For Jews in particular, nothing in biblical studies draws so keen an interest as the issue of the origins of the Torah: the Five Books of Moses, or Pentateuch. The scholarly pursuit of the Torah’s putative sources and how they evolved into the text we have today is referred to in the academy as “source criticism”: the discipline’s oldest sub-field and still its largest. And source criticism of the Torah is also front-and-center in the Jewish public eye.
Over the past fifteen years alone, four major projects by Jewish scholars have showcased the methods and achievements of source criticism. I have in mind two books, How to Read the Bible by James Kugel and Richard Elliott Friedman’s The Bible with Sources Revealed; the section on the Pentateuch in the JPS Study Bible; and, most recently, the website www.TheTorah.com, which is explicitly devoted to “integrating the study of Torah with the disciplines and findings of academic biblical scholarship.”
It would seem hard to find fault with any of this. Intuitively, readers of all ages know that their rabbis or pastors have to affirm the antiquity and accuracy of the biblical accounts. By contrast, the academic biblicist is duty-bound to “tell it like it is” on the basis of a rigorous scholarly method and rational, humanistic modes of discovery. For many raised with a traditional approach to scripture, this is a breath of fresh air. Here, finally, we find scripture without an agenda, and a method that leads only where reason and data take the faithful researcher. Here, we find the truth.
If only it were so. But the fact of the matter is otherwise. From the time of its inception 200 years ago, the field of biblical studies has never been value-free. Instead, and precisely because of the Bible’s unique and central role in Western culture, study of the Bible in the academy has been influenced—and, I would argue, tainted—by a range of cultural and intellectual forces, and repeatedly led astray from its calling as a rigorous mode of inquiry. Never has this been truer than in our own times, when many claims made in the name of the critical study of the Bible have been turned into weapons in a political struggle between liberals and conservatives.
In what follows, I offer an insider’s tour of today’s field of biblical studies—my field—and question whether some of its central conclusions really deserve the high pedestal on which they have been placed.
I. Source Criticism and Its Problematic Roots
Let’s begin with a brief tour of the historical horizon.
Benedict Spinoza, rightly credited as the father of the modern critical study of the Hebrew Bible, was the first to question systematically the unity of the books of Hebrew scripture. This he did at length in his 1672 Theological-Political Treatise. Like today’s source critics, Spinoza was convinced that the Torah was written by more than one hand. Unlike today’s source critics, however, he was equally convinced that it was beyond our capacity to recreate the prehistory of the received text by recovering its earlier versions or parts.
A similar conclusion was reached by Father Richard Simon of France, the most learned biblicist of the 17th century:
What we have at present is but an abridgement of the ancient records, which were much larger, and those who made the abridgements had particular reasons which we cannot understand. It is better therefore to be silent in this subject . . . than to search farther into this matter and condemn by a rash criticism what we do not understand.
Although both Spinoza and Simon were convinced that the Pentateuch was a composite work, both also felt that one could no more successfully unravel the prehistory of the received text than one could unscramble an egg.
But now fast-forward two centuries to the late 19th century and the scholar Charles Augustus Briggs, co-author of a dictionary of biblical Hebrew that is considered authoritative to this day. In contrast to Spinoza and Simon, Briggs positively reveled in the ability of scholars to replicate the stages of a text’s composition and thereby establish “the real Bible”:
The valleys of biblical truth have been filled up with the debris of human dogmas, ecclesiastical institutions, liturgical formulas, priestly ceremonies, and casuistic practices. Historical criticism is searching for the rock-bed of divine truth and the massive foundations of the Divine Word, in order to recover the real Bible. Historical criticism is sifting all this rubbish. It will gather our every precious stone. Nothing will escape its keen eye. . . . As surely as the temple of Herod and the city of the [H]asmoneans arose from the ruins of former temples and cities, just so surely will the old Bible rise in the reconstructions of biblical criticism into a splendor and a glory greater than ever before.
What made Briggs so certain that scholars could recover the prehistory of the received text when figures like Spinoza and Simon gave no credence to such pursuits? What changes between the 17th and 19th centuries is not the evidence but the culture, particularly through the rise and increasing status of science as a cultural force.
