Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Having It Both Ways

Charles Cutler Torrey was an American historian, archeologist and scholar. In 1901, he founded the American School of Archeology in Jerusalem and taught Semitic languages at Yale for almost 30 years.

Eighty-eight years ago, Torrey’s record was as credible as any other secular authority whose job was analyzing and dating ancient manuscripts. Then his book Pseudo-Ezekiel and the Original Prophecy (1930) was released, setting out his theory that the canonical book of Ezekiel was actually written much later than originally thought, in the third century B.C.

Torrey’s book remains of sufficient interest that it was reprinted both in 2008 and 2013. Amazon calls it “culturally important”.

Both Sides Now

As Infogalactic puts it:
“[Torrey] stated that the Book of Ezekiel derived much of its prophecy from a pseudipigraphic work dating from about 230 B.C.E. [4QPseudo-Ezekiel — ed.] which was then edited around 200 into the canonical book that we know. Torrey also proposed that elements regarding the Exilic Period in which the historical Ezekiel lived (ca. 623 B.C.E. – ca. 571 B.C.E.) were added in the second round of editing to make the text appear as though it belonged to the Sixth century, rather than the Third.”
In short, Torrey claimed Ezekiel is a total con job.

That position on Ezekiel was ambitious; a classic case of trying to have one’s cake and eat it too. Torrey maintained simultaneously that Ezekiel’s prophecies were (i) not predictive, but written long after the events they describe, and (ii) mostly inaccurate. For instance, he denied the historicity of Nebuchadnezzar’s destruction of Jerusalem, the Captivity and the Restoration. (This meant also rejecting Ezra, Nehemiah and Jeremiah, and I can’t begin to imagine what he did with Daniel or Esther.) Taking his cue from Torrey, the University of Chicago’s William Irwin published The Problem of Ezekiel in 1943, staking out a similar position with respect to the book’s age and authenticity.

A Basic Issue, Overlooked

But Ezekiel’s original readers had a much better sense of the book’s historicity than Charles Torrey. They have the final word on whether his prophecies were accurate. Regardless of whether that audience was comprised of sixth or third century Jews, it is impossible they would prize and treat as canonical a book that told the story of their nation’s subjugation and exile to Chaldea if in fact these events never occurred. In order to be sufficiently na├»ve to accept a false narrative as the word of God, they would have had to have no other written or oral records of the last 400 years with which they could compare the book of Ezekiel. But we know without a doubt this was not the case. Israel and Judah had been keeping detailed and fastidiously preserved written records for at least 1,200 years. These were safely maintained even throughout the chaotic period of the Judges, and certainly through the Captivity.

In any case, Torrey’s unorthodox approach to critiquing Ezekiel did not have legs. Rabbinic scholars quite reasonably found his conclusions unacceptable and violently disputed them, pointing out what further textual criticism has since made obvious: that the 4QPseudo-Ezekiel manuscript discovered in the caves of Qumran, the scroll that gave rise to Torrey’s claims about the book’s origins, was actually derived from Ezekiel rather than having been an original source for it. The post-war period saw a move among critics away from the Torrey/Irwin school of thought. Now, almost ninety years down the road, accepting the unity of Ezekiel and its historical placement during the Exile is commonplace among secular scholars; even Wikipedia concedes it.

A Whiff of Desperate Unbelief

In hindsight, Torrey’s assault on Ezekiel seems to carry with it a faint whiff of desperation even in its first edition. Had he made a case for the essential accuracy of the prophecies, he might credibly have been able to late-date them, as critics of Daniel have attempted with varying degrees of plausibility. That argument takes one of the book’s strengths (its accuracy) and makes it a weakness by insisting it must be the product of a time-based cheat. Alternatively, he could have argued for the dates and disputed the accuracy of one or two of Ezekiel’s prophetic passages. (John Oakes handles two such attacks very effectively here and here.) Such attacks on Ezekiel are still mounted occasionally.

Instead, Torrey imprudently attempted to attack the book’s internal date claims and historical accuracy at the same time, a move that leaves any serious student of the Old Testament shaking his head in disbelief.

Shaking in Our Boots

All the same, I wonder how many well-read Christians in the period between 1930 and 1950 were shaking in their boots, or at very least a little unsettled about the status of several major books of their Old Testament.

In the face of new scientific or historical claims about the accuracy of Bible history and prophecy, it is always wise to take a wait-and-see posture rather than genuflect to the experts at the first bit of proffered “proof”. Far too many of these alleged dealbreakers have been easily debunked by other experts, or by later archeological finds that put earlier evidence into perspective.

Even 15 or 20 years can change everything.

No comments :

Post a Comment