Notes on Peer Review

 

Two weeks ago, I took part in a Peer Review event on The Non Sequitur Show. I was a bit nervous to be confronted by Dr. Bowen and his wife Megan, two Assyriologists (aka Digital Hammurabi), Dr. Bryson an Egyptologist and Dr. DiMattei, a scholar in the fields of Biblical Study and History. Unfortunately, Dr. DiMattei couldn’t join us that evening and I am hoping I will have the opportunity to discuss my work with him in the near future.

All those present were extremely generous and gracious and the entire discussion was civil, fun and enlightening. And if they did not “buy” into my hypothesis, they nevertheless had good things to say about my work. They also rose up a number of important questions that needed to be properly examined. This post is meant at reviewing and addressing the ones I feel I did not fully answered during the event. So, here we go…

Chronology issues

All expressed concerns in the way I handle chronologies in my book, either with the 6/10 multiplier or the lack of error margins and uncertainties. Indeed, many dates in ancient history, including the dating of the Middle Chronology for king Hammurabi and that of the Santorini (aka Mount Thera) eruption, are still being debated and cannot be pinpointed to a precise year.

It is true that I didn’t bother carrying error margins throughout my work. As such, it might appear as if I ignored them. This is not quite the case. For instance, and while I do believe that chronologies match with an astonishing accuracy, I did raise these issues in my preface and I did dedicate a short annex to the calculation of the error margins. Still, let’s address some of the particular points that were made.

The 6/10 multiplier

Megan expressed @00:44:30 some concerns with my use of the 6/10 multiplier. She wondered why a conversion would be needed given 100 bananas in sexagesimal, would still be 100 bananas in decimal.

As briefly explained in the podcast, the issue is not the number of bananas per say, but the way numbers are expressed in the various bases. In sexagesimal, one hundred bananas would be expressed as “1:40” (1×60 + 40×1), while in decimal we write “100” (which really stands for 10×10 + 0x1). What I am arguing in my book is that ancient sexagesimal numbers would have been miss-converted to decimal when the Bible was assembled. As such, these numbers would be neither sexagesimal nor decimal and this is why they appear unrealistic.

How did this happen? The scribes would have treated bananas as if they were fractions and ended up applying a rule of three to find the “equivalent” number in base 10. The conversion they used would have been appropriate if they had been dealing with minutes rather than bananas, as a quarter of an hour or 15/60 is equal to 25/100. But bananas, just like years, aren’t fractions… This is the reason I am suggesting we now need to reverse the process by multiplying all Old Testament numbers by 60/100 (or 6/10).

A little later @00:49:35 Megan asked if it wouldn’t be simpler and possibly a more likely solution that these people didn’t know how to accurately keep track of time of long period of time? I just do not see why would it would be more reasonable to believe that Babylonians, who invented astrology, had a fairly precise notion of time, and made significant advances in mathematics, would have been unable to accurately keep track of something as simple as years? It would also seem a strange coincidence that multiplying two “erroneous” dates, recorded on two separate tablets, by 6/10, would somehow bring them “spot on”.

Of course, this claim begs the question as to why all erroneous dates in the Near East can’t be fixed using this multiplier. Well, I think that although this conversion error occurred occasionally, it was not systematic. It is therefore easy to conceive that poorly converted dates were eventually mixed up with properly converted dates and this is why we now find dates that are clearly inaccurate and can’t be fixed using the 6/10 multiplier.

At @00:49:55 Dr. Bowen suggested it would be unlikely for all the redactors of the Bible to perform the exact same conversion error. Here I agree. I simply do not believe multiple scribes needed to make this error. It only took one scribe to apply the wrong formula to an entire corpus of old texts. This is also why I insist ALL numbers in the Old Testament, and not just a select few, suffered the same faith.

BTW In the live chat window, user “Brak” accurately pointed out that one can’t convert from sexagesimal to decimal by simply multiplying by 6/10. This made me realize (after the fact) that some people might have misunderstood my point. I was not suggesting this is how conversion should be made, but that the scribes in the 6th century BCE made such an error, and that it was therefore necessary for us to correct numbers found in the Old Testament by 6/10.