The initiating figure here was none other than Isaac Newton. Just five years after Simon’s 1682 Critical History of the Old Testament, Newton was formulating the laws of motion and universal gravitation in Mathematical Principles of Natural History. The work had an overwhelming impact. Where previously nature had been widely regarded as impenetrable, Newton proposed that it was instead subject to laws that could be expressed simply and precisely through mathematical formulas.
This “paradigm shift” influenced all realms of inquiry, as 18th-century thinkers sought to match Newton’s science of nature with a science of what they termed “human nature,” which they regarded as similarly orderly, subject to laws, and open to observation and comprehension. A key tenet of Enlightenment thought was that science consists of analysis: i.e., the reduction of vastly complex phenomena to a small number of constituent parts. In natural science, landmark advances would be achieved by the application of this notion; extraordinarily sophisticated organisms were discovered to be systematically made up of cells, ultimately leading in the 1830s to cell theory, and the atomic structure of the natural elements was laid open, allowing John Dalton to publish the first table of the elements in 1803.
The newly founded science of human nature could do no less; analysis, it was firmly believed, would reduce the daunting complexity of historical data to comprehensive, systematic narratives, no matter how conjectural. Thus, theorists sought to define the developmental stages traversed by man in his progress from savagery to civilization. Changes in climate or in modes of sustenance were carefully laid out along a timeline to explain the evolution of moral character.
It is in this milieu that we encounter the first attempt to delineate the putative sources of the Pentateuch. In 1753, a French scientist and medical doctor by the name of Jean Astruc transferred his vocation’s new analytical disciplines to his avocation: biblical study. Like Spinoza and Simon before him, Astruc had only the biblical text from which to work. Unlike them, he lived in the confident age of the Enlightenment: all the text needed was a set of laws to explain its inconsistencies, paramount among them being the Torah’s use of diverse and seemingly divergent names for the divinity. Already going back to the 17th century, confidence had become endemic to academic pursuits, as in René Descartes’s insistence that we accept only knowledge that can be known and demonstrated with certainty. Scholarship of the Bible could be no exception. From Astruc one can trace a straight line to the assertion of Charles Augustus Briggs that “surely will the old Bible rise in the reconstructions of biblical criticism into a splendor and a glory greater than ever before.”
A key ancillary step in this process involved the beginnings of “history” itself as an academic discipline—and not only a discipline but, like physics, an exact science: a Wissenchaft. (In practice, Wissenschaft referred both to science in the strict sense and to scholarship in general or any legitimate field of knowledge.) If, in the 18th century, educated people turned to philosophy to unlock the mysteries of human life, during the 19th century they turned to the putatively “scientific” analysis of the past to provide insight and inspiration in politics, law, economics, morals, and religion.
But how could history become a true “science”? According to the German historicists, by basing its findings on original, authentic sources. Traditions had passed down tales about the past, but only by returning to primary written sources, contemporaneous with the events under study, could the historian attain a clear, objective view. Scholars were especially eager to get to the original sources of the writings of Homer and of the Bible—the great touchstones of European culture. Imbued with the confidence of the scientific revolution, classicists and biblicists alike believed that access was available through the careful literary mining of the received texts. Identifying irregularities of all sorts within those texts was the key to recovering their precursors.
German historicism, however, ran into a crisis at mid-century, and the course it then took would have enormous consequences for the source-critical study of the Bible. As the natural sciences progressed by leaps and bounds, the putative alliance of the “sciences of the spirit,” or liberal arts, with the natural sciences came to be seen as a liability. Practitioners of the human sciences had no hope of keeping up with the refined results achieved by statistical analysis. If anything, the progress of natural science was demonstrating just how unscientific—if not unscholarly—were the so-called sciences of the spirit.
The humanist solution was to cut loose and declare autonomy. While continuing to claim the mantle of science, proponents of the humanities specified that they operated under a different methodology. Where the natural sciences had developed canons of experimental control, including the rule that theories must be testable and falsifiable, historians placed a high premium on the intuition and imagination of the investigating scholar.
Which brings us back to investigating scholars of the Bible and, in particular, source critics. Today this large sub-field continues to rely on frankly intuitionist justifications for its methods—a reliance that has led it into confusion and professional crisis.
