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It's the Same Old Story, Part II

If the minimalists, as the critics were soon called, (although especially Finkelstein has never accepted this label but consider himself a centrist) were right, we have to part with the idea of a period of the Judges and a united monarchy in the 10th century BCE. This means that the concept in the Old Testament of a united Israel has no Sitz im Leben in the first part of the Iron Age (Iron I, c. 1200-1000 BCE), and not even in Iron II (c. 1000-586 BCE1). Really the first time when we may speak of a united Israel could well be in the Hasmonean Period (2nd century BCE).

See Also: Writing Israel out of the History of Palestine

Response to Lemche’s “Writing Israel out of the History of Palestine.”

It’s The Same Old Story

By Niels Peter Lemche
University of Copenhagen
January 2013

At the end of the previous discussion (It's the Same Old Story), I suggested, supported by Thomas Thompson, that we should have an open discussion between the former students of the late Frank Moore Cross and the so-called ‟minimalists.” Richard Friedman and Ronald Hendel did not take up the glove but I see no reason why this should prevent me from opening the debate. They can always join the party, the invitation is still open.

The following notes are mainly based on a small but representative selection of works by Friedman and Hendel, most notably Richard Friedman's Who Wrote the Bible,2 and Ronald Hendel's The Epic of the Patriarchs: The Jacob Cycle and the Narrative Traditions of Canaan and Israel.3 Frank Moore Cross's Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel will lurk in the background,4 as the very idea of a Hebrew epic goes back to Cross, and even to his mentor William Foxwell Albright, who might not in his writings have used ‟epic” in the sense employed by Cross and Hendel, but comes close to it in his Yahweh and the Gods of Canaan: A Historical Analysis of Two Contrasting Faiths.5

Friedman is, however, not really dealing with a Hebrew epic but is rather expanding the Deuteronomistic thesis as proposed by Frank Moore Cross in Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic, which is a variation of the ‟Göttinger Hypothesis” of Rudolf Smend,6 arguing that we operate with a two stage development of this work: the first from the time of Josiah, the second edition from the time of the Babylonian Exile.7

I: Friedman: Who wrote the Bible? (1987)

Understanding the position of Richard Friedman, we should begin with the focal points in his analysis (p. 1):

1) the convergence of many different lines of evidence
2) linguistic evidence for the dating of texts
3) the narrative continuity of texts that are ascribed to particular authors
4) how the texts match the history of the periods from which they come

Although §§ 1 and 3 are important, the problems come up when we deal with §§ 2 and 4, which have to do with history and the dating of biblical literature.

However, to be brief, Friedman is rather traditional in his view of the composition of the Pentateuch: J dates from the early part of the Hebrew kingdom. Its author seems to come from Judah. E dates from the 9th-8th century BCE and has his home in the North, more explicitly at the shrine of Shiloh. J and E were joined into one composition after 722 BCE but before the emergence of D where Friedman is totally dependent on Cross. When it comes to P, Friedman diverts from the position of Cross who saw P as late exilic (still a lot older than the dominant dating of P to the post-exilic period), as Friedman follows Israeli scholars who consider P to be pre-exilic. A novum is Friedman's introduction of a ‟Q” source for both J and E (pp. 84-5).

Basically Friedman subscribes to the old idea of the ‟Mosesgruppe” meaning a small detachment of Hebrews that escaped from Egypt and travelled to Canaan. Some of his authors of JEPD may have claimed to descend from Moses, others were in definite opposition to this insistence on the importance of Moses.

The important place for much of this literature is the shrine at Shiloh. Friedman goes so far that he directly links Jeremiah to this shrine and does not resist the temptation to consider Jeremiah's scribe Baruch Ben Neriah to be the author of D (pp. 148-9).

