Cultural Memory and the Hebrew Bible: A General Discussion

Concerning the recent post by Ron Hendel over at Bible and Interpretation, which has obtained a good amount of  attention (and rightfully so) from the Biblioblogosphere, I have decided to ask some additional questions and raise some concerns about the post itself.  But before getting into that, some positive notes about the article.  Aside from the Star Wars reference (which earns it positive points all on its own), the paper is erudite, clean, and positivist.  It does attempt to outline some very interesting, if not compelling, solutions towards problems in the academic community that have solidified over the past few decades.  And Philip Davies’ reply to this article is apt and is quite generous (it also represents my own opinion as well):

I am a fan of Ron, who is a scholar and a gentleman, and I enjoy both agreeing and disagreeing with him. All I think I want to say in response is that all stories about the past are fiction in the sense of being constructed as narratives (even our modern critical reconstructions). But I agree (and have made the point in print) that in evaluating memories we need to know as much as we can about the facts of the past, otherwise our analysis and understanding of these memories cannot be complete. If, as it may well be, I have misrepresented myself on these issues, I hope this reply makes clear.

via The Bible and Interpretation – Cultural Memory and the Hebrew Bible.

But the concerns I have are in the misunderstandings this sort of paper might generate.  Consider the implications of this snippet:

The stories of the patriarchs or the Exodus or the battle of Jericho include history and fiction, truth (of various kinds) and falsehoods (of various kinds), held together by their present relevance, the authority of tradition, and the narrative artistry of the writers. I have made some forays into the “mnemohistory” of these biblical texts, and I submit that this approach yields more fruit than conventional historical scholarship that limits its scope to adjudicating between these “old dichotomies.”


But the point of cultural memory is to chase the memory itself, how it is constructed out of history and fiction, and how it produces, on various levels, the identity that it describes.

I would hope, of course, that the author doesn’t mean to suggest that the narratives of the patriarchs or of Jericho relate historical data about the events they portray!  Surely Hendel doesn’t accept the historicity of the patriarchs themselves, for example.  He writes this in his comment to Davies:

It is our responsibility as scholars to investigate, to the degree we can, the interrelationship of history and fiction in the texts, which means, in part, exploring the “actual” historical details and events in them, and how they have been reconstituted as memorable discourse.

But I wonder how useful it is to start from a point where we assume, first, the historical value of a text before properly determining if that is indeed the case?  This seems like a slap in the fact to all Cartesianism.  I am under the impression that as historians it is our duty to first determine the value of the text before moving on with developing historical conclusions.  Do we, after all, consider the ‘”actual” historical details and events’ in Virgil’s Aeneid? Do we consider the historical details of the figure of Lycurgus, traditional founder of Sparta?  I would think not.  Certainly we should not read Plutarch’s works on the lives of Isis and Osiris or that of Romulus with the false hope of gleaming historical realities in the text!  After all, if we are analyzing cultural memory, must we also not consider the process of Euhemerization?  I feel as if this is the most overlooked part of the discussion.  What this sort of statement ignores, in my opinion, is the speed at which a meme changed in antiquity–particularly religious memes.

And this sort of thinking is not new.  It has roots in antiquity.  Palaephatus, for example, wrote in his introduction to his work Περὶ ἀπίστων:

Now some people, who have no acquaintance with philosophy or science, are too credulous and believe everything that is said to them.  Others, of a more subtle and inquisitive nature, totally disbelieve that any of these tales ever happened.  My own belief is that there is a reality behind all stories.  For names alone without stories would hardly have arisen: first there must have been deeds and there-after stories about them.

Palaephatus lists some of his versions of the “true stories” behind myths.   In the same work above, he writes that Centaur’s were real people, but rather than being half-horse and half-man, the stories arose from them being the first group of people to ride horseback (before then, he says, people only used horses to pull chariots)!  And of course the truth behind the Trojan horse is not that a group of Greeks jumped free from it and attacked the city, but that the Trojans tore down parts of their wall to accommodate the horse, thereby allowing the Greeks to enter through the opening!  Now in a sense of cultural memory, we might say that these events are ‘historical’ as they represent a tradition, relayed in ‘memory’ from one generation to the next.  But are we really talking about ‘history’ as defined as ‘events of the past’?  Or are we redefining ‘history’ so as to make our mythic past feel more relevant and real?  If that is the case, are we really doing ‘history’ a service?