II. Source Critics at an Impasse
The nature of the professional malaise is easily stated. Since, inevitably, every scholar has his or her own powers of intuition and imagination, the guild of source critics has been unable to develop a canon of best practices and accepted norms in pursuit of the putative earlier stages of a biblical text’s development. The debilitating consequence is that very little is a matter of professional consensus.
Source critics, for their part, have admitted as much. At two major conferences devoted to the source-critical approach to the Torah, one in Zurich in 2010 and a second in Jerusalem in 2013, the most respected champions of the field publicly acknowledged the lack of consensus on a range of core issues. A few representative testimonies:
Each [scholar] operates with [his] own set of working assumptions, each uses different methods, and each produces [his] own results. In every other academic discipline, such a situation would be felt to be untenable.
* * *
Scholars tend to operate from such different premises, employing such divergent methods, and reaching such inconsistent results, that meaningful progress has become impossible. The models continue to proliferate, but the communication seems only to diminish. . . . [Scholars] tend to talk past one another; not to hear what one another is saying, not reading one another’s work sufficiently.
* * *
What do we mean when we say source? A text? A tradition? A database? A school of thought? A theology? A group of scribes? A literary style? Maybe we just mean a vocabulary and nothing more? I think each of us uses the word source to mean precisely what he or she wants it to mean; shades of Humpty Dumpty.
How did source criticism arrive at this state? And why has the crisis engendered no change whatsoever in how its practitioners go about their work? In both cases, the answer has little to do with the individual personalities of the scholars involved. Rather, the fatal inability of the discipline to self-correct is rooted in the field’s origins, and is perpetuated by a species of denial.
To be sure, biblicists are not alone here. Similarly disorienting symptoms have afflicted other areas of scholarly inquiry, especially in fields with semi- or quasi-scientific pretensions. A recent example is the stunned reaction among economists in the wake of the 2008 financial implosion, a disaster that so many of them failed to see coming and got so wrong. One outspoken member of the guild, the Nobel laureate and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, suggested afterward that his fellow economists had been led astray by their professional “desire for an all-encompassing, intellectually elegant approach that also gave economists a chance to show off their mathematical prowess.” Thereby, to use Krugman’s own puffed-up terms, the profession “mistook beauty for truth.” If, he concluded, the guild of economists was ever to “redeem itself, . . . it will have to reconcile itself to a less alluring vision” and, above all, “learn to live with messiness.”
Of course, to admit that the economic world is messy is essentially to admit defeat in the long-fought battle to win for economics the status of a science with the power not only to study the past but, crucially, to predict economic performance in the future. And that offers another point of analogy with the predicament of biblical source-critics in their elusive search for the sources of the Pentateuch. In positing the date of a text and the stages of its composition, source critics strive to create an elegant narrative of its history and therefore of the evolution of religious ideas in ancient Israel. For many, this elegance has become a badge of their intellectual identity.
But biblicists, too, are prone to mistaking beauty for truth. The real, harder truth is that the enterprise of dating biblical texts and their stages of growth is messy, much messier than they would like to admit. And the larger truth is that we actually have limited access to the minds and hearts of the scribes of ancient Israel and cannot know the full range of motivations that drove them to compose the texts they did. What may look to our eyes as, for instance, an unresolved inconsistency between two passages may not have bothered the ancients at all.
Consider historical inscriptions left us by Ramesses the Great, who ruled Egypt in the 13th century BCE. To commemorate his greatest achievement, a victory over his arch-enemies the Hittite Empire at the battle of Kadesh in 1274 BCE, Ramesses inscribed three mutually exclusive and contradictory reports, one right next to the other, each serving a distinct rhetorical purpose, on monumental sites all across Egypt. (The longest is full of internal contradictions as well.) This practice is wholly foreign to modern writers, and far from intuitive. Literary conventions are culture-specific.
Will source critics learn “to live with messiness”? The prospect is unlikely. Although some are ready to admit that their field has lost the capacity to make forward progress, few if any have reached the necessary conclusion: that the precursors of the received text—their holy grail—may simply not be recoverable. “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it,” wrote the American activist and novelist Upton Sinclair. Just so, it is difficult to get a scholar to understand something when his entire scholarly enterprise depends on his not understanding it.
