Wednesday, December 23, 2015

God's Consort in the Torah?

This post is prompted by a discussion from a commenter on the post 2 weeks ago about the loanwords in Kohelet (Ecclesiastes). The commenter linked to this article, which, at the end, disputed the idea that Persian loanwords are a marking of an early text. One of their reasons was the presence of what they determined a Persian loanword of dat in Devarim (Deut. 33:2). My response to the article in general is included in the comments of that blog post. This week I want to talk about this specific verse, and what the possible meaning of it could be.

Tricky Translations

Certain verses in the Torah are hard to translate. This is because they include words that are not known elsewhere, or that make little sense in context. One is often forced to decide whether the text is corrupted and it should actually be read differently, or whether we're dealing with a meaning of a word that is non-standard, or whether the word is a hapax legomenon (a word that only appears once, and thus has a meaning that can only be determined from immediate context.)

There are many words that the Masoretes, (the individuals who standardized pronunciation and grammar, and added all the vowels to the text,) decided should be different than how they were written. These are known as kri/ktiv differences, which literally means spoken/written. Sometimes these involve replacing a letter with another, sometimes they involve changing an entire word. Some of these kri/ktiv's are described in the Talmud, but the Talmud also describes many alternate readings that were not taken up by the Masoretes. There is a kri/ktiv in 33:2 which involves the word dat in question from the preamble.

But without further ado, let's look at the text, first in Hebrew:
וַיֹּאמַר, יְהוָה מִסִּינַי בָּא וְזָרַח מִשֵּׂעִיר לָמוֹ--הוֹפִיעַ מֵהַר פָּארָן, וְאָתָה מֵרִבְבֹת קֹדֶשׁ; מִימִינוֹ, אשדת (אֵשׁ דָּת) לָמוֹ. 
The translation is very tricky. But I'll give my own, leaving some of the more difficult words untranslated for now.
And [Moshe] said: God came from Sinai, he shown forth from Seir to them. He appeared from the mountain of Paran. He came from the myriads kodesh. In his right hand, Eshdat, to them.
The first half, up to the mountain of Paran is pretty straightforward. After that it's really tricky. One thing that's clear is that there's is a lot of parallelisms. There appear to be four places where God comes from: Sinai, Seir, the mountain of Paran, and the myriads of Kodesh. That last one seems to fit the pattern of the other three places, the translation is unclear. Personally, I'm inclined to read it as Kadesh not Kodesh, and understand this as a fourth place, which like the first three, appears in the wilderness. As a side note, this verse is one of the supporting verses that indicate that the practice of worshipping YHWH began in the wilderness. See this post for more details.

If the phrase וְאָתָה מֵרִבְבֹת קֹדֶשׁ is tricky, the next two words, מִימִינוֹ אשדת, are even more problematic and most of the rest of the post will be devoted to them. Before we get there, we need to discuss the last word לָמוֹ which parallels the same word in the first half. We first note, that if we remove מִימִינוֹ אשדת and interpret מֵרִבְבֹת קֹדֶשׁ as some sort of place location, then the verse contains nice symmetry. So consider the following translation highlighting the symmetry.
Came from Sinai
Appeared from Seir
 - to them
Appeared from Paran
Came from Kadesh
- to them
Not only is there symmetry, but there's a nice chiasmic structure, much beloved in biblical poetry, where the words with meaning similar to "appear" occur in the middle two phrases and the words similar to "came" occur in the outer two.  מִימִינוֹ אשדת breaks the symmetry. With those words, it reads something like:
Came from Sinai
Appeared from Seir
 - to them
Appeared from Paran
Came from Kadesh
(at his right Eshdat)
- to them
Not only does it break the symmetry, but it also interrupts the phrase, "Came from Kadesh to them." So we're left with a puzzle. What in the world does אשדת (eshdat) mean, and how was it so important that it was possibly inserted into the text. As usual, with these types of things, there are lots of possibilities. So let's go through them.

What exactly is an Eshdat?

The first thing to check is to see if there are any differences in the old versions of the text we have available. The verse does appear in one of the dead sea scrolls (from 50 CE), but I couldn't find any information on it, so I assume it appears the same as in the Masoretic text. The verse also appears in the Samaritan Torah almost identical, but the only change in the Samaritan Torah is that they spell Paran differently. אשדת is unchanged. The Septuagint is more interesting, and we'll get to that later.

For a naive interpretation, you might look at the root אשד which appears only once in Tanakh (Num 21:16) where it implies some geological feature, and most commonly is thought to mean a slope or a ravine. אשדת would be some sort of plural form, although it is a feminine plural for a word that looks masculine. Ignoring the plural issue, perhaps this can be construed to make some sense in the context of the verse, since it does mention place names, but it's a stretch. Unsurprisingly, I know of no translation that takes this approach.

The most common approach in traditional Jewish circles is to follow the Masoretes who themselves follow the interpretation of Raba in Berakhot 62a that it should be read as two words אֵשׁ דָּת, which literally mean "fire law." This interpretation is echoed in the Rishonim, where at very least Rashi and Ibn Ezra understand it as such. But what exactly does this mean. We don't have this kind of concept of a "fiery law" anywhere else in the Tanach. The Rishonim try to give explanations of what it could possibly mean, but they never attempt to justify the explanation in the first place.

There is another problem, with this interpretation. Namely that the word דָּת is a Persian loanword. The authors of the article linked at the top of the post note this and use it as a indication that Persian loanwords appear in the text of the Torah itself. Furthermore, they argue that if you say it can't actually mean דָּת but means something else, because it is early, then you are engaging in a circular argument.

However, I think there are ample reasons to reject this interpretation of אֵשׁ דָּת, a fiery law, without resorting to the loanword argument. And these are the following. A fiery law is not a phrase anywhere in Tanach, even in the derivative forms from this verse (please let me know if I am wrong, this is hard to search for!) I don't just mean the phrase אֵשׁ דָּת but any phrase that is similar in concept. The idea of a fiery law makes no sense in context either. The interpretations imply that he's bringing it with him, but the actual word מִימִינוֹ is better understood as "at his right" or "from his right", one might expect something more like בְּימִינוֹ, in his right hand.

What options though are left? When we turn to the Septuagint (and the KJV based off of it), we find a very bizarre translation. The Septuagint translates אשדת as meaning something like "angels". At first this looks like a terrible mistranslation, but after thinking about it for a second, you can possibly understand where it's coming from. Could it be that the Torah that the Septuagint was translated off of had a resh instead of a daled, and the word was אשרת, which could perhaps mean, "servants" from the root שרת to serve? This is also a stretch, but it might explain how the Septuagint arrived at its strange choice of translation.

Side note: resh/daled confusion is the most common written typo in Biblical texts. The letters are very similar in form in both ktav ashuri and ktav ivri. There is also precedence for resh/daled errors in the Torah. The one that comes to mind is the Dodanim (Gen 10:4) which is properly written as Rodanim, or people from Rhodes, in Divrei Hayamim (Chronicles).

But I go a step further. I say that the Septuagint translation is on the right track, and the original verse probably had a resh, and read אשרת, but it doesn't mean "angels" rather it means, "his Asherah," or more specifically the royal consort of God. This idea of a southern God with an Asherah is present in the Kuntellet Arjud inscriptions which say "Yahweh of Teman and his Asherah," so we have an external source that really lends credence to the association of the god Yahweh with an Asherah.

Now we can make a hypothesis as to how this verse varied over time. The beginning of the verse did not have the two words מִימִינוֹ אשדת, in them. However, they were added into the song (probably only an oral tradition at this stage) by a group of people who probably attached strong importance to worship of Asherah. So this modification, which became canonized in the Biblical text read מִימִינוֹ אשרת, a reading that perhaps remained intact in the Septuagint.

But worship of Asherah fell completely out of favor in later versions of Judaism as exemplified in the reforms of Hizkiyahu (Hezekiah) and Yoshiyahu (Josiah), so perhaps they upheld a version with a copyist error, or maybe there was a "pious" scribe who read this verse and said, "this can't be the right reading, Asherah have been a typo." The change from אשרת to אשדת was made, perhaps with the idea of it meaning "ravine." This change would have to have been earlier than the Samaritan split, which means it's likely Exilic or pre-Exilic.

With the inclusion of the meaning of דָּת as law arriving in the Jewish lexicon from Persian, this allowed the commentators of the Talmudic era, and probably the second temple era, to understand this word entirely differently, as some sort of "fiery law."

As a side note, this idea of the verse possibly meaning Asherah was one of the first things that popped into my head when I read this verse. I did a quick search online and found that lots of other people have had the same idea.

Probably no post next week. We'll see about the week after.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Looking for help typesetting/formatting

A while back, someone suggested a skeptic's annotated haggadah would be an interesting project. While I agreed in theory, I also thought that the major roadblock for me would be providing an appropriate layout. After poking around for about 30 minutes this morning, I still think that's the case. But that could also be because I have very limited skills in this area. Laying things out in html is one thing, but doing it in a nice .pdf is another matter.