It might be worth noting, along this line of thinking, that James McGrath draws attention to the minimalism/maximalism dichotomy and its relevance to the mythicism discussion.  I replied, of course, with my normal agnostism.  However I would also like to draw attention to Emanuel Pfoh’s argument on the subject which, I believe, is very important.  Below is an excerpt from his forthcoming paper ‘Jesus and the Mythic Mind: An Epistemological Problem’ in the forthcoming volume by Th. L. Thompson and Th. S. Verenna, eds., ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ The Question of the Historicity of the Figure of Jesus (London: Equinox, Forthcoming 2011), 79-94:

The problem of the figure of Jesus, as portrayed in the Gospels, is, for the historian of ancient personalities,[1] analogous to those made by ancient Egyptian or Assyrian depictions of the kings. If such personalities are constructed within the realm of mythic motifs, distant from an historicist recalling of reality, how can the modern historian deconstruct what is portrayed in ancient stories and attempt a separation of the ideological features of the given figure and its individual features, without ‘breaking’ it?[2] Regarding Jesus, then, how can we know the ipsissima verba et facta Jesu when all we have is a mythic set of stories (the Gospels) whose narrative patterns and thematic motifs depend on ancient literature which addresses comparable themes? This is an important epistemological problem for the historian of ancient ideas, of ancient individual figures, of ancient representations and worldviews—and I am aware of the reminiscence of Heisenberg’s incertitude principle implicit in this argument.

[1] On ancient personalities, see, for instance, the studies by J. D. Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (New York: Harper San Francisco, 1991); B. J. Malina and J. H. Neyrey, Portraits of Paul: An Archaeology of Ancient Personality (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), on Paul, of whom, apparently, we know more than of Jesus. Crossan contextualizes Jesus according to economic and social data from first-century Palestine, while Malina and Neyrey place Paul according to the Mediterranean models of behavior and perceptions of the self. Yet, in both cases, we have an example of an ‘ethnography of a dead culture (or person)’. We know of Jesus’ or Paul’s personality due to ethnographic stereotypes, but not—of course—because of individual interview. This procedure creates a spectrum of possibilities, but it does not present historical evidence of Jesus or Paul.

[2] The consequences of this for the historical-critical methods of biblical research are evident: cf. T. L. Thompson, ‘Das Alte Testament als theologische Disziplin,’ in B. Janowski and N. Lohfink, eds., Religionsgeschichte Israels oder Theologie des Alten Testaments? (JBTh, 10; Neukirchen: Neukirchener Verlag, 1995), 157-73: ‘Die historisch-kritische Schule hat ihr Fundament verloren. Sie ist tot, und wir sollten sie in Anstand und mit Respekt begraben, anstatt uns über etwas zu streiten, was ohnehin ein äußerst klägliches Erbe darstellt’ (157); also, G. Lüdemann, Altes Testament und christiliche Kirche: Versuch der Aufklärung (Lüneburg: Zu Klampen, 2006), 183-85.

And Particularly on the subject of cultural Memory, Pfoh writes (ibid.):

Cultural memory does not replicate the past as it really happened, but rather as it is needed to be remembered by the active community that evokes it. In sum, ancient cultural memories—if we are willing to understand the Gospels in that way—cannot lead to a modern historical interpretation of the past because they constitute a part of the modern construction of that ancient past.

I believe that Pfoh hits the nail on the head here.  But I would stress that everyone read his full article once it becomes available at some point in the next few months (ceteris peribus!).

To conclude, I want to stress that I enjoyed this article, but I also worry about the implications of where such discussions, unchecked by a critical mind and a healthy dose of sociological and anthropological understanding, will lead Biblical Studies.  I do not think that Hendel suffers from this crippling habit, however.  Still, there are yet many who do.When it comes to the discussion of minimalism/maximalism, I am concerned that the debate has stopped being about critical analysis of the past and has instead become a war over terminology, specifically how we define ‘history’.  When dealing with cultural memory and the mythic mind, we can accept–if we must–the idea that a figure is ‘historical’ in the sense that that figure is a part of cultural ‘history’ (i.e. tradition within the mythic mindset), but then we risk redefining ‘history’ and I wonder about the value of doing that?

