Biblical Scholars Are Open to Self-Correction, and They Listen to Conservatives, Too

(Although not always.)



July 31 2017
About the author

Benjamin D. Sommer is professor of Bible at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. His books include Revelation and Authority: Sinai in Jewish Scripture and Tradition (Yale, 2015), The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel (Cambridge, 2009), and A Prophet Reads Scripture: Allusion in Isaiah 40–66 (Stanford, 1998).

In “The Corruption of Biblical Studies,” Joshua Berman presents a laudable thesis: if an argument is to be rejected by scholars, “it should be rejected because it is weak” and not because of the religious or political positions it might be used to support. “Delegitimizing a scholar by divining his or her supposed agenda,” he writes, “has no place in academic discussion.” Consequently, Berman objects to “the marginalizing and delegitimizing of ‘conservative scholars’” in the field.

Berman’s thesis is vitally important. Alas, he undermines his credibility with a series of inaccurate claims about contemporary biblical criticism.

Berman devotes a substantial portion of his article to compositional criticism of the Pentateuch (the attempt to uncover how the Pentateuch came into being and what earlier texts were integrated into it). According to the most common theory—the “documentary hypothesis”—four documents that academic biblical scholars refer to as J, E, P, and D were combined to create the Pentateuch. This theory crystallized in the middle and end of the 19th century, and it commanded fairly widespread assent among biblical scholars for most of the 20th.

Berman points out that the consensus around the documentary hypothesis broke down in the past several decades, leaving the source-critical study of the Pentateuch in what he calls “a debilitating impasse.” According to him, the plethora of views among contemporary compositional analysts constitutes a “methodological failure.” He speaks further of this subfield as suffering from a “fatal inability . . . to self-correct.”

However, Berman overstates the extent to which specialists in the composition of the Pentateuch disagree with each other. Almost all agree that the Pentateuch is not a compositional unity in the way that, say, a modern novel typically is. Almost all believe that we can identify P and D strands in the Pentateuch. Disputes tend to limit themselves to the question of how to characterize the remaining material, which consists of about a third of the Pentateuch. Furthermore, recent scholars, especially in Europe, believe that the growth of the Pentateuch took place not only through the combination of once-independent sources but also through a series of supplements to them.

Now, to those of us who specialize in this subfield, these differences loom large, and we debate them vigorously. But what we hold in common is substantial. Berman’s contention that a scholarly impasse shows the whole subfield to be a failure is mistaken.

As for Berman’s claim that the scholarly study of the Pentateuch’s composition suffers from an inability to correct itself, this is belied by his own portrayal of the debates taking place within the field. The fact that new approaches have gained a hearing shows that these scholars are open to self-correction. If anything, the zeal with which they argue over small differences shows that the field may be over-attached to revising its own findings.

Berman also claims that he differs from scholars of the Pentateuch’s composition in recognizing that ancient authors were undisturbed by what appear to us moderns as self-contradiction. Yet that recognition lies at the heart of source criticism. This is evident, for example, in the work of contemporary proponents of the documentary hypothesis like the Hebrew University’s Baruch Schwartz and his disciples (including myself). These scholars observe that the Pentateuch’s compilers retained all four sources of the Pentateuch, even though that resulted in a self-contradictory text, because the sources were already considered sacred. Thus, the compilers were quite conservative: in the new text they produced, they valued the preservation of inherited sources over narrative coherence.

Many other compositional critics agree that the final form of the Pentateuch was put together by editors who were willing to live with messiness. Berman seems to think that his own work on self-contradictory narratives from the ancient Near East undermines the source-critical project. On the contrary: his genuinely important work provides the cultural context for the source critics’ claim that the Pentateuch’s editors were not bothered by narrative self-contradiction. What Berman’s work does sabotage is the contention of many religious interpreters that no editor would have created so self-contradictory a text in the first place.


Source criticism, however, is not Berman’s only concern. He also protests the marginalization of conservative voices within the guild of biblical scholarship. To him this marginalization reflects a double standard, since professors, regarding liberal viewpoints as normal, find it unnecessary to comment on them, much less to criticize them.

I think there is some validity to Berman’s claim. The specific examples he adduces, however, fail to make his case even as they foster a mistaken impression of contemporary biblical scholarship. That is a shame, because lurking behind his implausible examples are some important issues that scholars should confront.

Berman writes:

When a scholar adduces evidence for the unity of a text, even if he makes no mention of theology whatsoever, he is liable to be labeled a conservative and the academic form in which he expresses his argument will be dismissed as an impermissible weave of scholarship with the suspect ideology behind it.

But the two scholars whom Berman mentions as championing the unity of the text, Berkeley’s Robert Alter and Tel Aviv University’s Meir Sternberg, are not religiously conservative, and I am unaware of critics who have claimed they are. Both are secular in their approach; they set out to read the Bible as great literature, not as sacred scripture.

