Bryan Caplan  

The Public Choice of the Ancient Hebrews

I Hate This Story... Hansonian Foreign Aid...
I just finished Richard Friedman's Who Wrote the Bible?  It's a classic popularization of the Documentary Hypothesis, which claims that the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible) is actually a medley of four earlier sources called J (the Yahwist), E (the Elohist), D (the Deuteronomist), and P (the Priestly source).  Friedman's survey of two centuries of Biblical detective work is quite fascinating.  What truly shocked me, however, was learning that a bunch of liberal theologians converged on a vulgar Public Choice theory of the evolution of their most sacred book.

Friedman begins by explaining that J and E are the earliest sources.  The most obvious difference between the two is that J always calls God "Yahweh," while E initially calls him "Elohim."  But it's the non-obvious differences that are telling.  He presents strong evidence that the author of J came from Judah, the southern Jewish kingdom, while the author of E came from Israel, the northern Jewish kingdom.  J elevates Aaron and slights Moses; E does the opposite. 

What's going on?  Friedman explains that these two countries had conflicting religious establishments.  Those in the north - or at least a major faction - were Mushite (claiming descent from Moses); those in the south were Aaronite (claiming descent from Aaron).  Through this lens, J and E turn out to be thinly-veiled bids for money and power.  Here's one example of how E tries to push Mushite interests:
Recall that the [Mushite] priests of Shiloh suffered the loss of their place in the priestly hierarchy under King Solomon.  Their chief... was expelled from Jerusalem.  The other chief priest... who was regarded as a descendant of Aaron, meanwhile remained in power... The Shiloh prophet Ahijah instigated the northern tribes' secession, and he designated Jeroboam as the northern king.  The Shiloh priests' hopes for the new kingdom, however, were frustrated when Jeroboam established the golden calf religious centers at Dan and Beth-El, and he did not appoint them as priests there.  For this old family of priests, what should have been a time of liberation had been turned into a religious betrayal.  The symbol of their exclusion in Israel was the golden calves.  The symbol of their exclusion in Judah was Aaron.  Someone from that family, the author of E, wrote a story that said that soon after the Israelites' liberation from slavery, they committed heresy.  What was the heresy?  They worshipped a golden calf!  Who made the golden calf?  Aaron! [emphasis original]
When the Assyrians conquered Israel, the Mushites came south as refugees, leading to an eventual merger of their two texts.  The next major source, D, reflects subsequent conflicts over the centralization of ritual sacrifices - and associated income:
The author of the Deuteronomic law code did not come from the rural Levites either.  The first and perhaps foremost law of the code is the centralization of the religion, the requirement that all sacrifices be brought to one central altar.  This was the law that put the rural Levites out of business.  It meant the destruction of the high places at which they functioned.
The last source, the Priestly, is the most blatant in its special pleading.  It's all about protecting Aaronid priest's sacrificial commissions:
The centralization of religion meant that if you wanted to eat lamb you could not sacrifice your sheep at home or at a local sanctuary.  You had to bring the sheep to the priest at the Temple altar in Jerusalem.  This also would mean a sizable gathering of Levite priests at Jerusalem, which was now the only sanctioned location where they could conduct the sacrifices and receive their tithes.  It also meant considerable distinction and power for the High Priest in Jerusalem and for the priestly family from which he came.
In P, there are no sacrifices in any of the stories until the last chapter of Exodus.  There, the first sacrifice in P is the story of the sacrifice on the day that Aaron is consecrated as High Priest.  After all, all sacrifices in P are performed by Aaron or by his sons.  The author of P, it seems, did not want to promote the idea that there was a precedent for anyone besides an Aaronid priest to offer a sacrifice.
Finally, after the end of the Babylonian captivity, there was one last great textual merger.  It's probable motive:
By this time, all of his source texts were famous... Besides, there were groups who supported these various texts.  The Shiloh Levite priests who had produced E and D may not have been in priestly power in the second Temple days, but that did not mean that they did not exist.  They could still raise their voices and protest the authenticity of a Torah that did not include their texts.
I'll admit that I take a perverse pleasure in all this economic reductionism.  But I am only a messenger.  If Friedman is fairly representing the academic consensus in his field, even thinkers ordinarily hostile to Public Choice explanations have to take it seriously.  After all, if anyone would want to avoid such cynical conclusions, wouldn't it be theologians?

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (10 to date)
caveat bettor writes:

Interesting theory. If it holds water, it is amazing so much of the priestly and levetical weaknesses survived the final cuts. Not only that Aaron dropped the ball with the golden calf thing, but high priest Eli and his corrupt sons just before the Davidic age (~1100 BCE). Or that these levites, keepers of the manuscripts after the age of exiles, had to steward extra-tribal authority in the voices of the major and minor prophets.

When tribe of Levi dropped the ball, it ceded authority to the rule of judges and then kings. The third king, Solomon, built the great temple in Jerusalem, which was completed around 950 BCE, then ironically fomented the economic centralization of the jewish tradition to which you referred.

caveat bettor writes:

I forgot to mention, I do know several students and teachers of the Old Testament, and they are economic actors as much as anyone else. I think having to feed your kids brings its own biases.