Therefore, I'm looking for help in this. What I was thinking is a text where (vowelized Hebrew) is on one side and an English translation (which I will rewrite) on the other. Instructions (such as, lift the cup of wine) will be in english and centered. Then there needs to be room for annotations. These could either be along the side, or as footnotes, or whatever. Some of the annotations may be quite long though. To get a feel for what they might look like, this post, has some examples of annotation ideas.

If anyone thinks they can do this, or at least set me up with a template, that would be great. I'm not planning to make any money off of this, so it's an entirely volunteer thing. The ideal format would probably be a LateX template. But I could work with other formats if needed. (I don't actually have access to Microsoft word though, just the free opensource alternatives, so that could make things difficult).

Email if interested (email can be found under the contact section.)

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

It's Because of the Book

This is a post I wrote on the exjew subreddit a while ago. I figured I might as well share it here, edited slightly, since not too many people frequent that place.

We often hear stories of parents or friends that were living a comfortable conservative or reform lifestyle, and then, after a trip to Aish or a visit by Chabad, they take a hard turn to Orthodoxy, often of a serious fundamentalist variety. Often the parents or friends are left wondering why? They thought they had provided a comfortable and socially conscious approach to religion. Why had their kids chosen such an intolerant form of the religion. We had an article posted recently and there are tons of similar stories. Every single one a victim of pretty much standard missionary tactics.

The reason why they are so easily victimized is because of the book, specifically in this case the Torah.

The problem arises because while less-fundamentalist versions of Judaism don't necessarily follow the Torah, they still venerate it. They still believe that it was God's divine gift. And they teach this to the kids. The book is important.

Now when the kids grow up, they start looking around and they find some people who actually take the book seriously. Perhaps they say, "If it's God's gift to humanity, then, shouldn't we be taking it seriously?" Because they don't necessarily have the tools (Hebrew) to examine it themselves, they're susceptible to cherry-picked verses and explanations. They can be presented with a very fundamentalist viewpoint, modernized by out-of-context quotes and sketchy interpretations. And they eat it up. They eat it up, because they have been taught their whole life that the book is the key.

And yes, this is the exact same thing that happens in "radical Islam" recruitment. It's why moderate Islam is inherently unstable, just like conservative Jewry, continually losing people to the left (secularism) or the right (fundamentalism). It's why moderate Islamist are continually fighting and uphill and losing battle against the fundamentalists. Part of me wonders if the only difference between Judaism and Islam in this regard is the size and the relative power they wield. If Judaism had the number of adherents of Islam, would it be guilty of the same sorts of atrocities? As Einstein said,
As far as my experience goes, they [the Jewish People] are also no better than other human groups, although they are protected from the worst cancers by a lack of power.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Vort: Loanwords in Kohelet and Pseudepigrapha

Sticking with the "authorship" theme there are a few books of the Tanach that very clearly have author attributions that are not likely at all. Rather, they very much seem like they were written by much later individuals but attributed to an earlier important personage. These fall into the genre of writing called, "pseudepigrapha" which means works that are attributed to another, usually mythical or historical, person.

Why Pseudepigrapha?

It's fairly easy to understand why authors would attribute works to someone other than themselves. Mainly, by attributing the work to a well known individual, be it Moshe or Avraham or whoever, then it becomes more likely that the work will receive attention. We see this happen all the time with religious writings. The entire book of Mormon is attributed to mythical individuals. The Zohar, "discovered" in the Middle Ages, is attributed to Moshe. In fact, there are tons of works from 200-400 CE that were attributed to other individuals. You can see a list here. Most of these were rejected from the Biblical canon but some made it in.

Kohelet Claimed Authorship

Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) doesn't have an explicity claim of the author. However, two sentences in the first paragraph are used to give the usual attribution to Shlomo (Solomon) (Eccl 1:1,12)
1 The words of Koheleth, the son of David, king in Jerusalem....,12 I Koheleth have been king over Israel in Jerusalem
Now, it is entirely possible to interpret "son of David" as descendent of David and therefore Kohelet could have been written by a later individual. Indeed this is the opinion of the Gemara in Bava Batra 15b which attributes the book to the time Hizkiyahu (Hezekiah). Of course both of these are impossible and we'll see why now.

Persian Loanwords

The reason Kohelet cannot be written at the time of Shlomo is that it includes words that would not have been known to anyone at the time. The words are Pardes (cognate with English Paradise) which literally means garden and appears in 2:5 and Pitgam which means decree and appears in 8:11. Pitgam also appears several times in the book of Esther, set in Persia.

Jews living in Israel had absolutely no contact with Persia until the Babylonian exile. They knew of the empire to the east of the Assyrians and Babylonians, which was the Median empire until the conquest of Cyrus in 550 BCE. However, there is no strong influence of Persian culture until the conquest of Babylon and the next few centuries when the Persians controlled Israel. It's during this period that we start seeing the strong influence of Persian culture on Judaism.

For Hizkiyahu or Shlomo to have used Pardes or Pitgam would be akin to a Jew during the Persian period using the word Sanhedrin or Afikomen which are derived from Greek, or like a Jew in the 1st century using the word Shvitz or Schlepp. In other words, the loanwords provide markers for the earliest possible date of the work, and in this case we can very confidently date Kohelet to the Exilic period at earliest.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Does the Torah say that Moshe wrote it?

It is well known that Orthodoxy believes that the books from Bereishit (Genesis) to Devarim (Exodus) were written by Moshe (Moses). It is also well known that modern academic theory believes they were written by multiple different authors, or in some minority opinions, a single author drawing from multiple sources, and assembled into a final text sometime long after the time of Moshe, most likely after the Babylonian Exile. Throughout the blog I've provided some evidence to support the multiple authorship idea. (here, here, here, and here for a few places). However, today I'll ask something different. Namely, I'm asking what the Torah itself says about its authorship, which is an entirely different question that who actually wrote it. In other words, if someone was to pick up the Torah not knowing anything about it, who would they think the author was. To me it seems clear that the Torah claims that some sections were written (or spoken at least) by Moshe but other sections were clearly not.

Again, remember that we are not concerned with who actually wrote what. What we are concerned with is what the Torah is saying about who wrote it, if anything.

Let's take a look.

Sections that indicate non-Mosaic authorship

The first section, and the most obvious section to indicate non-Mosaic authorship is the very end which describes the death of Moshe, and the succession of Yehoshua (Joshua). This difficulty stretches all the way back to the Talmud where Rabbis offer several resolutions. One resolution is that Yehoshua actually wrote these verses. The other option is that Moshe wrote it through some sort of prophecy. However, given that there's no indication of specialness of that section in the text, the simple reading implies that this was not written by Moshe.

There are indeed some other sections that point to non-Mosaic authorship. For example, at the beginning of Devarim, it says (Deut. 1:1)
These are the words which Moses spoke unto all Israel beyond the Jordan
The implication "beyond the Jordan" indicates that the author, and the supposed audience, are both located on the other side of the river, which couldn't be Moshe since he never crossed the Jordan river.

Similarly, Gen 36:31
And these are the kings that reigned in the land of Edom, before there reigned any king over the children of Israel.
The verse indicates that the author is living at a time after a king of Israel existed.

Even the medieval scholar Abraham Ibn Ezra indicates a few verses that he thinks were added later. He points out that the sections marked in bold (Gen 12:6)
And Abram passed through the land unto the place of Shechem, unto the terebinth of Moreh. And the Canaanite was then in the land.
and (Deut 3:11)
For only Og king of Bashan remained of the remnant of the Rephaim; behold, his bedstead was a bedstead of iron; is it not in Rabbah of the children of Ammon? nine cubits was the length thereof, and four cubits the breadth of it, after the cubit of a man.-
seem to have been added by someone later. Although Ibn Ezra says the vast majority of the Torah was written by Moshe, he does allow for some verses to be different. It's clear from these texts that the author of these sections, even if they were added later, obviously was not under the impression that Moshe wrote it all, since he himself wouldn't have added these parenthetical asides.

Sections that the Torah claims Moshe wrote

There are lots of places in the Torah were Moshe writes something, usually what is previously discussed. Here are the six places where Moshe is commanded to write something.
And the LORD said unto Moses: 'Write this for a memorial in the book, and rehearse it in the ears of Joshua: for I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven' (Exod 17:14)
This is referring to the battle with Amalek which happened previously. It's not clear what the memorial is. Also it should be noted, that in the original vowelless Hebrew, "the book" and "a book" are indistinguishable. The vowels were only fully agreed upon much later, long after the standard Jewish approach was that Moshe wrote everything.

The next section is:
And Moses wrote all the words of the LORD, and rose up early in the morning, and builded an altar under the mount, and twelve pillars, according to the twelve tribes of Israel. (Exod 24:4)
The indication is that "all these words" represent the chapters 21-23, which is a litany of mostly civil laws, in many cases similar to the code of Hammurabi.

