Friday, June 26, 2015

Fact-Checking the Torah -- why philology doesn't work

About 1905 a famous cuneiform scholar named Sayce wrote a pamphlet claiming that Shabbat developed out of Mesopotamian practice documented on cuneiform tablets from the time of Cambyses II.  (Remember what I just said about cuneiform.)
About 1910-1915 two other famous cuneiform scholars showed that Sayce misrepresented what the Cambyses-era tablets said.
The first three verses of Genesis 2 tell about the first Shabbat and Gd’s rest from the melakhah that He performed.  The usual translation of melakhah is “work,” but that’s far too vague a term.
In Jewish law, melakhah is the forty less one, or 39, categories of things that are prohibited to be done on Shabbat, either for pay or for free, for oneself or for others, whether it’s your normal occupation that you get paid for or not.  The only time this prohibition can be violated is to save any human life that is in imminent danger.
The one thing that is not prohibited on Shabbat is avodah, the sacrificial service in the temple or tabernacle.  Torah requires avodah on Shabbat.  The confusion is that in modern Hebrew and in some places in the Bible, avodah is indeed used for something that falls in the category of melakhah.  That doesn’t change the fact that the “m” word not only appears in the creation story, but also in the Ten Commandments where Shabbat is discussed.  Melakhah and Shabbat are almost indissolubly linked.
Sayce looked at an inscription that discussed a prohibition on work and claimed that it was equivalent to Shabbat.  The inscription doesn’t use anything even approaching the “m” word; it also did not use a cognate of shabbat that meant a cessation from work.  There was no such word in Sumerian, Akkadian, or the Aramaic used in Babylonia in the time of Cambyses.  (Note that restriction on provenance.)  Except what was introduced into Aramaic from Jewish culture, by for and about Jewish culture.  A concept I will bring up again much later.
Clay and Barton showed, within 5 years, that the cuneiform text limited the prohibition to kings, seers, and physicians, and didn’t apply it to the entire population.  Sayce committed the famous “quoting out of context” fallacy, both textual and cultural, that I used in summing up urban legends about Jewish law.  In fact Shabbat applies to all Jews.
The tablets with such prohibitions applied them to specific dates of the Mesopotamian month: 7, 14, 19, 21, and 28.   Sayce performed sampling bias by ignoring the 19th.  He also ignored the legal definition of Shabbat, which has nothing to do with specific days of the month but with every 7th day, no matter what day of the month it falls on.
Sayce probably combined the dates of the prohibitions with a tablet which prescribed sacrifices on the same specific days of the month, except for the 19th.  This tablet prescribed sacrifices at specific phases of the moon; the Mesopotamian religious calendar was based on the lunar cycle.  The 19th is not the date of a specific lunar phase.  Again, the requirement for avodah on Shabbat is tied to the seventh day, not to specific days of the Jewish month, even though the Jewish month is tied to the lunar cycle.
Clay and Barton pointed out that no known Mesopotamian legal system prohibits work by commoners on specific days.  The code of Hammurabi had just been discovered and translated when Sayce wrote; it, too, does not record a prohibition for commoners to work.
Clay and Barton pointed out that the Mesopotamian term shabbatum to which Sayce cited, strictly applied to the full moon on the 15th day of the month.  No relationship exists between shabbatum and words for stopping work in the languages I referred to earlier. 
The oldest known references to Shabbat in Jewish literature, ignoring arguments about the age of Torah itself, are from Amos and Hoshea.  Amos and Hoshea wrote in the Holy Land 2 or 3 centuries BEFORE Cambyses II ruled.  Whatever the Jews of their time thought about the origin of Shabbat, the reference precedes the provenance of the Cambyses tablets and presumes that the audience is familiar with the term, otherwise there’s no point in bringing it up.  (I’ll say more about this concept much later on the blog.)
What Sayce did was common for the times and involves the study of philology, which still leads researchers to draw false conclusions from words taken out of verbal or historical or cultural context.  But we’ve seen that before, so it should not surprise you.  And you’ll see it again much later.
Since the rest of the argument about Enuma Elish involves material I’m not ready to present to you yet, I’m going to move on to the second episode in Torah.  For next week, read Genesis 2:4 to 3:24.
© Patricia Jo Heil, 2013-2018 All Rights  Reserved

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