David M. Carr is one of the top scholars of the redaction of the Pentateuch in the world. We can debate if he is in the top five or the top ten, but he is at the top of the field. I was at a social gathering where I heard, over the din of small talk, a conversation at the other end of the room about the state of Biblical studies. Specifically, I heard Professor Carr say that the old documentary hypothesis has given way to new theories. David generously agreed to a blog interview to explain the current state of scholarship to my reader. When I told Rabbi Dr Joshua Berman about the blog interview he emailed: “Wow, David is the best, he is the real thing.”
David M. Carr Ph.D. is professor at Union Theological Seminary in NY. He received his degree in Religion from Claremont Graduate University in 1988. Before coming to Union in August 1999, Dr. Carr served as full professor of Old Testament at Methodist Theological School in Ohio from 1988-1999.
Professor Carr’s book-length publications include From D to Q: A Study of Early Jewish Interpretations of Solomon’s Dream at Gibeon (Scholars Press, 1991); Reading the Fractures of Genesis: Historical and Literary Approaches (Westminster, 1996); The Erotic Word: Sexuality, Spirituality and the Bible (Oxford, 2003); Writing on the Tablet of the Heart: Origins of Western Scripture and Literature (Oxford, 2005); In October 2011 his most recent book appeared: The Formation of the Hebrew Bible: A New Reconstruction (Oxford University Press, 2011).
The reason for this interview is because if the religious community wants to respond to Biblical criticism, then it should know what it is talking about. It has to stop create homiletics about repetitions and thinking that it answers anything at all. Part of the importance of Prof. Carr is that he thinks we don’t know enough to say much with certainty about the original Mesopotamian origins of the Torah. We cannot separate it into documents and we cannot do etymological origins of texts. Carr uncovers specific evidence that the Hebrew Bible contains texts dating across Israelite history, even the early pre-exilic period (10th-9th centuries).His method is to use parallel documents, many of them works edited only in the last 40 years such as the Ugaritic texts at Ebla & Ras Shamra. Please create a religious response that includes Sinai and can work with the principles of faith, but first know the field.
As a believer, liberal Protestants only need a revelation from heaven or a Divine source, but they don’t need it to be from Sinai or Sinai as the defining moment.
David Carr’s prior book Writing on the Tablet of the Heart: Origins of Scripture and Literature (New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005) stressed that the ancient world did not think of authors and readers the way most of us do. Instead of reading a text silently, one memorized and placed on the heart the classic scriptures. Scribal authors then drew on this memorized knowledge in creating new texts. Carr compares the Bible and its transmission to scribal guilds and writing in Mesopotamia, Egypt, Ugarit, and Greece. Of his many significant observations, the following appear to encapsulate his thought: (1) Students copied texts not only to learn scribal skills but also to become educated and inculturated with the values of the society. (2) Orality and writing were not in tension, but were complementary ways of teaching the culture and recalling the literary traditions. Written texts were shaped for the goal of oral performance, if only by reflex. (3) Literacy was not the ability to read or write, but the ability to master core literature, and that made one part of the social elite. (4) Students sometimes learned texts so archaic that they seemed nonsensical, but that process taught them obedience to their society. (5) Scribes might copy a text before them, but often they generated texts by memory and hence with creativity, like a musician performing a well-known work. Thus, there was no one “original text” for literary works because minor memory variations always existed. (6) Because the Gilgamesh Epic and the Enuma Elish were used to educate students early in the curriculum, they came to be known throughout the ancient world. Thus, biblical narratives reflect the influence of these works because Israelite scribes learned to write with them. (7) In the postexilic era, scribal training increasingly became part of the priestly domain, so that selected texts reflected priestly values. These texts would evolve into the Hebrew Scriptures. (8) The Bible ultimately is an educational-inculturation corpus, not a library of texts.
Here is some praise for his works here.
For my readers looking for a reading list or summary of the state of the field, the blog Hesed we ‘Emet posted his doctoral comprehensive reading list and also posted his summaries of the reading in long and short versions. From his notes you can see the importance of Carr’s work. (One can also see how Kugel and his approach does not play a role- see prior blog post.)
