On the Irrelevance of Biblical Criticism

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Jerome Marcus

In a recent Lehrhaus article, Michah Gottlieb suggests a fundamental inconsistency between the historical assumptions underlying the documentary hypothesis and those underlying Orthodox study of both Oral and Written Torah. He may well be correct in this regard. And yet, there are problems with the biblical critical approach that are unrelated to religious dogma. I claim here that the hypothesis’s insistence that the Bible’s context and history should define its meaning are a bad way to read any good book, much less The Good Book.

Consider, first, the Marxist critique of Western political thought—that the entire canon represents one long effort to advance the political and economic interests of the writers, or of the people the writers were trying to please (which is essentially the same thing). If this is true, then one analyzing these texts should dismiss their arguments without any regard to the arguments’ actual content or quality, and without any need to evaluate the accuracy of their factual premises: if one buys the Marxist or economic determinist view, the substance of the arguments being made is simply one big post-hoc rationalization, whose merit one need not even bother measuring.

Placing a book’s historical context at the center of the effort to interpret it yields the same conclusion. Thomas Hobbes published the Leviathan in 1651, arguing that the best government—for any country, at any time—was a single, omnipotent ruler. The book came out two years after England had chopped off the head of Charles I, and was on its way to exiling another king, and while the country was engaged in a decades-long civil war. It would be easy to explain that Hobbes’s fear of disorder and revolution had led him to embrace a dictatorship that would at least create physical safety. His arguments about the state of nature, and about the contractual theory of government—powerful and elegant though they may be—would then be mere window dressing.

The problem with these arguments is that if one adopts this view one will never pay attention to the merits of the books’ arguments themselves. Having decided never to assess them, one will never appreciate the quality or value of these arguments. And if you buy that, then the entire wealth of philosophy and literature is lost.

Yet it’s clear that many things are written to advance the economic interests of some person or group, and some books really are the creatures of their time, and nothing more. Most books aren’t “great books” and won’t bear the weight of the kind of close reading recommended here.

How then, should a reader approach any book? Is a Robert Ludlum novel to be read the same way as the Torah—or the same way as Homer or a Platonic dialogue?

On some level, this question is a bit pathetic. It would be as if one challenged to assess the quality of Viennese pastry were to complain that perhaps one of the samples came from Dunkin Donuts, but that the taster is afraid he’ll be unable to tell which. Asking this question amounts to a confession that the complainer is unable to recognize depth, or the lack of it, when presented with either.

The solution, I believe, is as follows: the careful reader should proceed on the hypothesis that a book’s arguments are actually worth making and worth taking seriously. That means that, if one reaches a point in the book where the text and the reader’s mind diverge, the reader should proceed on the hypothesis that the fault is with the reader. Rather than attributing such a divergence to the superior wisdom of the reader, one should assume that the book actually contains a teaching that the reader doesn’t already know, and which is embedded in the text that caused the reader to stop or stumble. For the same reason, one does not interpret a book on the basis of the reader’s exogenous answer to the question why the author wrote; to find out what a book means, one reads it, and takes its argument seriously.

The essential point here is the adoption, ex hypothesi, of the principle of coherence: one proceeding in the way recommended here should assume while reading that the book is coherent; that the author knew what he was doing and said what he meant to say, as he meant to say it.

Why? Because rejecting these hypotheses means rejecting the ability to learn from the book. If, when presented with an apparent contradiction or question, one chooses to explain it by pointing to the author’s emotions, or economic interest, or by saying the author was confused or mistaken, one will ipso facto not try to find what the author was saying. The moment one has recourse to these explanations is the exact moment that one, in effect, closes the book and ceases to learn from it.

Yet, as Jon Levenson has recently explained, the central insight of biblical criticism is just this: he insists we cannot read the Bible except “as a human artifact, authored by historical figures with their own contingent identities, including linguistic, cultural, social, political, and now gender identities.” Bible criticism thus rests on the idea that

to interpret the text accurately, the identity of the author and his historical location had to be reconstructed, and this required the dating of the text and, correlatively, its extrication from texts of later or earlier authors with which it had come to be interwoven.

One adopting this view of the Bible necessarily rejects the idea that the text is a coherent whole. As Levenson explains, for Bible critics, “[s]cholars who read biblical texts as coherent wholes, effectively without compositional histories, seemed naïve because they ignored history, the key category.”

Yet someone who is focused on the text’s history and the identity of its author(s) will not study the text with the commitment of extracting meaning from the text itself. Instead, he will use the context to inject meaning into the text from outside it.

