Professor Yehuda Elitzur and Bible Study: Part IV

[Intro, Part II, Part III]

Biblical Criticism – A Science?

Now we come to the primary problem at hand: Is not Biblical Criticism the science of our day? Were the ancients not Bible Critics according to their lights? Don’t we need to follow in the path of contemporary Bible Criticism? It is true that the approach of our forbearers to the Tanach, of the best interpreters, was a scientific approach by their lights. But, it was not an approach of Biblical Criticism. What the various superficial intellectuals have said – that if Rashi and Rashbam and Radak knew what we know now from Wellhausen, they would interpret the Tanach according to his method – is not true.

But if not, what’s the criterion? What is the criterion for a traditional, scientific approach? Let us stress this point again: The classical interpreters went according to the path of scientific interpretation, but they did not go according to the path of Biblical Criticism. The question is – what is the criterion which separates the two? In light of what was said above we can understand that there is no basis for the simple distinction of the masses: Examination of textual variants – assur, archaeology – unnecessary, history – dangerous. The main thing is: what does Rashi say? Does the explanation match the interpretation of Chazal etc. After everything we’ve said, we can calmly say: this is not the path, this is not the yardstick.

In TB Baba Batra 15 it says: “Job did not exist but was a parable”. Reish Lakish says the same in the Midrash. The question arises: what’s with the wrath aimed at the nihilistic school, which denies the [historical] existence of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and turns them into symbolic figures, which were created in later periods – this one says in the Monarchic period [1st temple], the other in the beginning of the 2nd temple period &c. If Job, to whom the Tanach dedicates a major story in a whole book, never existed, why is it forbidden for a Protestant researcher to say that Avraham Avinu never existed? What’s the difference?

The difference, and it is important and significant, is that Reish Lakish or the student of Rav Shmuel bar Nachmani, who say: “Job never existed”, what they mean to say is: The Tanach, which tells us of Job, never intended to say that there was a person named Job. The book of Job intended to tell a parable. Not so Wellhausen and his students. When they came to analyze the book of Breshit, they are saying: The thinker, scribe or poet or perhaps court member of the ruler, who arose and created the figure of Avraham of Isaac or of Israel [Jacob], did not reveal his secret. He told his audience for theological, historical, social, national reasons &c that there was an Abraham, an Isaac, a Jacob. But in his heart he knew there wasn’t. Breshit told an event that was, but I Wellhausen, I Stade, I Meyer am coming now, in the 19th century, and I am revealing that it was nothing more than a pious fraud. The truth is with us and not with the book of Breshit.

So what is the distinctive criterion? One simple, short word: truth. Our forebearers – the Tana’im the Amora’im and the interpreters, each according to their type and generation – did not swear off science and research. They learned knowledge, balanced and researched by all methods, in order to uncover the plain meaning, content, hints and drash of the Tanach. However they did all this on the assumption, that the Tanach was telling the truth. Not so “Biblical Criticism”, whose primary purpose is to uncover the “forgery” in the texts. It wishes to “reconstruct” an ancient historical reality in the ancient east, which will match entirely the attitudes prevalent in certain circles in 19th century Europe and toss the Tanach into a procrustean bed of reconstructed “historical reality”.

I Kings 13

Here is another small example. There is a debate between interpreters regarding what is written in I Kings at the beginning of Chapter 13. “And, behold, there came a man of God out of Judah by the word of the LORD unto Beth-el; and Jeroboam was standing by the altar to offer. And he cried against the altar by the word of the LORD, and said: ‘O altar, altar, thus saith the LORD: Behold, a son shall be born unto the house of David, Josiah by name; and upon thee shall he sacrifice the priests of the high places that offer upon thee, and men’s bones shall they burn upon thee.'” This prophecy indeed came to pass in the time of Josiah as is written in II Kings 23:16-17. In the Yalkut Shimoni…Rav Netanel is doresh “300 years before he was born he was called Josiah”. Most of the new interpreters do not follow this darshan. They argue that the words “Josiah is his name” are not the words of the prophet but rather of the text (according to the formulation of a few “the words of the editor” or “the emender”) which states after the fact that this prophecy took place in the time of Josiah.

