DH 5: Tradition and Authorship

DH 5: Tradition and Authorship April 6, 2014

We need to understand that in ancient societies, it was not only considered completely legitimate for students to record the teachings of their master in their master’s name after his death, it was often considered their duty to do so.  Thus, the author—or perhaps better the “originator”—of a particular teaching, is the master who first orally taught the tradition.  The people who later recorded the tradition in writing—either during the lifetime of the originator, or even many decades or even centuries after the death of of the original teacher—did not view themselves as authors, but rather as “traditionalists,” or “tradents,” to use the modern academic term.  These tradents were scribes or copyists who transmit their master’s teachings from one generation to the next—either orally or in writing.  In this context it would be perfectly natural for a later tradent “redactor” to record or edit the traditional teachings of Moses known to his scribal community, and to claim that the resultant document was “written” by Moses.  In other words assumptions regarding authorship in biblical cultures were precisely the opposite of those of the modern biblical academy and espoused in the DH.  This doesn’t necessarily mean that the questions raised by modern Bible scholars regarding authorship, composition, transmission, or editing of ancient texts are not important or legitimate.  It does mean, however, that unless one is very careful and nuanced, modern views of authorship necessarily distort how the issues would have been understood by ancient authors and scribes.  Failure to clearly recognize the distinction between ancient and modern concepts of authorship can lead to confusion in trying to understand the origin of the Hebrew Bible (or any other ancient text), and the implications of the Documentary Hypothesis.

We first see the concept of authorship in the modern sense of the word—the conscious decision of an individual to personally write a new text under his own name—among the Greeks in the late fifth century BC.  Plato lived on the cusp of this transition.  Though he recorded the teachings of his master Socrates in writing, he believed that memorization and oral transmission of his master’s teachings was superior to reading (Plato, Phaedrus, 274c-275e).  From Greece the concept of authorship passed to Jews under the influence of Hellenist culture in the second century BC.  Greek-style authorship of Jewish texts is therefore found mainly in books of Hellenized Jews written in Greek (e.g. Philo and Josephus).  On the other hand, Traditionalist Aramaic teachings—as found in the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Targums, or Rabbinic texts—generally retained ancient concepts of “authorship,” and the anonymity of the scribe.  For example, we find many references to the oral teachings of the “Teacher of Righteousness” in the Dead Sea Scrolls, all of which seem to be written by his anonymous disciples.  Most Jewish texts, even in the Hellenistic and Roman eras, continued to be anonymous and traditionalist.  Thus, in a way, the Documentary Hypothesis represents an attempt to impose modern non-Jewish and non-traditionalist concepts of authorship on the tradition-based Jewish texts of the Bible, nearly all of which were written before the “authorship revolution” in Greece in the fourth century BC had spread to Hellenized Jews.  Without this distinction clearly in mind, distortions, or at least misunderstandings, are inevitable.  Thus, if an ancient scribe recorded traditional oral teachings of Moses in writing, that scribe would have understood that Moses wrote the book that the scribe was merely transmitting and copying.  A fundamental assumption of the Documentarians—those who support the Documentary Hypothesis—on the other hand, is that the scribes are the “real” authors of the biblical texts.

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