Joshua A. Berman. Inconsistency in the Torah: Ancient Literary Convention and the Limits of Source Criticism. Oxford University Press. New York, 2017.
As a student of biblical studies, I vividly recall first encountering source criticism. I watched in amazement as texts from the Torah were elegantly unzipped into strands that suddenly seemed more coherent than the canonical forms I had known since childhood. Feeling that this approach was somehow “right,” my view of these texts was irrevocably altered. It was similar, I imagined, to how students of mathematics feel upon first proving a particularly graceful theorem, or students of chemistry when they first model an exquisitely structured molecule. Or—to use language a little closer to home—it was like a revelation.
Nothing about this description would surprise Joshua A. Berman. In his new study, Inconsistency in the Torah: Ancient Literary Convention and the Limits of Source Criticism, he identifies enchanting elegance, analogies to the natural sciences, and a revelatory aura as byproducts of the epistemology that has undergirded pentateuchal source criticism since the nineteenth century. He wonders whether source critics have “mistak[en] beauty for truth” (p. 271). He shows that one goal of German historicism, in which source criticism is rooted, was to confer to the study of history “all the status and prestige of the natural sciences” (p. 211). And he accuses source critics of presenting their models with a degree of confidence more readily associated with religious dogma than scholarly theory (pp. 240–248).
Each of these claims is part of Berman’s overall attempt to show that “scholars have rooted their compositional theories for the growth of the biblical text entirely in their own intuition of what constitutes literary unity” (p. 3). In other words, these scholars have not been sufficiently self-aware—sufficiently self-critical—about the historical situatedness of their own epistemological frameworks. Berman’s project is nothing less than turning the critical lens back onto source criticism itself. By doing so, he hopes to articulate more methodologically sound paradigms for the study of pentateuchal composition.
Inconsistency in the Torah is iconoclastic and provocative by design. Readers should not, however, simply expect a book-length version of Berman’s explosive 2017 Mosaic article, “The Corruption of Biblical Studies.” In that article, Berman roundly indicted historical critics for pressing their discipline into the service of a politically liberal, anti-religious agenda. While the book does overlap with the article in some respects, it sets aside the culture wars and adopts a more restrained, academic purview. As such, if any scholars are tempted to dismiss the book because they objected to the article, I urge them not to do so. Berman’s challenges in this well written book deserve to be taken seriously.
The book proceeds in three major parts, each addressing a foundational epistemological problem of source criticism. Part I considers narrative. According to Berman, source critics assume that biblical historiography aimed at an accurate account of “what happened.” Therefore, insoluble incongruencies between narratives of the same event point to multiple authorship. Berman argues that this assumption uncritically enshrines a distinctly modern conception of historiography. Ancient Near Eastern writers “never wrote with the disinterested aim of chronicling the past for its own sake; rather, the deeds of the past were harnessed for rhetorical effect to persuade readers to take action in the present” (p. 28). A single biblical author, then, could take rhetorical liberties that would be unthinkable to moderns—even producing contradictory data within the selfsame account.
Berman adduces two case studies to make this point, pairing ancient Near Eastern texts with what he argues are biblical analogues. First, he shows that inconsistencies in Exodus’s account of the Red Sea crossing are similar to those in the Kadesh Inscriptions of Rameses II. Second, he shows that historiographical discrepancies between Deuteronomy and the Tetrateuch are similar to those in Hittite vassal treaties. In both cases, Berman argues, biblical source critics see compositional disunity where their Egyptological and Hittitological colleagues are perfectly content to see unity. The parallels suggest to Berman that (1) the biblical texts are dependent (if only loosely) upon the extrabiblical, and (2) their inconsistencies are not, therefore, evidence of disparate sources.
In Part II, Berman moves from narrative to law, but the story is familiar: source critics have “stacked the deck” in favor of multiple authorship by assuming an anachronistic idea of literary unity. Here, the anachronism that source critics allegedly employ is a statutory model of law. In this model, the legal document is itself the law, self-sufficient and merely in need of human application. From such a perspective, legal conflicts between, say, the Covenant Code and the Deuteronomic Code indicate divergent authorship because there would be no straightforward way to apply them together. Deuteronomy must have been intended fully to replace—or, in Berman’s questionable diction, to “supersede”—the earlier laws upon which it is based.
