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.