The Book of I Samuel

Discussion of Julian Jaynes's third hypothesis - dating the development of consciousness to roughly 1500-1200 BCD in Egypt, Greece, and Mesopotamia (the transition occurred at different times in different places around the world). Includes analysis of ancient texts (such as the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Bible), linguistics, and archeological evidence from ancient civilizations as it pertains to the transition from the bicameral mind to consciousness.
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The Book of I Samuel

Post by doder »

I submitted this in a somewhat more compact form (and including italics) to the newsletter, and was requested by the editor to submit it to the forum first, even though “[my] points are well taken and appear accurate.” I can only assume that this is because I do not have post-graduate credentials. Any comments are welcome. I plan to resubmit this to the newsletter in several weeks.

A note on the section, ‘The Book of I Samuel’, in The Origin of Consciousness

In the section ‘The Book of I Samuel’, Jaynes notes that the Book of I Samuel includes almost the entire spectrum of transition mentalities. He then recounts King Saul’s story as it appears in the text, implying that it is a factual description of how a person behaves whose mind cannot cope without bicameral authority.(1) “[A] reading of [the Book of I Samuel] gives one the feeling of what it was like in this partly bicameral, partly subjective world…” I respectfully disagree.

Jaynes acknowledges that the story is literature written hundreds of years later, combining various sources. I contend that Jaynes’s dramatic sense overwhelmed his scientific judgment. The story of Saul may be historically accurate in the sense that the portrayed transition mentalities and types of divination in some combination may have existed in Israel during his lifetime. However, the story should not be considered—as Jaynes implies--as biography or as a scientific description of how a conscious person behaved in any era when he or she had to make decisions that formerly had been made by bicameral means. (For example, perhaps they would have actually used only one type of divination, and shunned others, or had a favorite prophet and ignored divination.) Furthermore, what we can assume historically about Saul is not compatible with Jaynes’s tragic figure who ends in mental breakdown and suicide.

Why was Saul’s story constructed the way Jaynes found it in I Samuel? One of the principles guiding the author (likely the prophet Jeremiah (2)) was to justify David’s usurpation of Saul’s throne. (David had founded the dynasty still ruling Judah four hundred years later.) Although the author could not deny Saul’s military and administrative successes, Saul could be shown as undeserving of Yahweh’s favor. This purpose alone explains most of the text’s description of Saul’s attempts at accessing bicameral authority. Saul does not listen to Yahweh’s mouthpiece Samuel, usurps the priests’ privilege of offering sacrifices, and visits a witch for advice after he had banned witches from the kingdom! Perhaps the author tried to include everything he could think of to make Saul look bad, regardless of their appropriate chronology. To audiences in the writer’s time, after three hundred years of the Jerusalem Temple, Saul would have seemed like an unreliable maverick, and David as deserving to replace him.

A second principle guiding the author is backfill: providing the narrative context that would have given rise to the history transmitted by existing sources like the popular saying “Is Saul also among the prophets?” This saying inspires a story in I Samuel 10:11 about Saul visiting some prophets, which Jaynes takes at face value. However, the saying is clearly ironic, and implies that Saul would have been the last person to be a prophet!

What can we assume is historically accurate about the man Saul? He was selected as king by the tribal leaders, which implies that he had a military record and was mentally stable. He subsequently had a long military career and set up the administration of the kingdom. The popular saying implies that Saul was a hardheaded, conscious man. If Saul did commit suicide in battle, it seems likely he would have done so to avoid the torture and humiliation attendant on military defeat, not because he felt abandoned by Yahweh. (3)

Jaynes should not have implied that the literary construct of "Saul" was the historical situation of a real person, or possible real person. We just don’t know what life was like in Israel in the 11th century BCE. Rather, Jaynes should have emphasized that the author was aware that these behaviors belonged to the transition era, and combined them in a text written for other purposes.

This criticism does not affect Jaynes’s overall theory. It does, however, make me want to give closer scrutiny to his interpretations of other texts.

