Course Project for Students

Ken Brown posted this on Facebook. I am posting it mainly so that I can considering using this model in the future.

…I asked them take a biblical text of their choice and transform it into a new genre, medium or perspective, and then write a short reflection on how the change in form affects what details can or must be included, and how this affects meaning.

I was amazed at the creativity of their work, from original songs about Genesis 1 and the Flood, to poetry retelling the binding of Isaac from his perspective and the 10 Plagues from the Egyptians’ perspectives, to paintings, faux stained glass, comics, 3D models, news reports, and one absolutely astounding charcoal drawing of Cain killing Abel. Then we got to talk in detail about how form shapes and constrains meaning and why it is essential to pay close attention to genre and context when reading biblical literature. This is my new favorite assignment.


Super Brief Notes on New Historicism

The following is a few quotes and notes from Practicing New Historicism by Catherine Gallagher and Stephen Greenblatt (1997)

New historicism “is to imagine that the writers we love did not spring up from nowhere and that their achievements must draw upon a whole life-world and that this life-world has undoubtedly left other traces of itself” (13).

I like this comment.

“Out of the vast array of textual traces in a culture, the identification of units suitable for analysis is problematized. If every trace of a culture is part of a massive text, how can one identify the boundaries of these units?” (14)

Their comment is remarkably similar to many of the criticisms raised against Kristeva’s formulation of intertextuality. Such critiques note that it is difficult to establish boundaries when employing an intertextual method.


Philosophical Friday: Thomas Aquinas and Metaphor

Thomas Aquinas was a philosopher and theologian from a family of Italian nobles. During his life (1225-1274), he wrote more than sixty books. Among his most well-known works is Summa Theologica. Within the book, he deals with issues of biblical interpretation, among other things. In the Ninth and Tenth articles, he deals with two issues important in modern literary discourse: metaphor and whether or not words in the Christian biblical tradition can have several senses.

Concerning the first, he lays a framework for how he understands the relationship between materials and text, a text he perceives as being the Holy Writ. Within this framework, “spiritual truths are fittingly taught under the likeness of material things” [1] in order that all people may grasp and understand the text. As such, poetry (text) and materials are in relation via metaphorical expression. This metaphorical connection between poetry and materials can take two forms: (a) a generic form for men to simply please humans or (b) a sacred form which leverages metaphor for divine truths. Moreover, the metaphorical connection between text and material is sometimes obscure within “Holy Writ” in order to allow people to exercise their minds and prevent the impious from ridiculing the text.

Concerning the Tenth Article, he sees multiple layers of sense: the allegorical (the Hebrew Bible signifying relation to New Testament literature); the moral sense (things done by or signifying Jesus); anagogical sense (related to eternal glory); literal sense (the intention of the author, namely God). Of these, the last sense is central. The literal sense, for Aquinas, contains multiple senses because he perceive God as the author.

From these points, I find a few features notable.

First, Aquinas approaches the text with the assumption that “God” is the quintessential author. God being a transcendent deity who is all-powerful, perception of God as the author influences how Aquinas approaches and defines the types of metaphor. His second understanding of metaphor, sacred metaphor which communicates divine truths, echoes the concerns expressed by authors like Longinus. The notion of “sacred metaphor” is similar, though not equivalent to, the sublime. As a result, within Aquinas’ writing, the Bible receives a special status in comparison with other books, wherein he essentially employs circular reasoning: the Bible is sublime because God wrote it; and God wrote the bible so it is sublime.

Second, Aquinas claims that texts don’t always make sense because God wants to train minds and prevent ridicule. He is much like other writers that I have discussed: this is his way of dealing with texts which are lacking cogency and coherency. Though such things are always lacking to a certain degree, human minds naturally and instinctively attempt to fix the ruptures in the flow of a text.

[1] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 191.

Philosophical Friday: Longinus and Sublimity

Longinus was a Hellenistic Jew, or at least an author familiar with Jewish culture, from the 1st century CE. He is most well known for his work On Sublimity. In this work, he argues that the best literature is sublime. Though difficult to identify in literature, he identifies five sources of sublimity: great thoughts, strong and inspired emotion, certain kinds of figures, noble diction, and dignified and elevated word-arrangement. Each of these points, he suggests, is a place where the audience of literature can come into contact with the sublime.

What, though, is the sublime? He comments: “When a man of a sense and literary experience hears something many times over, and it fails to dispose his mind to greatness or to leave him with more to reflect upon than was contained in the mere words, but comes instead to seem valueless on repeated inspection, this is not true sublimity; it endures only for the moment of hearing. Real sublimity contains much food for reflection, is difficult or rather impossible to resist, and makes a strong and ineffaceable impression on the memory” [1]. As Jacqueline Vayntrub carefully describes in her volume Beyond Orality, this very notion of literature and poetry becomes a keys in describing and organizing biblical poetry during the modern period.

