Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Are sources cited in the Hebrew Bible fabricated?

IT DID HAPPEN SOMETIMES: Ancient Historians Fabricating Sources (Neil Godfrey, Vridar Blog). Just ran across this interesting discussion of fabricated sources in works by ancient writers. The post opens:
Throughout the books of the Hebrew Bible (the Christian’s “Old Testament”) one finds assurances for readers that the stories (or histories) being told are detailed in other written sources. Readers are further assured in a number of cases in the books of Kings and Chronicles that even more details can be found in outside sources.

That sounds authoritative. Surely only a “hyper-sceptical” cynic would insist that such source citations were fabricated and the narratives have no credible foundation whatsoever.

But there is a more prudent alternative to having to choose between either/or. We have no independent evidence for the existence of these cited sources but of course that does not mean they never existed.

Are we going a step too far, however, to wonder if they never existed at all and that our biblical authors really did fabricate at least some of them? How could we possibly know?
No, of course there is no objection to inquiring whether some or all of the lost books cited in the Hebrew Bible are fabrications that never existed. Some people think that to be the case. But this post offers only one argument in favor of that conclusion: the fact that we can verify that some ancient authors fabricated sources that they cited. So the fact that an ancient author cites a source is not proof that the source existed. The discussion in the blog post of some of these fabrications is interesting and I commend it to you.

That said, there are also many, many examples of ancient authors citing works that we know existed, because we still have them. So each case has to be evaluated on its own merits. And there are a number of positive arguments in favor of at least some of those sources cited in the Hebrew Bible being genuine.

• In general the chronicles cited in 1-2 Kings seemed to have had the same format and interests as ancient Mesopotamian chronicles and likewise the same interests as ancient Northwest Semitic inscriptions that may have been derived from lost chronicles.

• The poetic texts cited in the Pentateuch and the Deuteronomistic History have early features of grammar and vocabulary which are consistent with their being considerably older than the work that cites them. Moreover, the biblical authors sometimes misunderstood these sources, which strongly suggests that these sources had an independent and earlier existence. (We know they misunderstood them because, thanks to archaeology and philology, our understanding of the earlier forms of the language is actually better than the understanding of the biblical authors.)

• Once in awhile the cited source has details that can be confirmed archaeologically.

I do not think that every source cited in the Hebrew Bible was genuine. For example, I doubt very much that the author of the book of Esther actually had access to the Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Media and Persia. Such chronicles doubtless did exist, but they are cited there as a device to advance the story. At the other extreme, I think it is difficult to regard the lament poem in 2 Samuel 1 as anything but a genuinely ancient text, one that may well have been composed by David. I also think that the case for the use by the Deuteronomist of a real Chronicles of the Kings of Israel and Chronicles of the Kings of Judah is pretty good.

This has been one of my areas of interest for a long time. Past posts on the subject are here and here. And for many other posts on ancient lost books, see here and here and links.

Outside of the blog, see my article "Quotations from Lost Books in the Hebrew Bible" in Old Testament Pseudepigrapha: More Noncanonical Scriptures, volume 1 (ed. Bauckham, Davila, and Panayotov; Eerdmans, 2013), pp. 673-84. This article cites the relevant scholarly literature and gives the positive arguments for many of the sources cited in the Hebrew Bible being genuine. Anyone who wishes to show otherwise needs to address these arguments.

Volume 2, now in progress, will also include a chapter on lost Old Testament pseudepigrapha known only by title.