Folk such as Philip Davies and Kurt Noll have been arguing for some time that Wilhelm De Wette’s 1805 theory (that the “book of the law” found in Josiah’s reign was the core of the book of Deuteronomy) is wrong. Not utterly wrong – it is true that there are obvious connections between the reforms of Josiah told in the book of Kings and the laws and preaching found in Deuteronomy. But historically wrong. The connections which De Wette observed are all only a part of the story told in Kings. The connections are based in the literary fiction told in Kings, not in history-in-itself (whatever that may be). That is, the story in Kings is an idealistic one (told about a king who follows what the priests and prophets have to say, and reforms his kingdom accordingly). Furthermore, the presentation in Kings of “the book of the law” as a document which is prescriptive for king and country is more historically explicable as a reactive description of ideals which were held in some quarters once Judah/Yehud had lost its king and was subject to the fantasies of priests and prophets.
A recent article in The Journal of Hebrew Scriptures by Ernst Axel Knauf (‘Observations on Judah’s Social and Economic History and the Dating of the Laws of Deuteronomy’) warns against the “crypto-fundamentalist” tendency by which people tend to give uncritical acceptance to traditional stories when they try to interpret the events of history. Crypto-fundamentalism isn’t something that is limited to biblical scholars though – and that is so however much it, as well as full-blown fundamentalism, does seem to dominate the discipline. For don’t stories constantly seduce us? Don’t they constantly dull our sense of the inexplicability of existence, of the event itself, offering us their comforting patterns like a mother’s warm nipple offers its soporific milk? Don’t they seduce us like repeating patterns in rich textured wallpaper…
Jean-François Lyotard advocates that we remain sensitive to the sound of actual events underneath the noise of meaning-making. We must remain sensitive to the “It happens” rather than the “What happens”. “Reading is directed at the event in its singularity, its radical difference from all other events.” We must not ask what is the case, but what a “case” is before it has been accounted for, before our pattern-seeking proclivities reduce it to a concept. If De Wette had followed Lyotard’s advice (considerations of time aside), he might not have made his “error”.
“I read Kant or Adorno or Aristotle not in order to detect the request [demande] they themselves tried to answer by writing, but in order to hear what they are requesting from me while I write or so that I write” (Lyotard, Diacritics 14 (1984): 19).
Of course, I’m a crypto-fundamentalist, too (most of the time). I’m a sucker for… patterned, textured wallpaper. It’s just easier to get by, I guess.