Monthly Archives: March 2014

The wise son of the Hagadah: Why textual criticism is cool

Just like Biblical criticism does not mean to criticize the Bible, textual criticism does not mean to criticize a text. It just means to try to look at a text (in the case of the Bible, the Biblical text) in a critical/scholarly/objective way. Specifically, textual criticism means looking at several different really old copies of the Bible, noticing when there are differences among them, and trying to determine which one makes the most sense in each case.

One of my favorite examples of textual criticism of the Bible answers a famous question often heard at the Passover Seder. In the Hagadah (the text used during the Seder), we are taught that the Torah teaches us about four types of sons who attend the Seder, two of whom are the wise son and the wicked son. What differentiates the wise son from the wicked son? The wicked son asks, “What is this service of yours (Exodus 12:26)!” The Hagadah explains that he is wicked, for he said, “of yours,” implying that he wants no part of the Seder and his people’s traditions. The wise son, for his part, says, “What are the decrees, laws, and rules that YHWH our god has commanded you (Deuteronomy 6:20)?” So he’s showing interest.

But wait: the wise son also said, “What are the decrees…. That YHWH commanded YOU!” He’s excluding himself, just like the wicked son did! So how does he come out being the good boy?
While many of us have heard responses to this question, I think it’s safe to say that in most cases, “The question is better than the answer,” as we’d say in yeshiva.

So a textual critic asks, “Wait a minute; what if the text that the original Hagadah had was slightly different from what we have in our Hagadah’s today, and maybe that slight difference would explain the apparent contradiction here?” Turns out that modern scholars who have looked at some of the various old copies of the Biblical text, including other old texts that cite the Biblical verses mentioned above, have found a very important difference!

As Jeffrey Tigay, Ph.D., professor emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania, shows in his wonderful article (here) on the Bible codes, this passage about the four sons appears in the Jerusalem Talmud (Talmud Yerushalmi) and the Mekhilta (a compilation of rabbinic discussions of some of the legal parts of the Pentateuch), and both quote the wise son’s statement with a change in one word. Instead of “What are the decrees, laws, and rules that YHWH our god has commanded you (eschem)?” these ancient sources quote the wise’s son question, which is a quote from Deuteronomy 6:20, as: “What are the decrees, laws, and rules that YHWH our god has commanded us (osanu)!” In addition, the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Bible, also has “us” in this verse, rather than “you,” suggesting that the Hebrew Bible used when making the Greek translation also had “osanu (us).” Thus in the original Hagadah, the wise son does not, in fact, exclude himself by saying, “the laws that God commanded you,” and so that’s why he’s not the wicked one.

And so modern Biblical scholarship, in this case textual criticism of the Bible, has answered a long-standing question, asked mostly by people who would consider textual criticism heretical. 🙂 But seriously, how could anyone find this heretical! Some of the best textual critics of the Bible are/have been Catholic priests, because they want to figure out the most accurate version of God’s word. Why can’t Orthodox Jews adopt the same attitude?

Why Biblical criticism is important for both the religious and non-religious

I know I haven’t posted anything in ages.  Sorry; been busy with important stuff.  Thanks a lot for sticking with me.

I can’t write as well as this guy.  Here some of my favorite quotes on the virtues of modern Biblical scholarship (a.k.a. Biblical criticism) – especially for those who are religious, courtesy of the late Italian scholar of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) Alberto Soggin, via John Bowden’s outstanding translation (Introduction to the Old Testament, Revised Edition).  [I’ve added occasional points of clarification in brackets].  If you have any favorite quotes on the subject, please share!  Enjoy:

“It is impossible to understand the attitudes of people or schools of thought and therefore the writings that derive from them, without knowing the events which have influenced them in whole or in part.  For example, inadequate knowledge of Canaanite religion would constitute a most serious obstacle to understanding the message of the prophets…, nor could we understand properly their comments on society if we did not know the economic and social conditions which they were attacking (p. 4).”