According to Berman, however, the ancient Near East actually assumed something closer to a common-law conception: a legal document was not the source of the law but a resource for legal reasoning. It was not a code of legislation, but a collection of precedent. Legal divergences could therefore accrue within a single document like sediment, far more organically than source critics imagine. Marshalling comparisons from Hammurabi to the Mishnah to the United States Constitution, Berman shows how legal minds can venerate and preserve past repositories of law while simultaneously contravening them as they produce their own. He applies this not only to the Covenant Code and Deuteronomy but also to the exegetical role of law in narrative texts like the book of Ruth. Arguing that in a common-law framework, narrative too can serve as a kind of legal repository, Berman issues a compelling challenge to the regnant generic wall that Bible scholars have long erected between “law” and “narrative.”
The third and most ambitious section of the book traces source criticism from its stirrings in the seventeenth century (exemplified by Spinoza) through its first clear articulations in the eighteenth century (exemplified by Astruc) to its flowering in the nineteenth century (exemplified by Wellhausen). Here, Berman takes the gloves off. He argues that source critics never did shed the historicist and Romantic penchants for sweeping, elegant accounts that promise complete explanatory power. They were unwilling to tolerate the idea that the history of pentateuchal composition might be beyond their reach. Therefore, they irresponsibly dismissed evidence against source criticism and held their own reconstructed texts to lower standards of coherence than the textus receptus. Rather than letting a theory emerge from the text, they made the text conform to a predetermined theory.
The primary case study in Part III is one of the crown jewels of source criticism: the deluge narrative of Genesis 6–9. Berman traces how the entire text—including its alleged inconsistencies—parallels the Babylonian account of the deluge in the Epic of Gilgamesh, as well as artfully recapitulating the creation narrative with which Genesis opens. The canonical text, Berman argues, is actually more coherent than the P and J/non-P strands into which source critics divide it.
Berman’s provocative study will obviously invite objection from committed source critics. Even granting his basic argument, I would still register some critiques. For one, he would have benefitted from a more explicit discussion of the differences between Documentarian and non-Documentarian source criticism. Even if he claims to address and refute both because they are not significantly distinct, this could have been clarified. I also doubt that any of Berman’s points derail what is arguably the most important contribution of source criticism: the delineation of P and D. Berman perhaps prompts us to rethink how these two bodies of material relate to one another. However, he does not quite overcome the sense that what we have here reflects some kind of division in Israelite and ancient Jewish thought—whether sociologically, chronologically, or theologically construed.
A more serious issue is Berman’s lack of attention to the increasing number of scholars who read the Hebrew Bible as a literary product of the Second Temple Period. Such scholars do not necessarily deny that the Bible contains Iron Age material. However, they regard the shaping of this material in later periods as closer to composition than compilation. Unsurprisingly, therefore, they are generally unenthusiastic about source criticism. Yet they would likely take issue with Berman’s approach as well. Even if they were to agree with his literary observations, they would argue that these are better understood in conversation not with Hittite and Egyptian New Kingdom texts but with Qumran and other Second Temple literature. Compared with this approach, Berman’s estimation of the relatively high antiquity of the Pentateuch actually sounds much closer to certain manifestations of the source criticism he rejects. His silence on this important new movement in biblical studies is disappointing in a book that otherwise thoroughly anticipates potential objections.
Beyond any of these specific contentions, however, my greatest reservation about Berman’s book might just stem, ironically enough, from the waning influence of the very theory he attacks. This brings me back to the personal anecdote with which I opened. My first encounter with source criticism some years ago reflected an emergent sense that this approach had the final word on the shape of the Torah. Today, I no longer believe this—even though I still consider myself basically Documentarian in orientation. I am hardly alone in these developments. Source criticism has fallen on hard times. Once widely presented as settled truth, today it is usually counted, at best, as just one of several equally valid options. In fact, some scholars would prefer to see dedicated source critics as an idiosyncratic sect within the field. Source criticism is not dead, but no longer is it king.
In this context, Berman’s Inconsistency in the Torah is far less countercultural and iconoclastic than he seems to imagine. To be sure, it is a significant achievement. However, I doubt that it will be remembered as the study that finally overthrew the hegemony of source criticism. Instead, I suspect that it will be regarded as one of the last studies to ascribe to source criticism any hegemony to be overthrown in the first place. It will mark the close of a monumental chapter in biblical studies, not the opening of a new one.
Ethan Schwartz is a PhD candidate in Hebrew Bible at Harvard University.