Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Computer Confirmation of “P” – A Biblicist’s Perspective

Computer Confirmation of “P” – A Biblicist’s Perspective

By Joshua Berman

Joshua Berman is a lecturer in Tanach at Bar-Ilan University and an associate fellow at the Shalem Center. His most recent book, Created Equal: How the Bible Broke with Ancient Political Thought (Oxford, 2008) was a National Jewish Book Award Finalist in Scholarship in 2008.

Prof. Moshe Koppela revered friend and senior colleague—has produced what is for me as a biblicist is a fascinating and exciting study.[1] His demonstrated capacity to tease apart books like Jeremiah and Ezekiel when their verses are randomly shuffled will find good application, I am sure, within the field of biblical studies. At the conclusion of that study, Koppel and his team report that they applied their methodology to the Torah, and that their split of its verses “corresponds to the expert consensus regarding P and non-P for over 90% of the verses in the Pentateuch for which such consensus exists.” The claim has generated much theological debate.

In this post, however, I wish to respond to these findings solely within the terms and assumptions found within the discipline of biblical studies itself. The findings produced by Prof. Koppel’s team constitute an academic, scientific claim and deserve to be addressed in kind. I wish to extend my heartfelt appreciation to Prof. Koppel for sharing his data with me, and for elucidating many points for me in subsequent exchanges between us. For two primary reasons, I conclude that the findings are of little consequence for Pentateuch studies, and to the extent that they are of consequence they suggest a different significance than that reported in his initial article.

The Koppel team’s compelling work, teasing apart books such as Jeremiah and Ezekiel, does not, in its present form, provide sufficient basis for an analysis of the Torah. Here’s why: Jeremiah and Ezekiel are two whole, integral works. Buoyed by the success of separating two books Koppel’s team split the verses of the Torah into two “authorial categories,” one of which seems to have affinity with the set of verses source-critical scholars refer to as the priestly source of the Pentateuch. The other authorial category, however, “Non-P” is not a single, integral, distinct book. Source critics (again, I am constructing an argument here that would be valid within the field of biblical studies) are unanimous that the non-priestly material in the Pentateuch is an amalgam of many other sources. It is more difficult to separate a single integral book from an amalgam of many different works than it is to separate one integral work from another. Put differently, an alternative experiment needs to be carried out utilizing other biblical books, before these data about the Torah can be statistically validated. Prof. Koppel and team would need to take, say, all of Jeremiah, and shuffle it with smatterings of verses from several other books, and successfully retrieve the verses from Jeremiah.

I am clueless about computational linguistics, and so I shared this intuition with Prof. Koppel. He confirmed for me that the experiments carried out separating whole integral books can only offer a “weak-indicator” for the case of the texts of the Torah.

But let’s give that weak-indicator the benefit of the doubt, or let’s assume that those experiments have been successfully executed, extracting Jeremiah, say, from an amalgam of other texts. What do the data in hand about the Torah suggest?

I would propose that the significance is rather different than that which has been reported. To appreciate the data, however, requires a brief whirlwind tour of the history of source criticism of the Pentateuch, particularly of developments of the last twenty years. Classical source-criticism does not merely claim that the first four books of the Torah may be divided into three sources, J, E and P. It claims that each of these three sources were originally complete histories of Israel, from Creation until the time of Moses. There was a time—in the early twentieth century—that the comprehensive theories of the great minds were considered to be the final word on the subject. Einstein, it was believed, had given us the final word on physics, Freud on psychology. In the world of biblical studies, it was Wellhausen who was believed to have given us the final word on the origins of the Pentateuch with his source-critical account. But in the last generation many scholars have walked away from the table of source-criticism. For some, source-criticism proved too unruly; scholars seemed never to agree on the criteria necessary to split the putative sources. Others found source-criticism disappointing on the level of content: the sources did not seem to produce clear, consistent and differentiated theological agendas. Others found that many of the so-called indicators of multiple authorship could better be explained by recognizing the literary techniques at work in these texts as coherent wholes. For others—and this is significant—the inconsistencies in the text are best understood as individuated issues. There were indeed two flood stories in ancient Israel, they would say, but why assign these to larger strands or sources?[2]

Koppel and his team use the work of Richard Elliot Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible? as a baseline to identify the Priestly source. They chose that work because Friedman—like Driver before himschematically assigns each and every verse of the Torah to one of the four classical sources. Friedman’s work—written in 1987is still quoted in some circles. But it cannot be said to be the universally accepted gospel on the Torah within the field of biblical studies. It is telling that since Friedman no scholar of any note has deigned to offer (let alone defend) a schematic accounting of all the verses of P, much less the whole Pentateuch. This speaks volumes to the methodological malaise currently afflicting Pentateuch studies in the academy. Unable to find a common methodological language, biblicists themselves now inhabit a post-Babel world.

Does this mean that there are no source-scholars left in the 21st Century? Does it mean that there is no consensus about anything pertaining to source-criticism within the academy? Hardly. Concerning biblical law, such consensus exists. Nearly all biblicists, for example, will happily identify legal sections pertaining to the cult as deriving from a source called P. Where there is far less consensus is in the area of narrative. It is true that those that engage in source-criticism of Pentateuchal narrative find a common language and accord on many passages in identifying them as P narratives. But they are a dwindling breed. For the vast majority of scholars working today, the determination that the laws of Leviticus should be ascribed to a source called P is an infinitely easier call than is the ascription to P of the account of Shimon and Levi in Shechem. It’s not that they’re convinced that the story should be ascribed to another source. Nor would they rule out the possibility that perhaps that account was penned by the author of a P source. The hesitation comes from misgivings about the entire enterprise of viewing Torah narratives as derived from distinct, continuous sources that each detailed the history of Israel.