Next we have:
27 And the LORD said unto Moses: 'Write thou these words, for after the tenor of these words I have made a covenant with thee and with Israel.' 28 And he was there with the LORD forty days and forty nights; he did neither eat bread, nor drink water. And he wrote upon the tables the words of the covenant, the ten words (Exod 34: 27-28).
Here the specification is that Moshe wrote the ten commandments. Note that these are not the ten commandments we are more familiar with, but the earlier set that is mentioned in the preceding verses. Also, this verse is describing Moshe writing these commandments on the tablets and not necessarily in the text we have. It's not clear at all from context that Moshe wrote down the words we just read, they could have been someone else copying the text off of the tablets that Moshe wrote.

The fourth indication of Moshe writing stuff appears a few books later.
1 These are the stages of the children of Israel, by which they went forth out of the land of Egypt by their hosts under the hand of Moses and Aaron. 2 And Moses wrote their goings forth, stage by stage, by the commandment of the LORD; and these are their stages at their goings forth (Num 33:1-2).
Where, here the implication is that Moshe wrote the following verses, which winds up being the list of encampment sites in the wilderness. Or at least he is claimed to have recorded the encampment sites, even if he didn't write the verses describing them.

Finally, at the end of Devarim we have two mentions. The first
And Moses wrote this law (Torah), and delivered it unto the priests the sons of Levi, that bore the ark of the covenant of the LORD, and unto all the elders of Israel (Deut. 31:9).
is the only time we have Moshe writing something referred to as a Torah. However, it's obvious from context that what's being implied is the majority of the book of Devarim, which are supposedly the words of Moshe. This section continues later in the chapter:
24 And it came to pass, when Moses had made an end of writing the words of this law (Torah) in a book, until they were finished, 25 that Moses commanded the Levites, that bore the ark of the covenant of the LORD, saying: 26 'Take this book of the law (Sefer Torah), and put it by the side of the ark of the covenant of the LORD your God, that it may be there for a witness against thee (Deut 31:24-26).
I've argued in a previous post, that this Sefer Torah is none other than the Sefer Torah that was found in the time of Yoshiyahu (Josiah). There is yet another indication that this Torah that Moshe is said to have written is not the full five books as we know it, but rather some smaller version. The verses in question are from Yehoshua (Josh 8:30-32).
30 Then Joshua built an altar unto the LORD, the God of Israel, in mount Ebal, 31 as Moses the servant of the LORD commanded the children of Israel, as it is written in the book of the law of Moses, an altar of unhewn stones, upon which no man had lifted up any iron; and they offered thereon burnt-offerings unto the LORD, and sacrificed peace-offerings. 32 And he wrote there upon the stones a copy of the law of Moses, which he wrote before the children of Israel.
It's unlikely that Yehoshua inscribed the entire Torah onto an altar as it would make a prodigious project (and would likely not fit on any altar of reasonable size anyway.) The word used in this section is Mishne Torah which is translated here as a "copy of the Torah" but can mean a second Torah. The second half of the sentence "which he wrote before the children of Israel" could either be a repetitive clause referring to Yehoshua currently doing the writing, but that seems redundant. More likely the reference here is to Moshe and it's saying that Yehoshua wrote down exactly what Moshe wrote before the children of Israel, which we just read about in Deut 31:24. So the simple conclusion is that Yehoshua wrote Devarim or at least some section of Devarim down.

But wait, there's more. The previous verse specifically mentions something written in the "sefer torat moshe" the book of the Torah of Moshe, specficially a commandment not to make an altar of cut stones. This is a specific reference to something that Moshe says in Devarim. In fact, this whole section was commanded in Devarim.
2 And it shall be on the day when ye shall pass over the Jordan unto the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee, that thou shalt set thee up great stones, and plaster them with plaster. 3 And thou shalt write upon them all the words of this law (Torah), when thou art passed over; that thou mayest go in unto the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee, a land flowing with milk and honey, as the LORD, the God of thy fathers, hath promised thee. 4 And it shall be when ye are passed over the Jordan, that ye shall set up these stones, which I command you this day, in mount Ebal, and thou shalt plaster them with plaster. 5 And there shalt thou build an altar unto the LORD thy God, an altar of stones; thou shalt lift up no iron tool upon them. 6 Thou shalt build the altar of the LORD thy God of unhewn stones; and thou shalt offer burnt-offerings thereon unto the LORD thy God. 7 And thou shalt sacrifice peace-offerings, and shalt eat there; and thou shalt rejoice before the LORD thy God.
Do the words of the Torah include this instruction to write the words of the Torah in this specific instance. Seems strange. What exactly is being referred to as the words of the Torah. Something else it seems.

There is another mention of Moshe writing that occurs in between the last two sections.
So Moses wrote this song the same day, and taught it the children of Israel (Deut. 31:22).
The song is most likely the song Ha'azinu which comprises the next chapter. From context it would seem that this song was not part of the "Torah" that Moshe wrote, but a separate composition.

Writing in the third person

Summing up so far, we have a bunch of sections that are explicitly attributed to Moshe, although it's not clear where and on what he wrote them. Nevertheless there is a clear case to be made that the text of Moshe's speech in Devarim was claimed to have been transcribed, by him, into a Torah.

However, we also have sections which strongly apply a non-Mosaic author. These include the preamble to the speech of Devarim which has an implied author who is currently residing inside Israel. A modern day reader would probably think that Moshe wrote down his speech in Devarim, and then a later author compiled it and included the preamble and the description of him compiling it.

But perhaps we're applying modern day writing to biblical styles. So let's expand the original question and instead of considering a modern day reader, let's consider someone reading the text ~2500 years ago. Someone who was familiar with the composition types of the time. What would they make of the authorship.

When I was pondering this, the first question that came to my mind was, "is it typical for biblical authors to write about themselves in the third person?" All of the Torah is written in third person. Similarly, all of the historical books (Yehoshua through Melachim (Kings)) are third person. However, when we deal with the prophets, we see something more interesting.

Many prophets start out by identifying themselves as the author in the third person, and then later switching to first person. I'll provide some examples.

Amos intro: 3rd-person
1 The words of Amos, who was among the herdmen of Tekoa, which he saw concerning Israel in the days of Uzziah king of Judah, and in the days of Jeroboam the son of Joash king of Israel, two years before the earthquake. 2 And he said: the LORD roareth from Zion, and uttereth His voice from Jerusalem; and the pastures of the shepherds shall mourn, and the top of Carmel shall wither (Amos 1:1-2).
 Amos continuation: 1st person
Hear ye this word which I take up for a lamentation over you, O house of Israel (Amos 5:1)
Thus the Lord GOD showed me; and, behold, He formed locusts in the beginning of the shooting up of the latter growth; and, lo, it was the latter growth after the king's mowings. (Amos 7:1)
Hoshea intro: 3rd- person
The word of the LORD that came unto Hosea the son of Beeri, in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah, and in the days of Jeroboam the son of Joash, king of Israel (Hosea 1:1). 
Hoshea continuation: 1st person
And the LORD said unto me: 'Go yet, love a woman beloved of her friend and an adulteress, even as the LORD loveth the children of Israel, though they turn unto other gods, and love cakes of raisins (Hosea 3:1).
Yishayahu intro: 3rd person
The vision of Isaiah the son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem, in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah (Isaiah 1:1).
Yishayahu continuation: 1st person
In the year that king Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne high and lifted up, and His train filled the temple (Isaiah 6:1).
And so on. One finds similar patterns in all of the prophets. Now, it should be noted that there are places where some of the prophets (but not all) switch back to third person. This happens in many of the "narrative" sections that appear throughout some of the prophets. For example Chapter 37 of Yishayahu. In fact, Yishayahu often switches between 1st and 3rd person intros into paragraphs. The same occurs in Yirmiyahu (Jeremiah). Yirmiyahu might be a special case since it's suggested that the text was written by his scribe Baruch ben Neriah. Interestingly Yehezkel (Ezekiel) sticks to first person entirely after the introduction.

What can we make from this? Well, in my opinion it indicates that you would expect some first person statements, especially in the intro to prophetic sections. Furthermore, the introduction sections always indicate the correct time and place of the prophet. For example, the Yishayahu introduction is written in third person, and mentions that he was a prophet spanning the reign of four kings.

In contrast, the Torah never has any first person introductions. It's always, "God spoke to Moshe saying." Again, the exception is Devarim, in which there are intros that begin with, "and then God spoke to me."  Devarim is most similar to the prophetic writings in that it has a third person intro and then moves into first person. However, unlike Yishayahu or any of the other prophets, the intro has a  marker that indicates a later date of composition in that it mentions, "the other side of the Jordan."

And what about the rest of the Torah? It seems from the text itself that only a select few sections are attributed directly to Moshe. Certainly the entire book of Bereishit is not explicitly attributed to him. Neither are all the third person narratives. Furthermore, the composition style is more different from that in the prophetic works with explicit claimed authorship that both a 500 BCE reader and a modern day one would probably make the reasonable conclusion that the Torah was written by an anonymous third person author, just like many other books.