Daublin writes:

It's a very fun read, thanks Bryan!

Regarding motivations, though, I would not be so sure that anyone tracing the development of the Bible is going to be motivated to avoid public choice arguments. On the contrary, such a person would tend to be motivated to attack the divine theory of the Bible's origin, and the first place to turn is to point out crass human motives.

Thinking on things like this, though, you can certainly see why Martin Luther was unimpressed by the idea of leaving important ideas to be worked out by the priestly hierarchy.

Robin Hanson writes:

I thought most theologians wrote as if only other theologians, or maybe a few priests/pastors, would read them. Writings to be read by ordinary members of a religion are much more careful to avoid cynicism.

fundamentalist writes:

The "documentary hypothesis" is popular with liberal theologians, but conservative theologians have written a great deal on its problems. For the most part, the hypothesis reveals good imaginations on the part of "scholars" but little evidence. It's a lot like evolutionary psychology or string theory in that your theories are limited only by your imagination and there is no way to test them.

Besides, the hypothesis asks us to believe that people fabricated a book; everyone knew it was a fabrication; and they still claimed that it was true. To even approach credibility, the hypothesis would have to present evidence of at least a few dissenters to the big lie.

I'd be more likely to take the Documentary Hypothesis seriously if there were carbon-dated copies of J, E, P, and D available,

Azazello writes:

Friedman's book is very readable and a very good summation of the leading scholarship in this area, so it's nice to see it get a plug here.

Personally, I see Friedman more as an historian than a theologian -- though I'm sure it is somewhat safe to say that all scholars in this area have their own presuppositions and biases (climate science anyone?) that are reflected in their findings.

In any case, seeing scripture through the worldly lens of its human authors may be problematic for SOME theologians (those with a very literalist notion of "inspiration"), but certainly not for all. Many theologians see such analysis as beneficial, and essential to liberating the divine message from its earthen vessels.

One final point...while it is well and good to recognize and contemplate the theological rivalries and polemic nature present in virtually all of our received scrpiture, if one to truly understand what is going on, he should also give at least as much attention to the things that bind these divserse strands together. The theological factions behind J, E, D and P had at least enough common purpose to feel compelled to mash all these strands into one narrative they could all assent to.

Hulda writes:

The Pentateuch was ascribed to a mythical Moses and describes a fictional group of people who might be more appropriately described as "Israel-in-the-Bible." The apparent purpose of this set of five books was to provide the diverse immigrants whom Persia settled in Judea (Yahud) with a group identity based on ancestor stories as well as to shape these immigrants into a client group for whom the image of God supported Imperial Persian goals.

The Pentateuch was not considered a forgery as much as it was pseudepigrapha (a sacred forgery).

You might ask, on what authority do we know this? As you may already know, the prophet Jeremiah did not accept the claim of antiquity of the Pentateuch and denounced the book as a fraud manufactured by "the deceitful pen of the scribes" (Jeremiah 8:8-9). And in 2 Kings 22: 11-20 shortly after the Pentateuch had been found officials consulted the prophetess Huldah to check whether the document was authentic.

See Karel Van Der Toorn, Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible (Harvard U. Press, 2007: 35). Also Shaye Cohen, "Those Who Say They are Jews and Are Not: How Do You Know a Jew in Antiquity When You See One," Diasporas in Antiquity (Brown Judaic Studies 288, Atlanta: Scholars, 1993: 13).

According to the same school of thought, Biblical prophecies (in particular, the 2nd half of Isaiah) have been backdated. If that was a common practice, a long text that does not mention an important historical event was probably written before the event.

In other words, the 5 books of Moses were probably written before the divided Monarchy.

BTW, if you're looking for propaganda in the Bible, you might start with the Book of Judges. I suspect that it was written as pro-monarchy propaganda.

DOuglas2 writes:

And by the same token the conflict can be seen between the urban (Saul) and rural (David) - or between planters and herders if you will, the same conflicts that exist between Hutu and Tutsi in Rwanda/Burundi or existed in the Texas fence-cutting war.

The essay "Fern-seed and Elephants" by C. S. Lewis is against some of the more, um, extravagant claims of this sort of history.

My problem with some of this and with some Rudolf Bultmann analysis of the Christian scriptures is that the arguments for backdating are circular. We make the assumption that forewarning or foretelling are not possible, and therefore anything that contains forewarning or foretelling of some actual event must therefore have been written after that occurrence. Because we now know the dates of writing definitively, we can easily say that they did not actually predict anything...

The only reason we have these scriptures as they are is because of the extensive duplication they had when they were much newer. The odds of a carbon-dated copy of one of the sources appearing now is slim to none.

By the way, none of this is new. Wellhausen's "Die Composition des Hexateuch" was published in 1877. The Vatican thinks that this study of forms and sources is all good stuff. It is taught even in conservative evangelical seminaries. I certainly don't think many educated small-o orthodox Christians feel that it is a problem. What the texts tell us about the relationship between God and humanity is the far more important than any traditions we might have about who wrote what portions of it.

There is a decent Wikipedia article on it.

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