Nowadays, at least in the humanities, “invention” means mere invention. Rather than a synonym for “discovery”, invention is now the antonym of discovery. To label something invented is to expose it as false and tendentious.
This notion of invention goes back to the ancient Sophists, but it has peaked among the postmodern set. For postmodernists, nothing is true because the origin of any idea can be traced back through historical DNA. The identification of the time and place of the origin of an idea somehow automatically confines the applicability of that idea to the locale of its origin.
In actuality, all ideas, including scientific ones, originate in a specific time and place. But an idea can still be true. To collapse truth into origin is to commit the genetic fallacy, of which 99 per cent of postmodernism consists.
Thomas Römer, professor of the Hebrew Bible at the Collège de France, himself uses “invention” in anything but a postmodern fashion. By invention he means gradual invention, and invention not by a single thinker but by a culture as a whole.
In biblical studies, invention refers to dating. To claim that the Hebrew Bible was composed later than the times to which it is seemingly referring is to claim that it reflects the outlook not of, say, the Patriarchs but of the Prophets. The objection by “inventionists” is not that the Bible mischaracterises the view of the Prophets but that it projects that view back on to the Patriarchs.
The key issue over which invention arises in biblical studies is the nature of God. When God reveals himself to Abraham (then called Abram) in Genesis 12, no other people worships that deity, who proceeds to tap Abram to be the founder of his chosen people. In fact, Abram himself has hitherto not even known of this God. He has been a pagan.
At the same time Abram does not proceed to deny the existence of other gods. Each nation has its own god or gods, and the question is only whose gods are stronger, not whose gods are real. When, in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20), God prohibits Israelites from worshipping other gods, his prohibition would be pointless if there were no other gods.
Römer enlists non-biblical sources of all kinds to argue that what eventually became monotheism, or the belief in a single god altogether, originated millennia earlier in the Iron Age in either Edom or the northwest Arabian peninsula. God only subsequently became the god of Israel. He became the sole god of Israel only with the “elimination” of rival male and female gods, such as the mother goddess Asherah. Not until the destruction of Jerusalem in 586BC did there emerge the (thereafter mainstream) Jewish view of God as the sole god in the universe, as the creator god, and yet also as the god of Israel.
In the 19th century, German biblicists such as the anti-Semitic Julius Wellhausen argued for invention as mere invention. In the 20th century, American scholars led by William Foxwell Albright restored much, not all, of the historicity of the Bible. In the 21st century, the Church of Scotland has recently argued for invention as mere invention.
Römer, a distinguished scholar rather than an ideologue, seeks to determine exactly what is historical and exactly what is not in the depiction of God. This is a brilliant book.
Robert A. Segal is sixth century professor of religious studies, University of Aberdeen, and author of Myth: A Very Short Introduction (2004, 2015) and editor of 30-Second Mythology (2012).
The Invention of God
By Thomas Römer
Translated by Raymond Geuss
Harvard University Press, 320pp, £25.00
Published 14 December 2015