And in the meantime, another corruptive condition has disfigured the field, and the professional conduct, of biblical studies generally.
III. Left vs. Right
Even as source criticism, the largest sub-field of biblical studies, sinks into self-acknowledged methodological failure, many scholars in that area and others have vigorously taken sides in the culture war that for almost four decades now has been raging in the United States and, with different tonalities, in Europe and Israel. Like so many of their academic colleagues in the humanities and social sciences, biblicists have largely pledged themselves to one side in that war. In today’s universities, the practice of critical scholarship of the Bible is dominated, and saturated, by the same postmodern liberal orthodoxies that have undone many another discipline in the humanities.
One unfailing symptom of this malaise is the unspoken denial of its existence. Search the databases of publications in the field, and you will often find reference to one, and only one, ideological orientation. A particular scholar will be described—and thereby just as often dismissed—as a “conservative exegete,” or a particular approach or interpretation will be characterized—and just as often deprecated—as conservative. But you will never come across references, let alone slighting ones, to “liberal” exegetes or interpretations.
The point: in biblical studies, there are two types of practitioners: genuine scholars, and conservative scholars. The former are presumed innocent, motivated only by the disinterested and rigorous search for truth and guided solely by the dictates of rational inquiry, unmodified and uncontaminated by ideology. The latter are presumed to be agenda-driven, and to have donned academic cap and gown only to achieve a surreptitious panache of legitimacy for their cherished and unreconstructed religious dogmas. To those it wishes to marginalize and delegitimize, the mainstream establishment will apply the label “conservative.”
Scholars can be slapped with the conservative label if they argue one or more of three things. The first concerns the coherence of the biblical text. So-called genuine scholars—source critics, here—underscore the incoherence of the text. By contrast, a “conservative”—or, worse, “uncritical”—scholar is one who puts forth evidence for a text’s unity and coherence. Such a scholar may readily admit that the text could have a prehistory. But if such scholars—among notable exemplars are Robert Alter and Meir Sternberg, the latter a winner of the coveted Israel Prize—also claim that the received text, which is the only actual text we have, can still be read as a coherent work, and that many of the “problems” that other modern scholars see in it are an imposition of anachronistic aesthetic sensibilities, they will not be spared opprobrium as “uncritical.”
Likewise deemed “conservative” is a scholar who adduces evidence for the historical accuracy of a given biblical account. And the same goes, thirdly, for a scholar who argues for the antiquity of a given account—that is, that its origins lie in a period roughly cotemporaneous with the events and individuals depicted in it. Leading names on the roll of dishonor in these last two categories include Kenneth Kitchen, the undisputed doyen of Egyptology in the Ramesside period, and James K. Hoffmeier, another noted Egyptologist.
True enough, some scholars in the field of biblical studies do identify themselves as conservative in their outlook. And there are also individuals seeking to prove the Bible’s inerrancy, or antiquity, or superiority, or unity who are motivated by confessional concerns. But that is beside the point; if their scholarship should be rejected—as can happen—it should be rejected because it is weak. And why the one-sidededness at all? Is the arcane task of dating the biblical texts and of parsing them into their putative sources always and everywhere a value-neutral and ideology-free enterprise, as the liberal mainstream pretends?
Hardly. Getting down to cases, let’s look at three examples of critical scholarship meshed with openly liberal causes.
Many biblicists—Jewish and Christian alike—insist that, whatever their own personal religious beliefs or conduct may be, religious convictions and academic inquiry are two distinct realms, and must be kept apart to preserve the integrity of each. In Revelation & Authority: Sinai in Jewish Scripture and Tradition (2015), Benjamin Sommer, a professor of Bible at the Jewish Theological Seminary, maintains that this bifurcation of mind and spirit is both untenable and spiritually dishonest. While fully embracing the findings of critical scholarship, Sommer also embraces the notion of divine revelation at Sinai and of a binding halakhic commitment incumbent upon all Jews. Under this banner he puts forth a theology unifying scholarship and tradition, weaving together biblical, talmudic, and modern philosophical sources. (Among the latter, pride of place is given to Franz Rosenzweig and Abraham Joshua Heschel.)