1) What is the innovation of your new book on the Bible? Why is memory important?
A starting point would be that I look to documented examples of scribal revision for models of how scribes preserved or revised texts. And one main thing I find is that even scribes reproducing a virtually identical copy of a given section of text would make the kinds of changes to texts– I call them “memory variants”– that people who have memorized texts do: they would substitute a synonym of a word for another, add or subtract minor grammatical particles, switch from one phrase to a syntactic equivalent. Apparently such scribes often did not visually copy texts they were citing or reproducing, but had memorized them and wrote them out from memory.
This fluid transmission of texts means that many criteria that scholars thought they could use for linguistic dating of texts or source identification are not as firm as we once thought.
Other things these documented examples of transmission teach us are the tendency of scribes to pollute the evidence through harmonizing texts with each other, their tendency to make small additions to texts that would be undetectable without manuscript documentation of different stages, and the way scribe/authors would only preserve parts of texts that they were otherwise appropriating large portions of. Observations like this don’t mean that we can’t continue to make plausible hypotheses about the growth of biblical texts, but it means that we now need to evaluate the evidence in biblical texts differently than we once did.
2) What is the role of historical dating of texts in your approach? And what tools do you use to date a Biblical text (parallels to other texts, Hebrew philology, and archeology)?
My main approach is to start by looking at the characteristics or “profile” of texts that we have good reason to think come from a given period. For example, can we build a profile of texts that seem to date from the Persian period as a way of potentially dating yet more texts to that period. To some extent, that may include linguistic criteria (“philological”) that scholars have used for dating texts to the Persian period before, such as significantly Aramaized Hebrew. But we must remember that the presence of Aramaic characteristics is not necessarily a sufficient criterion for dating a text to the Persian period since scribes easily could accidentally add Aramaic elements to older texts in the process of transmitting them fluidly, often by way of memory. Other important characteristics of many Persian period texts (especially later in the Persian period) are links to Priestly traditions/the temple and the project of rebuilding Jerusalem in general.
3) What historical documents and parallels need to be mastered to date Biblical texts?
I hear you asking about primary text resources, and the first thing I’d urge is immersing oneself in documented examples of scribal revision of ancient texts. I sometimes think that it would be very productive for an advanced graduate student to spend a solid year doing nothing but precisely comparing and analyzing the parallel sections of Samuel-Kings and Chronicles, also looking at the major divergences between the 4QSama manuscript and MT/Chronicles/LXX, comparing the Septuagint edition of Jeremiah with Masoretic Jeremiah, looking at the different versions of the Qumran community rule, analyzing the relationship between 3 Esdras and Ezra-Nehemiah, etc. And that’s only looking at Hebrew and Greek resources! Adding non-biblical resources, especially different editions of Mesopotamian materials adds a whole additional and often informative dimension. The more one does this, the more one gets a gut-level sense of how texts grew. And you get a lot more humility about what we do if you constantly ask the question, “would I have been able to reconstruct this growth if I didn’t have these manuscripts in front of me?”
As for non-biblical, Ancient Near Eastern “parallels,” I’d recommend the helpful overview in Kenton Sparks’ book, Ancient Texts for the Study of the Bible: A Guide to the Background Literature (Hendrickson, 2005). It gives a survey of many of the most important texts, brief discussion of them, and some good bibliography.
It takes a lot more than such primary text work, of course, to make sense of all this information. I do believe that hundreds of years of academic, historical research on the Bible has much to teach us. For example, scholars have come up with some interesting and important ideas about how to date some texts to the time of Babylonian exile even though we know very little specific about that period. The challenge is to sort the more helpful ideas from the less helpful ones. I’ve tried to do that some in my recent book on The Formation of the Hebrew Bible, but I’ll be the first to admit that my synthesis has its own strengths and weaknesses.
4) How does your new book lay to rest the older hypothesis?