Ostensibly, this is an interpretation in the vein of the school of literary criticism, as it is the path of Biblical Criticism to analyze texts and make distinctions between the authentic and inauthentic, the original and later additions, between the earlier and the later. This is only an outward appearance of similarity. Why? We’ll compare the matter to a clear case of Biblical Criticism, based on the axiom of negation and thus stand on the truth of the point. I am referring to the case of the messengers of Berodach-Baladan, who came to Hizkiyahu in II Kings Chapter 20. Almost all the critical interpretation says here: an invention. Whoever said this didn’t say that. Until passuk 15 the words were spoken by Isaiah and from passuk 16: “Behold, the days come, that all that is in thy house, and that which thy fathers have laid up in store unto this day, shall be carried to Babylon” – a later addition. Montgomery, one of the famous scientific interpreters of the book of Kings (C.C.I. series) goes even further and claims to know exactly when this addition was composed, which was not said by Isaiah. It was composed in his opinion but a few years before the destruction of the Temple. After all the text here did not “prophecize” a total destruction but only the looting of the king’s treasury and the exile of his sons to the hall of the King of Babylonia. When did this happen? After the exile of Yehoyachin. From here one can see that the second half of this chapter was added after the exile of Yehoyachin.

We have before us two explanations [on the text]. Both of them argue, that a particular text did not originate from the speaker in the relevant parsha. Is there a difference between them? In lieu of the criterion, which I tried to establish earlier, it seems to me, that the interpretive assumption that “Josiah is his name” was not said by the prophet – does not at all contradict the traditional approach to the Tanach and indeed there are interpreters in the field who hold by this opinion. Not so the “analysis” of II Kings Chapter 20. Here is literary criticism that does not align with the approach of the believer. Here one would ask – what difference is there between the two distinctions? What is the difference between this later dating and that later dating?

The answer is that it is not the method, but the axiom at its foundation. He who argues that the second half of Chapter 20 in II Kings was said after the exile of Yehoyachin assumes that we have before us a post-facto prophecy – vaticinium ex eventu. The order of events in his opinion: Yehoyachin was exiled, his treasury was taken to Babylonia, his sons were brought to the hall of the King of Babylonia. After all this happened, a scribe came and “composed” a prophecy, and he placed it in the mouth of an ancient prophet in order to create the impression that what happened now, was known beforehand. This “interpretation” arises from the axiom, and perhaps it is possible to even say belief, that it is not possible that a prophet can now what will happen in another few generations.

Not so the passuk in I Kings Chapter 13. According to everyone, the Book of Kings was edited after the Destruction [of the Temple] (according to the Braita in Baba Batra 15, by Jeremiah). Those who find, that the two words [in Hebrew] “Josiah is his name” are not the words of the prophet from Beth-El – believe that they are the words of the editor of the Book of Kings after the Destruction. For what did the prophetic scribe add the words: “Josiah is his name” – what did he mean? It turns out that he meant to say: a prophet prophesized in the days of Jerobeam and his prophecy was fulfilled hundreds of years later. In other words: The adder of the two words here was operating from the axiom that there is prophecy, and the prophet predicted what will happen in the future. This emendation was only meant to validate and confirm this and to have it leave that impression on the reader: Here stands an ancient prophet who saw that a son is being born to the House of David and he is sacrificing the priests of the bamot [non-temple altars] on the altar of Jerobeam. After all we know today (in the time of the composition of the Book of Kings) who was that son to the House of David, this is what happened in the days of Josiah.

