As I noted in a previous post, one of the more persuasive aspects of Bernard Levinson’s work is his demonstration that “Moses” is – above and beyond being a historical figure – a hermeneutical construct (my terminology). That is, all law of whatever provenance and date that stands in the same tradition as precedent law attributed to Moses is also attributed to him. Said hermeneutical frame seems to have been fundamental to rabbinic Judaism from its inception. Levinson persuasively shows that its roots lie deep within the Hebrew Bible itself.
The notion of authorship as a hermeneutical construct will rub some people the wrong way. On this view, either the words attributed to Moses in Deuteronomy are his, or they are not. If they are not, we’ve been lied to.
Not so fast! This way of thinking assumes a modern conception of right and wrong ways of attribution. In ancient Near Eastern literature, it was common for the author of a work to cover his or her tracks completely, either by writing a work anonymously from the get go (the narrator of most narrative in the Hebrew Bible is anonymous, and deliberately so), or by inserting new narrative, new law, new prophecy, new psalmody, or new wisdom into a pre-existing hermeneutical frame subsumed under the authority of a Moses, an Isaiah, a David, or a Solomon, under whose aegis the new content was duly placed.
The appropriateness of the attribution was not understood to be a historical question in the banal sense (are the words attributed to Moses actually his?). The appropriateness of the attribution was determined by comparison with all accepted preceding tradition of the same type.
Levinson notes that “The canonical text arises from and sustains its own history of reception and interpretation.” Furthermore, comparing new with precedent tradition did not proceed in this fashion: “Is this just another way of saying what we have always believed? If so, fine. If not, it’s not valid.”
Instead, “the canon” within itself allows “innovation.” More broadly, “it demands interpretation, it challenges piety, it questions priority, it sanctifies subversion, it warrants difference, and it embeds critique.”
That’s why Jesus could say, according to the gospel of Matthew whose author understood these things, “You have heard how it was said to our ancestors . . . But I say this to you . . .” (5:21). At the same time, Jesus insisted, “Do not imagine that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (5:17). The affirmations are compatible.
That’s why Paul could say, “For the rest I say – I and not the Lord . . .” (1 Corinthians 7:12), yet both what the Lord said and what Paul said were equally binding, with the former subsumed under the latter!
According to Levinson, the book of Deuteronomy overtly overrules earlier legal precedent by appeal to the same authority as that of precedent: Moses.
Ultimately, decisively, and credibly, however, overruling was possible for the tradents of law through appeal to divine authority. Either the words they attributed to Moses were authorized by God, or were they not. Either they were just what the doctor ordered, or they were not. They were God’s Word for a changed context, according to those who passed them on. Attribution to Moses marks this conviction. Or so it seems to me.
And how does one know whether the words of anyone carry divine authority? If a univocal answer were available, we would all be rabbinic Jews, followers of Jesus, or disciples of Buddha, as the case might be. Jews and Christians speak of God’s Spirit as the source of the means of discernment, a gift vouchsafed to the heirs of precedent tradition in the course of establishing its boundaries and contents. I doubt a better answer can be given.
If attribution to Moses is a hermeneutical construct of the authors of the book of Deuteronomy, shall we refer to Deuteronomy as a pseudepigraphon? I think not. That would once again be imposing a modern conception of right and wrong ways of attribution.
In my view, ‘pseudepigraphon’ is a misleading characterization, not only of the book of Deuteronomy, but of (e.g.) Jubilees, Daniel, 2 Baruch, 4 Ezra, 1 Enoch, and the Zohar. I contest catch-all terminology such as Old Testament Pseudepigrapha. It is etic, not emic. It does not relate to the fundamental concerns of the literature itself.
The question that mattered was the following: are the contents of this book just what the doctor ordered, or not? If so, and the contents are law +/- revelation, then they might be attributed to Moses. If so, and the contents were prophetic, they might be attributed to Enoch, Daniel, Baruch, Ezra, or similar. Attribution of this kind was clearly deemed suitable in a number of circumstances.