Hebraic Draughts

Rough drafts of thoughts, following reading, studying and teaching Hebrew and Jewish texts.

Knowledge and Oblivion

The history of research is also the history of forgetting.

When teaching Deuteronomy tomorrow, I will tell my students’ of de Wette’s dating and how it changed scholarship. It was described as an “Archimedean point” when I was doing my first year of undergraduate studies in Hebrew Bible. In the words of John Collins (that my students will be reading for class, or at least should be):

“In 1805 a young German scholar, W. M. L de Wette, revolutionized scholarship by pointing out the correspondence between Deuteronomy and the ‘book of the law’ that was allegedly found in the temple in 621 BCE, in the reign of King Josiah of Judah.” (JJ Collins, Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, 162).

But de Wette wasn’t the first to point out the relationship between 2 Ki 22 and Deuteronomy, of course, although this is the ubiquitous wisdom HB professors teach their students. Radak (Rabbi David Kimhi, 1160–1235) writes in his commentary on 2 Ki 22:11:

אמרו כי מצאו הספר נגלל בפרשת תוכחות יולך ה’ אותך ואת מלכך וגו’ כי שם נרמז ענין גלות שומרון וגלות יהודה עם מלך יהודה כמו שבארנו שם

It is said that they found the book (scroll) rolled in the passage of reproof, “The Lord will drive you, and the king you have set over you, etc.” (Deut 28:36), because that alludes to the Exile of Samaria and the Exile of Judea with the King of Judea.

And Gersonides (1288-1344) supports this view:

יתכן שראה התוכחות והנמשך להם שבמשנה תורה כי שם נרמז ענין גלות שומרון וגלו’ יהודה עם מלך יהודה

Perhaps he saw the reproofs and what relates to them in Deuteronomy

Radak and Gersonides are reading this more naively than de Wette, to be sure. They cannot imagine that Deuteronomy was only composed at that time, and that the discovery is merely “alleged” as Collins wrote. This is indeed the novelty of de Wette, but together with it we all too often also ascribe to him noticing the correspondence itself.

Radak, to conclude this point, finds it difficult to accept that Deuteronomy, not to mention the Torah entirely was lost. As support, he says that if Manasseh repented (based on the Chronicler and the midrash), it is impossible that he would not study Torah. The discovery is not of the text itself, but the fact that it was found open on the section of curses of Deut 28. In other words, Radak is implying here an almost divinatory use of the written word as artifact, similar in a way to the rabbinic practice of פסוק לי את פסוקך (asking children to recite a verse), or to opening books haphazardly and using their place as an omen (there’s an excellent discussion of this in Michael Swartz’s new book, The Signifying Creator).

In order to learn, we make room for more knowledge, and forget some of the old. It is impossible to read everything, even less so to retain. The new often bears the quality of revolutionary, but in the course of the revolution the memory of the old is swiped away and discarded as irrelevant. As a result, modern scholarship, in a manner that is not only ideological, but almost dogmatic, tells a story of discovery ex nihilo. It is surprising and refreshing to see and recall things that medievalists noticed and acknowledged, despite the disparate assumptions. Although many fault Richard Elliott Friedman’s Who Wrote the Bible? for its Jerusalem School dating of the documents, I think he does an excellent job in extensively tracing the earliest evidence for authorship criticism, and delineating the full path that led to Wellhausen.

My own tendencies are equally unoriginal: I got into the habit of checking modern claims against traditional ones when I studied Leviticus with Baruch Schwartz as an undergrad. Class preparation required the primary reading from Leviticus with two modern commentaries and two medieval exegetes of our choice. Reading both side by side remains a pleasure of reading and teaching the Hebrew Bible.

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