More interesting perhaps is what the implications are for the third person narratives and other sections in the prophets. Were these written by the prophets themselves or were they recorded by other people? Would we expect the prophets to have written about themselves in the third or first person? At this point it's hard to say for sure, but the fact that the prophets sometimes write in first and sometimes in third lends me to believe that some of these sections were not penned by them, but added into the books by later editors who assembled the scrolls.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Modern Orthodoxy will disappear in another generation

And now for something a little different. I did mention that I had some topics unrelated to Biblical Criticism that I wanted to discuss and this is one of them. I have a bold prediction that Modern Orthodoxy, at least as the form of Judaism I grew up with, is probably going to vanish in the next 20-30 years, roughly one generation from now. Or at very least it will go a steep decline with members leaving either to the right or to the left.

What is Modern Orthodoxy

Modern Orthodoxy is form of religion essentially founded by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik. There are two ways to view it which are non-contradicting, so both exist.

The first is the idea of Torah u'Maddah which essentially means Torah and science. The goal here is to seek harmonization between what we learn through Torah and what we learn through scientific methods. Standard Modern Orthodoxy accepts notions like the big bang, a 4 billion year old earth, and evolutionary theory and harmonizes the contradicting Torah passages by explaining them allegorically. One of the premier ideas along this line is an adaptation of the Rambam's concept of miracles as being purely natural events that occur at opportune times. The Hebrew term for this would be Hashgacha Pratit. Therefore, a common Modern Orthodox tactic is to search for natural phenomena that can explain the biblical miracles. This explanation for the red sea splitting is a good example.

The second aspect of Modern Orthodoxy is more social, and deals with the religious Jew in the modern world. Whereas many of the Hassidic communities that migrated into the US sought to develop their own isolated environments, Modern Orthodoxy permits interaction with the world as a whole. You can work in secular companies with non-Jewish co-workers. You can go to sporting events, amusement parks, movies. TV and radio are perfectly acceptable forms of entertainment, and so on. However, the important part is to continue following Halacha. So you go to the amusement park or baseball stadium, but you don't eat any of the non-kosher food.

The Challenge

To me, the major challenge to Modern Orthodoxy is regarding the second aspect, that of the Jew in the modern world. While I do think that the scientific challenges to Judaism are serious, I think it's easier to rationalize them. However, I do see very strong social challenges that are already here or will arrive shortly that look to upset the idea of the religious Jew in the modern world. Let's take a look at some of them.

Modern Orthodoxy was so successful in the late 20th century (and early 21st) because there was a very strong alignment between the morals of religious Judaism and the American society it was a part of.  One example of such an alignment is the practice of circumcision. Between about 1950 and 1970, circumcision rates in the US were somewhere between 70 and 80% peaking in 1965. In 1991 this had dropped to 62% and in 2006 to 56%, with drops occurring across all regions (see here for more info.) With circumcision rates so high, moral arguments against the practice were almost non-existent. It's only very recently, and in regions where rates are low (like Europe, and the western US) where moral arguments against circumcision have started to appear.

Another moral area with a very recent and very pronounced change in national outlook is in the area of treatment of homosexuals, both regarding sexual behavior and recognition of marriage. The change occurred over a single generation, with homosexual marriage finding only 27% support in 1996 and over 50% just 15 years later. The practice was legalized in the US in 2015 with a Supreme Court decision. Modern Orthodoxy, of course, cannot sanction homosexual marriage, so here too there is a strong rift between Halacha and societal norms.

There are various other areas that are not yet problematic for Modern Orthodoxy but that look like they could be in the next twenty years or so. These include the treatment of animals with regard to Halachically valid slaughtering techniques. And the role of women as Rabbis, something that currently is splitting the community, as it split the conservative community in the 80s and 90s.

In my mind these challenges represent a fundamental difference between how a religious Jew will interact with the world in the year 2030 vs how one did in the year 1990. In 2030, views condemning homosexual marriage will be bigoted (they already are). Orthodox Jews will carry that baggage with them as they interact with the world.

What Will Happen

I predict that the exact same thing that happened with Conservative Judaism in the 90s will happen to Modern Orthodox Judaism in the 2020, and maybe a bit before. Conservative Judaism was vibrant in the 80s and 90s but then it sort of fell apart. Adherents either went to the left, towards Reform or to the right towards Modern Orthodoxy. To put it simply, Conservative Judaism, an attempt to compromise between the modernization of Reform Judaism with the traditionalism of Orthodoxy was unstable. People that valued the modernism part pushed for egalitarian minyans, relaxation of Kashrut requirements, recognition of homosexual unions and so on. The more traditional members balked at that, and were willing to sacrifice some of the modernity they were used to for a religion they felt was more "authentic."

The same thing will happen to Modern Orthodoxy. The people that value the morals of western society, will be more willing to sacrifice religious precepts to fit in with society. They will become similar to the Conservatives of the 90s, which will continue to drift left because, as we found out, Conservatism is unstable. On the other hand, the people who want to maintain traditional Judaism, will no longer be able to integrate with society as cleanly as they did previously. The morals of Orthodox Judaism no longer align with the morals of the society they live in. The result will be isolation into more and more closed communities, where you don't need to be confronted with external opinions that criticize your moral values.

We can already see this in play today among my peers (people who grew up in the 90s). The standard path for a Modern Orthodox youngster involves growing up in a community where all the family friends are MO, attending Yeshiva through high school where they only interact with other MO kids, a year in Yeshivah in Israel that caters to MO students, and finally 4 years at either YU/Stern or a university with a large enough Jewish population that they are surrounded by people like them. Hopefully that is shortly followed by marriage into the MO community. Until this point they've essentially grown up in a closed environment. The idea of a Jew in the modern world has been eliminated. It is instead the story of a Jew in a sheltered world.

As the moral gulf between Orthodoxy and the moral center of the US continues to widen, the tendency to shelter youngsters from that world will grow. Then before you know it, Modern Orthodoxy has been replaced by plain old Orthodoxy.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Vort: Did David actually kill Shaul?

This week follows on a bit from last week. To me, the book of Shmuel (Samuel) is one of the most interesting books from a historical perspective. The book is set in that area between things we know have a solid historical backing (later monarchies), and things that clearly belong to the world of myth and legend (Joshua and prior). Specifically, there is no doubt that there were kings of Judah who traced their lineage to the house of David. The Tel Dan Stele provides us with proof of that. But the Tanach indicates that the accession of David to the throne, and the succession of his son Shlomo (Solomon) after him were not clean. Therefore, we are left with a historical account, written by the eventual winners, in which they justify their right to the monarchy. First let's summarize the biblical story.

A Checkered History

Here, is a very quick runthrough of the major events of the book of Shmuel regarding the transition of the monarchy from Shaul to David.

  • Shmuel is approached by the people to appoint a king (1 Sam 8)
  • Shmuel appoints Shaul as king (1 Sam 9-12)
  • Shaul and his son Yonathan (Jonathan) fight against the Plishtim (Philistines) (1 Sam 13-14)
  • Shaul fights with Amalek, has mercy on the king, and Shmuel says he will lose the kingship because of this (1 Sam 15)
  • Shmuel secretly anoints David as king (1 Sam 16:1-13)
  • David is appointed as a harp player for Shaul (1 Sam 16:14-23)
  • David slays Galyat (Goliath) (1 Sam 17-18:5) Note that in this episode Shaul does not know who David is. A contradiction I discussed here.
  • Shaul becomes jealous of David and tries to kill him (1 Sam 18:6-20:42)
  • David escapes, winds up in Gath where he pretends to be crazy (1 Sam 21)
  • Shaul orders the slaughter of the priests of Nob at the hands of an Edomite because they helped David escape (1 Sam 22)
  • Shaul continues to chase David (1 Sam 23)
  • David has the opportunity to kill Shaul but does not, moved by this, Shaul essentially agrees that David should be the king and asks that his descendents are not killed (1 Sam 24)
  • David seduces the married woman Avigayil. Then her husband Nabal (who is evil mind you) conveniently dies (for unrelated reasons) so that David can marry her himself (1 Sam 25)
  • A doublet of the story in 1 Sam 24. David has the opportunity to kill Shaul, but does not. And Shaul recognizes David as the true king (1 Sam 26)
  • Despite the previous chapter ending with peace between David and Shaul, this one starts with David fearing for his life so much so that he goes and becomes a mercenary for the Israelite's arch-nemesis, the Plishtim! David only kills non-Judahites though, and lies to the Philistine king about it. (1 Sam 27-28:2)
  • Shmuel dies and Shaul confronts a prophetess to speak to the dead. Shmuel confirms that Shaul is no longer king (1 Sam 28:3-25)
  • The Plishtim go to fight the Israelites. But David does not go with them, and instead goes to fight the Amalekites (1 Sam 29-30)
  • The Plishtim defeat the Israelites and kill Shaul (1 Sam 31)
  • David learns of the deaths of Shaul and Yonatan and heartfully laments their passing (2 Sam 1)
  • There is a civil war between David and Shaul's son Ish-Boshet won by David (actually, the rival's name is Ish-Baal but changed to Ish Boshet because it was embarrassing that Shaul named a child after Ba'al.) (2 Sam 2-4)
  • Everyone happily accepts David as the king over all of Judah and Israel (2 Sam 5-rest of book)
  • Later, after David's death there is a succession crisis and another civil war, with eventually Shlomo (of questionable birth) defeating Adoniyah and capturing the monarchy.
  • After the death of Shlomo the north secedes from the south under Yerav'am (Jeroboam)
Obvious Propaganda is Obvious

It is obvious from the text of the Tanach that there was some real questions surrounding the legitimacy of the Davidic line. The authors of the text try to head this off at every possible place. They assure us several times that Shmuel took the kingdom away from Shaul because of his leniency regarding Amalek. They indicate in several places that Shaul recognized David's right to the throne, even though he never took action to transfer the kingship, and his surviving children didn't seem to get the message either and actively opposed David in armed conflict. They assure us that David wasn't in the Philistine army that killed Shaul even though he was a mercenary for them at the time. Furthermore, there were two occasions where he could have killed Shaul but didn't, so he almost certainly didn't kill Shaul during the battle. He even avenges Shaul's death! When David killed Ish-Boshet it was because David was the rightful heir to the throne and Ish-Boshet was the usurper, despite being the heir apparent. And everyone sure was relieved and unanimously supported David when he accepted the kingship over everyone.

