Friday, June 13, 2014

Why critical scholarship is, at times, a tower of cards on a ship in a storm.

I happen to think that there is no theological reason why certain documents that form the Biblical canon should not have a history of redaction and development. I am not a priori opposed to the idea, and especially in the case of certain historical texts I consider it almost certain that there is a history of sources, editing, etc..
However when I read critical scholarship I am often astounded at the confidence of conclusions based on criteria that are often outdated, or otherwise open to fundamental critique.

Let me offer two examples. The first is the old ‘assignation of documents on the basis of the name used for God’. From whence arose the infamous J and E ‘texts’. Now, it may well be that two documents, one with YHWH and one with Elohim, existed and were later edited together. But classic documentary hypothesis does not merely suggest this, it concludes it. I would think that the basic objection is transparent – why couldn’t a single author chose to use both names in a document if those names were available to them? It requires a staggering amount of patronism to dictate the ‘rules’ of literary composition to ancient authors and require strict segregation in their nominology.

A second criterion that really annoys me is ‘doublets’. Here the theory is that anytime ‘two’ of anything appears in the final form, it probably represents two versions of one episode. Even down to Noah sending out two different types of birds – obviously he could only send one! So we must have two stories combined.
On this criterion one would have to conclude that no two similar events ever occurred. Again the problem is obvious, it generates a rule about what must have been the case, and then precedes to impose this upon the text.

Isn’t it possible that similar presentations of episodes occurs for other reasons? For example, literary patterning, casting similar events into generic models to highlight their resonances for readers? Did two events never result in one story, through conflation? (this, at least, is sometimes offered as an explanation at some points).

I realise not all critical scholarship is so facile as to be easily objected to as I have presented here, but some of it is, and some of it is dressed up to be very sophisticated but just has some mind-boggling presuppositions of method that require an amount of credulity that strains belief.

Recently I was conversing online with a certain person who considered John’s Gospel to be a proto-orthodox ‘scrubbing’ of a proto-Gnostic text. I pressed them a little for evidence of this view but they were not forthcoming, waving their metaphorical hand with ‘redactions’ and ‘evidence of multiple layers of composition’. As we dialogued it became apparent that they viewed the Gospel as a kind of pastiche of disparate, unconnected scenes, in which a puppet-Jesus acted as spokesperson for the ‘author’ while the other characters were cardboard cut-out figures standing in for the implied audience of the readers. They could not conceive that the final form of the text might be a narrative and cohesive whole. Indeed, they considered this the view only of extreme conservative scholarship.

While the faults of conservative or confessional scholarship are not to be excused, I find this kind of fault with some forms of critical scholarship – a real chronological snobbery. A view that thinks ancient authors, and redactors, were hack jobs who cut and paste their works together with no skill, and left bloody fingerprints all over their butchered masterpieces.

Presuppositions matter, and the strength of your conclusions cannot, in general, be stronger than the strength of your givens.

1 comment:

mapoulos said...

Good thoughts here. I recently listened to John Goldingay's introduction to the OT lectures on iTunesU. I was struck by his description of the current scholarship on the origins of the Pentateuch. His summary was, "well, JEDP was a house a cards, and we realized that. We don't really believe it was written by Moses either. Everyone now is putting forward their own hypotheses, but nothing is gaining consensus." His approach was to imagine reading the different stories at different points in Israel's history, which I thought to be a

Broadening my reading beyond the Bible was enormously helpful for gaining perspective on matters like this. The fact, for instance, that they've made a "Critical Text" of Q blows my mind. It's one thing to posit a source, but it seems ridiculous to me to create a critical text of a hypothetical document.