Monday, August 31, 2009

An early Jewish response to Biblical Criticism

In a subject that is as potent today as it was when it was raised fully more than 300 years ago, I was reading an interesting 2 volume work called Letters of Certain Jews to Monsieur de Voltaire in English translation, published in 1777. These letters are signed October 30, 1771, from Utrecht, and the signatures of men named Joseph ben Jonathan, Aaron Mathatai, and David Wincker are affixed to it. These seem to be the authors of some of the letters and/ or the collectors of others, as some are attributed to people like Joseph D'Acosta and "certain Jews of the German and Polish Synagogue at Amsterdam."

Voltaire was extremely, even violently, ill-disposed toward Judaism. Thus, one section responds to his charge that the ancient Jews were cannibals (!) and another that bestiality was common among them. One interesting section of nearly 130 pages deals with the view that Moses did not write the Pentateuch. Voltaire was not, of course, the first to claim this nor was he the most important, as he was not a Bible scholar. But he was one of the most prominent 18th century personalities to put forth this view, and the letters are addressed to him.

Perhaps the reader expects this defense to initially address the issue of anachronisms first raised openly by Spinoza, or the use of different divine names or twice and three time repetitions of stories and laws, all major aspects of the familiar Documentary Hypothesis. However, these are not the points first raised by Voltaire, and thus these are not what this defense addresses until later. Rather, it discusses the claim that it was impossible for Moses to have written the Pentateuch, because "it was impossible for him to write it in the Circumstances he was in," because with the the form of writing materials which existed at the time it was impossible to have written a work of the size and style of the Pentateuch! The second claim is that alphabets did not yet exist in the time of Moses, and kind of characters used in writing at the time could not have been used to write the Pentateuch. The third claim is that the material conditions of the Israelites in the Wilderness were most unfavorable to writing a work like the Pentateuch. It is to these three claims that this portion of the Letters responds.

I reproduce this section below:

Pages From Letters of Certain Jews to Monsieur de Voltaire v.1 1777

Another portion deals with things which Voltaire claims were physically impossible, such as many details in the episode of the Golden Calf. Apparently Voltaire wrote that it was impossible, in the words of the Jewish writers, that "Chymistry, in its highest Stage of Perfection, can reduce Gold into potable Powder" (Ex. 32.20). It was also impossible to cast the Golden Calf in less than three months, or that the Levites should have killed 23,000 men. According to Voltaire, all these things would have required a miracle.

A later section deals with the material condition of the Israelites in the wilderness. Voltaire saw them as poor desert nomads, and thus doubted they could have produced the gold necessary to build the calf or the Tabernacle. In response to this rather silly objection they get bogged down in rather silly details, reminding Voltaire that he himself agreed with the number of 2 million Israelites. This gives about 150,000 earrings belonging to women and children. Isn't that enough to build a portable Golden Calf? Surely Voltaire isn't going to deny that they wore earrings. They then suggest that even if 2 million didn't possess appreciable wealth, surely Voltaire can't deny that 300,000 of them must have had at least "25 Crowns." Why? Because even if 2 million destitute people left Egypt, certainly among them were many skilled laborers and craftsmen, and in the space of no less than three months such a group should have easily been able to generate wealth in the amount of 25 Crowns apiece for 300,000 of them.

A footnote (pg. 173) delved into a very interesting illustrative example, namely the Jews exiled from Spain. Even though they were given only four months to leave, and moreover barred from taking their wealth with them (as Voltaire himself wrote; he liked to attack Christianity too, so the expulsion from Spain was something he had brought up on his writings), yet there can be no doubt that these exiles did take some of their great wealth with them. In fact, many of Ferdinand's advisors charged him with making a grave mistake and even giving a dangerous wound to Spain by the expulsion. And yet these a amounted to only 120,000 families (high estimate) or 30,000 families (low estimate). What was this number compared to 2 million out of Egypt? "You will say, perhaps, that Spain was richer than Egypt, in the Time of our Fathers : And that the Egyptians had not the Mines of Peru? they had not, but they had Mines at home." Classical writers are cited in support for this.

The entire work is written in a very polite manner, which in truth I cannot say was characteristic of the era in general. It clearly was designed with an eye toward keeping the high road and persuading with better arguments (they have the advantage in that many of Voltaire's arguments are quite silly and malevolent). But, of course, he was Voltaire and they were not and they knew it. Thus, there is an undercurrent of frustration. Toward the end of the collection they explicitly address their frustration in that Voltaire was supposed to be a preacher of toleration and the rights of man, yet he is also hostile and hateful. The rabid critic of Christianity takes up their cause when it comes to attacking the Jews, without seeing the apparent contradiction.

The work concludes with the titles of two letter's Voltaire sent in responses to their letters and their comments on it. For example, Voltaire replies that one of the questions concerns whether or not the Gold Calf could be cast in one-night. They comment that they never said it was cast in one night, nor did Exodus! Voltaire also frames it in terms of a statue which could be seen by 2 or 3 million at once (ie, it was very large). In exasperation, they reply with the same. Neither they nor Exodus said it could be seen by all the people at once. Et cetera.

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