If you read between the propaganda lines, you get a different story. Here David is a conspirator against the crown, who signs on with the Israelite's enemies and even goes to war with them against Israel in the battle where Shaul is killed. He then murders the king's descendents and captures the kingship for himself. Now, we can read every story in the book of Shmuel is an attempt of supporters of David to paper over the seedy side, casting everything in the best of light for David and the worst of light for Shaul. For example, Shaul is responsible for the Edomite slaughter of the priests of Nob. He's also not a real prophet, but a madman who strips naked and blabbers and is prone to fits of anger.

You can't get rid of everything though, invent a fake history out of thin air. Presumably when these accounts were written, people still remembered that there were open hostilities between David and Shaul. This is why the result is propaganda and not fiction. There are real events underlying this, they've just been distorted to favor one side explicitly. And in many cases it's obvious because, unlike modern authors, biblical authors aren't really all that subtle with their allegiances. Just read the doublet stories again in 1 Sam 24 and 26 and see what I mean.

So did David actually kill Shaul? No one knows. But it sure as hell looks suspicious, and it almost definitely looked suspicious to the ancient Israelites. It was so suspicious that the author(s) of Shmuel really go way over the top in attempting to prove that he didn't.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Vort: Switching Shmuel and Shaul

So, if you grew up in a religious environment you'll be familiar with the word "vort" which is Yiddish simply for word. These tend to be short insights into some manner of Judaism. I will coopt the language to provide some fairly short insights from Academia. Some of these, like this one, are parts of larger topics. But we'll keep them short and sweet.

Birth of Shmuel

The book of Shmuel (Samuel) begins with a very common biblical motif. A woman can't give birth, she makes a deal with God that she'll devote the child to him, and God causes her to give birth to a son (always a son). Children that were born in this way include Shimshon (Samson), arguably Yitzchak (Isaac) and here, Shmuel.

The story goes that Shmuel's mother Hannah promised her son to God if she could have one. God acquiesced, and she gave birth to Shmuel. However, the naming of the child is very bizarre. As with many biblical characters, Shmuel is given an etiological reason for the name. The verse in question is 1 Sam 1:20
And it came to pass, when the time was come about, that Hannah conceived, and bore a son; and she called his name Samuel: 'because I have asked him of the LORD.'
And here it is in Hebrew
וַיְהִי לִתְקֻפוֹת הַיָּמִים, וַתַּהַר חַנָּה וַתֵּלֶד בֵּן; וַתִּקְרָא אֶת-שְׁמוֹ שְׁמוּאֵל, כִּי מֵיְהוָה שְׁאִלְתִּיו.
The reason why this is strange is that the name and the etiological reason don't match up at all. Shmuel means the name of "El", it has nothing at all to do with the word, to ask sha'al. Traditional commentators noticed this discrepancy, but they don't offer any amazing resolutions. For example, Rashi says (my translation) "Shmuel: In the name of El and in the name of the deed he is called, because he was asked from God." where Rashi is using the wordplay Al Shem to explain where the name Shmuel comes from. Al Shem literally means in the name of, but figuratively is an idiom for because. So he translates it as "because of El." Of course you need to add the word Al for that to make sense, and still it seems fairly weak.

The Old Switcheroo

The naming discrepancy has caused people to wonder if maybe there was a switch between the naming of two individuals. In other words, maybe the original story was about someone else, but was later sloppily switched to Shmuel. Is there an obvious candidate, someone around the same time period who's name would fit better there? Of course. What if it originally read:
וַיְהִי לִתְקֻפוֹת הַיָּמִים, וַתַּהַר חַנָּה וַתֵּלֶד בֵּן; וַתִּקְרָא אֶת-שְׁמוֹ שָׁאוּל, כִּי מֵיְהוָה שְׁאִלְתִּיו.
If you switch Shmuel with Shaul (Saul) then the wordplay is exact. "Shaul" literally means "asked for" and the name fits the birth story perfectly.  Shaul is in my mind one of the more interesting characters in the Tanach, not so much because of the stories about him, but because of how he ended up on the bad side of the Biblical propaganda machine. Here, the argument, is that they literally crossed his name out of the birth story and wrote in Shmuel.

Why they did this is a question for another week (probably next week in fact).

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Radiocarbon Dating

For something a little different, I decided a post on radiocarbon dating might be appropriate. Since I put a lot of stock in the information gleaned from radiocarbon dating, I figure it's worthwhile to describe a little bit how it's done, and more importantly, to describe the various sources of error in it. Constraining error is one of the key issues with any scientific measurement, and radiocarbon is no exception. One particular point I will make is that the error will depend a lot on specifics to each measurement (time and location). So there are periods and locations where the result has extremely large errors, and other measurements that are more trustworthy.

How it Works

The physics of radioactive dating is pretty straightforward. Carbon-14 (6 protons 8 neutrons) is a radioactive isotope with a halflife of approximately 5700 years. The characteristic decay is "beta decay" which means (roughly) that one of the neutrons in the nucleus decays into a proton and an electron. The resulting nucleus is Nitrogen-14 (7 protons 7 neutrons). The energy from the emission goes partly to the nucleus and partly to the electron that was created. Because of conservation of momentum, much more of the energy goes to the electron and it gets ejected from the atom. These ejected electrons are called "beta particles" and you can monitor the decays by detection of them.

As with all radioactive decays the density of C-14 at any time can be modeled with an exponential equation. The characteristic time for the exponential, the half-life, indicates how long it takes for half of the C-14 atoms to undergo beta decay. So if you know how many C-14 atoms are around at the beginning, you can predict how many will be there at any point in time in the future (provided of course that there are enough of them that the statistical argument makes sense.) Similarly, if you know how many there were at at the beginning, and you know how many there are now, you can predict how long ago the "beginning" was. Finally, if you know the current concentration and you know exactly how long ago you wish to measure, you can use it to determine the original concentration at that time. This last calculation will be important later.

Willard Libby proposed using the concentrations of C-14 in organic material as a means of dating a substance. C-14 is constantly being created in the upper atmosphere from interactions between high energy photons from the sun and atmospheric molecules. While an organism is alive it is constantly exchanging its carbon atoms with those in the atmosphere, so the C-14 concentration in any living being is similar to the global concentration at that time. This is because chemically isotopes behave (almost) exactly the same, so the organism does not distinguish between C-14, C-13 or C-12. After it dies, it stops incorporating carbon from the atmosphere. If we know the global concentration at the time it died (more on that later) and we can measure the concentration now, then we can calculate the date that it stopped exchanging carbon with the environment as described above. Therefore, radiocarbon analysis of the C-14 content in organic material can be used to determine the death date of organic material. For this result Libby won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Now we will discuss some of the details along with the various sources of error that arise.

Carbon-14 Measurement Errors

The first error that we will look at comes from the difficulty in actually measuring the C-14 content in a sample. As with any scientific measurement there is an associated error bar. There are several ways to look for the C-14 content. One is to look for the decay by measuring the emitted beta particles. A more popular method (due to better accuracy) is to convert the entire material to a gas and run it through a charge-mass spectrometer, that can distinguish between isotopes of carbon. You can read about the various techniques here.

Both these results will have errors based on the limitations of the actual measurement technique and due to statistical problems. The statistical error is generally small compared to the measurement error. You can reduce the error by comparing results from different samples and different techniques/laboratories. But you can never make it zero.

Finding Appropriate Material

Finding appropriate organic material can be difficult. The best material (at least for the Ancient Near East region) appears to be stuff like burnt seeds and stuff like olive pits which can be found in fire pits and cooking areas. Stuff like structural wood tends to be a bad choice since it's always possible that the wood is old, having been used for a previous structure, and using it will make the date appear older than it really is.