“The fact that the Christian theologian is convinced that he finds Christ foretold in the writings of the Old Testament (cf. John 5:39) or that the Jewish believer discovers here the revelation and the promise of God for his people, and the divine law, should not in any way prejudice critical and historical study of the texts, which is needed if faith is not to be reduced to the level of ideological prejudice.  The fact that the texts of the Old Testament have an authoritative character for the believer, whether Jew or Christian, which they evidently do not have for the unbeliever, should not prevent the former from achieving a proper objectivity.  On the contrary, it should compel him to listen humbly to what they say.  This is not a paradox.  He should therefore make as calm an examination of the text as possible, taking care not to read into it what is not there.

“Thus the criterion of scientific objectivity applies first of all to the believer, if he wishes to hear the word of the Lord instead of his own, and if he wishes to have a dialogue with his Lord instead of a monologue with himself and his own opinions.  At the same time, it is right that the scholar who is not a believer should be asked to apply the same objectivity to the text of the Bible as to any other oriental [Near Eastern] text (pps. 9-10).”

“In the case of the Old Testament and all the literature of the ancient Near East, the reader finds himself at a considerable remove in both geographical setting and chronological context; the modern reader, especially the Westerner [of the Western hemisphere], meets peoples (and therefore literature, customs, institutions and patterns of thought) with which he has little or nothing in common.  We shall certainly be right in supposing that anyone who does not have an advanced and specialist education will be largely ignorant of the historical, political, economic, social and religious facts to which the texts refer.  In addition, … there is a problem peculiar to the biblical texts; when considering a work which for thousands of years has been the sacred scripture of Judaism and Christianity, and still is, it is all too easy for the Western reader, who has grown up within the Judaeo-Christian tradition, to have assimilated unconsciously a theological and ecclesiastical tradition which will not fail to make its weight felt in an any explanation of the texts.  Without one noticing it, centuries of exegesis loaded with preconceptions can lead either to uncritical acceptance of certain unproved assertions or, paradoxically, to an equally uncritical rejection of particular positions simply because they have traditionally been sustained within the sphere of the religious community.  The need for a science of introduction which offers a critical view of the biblical literature must therefore be obvious to anyone (p. 5).”

“While there has never been a time when the reader of the Bible has not felt the need for information about the circumstances which accompanied and often governed the origins of a particular text…, we must remember that (leaving aside the Antiochene school and Jerome) up to the Renaissance the Christian church was not very interested in establishing in an independent and original form the circumstances in which the sacred books had their origin, being content to accept the traditional views of them handed down by the synagogue.  Allegorical exegesis [interpretation] , very soon practiced on a large scale in the medieval church, avoided problems by means of that special form of unhistorical sublimation which is its hallmark; consequently the problem of the difference between the reality presented in the texts and the traditional interpretation of them did not arise before humanistic exegesis  at the beginning of the sixteenth century….  It was humanism, with its principle of a return to the sources, which first laid the foundation for scientific and critical introduction (pps. 5-6).”

“From Napolean’s expedition to Egypt onwards, with the discovery of the Rosetta stone which provided the key for the deciphering of its two scripts and of the Egyptian language (1798), through the nineteenth century and into the first half of the twentieth, there was a rediscovery of the world in which the men of the Old Testament had lived and against which they often struggled.  Practices and customs, religious, political, judicial, and social institutions, people and places previously unknown, or known only vaguely, began to take shape.  Perhaps more important still, their languages came to be understood.  This restored a proper historical basis and a setting in a wider historical context for texts which hitherto had almost always been read only in a church setting.  It also often eliminated fictitious themes and explanations which had been created by the traditions of synagogue and church (p. 7).”

 “Because the believer, Jewish or Christian, sees the text as having a sacred and therefore authoritative character, he should be able to accept biblical [textual] criticism* without difficulty in so far as it sets out to present a text which is as close as possible to the original.  However, precisely the opposite has happened:  among conservative [religious] Jews, Protestants and Catholics, biblical criticism has often received with mistrust, as through the discipline set out arrogantly, and there impiously, to put itself above the text to judge and to ‘criticize’ it.  Such an interpretation of the functions criticism shows a complete lack of familiarity with the concept … and it cannot therefore be taken seriously (p. 30).

*Textual criticism means looking at various old manuscripts of the Bible and, wherever the manuscripts differ, trying to figure out in each case which manuscript has the best reading.