Book Preview: Joshua Berman’s “Contradiction in Ancient Literature: New Models for Pentateuch Criticism”

Since the dawn of critical study of the Bible, scholars have noted the manifold discrepancies found across the narrative and legal sections of the Books of Moses (“Pentateuch”). These discrepancies have classically been viewed as signs of rupture within the text. As one pentateuchal scholar explained at a recent conference, “The Pentateuch is sick. It requires surgery.” Over the last three decades, however, scholars have recognized that some of these supposed ruptures were actually not contradictory at all. For example, scholars discovered that ancient cultures referred to their deities using multiple names, and that the different divine names, found in the Torah therefore, could not automatically be taken as signs of conflated composition.

In this forthcoming work, Joshua Berman charts unexplored waters within the literary corpus of the ancient Near East. He contends that these cultures routinely employed poetics that deliberately produced effects that to our modern eyes appear as contradictory and incompatible. In fact, Berman maintains, a recovery of ancient literary conventions can allow us to appreciate these same phenomena in the Torah in a new light.

The narrative portions of the Book of Deuteronomy, for example, diverge on dozens of points from the parallel narratives found in the earlier books of the Torah. But a knowledge of ancient conventions can shed light on why this should be so.

For an early taste of Berman’s discussion of this issue, read here.