One common form of systematic error arises from improper association of a sample with a specific archaeological stratum. In other words, you find some burnt olive pits and think they belong to the city, but it turns out they are just the remains from hundreds of years later when some nomads made a makeshift camp in the ruins.  Obviously, the more samples you have, the less likely you are to make an error like this. Yet there can be systematic errors due to associating some result with an incorrect archaeological stratum.

This error is entirely in the domain of the archaeologists, and it's impossible to handicap it without being involved in the actual excavation, or by scanning the detailed reports. Nevertheless, when you see large discrepancies in dates between archaeologists, chances are that the reason is because they are arguing over which stratum belongs to which set of measurements.

Constraining Initial C-14 Fraction

Libby assumed that the C-14 fraction in the atmosphere was a constant. It turns out this is not true. It can vary slightly. However, slight variations can mean big differences with regard to dating, so it's important to figure out how much carbon was in the background atmosphere at all the possible dates that the organism may have died.

The way this is done is primarily through "dendrochronology" The idea here is that you can use trees as a method of determining the C-14 concentration at any time in the past. The inner rings of a tree are not living anymore, so they do not exchange carbon. Therefore, you can cut down a long lived tree and get information on the global C-14 concentration for each year that the tree was alive, just by comparing the carbon at each ring. You know the current concentration, and you know the time, so you can get the initial concentration. Then if you have trees that died a long time ago, but were preserved, you can find overlaps with known trees. With enough work we can build a database going back thousands of years. Indeed the carbon calibration curves we have go back around 40-50 thousand years. These curves are constantly being refined, but they are pretty robust for the area in question for Biblical archaeology.

I said "global" concentration above, but that's not entirely correct. Global here means a sizeable region surrounding the area in question. There are indeed separate calibration curves for the northern and southern hemispheres, and even more local curves for time periods closer to the present (where Biblical results fall.)

Errors from Calibration Curves

While the calibration curves are pretty robust, the fact that the initial concentration varies slightly can increase or decrease the error for a given measurement. It is probably best to use an example, so here's a typical plot that you might see (taken from here).
This plot is a little busy, so let's look at the details of what's going on. The y-axis shows the amount of C-14 that was detected in the unit BP (what exactly that is doesn't matter). The red bell shape indicates the actual measurement amount (around 3000 BP) and the error associated with it, (here probably around +/- 80 BP).  The x-axis represents the dates in years BCE. The thick blue line that goes through the plot indicates the calibration curve. From this curve you can calculate the date for any given amount of BP measurement. Except not so fast. Even if you exactly knew that you had 3000 BP, you wouldn't be able to distinguish between about 1260 and 1230 BCE, since the line at 3000 intersects the blue curve twice. So, because we have measurement errors in the amount of carbon, and because the blue curve is so "wiggly" what we wind up with is a probability distribution function which is pretty complicated looking (gray region). The results on the top right summarize the plot results. You have an 8.2% probability of being between 1375 and 1340 BCE (the bump on the far left), a 87.2% probability of being between 1320 and 1129 BCE, and about a 5% probability of being somewhere else.

This plot looks about typical for results I have seen but quoted results dates tend to have errors that are smaller errors +/- 150 years. How?

"Wiggle Matching" and Bayesian Analysis

So the way to do better, as before, is by using multiple measurements. However, here what you're using are multiple measurements from different strata. To use the above example again. Let's say you find some sample that produces exactly 3000 BP. As we noted above, you can't distinguish between 1260 and 1230 BCE. But let's say you dig a bit deeper, and somewhere below you find something else that also produces exactly 3000 BP. You know that the deeper one must be older. So you can say that the deeper one is 1260 BCE and the shallower one is 1230 BCE.

"Wiggle matching" takes multiple results from as many strata as can be found and attempts to match the "wiggles" in the calibration curve as best as possible. This is essentially another massive probability calculation and it is usually done by computer codes. If you have a lot of samples from a given site, you can usually constrain the results far better than with a single sample.

But archaeologists can go even further. If you can make estimates on things like how far apart in time different strata were, or if you know from Egyptian or Assyrian chronologies when cities were destroyed (or claimed to be destroyed) then you can put those assumptions into the model as well. This can produce very accurate estimates (less than 50 years error), even for results where the error in the C-14 measurements are large. But they depend on the assumptions you put into the model and your confidence in them. These models are "Bayesian" in that they attempt to determine the probability that a given set of date measurements could produce the actual results.

This is another area where you can have significant disagreement between archaeologists. They might disagree greatly between what assumptions are made. Here, we laymen are in a better position to evaluate the results, since all good archaeologists will state what assumptions, if any, are input into their models. Again though, these only show up in technical papers.

An Example: What I Found About the United Monarchy Debate

A while back I read a collection of essays in "The Bible and Radiocarbon Dating" edited by Levy and Highman, and first published in 2005. As such the results are about 10 years out of date, but that is the extent of my knowledge. The articles were highly technical, and I actually needed to learn about the topics in this post before I could properly appreciate the arguments. There were both detailed excavation reports and tons of results from radiocarbon analysis, similar to the plot I showed above.

The current main point of contention between archaeologists today (or at least in 2005) is whether or not there ever existed a united monarchy under Shlomo (Solomon). On one side is the "conventional chronology" championed first by Dever and now by Amihai Mazar which states that there indeed was such a united monarchy. The alternate view is the "low chronology" offered by Finkelstein which suggests that it never existed. At the heart of the debate are the dating of various monumental structures, specifically city gates, in various cities like Gezer and Hazor. The conventional chronology dates these to around 950 BCE which puts them in the time period of Shlomo.  The low chronology dates these to about 880 BCE and attributes them to the reign of the northern kings Omri and Ahab who were the first kings to garner international attention.

As we've noted above, a difference of less than 100 years is typically too small for radiocarbon analysis to distinguish, but each of these sites have many strata, and the articles record some of the most comprehensive attempts at carbon dating analysis to date. Nevertheless, from my perspective the results were inconclusive. Here are where the two sides differed.

1) The main source of disagreement is determining which stratum the monumental structures belong to. You can't date the structure itself, it's not organic, so you have to tie it to some organic material. As far as I know this is unresolved with Finkelstein continuing to insist it's dated to a later structure, and Mazar insisting it's an earlier structure.

2) Another source of disagreement was on the treatment of an outlier radiocarbon result. Various organic material were sent to several different labs, and one produced a date different than the others. From my memory, Finkelstein included these results in his models, but Mazar considered them an outlier and did not include them. As you can imagine this made a big difference on the results of each group's Bayesian analysis. Both groups stress the need for repeated measurements.

3) The disagreement includes anthropological models as well, specifically with regard to the appearance of specific pottery types that appear to have spread from the Philistine cities. Finkelstein thinks that it took a long time for this pottery to spread, Mazar says it spread quicker.

As you can see, when you start dealing with the details of these analyses, you very quickly get into the weeds. As a layman who is not involved in the measurements, I think it is absolutely impossible to determine who has the better argument. As such, I put the existence of the united monarchy as an unknown, and will wait until a consensus is reached on the matter.

Well Then, What Can We Know for Sure?

While the dating of monumental gates is still under question, other conclusions from archaeologists have reached a higher level of consensus. For example, the city of Yericho (Jericho) has a strong consensus that it was destroyed long before Yehoshua (Joshua) could possibly have arrived. Similarly with the city of Ai. There are fringe opinions otherwise, but overall there is very little academic debate on these matters anymore. Indeed Yericho, is a good example of carbon dating resolving a contradiction between archaeologists. As it provided enough resolution to confirm the early date proposed by Kathleen Kenyon instead of the later date proposed by Bryant Wood. You will still see apologetic answers using Bryant Wood's analysis, but this is disingenuous, and you should be able to recognize it as such.

There are other similar events which we can date, such as the destruction of major cities. Destructions tend to be easier to date because a lot of stuff tends to get burned and buried. These include sites like Ugarit and Hattusa which aren't mentioned in Biblical texts but belong to the period prior to their composition.

All in all, it pays to be cognizant of the claims being made, the associated error, and whether there's a consensus or a disagreement between the people that are closest to the measurement.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Revising Egyptian Chronologies

Recently, I got an email from a religious individual, who goes by the name Bentzi, pointing me towards a series of blog posts he wrote to attempt to answer the questions raised by the famous Letter to my Rabbi by Naftali Zeligman. I wanted to respond to the author, but as I started composing my response, I realized that it might be best to make my resposne public. I obtained permission from the blog author to link to his creation, which is here. Before I begin, I do certainly appreciate that Bentzi has given his time and consideration to Zeligman's questions. And while I don't agree with his conclusions, I appreciate the tone of the discussion.

I won't be discussing the entirety of the blog, most of which I admittedly only skimmed. Instead I will focus on one specific section that discusses the Egyptian Exodus and the historical problems of the biblical account. Both Zeligman's questions and Bentzi's responses can be found in this post. If you want, you can read it in full, but I'll summarize it below. I read this post in full several times, figuring it's better to deal with one thing carefully than many things sloppily. However, in thinking about my response, I decided against providing a refutation, which would require several trips back to the library, and instead provide a reason why Bentzi's explanation in this topic is not convincing to me. Perhaps, more useful, I will provide examples of how I could be convinced. It's always worthwhile to be open to new information and ideas, so I'll outline what information I would need to reach the conclusion that Bentzi's hypothesis is reasonable.

