Countless scholars have appealed to multiple documentary sources and stages of redaction to explain the complex and often puzzling state of various Old Testament texts. Rarely do they attempt to describe the actual physical process by which such editing would have been carried out. A few scholars have even gone so far as to ridicule the idea that ancient scribes could have performed complicated edits the way modern writers do. Susan Niditch criticized the Documentary Hypothesis on this very basis some years ago, highlighting the implausibility of the techniques that the pentateuchal scribes are assumed to have used.
At the heart of documentary hypothesis…is the cut-and-paste image of an individual pictured like Emperor Claudius of the PBS series, having his various written sources laid out before him as he chooses this verse or that, includes this tale not that, edits, elaborates, all in a library setting.
If the texts are leather, they may be heavy and need to be unrolled. Finding the proper passage in each scroll is a bit of a chore. If texts are papyrus, they are read held in the arm, one hand clasping or “supporting” the “bulk” of the scroll, while the other unrolls. Did the redactor need three colleagues to hold J, E, and P for him? Did each read the text out loud, and did he ask them to pause until he jotted down his selections, working like a secretary with three tapes dictated by the boss?
(Niditch, p. 113)
In a more recent book, renowned textual critic Emanuel Tov remarks:
The modern mind, especially in the computer age, has become used to the ease with which one inserts changes into the text in split seconds. In earlier centuries, it was equally convenient to use cut-and-paste techniques with paper. Therefore, even the modern scholar, who knows that in the ancient world everything was different, sometimes does not realize that it was simply impossible to add or delete a section in the middle of a column. (Tov, p. 215)
In a new monograph titled The Dismembered Bible, up-and-coming scholar Idan Dershowitz (University of Potsdam) takes a crack at explaining the physical methods that were used by Hebrew scribes in the process of editing and redacting the Old Testament. In particular, he argues that mechanical cutting and pasting — a phrase that has become mere metaphor in the digital age — was the actual method used by some biblical authors to compose their texts. He also argues that this technique has left detectable fingerprints in the text — out-of-place or “jumbled” snippets that cannot be explained by conventional scribal errors.
Dershowitz is not the first to propose the use of this technique. Karel van der Toorn suggests that Deut. 12 was composed by the cutting and pasting of source documents in his 2007 monograph Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible (p. 139), and he chides Niditch for her assumption that ancient scribes in Jerusalem were incapable of such sophistication. Nevertheless, Dershowitz appears to be the first to devote an entire book to the topic.
The title of Dershowitz’s book caught me by surprise at first. However, Dershowitz explains at the beginning of chapter 2 that “dismembered scripture” is his preferred translation for a term used by Talmudic exegetes to describe certain troublesome Bible passages. Such passages contained transposed or “dismembered” elements that needed to be rearranged in order to make sense of the text.
A number of processes by which transposition errors can (and do) occur in the Bible are widely acknowledged, and Dershowitz gives a helpful summary along with examples. One such cause of errors is the misplaced insertion. You see, it was common for scribes to write in the margins or between the lines and columns of a scroll if they wished to add a gloss or insert a phrase that had been accidentally omitted. Later copyists often had to guess where the proper insertion point was and sometimes got it wrong. Another potential cause of errors was the displacement of an entire column or sheet of text. Texts could also be dislocated intentionally if the editor was combining documents with structures that didn’t mesh well together.
Dershowitz’s “New Hypothesis”
Chapter 3 is the heart of the book. Here, Dershowitz sets forth his thesis that cut-and-paste redaction can explain two types of jumbling errors: transposition and migration. Transposition is when two units of text swap places, and migration is when one unit of text moves to a new location.
Dershowitz proceeds to give three examples in which he believes physical cutting and pasting has resulted in textual units migrating to the wrong location. The first example is the text of Genesis 7:6–16. Understanding this portion of the book requires a bit of effort by the reader, and as a visual learner, I found it helpful to reenact the editing procedure on my own (virtually) to see if Dershowitz’s explanation made sense. Rather than attempting to summarize it with words here, I’ve recorded myself doing it for a video that you can watch below.
Dershowitz’s second example concerns the strange order in which Noah removes the cover of the ark in Genesis 8 with respect to when the ground becomes dry. I think his case is a little weaker here. However, for reasons I have explained elsewhere, I favor a different source division between P and J here, and I think there might be a stronger case for cut-and-paste editing if the P and J text assignments are reconsidered.
Dershowitz’s third example is taken from Genesis 30:25–28 — particularly the awkward statement in verse 27 spoken by Laban to Jacob. The phrase “if I have found favor in your sight” should be followed by a request, just as it is the other fourteen times it occurs in the Bible. Here, however, it is followed by a remark about divination:
Laban said to him, “If I have found favor in your sight, I have learned by divination that the LORD has blessed me on your account.”