Nothing quite like this synthesis between scholarship and Judaism’s classical beliefs has ever been attempted before, and Sommer’s work is breathtaking in its scope. Many readers, especially those to his theological right, will not agree with his conclusions. But any reader seeking to balance a commitment to scholarship with a commitment to Judaism’s basic tenets will find in his work an exhaustive presentation of primary and secondary sources, with creative theological options flowing from every chapter.
At the same time, as I’ve already hinted, Sommer’s work has an ideological purpose in mind. In particular, he does not see himself bound to the classical halakhic system of talmudic Judaism; rather, he believes in and defends the legitimacy of multiple halakhic systems and communities. This position he bases on scholarly grounds.
Within the text of the final, canonized Torah, Sommer argues, we find multiple and conflicting iterations of the same law. Thus, for example, Exodus 12 rules that Israelites should offer the paschal sacrifice in their own domiciles. Deuteronomy 16, however, insists that Israelites travel to the central shrine in order to offer the sacrifice. For Sommer, the inclusion of both, mutually exclusive iterations of the law within the final version of the Torah reveals that the editor of the Torah—the redactor, in academic parlance—approved of more than one way of observing God’s law. Thus, he concludes, intertwining scholarship with liberal theology, modern Jewish communities may also adopt different rulings on how to follow a given law in the Torah.
Here’s the catch, however: Sommer’s argument-from-scholarship is partial to a specific interpretation of the evidence. Many critical scholars do not see the laws in Exodus 12 and Deuteronomy 16 as contradictory. Instead, they argue that the law in Deuteronomy 16 is a later adaptation and newfound application of the law in Exodus 12. Deuteronomy envisions an age when Israel will have a centralized shrine, or Temple, and when it does, it will be incumbent upon Israelites to offer the paschal sacrifice there. The final version of the Torah retains the earlier version of the law because it is committed to showing how the law evolved.
Laws in the Torah are always dated; some are dated to Sinai, some to the trek in the wilderness, and some to the final year of Moses’ life. By always specifying the date, the Torah casts the law as developing in accordance with changing circumstance. In this regard, the Torah resembles the U.S. Constitution and its way of adding amendments. The eighteenth amendment of 1919 enacted the nationwide prohibition on the sale of alcohol. The twentieth amendment of 1933 repealed it. Although one prohibits and the other permits, the legal convention of constitutional amendments, whereby both are preserved, allows the reader to follow the law’s evolution.
So it is with varying iterations of the law in the Torah. To these scholars, the biblical redactor does not in the least believe in multiple halakhic systems. Rather, his work demonstrates that law may change over time but that, at any one moment, all of Israel is obligated to obey a single law.
To be clear, my point here is not to invalidate the theology proposed by Sommer, who laudably discloses the interests that animate his work. Rather, I mean to illustrate the double standard that permeates so much of biblical studies. When a scholar adduces evidence for the unity of a text, even if he makes no mention of theology whatsoever, he is liable to be labeled a conservative and the academic form in which he expresses his argument will be dismissed as an impermissible weave of scholarship with the suspect ideology behind it. In Revelation & Authority, Sommer explicitly and unabashedly reveals his theologically liberal views, but I suspect he would bristle at being labeled a “liberal scholar”—for to be so labeled would suggest that he lacks impartiality in considering evidence and that his reading of that evidence is driven by his liberal theology. But he need not worry: as things stand in the profession, and in marked contrast to the one-sided employment of the delegitimizing label “conservative,” the label “liberal” would never be applied, let alone applied pejoratively, even to a scholar who marshals one side in a scholarly debate to advance an openly liberal agenda.
Indeed, the field of biblical studies would benefit if such labels were abolished altogether.
V. Pacifism and the Art of Dating Biblical Texts
My second example is Holy Resilience: The Bible’s Traumatic Origins(2014) by David Carr, a professor at New York’s Union Theological Seminary.
