Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Seven Common Misconceptions Corrected

Read it first. Granted, the author teaches Old Testament at Brandeis, so he’s not just a journalist working with material he doesn't really know. But it appears to me that some of his misconceptions are views that no one holds anyway. Hence his “corrections” are either irrelevant or represent a liberal/critical scholarly consensus that does not hold outside of those circles.

Misconception 1: The Ten Commandments are the most important part of the Bible. Since I don’t know anyone who actually holds this view, and I have never seen this view expressed in print, it appears to me unlikely that this is a “common” misconception. The rest of his comment draws attention to the fact that the 10 Commandments (or 10 Words) are differently enumerated by Jews, Catholics, and Protestants. (Maybe the topic for another post.)

Misconception 2: We know what the original text of the Bible is. This he denies. But, within certain parameters, I think he is wrong. Texts in the Old Testament period tended to be copied and preserved with a fair amount of care. He vastly overstates his case here, and the Dead Sea Scrolls undercut his case severely. Though there is some variation between the Dead Sea Scrolls texts of Old Testament books, and the modern Hebrew texts that we have, the differences are actually fairly minor, as any standard textbook on Old testament text criticism makes clear.

Misconception 3: The Hebrew Bible and the Old Testament are different names for the same books. Granted, as he observes, the Old Testament of the Roman Catholic Church contains a number of books that are not contained in Protestant Old Testaments. Once we get past that, however, the common conception is correct. I will agree, to some extent, that order matters, but the fact remains that Protestant Old Testaments contain exactly the same books as Hebrew Bibles contain. It may be a bit of an oversimplification to say that Old Testament and Hebrew Bible are different names for the same books, but it is not wrong, hence not really a misconception.

Misconception 4: We know the order of the biblical books. If he means by this that we know the original order of the biblical books, then of course it is a misconception. The Hebrew Bible does not have a set order (different printed editions have different orders of books in the Writings section). But in a certain sense, so what? He doesn't really indicate why this might be a bad misconception.

Misconception 5: Everything in a prophetic book is by that prophet. That view is not held in the liberal academy. So in Brettler’s mind, it is a misconception. However, the view that the books of the prophets hold the writings of those prophets was the common view of both Judaism and Christianity until less than two hundred years ago. The fact that we don’t have the original books written by the prophets is beside the point. To Brettler, there is evidence that indicates the some (if not large) portions of the Old Testament prophetic books are by authors other than the named prophets. I have never found that evidence compelling.

Misconception 6: The Bible is history. Well, again, Brettler has something of a point, but it is also overstated. The Bible is not history as history is written today, since history as written today does not allow for explanation of events being orchestrated by God. But the Old Testament does tell us about historical events. Archaeology neither proves nor disproves biblical events. Archaeological discoveries can either lend support to the biblical account, or raise questions about the biblical account, but whether the biblical account stands or falls is generally determined by the author’s views about the Old Testament itself. For example, there is currently debate in scholarly circles about whether the kingdom of David actually existed as it is described in the Old Testament. Archaeological discoveries to date cannot tell us that. But those who hold that it didn't, hold that view, not on the basis of archaeology, but on the basis of their views about the Old Testament.

Misconception 7: All the Psalms are by King David. Again, I don’t think anyone actually holds that view, so Brettler’s objection is irrelevant. The real question is whether David wrote those Psalms that are referred as “of David” in the psalm titles. I see no good reason to deny those to David. Saying that “scholars do not attribute any of Psalms to King David!” is simply not true, unless you automatically define as “no scholar” anyone who holds that David wrote some of the psalms. Again, Brettler has overstated his case, and has done so based primarily on the basis of his presuppositions about what the Old Testament is.

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