1) I think that the pace of the transition from bicamerality to consciousness would be slow enough that to dramatize the transition, and obtain adequate dramatic contrast between the mentalities, a dramatist would have to look at the chronological extremes: the beginning or end of the transition. The dramatist could focus on the first conscious person in a bicameral village, say, or the last bicameral person in a conscious society—like the raving nabiim of I Samuel or the later Hebrew prophets. The panorama of I Samuel would be a fine backdrop to such a story.

2) Richard Elliott Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible?(New York: Summit Books, 1987).

3) In Judges 9:54, which occurs chronologically before I Samuel, the wounded judge Abimelech tells his armor-bearer to kill him to preserve his honor. (Jaynes is wrong that Saul’s suicide was “the first in history.”) According to the text, Saul was wounded in battle with the Philistines, his longtime enemy. Given the treatment of defeated antagonists described in the Books of Judges and Samuel, Saul would have expected humiliation and torture if he had been captured alive.

- Danila
James Cohn
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Post by James Cohn »

The writer seems to have had an experience much like mine, in encountering Jaynes from within the standpoint of the "Documentary Hypothesis" of the Bible's composition. It’s an engaging intersection of disciplines! The writer writes, about the use of the text of I Samuel to support Jaynes thesis:
This criticism does not affect Jaynes’s overall theory. It does, however, make me want to give closer scrutiny to his interpretations of other texts.
I have a mental image of Jaynes in the 1970's, popping down the hall to the Religion Department to bend a colleague's ear about one biblical text or another, in search of reinforcement for the construct about consciousness that Jaynes has already reached.

Two thoughts occur to me as I read this post:

1. Jaynes had a good but limited familiarity with the Documentary Hypothesis, and sometimes might have gotten the specifics wrong. From what I have read about Jaynes the man, he worried about that himself.

2. Ironically enough, it is that Documentary Hypothesis that is his best friend in the literary world, as we do what Dennett called so perfectly, "software archaeology."

I would reframe the posted comment quoted above, thus:
This criticism makes me want to give closer scrutiny to Jaynes's interpretations of other texts. It does not, however, affect Jaynes’s overall theory.
In fact, I find that I go in search of where Jaynes went astray, only to find confirmation of his way of thinking.

First, to the specifics; then, to both the hypotheses.

I believe the writer presents a fair view of I Samuel's provenance. The position taken in the posting is entirely consistent with the book's literary elements, right down to its very grammar. Grammar is one key, among many, to identifying the era in which a text was written. Now, I would feel better if Jaynes had not chosen I Samuel. But I feel great that he chose Ecclesiastes.

Regarding the Documentary Hypothesis, and the Jaynes Hypothesis of Consciousness, both rely on an epistemological method called "coherence" -- a method that is comprehended in this question: "How well does this hypothesis cohere with the facts as we have them?" Trouble is, more than one explanation can cohere with the facts as we have them. (Software archaeology.) If a different explanation is less plausible, but still possible, we realize with humility that the ground on which we stand is intrinsically shaky. Not wrong, necessary; just not “right” with certainty. (Sadly, I must parenthetically note that "coherence," like "consciousness," has a multiplicity of definitions and interpretations.)

When I was 700 miles away and my 93-year old father was having major surgery, my brother (who was on the scene) reported the progress of things to me by phone. At one point, I said in disgust about the medical assessment, "Everything is maybe." My brother said, "Wow. That's exactly it. Everything is maybe."

In biblical higher criticism, everything is maybe. Jaynes knew that his entire system was maybe. Most of life is maybe. But in this world of imperfection and uncertainty, Jaynes's hypothesis remains the most astonishingly vital and successful model in the effort to explain the things that become more and more inexplicable using any other framework.

