Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Bible's Cutting Room Floor by Joel Hoffman

"Perhaps surprisingly, their first question wasn't how to survive. It was why they had to survive. Or, more precisely, why no one was taking care of that for them."
So begins Joel Hoffman as story teller, page 171 of his new book: The Bible's Cutting Room Floor. I am grateful to St Martin's Press for sending me a pre-publication copy of this book. It has been a pleasure to have my attention drawn to this subject.

Cutting room floor is a modern expression first used in 1708 for the stone cutters, and only recently used in the context of editing of documents - but mostly of film. Here is a little of what the Oxford English Dictionary gives us: "(a) a room where the cutting of clothing materials, meat, etc. is done; (b) a room where surgical operations are performed; (c) a room where a film is cut or edited" (this is a cinematographic use of cut as in 'cut to scene 3').

Is the cutting room floor an apt metaphor for the editing of the Bible? Does it suggest a set of collectors, authors, editors, readers and critics preparing a volume for publication and accepting or rejecting the contents of the Festschrift for God? Or was God making a film? Applying this metaphor to the Bible leads me wondering about the means by which written texts were collected, used, stored, and modified. Why is there such a thing as a canon of Scripture? Without raising these questions explicitly, the book nonetheless addresses many issues that can arise from considering an ancient text that is called 'Holy'.

We are not talking modern editing or selection, and we are certainly not talking about surgical operations or film or butchery of meat. But clothing is apt, the Bible being a habit, as it were, and clothing a significant metaphor in the canon for both God and humanity. In the Psalms alone, the metaphor is applied to nature, hills clothed with flocks, to YHWH, pride clothed, and clothed with splendour and honour, even with the abyss. The garment will fade but the clothing is also renewed. See Psalms 22:19, 35:13, 26, 45:14, 65:14, 69:12, 93:1, 1, 102:27, 104:1, 6, 109:18, 29, 132:9, 16, 18.

But my thoughts are tangential to Joel's stated intent for the book: to start "in ancient Jerusalem" and venture "through a wide variety of texts", to bring us "back to modernity with a renewed appreciation for the Bible ... and a better understanding of some of the forces that were most influential in shaping Western society ..." (page 10). To do this, he focuses on a few of the stories that were somewhat contemporaneous with but were left out of the canon. This negative focus produces a book that tells stories we may not have heard of from their own point of view, yet addressing issues that may be compared with the treatment of the subject matter in the generally accepted canon of the Bible.

Joel deals with three main collections: The Dead Sea Scrolls (chapter 2), the Septuagint (chapter 3), and Josephus (chapter 4). These are a matter of record and he reports on them, introducing and telling the story behind each one. Then he has three chapters on specific examples of elaborations that are not in the Bible: The Life of Adam and Eve, (chapter 5) otherwise known as the apocalypse of Moses, Abraham's story from the apocalypse of Abraham (chapter 6), and 1 Enoch (chapter 7), so named for the one who 'walked with God'.

Enoch, with its imaginative historical visions, provides a clever back portion of the envelope for the book. The front portion of the envelope is Joel's summary of the 1000 year history of Jerusalem (chapter 1) in relationship to all the cultures of the ancient world, taken one at a time. Beginning with the siege of Jerusalem by Pompey in 63 BCE, he traces how this confrontation was prepared from David to the Maccabees, showing Jerusalem in conflict with Babylon, Persia, Greece, Syria, the influence of Lydia via the origins of banking, and Carthage through Hannibal's influence on Antiochus III. The back portion of the envelope (chapter 7) traces Enoch's vision of the animals as identified with many of the same historical cities and their rulers in conflict with Jerusalem.

This is a useful if brief history and will be helpful to readers who are unfamiliar with it or who have remembered isolated history lessons from their school days about Carchemish, Marathon, and the Punic wars, but have not seen them integrated into a single narrative focused around Jerusalem. One should not doubt that a reader of the Bible needs this extra-Biblical context in order to understand several of the Biblical words and stories. No language or story emerges fully formed without its meaning being enmeshed and, at least in part, defined by the surrounding culture.