Moreover, the guild of biblical scholarship today hardly frowns upon attempts to read biblical books as unities. In the past four decades, literary studies of biblical texts as coherent wholes have become quite common. At meetings of the Society of Biblical Literature, plenty of sessions focus on unity-oriented approaches, just as plenty focus on source-critical methods.

Other examples raised by Berman are similarly open to question. “Feminist critics,” he writes, “are rarely called out on the charge that their ideology has contaminated the rigor of their scholarship.” I suppose it depends on how we define “rarely,” but enough examples come to mind to suggest that it’s not the appropriate adverb here. I am thinking, for example, of the explicitly feminist essay by Naomi Graetz, “The Haftarah Tradition and the Metaphoric Battering of Hosea’s Wife” (Conservative Judaism 45 [1992]), and the response to it by Benjamin Scolnic, “Bible-Battering,” in the same issue; of discussions I have heard of Renita Weems’s book Battered Love: Marriage, Sex, and Violence in the Hebrew Prophets (Fortress Press, 1999); or of scholarly references to Phyllis Trible’s God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality (Fortress, 1978). Treatments of these works are respectful of their contributions but also critical of the way their feminist agendas often determine the interpretations they put forward. Liberal biases are at least sometimes called out in academic discussion.

But what of bias against conservative scholars? Again, Berman’s two examples don’t help his case. James Hoffmeier’s books on the historical reliability of the exodus story were published by Oxford, one of the most respected academic presses in the world. Hoffmeier also co-edited a collection of essays arguing for the plausibility of the exodus that was issued by Eisenbrauns, a highly influential and prestigious publisher on ancient Near Eastern history and archaeology. Kenneth Kitchen’s book, On the Reliability of the Old Testament, was published by Eerdmans, whose list includes some works that can be characterized as religiously conservative, others that are liberal, and many that are neither. Berman’s own critique of source criticism, Inconsistency in the Torah: Ancient Literary Convention and the Limits of Source Criticism, has just been published by Oxford with an enthusiastic blurb from a scholar whom Berman has described as a liberal.

Berman may be right that there is a conspiracy out there to suppress conservative views in scholarly discussion of the Bible, but this conspiracy appears to have been staggeringly ineffective.


And what about that liberal scholar—me—who blurbed his recent book? I am grateful for the kind words he uses in his essay to characterize my work. But his description of me as a liberal is, at best, incomplete, because he overlooks the ways in which my writing and teaching are deeply conservative.

As Berman rightly notes, a fair amount of modern biblical scholarship follows Spinoza in attempting to undermine the Bible. Not a few biblical critics attempt this by reading the Bible through reductionist lenses. (By “reductionist,” I refer to analyses intended to show that religious texts, ideas, and practices are never really about God and never stem from the influence of a transcendent realm but are instead always about psychological needs, economic interests, social status, political power, or communal cohesion.) But one of the central motifs of my own scholarly work is resistance to reductionism.

Throughout my career I have maintained that it is worth understanding the Bible not just as an interesting cultural artifact from the Iron Age but as an enduringly relevant scripture. Similarly, I have argued that scholarly attempts to read biblical texts as nothing more than reactions to particular historical events are intellectually bankrupt and, often, just plain lazy. Throughout Revelation and Authority, my recent book on the revelation at Sinai, I repudiate a reductionist approach to the study of religion, starting on page 2, where I stipulate that the theology I endorse not only “puts a premium on human agency” but also “gives witness to the grandeur of a God who accomplishes a providential task through the free will of human subjects under God’s authority.” In addition, my book offers a vigorous defense of halakhic authority, and I argue against liberal forms of modern Judaism that emphasize individual autonomy. It is probably for that reason that the book has garnered a good deal of positive attention among Orthodox readers.

My attack on reductionism is even more pronounced in my previous book, The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel. And a similar outlook is also evident in my criticisms of methods that many biblical scholars use to date biblical texts to the post-exilic era.


In short, I am in many ways a conservative biblical critic. And yet the reception of conservative aspects of my work hardly accords with Berman’s portrayal of biblical criticism as corrupt, biased, and unable to self-correct. On the contrary, while I was working on my arguments against the late dating of texts, I was repeatedly invited to deliver drafts of my work-in-progress to scholarly audiences, once as a keynote address. When I received these invitations, I did not hide the extent to which my argumentation would be critical of regnant approaches in the field (the subtitle of my talk was “Some Remarks on a Depressingly Pervasive Fallacy in Biblical Studies”), and the description used in publicity promoting the talks read as follows:

Professor Sommer will argue that one of the most common approaches biblical critics use to date texts is fundamentally flawed. He will go on to argue that, as a result, a huge amount of modern biblical scholarship is of no value. Then, he will duck.

But as it turned out, I didn’t need to duck; my listeners were respectful and open-minded, and the published version of the talk has been widely read.

