Thursday, January 29, 2015

Which Text is Inerrant?

Lincoln Blumell's brand new article on the textual criticism of Luke 22:43-44 casts recent statements by Craig Blomberg in an interesting light. In Blomberg's recent apologetic work for inerrancy, he claims:
A famous two-verse variant appears in Luke 22:43-44. In the middle of Jesus's agony in the garden of Gethsemane, we read that "an angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground." The NIV offers the following footnote at this point: "Many early manuscripts do not have verses 43 and 44." Many others do. The external evidence is quite split: about half of the oldest and most reliable manuscripts contain these sentences, and about half don't. The vast majority of all the late manuscripts contain them, but their evidence doesn't weigh that heavily in a decision. There is nothing terribly "hard" about this reading, especially when we realize that Luke is employing a simile: Jesus's sweat is like drops of blood. The text does not say he actually sweats blood. So it seems more likely that some overly pious scribe wanted to add a supernatural dimension to the story, with the role of the angel strengthening Christ, than that someone omitted these verses despite finding them in the manuscript he was copying.
(Craig L. Blomberg, Can We Still Believe the Bible? [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Brazos Press, 2014], 23).
Blomberg gets the manuscript evidence wrong. As Blumell notes that many scholars misconstrue the manuscript evidence for the passage "and so our earliest extant piece of manuscript evidence for Luke 22 attests vv. 43–44!" (p. 6). Blumell also shows that early Christian authors note embarrassment over the notions that Jesus suffered in the garden (any good Stoic should know that a real man can face pain and torture) and also note that Christian copyists had deleted the passage.

One has to wonder, since Blomberg is defending the tampered text as inerrant what does that say about his inerrancy arguments?

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

An Exception to the Rule

In most cases the comments sections on the internet are not worth reading. They are typically full of bile. In this case, at least when I looked at it, the comments were better than the article:
As one of the commentators said, it almost looks like an article from the Onion.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

A Biblical Scholar Examines the Scholarly Scene

Ziony Zevit is Distinguished Professor of Biblical Literature and Northwest Semitic Languages and Literatures at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles. The archaeologist, William Dever, describes Zevit's work, The Religions of Ancient Israel, as
"the most ambitious, the most sophisticated, the most important study of ancient Israelite religions ever undertaken." Such high praise is due, of course, to Zevit's extensive use of archaeological evidence, often based on first-hand re-examination and treated with an expertise that I have not seen in any other non-specialist. Certainly no other current biblicist can match Zevit's command of a broad range of archaeological data, which he, like me, takes as a "primary source" along with texts.
(William G. Dever, Did God Have a Wife? (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans, 2005), 46.)
In a more recent work on Genesis 2-3 Zevit describes various types of approaches to the biblical text. The first he terms "the 'Mosaic-authorship' approach." This approach maintains that Moses wrote the Pentateuch except the last few verses of Deuteronomy which describe Moses's death. The second he terms "the literary-historical approach" which views the Pentateuch as written by various authors or schools of authors that are labeled with the letters J, E, P, and D. Zevit notes that
The important question for individuals open to this approach, then, is not whether this type of composition was practiced . . . but whether it played a role in the formation of the Pentateuch.
(Ziony Zevit, What Really Happened in the Garden of Eden? (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), 41.)
Zevit goes through this discussion because he consciously adapts his discussion to work with either of the two approaches. He assesses some of the strengths and weaknesses of the two approaches:
Both the Mosaic-authorship and the literary-historical approaches focus on the literature of the Pentateuch. The first emphasizes continuities and prefers to avoid complexities that historical considerations introduce to a consideration of the text. The second emphasizes literary discontinuities and posits complex historical considerations to explain them.
(Zevit, What Really Happened in the Garden of Eden?, 44.)
Zevit notices something strange, however, in the two approaches:
the Garden story considered below, regularly assigned to the J source, is considered the distillation of a literary tradition whose oral antecedents took shape around two centuries earlier, around 1100 BCE, close to some of the dates proposed by the Mosaic-authorship approach.
 (Zevit, What Really Happened in the Garden of Eden?, 42.)
So the two approaches approach the same date.

Zevit notes that "Kenneth A. Kitchen, a world-class Egyptologist and scholar of ancient Near Eastern civilizations" does not fit in either camp because he "introduces history into the first approach . . . in order to tweak and improve an approach that he believes is essentially insightful, useful, and not in opposition to faith" (Zevit, What Really Happened in the Garden of Eden?, 45).