It is worth noting the underlying philosophical and theoretical principles which inform, support, and frame Longinus’ understanding of the sublime. His notion of the sublime is based on a broad generalization about humans, namely that humans have “in our minds from the start an irresistible desire for anything which is great and, in relation to ourselves, supernatural” [2].  He proceeds by describing how people admire the large rivers, not the little streams. Likewise, people feel awe before volcanoes, not candles.

In pointing to this, I wish to make one observation: the way we describe the quality of literature and engage with it is often informed by the way we describe the quality of nature and engage with it. This is certainly the case with Longinus. Underlying his notion of sublimity is an assumption about how humans relate to nature.

[1] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 148.

[2] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 161.

Philosophical Friday: Horace and Poetics

Horace is most well known for his Ars Poetica (Art of Poetry). He lived during the 1st century BCE and, unlike Plato, see more value in poetry than Plato. Here, I will briefly lay out a few observations of Horace’s Ars Poetica which stood out to me.

First, Horace’s understanding of genre is much more theoretical and developed than Aristotle and Plato. Recall that Aristotle and Plato had relatively rigid understandings of genre. Though not commenting explicitly on genre, Horace’s comments on speech and expression can be applied to genre as well: “Many terms shall grow back which now have fallen away, and those now held in esteem shall fall, if our poetic practices so approves. Such is the criterion by which judgement, rules and standards for speech expression are to be discovered” [1]. Expressed another way, Horace at least recognizes that genre conventions change over time, often the result of critical reflections.

Second, one way modern scholars have approached genre is by thinking of genre as a simulated speech situation [2]. Horace supports this notion inasmuch as he recognizes that the speaker portrayed in a text should be understood in light of his/her social circumstances: “If a speaker’s words are not constant with his fortunes, the people (both horse and foot) will burst out laughing! It will make a lot of difference whether a god is speaking or a hero; a mature old man or one still in flower of youth; a strong-minded dame or a busy nurse, a far-travelled merchant or a cultivator of a green farm, a Colchian or Assyiran, or someone reared at Thebes or Argos” [3].

In other words, the audience has certain assumptions of a speaker. As such, the speaker and speech must align with each other so that the social circumstances of the speaker fit with the speech itself. When these do not align, the audience laughs! At base, then, the speaker of a situation impacts how the audience interprets and understands the speech. This is akin to genre: the genre designation of a text impacts how the audience interprets and understands the speech.

Third, and finally, Horace’s understanding of genres is based on an evolutionary model, akin to Aristotle. Here, he offers a historiography of the origins of Greek genres: “They say the unknown genre of the tragic muse was discovered by Thespis, who wheeled his poems about on wagons for men to sing and act, their faces well stained with lees. After him, as inventor of the mask and the noble robe, Aeschylus laid out a stage with modest sized beams, producing plays which resounded grandly and strode on the buskin” [4].

His observations are important on a few fronts. First, he views genres in the same vein as Aristotle, slowly developing over time and becoming more and more refined. This notion is still present in modern discourse about genre, especially with the appearance of the modern novel. Second, though no surprise, Horace’s historiography of genres is directed related to materiality and social situation. As such, it suggests that any understanding of genre or genre development must also be conscious of materiality and social situation.

[1] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 135.

[2] Simeon Chavel, “Knowledge of the Lord in the Hebrew Bible,” in KNOW Vol. 2, No. 1 (2018), 48-49.

[3] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 136.

[4] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 139.

Review: “Paradigm Change in Pentateuchal Research” edited by Matthias Armgardt

Paradigm changeMatthias Armgardt, Benjamin Kilchör, and Markus Zehnder (eds.). Paradigm Change in Pentateuchal Research. Beihefte zur Zeitschrift für altorientalische und biblische Rechtsgeschichte. Vol. 22. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2019. Pp. XXIV + 366.

Since the revolutionary work of Julius Wellhausen, itself a relatively old and complex paradigm, his paradigm has become problematic on many fronts. Within this volume, a diverse set of scholars attempt to “analyze the roots of the problems in the exegesis of the Torah” and “to offer alternatives for looking at its texts” (VIII). Each section of the volume deals with Pentateuchal studies from different perspectives: introduction and methodology, legal history, Torah and prophets, and dating issues. In what follows, I will provide a brief summary of each contribution and indicate the relative success of each contribution’s aim. When necessary, I will more closely engage particular points within contributions. Towards the end, I will state the collective quality of the volume.