Did Sarah gave birth at 54?

Megan and Dr. Bryson expressed doubt regarding the age at which Sarah would have given birth. Indeed, even at age 54 (90 x6/10), it is rather exceptional for women to conceive. Dr. Bryson mentioned a study suggesting that women in antiquity could give birth up to 45 years of age, but no later. I have not seen this study, but I have no reason to doubt it. As I indicated during the show, I think women’s biology hasn’t changed much in a few thousand years and the fact that some women can still get pregnant through natural means at this age today seem to indicate that, although highly unlikely, this possibility cannot be totally dismissed. The fact that people didn’t live nearly as old must also be taken into consideration as it does further reduce this probability, but this is not a decisive argument as some people in antiquity, including Ramses II, lived passed 90.

Kyle, the show host, suggested that the scribes compiling the Old Testament might have exaggerated her age in order to highlight the spectacular nature of the event. And while I found this to be a great suggestion, I would not like to “jump on it” as it opens the door to questioning all other dates in the text. This is an easy trap that must be avoided as we do not want to introduce too much subjectivity. Of course, if we could find similar texts or tradition showing that the age of women often suffered a similar exaggeration, we could make a case.

At this time, I do not believe we can conclude either way and the issue surrounding the age of Sarah will continue to be regarded as a problem, and will be subjected to an ongoing debate.

Dating the Santorini (Mount Thera) eruption and reign of King Hammurabi

Dr. Bryson raised questions @00:30:20 regarding the dating of the Santorini (Mount Thera) eruption. I had previously been relying on the work of Manning dated from 2014, and to be honest, this is a question I have not since revisited. Dr. Bryson rightfully pointed out that newer data was now available, which appear to indicate we should lower the date approximately 20 years, from the 1640s to the 1620s BCE.

In the same discussion, Dr. Bowen brought up the fact that references for establishing the Middle Chronology (which I use as a reference for dating the reign of King Hammurabi) are also subject to debate and that the date of the reign of King Hammurabi is also somewhat uncertain.

Given the chronology I am proposing is so “tight”, both wondered how I could justify it. This is obviously an important question for which two observations can be made. The first one is that my argument rests on a chronology that is relative to that of the reign of King Hammurabi. As such, if the reign of Hammurabi moves 5, 10 or even 100 years (sooner or later), it doesn’t affect the analysis. The second observation is that if the relationship between the reign of King Hammurabi and that of the eruption of Santorini cannot be maintained, then only the argument I offer as to how Joseph would have become a Hyksos king is affected and possibly refuted. The basic hypothesis of a mortal overlord is not affected by this claim.

Yahweh, a Human or a God?

We are now getting into the more fundamental question that touches directly the essence of my work; that is the question of whether the authors of the Abrahamic narrative intended the figure of the Lord to be understood as a man or as a god. A number of excellent arguments were discussed around this issue.

The meaning of “raising the hand towards someone

Dr. Bowen’s first objection @00:18:20 had to do with the interpretation one should give to verse Ge 14:22 where Abraham tells the King of Sodom that he raised his hand towards Yahweh, El Elyon, possessor of the heaven and the earth…

Indeed, should this expression be taken literally in the traditional sense of “taking an oath” or figuratively in the sense of “striking him”?

After acknowledging that my Hebrew analysis of the Hipfil form was fine, Dr. Bowen said he nevertheless found the traditional literal interpretation of “swearing” more appropriate. He refers @00:21:00 to Ezekiel who uses the action of raising the hand to swear.

The first observation I would like to make here is that none of the texts of the Pentateuch associates this expression with that of taking an oath. Second, prophet Ezekiel (c. 622 BCE) lived nearly a thousand years after the story of Abraham allegedly took place. As such, the original meaning of the expression would have had plenty of time to evolve. In addition, even Ezekiel is ambiguous. He uses the expression when striking someone (Ez 6:14, 13:9, 14:9, 16:27) as well as when taking an oath (Ez 17:8, 20:5, 20:6, etc.). As such, I believe it is fair to say we cannot rely solely on Ezekiel to draw a conclusion.

