Factors Which Produced Biblical Polyphony

Many attempt to explain the polyphonic nature of the biblical texts as follows: “The Bible is not a book that was written by a single author. It is a small library, a collection of diverse books that were written by different people, in different places, at different times, for different audiences, and even in different languages.”[1] This explanation is good, as far as it goes. However, because it only talks about authorship then this statement explains only the initial polyphony of the prebiblical books (i.e., before various texts were brought together into the different anthologies called “the Bible”). The fact is that what can be said about authorship of these texts can also be said about the processes of copying, editing, translating, and collecting/canonizing, which are ongoing right up to the present.[2] At every stage in the process from authorship through copying, editing, translating, collecting/canonizing, different people, in different places, at different times, for different audiences have been involved in creating a text (or anthology) which they believe would convey the truth about God’s nature, working and will. Is it any wonder that whatever version of “the” Bible a person picks up that it contains a polyphony of different voices, opinions, perspectives, and convictions, etc.?

Hebrew Bible Polyphony Explained

         In terms of the Jewish Scriptures before they reached their “standard form”[3] numerous significant factors influenced the copying, editing, translating, collecting and canonizing processes. First, those Semitic ancestors of the Israelite people were thoroughly polytheistic. Gradually, the Israelites were transformed to embrace a monolatrous understanding of deity. The annihilation of the northern Israelite people by the Assyrians in 722 BCE, followed by the devastation of Jerusalem and the resulting exile to Babylon in 586 BCE of the Judahites, transformed the surviving exiles into a radically monotheistic people. A careful reading of the Jewish scriptures provides glimpses of this extremely significant theological evolution.[4] This interpretation of key scriptures is proven accurate via archaeological discoveries which demonstrate that household religion shows all the signs of the worship of other gods until their exilic experience.[5]  

         In addition to theological evolution to monotheism, many other adaptations of the prebiblical texts occurred during the early post-exilic period; these are the centuries when the prebiblical texts achieved a more standardized form. The returning exiles, and those who remained in the diaspora, were striving to make theological sense of what factors led to the annihilation of northern Israel and the destruction of Jerusalem. The book of Chronicles is a paradigmatic example of the rewriting of scripture (specifically, the books of Samuel and Kings), in an attempt to answer questions such as “Is God still with us?”[6] Zahn states, “…that some books of the Bible in fact rewrote other books, and in that sense were just as much Rewritten Bible as other, extracanonical, examples. The prime example here was, of course, the books of Chronicles.”[7]

         A third factor, which resulted in the polyphony evident among Jewish scriptures, has to do with the diversity of Jewish sects which existed during the Second Temple period; the same period when scripture was being significantly copied, redacted, rewritten, and translated. The discovery of the variety of nonbiblical texts among the Dead Sea Scrolls along with readings from the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha and Apocrypha, demonstrate that a clear and consistent diversity of theological perspectives exited. The use of the term “Judaisms” to describe this diversity is quite hotly debated.[8] However, using the plural “Jewish theologies” is not debated, at least among most biblical scholars and theologians. In the New Testament we are introduced to the three sects (Sadducee, Pharisee, Zealot), but they “were not the only ones active in Jewish life.”[9] Shanks refers also to the Hasidim, the Sicarrii, the Boethusians, the Essenes, and the early Christians.[10] The Second Temple period was a time of great evolution of Jewish theology for which we have a significant amount of literary evidence both in the Jewish scriptures and in other, noncanonical, Jewish literature.

Finally, during the latter two-thirds of the Second Temple period, there is evidence of the influence of Hellenism on Jewish theology. It seems clear that Greek thought impacted the writing, redaction and, perhaps, the rewriting of some Jewish scripture. Even, if that suggestion can be debated, there is no doubt that Hellenism certainly influenced its interpretation. Philo, who lived in Alexandria, Egypt, among a large community of diaspora Jews, was a prolific author whose writings demonstrate the obvious impact of Hellenistic philosophy.[11]  

[1] Matthias Henze, Mind the God: How the Jewish Writings between the Old and New Testament Help Us Understand Jesus (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2017), 15.

[2] Try reading Henze’s quote but substituting “written by” with “copied by,” “edited by,” “translated by,” and “collected/canonized by.”

[3] I use the phrase “standard form” rather than “final form” because even today, and going forward, the texts that make up the various biblical anthologies are being scrutinized in light of manuscript discoveries and scholarly investigations and thus changes are often being introduced. E.g., compare the 1984 NIV edition with the 2011 edition. Many changes were made which the translators/publishers obviously thought were improvements and which were received by some as such and but by others are cultural accommodations. And that is only one version of the Protestant Bible that exists today, almost all of which are constantly undergoing redaction.

[4] See Psalm 29:1; 82:1–8; Ex 20:1–6; Deut 32:7–8. “Monotheism appears clearly in biblical texts dating to the sixth century, and it is possible to push back this date by a century depending on how the point is argued; in either case, monotheism seems to represent an inner-Israelite development over hundreds of years, not a feature known from Israel’s inception.” (Mark S. Smith, The Origins of Biblical Monotheism: Israel’s Polytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001], 10 [Kindle edition]). Tikva Frymer-Kensky states, “Until the eighth or seventh century BCE, biblical writers did not categorically deny the existence of other gods. But these gods belonged to other nations: for Israel, there is only YHWH.” (In the Wake of the Goddesses: Women, Culture and the Biblical Transformation of Pagan Myth [New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1992], 86).

[5] “Yet archaeology is literally forcing us to revise our notion of what ancient Israelite religion was. … This is not surprising, since most biblical scholars now agree that tree monotheism (i.e., not merely ‘henotheism’) arose only in the period of the Exile and beyond.” (William G. Dever, What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It? What Archaeology Can Tell Us about the Reality of Ancient Israel. [Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Erdmans, 2001], 197). See also: Karel van der Toorn, Family Religion in Babylonia, Syria, and Israel: Continuity and Change in the Forms of Religious Life (Atlanta, GA: SBL Press, 1996); Richard S. Hess, Israelite Religions: An Archaeological and Biblical Survey (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007).

[6] Molly M. Zahn states, “This book focus on what I refer to…as rewriting: the deliberate, formally unmarked reproduction and modification of existing texts. … I will argue that, when all these textual contexts are looked at together, rewriting emerges as a widespread, even ubiquitous scribal technique in early Judaism” (Genres of Rewriting in Second Temple Judaism: Scribal Composition and Transmission [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020], 3 [Kindle Edition]). See also Hans Debel. “Rewritten Bible, Variant Literary Editions and Original Text(s): Exploring the Implications of Pluriform Outlook on the Scriptural Tradition” in Changes in Scripture: Rewriting and Interpreting Authoriatative Traditions in the Second Temple Period. Edited by Hanne Von Weissenberg, Juha Pakkala and Marko Marttila (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2011), 65–91.   

[7] Zahn, Genres of Rewriting, 75.

[8] Debel, “Rewritten Bible,” 83 (n. 72).

[9] Hershel Shanks (ed.), Understanding the Dead Sea Scrolls (New York: Vintage Books, 1993), xxi.

[10] See also Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, 18:11–22.

[11] F. H. Colson and G. H. Whitaker, “General Introduction,” in Loeb 226, Philo, Volume 1, ix–xxii.

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