Now let’s go to the data. In many instances, verses that source-critics assign to a source other than P, the Koppel team’s program, likewise, assigns to the category “Non-P. ” At the same time, it is important to note that the program also fails to positively confirm what source critics see as priestly material. Here we come to the main point: in the genre of law, the program does a very good job of correlating with the sections that critics see as priestly law. These, not surprisingly, tend to be cultic law. In the genre of narrative, however, a very different story emerges. Of 253 verses in Genesis that source-critics identify as “priestly”, the program could only confirm 38 of them (15%). In Exodus the discrepancy is even greater, and the program confirms 5 out of 80 (6%) priestly narrative verses. In Numbers, the correlation is much higher, but overall, the program’s results correlate with the so-called priestly narrative less than half the time. Does this suggest a “flaw” in the Koppel team’s program? Not at all. Rather, it confirms the suspicions of a very large number of biblicists: the notion of priestly narrative in the Pentateuch is on much shakier ground than is the notion of priestly law.

Finally, moving away from the Koppel team’s stimulating findings, I’d like to address an issue that hovers over the entire discussion and that is the definition of an “author” and the highly anachronistic use we make of that term, especially when analyzing ancient sources. It’s a good thing that Rashi wrote in the eleventh century, because had he come out with his commentary to the Torah today, he would likely be assailed in some quarters as a plagiarizer. In many instances, Rashi attributes the midrashim he cites. But in many other instances he simply borrows entire sentences from chaza”l and presents them in his own voice. Only the discerning disciple will note that Rashi, has, in fact, lifted entire sentences from an earlier source, without attribution. Of course, Rabban Shel Yisrael was no plagiarizer. Rather, Rashi, like many medieval and ancient writers before was writing in a world where old was good. The mark of a good writer was someone who appropriately saw himself as a member of a long and venerated tradition. Good writing was precisely writing that imitated earlier style—nay, sometimes a variety of styles--and in many cases, directly lifted and borrowed whole passages.[3]

The same was true in ancient contexts as well. You’d think that to ask, “Who wrote the Code of Hammurabi?” is akin to asking, “Who’s buried in Grant’s Tomb?” But it isn’t. The issue is not simply that it was Hammurabi’s scribes who actually penned that classic, and not the Babylonian king himself. It’s that we now know that those scribes invoked a number of sanctioned styles in their composition, and lifted phrases from prior works.[4] The composition is unitary because a single agent—Hammurabi and his scribes—published this composition as something to be read as such. Ancient readers may, no doubt, have noticed the unevenness of its style. But they would have seen that as the mark of a great work, produced within a venerable tradition, in which writing routinely draws from a variety of canonical and classical works. Its status derived not from the fact that it was the original composition of a single author, but that it was produced by a single authority. Readers of the Code would never have even thought to ask whether every sentence originated with Hammurabi himself. But the fact that it was under his authority that multiple styles were brought together is what made it a great work. Many other classics of the ancient world, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh likewise exhibit a plurality of styles. This is how many of the great works of the ancient world looked.[5]

In defense against the claims of higher biblical criticism, the faithful often counter that divine writing is different than human writing, for the Almighty speaks in several styles and voices. This dichotomy, whereby God alone can speak in many styles, but humans must exhibit consistency, is a false one. It is human writing, too, in the premodern, and especially ancient world, that expresses itself in a variety of styles. In his commentary to the beginning of parashat Pekudei, the Ralbag questions why the Torah repeats the parshiyot of the Mishkan, in a manner that seems overly repetitious. He concludes that what appears to us as repetitious and hence, unseemly, may not have been the case in an earlier age:

ואפשר שנאמר שכבר היה מנהג האנשים ההם בזמן מתן תורה שיהיו סיפוריהם בזה האופן. והנביא אמנם ידבר לפי מנהג.

We may say that it was the norm at the time of Matan Torah that compositions were crafted in this fashion, and that the prophet speaks in the style of the times.

It may well be that divine writing expresses itself in multiple styles. But if the Almighty has indeed done so in the Torah, then He has done so, לפי המנהג – according to literary tastes that may seem grating to modern notions of authorship, but were entirely keeping with ancient sensitivities.


[1] See Moshe Koppel, Navot Akiva, Idan Dershowitz and Nachum Dershowitz, “Unsupervised Decomposition of a Document into Authorial Components” (link).

[2] On the waning interest in Pentateuchal source criticism within biblical studies, see Rolf Rendtorff, “What Happened to the "Yahwist"?: Reflections after Thirty Years” (http://www.sbl-site.org/publications/article.aspx?articleId=553) and David Clines, “Response to Rolf Rendtorff's "What Happened to the Yahwist? Reflections after Thirty Years" (link).

[3] See A. J. Minnis. Medieval Theory of Authorship; Scholastic Literary Attitudes in the Later Middle Ages (London: Scholar Press, 1984).

[4] Victor Avigdor Hurowitz, Inu Anum sirum : Literary Structures in the Non-juridical Sections of Codex Hammurabi (Philadelphia: University Museum, 1994).

[5] See David M. Carr, Writing on the Tablet of the Heart. Origins of Scripture and Literature (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005); Karel Van Der Toorn, Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007).

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