Book review: Patterns on Parchment – The Structural Unity of The Five Books of Moses

Dr. David Shatz (professor of philosophy at Yeshiva University) writes in Is there Science in the Bible? An Assessment of Biblical Concordism, that during the Middle Ages; the golden age of Jewish philosophy, rationalist philosophers like Saadya Gaon, Maimonides and Gershonides sought to demonstrate a harmony between Torah and the science and metaphysics of their time. He notes that bold concordism at times, meets with visceral rejection. Although some distinguished scientists (for some reason mostly physicists) push for concordist readings, other intellectuals, for example those immersed in the humanities, are as a rule wary of, or put off by, such interpretations.

His observation came to mind when I received a copy of an interesting new book Patterns on Parchment – The Structural Unity of The Five Books of Moses (Mosaica Press 978-1937887681). The book is meant in part to demonstrate the divinity of the Jewish Bible, the Torah.  And the author Dr. Robert Appleson is not ironically, a mathematician.

The book is in part meant to counter the documentary hypothesis, which was developed in the 19th century by Julius Wellhausen. Wellhausen proposed that the Torah was derived from independent, yet parallel narratives. Wellhausen thought these narratives were eventually combined into their current form by a series of redactors. Once all the rage, the documentary hypothesis has since been heavily invalidated. The least of which that there has not been a single fragment attesting to multiple authors.

While not the main part of the book, Appleson does a good job of showing problems with the documentary hypothesis, including the observation by Rabbi David Zvi Hoffmann that there’s a distortion through translation. It’s seems like some of the nuances of Biblical Hebrew and its syntax were lost on Wellhausen.

As a mathematician, Appleson attempts to show that the seeming randomness that occurs in the Torah, in addition to the premise of the documentary hypothesis are mathematically unviable. This is not a Bible codes type of book. Rather Appleson attempts to form a system showing the divine origin of the Torah.

A point made by Appleson is that part of the challenge in seeing the patterns in the Torah is that Bibles printed in languages other than Hebrew typically don’t show its unique paragraph structure, known as parsha and stumah. These are only apparent in a Torah scroll itself. And these are a core part of Appleson’s methodology.

Appleson  builds on the work of Rabbi Yehoshua Honigwachs in his 1991 book The Unity of Torah. There, Honigwachs proposed an organizing principle based on five thematic links within the 10 Commandments. Appleson calls these links shared principles and notes that they were first identified in the 4th-century in the Mekhilta. Appleson spends most of the book building on those shared principles (i.e., themes) and does a superb job showing the unity of text of the Torah.

Appleson’s shared principles are:

  1. Respecting creation
  2. Loyalty to primary relationship
  3. Limited access to sanctity/resources
  4. Duties of testimony/community
  5. Accepting one’s place/status (with ties to land/future)

These shared principles, assuming one accepts that premise, shows there is a recurrent and consistent pattern throughout the Torah. Appleson admits that shared principles can’t resolve every apparent textual anomaly. But that does not detract from the overall strength that the Torah has a single divine author.

As a mathematician, Appleson does his best to avoid the language that would turn off a non-mathematician. With that, the book is written with the mindset of a mathematician, and as such, left-brain thinkers will find it a stimulating read. Right-brain thinkers and those who don’t find pure logic stimulating, likely will have trouble following Appleson’s methodology.

Part of Wellhausen’s criteria for multiple authors was the use of different divine names, and doublets and occasionally triplets; as in the repetition of certain stories and incidents. To which the book does a superb job showing the unity of the Torah and revealing that doublets are simply part of the Biblical narrative and style.

The book is an original and most interesting read to which and Appleson presents a compelling case. The bigger issue though is that there are no objective metrics to determine where human authorship ends and divine authorship begins. His Shared Principles theory does show that there is a recurrent pattern uniting the Torah. But while the he argument he lays out progresses well, at no point is there a slam-dunk proof.

The concepts here are not trivial ones and this book is meant for the serious reader who follow Appleson direction. For those so inclined to this type of book, Patterns on Parchment – The Structural Unity of The Five Books of Moses makes for an interesting read.

About the Author
Senior information security and risk management professional. I speak at industry conferences, and write on information security, social media, privacy and technology. My book reviews are on information security, privacy, technology, and risk management. Here for Times of Israel, book reviews on religion and philosophy.
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