Zevit notes that when the literary-historical approach is adapted for faith that the resultant approach
is very heavy on the "literary" and absolutely unresponsive and hostile to historical considerations. [Such] uncompromising views allow little space for conversation. Kitchen's approach, in contrast, is heavy on the "historical" and generally, but not absolutely, unresponsive to the literary analysis of critical scholars. He does allow, though, for slight changes in the text that may have crept in over the centuries during which the scribes copied and recopied the text.
(Zevit, What Really Happened in the Garden of Eden?, 46.) 
(I note parenthetically that I am open to the possibility that the Pentateuch had numerous sources, extensive scribal errors, and heavy-handed redaction, probably much more than Kitchen. I am, however, skeptical of the ability of modern scholarship to accurately detect such things without hard evidence. Methodologically it is safer to be a factualist like Kitchen.)

Zevit's observations provide an interesting way of looking at recent discussions about the Old Testament that have been occurring among some Latter-day Saint scholars.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Assessing Historical Authenticity of the Historical Books of the Hebrew Bible

Many biblical scholars argue that biblical historical narratives (think things like Kings) were written, or for some scholars made up, years after the fact. Certainly in their current form, they can date no earlier than "the thirty-seventh year of the captivity of Jehoiachin" (2 Kings 25:27) about 561 B.C. Some scholars, nevertheless date them to the Persian period or Hellenistic period rather than the Neo-Babylonian period. The claim is that Kings presents a fictive narrative made up years after the fact to provide Judah with a national history that it never had.

What does a fictive narrative put together years after the fact look like? The apocryphal book of 1 Esdras is a good candidate. I am comfortable with a Hellenistic date for 1 Esdras but am willing to consider other options. I will briefly summarize the narrative adding actual historical dates in parentheses.
  • The narrative begins when "Josiah (640-609 B.C.) conducted the Passover to his Lord in Jerusalem." (1 Esdras 1:1).

  • Then "Pharaoh, king of Egypt, came to wage war in Carchemesh on the Euphrates" and Josiah was killed (1 Esdras 1:23-29). The source for this is the book of Kings (1 Esdras 1:31).

  • Then Jehoahaz (609 B.C.) became king of Judah (1 Esdras 1:32).

  • Then Jehoiakim (609-598 B.C.) became king of Judah (1 Esdras 1:37).

  • "Against him arose Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon" (1 Esdras 1:38).

  • So Zedekiah (597-586 B.C.) was appointed king over Judah (1 Esdras 1:44).

  • In the first year of the reign of Cyrus (585-550 B.C.) as king of Persia (1 Esdras 2:1).

  • Then came the reign of Artaxerxes I (465-424 BC) as king of Persia (1 Esdras 2:12).

  • Then Darius (550-486 B.C.) ruled over the Persian empire (1 Esdras 3:1).
The author of 1 Esdras cannot get the reigns of the Persian rulers in proper order. The only place where he gets the rulers in the right order is when he is relying on the book of Kings, which he cites as a source.

This can be contrasted with the order of Assyrian rulers in the books of Kings:
  • First comes the reign of Pul who is also called Tiglath-pileser (745-727 B.C.) (2 Kings 15:19, 29; 16:7, 10).

  • Second comes Shalmaneser V (727-722 B.C.) (2 Kings 17:3; 18:9).

  • Third comes the reign of Sennacherib (705-681 B.C.) (2 Kings 18:13; 19:16, 20, 36; cf. Isaiah 36:1; 37:17, 21, 37).

  • Then comes the reign of Esarhaddon (681-669 B.C.) (2 Kings 19:37; cf. Isaiah 37:38).
The book of Kings gets the Assyrian rulers in the correct order even though, when its final form was written, the Assyrian empire no longer existed (and had not for at least a couple of generations), nor did its records (which were discovered over two millennia later in situ). Given the hash of history that 1 Esdras presents us with, why would we expect that the writer of Kings would get the order of an earlier dead empire correct if he did not have access to more or less accurate historical records?

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Estimating the Size of the Israelite Library

How many books were available to an educated ancient Israelite?

For the time being, I am accepting the assumption that literacy was not widespread in ancient Israel even though I am aware of evidence that suggests that literacy was more widespread than most assume. You basically need at least one person in every village (about 200-250 people) that can read or write to serve as the scribe and larger places would need more than one scribe simply because the work load would require it. People from hamlets or outlying homesteads would have to go into town if they needed a scribe.

Most documents from antiquity simply do not survive. Most of them are written on perishable surfaces. They are destroyed, on purpose, on accident, with the passage of time. Many of them are buried and never found. Even of a civilization filled with writing, like ancient Egypt, only a small fragment of what once existed survives. Most of it is gone, mostly irretrievably so. Consider the example of P. Wilbour. This is a large scale tax survey of farmers and their produce. There should have been at least one of these rolls for every one of 42 nomes for the three thousand year span of pharaonic history. There should have been at least 126,000 of them. We have one. So the vast bulk of the documentation that once existed does not survive.

