The Bible: A great PreHistory. Questions about its future.

archaeology-59150_1280The Bible’s PreHistory, Purpose and Political Future, Coursera/Emory. Prof. Jacob L. Wright.

Nearly two months after this MOOC I can at last say what I have learned. I had to do some digging, but happily I count two small finds and one big one.

The small finds:

(1) The Documentary Hypothesis is over. Per Jacob L. Wright, it has been surpassed by European scholars who use a slightly different method to uncover a passage’s historical strata.  They identify what was most likely the earliest verses and then identify later redactional layers. In the MOOC, Wright demonstrated the process whereby later, supplemental layers were identified using the text of Genesis 26. In his book, “David, King of Israel, and Caleb in Biblical Memory” (Cambridge University Press, 2014) he demonstrated the method using the stories of Saul and David. It is complicated, but watching Wright do it is impressive and convincing. What one finds in textual strata is at least, if not more illuminating than what archeologists find digging in the dirt.


(2) So perhaps that is why the course took a Minimalist perspective, and this was my second “find:” There are two schools of thought on the significance of what archaeologists dig up if it does not support the biblical account. Maximalists rely on the biblical account as written unless and until archaeology clearly contradicts it. If the Bible says that David and Solomon ruled over a united kingdom, then there was a united kingdom, whether we can find archaeological evidence of it or not. (So far, we cannot find archaeological evidence of it.) The Minimalists are prepared to be less convinced of the historicity of the bibilical account. So, if there is no evidence of a united kingdom, maybe there wasn’t one. (I needed to look outside the course to learn this: a very clear description of the Maximalist/Minimalist can be found here.)

Wright takes a minimalist position and uses Israel Finkelstein’s The Forgotten Kingdom, (SBL, 2013) to lay some archaeological groundwork. [Finkelstein has his critics. I wish Wright had mentioned them. I still have no idea whether Finkelstein holds a majority position, a minority position or if he is a total outlier.]


The course’s argument is that:

  • There was no united kingdom. As between Israel and Judah, Israel was the greater kingdom.
  • After Israel was conquered, its literary heritage was carried by Israelite refugees to Judah where it was appropriated by Judahite authors.
  • The penultimate and most significant redaction of the Bible occurred after Judah was defeated. This redaction served to give the Bible its distinctive purpose and mission: nurturing and sustaining a stateless (diasporic) community or nation.(“The Peoplehood Project.”)

The big find…  


The Hebrew Bible has an overarching message and a unifying purpose of its own, acquired after and because of the defeat of Judah. That purpose is to sustain “peoplehood” – a community without a state  (i.e., no kings, no borders, no shared ethnic heritage.) The Biblical project, says Wright, is to “sustain subjugated, dispersed communities.”

The Hebrew Bible does not suggest a single correct way to sustain “peoplehood.” Being a people’s book,  it is multi-perspectival. What some see as internal differences or contradictions are in fact evidence of the Biblical authors’ commitment to the embrace of competing ideologies and perspectives. “The Bible,” Wright says, “does not speak with a single voice.” Instead, it sets forth a single text: a book of stories, memories, teaching aids and worship guides. It is not a “priest’s” book: it is the people’s book. It is the book that creates a people.

The Hebrew Bible posits an alternative to statehood sustained by alternative values. (Think 1 Sam. 8.) Towards that end, the Hebrew Bible redefines heroism and valor, it reconsiders gender roles and it expands and renegotiates the rights of persons and alien groups who wish to belong to this alternative nation.

For me, this is the “big find” because it means that when we are working with a liberative text in the Hebrew Bible – one that challenges patriarchy or privilege or power or violence – we no longer have to think of it as an exception or an aberration. It’s not. It is part of the warp and woof. It is part of the Bible’s purpose and raison d’etre.

That find is well worth all of the digging.

About the Bible’s Future…

Though not a scholar, I am reasonably well acquainted with the Bible and some, albeit outdated interpretive, theories. Nonetheless, I still had to work quite hard to follow this course. I am not sure I could replicate the method which Wright demonstrated with Genesis 26 or in his “David, King of Israel…” I find myself wondering whether my experience is generalizable, and if so, what that might mean for the future of the Bible as Wright understands it – as a people’s book. Can it still be a “people’s book” if you have to be a Ph.D. (“priest”) to understand it?

Maybe it is the Ph.D./”priests” who re-discover it, and then the question is: How do we restore this book to the people it was meant to serve?


Halfway through the MOOC


Since my last post I have either been getting ready for, or trying to keep up with the MOOC, “The Bible’s Prehistory, Purpose and Future” (Coursera & Emory University.)  It is excellent.Wright David

The MOOC is an opportunity to re-read the Instructor’s book, David, King of Israel and Caleb in Biblical Memory by Jacob L. Wright alongside other books and materials which provide needed context.  It’s a little humbling to read my first post on the subject of Wright’s book. Suffice it to say, the first time I read it, I did not get it. I get it much better now, and I think a third reading will be in order. It is very challenging, and very rewarding.  As I read I am reminded of Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza’s In Memory of Her: maybe because neither is easy to read, maybe because both change the way I think about scripture.  There is a place for both the iTunes version and the paperback. I am glad I have both.