Before getting to that work, we need to take cognizance of Carr’s immediately preceding book, The Formation of the Hebrew Bible(2011), one of the most influential works in biblical studies to appear since the turn of the present century. In that book, Carr took a step that source critics should have taken long ago. Instead of relying strictly on his own intuition and sense of literary unity to trace the Torah’s prehistory, he looked outside the Bible to documented examples in the ancient Near East of how an epic or law book expands and changes over time. Carr’s study and others that have followed it sound a consistent note: the epigraphic evidence shows that many of the forms of editing routinely hypothesized by source critics of the Torah were not employed anywhere else in the ancient Near East.
This is a convention-smashing conclusion. Time and again, biblical scholars have claimed that simply by analyzing the version we have, we can accurately recreate what earlier versions of the text looked like. That is certainly possible where both earlier and later stages of an ancient text are in fact available—as, for instance, in accounts found in the biblical book of Chronicles that are clearly built on those found in the books of Samuel and Kings. But it would not be remotely possible to recreate Samuel and Kings if you did not know of their existence and all you had in hand was the text of Chronicles. Eggs cannot be unscrambled, and texts cannot be mined for fissures to produce their precursors. Summarizing his findings, Carr asserts in The Formation of the Hebrew Bible that the sources and editorial layers so confidently articulated by source critics are likely “nothing but the inventions of their creators.”
With this in mind, let’s now turn to Holy Resilience. Here Carr undertakes to determine the date of composition for much of the biblical corpus. In his judgment, most of the books of the Bible, the Torah included, were written during the Babylonian exile (586-538 BCE) or immediately following the return of the exiles to Judea, when they lived under Persian hegemony. It was then that, for Carr, the exiles chose to commit to writing the traditions they had long held. The circumstances were ripe: in Babylon, they saw themselves as akin to or indeed as another iteration of the Israelite people in Egypt, the slaves whom Moses would lead out of exile. “Somehow,” he writes, “these traumatized Judeans found healing in stories about ancient Israel and its chosenness.”
There is elegance in Carr’s narrative. And it is undoubtedly satisfying to think of Jewish scripture as a form of spiritual resistance, a means by which an oppressed minority struggles to survive against stronger powers. The title of Carr’s book, Holy Resilience, highlights just that point—and also another, related point: as he explains in the introduction, “Here I tell the story of how the Jewish and Christian Bibles both emerged as responses to suffering, particularly group suffering.” And in the very brief preface, Carr also shares his interest in writing the book: “As a Quaker, I am especially conscious of those who have suffered and are now suffering in war—the war on terror, the war on drugs, and more conventional wars, in Iraq, Afghanistan, and many other places.”
So, in Holy Resilience, the theological and the scholarly align perfectly and are braided together as one. If you hold a theology of pacifism—many Quakers renounce the bearing of arms and conscientiously object to participating in war—it cannot but be appealing to think of scripture as itself the creative product of victims rather than perpetrators of violence.
Yet, seductive though this vision is, as a method of dating the biblical text it is open to serious challenge on several grounds. Here I’ll mention only two. For one thing, recently found documents from ancient Babylon reveal that the Jewish exiles there were active in trade and actually slave owners, which suggests that they were fairly well-off and certainly not oppressed like the Israelite slaves in Egypt. For another, biblical linguists maintain that the Hebrew of the Torah reflects pre-exilic Hebrew—when Israelites exercised autonomy in their own land—to a degree that could not have been mimicked by a scribe living in the exilic or post-exilic period.
Imagine for a moment that Carr had argued for a dating of the Torah to the pre-exilic era in which Israel enjoyed self-rule under Israelite kings, and had prefaced his work by saying: “As a Zionist, I am especially conscious of how periods of ascendancy, autonomy, and power enrich the life of Israel.” At the very least, he would have been promptly taken to task for inappropriately conflating ideology and scholarship. My point here, as in the case of Benjamin Sommer, is not to invalidate Carr’s theology or his commitment to his Quaker faith; it’s not even to invalidate his scholarly conclusions. Like Sommer, he is to be lauded for laying bare the motivations behind his work. Yet he, too, I suspect, would take umbrage at being labeled a “liberal scholar”—though, to repeat, in the field of biblical studies a scholar is never called out for being “liberal” and agenda-driven even when he openly and proudly marries his scholarship to a liberal ideology.