Another fundamentally conservative aspect of my own work has been my contention that there is greater continuity between biblical texts and postbiblical Judaism than most scholars admit. This emphasis on continuity rather than rupture is at the heart of my books on revelation and on divine embodiment, and it continues in my current project, which argues for commonality between the Pentateuch’s P source and classical kabbalah of the Middle Ages. Many liberal or anti-religious scholars highlight both innovation and radical breaks in religious history; I have attempted to expose the exaggerated nature of their findings.

This basically conservative aim, according to Berman, should make me something of a pariah in the field, yet the multiple awards received by my books attest to the ability of scholars to welcome work that is anti-reductionist and friendly to traditionalism. My views may put me in a minority among contemporary biblical scholars, but if so, it is hardly a persecuted one.

Another oddity in Berman’s description of my work deserves attention, not because it leads one to question whether I am really a liberal but because it prompts me to wonder whether he is really a conservative—and thus to doubt (as, to be fair, does he) that these terms are helpful at all. Discussing my analysis of what I view as conflicting Passover laws in Exodus 12 and Deuteronomy 16, Berman writes:

[Sommer] does not see himself bound to the classical halakhic system of talmudic Judaism; rather, he believes in and defends the legitimacy of multiple halakhic systems and communities. . . . Here’s the catch, however. . . . Many critical scholars do not see the laws in Exodus 12 and Deuteronomy 16 as contradictory. Instead, they argue that the law in Deuteronomy 16 is a later adaptation and newfound application of the law in Exodus 12. . . . The final version of the Torah retains the earlier version of the law because it is committed to showing how the law evolved. . . . The Torah casts the law as developing in accordance with changing circumstance.

In fact, Berman’s assertion—that the Bible’s legal traditions change over time—is precisely the view I champion. My approach to this issue is hardly surprising for a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), for the religious movement associated with JTS has long emphasized the evolving nature of Jewish law. In this case, it is possible to claim that my liberal religious affiliation shapes my scholarship (unless, of course, it’s vice-versa). But Berman’s position is identical to my own, and the language he uses to describe Deuteronomy could come straight out of a manifesto on tradition and change in Jewish law penned by a liberal JTS professor.

Similarly, Berman’s brilliant earlier book, Created Equal: How the Bible Broke with Ancient Political Thought, portrays the Bible as putting forth what was, for its era, a stunningly egalitarian political theory. I assign this book to my students as an example of liberal interpretation of the Bible. In the same class session, I contrast it with another assigned book, David Carr’s Writing on the Tablet of the Heart: Origins of Scripture and Literature, which discloses some deeply conservative cultural values held by the Bible’s authors. I use this contrast to point out that Carr, a liberal Quaker who teaches at a very left-wing Protestant seminary, draws our attention to conservative lessons we can learn from scripture, while Joshua Berman, a conservative scholar who teaches at an Orthodox Jewish university in Israel, uncovers an important liberal teaching emerging from that same scripture.

There is nothing surprising in this contrast. Both of these scholars are men of integrity, and they follow the evidence to where that evidence takes them. That is what engaged scholarship is supposed to aim for, and, happily, what it often achieves.

These two examples show that a scholar’s religious or political views interact with the scholar’s academic writing in complex and often surprising ways. The fact that my own writings can be used to bolster both liberal and conservative approaches to religion similarly undermines some of what Berman claims in his Mosaic essay. In the liberal settings where I often teach, I use my scholarly findings to argue that a traditionalist understanding of halakhah’s centrality is necessary for any authentic Jewish culture. In Orthodox settings, others might use my work to argue for the validity of liberal approaches to halakhic development.


Finally, in spite of his tendentious description of contemporary biblical criticism, Berman has a valid point when he claims that not all scholars are as open-minded as they should be. I, too, know of cases in which, as he states, conservative positions have been rejected by peer reviewers in spite of rigorous philological and historical argumentation (although in these particular cases, I should also note, the work in question found takers elsewhere relatively quickly).

Similarly, conservative opinions that have been successfully published tend to be ignored or misrepresented within the field. Scholars who find archaeological and Egyptological confirmation for significant aspects of the exodus story have been able to publish, yet many other scholars dismiss their work without justification and, I suspect, without even reading it. Several reviewers of Berman’s Created Equal reacted less to what he wrote in that volume than to conservative views they attributed to him, views that Berman never expressed in that volume and that were irrelevant to its thesis. Reactions such as these have no place in scholarship.

Berman is correct that a scholar’s views should be rejected only because of the weight of the evidence that supports them and never because of the scholar’s ideological proclivities. In pithily summarizing the outlook of so many people on contemporary college campuses—“Plight makes right, and to the alleged victim go the spoils”—he is at once witty and insightful. It is only a shame that he states his unassailable view on how scholarly argumentation should proceed in an article that misrepresents a good deal of what is actually going on in biblical scholarship today.

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