Lead Codices Watch: Philip Davies Clarifies his Comments

I have been corresponding with Philip about his recent interview with the Sheffield Telegraph.  Since a lot of the conversation has been happening behind the scenes, I asked Philip for a comment to clarify his points, away from media bias, which I could post publicly.  Below are his remarks:

Ok. Clarification:

‘Authentic’ means they are what they pretend to be. In the context of
a hypothesis tat they are ‘early Christian’ that would mean form the
1st or 2nd century CE. This I doubt, though if the scientific tests
continue to point to this timeframe, at least the metal is that old.
Which does not date the images, some of which are undoubtedly much

What is most curious to me is the trouble taken to bind hundred of
sheets into book forms and stack them in a cave (if this story is
true, of course – the place need proper investigating). What has
really been going on?

Since the sheets apparently tell us virtually nothing of value (even
if they are very old), I am really more interested in finding out
just what they are.

As I have said ‘forgery’ is not quite the right term for objects that
are not making any claims to be anything. Maybe they are just trying
to look old. But I can’t see that they are more valuable in book form
than as single sheets. And why have they been hawked around museums
and not gullible tourists or collectors?

The answer may be banal, in the end. But more interesting that the so
called ‘nails’ which is just plain stupid.


Comment About Lead Codices and Media

Someone commented on my blog today about the status of the codices.  I want to highlight this post because I’m sure many laypeople out there are just as confused about the status of these codices as this commenter was.  This is the comment:

On the face of it an extraordinary find – the more reason we should approach with scepticism and ensure only when all possible forensic and academic tests have been satisfied should the lead `codices’ be proclaimed and published as genuine Christian relics.
If genuine they certainly contain extremely controversial content with the possibility of producing profound repercussions throughout Christianity

My response is thus.

  • First, what do you mean by “genuine”? “Genuine” in regards to what, exactly? Compared to which extant artifacts?
  • Second, what “controversial content”? The tablets are in “code” (in reality, they are simply random letters from ancient coins and sections of ancient text taken off tombstones in museums in Amman) and haven’t yet been deciphered into any coherent content whatsoever, so I am not sure to what content you refer.
  • Third, what profound repercussions exactly? There is nothing known about the content of the tablets yet (if there is anything at all to be found); the only repercussions these tablets will produce is to show how easily the media, and the dilettante, fall prey to fake artifacts and conmen looking to make a quick buck off of people’s gullibility and ignorance.

Philip Davies on the Thonemann Essay « Zwinglius Redivivus

This will shed some light on Philip Davies’ interest in these codices, especially for all you naysayers out there:

[Peter] Thonemann has been very helpful indeed in pinning down one of these. But I find it more important than he does to find out what has been going on. If he really can point us to a workshop, great. But I am a bit wary of his tone. There are aspects of this whole affair worth the trouble of finding out, especially if a serious deception is being practised on the Jordanian Dept of Antiquities – perhaps not the original purpose of these objects, nor even of those who first hawked them around to various institutions (including the British Museum).

I am really worried that unless we can trace the whole history it will be difficult to prevent something seriously stupid happening. So I would like Thonemann to share what he knows, and not worry so much about scholars wasting their time. I do not think much time is actually being wasted. I am retired and can devote a bit of time and energy to exploring this whole thing. Not too much, though.

But I do love a good story and there is one here – not about early Christians, though.

Philip Davies

Professor Emeritus

Biblical Studies

University of Sheffield

via Philip Davies on the Thonemann Essay « Zwinglius Redivivus.

Were the Lead Codices Just Sold to an Israeli Antiquities Dealer?

According to this source (I am uncertain about the accuracy of the account; it’s as of now unconfirmed–h/t to Dave Meadows for the link) the lead codices might have been sold to an Israeli antiquities dealer.

Jordanian Official: Ancient Manuscripts Discovered In Jordan Sold On Black Market To Israel Dealer

Dr. Ziyad Al-Sa’d, director-general of Jordan’s antiquities authority, yesterday told a press conference that the Jordanian government had information that first-century BC manuscripts discovered in a cave in the north of the country were several years ago sold on the black market to an Israeli antiquities dealer.

The Israeli then showed them to a British archeologist from Cambridge, who notified the Jordanian antiquity authorities.

Al-Sa’d noted that the manuscripts were vitally important, and could shed new light on the source of Christianity and the New Testament. He added that the Jordanian antiquities authority would take all steps to regain its stolen property.

Source: Factjo,com, April 3, 2011; Al-Dustour, Jordan, April 4, 2011

via The MEMRI Blog – Full Blog Entry.

