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New perspectives on old texts

The Old Testament tells many stories of the origins of the people of Israel. There are, however, several versions of many of these stories. Biblical scholar Christoph Berner is examining the reasons behind this and establishing findings on when they were written.

Fragment of a manuscript
© Israel Antiquities Authority

A fragment of the manuscript 4QpaleoGen-Exodl (1st century BC), one of a good dozen scrolls from Qumran that bear witness to parts of the Book of Exodus. In this specific case, it is the first verses of the first chapter.

There is a great sense of desperation: their pursuers are closing up fast from behind and the sea is blocking their only way to escape in front of them. But then a miracle occurs: Moses lifts his rod and the water divides. This is how the prophet instructed by God frees the Israelites from Egyptian slavery. Their pursuers die in the flood of the returning water. It is an impressive image, which is depicted in the Old Testament in the Second Book of Moses – the Book of Exodus from Egypt.

But was it really Moses who performed the miracle? The text leaves questions on this unanswered. In the same chapter, for example, it is also written that it was God himself who directed the wind and pushed the water away so that the Israelites could be brought to safety. "This is not the only place in the Pentateuch (the five Books of Moses) where different versions of the same story can be found, not by a long way," said Dr Christoph Berner, Professor of the History and Theology of the Old Testament and Biblical-Oriental Languages at Kiel University. "Sometimes the differences are very clear, sometimes they are just nuances, but they can be found throughout all the books of the Old Testament."

An international network of experts is analysing the differences and what these variations reveal about the origins of the texts and the worldview of the then (schools of) writers. Berner himself, who completed his habilitation (postdoctoral lecture qualification) on the Exodus story in 2010, is currently focusing his research on the Second Book of Moses. "Work is in progress on a two-volume commentary revealing a completely new model of the origin of the book."

"It is a good 60 years since the first cracks appeared in the previously established research consensus on the origin of the Pentateuch," said the expert. "Since then, research has changed fundamentally. We now know that most of the Pentateuch texts were first written in the period between 550 and 200 BCE. They are therefore much younger and literarily much more layered than had been assumed for a long time," said Berner. "Whereas up until the mid 20th century it was thought that there were four old Pentateuch sources, current research assumes that the texts – originating from a relatively limited original set – developed gradually over a large number of adaptations." This assumption is supported by examinations of the hand-written texts that have been found in the Qumran caves on the shore of the Dead Sea since 1947. "The biblical texts have been written, revised and continually added to over the years by different schools of writers. What we are dealing with here, therefore, is a succession of new interpretations of the Exodus event," said Berner. "For this reason, the texts provide very little information on the historical situation at the time of the Exodus of the Israelites. Rather, they offer insight into the history of the origin of Judaism, which saw its identity defined by this literary vision of the Exodus," said Berner.

While the ideology and interests of the schools of writers can be defined relatively clearly, the identity of the individual writers remains in the dark. "The Old Testament is traditional literature, not author literature," said Berner. From a modern perspective, Berner added, what is remarkable is that texts from different perspectives were generally not deleted when revised but retained. "This is a peculiar feature of this literature. A new text was used to define how the old texts were to be understood and so gained sovereignty over the interpretation."

It is lucky for Berner that the different variations were retained, as he is basing his history of literature-based analysis of the texts on all available hand-written examples – word for word. "I want to know how the book that we know developed over the centuries." Berner is noting places in the texts where there are gaps and contradictions and where there are shifts of emphasis in terms of terminology or depiction. He is then using this as a basis for reconstructing layers of text that belong together and ultimately putting them in sequence. "All in all, with a book of 40 chapters, this is a very detailed and immensely challenging task," said Berner. "But one that I consider to be worthwhile, as only by looking at every detail can we gain a new perspective on an old book."

Author: Jennifer Ruske