The heroization of victimhood that animates Carr’s book finds a highly receptive audience among academics. Consider a single statistic: the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, held in North America each November, is the largest such gathering in the field of biblical studies. Search the online program of this past year’s meeting, at which over 1,700 papers were presented, and you’ll discover 326 references to the word “violence,” a number far outstripping occurrences of such core biblical terms as “Jerusalem,” “Torah,” “Covenant,” “Moses,” or “David.” And yet the word “violence” has no direct translation in either biblical Hebrew or in the Greek of the New Testament.
Has the academic preoccupation with “violence” done violence to the critical study of scripture on scripture’s own terms? Read on.
“Could you tell me when scholars say the Torah was written?” The question, posed to me by an Israeli student just after the last class of the day—an hour when most of his peers were heading out for the evening—was voiced by a secular kibbutznik in his mid-twenties who in the classroom had impressed me by his thoughtful demeanor. As we sat down, I began by mentioning the vast range of scholarly opinion on this issue.
“Well, then,” he interrupted, “what do most scholars say? What’s the consensus?”
Again I stressed the difficulty of defining a consensus, especially in light of the many scholars who believe that the Torah includes pre-existing traditions much older than the final text. Moreover, I continued, we have virtually no epigraphic attestations to the Torah from the biblical period itself, and the events described in it occurred many centuries prior to our oldest copies, which are copies of copies. “Perhaps the truest answer,” I suggested, “is that we may not be able to know when it was written.”
He pounded his fist on the table. “But we have to know!”
Pausing tentatively, I probed. “Why do we have to know?”
He pounded a second time. “Because they’re ruining the country!”
Were “they” the Israeli settlers in Judea and Samaria, the Ḥaredim, perhaps both? I was bemused by his apparent belief that if only he could march into the yeshivas of Bnei Brak with “proof” that the Torah wasn’t written by God, the students would chuck their yarmulkes and follow him out like the pied piper. But I was unsettled by his lack of intellectual honesty. He had posed an academic question but was willing to accept an academic answer only if it provided ammunition for his side in the culture wars.
Little did he know it, but my student was executing a move out of Spinoza’s playbook. Spinoza’s comments about the composition of the Bible—the comments that made him the father of biblical criticism—appeared in The Theological-Political Treatise. For Spinoza, theology and politics went hand in hand. He believed that the best way to undercut the authority of the Church was to go to the source and undermine scripture itself. By subjecting the Bible to critical analysis and demonstrating its utterly human origins, he wrote, we will succeed in “freeing our minds from theological prejudices and the blind acceptance of human fictions as God’s teaching.”
In many quarters today, the critical scrutiny of scripture is executed in the wider service of advancing secular liberal positions, and doing so by undermining the beliefs of the faithful. In the United States, you can hear echoes of “they’re ruining the country!” in any number of aggrieved groups who feel that fundamentalists and their Bibles must be reined in—and who, following in Spinoza’s footsteps, see in the field of biblical scholarship itself a source of ammunition with which to wage this battle.
Consider one example from feminist studies of the Bible. It’s plain enough that the Torah views women as subordinate to men when it comes to land ownership and to service in the judiciary, the Temple, and the military, to name just a few areas. But sometimes, in the guise of careful inquiry, feminist critics pursue a cultural knockout.
Thus, an oft-repeated claim is that, according to the Bible, the covenant at Sinai was made with the men of Israel alone. The stakes here could hardly be higher. It is one thing to claim that a law here or there is prejudicial toward women. But if the covenant between God and man—the very core of the Bible—was indeed struck only with “man” and not with woman, then the entire edifice of biblical theology will have been shown to be androcentric: which is to say, rotten through and through. To shame the Bible is to tame it.
Some feminist scholars point to Exodus 19:15, where God commands the Israelites concerning preparations for the revelation at Sinai: “He said to the people, ‘Be ready for the third day; do not go near a woman.’” Clearly the address here is to men. Therefore, these scholars conclude, all other uses of “the people” in the account of revelation and covenant-making also refer to men alone.
Conveniently, however, this ignores other verses in the same account where the phrase “the people” unequivocally includes women. Exodus 19:12: “You shall set bounds for the people saying, ‘Beware of going up the mountain or touching the border of it. Anyone who touches the mountain shall surely die.’” The following verse explicitly clarifies that any living being—human or beast—that touches the mountain shall surely die. Clearly, then, the term “the people” in Exodus 19 can shift in meaning depending who is being addressed in a given verse. There is certainly no proof that “the people” here refers to men exclusively.