I don’t think it possible to lay any hypothesis permanently to rest, since hypotheses raised so far all link to different sorts of evidence in the text. That said, some of the terminological criteria most beloved by traditional source critics, e.g. variation in divine designation (YHWH versus Elohim) or terms for maidservant (‘amah versus shiphah) vary a significant amount in manuscripts that we have, let alone the centuries of textual transmission before our existing manuscripts. I still think there is strong enough evidence for distinguishing Priestly and non-Priestly traditions from one another. And I think there likely are very early chunks of material in the Bible, including parts of the Pentateuch. But the case for early, intertwined “J” and “E” sources (within the non-Priestly strand of the Pentateuch) is largely built on sand rather than rock. It pales in comparison to the case for the distinction between Priestly and non-Priestly strands in the Pentateuch.
5) What are your thoughts on American Jewish scholars or scholars in Israel? Why do the Jewish scholars seem to defend the documentary hypothesis more than non-Jewish scholars?
I don’t put a lot of stock in judging the motivations of scholars. We all have reasons, whether conscious or unconscious, for advocating certain hypotheses. That said, I sometimes wonder whether the revival of the source hypothesis among some scholars has been a scientific way of responding to a perceived drift toward widespread late dating of virtually the entire Pentateuch. And I actually share reservations about a push to see virtually the whole Pentateuch as Persian period or later. I think there are very early chunks of material in the Pentateuch, including legal and Priestly texts. I just have a lot more skepticism about being able to identify extended “J” and “E” sources and believe ever more profoundly in the need for what I call “methodological modesty” as we attempt to identify the earliest portions of the Bible (including the Pentateuch).
6) (Questions 6 from Joshua Berman) In a text with multiple layers of editing and redaction – so that there will be a so-called Deuteronomistic core to a text with, say, a priestly level of editing. The inconsistencies are resolved, according to this theory, by attributing the discordant elements to different levels of redaction. It is often asked, why then does the editor of the later level retain the material that does not square with his agenda? The standard answer that is given is that old material attains a certain status, and can only be tampered with but not removed. Do you have another approach?
I do think we need to think through our models for textual growth, especially when we are positing multiple layers which often conflict with another. How often, I wonder, could scribal groups pass a given authoritative text back and forth, each adding to a version of the text previously revised by an opposing group? I don’t know. But I do know that many (not all!) of our documented cases of scribal revision of texts involve only one or a few layers of revision, and often these layers seem to have been done by scribes with the same or a similar theological/ideological orientation.
7) (Questions 7 from Joshua Berman) To what degree can we speak of “authors” in the ancient world? More pointedly, when we see “fractures” (a Carr term) in a text could it be that we need to give more credence to the agent responsible for piecing things together as a creative agent, much as we see with the Gilgamesh epic?
I do think that ancient scribes were highly creative, even as they drew on and somewhat precisely preserved (with memory variants) earlier traditions. In this sense we can think of scribes as “authors,” albeit authors who constantly built on older oral and oral-written traditions. It was only toward the later ends of the transmission process, as scribes increasingly copied certain texts more precisely (such as the Pentateuch within the proto-Masoretic tradition) that at least some scribes just conserved and did not innovate.
8) You write that we can’t theorize from the armchair anymore about how biblical texts came to be. We need to have empirical models about how literary traditions grew in the ancient Near East. How does that inform your work and how does that contrast with prior scholars?
To some extent we still need to theorize from armchairs. I just think that we should learn as much as we can from documented (“empirical”) examples before we do so. And the more we learn from such documented examples, the more we realize the limits of our armchair theorization. We still can do it, but we will only achieve repeatable results that have some plausibility for others outside our ‘school’ if we gather a lot more data for our models than many of us are in the habit of doing.
9) [question from a frum skeptic] How is JED + P different from JEPD? What’s the practical difference? Is the work scholars do on the basis of this theory going to be more productive than the work currently done using the older theory? How?