Dr. Bowen also wondered @00:22:45 why would Ge 14:20 show Abraham blessed by El Elyon for putting the enemy into his hand, and then see Abraham claim he’s raised his hand towards El Elyon in Ge 14:22? This is indeed an excellent question that demands a good answer, as it is definitely perplexing.

I would argue that this question can be resolved through textual criticism. Here are the known recorded variants of verse Ge 14:22 and their respective sources:

yhwh ‘el ‘elyôn                         (Masoretic, Targum, Vulgate)

‘el ‘elyôn                                    (LXX, Peshitta, 1QGenAp)

ha’elôhim ‘el ‘elyôn                  (Samaritan)

Commentaries vary widely on the issue and two of the most respected experts disagree: Emmanuel Tov (2012) and Mark S. Smith (2010) understand the term yhwh to be an addition, while Westermann (1985) sees it as original. For Brueggemann (1982) this disagreement on the original presence of the term yhwh in verse 14:22 not only indicates an uncertainty among various manuscripts, but also the history of a conflict “by which the God of Israel usurped the functions of other gods and came to be confessed as the High God of Canaan and all else.” (p. 136).

A fairly reliable historico-critical rule brings us to consider the possibility that the most difficult of these variants is often sign of an older, more authentic source (lectio difficilior potior). Given the name elohim has historically been preferred by scribes over that of Yahweh; and given it would have been easier to keep the name yahweh out of the text rather than to insert it at a later date (indeed, as yahweh appears nowhere else in this chapter, what would have been the motivation?) I think it is fair to suggest that the term yahweh was the original term in this verse and that the term el elyon was later introduced by association as a way to elevate yahweh to the rank of deity. The lack of a witness where only the term yahweh appears is problematic, but could be explained by the fact that this association would have taken place very early on in the Israelite tradition.

Meanwhile in Egypt

Dr. Bryson explained @01:02:25 that in Egypt, the convergence seemed to be going the other way. Instead of men becoming like gods, we find gods assuming the role of earthly kings. She cites god Amun as an example of such a god that assumes a kingly role. While this wasn’t clear to me, I believe Dr. Bryson associated this practice to a later date, and potentially under Libyan influence.

The discussion that followed was based around the idea that it seemed more likely to Dr. Bryson and Dr. Bowen that the biblical narrative of Abraham tells the story of a god that assumes a human role. The Covenant would have been made in order to elevate the status of with Abraham to the chosen one. This interpretation is certainly much more in line with the way tradition understands this text.

Dr. Bryson explained that in Egypt, deified kings would also preserve their human characteristics. Deified kings would continue to be referred as humans, even after they were deified. In other words they didn’t lose their names and attributes. Dr. Bowen also took issue with the fact that, according to my claims, everything would have been lost about King Hammurabi, while so many details would have been preserved in the text.

This is certainly a good observation for which I do not have much to say. All I can do is expand slightly on a reference I made to my blog during the show. In this post, I suggested we might find evidence of the name Hammurabi in Ge 34. Indeed, as there was no space between letters in ancient Hebrew, there is no difference writing “Hamor, father of” (האמור אבי) and  “Hammurabi” (חמוראבי). The expression “Hamor, father of” is found a few times in Ge 34. As it is generally understood to be referring to a covenant related to Shechem, this play on word might contain the vestiges of an old expression related to King Hammurabi.

Definitely, the above questions and suggestions got me thinking quite a bit, because the idea that Yahweh could have assumed the role of a mortal king is an option I had simply not considered before. Indeed, how does one distinguish a god from a mortal when both figures assume the exact same role? Such a suggestion challenges the idea of a mortal Lord, but does not invalidate the claim that the biblical covenant should be understood in the context of the need to subdue the rebellious Sodom. As such, a fair part of my analysis would remain entirely valid.