Philip Davies on Lead Codices | Sheffield Biblical Studies

The following is an update from Philip Davies involving the lead codices.  I would add that while Philip does not think they are ‘forgeries’, by the context here he knows that there are modern impressions on the tablets.   In the same vein, I imagine, that he doesn’t believe they are “genuine”–can we really make any claim as to what these are forgeries of?  I’m merely speculating here.  I am not sure what exactly that means; I imagine we will find out when more information is released about them.

[editorial note: Philip had identified modern images prior to the great online debates]

The following is a general introductory summary by Sheffield Prof. Emeritus Philip Davies on the now famous lead codices (some images are available here):

Having long been involved in the Dead Sea Scrolls (and in the campaign to force the publication of many of them) I was approached by a British scholar who had been given access to some finds in a Jordanian cave (just like the Scrolls!). Most of them are lead books, some sealed, covered with letters in the archaic Hebrew script, and ancient Jewish symbols – menorahs (7-branched candlestick), date-palms, stars, bunches of grapes. But there is also a portrait of Alexander the Great, of a crocodile, and possibly a depiction of the crucifixion outside the walls of Jerusalem. I have now looked at about a hundred images, some of which I have shared with colleagues around the world, and I am certainly hoping to make sense of them. I have handled one. They are probably not a hoax or a forgery, but their exact origin remains mysterious. As well as decorative lettering, there is also some writing that looks as if it ought to mean something. So far it can’t be deciphered, but it may be in code.

The urgent problem at the moment is to ensure that the originals remain accessible. Scientific tests need to be done on these to try and establish date and origin, but the present possessor (who may or may not be legal owner) is considering selling them privately for as much money as he can. My colleagues and I are helping the Jordanian Department of Antiquities to recover them and enable them to be properly examined, conserved and displayed.

It is an exciting and mystifyng collection, but I think the time is too early to speculate about what they mean. The only scientific tests so far conducted suggest they are not of recent manufacture. Obviously I hope they are very old, but whatever their origin they should be able to tell us things we did not know before. I plan to continue studying these with my academic colleagues around the world, in the hope that we can begin to make some sense of these curious relics.

Philip Davies

via Philip Davies on Lead Codices | Sheffield Biblical Studies.

Complete ‘Press Release’ of the ‘Messianic Sealed Books’


This coincides with the continuing discussion on this blog here and here.  I now have to accept that, if the provenance is correct and the books are indeed not forgeries, and if they can be dated to the period in which the press release claims, these are probably early Jewish-Christian in origin.  However the implications cannot be known until more investigations can be done and, moreso, a study is published with the full findings.

Philip Davies on the ‘Newly Discovered’ Messianic Plates

Philip did respond to my inquiry earlier this morning with a similar statement, but I shall repost Jim’s since he appears to have permission from Philip (I didn’t ask and feel it irrelevant now to do so).

This is precisely what I had expected of his response, however. It is in line with what the appropriate academic response should be–one of caution, of curiosity, rather than one of carefree assumptions that the title of the article would imply. I especially like that Philip has clarified the difference between “doesn’t appear to be a forgery” and “genuine” as there are different implications to both statements, and he is right to show the distinction.

We shall watch this story closely to determine what precisely can be said and what shouldn’t be said of these artifacts and whether they can have any bearing on the origins of Christianity or on Jesus specifically (which, at this point, seems doubtful).

I shall also be keeping an watchful eye out for the misuse of this information, since such things abound on the interwebs. Which internet/televangelical apologist will jump on these first, I wonder?

Philip writes concerning the news media’s mention of some newly ‘discovered’ materials purported to shed light on the life of Jesus- I have seen images and also seen one actual lead sheet. I have said nothing publicly yet, but privately I have said only that I think they are unlikely to be forgeries, but I did not use the word ‘genuine’ because it’s not clear what that would mean. I do not know what these are are, or exactly how old. Like everyon … Read More

via Zwinglius Redivivus

I also think we should be cautious with the terminology as well.  Should we really be calling these ‘Jesus slabs’ or ‘Jesus Scrolls’?  Do we have any information these are related to Christianity at all?  I haven’t read any study saying anything like that (just the article where the nonexpert sensationalized what appear to be eschatological beliefs of the scroll author).  Perhaps we might best be suited to call them ‘Messianic plates’ or something quite similar, which best reflect the data we have now, until we can determine the full extent of the translation of the ‘script’?