Summary of Discussion

Zeligman's question is regarding that the Exodus account in the Torah doesn't appear to align with our current reconstruction of Egyptian history. This raises a problem regarding the historicity of the biblical event, something that I discussed in one of my more popular posts here. Before I get to Bentzi's answer, I will take a brief detour to describe some of the more common apologetic answers to this problem.

One approach is to simply ignore the contradictory evidence. Assume or state that no contradictions exist between the Biblical account and modern scholarship. This is an approach that is used by less scrupulous organizations who assume that their audience doesn't have enough information to know otherwise. Of course this does not work once the contradictory information is known, so after reading Zeligman's section, or any other section, this type of approach is inadequate.

Another common apologetic path is to call into question the historical consensus. The apologist attempts to discredit the entire field of Egyptology and Ancient Near East studies. Often this will include quote-mining of individuals describing the difficulty or even uselessness of archaeology. Sometimes it will even call into question scientific methodology altogether. I discussed this tendency in one of my previous posts. This approach is very strongly on display in this response to Zeligman by Meir Goldberg. (Of course notice the strong hypocrisy of Meir. In one section he derides archaeology as useless to discount contradictory issues, and then in the next is not shy about using archaeological results as supporting evidence in other areas.) Thankfully Bentzi does not go this route, so I don't need to respond, although I am considering a post on stuff like Carbon Dating analysis, which as a physicist I understand well.

A third option resolves the contradiction by morphing the Torah to fit into the historical framework. This is the approach favored by religious academics who trust in the consensus view of Egyptian history. For example, one common way they dodge the historical problems is to argue for a reduction of the numbers involved in the historical Exodus, something I discussed here. The main argument I have with this approach is on textual grounds. But Bentzi doesn't go this route either.

What Bentzi does do is an attempt to "correct" the historical consensus. He attempts to find one piece of information that the historians missed that when applied fixes the discrepancies. The correction Bentzi proposes is with regards to the calendar system used in the historical reconstruction. He proposes a factor of two difference between the Egyptian recorded history and the Biblical recorded history, allowing one to find parallels between Biblical stories and Egyptian records.

Alternate Historical Timelines

Anyone who's spent time reading about ancient history in some depth knows about the difficulties of reconstructing a timeline. The most detailed ways of reconstructing a chronology, from king's lists and various ledgers and inscriptions are sometimes shaky. Often we can cross-reference using information from other kingdoms. So if the Egyptian king mentions a Hittite king, and we see some similar information in Hittite records, we can gain some confidence that those two chronologies sync at that point. Of course difficulties arise when kings have the same name, or when the syncing points don't quite agree with each other. Therefore there's some suspicion regarding details of reconstructions.

Despite these difficulties, historians have come up with a standard chronology for the various Ancient Near East kingdoms (Egypt, Hatti, Assyria, Sumeria, Greece and Babylon). These chronologies have uncertainties due to the events above, but typically these differences are in the order of 30-50 years. These problems have often prompted people to claim that the entire chronological records are useless and we should instead look at large scale revisions to the chronology. Typically, these revisions should serve to harmonize problems in the internal Egyptian chronology relative to some other chronology (like say the Hittites or Assyrians). Bentzi and others attempt to revise the Egyptian chronology with the sole goal of harmonizing with the Biblical chronology.

Bentzi's revision is new to me, however there is a more common one used in the evangelical Christian world (which Bentzi references as justification.) The chronology is offered by Rohl in his book "Pharaohs and Kings" and popularized by the Christian film "Patterns of Evidence." The claim is that large sections of the Egyptian timeline need to be shifted so that the Exodus aligns with the Hyksos event. This requires about a 350 year shift, which is then fixed on the other end by smashing a bunch of Egyptian dynasties (20th through 25th) into rival co-regencies.

Bentzi offers something a bit different, he proposes that all the Egyptian chronologies are actually off by a multiplicative factor before about 400-450 BCE. He places the Exodus way back in Egyptian chronology, into the 6th Dynasty (conventionally around 2200 BCE). This revision is much more drastic than Rohl's and anyone should be very skeptical about it. So in that sense, I will say now some of the reasons for my skepticism, and how I could be convinced.

Does it Actually Fix More Problems than it Creates?

This is probably the most important question. For example of a problem. Egyptian, Babylonian and the Tanach (Jer. 46:26) record the campaign of Nebuchadnezzar against Egypt. Jeremiah prophesizes that Nebuchadnezzar will win, but he does not succeed in conquering Egypt. Historically, Nebuchadnezzar's second campaign against Egypt occurs in 573 BCE. According to Bentzi's timeline, this should appear in the Egyptian records at 500 BCE, which is after the Persian occupation at 532 BCE. In the revised timeline this event now disagrees with all three sources.

There are numerous other events, that now get skewed badly by the revised chronology. We have lots of correspondences between Egypt and Hatti, the two major powers in the Middle Bronze Age. In particular, we have lots of descriptions between dynastic marriages between rulers. We know of one princess that went from Hatti to Egypt right before Hattusa was destroyed. An event described by Egyptian and Hittite records.

These are just two examples, there are many more problems that arise in the relative chronologies that are far worse than the problems in the conventional chronologies. This is unsurprising, because a lot of the conventional chronologies purpose is to minimize these discrepancies. So, in order to convince me that an alternate chronology is better, I would need a demonstration that either the relative chronologies between Egypt, Hatti, Assyria and Babylon all align better with any new chronology, or at least an explanation for why I shouldn't worry about the new worse discrepancies.

Carbon Dating Analysis

There is yet another reference point besides relative chronological comparisons. That is carbon dating. Carbon dating gives an absolute date for an event. There are, of course uncertainties, and depending on the time of the event, these uncertainties can range up to around plus or minus 100 years. Therefore, overall, it is difficult to resolve some of the discrepancies in the conventional chronology. However, many of the predictions of Bentzi (or even Rohl's) chronologies differ by amounts that carbon dating can separate. Just a few examples are necessary here.

The Hyksos capital at Avaris, current day Tel-el-Daba has had numerous excavations, mostly by Bietak. Kutschera, Bietak and others have summarized the radio-carbon analysis in their paper, "A Chronology of Tel el Daba." In this paper they argue that there is indeed a discrepancy between the carbon analysis and the Egyptian Chronology. But this discrepancy is roughly 120 years.

Similar issues arise with radio carbon dating from one of the major geological events of this time period, the eruption of the Thera volcano. Again, we see a discrepancy of about 100 years. But in this case, as in Avaris, the results indicate that the standard chronology does indeed fit better than either Rohl's or Bentzi's revised efforts. One of the experts on the Thera explosion, Manning states the following, possibly referencing Rohl:
High-quality radiocarbon dating also offers the independent means to test and reject the several publications of the last decade which have argued that conventional Egyptian (and wider ancient Near Eastern) historical chronology is incorrect. (source, hat-tip to reddit user Flubb for this reference)
So, in order for an alternate chronology to be convincing, it needs to produce an honest treatment of radiocarbon analysis and show that the new chronology produces a better match. Also, personally I know enough about radio-carbon dating, it's strengths and limitations, that I don't find the broad critiques of it in Meir Goldberg's post to be convincing in the least. Nevertheless, if you can convincingly show that radiocarbon analysis, at least in this region, should not be trusted at all, that could nullify this point. This is a very high bar though, and I would not expect success on this avenue.

Other Fixed Points

Fixed points in archaeology are hard to come by, yet there are a few. The most obvious being records of celestial phenomena, like solar and lunar eclipses which we can determine absolute dates for via astronomy. Records of eclipses are rare in Egypt, so this path is not so fruitful. Nevertheless, there are records in Babylon, Greece and Assyria that can be used to sync those chronologies together. If the revision of the Egyptian chronology also requires revising the chronology of one of these nations, then proper reckoning of these fixed points is necessary.

Justification for the Adjustment

Rohl's sole justification for his correction is to align with the Biblical account. Bentzi's main justification is the same, yet he offers some speculation behind why the multiplicative factor of two is used.  Quoting directly:
For example, it could be that ancient kings had multiple names, and the historians compiling their lists understood the different names to represent different and separate kings. Or another possibility is that we/they misunderstood the term ‘king’; in later societies, there was only one king at a time and the second-in-command had a different title. It could be that in ancient Egypt, both the Ruler and his second-in-command were referred to, and recorded, as ‘King’. In which case, the ‘kings’ didn’t rule consecutively, but rather co-currently – which would again, divide the given times by half.
Both of these points need some substantiation before I can even buy the premise that they are reasonable. Do we have any indication that kings had multiple names? Or that Egyptians valued the second in command? Do these ideas fit in the structure of the kings lists or monumental inscriptions? Rohl explains the discrepancies via co-regencies to compress many rival dynasties together, and there at least is some justification for that behavior. Concurrent dynasties are proposed in the conventional chronology as well, although not to the same extent. What is the justification for these speculations? Any supporting evidence would make the argument stronger. Without the evidence though, the argument is exceedingly unconvincing to me.

