Understanding and interpreting biblical texts in their original language (Hebrew and Greek, with a smattering of Aramaic tossed in) can be both immensely satisfying and enormously frustrating.
For much of the last 200 or so years, scholars using modern exegetical techniques have picked their way through the texts word by word -- and then sometimes have been required to do it all again because an earlier manuscript has turned up. They have used tools that have come to be labeled form criticism, higher criticism and other such terms in their hermeneutical task.
And although scholars differ -- sometimes greatly -- with one another over what this word or phrase means or how it might be connected to a similar phrase in another book of the Bible, there has developed a kind of general protocol for use of exegetical tools by scholars seeking to lift meaning out of the original texts. In short, serious scholars do the work generally this way and not that way.
One tool most scholars are really reluctant to employ for traditional exegetical work is biblical code -- the idea that the writers of the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament purposefully hid meaning within the texts for various reasons.
Several years ago, for instance, Michael Drosnin's book, The Bible Code, described how the biblical text contains all kinds of hidden codes that he then interpreted to predict events in our current time. Most scholars just laughed at this or shook their heads or issued statements saying that there may well be coding in the Bible (for instance, the book of Revelation doesn't speak of Rome but it's clear that it refers to Rome in various ways) but that Drosnin's work didn't uncover it.
And, of course, once a Bible coder has been derided, the next person to offer a book about codes in the Bible will naturally be taken more skeptically.
Which brings us to a new book, Huldah: The Prophet Who Wrote Hebrew Scripture, by Preston Kavanagh. The author, described as an executive of a large company who retired 25 years ago to pursue questions about who wrote the Hebrew scriptures, has written three other books on the subject. And the publisher, Wipf and Stock, is quite well regarded in the field of religion-related book publishing.
But because I was aware of the Drosnin work and the criticism of it, I became a cautious reader of my review copy of Kavanagh's book when I realized that it was largely devoted to using embedded coding in the text to prove that a woman named Huldah (she really does show up a time or two in the Bible) wrote large sections of what Christians traditionally have called the Old Testament.
The book explores what the author calls the biblical writers' use of anagrams and athbash (or atbash, or abash) as ways to hide meaning in the text. He uses such tools to discover not just who wrote what but also when. For instance, Kavanagh concludes that Psalms 72 and 145 were written about the year 573 BCE, and then writes, "In several thousand years no one has succeeded in dating even a single psalm -- yet the preceding sentence dates two of them. This is a fine example of the power of anagrams."
Then he tells us that scripture, meaning the Hebrew Bible, "contains 1,773 Huldah anagrams, each inserted into an individual text word."
Well, I'm perfectly prepared to believe that some of the Bible might have been written by women, despite the patriarchal nature of the hundreds and hundreds of years over which the various texts that made it into the Bible were composed. And I know that sometimes scholars trying to understand Kabbalah, the mystical tradition of Judaism, examine the use of anagrams and athbash, among other esoteric tools.
But I'd be more open to believing Kavanagh's conclusions if more traditional scholars knew of and approved of his work. Notice I'm not saying Kavanagh's work is silly or worse. It's just that so far he seems to be a voice calling in the wilderness.
And some of the responses to that call aren't especially friendly toward his work.
For instance, when I asked a top-cabin biblical scholar I know (I'm not identifying these scholars here because I did not contact them for quotation by name, just for guidance on this book) what she knew about Kavanagh and his approach to the biblical text, she said she was "unfamiliar with this book," but added: "Abash gets used in rabbinic literature, but I am unaware of its use in standard OT exegesis."
She did, however, point me to this biting critique of Wipf and Stock for publishing Kavanagh's book. The tone is set in the headline on the piece: "Really, Wipf and Stock?"
When I asked another biblical scholar from a major Western university, this is the reply I got:
A third biblical scholar from a major Eastern university said this:
"I also hadn't heard of the book you mention, although I have now looked on the publisher's web site (click here). Basically, I would say that from the point of view of academic biblical scholarship, the conclusions claimed by the author according to the book's description on the website would not be considered of merit, and the methodologies you describe are ones no serious biblical scholar would embrace."
So where does all that leave us?
I'm not sure. Is Kavanagh an Einstein whose theories have yet to be accepted by an insular, rigid and unwelcoming scholarly community or is he just a novice who has found some interesting tools to play with but is in over his head? Or is there another possibility?
I'm tempted to wait 10 years or so to find out. In the meantime, if you're looking for an engaging read about the mysteries of biblical interpretation, well, have at Kavanagh's book. But don't say I didn't give you some cautions.
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OUR MINDS CAN'T KEEP UP
Yes, Pope Benedict XVI used his Christmas message to speak against marriage equality -- an odd time to promote a flawed idea -- but he also was right about the speed of our lives and how that hurts us, as a writer in The Telegraph in England notes.
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P.S.: My latest National Catholic Reporter column now is online. To read it, click here.