Review of Giovanni Garbini, Myth and History in the Bible
Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 8 (2008) - Review

Giovanni Garbini, Myth and History in the Bible (Journal for the Old Testament, Supplement Series 362; London/New York: Sheffield Academic Press, 2003).  Pp. viii + 150.  Paper, US$49.95. ISBN 0-567-04014-3.


Garbini’s short volume is an exercise in reading the Hebrew Bible for its form rather than its content, thereby rendering its historiography an effect rather than the cause of late Second Temple Judaism (cf. Daniel Boyarin “Justin Martyr Invents Judaism,” Church History 70 [2001] 427-61). While this approach is typical of biblical scholarship, Garbini’s perspective on the biblical form is atypical: the Bible is historical in composition alone—all that lies within is myth (p. vii). To reconstruct the mythmaking process in/behind the Bible, Garbini analyzes an impressive range of texts within and outside the canon. Contrary to conventional redactional understandings, Garbini posits a late (second century BCE) author within a priestly milieu who, imitating the Hellenistic genre of historiography, was responsible for altering the texts at his disposal to create a grand narrative cast within a distinctive ideological frame.

Each of Garbini’s ten chapters works the inverted effect-cause formula. A post-exilic hierocratic group in Jerusalem projected a set of mythical origins for Israel, its biology linked to Abraham, its religion to Moses, and its nationhood to Joshua, with each legendary effect underwritten by an anti-Egyptian signature (Chapter 1). This same hierocratic regime used the Hebrew tradition of Cain “the blacksmith” to justify theologically its murderous rise to power (Chapter 2). Whereas the book of Amos and the Damascus Document of Qumran situated Abraham in Damascus, the Genesis “effect” performed a damnatio memoriae reflective of second century sectarian debates over the origin of Abraham (Chapter 3). The negative portrayal of Reuben in the legendary material of the eponymous sons of Jacob was a revisionist effect that transferred the negative portrayals of Judah onto Reuben to ameliorate the latterís rightful claim of primogeniture, granting Judah—at the time of writing, a small state fortunate to have survived the vicissitudes of history—theological and ideological primacy over the tribes of Israel (Chapter 4). The association between Moses and the Law was the effective creation of the anti-Egyptian priestly class in Jerusalem who severed ancient connections between the prophet and Egypt and in the process, formulated an ideology that devalued not only the position of the monarchy but also the counter-claims of the Samaritan group (Chapter 5). Devaluation of kingship continues in Garbini’s investigation of King David: the image of David as a mythical warrior, so successful in incarnating the liberation hopes of the beleaguered state of second century Judah, was deemed threatening to the Judean priesthood, who consequently curtailed the hero-figure with an anointing at the hand of a prophet and a forging of a covenant between people and deity, not between king and deity as was the ANE norm (Chapter 6). The popular Exodus story of the golden calf was an effect of the political debate between Levites and priests of the Hellenistic period, one which ever-since has skewed readings of the calf in Bethel. The “sin” of Bethel was not idolatry as is commonly assumed, but rather the subversive political intent of the elevation of the agricultural icon, symbolic of a covenant between god and king, directed against the insecure Jerusalem centre (Chapter 7). The figure of Ezra, a mythical literary effect unknown to Ben Sira and never mentioned in Nehemiah, was birthed in the post-monarchic context of second-century Jerusalem when, during the rise of sectarian Judaism, a shift from priestly to rabbinic powers occurred (Chapter 8). The myth of a Davidic messiah destined to fight a victorious cosmic battle against mythical opponents became, in the hand of Christian mythmakers, a figure who must descend powerless into the Netherworld in an act of supreme immolation (Chapter 9).  And finally, anomalous characterizations of the divine in the Bible, in particular the Genesis version of the Jacob/Jabbok story with the patriarch triumphing over the irascible Yahweh, lead Garbini to posit a shift in Jerusalem from a Law-and-Prophets religion to a demythologized religion based on moral conduct, individual conscience, and rational skepticism (Chapter 10).

While Garbini’s (effect-cause) formula is readily apparent in each chapter, his work is anything but formulaic. Once the reader has accommodated to Garbini’s perspective on myth and history, his discussion never fails to intrigue, his philology to impress, nor his conclusions to provoke. Clearly, we have here the work of a seasoned scholar who has ruminated long and read wide. At times the discussion is dense, even obscure; students might find this book challenging, made more so by the omission of English translation for Hebrew passages (translations are provided for Latin or Greek texts however). Yet, patient working through the arguments and texts yields exegetical insight, even pleasure as Garbini juxtaposes Ezra with Enoch, Abraham with the Qumranites, Cain with Jesus. In reflecting meta-critically on Garbini’s work, this reviewer wonders whether scholars bent on mythicizing the biblical text are not themselves participants in a program as ideological as the biblical writer’s, namely the generation of ancient effects whose cause is more readily located in the present (twenty-first century academia) rather than the past (first century BCE Jerusalem). For as Garbini notes, “if one is dealing with a remote past, history-including the sacred one—is always easier to write” (p. 71).  

David Bergen
University of Calgary