Support Among Egyptologists

The tasks I laid out are probably impossible for any layman, and certainly impossible for a Rabbinical student studying for Smicha. The time and knowledge required are tremendous. However, this problem can be short-circuited by finding support for this proposal among Egyptologists, people that have spent their lives worrying about these exact chronologies. Indeed, in my mind this is one of the biggest weaknesses of Rohl's proposed chronologies. No other Egyptologist takes it seriously. It is a huge problem for him that Kitchen, one of the Egyptologists who has high regard for the historicity of the Bible, disagrees strongly with Rohl.

This is the first time I've ever heard of Bentzi's argument. I don't know whether he came up with it himself, in which case, it is very clever of him. Cleverness does not equal truth though. In order for the argument to really have legs, it needs to gain at least a foothold of acceptance among the people who know Egyptian history the best. Absent that, even if Bentzi can deflect all my layman critiques, I still would have difficulty finding it convincing. If the argument is one of those, "if the Egyptologists only thought of it, of course they'd accept it" then indeed there will be some who actually do accept it. Right now there doesn't seem to be much appetite for a wide scale alteration to the chronology for the reasons I specified above. But if it changes, then I will surely change my view along with the consensus. 

Bentzi's Response

Bentzi asked that I post this response sent to me via email. Here it is unedited.

It is has often struck me, in historical research and other areas, the importance of even the minor details, and the strong influence they can have in shaping the conclusions that one reaches.

A good example of this, is with regard to the date usually given to the death of Alexander the Great, 323 BCE – a date so well established that it is often used as a reference point to establish the correct date of other historical events. 

As I’ve mentioned in another area of my blog, there is a well known story, mentioned in Bavli, Yerushalmi, and Midrash Hagadol, as well as in Josephus' works written a few centuries earlier, about the meeting between Shimon Hatzaddik and Alexander the Great. Part of that story is that Shimon Hatzaddik made two promises to Alexander: the first, that the Kohanim would name their male children born in the next year after him, which essentially turned Alexander into a Jewish name that is still used until today, and secondly, that the Jewish nation would start counting the date which they would use to date their documents, from the date of this meeting – Minyan Shtarot. And this became Jewish practice as well, although this practice was slowly dropped by different communities over time, usually as a result of suffering persecution, until our times where there are no communities that still keep it (to the best of my knowledge).

The main problem with this story from a historical perspective, is the date given to it. This episode is dated to the year 312 BCE in Jewish sources, while it is currently accepted that Alexander the Great died in 323 BCE, nine years earlier – which would lead most people to reject at least the Jewish date attributed to it, if not the entirety of that story.

But the reason why I don't, is because of what R’ Yosef Kapach writes in his edition of Mishneh Torah L’HaRambam, (Volume 6, page 43, end of footnote 49), that: “this year, meaning 5747 (which is when he wrote his commentary), is the 2298th year of shtarot (1986/7 minus 2298 is 312/11 BCE) … and we, those exiled to Yemen, remain the only ones who are faithful to the covenant of our forefathers, and their promise, and we were accustomed in Ketubot, in Gittin, in contracts and in letters to each other, to only write the date of the shtarot.”

And I personally find this to be a very strong proof for the correct date, as there are present here the combination of two advantageous points: firstly, that this date was used in such important documents as Gittin, where if the incorrect date is written, it invalidates the Get (מדרבנן), so the Rabbis involved would have been exceedingly careful that they used the correct date, and secondly, that this dating system was also used in regular letters and correspondence, which then means that it was also used on a frequent basis, unlike Gittin which may have only occurred a handful of times in a generation.
The reason why I am mentioning the above, is for two reasons:

Firstly, this illustrates why I can find it acceptable (and obviously only in certain cases) if the historical communities’ conclusions are somewhat different than mine. I think that it is completely false to charge these experts as being stupid, or untrustworthy or have evil intentions etc. and on the contrary, I hold them in high regard, but being that they are only human and not infallible, it can happen in certain cases that I may stumble over certain details that the wider community does not have access to, which then will allow me to come to a different conclusion than them. After all, how many Greek historians ever heard of R’ Yosef Kapach and his works? And even if there are some that have, how many of them would have come across this bit of information tucked into a footnote in the sixth volume?

And the above point is very relevant to this topic of Egyptian history as well, as although I haven’t mentioned this clearly on my blog yet, the main reason why I have found the historicity problem so troubling is more from a logical perspective than a religious one (although the religious angle is definitely a factor). Namely, that once I have been exposed to great religious figures in our generation - as I have detailed in an earlier section on my blog - whom, among their many other admirable traits, exhibited a great devotion to, and sacrificed greatly for, the value of truth, and once I additionally extrapolate that the religious figures of previous times were at least as great, if not greater, than them (in line with religious tradition), why is it that the books that should be the most truthful and honest, are precisely some of the most ahistorical and false books about those times ever to be written?

The approach that I have suggested gives me an answer to this, but the reason why it doesn’t bother me that the historical community hasn’t come up with this particular answer yet themselves, is because, in addition to my having access to certain works that they may not have access to (and even if they do have access to them, there are reasons why I take such works more seriously than they do), I am also coming from a different angle and have a different respect for the Biblical sources, for reasons that are simply not well known to the historical community.

Secondly, the above also explains why I agree with basically everything you have written. Since in order to reach the truth, one must take into account and explain all of the details, and cannot ignore them or dismiss them without having a really good reason to do so, it remains my responsibility to see if my approach fits with the many details and facts that are related to it.
I find it encouraging that so far, in the narrower context of Egyptian history, my approach answers a number of historical puzzles, such as: the dating of the Ipuwer Papyrus (not that I am trying to say that it is an account of the Ten Plagues, but at least, it isn’t dated to the wrong era); the cryptic statement of Manetho about seventy kings ruling within seventy days; the migration of the Amorites out of Israel at that time; the appearance of the origins of the Hebrew alphabet, Ktav Ivri, at that time; the similarity of so many Ancient Canaanite customs with Jewish ones, as the people who we currently call Ancient Canaanites were really Israelites; the similarity of the Torah to the Code of Hammurabi, not that we copied it from him, but he copied it from us; the reference to the Hapiru in the Amarna letters, which reflects the actions described in Nach at the time of King David, as well as the Biblical references that the term that was used by the surrounding nations to refer to the Jews at that time was 'Ivrim', among others (Ramses II, Hittite wars, Israel Stele etc).

However, the real test of my approach will be to apply it to the wider Mesopotamian history, as you have rightly pointed out, and see if it manages to answer many more questions than it creates, especially as when currently there is the very significant issue of carbon dating that does not fit with my approach. And as you’ve pointed out, this is a very complex issue, not only because there are the different “strands” of chronologies from neighboring nations that depend on, and intersect with each other, but there is also the additional issue of the disagreement of Jewish sources and others with regard to Persian history, which is related to the dates given to the reign of Nebuchadnezzar, which is one of the two remaining major questions in Naftali’s letter that I still do not know the answer to (the other being shafan/arnevet).

But since many people feel uncomfortable with the idea of accepting something that the wider scientific/historical community does not, which equally applies to some other topics that I have written about, I am planning to take a number of steps to deal with that, and even in my assessment, the place for me to start would be here, in the subject of Biblical vs. Egyptian history. I have no issue at all if a reader would like to forward this idea to an Egyptologist, but I think that I first have to flesh-it-out a bit more, and go considerably deeper, before I do that myself. But it will take me some time to do so, especially if I wish to research this with the thoroughness that I prefer, but if I end up publishing something in this regard, I will, G-d willing, let you know.

Finally, if it turns out that my approach does hold up with regard to the wider Mesopotamian history, it would create an interesting question of whether dates derived from historical records should be given more weight than those derived from carbon dating or vice versa. But I guess that we’ll get to discuss that when, and if, we come to cross that bridge.


I won't respond to this in full. The back in forth will go on forever. I'll just point out that the Rabbi he's referring to as the "great religious figure in our generation" is the Lubavitcher Rebbe. I thought about adding that in, but decided that would be undue tampering with his response. I add it here for the purpose of context.

If Bentzi continues working on this approach, I would encourage he start with two areas. On the one side, the radiocarbon results need to be dealt with, which we both agree on. But this is very difficult for an outsider who does not have access to the samples, radiocarbon testing labs, the complex Bayesian fitting models like "Oxcal," or the expertise (presumably) to evaluate all these things. Therefore, we are forced to deal with the results as published, which are going to be heavily problematic for Bentzi's approach as far as I can see. But maybe he can find a way forward.

The  second approach is more practical and accessible and might be a better starting point. It is possible for find translations for all of the Amarna letters, and while Bentzi says they agree better with the time of David than a pre-Israelite time, I am skeptical about that claim. Nevertheless, he should certainly take the time to read through all of them (they're short and formulaic, so you can do it in a few hours) and point out the ones that fit better with his proposed chronology rather than the conventional one.