The main debate, as I see it, is between two models for the development of non-P materials: one that distinguishes between D, J and E, and one that distinguishes between D and other non-P materials but does not recognize early J and E sources. Usually the latter model (the one without J and E) invokes other models to explain the features used by older source critics to argue for J and E. In my view, these alternative models do a better job of explaining the evidence. But we all need a bit more humility in our claims of certainty for our hypotheses, especially hypotheses about the earliest stages of the development of the Pentateuch. In that sense, maybe the ultimate result of adopting such additional “methodological modesty” might feel frustratingly less productive!
10 ) [question from a frum skeptic] How should the average person know who to trust if the field changes so often? What would you tell the simple reader who with their uneducated eyes thinks that scholars are just stating their personal opinions? How is it a scientific field?
This is a fair question. My first answer to stress those aspects of biblical scholarship that have proven to have a long shelf-life because they are built on such strong evidence, such as the distinction between exilic/post-exilic material in the book of Isaiah from a core of pre-exilic material in that book or the previously mentioned distinction between Priestly and non-Priestly strands of the Pentateuch (along with a fair amount of harmonization of each with the other). Though these distinctions have shifted some, they have held in their basic form for around two hundred years. That’s good! My hope is that the kinds of cautions and considerations I raise in my book would help us develop other broad theories about the growth of the Bible that would approach that kind of repeatability/longevity.
11) Do you have any thoughts on revelation? or the separation of history from theology?
One of the many things I appreciate about the Hebrew Bible is the way it depicts God as working through all kinds of human characters (e.g. Jacob, Joseph, King David, etc.), even some characters with base or even evil motives. As Joseph tells his brothers when they are cowering before him in Egypt afraid of his revenge for selling him into slavery, “what you planned as evil toward me, God planned as good” (Gen 50:20; see also 45:7-8). Scribes and the interpreters who shaped and sanctified the Bible may have had all kinds of motives and procedures, but God could–and I believe did–work through them in any case. And in my tradition (Christian-Quaker, originally brought up Methodist), we just pray that God likewise will work through us now as we continue to try to interpret the biblical tradition in a life-giving way. There are no textual guarantees, whether in the origination or ancient revision of the sacred text or in contemporary interpretation. We always are dependent on God making the best of our often mixed motives.
12)One of the reviews of your previous book notes that you have little to say about the attribution of the text to Moses and its sanctity as a product of Sinai. Can you say anything about the topic?
As a scholar, I’m interested in investigating the history of these beliefs about the Pentateuch. For example, we first start seeing the idea that Moses wrote the entire Pentateuch in the late Second Temple period, and that idea has its own background in the dynamics of that time. In this respect, I follow the great Jewish scholar Elias Bickerman, who suggests that Jews of that time countered Greek education centered on Homer and his epics with the idea that their Moses had written the whole Torah, a text which Hellenistic-period Jews argued was even earlier and better than the Greek classics.
I understand that others have other beliefs about these issues, but for me it is most important to recognize and stress to my students how the biblical text has come to be a medium of inspiration of Jewish and Christian communities over the centuries. I am constantly impressed and amazed at the ongoing power of these texts to speak to diverse contexts over millenia. That, for me, is what is profoundly powerful about them. In my opinion, attachment to specific authorial theories or assertions of historical accuracy often distracts from the task of seeing how one might responsibly interpret the text today.
13) If a religious scholar said that his goal was to date the core of the Pentateuch to the 13th century BCE to be contemporaneous with the Jewish dating of Moses, what advice would you give?
None of us comes to any such task without presuppositions, but I would have serious doubts about scholarship on dating that started out with the goal to date a biblical text to a particular period, whether the thirteen century BCE or the 2nd century BCE. By now in twenty + years of work, I have found myself changing my mind about dating and other issues based on the evidence before me, often in major ways. For me that is part of what distinguishes an evangelist for a particular perspective from a historian or “thinker” (which I aim to be). It is a curiosity about certain questions that powers a drive to find out more. Sometimes one is led by the evidence to conclusions that might seem odd or surprising to one’s colleagues. I’m ready at this point in my career to risk following such leads and seeing where they take me, and I learn much from the many others who do the same.
© Alan Brill 2012.