Tuesday, August 22, 2006

The Authenticity of the Bible

Nowadays, many people question the value of studying the Bible in depth. Therefore, I thought it would be wise to open this blog with a few words on the authenticity of the Biblical tradition and its significance.

Before I begin, let me comment on what I will not do. I will not follow the path of some bloggers, websites and authors who selectively quote from archaeologists and scholars who endorse - in whole or in part - the traditional view of the history of Israel. I realize that, for every quotation I produce that I agree with, ten quotations can be adduced that contradict it. Of course, there are times when the use of quotations is appropriate. A beautiful quotation can provide insight, stimulate thought, fuel debate, or capture an idea in an especially striking manner. Empirical data must also be based upon reliable sources. However, offering citations to support arguments or interpretations is futile because no textual source is any more valuable than the fallible human opinion that it represents. Using scholarly citations as "proofs" can even be counterproductive because they shift the emphasis of a discussion from reality itself to what people say, feel or think about reality. Quotations have an allure to them, an air of officialness that seems to grant them more weight than they really deserve. In the end, discovering the truth is not about finding authorities who agree with us; rather, it is about using our reasoning powers, to the extent of our ability, to try and determine which viewpoints are closest to the truth.

Now, on to the Biblical tradition. Over three thousand years ago, the people of Israel emerged on the international scene as a curious group of iconoclasts - a nation fiercely opposed to idolatry, witchcraft and superstition, the mainstays of primitive worship, and whose leaders were themselves beholden to the Law. The religion of the Jews contrasted sharply, in both form and content, with all other religions of antiquity. In retrospect, we might say that Judaism was millennia ahead of its time. Furthermore, in addition to their unique theology and culture, the Jewish people laid claim to a remarkable history - a protracted enslavement in Egypt, followed by a miraculous liberation and the experience of an unprecedented mass revelation at Sinai.

Many moderns are tempted to dismiss the historical claims of the Bible as nothing more than mythological exaggerations, propaganda designed to give the Jews a sense of pride in their heritage or to win them the respect and admiration of the gentiles. Upon reflection, however, we can see that this perspective is flawed. For right beside the narrative of the Sinaitic revelation is a description of the grievous sin of the Golden Calf. And interwoven throughout the classic Exodus account are almost constant criticisms, rebukes and negative portrayals of the Jewish people. Even our greatest leaders are not immune to castigation - whether it be Moses, Aaron, Miriam or King David, all are scrutinized and their errors and weaknesses exposed. What nation would cling to a historical legacy such as this if it were fabricated? What leaders would perpetuate it if they did not believe in its authenticity?

Let us then examine the chain of Biblical prophets. Unlike the seers of other nations, the prophets of Israel are not agents of the state whose job it is to provide inspiring oracles and blessings to kings and generals. On the contrary, our Prophets fearlessly confront the monarchs of Judah and Israel, challenging their philosophical views, political decisions and personal standards of morality. Their mission is didactic in nature, bereft of mystical, magical or superstitious overtones.

The Jewish Prophets are distinguished not only by the character of their messages, but by their humility. No Prophet of Israel ever attempted to promulgate his own personal vision or doctrines, or to found a new religious movement. The Prophets of the Bible had one overarching, selfless goal (and thankless job) - namely, to return their people to the ancient Torah of Moses. They had no interest in the limelight, in proclaiming themselves new saviors or lawgivers. The prophetic call compelled them to address their brethren, to invoke the memory of Israel's miraculous origins and moral responsibilities, and to recall them to the spiritual legacy they had inherited from their ancestors. Isn't it reasonable to conclude that these great men and women believed sincerely in the message they were communicating?

Examined without prejudice, then, the Biblical canon of Israel reads as a seamless and brutally honest account of its history, law, and foibles. Despite the transparency of Jewish tradition, modern scholars have developed their own theories of the origins of Israel and its "secret" past. Without any documentary or archaeological evidence to support them, these theorists have put forth their own versions of the "real" story of Biblical times and of the process of composition, and in many cases alleged forgery, of Biblical texts.

The alternate versions of Israelite history seem to grow in number and complexity at an alarming rate as the years pass. Still, precious little consensus has been reached regarding even the most elementary details. Such a proliferation of opinions is typically a good indication of a paucity of straightforward, reliable empirical data. After all, if indisputable evidence were available to support one of the hypotheses, then competing viewpoints would have been abandoned by now and new viewpoints would no longer be forthcoming. The truth is that their is no end to the speculative reconstructions of ancient Jewish history precisely because they are nothing more than conjecture and unbridled "creative" interpretation of the limited range of "hard" facts at our disposal.

Advocates of the modern revisionist approach are willing to posit the occurrence of all kinds of remarkable events - such as the later composition of the Torah and its uncritical acceptance by the Jews (who, after all, should have surely wanted to discredit its portrayal of them and the expectations it placed upon them if they could have), the purposeful fabrication of the entire history of Israel, etc. - to account for the unique features of Israelite tradition. This is despite the fact that not one shred of real evidence can support any of their hypotheses.

Ironically, the very Biblical scholars who so confidently put forth these theories will discount the Biblical record of history based upon a lack of sufficient archaeological evidence. So, while they are content to proclaim their own unsubstantiated interpretations of ancient Jewish history and origins, they are unwilling to accept the version contained in the Bible because of a lack of corroborating evidence!

Consider the following: If drastic changes had indeed taken place in Jewish life - such as the "revelation" of the Bible by later prophets, or the invention of Israelite history after the fact - wouldn't some of this be mentioned in the Bible? If these important happenings were considered legitimate and justified at the time, why aren't they recorded in Tanach? On the other hand, if the changes were seen as the result of moral deficiency on the part of Israel - that is to say, if the prophets and priests claimed that the Jews neglectfully "forgot" about the Torah and the Exodus, and their leaders were now "reminding" them - shouldn't the Tanach inform us of this fact? These logistical problems do not deter the critics, who then lambaste traditionalists accept the Torah despite a lack of clear physical proof...

The fact is that the Tanach is the historical record that was maintained by the Jewish people for centuries, and that was, until recently, acknowledged to be accurate despite its "inconvenient" teachings. As such, I see no reason to apologize for my assumption that the Tanach represents a unique and authentic manifestation of God's wisdom as revealed to the Jewish people.

I invite you to join me as we explore its ideas together.

3 comments:

jake adler said...

excellent blog Rav maroof may i request a post on the proof of sinaitic revelation
Jake Adler

Anonymous said...

more specifically can you comment on Rabbi Chait's essay and the difference between rational and logical proof
shana tova

Anonymous said...

great post!!
keep these type of posts coming