictions and tensions between these formerly independent writings).
The Torah is not divine. HaShem is, and “hu Ehad.” Is the Torah authoritative? Absolutely. But is it divine? No.