Georg Fischer, after noting positive and negative developments in Pentateuchal research, suggests a new paradigm for Pentateuchal research should be developed, one which is more attentive to the Pentateuch as a unified document. Importantly, many of his criticisms are well-pointed and valid – scholars following in the footsteps of Wellhausen should consider his criticism; however, the ‘new paradigm’ he suggests is unclear and underdeveloped. Drawing analogy for his ‘new paradigm,’ he looks towards visual arts, music, and architecture in order to argue that the Pentateuch as a text is “primarily a single entity” (17), noting that the Latin root textus indicates a mesh or netting, several threads and fabrics woven together. This framework, though, is nothing new. Rather, it can be connected to a wide variety of literary and critical theorists, such as Kristeva, Laurent Jenny, and others. Moreover, drawing analogy between text and music is nothing new within literary studies. As such, Fischer’s approach seems, for the most part, outdated and undeveloped. What his contribution indicates to me, though, is that Pentateuchal scholars must be more conversant and engaged with literary and critical theory.

Suggesting that Neo-Documentarian and redaction paradigms are insufficient for sound readings of the Pentateuch, Richard Averbeck argues that analogues from ethnographic studies are more helpful for understanding the compositional history of texts like Gen 12-50. Though his approach to the Pentateuch is intriguing, namely drawing from ethnographic materials for a framework, this approach has a serious methodological flaw. He claims not to be putting a Western framework of literary culture onto the Hebrew Bible; instead he suggests responsibly using ethnographic cultural analogues to “help us better understand the real world and oral background of what we find in the patriarchal narrative” (32). The issue of Genesis’ historical value aside, he ironically does precisely what he attempts to not to: he frames his discussion in terms of the Great Divide between orality and literacy (cf. Vayntrub 2019). Put another way, his method still applies a Western framework.

Joshua Berman highlights what he sees as nine methodological flaws in source criticism, an article shortened from his book Inconsistency in the Torah: Ancient Literary Convention and the Limits of Source Criticism (OUP, 2017). As such, one is better off finding and reading reviews of that volume as opposed to a shortened version of a lengthier chapter.

Koert van Bekkum examines Exodus 3 and 6, as well as scholarship around the texts concerning Yahweh’s name. van Bekkum also provides methodological reflections. Even so, this contribution is unclear and underdeveloped.

Matthias Armgardt attempts to show how scholars should have more critical methods. As such, he points to how texts in the Torah are more similar to and fit better within the 2nd millennium. On account of his discussing EST and Deut 28 without reference to the debates and discussion between Berman and Stackert/Levinson, mention of Maul’s essential volume on comparative studies, consideration of David Wright’s volume, and generally unsound approach on the Hebrew Bible as reflective of social economic needs, his discussion and reflection is, as a whole, unimpressive.

Guido Pfeifer reports on paradigms changes within legal history and ancient Near Eastern history as a counterpoint to the Pentateuch, considering especially the function of law in ancient Mesopotamia and its relation to other genres. It isn’t clear what Pfeifer argues for or how his contribution is helpful for developing a new paradigm.

Benjamin Kilchör analyzes the Wellhausen notion that D dates to the 7th century and P dates to the 6th/5th century. Through his analysis, he attempts to show how Wellhausen doesn’t deals with the issue of P drawing from D. In this way, the framework assumed by many about dating P and D is problematized by Kilchör. Some of his claims, though, are questionable. He claims that Deut 12 draws from Lev 17; however, his presentation of the relationship between the texts and their ideologies assumes too much about how texts relate to each other and how they are re-used. His arguments, even so, are worth addressing and considering.

Markus Zehnder examines Lev 26 and Deut 28 in order to describe their relationship. His analysis is particularly thorough. In his view, the lexical and phraseological connections are rare, meaning that there is not literary dependency. Connections to other biblical texts, though, indicate that Lev 26 and Deut 28 pre-date the NA milieu, being pre-exilic. Though many arguments and comment on text relations can and should be clarified and more precise, this contribution is nonetheless thoughtful, thorough, and valuable.

Eckart Otto attempts to identify the placement and function of Deuteronomy. He argues that the end of Deuteronomy is closely connected to the emerging canon and points to salvation. His approach to a new paradigm is interesting, namely shifting focus to the role of the Pentateuch, and its compositional history, as part of the Hebrew Bible’s serialization process. This approach is well worth consideration.

Kenneth Bergland argues that Jer 34 is a sophisticated blend of Lev 25and Deut 15, thereby complicating and challenging “Wellhausen’s romantic idea of the originality of the prophets” (191). A more systematic approach for identifying and describing the relationship between texts would strengthen the contribution and bolster the arguments. Moreover, to my surprise, he did not engage with Stackert’s conversation about the issue of prophecy with regard to Wellhausen. Nonetheless, Bergland’s ideas are worth at least addressing when dealing with issues of Lev 25, Deut 15, Jer 34, and the relationship between the legal and the prophetic.

Examining the King’s Law in Deut 17, Carsten Vang argues that the text does not have a prophetic background and is not related to Solomon’s abundance; rather, it reflects a pre-monarchic background. Though I am in agreement with the initial claim that Deut 17 is not related to anti-cooperation themes present in prophetic texts, the way in which and degree to which he correlates Deut 17 with a “pre-monarchic” period is uncritical and a poor use of literary texts.

Hendrik Koorevaar’s contribution claims to be addressing issues of paradigm change for the Pentateuch. It is so generic and broad, though, that it is unclear what the purpose of the contribution is. After all, it simply paints broad brush strokes about text’s relationships without details or critical analysis.

Lina Peterson presents some conclusions from her forthcoming dissertation. Frankly, one would be better off reading her dissertation because her presentation of the conclusion lacks any analysis, only commenting on the method and conclusions.

Jan Retsö describes the literary depiction of the mishkan and paroket and compares it with the paroket-canopy in Near Eastern literature and archaeology. In connecting the paroket with a Levantine sanctuary type, he suggests that P’s sanctuary is independent from the 1st temple in Jerusalem. As such, he suggests that P should be dated to the pre-6th century. An interesting article, and worth considering for ancient Mediterranean cult practices, the data that he draws from may be dated well into the Persian, Roman, and Hellenistic periods. As such, it is disingenuous to date P to a pre-6th century period on the basis of the Holiness code being oriented against the hammanim, the sanctuary which he claims is equivalent to the paroket-canopy. Moreover, his dating is dependent on how he dates the Holiness Code, indicating a degree of circular thinking. Overall, though he presents some interesting data points for comparison and analysis, his analysis should be more thorough.

John S. Bergsma points to the Northern bias of the Pentateuch in order to show how the Pentateuch, in being predominately a Northern document, “shows no unambiguous evidence of an awareness of the controversy between these groups at all” (297), namely Judeans and Samarians. Overall, this contribution is worth further consideration. More specifically, fined tuned analysis through philology and close literary reading would substantially strengthen his argument. Moreover, though he still functions within a framework of North vs. South, his conclusions suggest that more productive analysis requires moving away from this polemic framework and towards a new paradigm.  

Examining what she calls the economic assumptions of Deuteronomy, Sandra Richter suggests that the most likely social situation of Deuteronomy is the Iron I and IIA transition period. She draws primarily from archaeological excavations to sustain he theory. Though an interesting suggestion, the method is problematic from the outset. She speaks primarily about economic assumptions. In reality, the world of a text is a literary construction. As such, her claim that Deut constructs a utopian imagination as being unlikely fails to acknowledge a basic function of literature: world construction.

Finally, Pekka Pitkänen attempts to show at least a plausible social context for Priestly materials and Deut without recourse to a Wellhausen approach. On account of the many assumptions and conjectural statements, his conclusions are nothing more than what he claims: a set of possible, tough not well argued, ideas about the text’s social context.

Overall, this volume is mediocre. Though some contributions offer intriguing avenues for future research, the majority of contributions are either (a) methodologically problematic, (b) seriously underdeveloped, or (c) generally unclear. The most notable contributions are by Eckart Otto and John S. Bergsma. As a volume, it fails to provides substantial contributions which will leads to a new paradigm for Pentateuchal studies. Therefore, I do not recommend this volume for individuals or libraries.


Philosophical Friday: Aristotle and Genre

Aristotle offers a few categories for genres, such as epic and tragedy. Notably, though, these generic categories are outgrowths of his philosophy. As such, people who use categories like epic and tragedy should be aware of the origin of these notions. So, in what follows, I will briefly lay out how Aristotles categories of tragedy and epic are related to his philosophy. As a result, it will point to how any categories used to approach and organize literature are reflective of cultural and social assumptions.

First, Aristotle approaches the art of poetry as an imitation. So, whether epic poetry, tragedy, comedy, or music, each is an imitation. As imitations, they use different means, manners, and modes of presentation. Moreover, Aristotle frames the notion of imitations as an intrinsic aspect of being human, located in human nature at childhood: “Thus from childhood it is instinctive in human beings to imitate, and man differs from the other animals as the most imitative of all and getting his first lessons by imitation, and by instinct also all human beings take pleasure in imitations” (The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism 2018, 101). Put simply, all humanity is by nature imitative.

Second, there are varying degrees of precision and accuracy with regard to imitation. Though Aristotle discusses multiple categories, one will suffice. Concerning characters, the construction of them differs depending on the particular genre within which a character functions. For example, in tragedy, the character, namely the imitation of a person, is “better than the average.” By contrast, comedy “is an imitation of persons worse than the average” (The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism 2018, 103). In other words, the characterization of imitated people differs between genres. Such differences are, seemingly from Aristotle’s perspective, objective differences, not subjective.

Now, Aristotle spends more time distinguishing categories of imitation; however, for the sake of time, it is sufficient to say that Aristotle has relatively rigid genre categories which are reflective of his own culture and society.

These two points lead to my third and final point. Concerning the category of tragedy, he comments on the evolution and progression of it: “little by little tragedy grew greater as the poets developed what they perceived of its emergent form, and after passing through many changes, it came to a stop, being now in possession of its specific nature” (The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism 2018, 102). Put another way, Aristotle derived his notion of genre by analogy with biological things. Describing how genre has a “nature” in Aristotle, Averinstev comments: “As the development of an embryo and youngling strives towards the state of the adult individual, so too the first experiments in the area of tragic poetry were subjected to a goal – to “at last acquiring its distinctive nature”” (Averinstev 1989, 32). So, the ability of poets to imitate developed over time, eventually solidifying into genres of distinctive nature. Simply put, his philosophical notions of imitation inform his description and understanding of genre.

What this demonstrates is that Aristotle’s genres are directly related to, if not an outgrowth from, his philosophy and worldview. As such, we should, ourselves, be conscious of how our own philosophies and worldviews impact our approaches to  and categorizations of literature.

Additionally, Aristotle’s evolutionary description of genre is problematic. For, though he fails to address it, I am left wondering: Even once tragic poetry has arrived at its goal, a distinctive nature in its life, what happens where tragedy dies? In other words, Aristotle’s understanding of genre is convenient; however, it is too rigid to stand the test of time. That is not to say, though, that his work is unhelpful. Many of the ways in which he describes ways to approach literature is helpful and productive. It is, rather, the synthesis of his observations as generic classifications which are problematic and unsustainable.

Philosophical Friday: Plato and Poetry

Plato_Pio-Clemetino_Inv305Though many have heard of Plato, less have read Plato or are familiar with his ideas. I am particularly interested in Plato’s approach to poetry and the notion of the Sublime. As such, I will briefly lay out how he approaches poetry and for what reasons.

At base, Plato perceives everything in the world as being based on a single form. So even though many imitations of that form are created and built, there remains only one true form of that object. For example, if a craftsman constructs a bed, it is based on the form of a bed; however, no craftsman can create the form itself. The form itself is only created by god. When the craftsman makes a bed, it is at second remove from nature because the craftsman specializes in making that particular form.

The painter and poet, though, Plato describes as being thrice removed from the original form, and hence he is deemed an imitator. As such, truth is not found in poetry and paintings, then; rather, the work of the painter or the poet is simply an allusion.

Moreover, he applies this framework to stories about the gods. In Book III of The Republic, he discusses stories about gods that are told to young, impressionable minds. These stories, he suggests, are often times problematic because they do not accurately depict the gods. For example, he cites Homer’s description of the gods: “Irrepressible laughter spread among the blessed gods / as they saw their Hephaestus bustling about the palace” (The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism 2019, 69). In response, he claims that Homer’s view cannot be accepted because Homer does not represent the truth of the gods.

Put another way, Plato perceives Homer’s poetry to be twice or thrice removed from the truth, probably thrice. As such, he considers it to be a lie, an illusion. Therefore, it is considered to be untruthful by him.

Now, although it is Longinus who eventually highlights the centrality of the Sublime in poetry, this short discussion of Plato demonstrates how the notion of “truthfulness” is central to everything in life. With regard to gods, poetry, which is true and good for society, should accurately depict his preconceived notion about how the gods function. As such, theological content which aligns with Plato’s theological presuppositions are considered to be the most truthful.

The implication of this is that, while Jacqueline Vayntrub (2019) is correct to argue that the centrality of the Sublime in reading Biblical poetry finds roots in Longinus, the root of the centrality of theological content, namely the Sublime, reaches back even further to the very foundations of Western thought. These foundations of the centrality of the Sublime, though expressed in rudimentary form, are evident in Plato (5th century BCE).

Review: “Beyond Orality: Biblical Poetry on its Own Terms” by Jacqueline Vayntrub

Jacqueline Vayntrub. Beyond Orality: Biblical Poetry on it owns Terms. New York: Routledge, 2019. 252 pp., $140 (hardback).Orality

For nearly three centuries, ‘ orality’ has served as a framework for understanding biblical texts, especially in terms of their formation and imagined origins; however, as Jacqueline Vayntrub demonstrates throughout her study, the Great Divide framework remains active. As such, she aims to shift to a distinct notion of orality. Rather than interrogating the orality of poetry in terms of transmission, she focuses on the literary claims of biblical texts about their orality or literary transmission. One such literary claim is that poetry has a dimension of orality inasmuch as it is performed by characters in the biblical text. Put another way, poetry is almost always “configured either explicitly as speech or implicitly so” (7). In this view, orality is a literary trope attending to “how characters and speakers perform certain kinds of speech in the written text” (9), indicating how texts should be read.

In Chapter One, Vayntrub lays out how the ways biblical narratives are framed “determine the very way we understand the biblical texts” (20). This framing contributed to the ‘Great Divide’ in Biblical Studies, namely the divide between pre-developed oral and developed prose. Drawing primarily from Johann Gottfried Herder and Herman Gunkel, she shows that the developmental framework, at base, perceives the oral and poetic to be more archaic than the written and prosaic. She suggests that such a developmental framework is the consequence of how the biblical narrative is framed: “In biblical narrative, poetry is framed as a past oral discourse in the voice of characters, and its language is often – whether by transmission or deliberate design – more archaic than its prose frame” (22). This is also evidence in Shir Hashirim Rabbah, Francis Bacon, and Giambattista Vico, whose readings are reflective of the Great Divide and a consequence of how the Hebrew Bible frames texts. For though Bacon, Vico, and Shir Hashirim Rabbah had distinct goals, they nonetheless had similar theories of literary origin. Put simply, “the biblical authors have shaped traditional modes of expression such that they now reflect the characteristics of those characters” (32).

In Chapter Two, Vayntrub demonstrates how the essence of biblical poetry is usually identified as the mashal; however, this was always mediated “through the influential aesthetic theory of the time” (37). Narrating a genealogy of mashal as a poetic concept, she initially points to Lowth’s parallelism as being derived from a classical rhetorician Christian Schöttgen, who wrote 20 years prior to Lowth’s seminal lecture. Categorizing Hebrew poetry as mashal is also evident in medieval Jewish Spain. Moses ibn Ezra, echoing Aristotle and Plato, perceives the style of a mashal, of poetry, to be deceptive, though not necessarily the content. Moses ibn Tibbon understands mashal as part of a spectrum (literal, mashal, and poetic), mashal being an intermediate discourse, not fully false (poetry) or true (literal). Shem tov ibn Falaquera struggle similarly with the notion of truth in poetry.

In each case, “The essence of poetry was to be located with the audience, not the poet” (45), namely the effects upon the audience. During the Renaissance, John Dennis adapted the notion of Sublime into poetry, the earliest forms of poetry being Sublime. Paired with Vico’s notion of the origins of language, Herder brought these ideas into conversation with biblical poetry, as did Lowth. Lowth’s understanding of the mashal is that it was “property expressive of the poetic style” (49). With this, he distinguishes between didactic and sublime, indicating that Sublime poems, those on religion, were truer poetry. As such, the proverbs were not sublime. In other words, his “evaluation placed poetry with theological content in a position of privilege” (51). Herder, developing this notion, understood Hebrew poetry and the sublime as an opportunity to identify the sublime with genius of human authors. And with the subsequent works of Johann Gottfried Eichhorn, Georg Heinrich Ewald, and Michaelis, the mashal was officially denotative of a state prior to poetry. As parallelism became popular in the 20th century, Stephen Geller, Michael O’Connor, James Kugel, and Adele Berlin came to identify poetry essence with parallelism. In all, these understandings of mashal did not “attend to the mashal’s persistent incompatibility to external categories of poetic genres” and, as such, “results in its identification as “poetry,” writ large” (59).

Chapter Three explores how mashal as a genre within wisdom literature is typically defined as a result of circular thinking and logic. To frame the chapter, she lays out three major issues with viewing mashal as a proverb. First, she points to how identification of mashal as a genre is rooted in circular thinking, wherein scholars use words from proverbs as a means of identifying whether or not other things fit into the “wisdom” genre – Proverbs being the paradigmatic mashal. Even so, mashal typically occurs outside of traditional wisdom literature. Second, because form-critical approaches see oral traditions as earlier, a diachronic perspective is assumed in literary forms of the mashal, not considering that mashal may simply be incompatible with modern literary categories. Third, she looks to HALOT, BDB, LXX, and the Vulgate, clearly showing that mashal cannot consistently be translated as “proverb.”

Shifting gears, Vayntrub focuses on how mashal is employed to frame speech in biblical texts. She puts forth three characteristic uses of mashal as a frame: in narratives, the mashal is a speech performance; mashal sometimes denotes a speech transmitted across generations; and mashal asserts conventional views. Concerning transmission and conventional views, she looks at two points – folkloric studies and mashal as oral register – which lead her to conclude that the structure of speech must be identified, as well as the oral register and the implied social context.

Highlighting the framing of Biblical texts as shaping analysis of compositions, Chapter Four analyzes how Balaam’s speeches are framed. First, she shows how the frame and speech performances of Balaam are thematically and terminologically connected to the mashals in Gen 49 and Deut 33, the broader concern of J with blessing fulfillment, and contrasts Balaam with Deut 33 and Gen 49 inasmuch as Balaam is a non-Israelite medium. Second, she analyzes Balaam’s speech from multiple perspectives. Broadly, she suggests that the narrative frames the speeches as instructional discourse (mashal), though he still participate in prophetic activity. Moreover, the speeches are all framed with Balak as the audience, the mashal primarily being observations of the world and categories, touching on issues of Yahweh’s authority over Balaam. At base, then, the mashal classifies and categorizes the world and its actors with various structures in order to make claims about those categories. Third, she analyzes the content and structure for each of Balaam’s mashals, examining the particular claim in each mashal. Though framed as Yahweh’s words in Balaam’s mouth, the speaker “articulates his own observations, makes generalizations about the world and its actors from these observations, and then particularizes the generalizations for specific situation” (134). On this basis, she suggests that Balaam’s speeches are primarily instructional, not prophetic.

