Saturday, 23 March 2019

Re-Visioning Ancient Israel

I've been working through parts of Neil Ormerod's Re-Visioning the Church with my graduate seminar on Early Christian Institutions. This has led to at least two developments in my thinking. One, that this book is too rich to only assign parts to students: you need to work through the whole thing. Two, a deepening of my conviction that there is need for a prequel, which uses the same basic Lonerganian approach to look at the history of ancient Israel and Judaism through to the early rabbinic era (ideally, such an account would continue through to modern Judaism, in order to combat the impression that the history of ancient Israel and Judaism leads most naturally into that of Christianity, but I personally lack the competence to produce such an account; the best I can do is take the account some distance into the rabbinic era).

This second conviction came out of a recent class discussion, in which we considered how the early church was not a creation ex nihilo but rather a new development within a history that goes back to the Canaanite Bronze Age. Leaving aside intellectually fraught efforts to argue that ancient Israel is an epic fiction manufactured in the Persian or Greek era--an effort that will forever stumble over the Merneptah stele--we can reasonably envision a basic chain of progression. What became Christianity first appears within the synagogues of Galilee and Judea; it soon spreads to those of the Diaspora, and both there and in the Land it sets up communities structured along the lines of Jewish precedents. But these synagogues and others Jewish precedents have a history. In the Land, they began as the city-gate, which stretches back to Bronze Age antecedents, a space in which the elders of the town assembled to debate and discuss matters of great concern to themselves (Ruth 4 offers an exemplary account of the sort of matters likely considered in that space, and one suspects that Genesis 23 does as well); and although the synagogues of the diaspora were largely modeled after the institutional forms of the Greco-Roman associations they nonetheless took on many of the same roles within the overseas Jewish communities as did the synagogues of home. It is altogether possible to write a history of both the synagogue and the church that begins with the Bronze Age Canaanite city-state, asking how various stages of development represented transformations necessary to better meet the needs of developing communities.

Of course, the deleterious effects of group bias would also need to be considered: sometimes--and we can argue about the relative frequency--transformations occurred not to better meet the needs of developing communities, but rather to allow particular groups (typically, the males of affluent lineages) to dominate others. Indeed, we would have to consider the degree to which the city-gate was rooted in such bias from the start; certainly, one could very easily build a narrative in which it originated precisely to further and sustain affluent male dominance. In any case however, ancient Israel probably in part emerged as a revolt against such domination, and there is I think evidence to suggest that it took measures to institute and sustain a degree (but only a degree) of egalitarianism. But as inevitably happens, revolution against inequality eventually gave way to new inequalities: certainly in the form of the monarchies, but probably yet earlier. This was probably the case especially for women, as revolutions have a remarkable capacity to insufficiently apprehend that women might desire the same freedom from oppression as do men. Consider that probably the most brutal description of violence against a woman is found within Judges 19, which leads directly to the Benjamite civil war in Judges 20 and in Judges 21 the kidnapping and forced marriage of four hundred young women who had just seen their families killed by the rest of Israel. Whether these accounts describe actual courses of events (and I am more sanguine than many about that possibility), they probably should be taken as an indication that the men of the Israelite settlements valued women less as persons and more as resources. The Marxist and feminist traditions excel in considering such sad realities, for probably no intellectual traditions have more fully explored how group bias--whether it be towards the affluent or towards the male--destroys the integrity of communities and the well-being of individual lives. (One of my students' criticisms of Ormerod was that he did not take much account of power; I am probably to blame for giving them that impression, as I did not have them read his discussions of bias. Again, that speaks to how Re-Visioning is not a book into which one can just dip).

Now, some students suggested that Jesus' life and ministry and salvific significance were such that there was some sort of rupture in the historical continuum. From a historical perspective, I would fully grant that Jesus represents one of those creative personalities who periodically emerges to address the urgent needs of their times; the emergence of such creative personalities might indeed be taken as signs of divine grace operating in history. And indeed, the needs of Jesus' time were urgent. The Jewish revolt was still a few decades away, but the Land was already suffering from many of the conditions that led to that event, most notably I would argue the economic depredations suffered by the local population under Roman rule. Jewish society in the Land was breaking down under these depredations, as lifeways were disturbed by predatory foreign rule. Leaders emerged, promising deliverance from these conditions. The real question for me as a historian is why from this particular situation this one particular leader, Jesus of Nazareth, began a movement that eventually took over the world. Theologically, one might articulate this in terms of God's gracious solution to the problem of human evil, but I would argue that historically this question can only be answered by the fullest understanding of the problems to which Jesus was responding and the conditions under which he operated, and that moreover the theological account would only be deepened by fully developing the historical.