Needless to add, feminist critics are rarely called out on the charge that their ideology has contaminated the rigor of their scholarship. Nor are they ever dismissed as “liberal scholars.” To the contrary, agendas that underscore grievance on the basis of gender, sexuality, or race are sacrosanct. Plight makes right, and to the alleged victim go the spoils.
VII. Leveling the Playing Field
The marginalizing and delegitimizing of “conservative scholars” are most prevalent in Scandinavia and in German-speaking countries, where the punitive brand of secularism is a stronger cultural force than in the United States. Nor are non-European scholars exempt, especially if they have spent substantial time studying in Germany.
The bias can take several forms. Recently, one of the leading German publishers of biblical studies, Harrassowitz Verlag, released the work of an up-and-coming scholar. Sight unseen, several major periodicals based in Europe declined to review the book, and German libraries with strong holdings in biblical studies refused to order it. The reason: the author is affiliated with a seminary deemed to be on the conservative end of the Protestant spectrum.
Sometimes the bias surfaces earlier, during the review process of a proposed submission to a book publisher or academic journal. Although the authors’ names are routinely hidden for purposes of such peer review, a reviewer will summarily reject, on grounds of supposed hidden motives, a work that appears to espouse one of the three “suspect” categories listed earlier: the literary coherence of the biblical text, the authenticity of its historical account, or the antiquity of its composition. Among academic journals based in Central Europe, years can go by without a single article appearing that argues for the coherence, accuracy, or antiquity of a biblical text.
But the problem is not geographically limited. To the contrary, in many quarters critical study of the Bible today has become weaponized in the service of cultural warfare.
What, then, is to be done? The list is embarrassingly simple to rehearse.
First, delegitimizing a scholar by divining his or her supposed agenda has no place in academic discussion. Biblicists are trained in philology, not psychology—trained to study the prophets, not to become prophets themselves. Nor is a scholar’s motivation any kind of threat. Although the first generation of Israeli archeologists were openly driven to demonstrate the connection between the Jewish people and its land, all would agree that their contribution to the field of historical geography was pioneering and would not have happened in the absence of that ideological agenda. All would similarly agree that scholars with disabilities have shed significant light on the ways biblical texts portray individuals with physical deformities, precisely because of the intimate sensitivity they bring to their reading of the biblical text.
Next, what matters in judging scholarship is the evidence put forward and the cogency and integrity of its treatment. Weak arguments can be formulated by feminists and fundamentalists alike, and it is the responsibility of scholars at all points of the spectrum to subject them to honest critique.
Finally, academic rigor is properly predicated on the airing and robust discussion of multiple viewpoints. When one range of arguments is routinely silenced, the discipline fails its mandate and enters into the service of other interests. It is absolutely true that many religious individuals do try to bolster the standing of the Bible with recourse to weak scholarly arguments. But today we see a counter-bias on the left that is just as corrosive to the integrity of the field. The default academic position of the left is to demonstrate the Bible’s incoherence, historical inaccuracy, and late composition. This creates an implicit bias in favor of deconstruction and devaluation that is inbuilt: not a bug, but a feature.
No less true is that there are many fine biblicists who are source-critics, or who argue for late dates of composition, or who doubt the historical accuracy of the text—all with no ideological agenda in mind. And there are many areas of biblical studies—think, for example, of scholarship focusing on comparisons with other materials from the ancient Near East—that greatly enrich our understanding of sacred scripture.
But something is surely amiss when one can scour major European journals in vain for even a mention of responsible arguments in favor of a text’s coherence, accuracy, or antiquity; when only supposedly conservative agendas are labeled as such but never openly liberal ones; when a book or author is effectively blacklisted by reason of affiliation; and when scholars are in agreement that their discipline has fallen into chaos but are incapable of changing course.
The first person in the Hebrew Bible to probe the Torah of Moses was Joshua. To level the playing field today, biblicists should be heeding the divine instruction received by Joshua for the proper execution of his task: “Do not turn from it, neither right nor left.”