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Introductory Remarks

What are we trying to accomplish by providing a date for each text? The simplest answer: we are trying to reconstruct a background in which to interpret the text. Every text is related to the cultural, religious, social, and linguistic environments in which it is written. The better your picture of these environments, the better you will be able to interpret the text “authentically,” that is, in a way that approximates the interpretations of the intended audience.

For example, for someone in the future to authentically interpret the script of a Simpsons episode, it would be of great importance to know that it was a TV show written in the late twentieth and early twentieth-first centuries. Setting the script of the Simpsons in this time period will allow interpreters to connect the context of the script with what was happening around the time of composition. Without making that connection, the future interpreter may not know that nuclear power does not have an environmentally friendly image, that Krusty does not have nice connotations as a name (after all, such perceptions will change over time), that the buffalo is already limited to small, domestic herds, that Marge’s hairdo is not supposed to look “average,” that Bart and Lisa are being portrayed as kids who have very different personalities rather than as typical kids playing out expected gender roles in detail. Note that I am not saying that putting a date on a text lets you easily answer all of these sorts of questions; however, it is a crucial starting point.

What about the author of a text? Why is the author’s identity important? Knowing the identity of an author of an ancient text would be very important, if we had any chance of establishing it with certainty and we already knew something about that particular author. However, in most cases we are not so lucky. In the majority of cases we need to be able to say something qualitative about the author. After all, it is more important to be able to say something like: “this text was written by someone who favoured the Toronto Maple Leafs and liked to exaggerate” than to be able to say “this text was written by a guy named Bill.” Knowing the author’s name and nothing else is not very helpful. A qualitative portrait of an author is much more important than identification in the form of a name.

Let me emphasize that coming up with such a portrait is not a simple exercise. Wrong suggestions litter the history of religious studies. Thus a certain amount of courage is necessary here. Dare to work with your best hypothesis on what sort of person wrote the text you are interpreting. In the assignment we are trying to interpret a text, not to say everything that we possibly can about its history. Knowing something (or using a good hypothesis) about an author can provide us with some insight into what a text is about or why it makes the particular points that it does. To formulate a hypothesis on the author of a sacred text, scholars usually have to begin with the text itself. Usually, a text contains some indications of what sort of person wrote it. A text like “no doubt there are differences between the two permidia, e.g., in spore morphology and length of the aecial filaments” contains at least some hints to the vocation of its author. If this author is a poet, it is not particularly evident here; it should be obvious that we are being addressed by a scientist whose work involves spore-bearing organisms. The more you work with a text like this, the more specific your sense of the perspective and vocation of the author will be. When you find out what “permidia” are, your sense of the author’s expertise is enhanced. The same can be said for any text. As you think about this issue, refer to the course material and reflect on the particular areas of life, religious ideas, historical events, or practices that the author is concerned about. If the author demonstrates lots of concern about the proper performance of rituals, or the proper time for the celebration of festivals, there is a good chance that he or she was part of an ancient religious institution, such as a temple, or at least shared the concerns of such an institution. If the themes are more philosophical or doctrinal, the author may have been part of the educational apparatus or intellectual elite. Storyteller, scribe, or various other possible vocations are good starting points for reflection. Start with general designations like “intellectual”, “scribe”, “storyteller”, or “philosopher” and attempt to make your profile of the author as specific as possible. In addition to helping you get started on the qualitative characteristics of the author, reflecting on the text in this way will help you in your deliberations about the date of the text. Keep reminding yourself that certainty is elusive: the best thing we will be able to come up with is a good, reasonable hypothesis that seems to “fit” what we encounter in the text.

Where can you find more information on the dates and authors of sacred texts? The best sources are:

academically-oriented commentaries

specialized encyclopedias and dictionaries

academically-oriented versions of the sacred text in question

some Internet sites

the course materials

the specific information presented below

The problem with many sources on religious literature is that many religions preserve longstanding, sometimes historically misleading traditions about who wrote the most important texts. Thus, for example, the first human is said to have written the Laws of Manu, Moses is said to have written the Torah and a host of distinguished apostolic figures are said to have written the books of the New Testament. When we examine the evidence carefully, many of these traditional ascriptions of authorship appear very unlikely for a variety of reasons. Academically-oriented sources on these questions tend to weigh such traditions according to the available evidence and are therefore more valuable than sources that are defending a particular theological tradition.

In this course, the first assignment presents the most difficulties. The texts from the Eastern religious traditions are more frequently associated with an author, school of thought and/or time period in The Sacred Texts of the World. The following list may be of some help in determining the authorship of a particular Tanakh text. Further research and reflection will help to narrow it down somewhat.