Possible Contemporary Evidence of Jesus or Another Hoax?

In lieu of the impending discussion over yet another unprovenanced find with possible links to contemporary evidence for the figure of Jesus, I post this (a few snippets from the main article, click the link to read it all):

Artefacts discovered in a remote cave in Jordan could hold a contemporary account of the last years of Jesus.

The find of scrolls and 70 lead codices – tiny credit-card-sized volumes containing ancient Hebrew script talking of the Messiah and the Resurrection – has excited biblical scholars.

Much of the writing is in code, but experts have deciphered images, symbols and a few words and the texts could be 2,000 years old.

Some academics are sceptical about the discovery because there have been numerous hoaxes and sophisticated fakes produced over the years.

Many of the codices are sealed which suggests that they could be secret writings referred to in the apocryphal Book of Ezra – an appendage to some versions of the Bible.

Texts have been written on little sheets of lead bound together with wire.

The treasure trove was found five years ago by an Israeli Bedouin and may have been around since the 1st century, around the time of Jesus’s crucifixion and Resurrection.

There is a thriving market in Middle Eastern antiquities and many shadowy figures involved. One archeologist has allegedly received death threats.

Ms Barker said: ‘There has been lots of shenanigans. Vast sums of money have been mentioned with up to £250,000 being suggested as the price for just one piece.’

She has had access to photgraphs taken of the codices and scrolls, and is wary of confirming their authenticity.

But she said if the material is genuine then the books could be ‘vital and unique’ evidence of the earliest Christians.

‘If they are a forgery, what are they are forgery of?’ she said.’ Most fakes are drawn from existing material, but there is nothing like this that I have seen.’

Two samples were sent to a laboratory in England where they were examined by Peter Northover, head of the materials science-based archaeology group.

The verdict was inconclusive without more tests, but he said the composition was ‘consistent with a range of ancient lead.’

However, Philip Davies, emeritus professor of biblical studies at Sheffield University is convinced the codices are genuine after studying one.

He has told colleagues privately that he believes the find is unlikely to have been forged, say the Sunday Times

The remote desert caves in Israel which yielded The Dead Sea Scrolls. They were found between 1847 and 1956 hidden in pottery jars. Experts say the intrigue surrounding the artefacts is similar to the black market secrecy associated with discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls

via Are artefacts discovered in a remote cave the secret writings about the last years of Jesus? | Mail Online.

I just don’t buy it.  Jim West has made some appropriate and fitting comments about the find on his blog:

A bevy of tests need to be administered, the ‘script’ needs to be deciphered and translated, and the materials must be independently authenticated as ancient before we can even begin to talk about some astonishing discovery.  And even then, since the little objects were ‘found’ and no archaeological context for their discovery is available, they will nonetheless always remain tainted as untrustworthy.  Without provenance, without context, there is no meaning.  This is true of both texts and artifacts.

I believe his last point is the most apt.  More tests have to be run and much more must be discussed before we can label these authentic or inauthentic.  Is it possible these were written by early Christians?  Yes, of course.  Were they contemporary to the figure of Jesus’ life?  Perhaps, but that is yet to be concluded.  I have asked Philip to make a guest post on my blog about the findings, if he is willing.  I’d be interested to seeing what he has to say rather than what someone else says he said.

In any case, the article is misleading in that (a) it assumes contemporaneous composition with the figure of Jesus, (b) that it was written by a Christian sect (references to messiahs and resurrections might have been more common than we give credit; we only know of 30+ sects of Jews in antiquity by name, and there were definitely many more than that which we simply know nothing about, all holding different views about the messiah–if any were expected by them at all–and different eschatological views as well), and (c) it assumes it trustworthy to some degree even though it is unprovenanced.

Before anyone asks, if these do turn out to be authentic and contemporaneous, that will obviously effect my perspective of the historicity of the figure of Jesus in a big way.  But I’m not holding my breath.

***UPDATE 3/22/11*** An official press release of the find has been published and I have blogged it here.  Also Philip Davies offers additional comments here.  Jim Davila offers the following here:

Reader Justin Kerk has referred me to a 2007 discussion on the Unicode mailing list of “Menorah- and Hebrew-inscribed lead plates of dubious provenance.” These may be the plates currently in the news.

Follow the rest of the blog post as there are some interesting observations along with pictures of some of these codex plates (assuming they are the same).

%d bloggers like this: