Philosophical Friday: Dante Alighieri and Thomas Aquinas

Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) is most well-known for his work The Divine Comedy, the first part being more colloquially known as Dante’s Inferno. As a poet living in the 13th and 14th centuries, Dante was concerned with “the problem of how to understand and construe textual meaning” [1]. In many respects, he construed textual meaning is a way similar to Thomas Aquinas.

In Il Convivio, Dante offers commentary on his own poetry in a way that also deals with ethics, metaphysics, philosophy, and politics [2]. Within his commentary, he notes four senses of interpretation: literal, allegorical, moral, and anagogical. Of these senses of interpretation, the literal is the most important because it is only from the literal that the other senses are possible: “since explication is the building up of knowledge, and the explication of the literal sense is the foundation of the others, especially, the allegorical, it is impossible to arrive at the other senses without first arriving at it” [3].

Moreover, Dante interpreting his own poetry, his approach that the “text is polysemous: that is it has many meanings – including the literal – that occur in a single imaginative act” [4]. This is similar to Aquinas, inasmuch as the literal meaning forms the foundation for the allegorical, moral, and anagogical. There is a significant difference, though, between Dante and Aquinas. Aquinas views interpretation as polysemous, albeit rooted in the literal, and justifies his reasoning theologically: “since the author of the Holy Writ is God… it is not unfitting… one word in Holy Writ should have several senses” [4]. Simply put, Aquinas’ perspective is framed by an assumption and perception that his Bible is authored by God. Though similar, Dante differs. Dante is concerned with interpreting literature from his own imagination. So, although Dante and Aquinas employ similar interpretive views, Dante perceives such polysemy as the product of a human mind, whereas Aquinas primarily employs the interpretive framework theologically with relation to God’s intellect.

What, though, is the significance of this difference? While both scholars employ similar interpretive approaches, one uses the theory to explain a theological text (Aquinas), whereas the other uses the theory to explain a human text (Dante). Such a shift in terms of how the theory is utilized signals a shift from a theological model of interpretation to a humanistic model of interpretation, a general feature of the shift into modernity. The previous discussion illuminates how certain fundamental methodologies of Christian theological treatise and perspectives on the Holy Writ were essentially transposed and given a new meaning within authors and thinkers like Dante.

[1] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 195.

[2] “Dante Alighieri,” in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2018).

[3] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 197.

[4] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 193.

The Etic, Emic, and Everything In-Between: Some Reflections on Adele Reinhartz’s Response to Daniel Boyarin

Recently, Daniel Boyarin published a book titled Judaism: The Genealogy of a Modern Notion. The goal of the book is to explore the history and usage of the term “Judaism”. Though I have admittedly not read the volume, Adele Reinhartz provides a helpful depiction of the Boyarin’s conclusions: “we “should not ascribe to a culture a category or abstraction for which that culture does not have a term.” To do so is anachronistic and therefore bad methodology. The implications for our scholarly practice is self-evident: we should not use the term Judaism when discussing premodern Jews” (Reinhartz 2019). As she notes later in her article, Boyarin’s conclusion is akin to his and Carlin Barton’s conclusion in Imagine No Religion (Fordham University Press, 2016), wherein Barton and Boyarin attempt to describe religion in antiquity without invoking modern the modern category “religion.”

Speaking of “Judaism” as a generic category, Reinhartz comments: “But does not the use of later generalizing terms give free rein to the dreaded sin of anachronism? Why, yes, of course it does. I would argue, however, that some degree of anachronism is inherent to the study of the past” (Reinhartz 2019). I am inclined to agree with Reinhartz. Various authors express similar sentiments about the category of “magic” in the recent volume titled Guide to the Study of Ancient Magic (Leiden: Brill, 2019). For example, Yuval Harari, known for his work on magic in ancient Israel and early Judaism, suggests “that an absolute split between the emic and the etic is impossible, and all attempts to trace the course of an emic approach are based on some presumption about the domain whose emic features we seek” (Harari 2019, 141).

My point in drawing attention to this is simple: many words in our vocabulary are, to echo J.Z. Smith’s perspective of religion, secondary categories [1]. Such categories don’t have a single definition; rather, they have 50 different definitions. The definitions depend on the particular contexts.

As Reinhartz and various authors in Guide to the Study of Ancient Magic point out, the modern categories which we impose on texts are exactly that. They are modern. As such, it is always a challenge to objectively describe a culture or text purely based on its internal qualities.

That is to say, it is particularly difficult to strongly distinguish between emic and etic descriptions. Difficulties distinguishing between these two anthropological approaches lead me to a comment and question worth exploring. While texts/cultures can be described with etic or emic terms, such descriptions are, in reality, too optimistic and unrealistic, as these categories are not precise. As such, how can scholars more systematically and critically map out the space between etic and emic analysis?

Admittedly, I am not incredibly conversant with anthropology. If such studies are available within anthropology, I would love to read them. On the other hand, if such studies are not available, it may be a route worth exploring. Exploring it will enable scholars to better engage with texts and cultures by more precisely defining where they stand between etic and emic [2].

[1] By contrast, though, David Frankfurter, “Ancient Magic in a New Key,” in Guide to the Study of Ancient Magic, ed. David Frankfurter (Leiden: Brill, 2019), 20, comments on “magic” as a second-order category: “While helpful initially to highlight aspects of phenomena, the term “magic” remains too vague to rely on as a genuine second-order category of description – for magic as described here essentially permeates human language, material lives, and social interactions.” That is to say, based on his definition and approach to “magic,” it is always present in societies through time and space.

[2] Though it not available to me at the moment, The Early Mediterranean World, 1200 – 600 BC (Leiden: Brill, 2018) includes helpful discussions about methodology. There may be some fruitful routes presented within the volume.

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: Moses Maimonides and Coherence/Cogency

Moses Maimonides was a Jewish scholar who lived from 1135-1204. During his lifetime, he lived in Spain, Morocco, and Cairo. He was a particularly well known and respected Jewish scholar during his own lifetime. Guide of the Perplexed is among his most well-known works in the 21st century. So, within this blog post, I will briefly summarize his approach to textual interpretation and provide a few reflections on his description of textual interpretation.

First, in Guide of the Perplexed, Maimonides points towards two key reasons in order to explain why people fail to understand the meaning of texts: (a) failure to recognize the polysemy of biblical languages and (b) the use of obscure parables in the Hebrew Bible which are intended to “maintain the secrets of divine knowledge” [1]. With this in mind, he also views the propositions in texts in an interesting light. Rather than arguing that a reader should take into consideration how how text is constructed, tracking every piece in order to identify the primary meaning of a parable, Maimonides suggests that “you should not inquire into all the details occurring in the parable” because it may “lead you into ones of two ways: either into turning aside from the parable’s intended subject, or into assuming an obligation to interpret things not susceptible of interpretation and that have not been inserted with a view to interpretation” [2].

With a basic outline of method presented, I now want to draw attention to a few points which strike me as relevant for the type of analysis I am interested in doing. First, he comments that within some parables the extra words serve “to embellish the parable and to render it more coherent or to conceal further the intended meaning” [3]. This captures how Maimonides is attempting to deal with texts which are not coherent or cogent, a subject which, though I don’t have access to the article at the moment, Marc Brettler has discussed. Likewise, in Pentateuchal studies, the Documentary Hypothesis (broadly construed) is used to explain places which are not cogent or coherent. Put simply, Maimonides develops his method out of recognition that the text is not always clear; however, unlike modern approaches, his approach is more theological in nature, perceiving the biblical text as divine in nature and, as such, attributing lack of coherency and cogency to divine intention.

Second, and riffing on my first point, I am left to wonder about which texts constitute those parables that Maimonides categorizes as (a) parables for which each word has meaning and (b) parables for which the whole text indicates the meaning [4]. The example he provides of the first type of parables is Genesis 28:12-13, itself framed as a dream. The second type of parable is Proverbs 7:6-21, itself framed as a complete narrative about a young lad swayed by a woman on the street [5]. With this in mind, at least from a very brief overview of the texts categorized by Maimonides, it seems that the first type of parable is associated with dreams, which themselves are a means that God communicates specific messages to individuals. That description, therefore, is closer to communication directly from God. By contrast, the second type of parable is framed as more generic knowledge, not directly or indirectly associated with God’s speech or revelation. Therefore, at least from a broad overview, his two categories may be divided according to the following: (a) texts wherein Yahweh communicates a message and (b) texts wherein a speaker or agent other than Yahweh communicates a message. Of course, this idea needs to be further developed and tested.