Evidence for writing in ancient Israel dates at least to the tenth century. Given that this is the time of the rise of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, this is about what we should expect. Archaeological finds of writing are a small percentage of what was produced. Thus in order to expect to find any writing, much needs to be produced. The main reason for writing to be produced are for legal and administrative reasons. The bulk of ancient writing finds are actually administrative documents. So if you want to find documents of any sort, you usually need to have a state with a bureaucracy. This does not mean that writing and literacy were not available earlier but it would be harder to find archaeologically.

Granted that the amount of administrative and legal material (often grouped together as documentary materials) would be the bulk of writing, we need to consider what percentage of surviving material we could expect to be literary (what we would think of as being part of a library). In Ugarit (a coastal town destroyed about 1200 BC that spoke a language closely related to Hebrew) they have published 1418 Ugaritic tablets (a number of Akkadian and Hurrian tablets have also been published), 176 of which are literary. That amounts to about one literary tablet for every eight tablets. On the Trismegistos database, of 76,182 Greek documents 11,219 are literary (covering over 4000 authors). That is about one in seven texts. So the numbers are roughly consistent between the two corpora and the number of texts in each case is statistically significant.

We can also define two other ratios. In Ugaritic tablets there are 17 times as many literary texts as legal texts. In Greek texts there are 1.5 times as many ostraca as literary texts.

In ancient Israel (and I include Judah in this as well), the major writing surface was papyrus, but only one pre-exilic papyrus has been found. (Papyrus decays in moist climate and while there are desert places in Israel the population tends to live in places that are not conducive to papyrus preservation; this is true of Egypt too.) Nevertheless, thousands of bullae have been found. Bullae are the mud seal impressions from papyrus documents. If later documents are any indication, they were used on legal texts. Even if we assume that the 161 bullae published by Avigad and Sass were the only ones from ancient Israel, if the ratios from ancient Ugarit hold, we should expect that there were at least 2700 literary papyri from pre-exilic Israel that would have survived if the climate did not destroy papyrus. Many of these would have been duplicates but with those numbers we could expect about 900 literary compositions (based on Greek ratios). Let's take that as a high estimate. (If we wanted an ultra-high estimate we would base it on the thousands of bullae found and multiply it five-fold: 13500 literary papyri with 4500 literary compositions. Let's err on the side of caution.)

A lower estimate would be to take the number of ostraca that have survived. Wimmer published 133 that had hieratic numerals, but Dobbs-Allsop lists 228 Hebrew ostraca from excavations. There is a partial overlap between these groups of texts. Rather than sorting out the total number of ostraca, I will just take the latter figure. Doing so yields an expectation of 152 literary texts which should total about 51 different works. Let's take that as a low estimate. By comparison, the Hebrew Bible comprises 39 works, 12 of which (1-2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Lamentations, Daniel, Ezekiel, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi) are definitely post-exilic, leaving at most 27 pre-exilic books, two of which (2 Kings, Jeremiah) did not receive their final form until after the exile. So the low estimate yields about twice as many literary works from pre-exilic Israel as we have preserved. (The high estimate yields twenty-three times as many works as have survived in the Hebrew Bible.)
 We can look at the problem another way. Dever estimates the population of the divided monarchy at about 150,000 people (The Lives of Ordinary People in Ancient Israel, 72). One scribe for every 500 people would mean that each harvest month (and different crops had different harvest times), the scribe would have to deal with 15-20 taxpayers a day all month. (Note that this is a smaller ratio of scribes per people than I used above.) That ratio still gives 300 scribes in the country. Spreading 152 literary papyri (our low estimate) over 300 scribes means that only every other village had a literary scroll. The high end estimate means that a typical village has on average only 9 literary works in the whole village (some would have more and some less). These numbers seem at least reasonable; but they are still guesses.

These papyri would be only a part of what once existed. It would be a mistake to assume that only what has survived in the Bible was what was available in ancient Israel and Judah.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Notes on Israelite Scribal Training II

Christopher Rollston is a good Hebrew epigrapher and because of his epigraphic perspective has some interesting and useful things to say about scribal education in ancient Israel.