Tuesday, 19 March 2019

How Old is the Hebrew Bible?

I've been reading through Hendel and Joosten's How Old is the Hebrew Bible?, and thought I'd post some thoughts on the book. Now, a caveat as I do so: this book is largely concerned with arguing that historical linguistics offers an important set of data when it comes to dating the Hebrew bible, and it should be noted that I am very far from being a historical linguist. But I do know a thing or two about how one goes about thinking about the date of biblical texts, and it's on that basis that I write here.

Hendel and Joosten's basic hypothesis is that if a text is predominantly written in Classical Biblical Hebrew (CBH), then it likely was composed when Classical Biblical Hebrew was predominant; if a text is predominantly written in Transitional Biblical Hebrew, then it likely was composed when Transitional Biblical Hebrew (TBH) was predominant; and if a text is predominantly written in Late Biblical Hebrew, then it likely was composed when Late Biblical Hebrew (LBH) was predominant. It is difficult to argue with the basic supposition underlying this hypothesis, namely that all things being equal (a term that they themselves use, quite rightly), there is good reason to think that a text likely dates from the period in which its language seems most fully to have flourished. In terms that I use, this is a form of contextualization, and one that is almost unusable in New Testament studies due to the much shorter span in which that corpus was written. In Hebrew Bible however, it can potentially be used to good effect.

By comparing the biblical literature with extant extra-biblical inscriptions, Hendel and Joosten suggest that CBH flourished in the eighth through sixth centuries BCE, TBH in the sixth, and LBH from the fifth onward (note the overlap between CBH and TBH; this is probably inevitable, given that TBH is transitional). They also rightly note that as we do not know how long before the earliest extant inscriptions CBH emerged, we cannot exclude the possibility that texts written in this "chronolect" predate the eighth century. Hendel and Joosten argue that Genesis through 2 Kings is written predominantly in CBH, Ezekiel, Lamentations, Jeremiah, Deutero-Isaiah, Job, Jonah, Haggai, and Zechariah 1-8 in TBH, Chronicles, Ezra-Nehemiah, Esther, Ecclesiastes, and Daniel in LBH. This leads to the other plank of their argument, regarding what they call "consilience." Consilience in their usage is virtually synonymous with what I call "convergence," a term that I prefer only because its meaning is more intuitively obvious to most readers; that terminological difference however does not even rise to the level of a quibble. By these terms we all mean simply that the preferred date for a given text is that upon which the greatest amount of data converges. So, without going into the details of Hendel and Joosten's argument here, one might note that those texts which they conclude are written in CBH are concerned largely with life in pre-monarchic and monarchic Israel (i.e. the late sixth century and earlier); those which they conclude are written in TBH are concerned largely with life in the last days of the Judean monarchy through the exile (i.e. the sixth century); and those which they conclude are written in LBH are concerned largely with life in the Persian and Greek periods (i.e. the fifth through second centuries). In other words, there is significant convergence between the temporal "home" of the language utilized by these texts and the periods in which they are interested.

If the arguments from historical linguistics are granted, then this is a strong cumulative case for a broad periodization of the Hebrew Bible, although certainly other forms of work would be necessary to find more precise dates for any given biblical text (Hendel and Joosten are of course quite aware that what they do in this book is just one part of a larger strategy towards establishing such dates; they simply want to make clear that it is an indispensable part). Having said this, I do want to register one caveat and one criticism. The caveat returns to the beginning of this post, and reminds the reader that I am not a historical linguist and thus my capacity to evaluate their empirical argumentation is limited; my conditional statement about the affirmation of their arguments from historical linguistics is thus rooted in the limitations of my own expertise, rather than any difficulties that I detect in their work. The one criticism that I would register has to do with user-friendliness. Even a simple chart summarizing their findings would make this book far more readable. Instead, one has to flip from chapter to chapter to find summary statements embedded in (typically, but not invariably) introductions and conclusions. That criticism however is secondary to the strength of the book, which is that even if one or more of their particular empirical arguments should fall it remains a model of how to go about thinking about the dates of biblical literature.