Continuing her discussion of mashal in Chapter Five, Vayntrub looks to Isaiah 14 and 1 Sam 24 in order to further illuminate how mashals are framed. First, she analyzes Is 14, demonstrating how the mashal, as expository discourse, “uses the particular case of one ruler who aspired to belike the deity” (165). And in order to explain elements of Is 14 that are not clearly mashal, she suggests that the mashal in Is 14 incorporate elements of the qinah, which is “the proper discourse of failure” (147). Second, she analyzes David’s mashal in 1 Sam 24. Continuing with the notion of the mashal as expository discourse, she shows how David’s use of a mashal contextually bolsters claims that he cannot be violent to Saul, a performance of shared, authoritative knowledge from antiquity. Finally, she considers what it means to become as a mashal. Drawing parallels with the notion of become a horror, she suggests that היה למשׁל is similar – to become the subject of future expository משׁל from which generalizations about the world and its actors may be drawn.

In light of her extensive discussion of orality in Biblical texts, Chapter Six analyzes how titles and tales, broadly construed, frame speech performances. The object of study is Proverbs. First, she emphasizes the literary value of titles as enabling us to better contextualize Proverbs within ancient Near Eastern instruction literature. Second, she identifies a spectrum of types of speech performance phrases in non-narrative texts: extended narrative, minimal narrative (with a verb of performance or transmission), and non-narrative frame (with genre and an individual, typically called a title). With this typology, Vayntrub looks towards other ancient Near Eastern instruction texts, all of which “fictionally represent a moment and situation of performance in their frame” and “contextualizes and generically marks the advice that follows” (192), each using extended narrative. Strikingly distinct is that the frames in Proverbs do not “stage a performance of the named figure, and it is not clear from the titles who is in fact speaking these texts apart from the text itself” (196). This, among other details, indicates a degree of recognition within the texts of Proverbs about its textual nature as a mediator of instruction: “By attributing its disembodied inscribed text to a legendary past figure who embodies wise speech, the book of Proverbs implies that writing has the capacity to preserve and transmit the internalized speech of tradents” (205). She concludes by directing the readers to four implications.

1)      Socially, there is value in the performance of speech by certain individuals; however, within texts, the presentation of speech as an authorizing device is a literary trope (204-205).

2)      In light of her analysis, we should pay more attention to how writteness develops in ancient Judean literature within the broader contexts of writteness in Assyria, Babylonia, and Persia, along with possible influence in that regard.

3)      We must admit the shortcomings of our own “inherited intellectual frameworks to theorize the meaning of ancient text production within a given literary culture” (205).

4)      Textual awareness is not a progress but a phenomenon.


She notes two potential lines of inquiry in the conclusion. First, scholars should more thoroughly investigate how anthologies of biblical poetry frame the speech. For, within her study, this investigation enabled her to observe that Proverbs is framed as a literary medium for instruction, distinct from other ancient Near Eastern instructional texts. Second, the embodied voice of characters within the Hebrew Bible should be connected with other types of biblical speeches, such as deathbed testaments and mortuary inscriptions.

Overall, Vayntrub’s volume is helpful on multiple fronts. First, her overview of the history of biblical poetry, mashal, and other associated ideas effectively and clearly deconstruct the traditional framework for interpreting biblical poetry. In doing so, she is able to provide a clear alternative to approaching biblical texts on their own terms. In doing so, she emphasizes how a text is framed. Though not discussed thoroughly, the centrality of the frame of a text has implications for sub-fields within biblical studies. For example, concerning redaction criticism, she comments on Proverbs: while the authors may have redacted aspects of Proverbs in order to shape in a particular manner, “we may never be able to know with certainty one way or another. What we can do, instead, is theorize the aim of editorial and anthologizing activity” (198). Applied outside of Proverbs, it raises a concern in Pentateuchal criticism: perhaps the only things we can definitely theorize about is the editorial and anthologizing activity of the Pentateuch’s composition. Perhaps somebody will pick up this line of thought in the future.