It is worth noting that Rollston is not one of those who argues for high rates of literacy in ancient Israel:
The data do not support the contention that a high rate of literacy is a necessary corollary of a society with an alphabetic writing system.
 (Christopher A. Rollston, Writing and Literacy in the World of Ancient Israel [Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2010], 128.)
Dramatic conclusions, such as the literacy of the non-elite populace, require dramatic evidence.
(Rollston, Writing and Literacy in the World of Ancient Israel, 131.)
Rollston cautions that the epigraphic record (such as I analyzed yesterday) can be misread:
It is often noted that there are more Old Hebrew inscriptions from the seventh through sixth centuries than there are from the eight and ninth centuries, which is seen as evidence that literacy was spreading among the populace. I would point our in respoinse that a small coterie of professional scribes during any chronological horizon could produce very large numbers of inscriptions without much difficulty.
(Rollston, Writing and Literacy in the World of Ancient Israel, 133.)
Nonetheless, Rollston notes that there is a remarkable consistency among the epigraphic material from ancient Israel. It is harder to detect individual hands. This consistency has a number of implications that Rollston draws out.

For example, some have argued for a functional literacy in ancient Israel, that is people who could read and write but were not very good at it (something like Joseph Smith in nineteenth century America). Some scholars have presumed that functional literacy was widespread; others have argued that illiteracy was so widespread that even the scribes were only functionally literate. Rollston addresses this issue:
The lion's share of the Old Hebrew epigraphic record does not reflect "functional literacy" of the script. It reflects the sophisticated knowledge of trained professionals.
(Rollston, Writing and Literacy in the World of Ancient Israel, 107.)
Rollston also addresses the issue of scribal education:
It is simply not convincing to attempt to account for the Old Hebrew epigraphic data without positing some sort of formal, standardized education. After all, the production of formal, standardized, and sophisticated epigraphs necessitates the presence of formal, standardized scribal education.
(Rollston, Writing and Literacy in the World of Ancient Israel, 113.)
As a result,
Professional scribes of Old Hebrew were among the most learned practitioners of writing and reading. Scribes were often part of the royal administration. The majority of the extant Old Hebrew inscriptions are administrative in nature.
(Rollston, Writing and Literacy in the World of Ancient Israel, 128.)
It would be a mistake, however, to conclude that scribes were the only literate members of society:
Ultimately, I have argued that nothing else can account for the quality and consistency of these Old Hebrew epigraphs: formal, standardized scribal education is the most rational means of accounting for the quality of the Old Hebrew epigraphic materials. Nevertheless, I do not believe that those functioning as scribes were the only literate elites. Rather, I believe that at least some of the royal and temple officials would also have been literate.
(Rollston, Writing and Literacy in the World of Ancient Israel, 129, emphasis in original.)
Rollston addresses the implications of the epigraphic material for the production of literary texts which is worth quoting in extenso:
Finally, lest my arguments about literacy in ancient Israel be miscontrued, I should like to emphasize the obvious: the epigraphic evidence demonstrates that elites in ancient Israel were writing during the Iron IIA (900-800 B.C.E.), Iron IIB (800-722 B.C.E.), and Iron IIC (722-586 B.C.E.). Thompson has written that "we cannot seek an origin of literature in Palestine prior to the eighth, or perhaps even better the seventh-century" (1992, 391). With all due respect to Thompson, I must state that his position is in direct conflict with the epigraphic evidence and I do not consider his position to be at all defensible. After all, southern Levantine states are producing monumental inscriptions (e.g., the Mesha Stela, the Amman Citadel Inscription, the Tel Dan Inscription). Moreover, there is a distinct Old Hebrew national script that is already attested during the ninth century. Finally, this script is even used in a foreign region, by a foreign monarch, to inscribe a monumental text in a foreign language (Mesha Stela). It would be most difficult to argue that a culture capable of developing and employing a distinct national script with a developed scribal culture did not have the capacity to write texts of various sorts.

Someone might retort that the Israelites were capable of writing during Iron IIA, but not capable of writing "literature." Naturally, however, this would be a very strained argument. To put it positively, I am absolutely certain that a nation (Israel) that has a scribal apparatus that is capable of developing a national script and employing standardized orthographic conventions is certainly capable of producing literature.
 (Rollston, Writing and Literacy in the World of Ancient Israel, 134-35.)
As someone who works seriously with the epigraphic record, Rollston's views are worth serious consideration.

Friday, January 23, 2015

The Textual Criticism of Luke 22

Yesterday morning the new issue of TC: A Journal of Biblical Textual Criticism came out. The lead article is by my colleague, Lincoln Blumell. It deals with the textual criticism of Luke 22:43-44. This is the passage in the gospel of Luke that deals with Jesus sweating blood in the garden of Gethsemane and the angel appearing to him and strengthening him. Several New Testament manuscripts drop this passage. The conventional wisdom has been that this passage was added later. Blumell turns that on its head. He shows that the earliest manuscripts actually had the passage but that Christians were criticized for it in the second and third centuries and so they dropped the passage from their Bibles. Anyone interested in the textual history of this passage would be well advised to carefully consider Blumell's argument.