Textual variations between versions of stories from the Septuagint, the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Masoretic Hebrew are particularly important and Joel cites some very good examples (e.g. pages 86-88 on the text of 1 Samuel 11). Here he describes the text of 4QSam(a) which has an additional section explaining why Nahash has such a brutal desire for the pact with Jabesh-Gilead. For this example, one might not question the appropriateness of the book's subtitle: The Holy Scriptures Missing from Your Bible. But the other pseudepigraphic stories are less than illuminating and more a set of anecdotes. These writings (including Josephus) are curious, useful, provide context or even data for clarification of the canon, but are they Holy?

Joel summarizes the big picture in a short chapter 8 making his key point that "we have an ancient culture that welcomed different opinions rather than focusing on one answer." The chapter on Josephus has a number of opinions on things related to the Adam and Eve story. But one doesn't need Josephus to know that there are multiple intertwined stories in the Bible admitting of differing opinions and interpretations. I doubt that anyone consulted Josephus as the canon was forming. Joel does a good job of showing how unreliable the Josephus tradition is including its most popular English translation, (but I note a counter to my negative take on Josephus where he is called "our single most important source for ancient Jewish history".)

Joel draws from Adam and Eve, from Abraham, from Enoch, three different reasons why humanity suffers and contrasts these with the reward and punishment of Deuteronomy and its counter-argument in Job, "which suggests that life is fundamentally impossible to understand" (Page 262). I suspect that Joel wants to get inside the closed mindedness that can be produced by a canon, but I am not sure he will succeed with this approach nor am I convinced of his conclusions. I agree, though, that Job is a direct response to Deuteronomy. Just to touch on the direct allusions to the covenant, consider the successive destruction of Job's livestock and children, Deuteronomy 28:31-32 and the final straw, Job 2:7 echoes Deuteronomy 28:35. All this in the context of blessings and cursings.

I tend at this time in my life to less breadth and more close reading. That's why I am not sorry that lots of things are not in the Bible. I have found enough to study already. The Psalms alone provide all the variety about the nature of human life that these apocryphal stories do. Reward and punishment, unjustified suffering, futility, love, and glory are all adequately dealt with in that one canonical text.

I suspect that the textual transmission even in what we have as canonical is far more complex at the detail level than can be contained in the curious elaborations that were left out. Examples of such thinking arrived across my desk as I was reading. Here for instance is an abstract of how harsh expressions may have been dealt with. Redressing the Calamity in the Transmission of the Bible by Alexander Rofé.

Joel cites many examples of copyist and translation difficulties, some from the Dead Sea Scrolls, some from the magical Septuagint translation, and some highlighted by texts gleaned from the unreliable Josephus. These variations are legion. One wonders where to start and how to manage the incoherence. Perhaps, therefore, the title of the book is apt, there being so many hands in the transmission of the text.

Those who should read such a book as The Bible's Cutting Room Floor in order that they be exposed to other ways of looking at the Biblical texts likely won't pick it up, but those who don't need to maybe will, and its introductory material will be helpful to them. I found reading it a fun trial of the questions and a good read but I do not find myself satisfied by the conclusions expressed or implied concerning the Holy, the Bible, or the nature of being human.

One needs the overview of the problems in the canon both of commission and omission. But to address the Holy, one must address also the problem of canon, of Israel as parable, and of the enemy, particularly the enemy that is within each of us, in order that somehow we might begin to achieve some co-inherence within our knowledge of good and evil. It may be that the canonical garment fits well enough to stimulate such wholeness and also that books such as Joel's can begin to help us avoid our tendency to embrace tight-fitting responses to the ancient texts.
"Their new reality was so shocking, in fact, that it would take them a whole week to realize that they were hungry." 
Joel has a delightfully titled blog, God Didn't Say That (rare posts this year - he's been busy). He is now working on the site The Unabridged Bible. He is a clear teacher. I remember with gratitude his patience and help to me many years ago when I could not yet distinguish וְֽהָיָה and יְהוָה. In this clarity, he follows in his father's steps. Lawrence Hoffman's Covenant of Blood was an in-depth eye-opener for my own reading in ancient Judaism.

The Bible's Cutting Room Floor is 276 pages, including a brief appendix on further reading. There is an index of sources and Scriptural references. I missed in the index (at the stage I saw it) a pointer to 'theology' since I did want to recheck some of his theological assumptions and reflections, but I was happy to see several references to 'good and evil'.