Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Gill and Jewish Sources, Patriarchs and ANE Law, Timeless Mishnah, Units in Cola

I read four articles today. Here are my reactions to them:

1. George Foot Moore, “Christian Writers on Judaism,” Harvard Theological Review 14/3 (July 1921) 197-254.

Foot Moore (as the rabbi at DePauw liked to call him) surveys the history of Christian writing on Judaism, from the second to the nineteenth century. Christianity has been negative towards Judaism, viewing it as legalistic. But it’s also looked to ancient Jewish texts to uphold Christianity. You know how Michael Brown tries to show that Christian ideas are reconcilable with respected Jewish texts, in his attempt to bring Jews to Christ? That’s what Christians have tried throughout history, only in a less sophisticated manner. Brown, as a scholar, is knowledgeable about the dates of Jewish texts. By contrast, the people Foot Moore surveys viewed the Kabbalah as older than it actually was.

A disappointment I had with Foot Moore’s article was that it didn’t discuss John Gill, an eighteenth century Calvinist who wrote a commentary on Scripture. Gill often drew on Jewish texts, usually without a missionary agenda. His aim was to understand the Bible, and he thought that the Jews had ancient traditions that could help him do that. He may have been wrong on the dating. For example, how would Maimonides help us understand the ancient Scriptures, when he lived in the thirteenth century? Maimonides and the traditions he seeks to synthesize came long after the time of the Bible. But Gill probably believed that Maimonides possessed traditions going back to Bible days. Perhaps he agreed with the rabbis that an oral tradition went back to Sinai, and the Jews possessed it.

2. Tikva Frymer-Kensky, “Patriarchal Family Relationships and Near Eastern Law,” Biblical Archaeologist 44 (Fall 1981) 209-214.

Frymer-Kensky discusses how stories in Genesis compare and contrast with second millennium legal codes. As I said in my posts, Abraham’s Slaves?, Mechanical Christianity and Holiness School Unveiled, Wife-Sister, Homosexuality, Van Seters and Friedman, Disobedient Son, there are scholars who try to uphold the historicity of the patriarchal narratives by showing how they fit a second millennium context, the time when the patriarchs would have lived (according to Genesis).

Frymer-Kensky presents a lot of good material. You know the story in which Sarah couldn’t bear children and gave her husband Abraham her slave, Hagar, to bear him a son? Second millennium legal codes show that sort of thing happening.

I don’t know whether or not Frymer-Kensky was a maximalist, one who believed in the historicity of the Bible. She says that the patriarchs came before the Torah, so they shouldn’t be judged for violating its commands (i.e., don’t marry two sisters, which Jacob did; if the firstborn is of the less-favored wife, give him the inheritance, a principle that Jacob didn’t follow). She may mean this in terms of the story, not the history, though. She also cites first millennium texts, so she somewhat plays into the hands of minimalists like John Van Seters, who argues that the patriarchal stories in Genesis can easily fit the first millennium B.C.E., which had some of the same customs as the second millennium.

Frymer-Kensky doesn’t believe that the patriarchs adhere rigidly to the ancient Near Eastern customs. For example, Isaac could have made Esau his heir on his death-bed, notwithstanding the fact that Esau had sold Jacob his birthright; but Isaac didn’t do so, perhaps because he chose to follow God rather than his own personal preferences.

3. Jacob Neusner, “Form and Meaning in Mishnah,” JAAR 45/I (1977) 27-54.

On pages 36-37, Neusner says that the Mishnah often conflates past, present, and future tenses, showing that its concern is not really the context of the situation it’s describing, but rather “a world detached from time.”

I don’t entirely understand what he’s saying here. Is his point that the Mishnah describes an ideal world and was never intended to be obeyed in real life? In the article in (2), Tikva Frymer-Kensky said that certain ancient Near Eastern legal codes were like that: they conveyed the principles of an ideal society of justice, meaning they weren’t literally followed. Biblical scholars have said the same about the Torah, for they deem such laws as the Jubilee and the cancellation of debts to be impractical (see my posts, Impractical Laws? and Impractical Laws, Part II).

I don’t think Neusner is making that point, for he talks a lot about obeying the Mishnah. But he believes that the rabbis conceived the Mishnah to be a timeless sort of document, one that portrayed a well-ordered society, which the Jews were to try to approximate.

4. William Holladay, “Hebrew Verse Structure Revisited (I): Which Words Count?”, Journal of Biblical Literature 118/1 (1999) 19-32.

To be honest, the structure of biblical poetry does not interest me, since I’m more intrigued by the theologies and ideologies within the Hebrew Bible, rather than counting beats. But poetic structure is a big topic within biblical scholarship, so I should know about it. This article was about “units.” In biblical poetry, there are cola. A bicola contains two words, and a tricola has three. And two cola are often parallel to one another, expressing similar ideas. But what counts as a word, or unit, in a cola? That’s what Holladay tackles. There are times when certain words count as a unit, and there are times when they are attached to another word, meaning two words count as one unit.

Like I said, it’s not my favorite topic!

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