The fact that we are having this exchange three decades later, and more, is a tribute to the fact, not that Jaynes's hypothesis doesn't explain everything, but that it does explain so much. I have spent my life in the study of Hebrew scriptures, from the standpoint of the best scholarship available, and I find that the same is true of the Bible, -- not that it is so often transparent in its human authorship, but rather that those human authors did so well in making it all cohere into a remarkably consistent whole. Again, what is remarkable is not how often the system slips (we see Aaron's descendants peeking from behind the text now and again, "caught" shyly in their insertion of a later emendation that consolidates priestly power and authority), but rather, that the process of disentangling its words and motives at our end is so challenging.

And fun!

As I've indicated elsewhere, the biblical evidence for Jaynes's studies is crucial because words and language are themselves crucial to the process, and words (and language) are slippery little bastards (literally bastards: their parentage is ultimately unknown and unknowable). I Samuel is a "message in a bottle" from not just one era, but several. Imagine such a message going from island to island, with each survivor making a change before casting it back into the ocean. The message comes to us, as if written by the first writer. But how do we come to know that person, or that person's world and circumstances -- and thoughts?

Software archeology.

James Cohn, Rabbi, M.A.
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Post by doder »

Thank you for your thoughtful and detailed response, which also happens to confirm my thoughts.

I neither intend nor expect to attack Jaynes's overall theory, as I hope I have made clear. I am pointing out one little part of the book where he overimaginatively reconstructed the past. I think it's important for the scientific record to document unreliable parts of The Origin. There may be others. That's how science is done: step by step, by multiple investigators.

Danila Oder
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Re: The Book of I Samuel

Post by adam1848 »

Jaynes never implies
"that the literary construct of Saul was the historical situation of a real person, or possible real person."
Nor does he imply that it is a
" biography or a scientific description."
In reality (in the sentence directly following the one the author "respectfully disagrees" with on page 306) Jaynes clearly states that the book of I Samuel is "perhaps the first written tragedy in literature." Not a biography, or scientific study, or anything of the sort. What he calls it is what it is...a tragedy...a work of literature. And he examines the language of this work of literature just as he does countless other works of literature, never once implying it is a non-fictional account.

Second, the death of Saul is in fact the first recorded suicide. As stated, Abimelech is killed by his armor-bearer. His skull was crushed and his death was imminent, and he desired what he believed was the more noble of two deaths. This is not suicide. Although Saul had been wounded by archers, we have no reason to believe his wounds were life threatening, and he chose to fall on his own sword out of fear. This is in fact suicide. And then his armor bearer immediately kills himself out of loyalty. Another suicide. Later in II Samuel 17.23 Ahithophel puts his household in order and then hangs himself after failing David. Another suicide. I believe Jaynes' point is about the change in consciousness which comes with the ability to kill oneself out of fear, as with Saul; or out of loyalty, as with his armor-bearer; or out of shame, as with Ahithophel, as opposed to a soldier with a crushed skull opting for the more noble of two deaths. Jaynes never states nor implies that Saul killed himself because he felt abandoned by Yahweh.
"Furthermore, what we can assume historically about Saul is not compatible with Jaynes’ tragic figure who ends in mental breakdown and suicide.... What can we assume is historically accurate about the man Saul? He was selected as king by the tribal leaders, which implies that he had a military record and was mentally stable."
The fact that tribal leaders selected him does not imply he was mentally stable. What it implies is that they feared or respected him. Jaynes chose to discuss this book because of the spectrum of consciousness that it shows the reader as a literary expression, not because he thought it was a literal account of Saul's life.
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Post by shrimperdude »

[quote="James Cohn"] engaging intersection of disciplines!

both rely on an epistemological method called "coherence"

What of concilience; is this word currently out of favor; or just too easily defined?

but that it does explain so much.

You mentioned also your studies in Hebrew; what of these two writers:

Robert Graves and Raphael Patai
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Re: The Book of I Samuel

Post by shrimperdude »

Just because you have agreed that 1 Sam is a tragedy, there's no justification to dwell on some suicide question, and not go straight to Chapter 3, where we find exactly what any Jaynesian researcher loves to cut his bicameral teeth on; NO?
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