In short: he who explains that the words “Josiah is his name” in I Kings Chapter 13 were written by Jeremiah or the editor of the Book of Kings is saying that the Tanach is true and the prophecy is true. Meanwhile, he who uses the same analytical method and separates between the beginning and the end of II Kings Chapter 20 – he is saying that there is no prophecy, the prophet does not forsee the future, and mainly: the words stated here are not true. It is as we said: it is not the method which determines [the difference] but the belief which drives it.

Research and the Tanach

What we learn from these few examples – and we could have brought many more if space allowed – is that even in this delicate and complex subject it is not possible to abstain from the accomplishments of science and modern research. A contemporary interpreter who does not understand that the war between Sannecherib and Hizkiyahu must be learned not only from the Tanach but also from Taylor’s prism, an interpreter who does not understand the value of the ancient inscriptions, parallel documents and archaeological findings – should not approach the Tanach. He cannot understand it in depth and scope. He who ignores the historical background of the prophets – and it can be clarified today in many cases – is also ignoring the content and meaning of the text [itself]. He hears the voice and sees the picture but he does not understand the prophet’s torah.

It says in Isaiah Chapter 20 “In the year that Tartan came into Ashdod, when Sargon the king of Assyria sent him, and he fought against Ashdod and took it” – is it true that it is not of interest that they just found in the Ashdod excavations a companion to this passuk in the form of a partial stele of Sargon the King of Assyria himself? One cannot abstain from science. It opens eyes and broadens knowledge. Understandably, “he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow”. It also says: “the just do walk in them; but transgressors do stumble therein”. One must know how to increase knowledge, walk and not falter. This is the entire difficulty. If things were easy, then Adam Harishon would still be in the Garden of Eden, exempt from distinguishing between good and evil, between correct and incorrect. However, we are commanded to make distinctions. The distinctions of people of wisdom and science are not superficial [like this approach]: “Don’t talk about textual variants, avoid history, don’t deviate from Chazal’s interpretations, don’t debate Rashi.” The criterion is different, more correct, and like anything that’s correct, more difficult; the only criterion [separating] between a scientific approach that comes from an assumption of tradition and faith and a scientific approach that comes from an axiom of denial is this and only this: truth.


The traditional Jewish interpretation throughout the generations is broad, daring and knowledgeable, alongside its belief in the truth of the Tanach. The boundaries of our interpretations are wide, its paths many and different, but they all lead to one goal: understanding the truth of the Tanach, its meaning and lesson, according to the path and understanding of the interpreter. Textual examination, analysis, research, science, a clear and critical distinction between pshat and drash etc are all permitted. When is this the case? As long as they are tools for the primary task at hand – to uncover the meaning of the texts and their intent in depth. It is not the path of our classical interpretation to turn this main principle into a secondary one and turn the Tanach into a doormat of linguistics, history, realia or darshanut regarding current events.

More than that, there is importance to [the] dimensions and frequency [of interpretation]. As was hinted above, there are methods and paths of explanation that are rare and obviously not by accident. Among the hundreds of Biblical personae Chazal only say of Job that he never existed, but was a parable. On two psukkim in Isaiah Chazal’s tradition points to another prophet. But our interpretation doesn’t make this [type of] distinction a routine [method] of explanation. Textual changes are not frequent – except for changes in full or incomplete spelling and changes in punctuation. It is clear, that there are methods that are “the royal road” and there are those that are only side tracks which individuals use on occasion.

However, our forbearers did not erect exacting narrow barriers on these matters, they trusted guides that did not fail: common sense, belief in the holiness of the Tanach and the striving for the complete truth.


Hi, my name is Avi Woolf. I'm an American-Israeli MO Jew living in Israel. I have a background in Israeli (as in Land of Israel) and Jewish History and an insatiable need for knowledge. I also have professional experience as an editor, translator and indexer. Enjoy the ride! If you are interested in using my services or just want to drop me a line, contact me at:
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1 Response to Professor Yehuda Elitzur and Bible Study: Part IV

  1. Pingback: A Debate Between Me and Myself on Orthodoxy and Academic Jewish Studies: First Round | QED

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