Dershowitz suggests that the proper location for the phrase “if I have found favor in your sight” is in Jacob’s speech in verse 25:
Jacob said to Laban,“If I have found favor in your sight, send me off, that I may go to my home and my country.”
If the editor was composing this passage from two source texts, as scholars generally believe, then the cut-and-paste method would explain how the snippet containing “If I have found favor in your sight” was accidentally appended to “Laban said to him” instead of “Jacob said to Laban”. Those two phrases look very similar in Hebrew (more so than in English), as they both start and end with the same words. Otherwise, it is difficult to explain how an editor would deliberately write that phrase in the position we find it now.
Having given three examples of text migration, Dershowitz proceeds with five examples of transposition. These are Genesis 48 (the blessing of Joseph and his sons), Exodus 16 (the manna and quail), Exodus 33–34 (Moses on Mt. Sinai), 1 Samuel 28–30 (the witch of Endor), and Judges 17:1-4 (Micah’s idol). All five passages have well-known difficulties regarding the order of the text, and in each instance Dershowitz, after examining the solutions offered by other scholars thus far, persuasively argues that cutting the text into chunks and transposing two of them restores the text as it was originally intended (though the Judges example involves glosses as well). In all but one instance, the transposition coincides with pairs of identical or similar phrases in the Hebrew that might have confused the editor as he was composing his new text out of snippets from his sources.
In chapter 4, Dershowitz describes a methodology for identifying cut-and-paste errors. He also suggests that if passages with clear signs of redaction additionally contain grammatical mismatches (like inconsistent singular and plural pronouns), that is a potential indicator of an editing method like cut-and-paste that has limited the redactor’s ability to rewrite the earlier text.
Cutting and Pasting Through the Ages
Dershowitz devotes the next two chapters to a discussion of ancient and modern texts that have been created using material compilation methods including (but not limited to) cutting and pasting. A few of the Dead Sea Scrolls, for example, consist of leather pieces sewn together from what would have originally been separate documents.
None of the extant Dead Sea Scrolls are actually assembled with paste. However, Dershowitz shows that pasting sheets of pre-written text together was a common way of producing scrolls. Using paste or thread to apply patches to damaged scrolls was also commonplace. Dershowitz points to two Egyptian papyri that were augmented with patches, as well as Julius Africanus’s Kestoi and Marcus Tullius Cicero’s On Glory as examples of original documents that used cut-and-paste for small portions. It is unfortunate that no surviving ancient document demonstrates wholesale composition this way. However, the point is adequately made that ancient writers were familiar with methods of stitching or pasting texts together.
Dershowitz is able to find more relevant examples in the modern era. Particularly interesting is the Jefferson Bible — a collection of Gospel excerpts in four languages arranged in chronological order. Thomas Jefferson composed the book by actually cutting excerpts out of print editions of the Gospels in Greek, Latin, French, and English, and pasting them onto blank sheets. This proves to be a perfect example of the technique Dershowitz thinks was used for composing parts of the Old Testament. Jefferson’s original composition even includes misplaced patches due to parablepsis (confusion between passages with similar wording) much like the examples from the Hebrew Bible discussed earlier.
My initial impression after reading through The Dismembered Bible is that the book is somewhat short for an academic monograph, weighing in at just 153 pages before the bibliography and index. The eight examples Dershowitz gives of potential cutting and pasting are well chosen and argued, but more examples (if they exist) would have made the book feel more substantial.
Still, Dershowitz’s book has given me a new perspective to consider when analyzing scriptural passages in the future, and it might become essential reading for anyone interested in source criticism. Hopefully, this research will spark new conversations in the academic world about the mechanical means by which ancient scribes wrote and edited the Bible.
The Dismembered Bible: Cutting and Pasting Scripture in Antiquity (2021; ISBN 978-3-16-159860-9) can be purchased from Amazon and other bookstores as well as from the publisher Mohr Siebeck. Unfortunately, the book carries a hefty price tag, as many academic works do. Hopefully, a less expensive softcover edition will be made available before too long.
Disclaimer: A copy of the book was provided by the publisher for this review. Purchases made through Amazon affiliate links earn me a tiny commission in store credit so I can buy more books.
- Niditch, Susan. Oral World and Written Word: Ancient Israelite Literature, Library of Ancient Israel. 1996.
- Tov, Emanuel. Hebrew Bible, Greek Bible, and Qumran: Collected Essays. 2008.
- van der Toorn, Karel. Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible. 2007.