II: Problems with Friedman's reconstruction of the literary history of the Pentateuch

It is obvious that Friedman's studies from the 1980s belong to a time when everything was changing. Cross published his collection of essays Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic just after the departure of a generation of leading OT scholars, notably Martin Noth (1968), William Foxwell Albright and Roland de Vaux (both 1971), and shortly before the settlement with the classical theories of Israelite history began in earnest, although Noth's tribal organization (the amphictyony) was in jeopardy already when Cross's collection appeared. However, ten years later things were definitely changing, and worse (from the perspective of Friedman's position) was to come. The most problematic thing to happen was the demise of the united Hebrew Kingdom, due to a discussion inaugurated by Giovanni Garbini (History & Ideology in Ancient Israel8) but mostly belonging to the 1990s and mainly centering on an archaeological controversy between archaeologists from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and the young upstarts from the University of Tel Aviv (David Ussishkin, Israel Finkelstein, Zev Herzog).

If the minimalists, as the critics were soon called, (although especially Finkelstein has never accepted this label but consider himself a centrist) were right, we have to part with the idea of a period of the Judges and a united monarchy in the 10th century BCE. This means that the concept in the Old Testament of a united Israel has no Sitz im Leben in the first part of the Iron Age (Iron I, c. 1200-1000 BCE), and not even in Iron II (c. 1000-586 BCE9 ). Really the first time when we may speak of a united Israel could well be in the Hasmonean Period (2nd century BCE). The only way to get around this conclusion will be to follow Albrecht Alt's old idea about a stream of Israelite refugees arriving in Jerusalem after 722 BCE.10 This idea has recently been reintroduced by Israel Finkelstein.11 One condition, however, that Samaria was destroyed, is absent: The Assyrians did not destroy Samaria. After they removed some 20.000 people from the former kingdom of Samarina, they seemingly left it in peace.12

All of this tells us that the dating of the Deuteronomistic History to the time of Josiah is perhaps not the most solid part of Friedman's argumentation. Worse is his hypothizing that Shiloh was the place where it happened, as Shiloh was not inhabited during the Iron II period. When Jeremiah is asking people to go to Shiloh to see what happened there with Yahweh's temple (Jer. 7:12.14), it might be no more than an intertextual reference, referring to the fate of the Shilonite priests in 1 Samuel, as there was evidently no temple to visit; there was nothing there, which is obviously what Yahweh thinks of the future of the Temple of Jerusalem. No traces will be left.13

Then we have the linguistic evidence mentioned by Friedman, most likely as a result of his studies under Cross. This is a difficult question, and has been further complicated by some recent studies on dating biblical Hebrew, especially the important study by Ian Young, Robert Rezetko and Martin Ehrensvärd, Linguistic Dating of Biblical Texts I-II.14 We need a better argument than just the reference to Cross's old studies.

But the real problem for a position like Friedman's is his rejection to take up historical questions put forward in his lifetime. Without history, there is simply no chance of dating anything.

III. Ronald Hendel and his Epic of ancient Israel

To be fair, Hendel's preliminary discussion of oral literature is quite acceptable. He is absolutely right in criticizing the pioneers, Herder, Wellhausen, and Gunkel, as they until rather late only used written literature as the basis of their theories. There is, however, more to this. Let me refer to the Danish folklorist Axel Olrik, mentioned by Hendel en passant in connection with his criticism of John Van Seters (p. 26). More than a hundred years ago Olrik published his studies in Oral tradition in Danish and German. An English edition of his major works was published only a couple of years after Olrik's death in 1917. A German edition of his Principles for Oral Narrative Research was published in 1909.15 Olrik's major work has thus for a long time been accessible in English.16

When Hendel mentions Olrik I therefore have to ask him why he has not read Olrik but only studies by other people discussing Olrik (p. 26). Olrik's ‟epical laws” are easily accessible in English.17 If Hendel had read Olrik, his attack on John Van Seters for relying on Olrik would have turned out to be wrong. Olrik did study literature very similar to the biblical history, as a matter of fact people may say he based his work on a Danish national epic in prose, Saxo Grammaticus's medieval history of Denmark, Gesta Danorum (c. 1200 CE). As Olrik also studied and published Danish folk literature from early times, much of it handed down orally,18 and some still in use today in the Faeroe Islands, it might have been a good idea to show a little more interest in Olrik and in ancient Norse literature. The same could be said about Hendel's dismissal of Johann Gottfried von Herder who was of course an idealist but still only slightly older than the Brüder Grimm, and thus a contemporary of an intense interest in Germany in traditional orally transmitted folk literature.