[1] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 179.

[2] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 187-188.

[3] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 186.

[4] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 186.

[5] Although The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 187n2, says Maimonides quotes Proverbs 7:6-21, it is actually Proverbs 7:7-21.

Philosophical Friday: Augustine of Hippo and Signs

In previous experiences, I viewed Augustine of Hippo, the 4th century Christian writer most well-known for texts like On Christian Teaching and City of God, primarily as a theologian. Although he is concerned with theology, he sought to understand more clearly the Christian biblical texts. One of the consequences of this aim was the development of a link between signs and language, namely signification, a issue most famously addressed by the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. In what follows, I will briefly lay out his view of “signs” and “language” and offer a few thoughts on his ideas.

Augustine defines given signs as “those which living things give to each other, in order to show, to the best of their ability, the emotions of their minds, or anything that they have felt or learnt” [1]. That is, signs are primarily meant to signfify something intended to be transmitted to another person. They include language, shouts of pain, facial expressions, etc. Now, because spoken words, words themselves being signs, “cease to exists as soon as they come into contact with the air” [2], Augustine suggests that writing was invented. From his theological approach, though, writing was invented in order to enable divine scripture to be circulated through the world.

With this foundation, Augustine continues by describing the problems in written texts: the meaning of signs in texts “may be veiled either by unknown signs or by ambiguous signs” [3]. In order to deal with this problem, Augustine encourages readers to refer back to the Greek, Hebrew, and Latin original texts. Essentially, he encourages a triangulation of the texts in order to identify the meaning of the text, that is in order to interpret the ambiguous or veiled sign. Another solution to unfamiar signs is simply a problem with knowledge of things. For example, when a biblical text refers to hyssop, Augustine notes that we may not understand the sign in a text because people are “unaware of its power to cleanse the lugns or even (so it is said) to split rocks with its roots” [4]. In other words, in order to understand certain phrases, the reader much have pre-knowledge which will help to inform how certain signs should be interpreted.

At base, then, Augustine argues that knowledge of literature and how literature works, namely the issue of signifiers and the signified. For, “A knowledge of them is necessary for the resolution of ambiguities in scripture because when a meaning based on the literal interpretation of the words in absurd we must investigate whether the passage that we cannot understand is perhaps being expressed by means of one or other of the tropes” [5].

From this brief summary of Augustine’s perspective, I want to emphasize two aspects.

First, Augustine explicitly describes letters, written signs of words, as an extension of speech. Without them, speech ceases to exist when it comes into contact with the air. This is an important point to me because, in my perspective, all texts are, to a certain degree, a simulation of a speech situation. This same principle may be extracted from Augustine’s treatise On Christian Teaching.

Second, and in a similar vein, Augustine recognizes that all people speak in figures of speech: “Almost all these tropes, which are said to be acquired through one of the ‘liberal’ arts, are also found in the utterances of those who have had no formal teaching in grammar and are content with the style of ordinary people” [6]. On account of this, Augustine suggests that all people should understand should understand the metaphorical nature of speech itself. By understanding the metaphorical nature of speech itself, both in literature and ordinary speech, a reader of the Christian biblical texts is more likely to investigate the meaning of the passage.

This comes back to something I observe in the field of Biblical studies and Near Eastern studies: there is a surprising lack of engagement with literary theory. Augustine goes as far as to suggest that those who are ignorant of tropes and the names of certain types of metaphors are uneducated. Though I don’t go that far, I do think he has a fair point: people should know how language works. In my case, this principle is applied to scholars: scholars should know how language works and how literature works. Only in doing so can we begin to more fully examine and understand the texts that we study.

[1] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 166.

[2] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 167.

[3] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 168.

[4] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 172.

[5] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 177.

[6] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 176.

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).