- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 2, 2003


By David Klinghoffer

Doubleday, $26, 348 pages, map


The great modern literary critic Erich Auerbach observes in his classic study “Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature” that we can easily appreciate the force of the ancient Greek poet Homer even if we have doubts about the truthfulness of the stories in the “Iliad,” or the very historicity of the Trojan War. About the Bible, however, no such purely literary stance is possible. Or as Auerbach put it: “without believing Abraham’s sacrifice [of his son Isaac], it is impossible to put the narrative of it to the use for which it was written. Indeed, we must go much further. The Bible’s claim to truth is not only far more urgent than Homer’s, it is tyrannical — it excludes all other claims.”

This was not meant as a criticism, but as a sheer description of the case. And that is one of the reasons why various claims about the Bible raise such fierce controversies among believers and nonbelievers alike. Arcane archeological matters related to the Bible and the dating of texts have an importance that they have nowhere else. Some scholars believe, for example, that “Homer” may have in fact been a school of poets. And while those who argue for a single author may succumb to petty partisanship, there is little other than professional prestige riding on the outcome.

When we deal with the Bible, however, we are in a different — singular is not too strong a word — realm. That is the main reason why the historical critical method, so useful in the examination of other ancient texts, was controversial when it was applied systematically to the Bible. Initially, it seemed that discoveries of later additions or editorial interventions in both Old and New Testaments disproved the claim that the Bible was inspired and true. Archeological evidence — to say nothing of growing geological and biological discoveries that the world was far older than the Bible suggested — cast further doubt on its reliability.

Much of that, however, now looks like a rickety relic of 19th-century materialism, at least in the form it first appeared. Virtually every reader today accepts that some kind of editorial process shaped Scriptural texts over time. Some books of the Bible, such as Isaiah, may be the work of several authors. But these things hardly invalidate the core meaning of those texts.

No one was present at the Creation, for example, yet believers need not shy away from the essential truth of Genesis, even if the creation account was first written down billions of years after the Big Bang. The text we have, the result of centuries of reflection and inspiration, still takes us back to the absolute beginning. Similarly, archeology has raised all sorts of questions about Scriptural matters, but it has not made any central tenet of Judaism, Christianity, or Islam simply unbelievable. The Bible itself is inconsistent on some historical points, but not on the religious questions. The latter remain, after all assaults, pretty much where they have always been in the classic traditions.

In “The Discovery of God: Abraham and the Birth of Monotheism,” David Klinghoffer the former literary editor of National Review, offers a winsome and remarkably wide-ranging review of what the Jewish Oral Tradition brings to our understanding of Abraham, the crucial figure in the emergence of the several peoples of the Book. He addresses early on the question of whether Abraham ever even existed. There are no archeological or other confirmations outside the Bible, he concedes.

So anyone writing about Abraham cannot write a biography, in the modern sense of the term, as a fact-based, critical account of his life. What we can do, and Mr. Klinghoffer consciously aims at, is “an interpretive narrative,” based on oral tradition and scholarly history. This has importance for all of us because Abraham has been so influential that even the God that “agnostics and seekers wonder about is also Abraham’s God.”

For many modern experts, however, scholarship and tradition are like oil and water. They do not really mix. Biblical scholarship, for all its advances, has a tendency to seize on discrepancies. Camels are mentioned in Genesis, for example, but were not widely domesticated, scholars believe, in the time Abraham lived. But what “not widely domesticated” means when we are dealing, not with just any middle easterner, but a unique leader is not self-evident. Camels were perhaps rare, but an Abraham was much rarer. Objections like these that are not and cannot be definitive give uncertainties about the distant past, not least because the scientific side itself is contested. Tradition and the tradition we call the text also deserve a full hearing.

Mr. Klinghoffer’s use of Jewish oral tradition enlightens and enriches at every point, though calling written texts ? from the Talmud to more recent accounts — “oral” stretches the point somewhat. Anyone Jewish or, like the present writer, non-Jewish, who has struggled with the commentaries on the Torah will be grateful for this spacious, lively, and elegant guide. But as with all religious traditions, Jewish oral traditions presents certain difficulties along with its advantages — most notably contradictory interpretations and what seem to be pious additions.

For example, according to one source Mr. Klinghoffer cites, Abraham pursued a calf into the cave at Macpelah where he and Sarah would eventually be buried. There he comes upon the grave of Adam and Eve. Maybe. But could such a discovery not be mentioned in the actual text of the Bible? That it is not must count for something, whatever we find in the tradition.

And Mr. Klinghoffer, though telling a marvelous story anchored in millennia of pious reflection, is a bit too ready to ride roughshod over the elementary logical principle of non-contradiction. It won’t do to say that all the meanings that show up in tradition are an aspect of a truth that we humans cannot grasp. Truth is one. The whole point of thinking about Biblical texts is to eliminate apparent contradictions as much as we possibly can.

Mr. Klinghoffer engages in a bit of skillful adjudication himself along the way, but it is unclear what principles he is using to select or prefer one text or interpretation over another. He also has a tendency to sniff at scholarly hypotheses as partisan, but occasionally falls into his own form of partisanship towards the oral history.

Yet this a book well worth wrestling with for its many original and penetrating insights. Take Mr. Klinghoffer’s reading of a well-know and crucial text such as “Abraham put his faith in the Lord, who credited it to him as an act of righteousness,” (Genesis 15:6). Catholics and Protestants since Martin Luther, of course, have argued over whether this means that faith alone, or faith and works are needed to be righteous, both looking to Paul’s epistle to the Romans and other New Testament texts. Inevitably, believing Jews today may be led into reading that passage with similar issues in mind.

But Mr. Klinghoffer radically reconstrues even the grammar of this passage to mean that Abraham is the one who does the crediting. And what he credits is not “righteousness,” but the promise of a great nation as a “grace” (Hebrew tzedakah, which Mr. Klinghoffer believes is mistranslated). The Hebrew scholars will have to sort out whether the traditional Jewish or traditional Christian versions — or some melding of the two — are correct, but Mr. Klinghoffer is not shy about entering into controversy.

Nor about admitting his own larger goals. He allows that today the promise of a “great nation” is currently most evident in the billion Christians and roughly equal number of Muslims who claim spiritual descent from Abraham, while hoping that someday both will become more faithful to the original Jewish source. Whatever your reaction to this last point, reading David Klinghoffer will convince you that, despite all controversies over past and future, in the present the Jewish tradition still offers a lively — if contested — way of reading the Bible.

Robert Royal is president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C.

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