Hendel decided to rely on the studies of Albert B. Lord and through him on field studies from Bosnia in the 1930s executed by Milman Parry and Lord.19 This is a good choice. I made the same choice for the study of oral tradition when I was preparing for my Early Israel.20 Lord's study concentrates on epic literature, as his and Parry's interest was the study of the foundations for the Homeric epic. Parry and Lord really demonstrated that even societies without writing were able to produce great epic literature, and thereby they paved the way for a better understanding of the origins of Homer's poetry.

Lord and Parry did not, however, say anything about the ability of oral tradition to preserve historical knowledge. Here it would have been a great help if Hendel had also turned to other students of oral literature and memory in non-literary societies. John Gulick's studies would have been a way to check ideas about historicity, as Gulick's assertion is that oral societies do not remember anything.21 I am not trying to ignore the objections to this position by Robert D. Miller nor the ongoing debate among folklorists on this subject.22 But I will leave that part of the discussion at this point.

Hendel compares, in his study of epic literature, the Ugaritic epics with the cycle of narratives in Genesis about Jacob. He definitely succeeds in demonstrating a similarity of motifs and plots, even a similarity in the narrative technique. There is no reason to object to his analysis. His conclusions are a little more debatable, because he attempts to show that the biblical narratives are dependent on epic literature, if not exactly epic literature. Hendel operates with an extension of the old definition of epics as heroic poems about heroes and gods, giving place also for compositions in prose. In his eagerness to pursuebroader comparative studies, he introduces the concept of multiformity (p. 47), but here his limitations become clear. When comparing two different subjects such as on one hand the Ugaritic epic and on the other biblical prose narrative, he focuses primarily on the major compositions. Already here he should have been looking for something that might have served him as tertium comperationis and Norse epic and sagas might have provided him with such a third instance. Moreover, multiformity allows for the acceptance of many forms present in a piece of literature. In reality he is approaching a subject which we discussed (Thomas Thompson and I) back in the early 1990s, very much based on Vladimir Propp's studies in Russian folklore.23 The fundamental idea was that each motive isolated by Propp included a message that was always there in spite of different ways of presenting the motive and placing it in different contexts. Tom has since then refined the concept immensely in his many studies of motif clusters in ancient literature.

Hendel's problem is that none of his parallels between Ugaritic and biblical literature proves that the biblical story was dependent on an earlier now lost epic version of, for instance, the Jacob story. The motifs analyzed may come from epics or they may have their background in a much wider spectrum of folk literature. Already when studying the Ugaritic epics, such a diversified background must be considered, with its multitude of fairy tales, anecdotes, songs, proverbs, etc. In the Late Bronze Age Syria was, from a literary point of view, definitely an oral society, and it is absolutely true that many elements of the Ugaritic epics can be traced back to oral forms and procedures.24

The same can be said about the society that produced the patriarchal narratives but nothing has really been said that can serve to date this literature. Epics and historiography may come from different periods, but they might just as well be contemporaries. Here the simultaneousness of Livy's history of Rome and Vergil's Aeneid both from the time of Augustus may serve as an example. It is not even so that linguistics is of much help. We do have a series of inscriptions from ancient Palestine, but they are, with few exceptions, (like the Siloam inscription and some letters from, e.fg., Lachish and Arad) very short texts and not very adaptable to an analysis of the kind necessary to come to a closer grasp of the dating of biblical texts which are as a matter of fact with a few exceptions extremely similar when it comes to morphology.25

So, in conclusion, Hendel's approach is definitely a valuable one and it may be true that these kinds of studies have been neglected during the last 25 years. It is, on the other hand, important that we understand both the benefits and the limits of such an approach. The motif analysis definitely shows how widespread many of the themes of a corpus of literature like the patriarchal narratives really were — some would say they still are — but their presence does not prove anything as to the original form of in this case the patriarchal narratives.