Will this be a loss? To answer that question we can, like the biblical exegete Umberto Cassuto, take the strongest apparent inconsistency to which the Bible critics point: the Torah’s use of different names of God. The moment one explains the different names as evidence of different authors, one dismisses the possibility that the text’s use of different names in different places has—and is intended by the author to convey—meaning or truth. If you do that, then Rav Soloveitchik’s explanation of Adam the First and Adam the Second is wiped away before one has even taken the time to think about it. Similarly, in the book of Yonah, YKVK command Yonah to prophesy in Ninveh. Yet Ninveh’s residents submit not to YKVK but instead to Elokim. This distinction is intended to convey meaning. Yet if you understand these two names to be placed in the Bible by different authors, then this difference becomes nothing more than evidence that different authors wrote different chapters.

There are manifold places in Tanakh where the names of God alternate and there’s something to learn from this shift. Yet if this is understood as simply a function of the different authorial hands of J, E, or P, then we lose the ability to learn from the text itself about God and God’s relationship to the world. When we can no longer learn this from the Bible it’s not clear what we are gaining by reading the Bible.

It’s not just the religious reader—it’s also the truly careful and wise reader—who will never abandon the assumption of the Torah’s coherence for just this reason. The moment one abandons the assumption of coherence is the moment one stops learning from the Torah.

Note that this argument says absolutely nothing about the historical origin of the Torah. Biblical criticism may or may not rest on bad history. Instead, the argument here is that Bible critics advocate a shallow way to read any book, much less the Book of Books. Surely if one should read the Federalist Papers, or Shakespeare, or any other part of the Western canon, on the hypothesis that those books contain great ideas and that they are worth taking seriously as the vehicles for the transmission of those ideas, surely then the Bible can profitably be read in that way. And just as it would be a colossal mistake to dismiss Hamilton, Madison, and Jay as nothing more than advocates for their class, so it is at least as big a mistake to dismiss the Torah—any part of it—as simply the work of a priest advocating for priests, or of any other group advocating for that group’s interests. This leaves unaddressed the question of who wrote what; it simply advises that the best way to read the Torah is with the expectation that it is coherent, so that we can always learn from it.

Two final points may be useful. First, the religiously committed Jewish reader may well find this explanation deeply unsatisfying because it leaves undefended the proposition that God Himself spoke to one flesh-and-blood man named Moshe who committed that speech to writing and gave it to us as the Torah. To that criticism I plead guilty with an explanation. I am leaving that proposition undefended, not because I don’t believe it but because (a) I don’t think the proposition can be defended to anyone who doesn’t believe it (הכל בידי שמים חוץ מיראת שמים) and, more importantly, (b) it’s not necessary to defend that proposition in order to eliminate the destructive force of Bible criticism. A much simpler argument may be made, that such criticism encourages a shallow way of reading any good book.

It is also true that much of the force of the documentary hypothesis comes from its demand to know exactly how the words of the Torah were communicated to humanity. Who wouldn’t want to know that, and why is a religious person afraid of the answer to that question? Yet this poses a question that the Torah itself tells us cannot be answered: when Moshe asks הראני נא את כבודך “show me your honor,” Ex. 33:18) and God in effect says “No,” God is refusing to identify the precise mechanism by which He interacts with the world. We know God has no “mouth,” so that the mechanics of this communication, and the Torah’s description of God as “speaking,” to Moshe, is a reference to something other than what we know as speech. God’s rejection of Moshe’s request serves as a statement that we cannot know exactly what that operation, what that mechanism, is. The mechanical question posed by the documentary hypothesis is unanswerable, and the religious Jew should not be afraid or embarrassed to say that.

In essence, the commitment to coherence liberates the Jew to consider and respect many different meanings for the Torah’s text. If the most important thing we know about the Torah is that it must be True, then any reading that might be true is a potentially accurate one. Did Abraham sin when he told Avimelekh that Sarah was his sister? The commentators—the Jews—disagree on this point as they do on thousands of others.

The commitment to the Torah’s coherence, and to its truth, thus creates the fractured page, and the endless argument, of the Mikraot Gedolot. That endless argument generates the insistence that every educated Jew be committed to the possibility of being wrong, to living with uncertainty, about the most important issues—how should I live my life? What actions are good, and which bad?

Dismissing problems in a text as having been generated by the writers’ historical or economic or emotional context destroys this shared enterprise.

The Western philosophical canon defines a community of writers and readers who, across the centuries since Plato, are engaged in a shared discussion about what constitutes the good life. The argument about what the Torah really means is the same kind of argument: it is, in the end, a discussion across the centuries, including every person who is committed to extracting truth from this book, about what is really true and what is really good. This commitment to extracting the Truth from this book therefore defines a community of people—the Jewish people.

Jerome M. Marcus is a lawyer in private practice and a fellow at Kohelet Policy Forum.