Second, the attention she gives to the texts as literature is particularly instructive. Far too often, as she discusses thoroughly, scholars leverage biblical texts for social and cultural history without paying adequate attention to it as a literary text, with all its intricacies and constructive elements. What Vayntrub successful accomplishes is to identify how speech and orality function within literature itself, not attempting to claim that the literature is necessarily the same as the historical social situation, though she does recognize that it is reflective of it. Such an approach should be hearkened to by all biblical scholars, namely approaching the text in such a way that does not presume certain ideas about how the text relates to the world.

Third, her work is on par with Adele Berlin’s The Dynamic of Biblical Poetry and F.W. Dobbs-Allsopp’s On Biblical Poetry. Any studies on biblical poetry must deal with Vayntrub’s volume on account of what Vayntrub accomplishes in her work. If future studies on biblical poetry do not at least consult Beyond Orality, that should raise a red flag.

Although the book was splendid, a few comments are in order which may strengthen her overall argument. First, it would be helpful if she employed a more structured approach to describing texts in terms of their frames of reference. For example, Benjamin Harshav (Explorations in Poetics) offers a helpful analytical method for describing texts. His method is especially focused on describing how frames of reference function within literary texts. Had Vayntrub incorporated Harshav’s method for describing texts, her analyses would have been sharper on account of the more precise method and terminology for exegesis.

Second, though her description of the history of scholarship about the mashal is marvelous, one particular aspect could be pushed back chronologically. She notes early on that Lowth derived his notion of the Sublime in poetry, that is privileging theological content in poetry, from Longinus (1st century CE) and John Dennis (17th century CE). Though he may have primarily been influenced by Dennis and Longinus, it is worth noting that the privileged position of the Sublime in poetry reaches back to Plato. For although Plato views poetry as inherently untruthful, which she discusses with regard to medieval Spanish Jewish thinkers, Plato makes an exception for poetry praising deities: “We shall be angry with a poet who writes such [untruthful] lines about the gods and shall forbid their presentation in public. Nor can we permit teachers to make use of such poets in instructing the young if our guardians are to become god-fearing men, and indeed godlike, insofar as that is possible for me” (The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism 2019, 65). In light of Plato’s comments, the introduction to The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism suggests that “Socrates recommends that it,” namely poetry, “be banished from the ideal society, except perhaps for poetry that praises the gods and avoids representing them in an unseemly fashion” (2019, 7). In other words, the privileging of theological poetry over and against others stands within a text and author central to the canon of the Renaissance and reaching back into the middle of the 1st millennium BCE, namely Plato. As such, the privileging of the Sublime has deeper root in the Western intellectual tradition than she suggests.

Third, the issue of “wisdom” as a genre or literary category is problematic. She touches on this issue, deeming texts like Proverbs, Ahiqar, and various other ancient Near Eastern texts as instruction texts, not wisdom literature. She does, though, mention “assumptions guiding the study of wisdom literature” (75). Yet, as Will Kynes (2018) suggests, “wisdom literature” took its current form in the 19th century as an attempt by scholars to situate the Hebrew Bible’s texts within the broader discussions of philosophy and theology. In other words, what constitutes “wisdom literature” became characterized by 19th centuries philosophy. Although Kynes’ observations by no means delegitimize Vayntrub’s analyses or conclusions, it would be interesting to see how his observations may impact, for better or worse, Vayntrub’s conclusions. Perhaps in the future, assuming Kynes’ scholarship stands up to scrutiny, Vayntrub can work this into her ongoing scholarship.

Fourth, in terms of the organization of the book itself, the flow of the text is sometimes unclear. To be clear, the book is not poorly written; rather, it was simply sometimes difficult to follow the logic of the book. This comment, though, is less of a criticism and more something to be aware of when reading the volume.

Overall, even with these minor comments about the volume, Beyond Orality: Biblical Poetry on its Own Terms is necessary for any biblical scholars interested in poetry, literary cultures, or orality. Moreover, even folks outside of biblical studies will find Beyond Orality to be of interest on account of Vayntrub’s discussion of how the Great Divide has played out in biblical scholarship for the last 400 years. Though the volume is still expensive for individuals to purchase, it is, undoubtedly, necessary in the Religious Studies section at any serious university.

The Ethics of Paper Grading

A great blog post on grading papers and ethics.

The Craft of Teaching in the Academic Study of Religion

By Jonathan E. Soyars, Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary

I distinctly recall one of the most incisive pieces of critical paper feedback that I received in graduate school: “You wrote a lot of things, but you didn’t argue anything.” In the moment, reading such an evaluation of my work felt painful, maybe even a little unfair, as if the evaluator hadn’t read closely or slowly enough to absorb the intricacies of my argument. I comforted myself with a simple delusion: surely, they missed the forest for the trees! With the passing of time, though, I came to realize that their assessment was entirely accurate. Indeed, that paper had presented no forest. And, to make matters worse, it actually contained few trees.

As second-year postdoc, I now find myself grading student papers similar to my own way back when. Frankly, such grading occurs at a volume and pace that can sometimes…

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