1 I am for conventional reasons using the dates found in Amihai Mazar, Archaeology of the Land of Israel [New York: Doubleday, 1990), 30.

2 San Francisco: HarperOne, 1987, 2nd edition 1997.

3 Atlanta: Scholars, 1987.

4 Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 1973.

5 London: Athlone, 1968.

6 R. Smend, ‟Das Gesetz und die Völker: Ein Beitrag zur deuteronomistischen Redaktionsgeschichte,” in H.W. Wolf (ed.), Probleme biblischer Theologie (FS von Rad) (München: Kaiser, 1971), 494-509.

7 See also Friedman's dissertation, The Exile and Biblical Narrative (Atlanta: Scholars, 1981).

8 London: SCM, 1988.

9 I am for conventional reasons using the dates found in Amihai Mazar, Archaeology of the Land of Israel [New York: Doubleday, 1990), 30.

10 A. Alt, ‟Die Heimat des Deuteronomiums,” (1950: Kleine Schriften zur Geschichte Israels, II [München: Beck, 1959], 250-75).

11 I. Finkelstein, ‟The Rise of Jerusalem and Judah: The Missing Link,” Levant 33 (2001), 105-15.

12 Cf. also N.P. Lemche, ‟The Deuteronomistic History: Historical Reconsiderations,” in K. L. Noll and Brooks Schramm (eds.), Raising Up a Faithful Exegete: Essays in Honor of Richard D. Nelson (Winona Lake, Eisenbrauns 2010, 41-50, and ‟Did a Reform like Josiah’s happen?” in Philip R. Davies and Diana Vikander Edelman (eds.), The Historian and the Bible: Essays in Honour of Lester L. Grabbe (London: T&T Clark, 2010), pp. 11-19.

13 Further on this N.P. Lemche, ‟Mysteriet om det forsvundne tempel. Overleveringen om Silos ødelæggelse i Jer 7,12.14,” Svensk Eksegetisk Årsbok 54 (1989), 118 126.

14 London-Oakville CT: Equinox, 2008. Cf. also Ian Young, Robert Rezetko and Martin Ehrensvärd, ‟A Very Tall 'Cautionary Tale': A Response to Ron Hendel,” Bible and Interpretation 28 Sep 2011.

15 A. Olrik, ‟Epische Gesetze der Volksdichtung,” Zeitschrift für deutsche Altertum 51 (1909), 1-12.

16 A. Olrik, The Heroic Legends of Denmark (transl. by L.M. Hollander; New York: The American-Scandinavian Foundation, 1919).

17 A. Olrik, Principles for Oral Narrative Research, translated by K. Wolf and J. Jensen (Bloomington, Ind: Indiana University., 1992).

18 Cf. A. Olrik, Danmarks Gamle Folkeviser. Sjette-Syvende Del (= Danske Ridderviser, 2 Bd.). (København: Wroblewski, 1895-1904).

19 A.B. Lord, The Singer of Tales (Cambridge. MA: Harvard, 1960).

20 N.P: Lemche, Early Israel: Anthropological and Historical Studies on the Israelite Society Before the Monarchy (Leiden: Brill, 1985).

21 See for example John Gulick, Myth, Ritual and the Oral (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 2010).

22 Cf. R.D. Miller, Oral Tradition in Ancient Israel ( Eugene: Cascade, 2011).

23 Vladimir Propp, Morphology of the Folktale (original Russian edition 1928; E.T. Austin: University of Texas, 1958).

24 Cf. also N.P. Lemche, Prelude to Israel's Past (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1998, chapter III.2.1-5, pp. 152-186.

25 Though I am not forgetting the important study of the grammar of the inscriptions by S.L. Gogel, A Grammar of Epigraphic Hebrew (Atlanta: SBL, 1998), nor the four volumes published by J. Renz and W. Röllig, Handbuch der althebräischen Epigraphik, I, II.1-2, III (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1995-2003).

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