Here is an interview with Prof. Wright that I found on Alan Brill’s blog, The Book of Doctrines and Opinions: Notes on Jewish Theology and Spirituality (August 2013.) I found it helpful.



What were they talking about?


I keep thinking about Marcion after reading Markus Vinzent’s book (my post, “Resurrection, does it matter? ) because it seems that Christianity adopted a fair amount of Marcion’s teaching even though he wound up being labeled a heretic. For example, it was Marcion who suggested the unfortunate title of “Old Testament” for the Hebrew Bible, and who suggested we should read that scripture very selectively. After all, what could the stories about relentless violence and war have to do with a God who was all about love? We seem to have taken Marcion’s point: We still talk about an “Old Testament” and we still read Tanach very selectively.

I was reminded of that as I read Jacob L. Wright’s King David and His Reign Revisited (2013.) Early in Wright’s busy book (more on that below), he writes that the reason that war is pervasive in the ‘Old Testament’ is not because of a “bellicose culture” or “warmongering members [who were] keen to praise martial valor and espouse theologies of ‘holy war.’” KDHRR at 42. Rather, the ubiquity of war should be appreciated “in view of its authors’ political project.” KDHRR at 42.

Maybe. Maybe the war stories are literary devices. Even if the “war commemoration as literary device” notion works (and I think it does), the war stories can also be more than literary devices. They can be what they seem like: a reflection of the centrality of war and war-making in ancient Judah and ancient Israel. War and war-making continued to be important for Imperial Rome (in the “New Testament”) and it is an undeniable reality in our own world.

Maybe some aspect of that war and violence – how to endure or survive it, how to outsmart or un-mask it  – was what those travelers were talking about on the road to Emmaus.


War commemoration


Wanting a sneak peek at my next MOOC (“The Bible’s Pre-History, Purpose and Political Future” – Emory University via Coursera) I read an “enhanced e-book” written by the professor, Jacob L. Wright: King David and His Reign Revisited, Jacob L. Wright (2013.)  Find it here on iTunes.

It is a busy book. The format is busy – full of illustrations and links to valuable, interesting material – and the content is “busy:” Lots of names, places, arguments and proofs.

One thesis...

is that The Succession Narrative (2 Sam 9-20 and 1 Kings 1-2) is not as old as “generations [of] scholars have insisted.” King David and His Reign Revisited at 263. Other traditions are older, notably:

(1) The History of David’s Reign written perhaps even earlier than 722 BCE, and an independent, perhaps older still History of Saul’s Reign.
(2) The synthesis the HDR and HSR traditions, sometime before 586 BCE intended to:

  • “come to terms with Judah’s relationship to the older and more powerful kingdom of Israel” (KDHRR at 176), and
  • portray David as the creator and promoter of a state (Judah and later “all Israel”) which was embodied most clearly in its military. “David represents the powerful state that employs strong-arm methods and elite corps of professional warriors to… vanquish its enemies… and (even) enforce its will upon the people within its borders.” (KDHRR at 182.)

(3) A post-exilic revision of the David story, (Chronicles?) intended “to set forth a new model of political community: a people (or nation) that can survive the loss of statehood and territorial sovereignty.” (KDHRR at 267.)

There is no one place to read each of these traditions. Each revision exists in verses scattered throughout our version of the Bible. Each revision is a redaction and revision of source texts the content of which we can only postulate. Think “Documentary Hypothesis,” the JEDP gang and all of the Isaiahs.

See what I mean by “busy?”

A second thesis…

is that the relentless stories about battles and wars, kings and generals, soldiers and warriors is actually the literary genre of “war commemoration” like the statue of a Civil War soldier in the Town Square, or as in Boston, the designation of many street corners as a memorial to a Bostonian who died in an American war.forest hills and brookley - ruso

Whether our “war commemorations” are statues or plaques or stories, they are the means whereby “[p]opulations on the margins of society confront “corporate amnesia” by calling attention to their own sacrifices on behalf of the larger community. (KDHRR at 38.) In other words, it is a way for ethnic groups perceived as outsiders to remind the community that they have earned the right to belong. Wright says that in scripture, it was a means of determining who belonged to “the community of Israel” and who did not. Which ethnic groups (often represented by heroic or dastardly individuals)  demonstrated their loyalty and willingness to make sacrifice for the community of Israel — whether as a state or as a people — and which ethnic groups did not. (KDHRR at 42.)

“If I am right,” Wright writes, “we can better explain the pervasiveness of war in the ‘Old Testament.’… The ubiquity of war [is a] political project [the purpose of which] was to fashion a collective identity that could withstand the onslaught of foreign imperial powers and ultimately the loss of political sovereignty. (KDHRR at 42.) The biblical states/kingdoms of Israel and Judah might be destroyed, but that does not mean the end of Israel, which is more than a state and more than a kingdom.