After serious consideration, I nevertheless came to conclude that if this had been the case, this “god” should have also been the one leading the punitive campaign in Ge 14. Indeed, if this hypothesis were to be retained, there would have been no reason not to have “the Lord” leading the charge against Sodom in Ge 14. It is ultimately the fact that all the protagonists are clearly humans in Ge 14 that brought me to conclude that the Lord of Ge 15 and Ge 19 should also be regarded as and understood to be human.

 

Overall vulnerability

Another concern that was raised throughout the review is the overall vulnerability of my work, which exposes it to critics. This vulnerability comes in part from some of the issues raised above, but also from the fact that virtually all of my work requires one to revisit decades of academic teaching and conclusions.

Early on in the discussion @00:29:12, Dr. Bryson expressed concerns about how vulnerable each of the points I am making are, because they would need to be backed up by a scholarly article that would also explore the many alternative explanations that should be considered.

Megan brought up @00:43:45 the fact that we possess significant documentation on King Hammurabi, and yet, none appears to be supporting my hypothesis. She also indicated that when we can find alternative explanations for most of the evidence, the fact that there is a lot of it doesn’t make a hypothesis any more valid.

While I would agree that a number of weak evidence do not necessarily make for a stronger case, I think that the law of physics that applies to vector quantities (such as forces) can also be applied to evidence. As such, multiple weak evidence pointing in the same direction make a stronger case than multiple evidence pointing in different directions. In my work, I argue that all one needs to do to dramatically change all conclusions, is to apply the premise of the mortal Lord. Nothing else needs to change, and all the evidence aligns.

This is why I ultimately believe that Dr. Bryson put her finger on the real issue @00:56:25 when she said that no one wants to deal with that many details and back tracking… And while I understand that she didn’t meant this as a way to refute my work, it does bring to light the fact that scholars simply can’t invest all the time and energy it would take to properly validate or refute all the arguments I am putting forward.

Conclusion

If anything can be said about this exercise, it is that no decisive conclusion can be drawn at this time. Excellent questions were raised that show my work remains fragile and that the amount of energy required to fact check it goes beyond what can be expected from a casual reading and discussion.

I view the fact that everyone saluted the amount of research and effort and that no decisive rebuttal was provided as something extremely positive. It encourages me to seek additional feedback and perspectives. More scholars need to look into it before it can be properly validated or refuted.

Once again, I want to thank Dr. Bryson, Dr. Bowen and Megan for taking the time to read my work, to reflect on it and to share their invaluable feedback on it. If I somehow misrepresented their thoughts or was biased in the way I reported their overall appreciation of my work, please let me know. I will be happy to make the necessary corrections.

 

I stand corrected…

In a recent podcast with Aron Ra; while discussing the reception of my work among scholars, I pointed to this Peer Review event and said (@ 35:40) :

“It was good in the sense that they couldn’t find any flaws. They did not necessarily buy into the hypothesis, but they couldn’t find anything wrong with it”.
 
In retrospect, I should have said that “they did not offer a decisive rebuttal“. As a result of a poor choice of words, I could have misled some into believing that these scholars (@digi_hammurabi and Dr. Maggie Bryson) did not take issue with my work, which isn’t the case.

I want to express my apologies to all concerned. Scholars who engage with me should feel safe, respected and trust that I won’t be misrepresenting their views and opinions.


References:

Brueggemann, W. (1982). Genesis: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Atlanta: John Knox Press.

Manning, Sturt W., Felix HöFlmayer, Nadine Moeller, Michael Dee, Christopher Bronk Ramsey, Dominik Fleitmann, Thomas Higham, Walter Kutschera and Eva Maria Wild. 2014. “Dating the Thera (Santorini) Eruption : Archaeological and Scientific Evidence Supporting a High Chronology.” Antiquity. 88(342): 1164-79.

Smith, Mark S. 2010. God in Translation: Deities in Cross-Cultural Discourse in the Biblical World. Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans.

Tov, E. (2012). Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible. Minneapolis: Fortress. (Original publication 1992.).

Westermann, C. (1985). Genesis 12-36: A Commentary. Minneapolis: Augsburg Pub. House.

Notes on Peer Review

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