Monday, November 21, 2005

Ezra, meet Snopes

Biblical literalists, or semi-literalists, who think the allegedly pious intent of the allegedly known authors means the material must be true, should read Snopes. No, the editor of Isaiah I, II and III, or the E, J, D and P threads of the Torah didn’t have Photoshop, but he had a fair amount of technical skill, an editor’s technique and a polemicist’s eye.

Yes, mistakes were made. The wonder is not so many but so few. With literacy rates of 5 percent and literally only a dozen or two copies of, let’s say, the different strands of the Torah floating around, an editor by the name of, shall we say, Ezra, didn’t have the luxury of typewriter inventor Christopher Sholes, let alone our computerized world today.

No double spaced lines or marginal room for extensive copy editing or proofreading notes. No nice blank parchment to transcribe comments to, oir make notes. No extra copy of the parment to refer upward from what would become Exodus 34 back to Exodus 28.

Nope, it all was done by memory. Even with priestly assistants, this would not have been easy.

Why don’t we have even more variants today?

A number of answers abound.

First, Ezra may have deliberately burned exemplars. This would not have been to hide his tracks, but to remove confusion, on the one hand, and to get people to focus on him as a religious leader, along with his new all-in-one edition, on the other hand.

Second, despite conservatives’ brushoffs that they have just minor textual differences, we do have a number of variants. Qumran, with close but different versions, plus more variant versions sounding like midrash at points, show the difference. The Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Torah, reflects some of these variants. There are even more variants in the other two divisions of the Tanakh — the Nibi’im and the Kethubim (the Prophets and the Writings).

The former prophets of Joshua-Kings have different versions with major genealogical differences. Jeremiah in Greek and Qumran Hebrew versions is more than 10 percent shorter and in different order.

The point of the Snopes link is to show how easily something that people want to believe gets spread around.

Take the Torah. Take it in its historical context.

Judah is a Persian backwater named Yehud, ca. 450 BCE. The alleged permanency of the Davidic dynasty, as claimed in Samuel, seems laughable if not pathetic. The hopes of some sort of restoration, reflected in Haggai and the first part of Zechariah, have gone by the boards. The priestly line does some more permanence (we won’t get into Aaronic, Zadokite and other priestly lines that may have actually or legendarily existed) but may be at loggerheads with itself.

Then Ezra presents a fait accompli. Yes, the learned had earlier versions of a proto-Torah, but as separate writings, not as one theoretically continuous narrative. Nor did they have literature presented as though it had one overarching theology.

The leaders of Yehud wanted to believe they were more than a Persian backwater. And so Ezra’s Torah spread like wildfire.

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