Tuesday, March 5, 2013

IntLib: Jonah in Jewish Encyclopaedia (1906)

The Jewish Encyclopaedia
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By IntLib  - Internet Library - I mean the world wide web that began as military Arpanet and has had many other forgotten names only a gopher knows, such as Usenet... With the power of search engines IntLib allows us to know almost anything. It brings us not only references to published books but access to so many on line publications on almost any subject that nobody has time or energy to read but a small selection of them (the Professor Syndrome).

The Book of Jonah article in the Jewish Encyclopaedia (1906) is very detailed and includes valuable information and points of view from the early period of Biblical scholarship. I warmly recommend reading it and discuss here only two points - hermeneutic settings and dating.

Hermeneutic settings

Book of Jonah does not explicitly tell why Jonah was so angry at God. The theme of post-Holocaust bitterness against Assyrians I am proposing is totally absent from the 1906 Jewish Encyclopaedia article because despite of European anti-Semitism the horrors and emotions caused of Assur where not so vividly understood as after Auschwitz.

The Peircean ground on which Book of Jonah is studied in the article is that of the general cultural optimism at the turn of the 20th century and full Jewish assimilation to German life, including academic institutions and spirit of the time.

The writer is comfortable with the ideas of modern Biblical scholarship that had began only some decades before. Bible study became scientific in late 19th century in the same way so many other branches of knowledge were transformed with the introduction of Hegelian concepts of historical processes in time, layered structures of texts and evolution of society and religion.

At the time of the writing of the article on Jonah Western world was enjoying a great period of optimism; science, technology and growing economy would solve all the problems of humanity. There is no discussion on existential anxiety that marks post-WW 1 Europe but a rather dry listing of facts and critical study with many details.

In 1906 when the article was published European Jewry was enjoying the Goldene Stadt not only in Prag but also elsewhere in Central Europe having, for example, leading positions as scholars in many academic institutions in Germany.

The fundamental message of the Book of Jonah is not particularly exciting to this commentator who duly notes the point that also gojim can be good people and interestingly compares the stories of Ruth and Jonah. To deliver this - rather generic humanitarian message - someone wrote a Jewish midrash style book that is included in the prophets only because of its name.

Dating the Book of Jonah
The author of the article proposes very late date for the composing of the Book of Jonah.
Only Esther, Chronicles, and Daniel are of later date.

Again, the way in which Nineveh is referred to shows that the city had long since vanished from the face of the earth and had faded into legend (comp. iii. 3). The King of Nineveh, also (iii. 6), could have been referred to only in a late myth; and the legendary atmosphere of the whole story, from beginning to end, is in accord with the length of time that had elapsed since the events recounted took place. This becomes evident both in the episode of the fish which swallows a man and then casts him up alive after three days, and in that of the plant which in one night grows high enough to overshadow Jonah.

These things might, it is true, be considered as divine miracles; but such an explanation can not be offered for the three days' time that it takes to pass through Nineveh (iii. 3), nor for the fasting, sackcloth, and penitent cries of the animals (iii. 7 et seq.), much less for the conception that an Israelitish prophet could preach penitence to the city of Nineveh, and that the king and the citizens would listen to him. Everything about the story is, and was intended to be, miraculous and legendary.
Jewish Encyclopaedia
In those days radical dating of the books of the Bible was in full swing in Exegetics and highly learned "aber Ich lese..." men were busily correcting Masoretic tradition where it seemed that texts had been corrupted during the lengthy period of manual copying of manuscripts.

One of the key argument for late dating is, however, in the apparently legendary nature of Nineveh and its king. Scholars were thinking that the city had been forgotten and is a kind of imaginary place, a Shangri la so to say, where entire people repent.

The fall of Nineveh was not forgotten in the Persian or even Hellenistic period: our main historical resources about the events come from classical authors writing in the Antiquity. Nineveh was unforgettable as Hiroshima of those days.

Consequently, the catastrophic fall of Nineveh fits badly with the core message of the Book of Jonah and either this is intentional irony or the book dates to the time before 612 BC.

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