Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Authors or Voices

There is a famous agaddah that tells us that our ancestors saw God both at the splitting of the Red Sea and the Giving of the Torah at Sinai.  At the sea, we are told, they saw Him as a mighty man of war.  At matan Torah they saw him as a wise elder.
Recent news of an Israeli computer program that identified multiple styles in the Bible that might have been written by a number of authors has been seized upon by the usual crowd of atheoskeptics as "proof" yet again that the Torah was not given to us by God but rather was composed over time by a number of people or groups and that these various proto-books were later merged into a single entity, the Torah we have now, by someone who was either the laziest or most incompetent editor in recorded history.
Unfortunately that's not what the program shows.  As one article on the subject notes:

For academic scholars, the existence of different stylistic threads in the Bible indicates human authorship.
But the research team says in their paper they aren't addressing "how or why such distinct threads exist."
"Those for whom it is a matter of faith that the Pentateuch is not a composition of multiple writers can view the distinction investigated here as that of multiple styles," they said.
In other words, there's no reason why God could not write a book in different voices.
"No amount of research is going to resolve that issue," said Koppel.

Now it is well-known that every one of the so-called difficulties that proponents of the Documentary Hypothesis love to quote was addressed and dealt with by Chazal 1800 years before the field of Biblical Criticism was invented.
Multiple names for God?  Dealt with.  Repetitive narratives?  Dealt with.  Contradictions and different versions of the same events?  Dealt with.  For Biblical critics these are evidence for human authorship.  For believers they are evidence that the Torah was composed by God for the purpose of moral education, not just a good Saturday afternoon read.
What this computer algorithm does then is support Chazal's statement at the start of this post.  God, in and of Himself, is incomprehensible to us.  We cannot understand the idea of a being that exists outside of time so that not only every place but every time is simultaneously visible before Him.  We are therefore limited to understanding the way He interacts with us and as the Torah teaches, He does so in many different facets, just like the verse says: "And I appeared unto Avraham, Yitzchak and Yakov as God Almighty but by My name HaShem I made Myself not known to them" (Shemos).   A quick perusal of the relevant parts of Bereishis quickly shows that in fact the name HaShem does appear in the narrative so how to explain the verse?  The "voice" God used to speak to our Avos was through his K'el Shad-i aspect even though He might have been acting as HaShem.
It is not far-fetched to understand God speaking in one way to Moshe Rabeinu, a"h, when detailing the various sacrifices and their procedures, another when giving civil laws, another when detailing historical events.  All this algorithm proves is that God has interacted with us in many ways and because of our limited perceptions these appear in the Torah as different "voices".  This program, if anything, might enhance our understanding of the various moral lessons each section is meant to transmit to us.
If that's not clear enough, perhaps this message from someone involved in the whole process would help:

So does all this mean that we have proved that the Torah was written by at least two human authors, as the breathless reports claim? No.

First of all, as I noted above, our method does not determine the optimal number of families. That is, it does not make a claim regarding the number of authors. Rather, you decide in advance how many families you want and the method finds the optimal (or a near-optimal) split of the text into that number. If you ask it to split Moby Dick into two (or four or thirteen) parts, it will do so. Thus the fact that we split the Torah into two tells us exactly nothing about the actual number of authors.

Having said that, I want to temper any religious enthusiasm such a disclaimer might engender. First of all, with a few improvements to the method we could probably identify some optimal number of families for a given text. We simply haven’t done so. Second, the fact that – for the case of two families – the results of our method coincide (to some extent) with those of the critics would seem to suggest that the split the method suggests is not merely coincidental.

But, the deeper reason that our work is irrelevant to the question of divine authorship is simply that it does not – indeed, it could not – have a thing to say on that question. If you were to have some theory about what properties divine writing ought to have and close analysis revealed that a certain text probably did not have those properties, then you might have to change your prior belief about the divine provenance of that text. But does anyone really have some theory about what divine texts are supposed to look like? Several press reports about this work referenced the idea that “God could write in multiple voices”. I find that formulation a bit simplistic, but it captures the fact that any attempt to map from multiple writing styles to multiple authorship must be rooted in assumptions about human cognition and human performance that are simply not relevant to the question of divine action[8].

In short, our results seem to support some findings of higher Bible criticism regarding possible boundaries between distinct stylistic threads in the Torah. These results might have some relevance regarding literary analysis of the Torah. Taken on their own, however, they are not proof of multiple authorship. Furthermore, there is nothing in these results that should cause those of us committed to the traditional belief in divine authorship of the Torah to doubt that belief.


Baruch Pelta said...
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Baruch Pelta said...

It is not far-fetched to understand God speaking in one way to Moshe Rabeinu, a"h, when detailing the various sacrifices and their procedures, another when giving civil laws, another when detailing historical events.

IIUC, it's a bit more complex than that. From the author you quoted, himself frum:
Before you dismiss all this by saying that all we did was discover that stories don’t look like laws, let me point out there are plenty of narrative sections that the computerized analysis assigned to the P family (or, more precisely, to the nameless family that turns out to be very similar to what the critics call the P family). Two prominent examples are the story of Shimon and Levi in Shechem and the story of Pinchas and Zimri.

So they apparently have managed to divide even narratives into the normally legalistic P category (as Bible critics say they should be). So it certainly looks like these aren't just differences in genre, but big differences in authorship styles...for whatever reason...

JRKmommy said...

The academic study of history, by definition, starts with the assumption that the Bible is to be treated like any other document ie. as something written by a person or persons for a specific purpose.

Within that approach, the Documentary Hypothesis suggests multiple human authors as opposed to a single human author.

However, you are correct that it was never intended to fully answer the question as to whether there were multiple human authors vs. a single supernatural being with multiple facets.