Saturday, November 3, 2012

Really, Wipf & Stock?

I'd never heard of Preston Kavanagh until today, but apparently, he's solved all the authorship and dating questions related to the composition of the Hebrew Bible. Wipf & Stock has been publishing his 'brilliant" discoveries since 2009 with The Exilic Code: Ciphers, Word Links, and Dating in Exilic and Post-Exilic Biblical Literature, followed by the The Shaphan Group: Fifteen Authors Who Shaped the Hebrew Bible in 2011, and now Huldah: The Prophet Who Wrote Hebrew Scripture (apparently forthcoming per a publicity email I received through the Agade mailing list).

I can't find out anything more about this guy with Google. His author blurb on Wipf & Stock doesn't give me much confidence in his biblical studies training.
Twenty-four years ago, Preston Kavanagh retired from an executive position in a large company in order to seek the identities of those who wrote the Hebrew Bible. The Shaphan Group discusses what he found, as do his two prior books—Secrets of the Jewish Exile (2005) and The Exilic Code (Pickwick Publications, 2009). He and his wife, Lois, live quietly in Maryland.
The email announcement has an updated version of this bio. Apparently he has Ivy League degrees, but it's telling that the level of degree and the subjects studied are left unmentioned.
Preston Kavanagh holds degrees from Princeton and Harvard. He retired twenty-five years ago from an executive position in a large company to seek the identities of those who wrote the Hebrew Bible. Huldah discusses what he has found, as do several prior books, including The Exilic Code (Pickwick Publications, 2009) and The Shaphan Group (Pickwick, 2011). He and his wife, Lois, live quietly in Maryland.
So, let me get this straight, Wipf & Stock, you published these books by a retired businessman who devoted the last 24 years to cracking the Bible's coded data about who wrote it and when? Apparently, whoever acquired this guy's work forgot one of the prime rules of identifying crackpots: they are often untrained individuals who are somehow able to solve major perennial problems of the discipline. Also, hasn't "decoding" the hidden messages in the Hebrew Bible been widely debunked? (And yet, it won't go away.) So either this guy has new revolutionary ideas that deserve our attention or this is a shameless attempt to sell books to an undiscerning, popular audience that loves this stuff even though it's been disproven over and over (a la Michael Drosnin's bestsellers). I've looked at enough of Kavanagh's books on preview at to suspect the latter, but maybe, just maybe somebody can offer a good explanation or more info about Kavanagh to justify his claim to expertise. For now, he look to me to be just another crackpot.

It's a shame because Wipf & Stock otherwise publishes many quality studies by well-known Bible scholars such as Andre LaCocque, Stanley Porter, Richard Horsley, Marvin Meyer, and H.G.M. Williamson. I better not see this guy's stuff on the book tables at SBL. Anybody else have a similar reaction to this publicity email that came over Agade this morning? Here's the full description of the book.

Huldah: The Prophet Who Wrote Hebrew Scripture reveals—for the first time ever—the extraordinary impact of Huldah the prophet on our Bible.
Huldah was both a leader of exilic Jews and a principal author of Hebrew Scripture. She penned the Shema—the ardent, prayerful praise that millions of worshipers repeat twice daily. Moreover, Jesus quoted as his own last words the ones that Huldah had written centuries before—“Into your hand I commit my spirit.” Huldah was an extraordinary writer—arguably she ranks among the best in Hebrew Scripture. As such, she added to God’s Word a feminine aspect that has inspired numberless believers—men and women alike. 
This book’s new techniques reveal that though subjected to extreme verbal abuse, Huldah surmounted her era’s high barriers to women. As elder, queen mother, and war leader during the sixth century BCE, she helped to shape Israel’s history. And what, then, can this book mean to scholars—both women and men? Feminists need a rallying point and a heroine, and Huldah makes a superb one. In years ahead, experts might well place Huldah alongside the very greatest women of antiquity; indeed, they may even conclude that she is among the most influential people in human history.
Reading it again, I want to deconstruct every exaggerated and impossible statement, but I don't think his work is worth any more time or attention. 


  1. I just finished reading that review when I saw your blog post. I wasn't reading it carefully, and I got confused when I saw that Huldah had "penned the Shema." I also wondered what "extreme verbal abuse" she went through. It just seemed confusing to me. I'm also curious about this guy's story--and how it fits into his cracking these codes. Maybe he's completely fictional? Maybe Wipf & Stock is up to something? We need a crackpot to investigate . . .

  2. Yes, I had the same reaction. W&S has been making some advancements in publishing solid material in biblical studies, but this looks like two steps forward, three steps back. For shame...

  3. I received this book as a gag gift from a colleague. We all consider Kavanagh a lunatic. Somehow, he got a ridiculous article published in a reputable journal (Biblica) and that article has been completely panned and rejected as useless by every biblical scholar I know. This seems to have empowered him, though...because he shows up at regional SBL meetings, standing up in the audience while papers are being delivered and interrupting them to announce that he has managed to solve all the problems that the rest of us, collectively, have been unable to solve.

    In this book, Kavanagh argues that the name "Huldah the Prophetess" or a variant thereof is encoded thousands of times in various biblical compositions. As such, these texts are not really about what they say, but rather, are coded statements about her life and times. For example, he argues that Jeremiah's call narrative in Jeremiah 1 is REALLY all about Huldah, because he detects her name encoded several times in that chapter. He also identifies many psalms as written by Huldah because there, too, he has "discovered" her name encoded multiple times in each psalm.

    Kavanagh seems completely unaware that the methods he uses are massively flawed, and have been discredited by reputable statisticians for nearly 20 years. He also assumes that the Hebrew Bible literally has "millions" of coded lines -- but this means, effectively, that the contents of the Hebrew Bible are really about nothing OTHER than what it encodes. And he never reckons what he has "discovered" with comparative extra-biblical material, such as Neo-Assyrian and Babylonian inscriptions or archaeological evidence.

    If we were to take Kavanagh's argument to its extreme, it would lead us to the following question: if virtually everything is a code for Huldah, then when we ACTUALLY encounter the name "Huldah", is THAT a code for something else too?? If it is, then there is no real Huldah. If it is not, then why should any given word be read as a coded reference to something else?

    Certainly, some biblical texts utilize ancient scribal methods to encode certain terms. But that doesn't mean that ALL biblical texts do this, or that they emerge from scribal groups who would have utilized these methods. Kavanagh appears unaware of the realia of ancient Israelite scribal practice and its relationship to other ancient scribal methods in surrounding cultures.

    In sum, this book is the result of total incompetence. Not only on Kavanagh's part -- he has no training; only the most rudimentary undergraduate-level understanding of Hebrew, and no apparent awareness of any other ancient languages or cultures -- but on the part of the publisher. After reading Kavanagh's book, I have concluded that if you sneeze onto a page, Wipf and Stock will publish it.

  4. I normally don't publish anonymous comments, but in this case, I thought I'd make an exception. Thanks for reinforcing what I already thought about Kavanagh and his insights.

  5. Regrettably, I've observed that while Wipf & Stock does publish some fine new volumes, a number of their other new releases are little more than vanity publications. It really does seem as though they'll publish anything.

  6. Im not a biblical scholar, it's not even my main interests, but I do rate quite highly Simo Parpola. Yet, I have obviously just been suckered by this Preston Kavanagh fellow who's managed to draft Prof Parpola's name onto his insane babble book. I tried to look up scholarly reviews to Kavanagh, but could find nothing. Im glad I'm not alone anyway!