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Let’s Get Critical

It’s amazing to me how frequently we are do biblical criticism, but are not sufficiently critical in evaluating the results.

Now don’t take this as the complaint of someone who is afraid that biblical criticism will undermine the scriptures. I think the Bible can handle it. It’s not that I don’t think there will be issues. I just don’t think those issues are what the story is about, but that’s another post. I believe that we Christians can benefit from hearing the views of non-Christians about the meaning of our religious texts as well.

But it’s rather simply to find the holes in an existing theory, and much more difficult to build and defend a new one. The argument often becomes one of making a false dichotomy.

Take, for example, the authorship of the Pentateuch. I’m fairly thoroughly convinced by the nature of the text itself that the first five books of the Bible were not written by one man at one time, or even during one time period. I find the evidence for this quite convincing. Now I lean strongly toward a version of the documentary hypothesis, though my dating of the sources would be unorthodox. But I am much less certain of my beliefs about how the Pentateuch came to be than I am that it was not written by one person at one time.

Now I’ve heard the false dichotomy handled from both directions. Someone pokes a few holes in the documentary hypothesis—and heaven know there are holes to be poked—and then expects that one accept the alternative, authorship by Moses at one time. On the other hand, I’ve encountered people who poke a few holes in the singular authorship by Moses—and heaven know there are holes to be poked there too!—and then assumed that one would accept the documentary hypothesis as the only alternative.

But those are not the alternatives. One simple option is to question the sources and dates. There are plenty of options for dating the sources of the Pentateuch, if one accepts that there are sources. There are not just two alternatives.

My point is not to argue for some particular solution, but to point out that making the positive case for a particular solution is much more difficult.

Then we have the question of where we apply critical methodologies. Many people would have no problem considering how reliable a report of a battle from an Assyrian inscription or tablet was, but would not apply the same criteria to a story from Kings. There are Christians who would apply critical study to the Qur’an, but who would be very angry if the same methodology to the Bible. There are Muslims and Jews who find New Testament criticism very convincing, often heading straight to a minimalist or even mythicist position. But don’t go applying the same standards to the Qur’an or the Hebrew Bible. Then there are Christians who apply criticisms to evolutionary theory that no historical study, including the New Testament (resurrection anyone?) could possibly withstand.

This is natural and human. We tend to defend the things we believe. We even tend to defend the things we want to believe. But if we are going to claim to be critical—and I think that’s a good thing to be—then we need to be critical all the time. That will mean that many of the theories that we espouse must be espoused tentatively, with the knowledge that we could be wrong, and the expectation that in many cases we will be.

Can you apply a critical approach to the doctrines and beliefs of your own faith? Have you?

7 comments to Let’s Get Critical

  • So how would you date the sources of the Pentateuch?

    • Nothing original on my part … I was simply convinced by Jacob Milgrom on the earlier dating of P in his commentary on Leviticus in the Anchor Bible series. His work on the vocabulary of the temple and its services from P, Ezekiel, and later Jewish sources convinced me that he was right that the vocabulary indicates that P predates Ezekiel. Since we have a fairly good dating for Ezekiel, that tends to put P before the exile. Milgrom does allow for a redaction after the exile, but the bulk of the text is earlier than that. The entire Pentateuch, barring a few notes, would have been available by the exile.

      I also see the distinction which he makes, along with others, between P and the Holiness source, but that’s more shaky in my view.

      • I do wonder to what extent we can now call a pre-exilic P unorthodox — Millgrom is very far from alone there. Indeed, once one excludes those who for whatever reason cannot accept some form of documentary hypothesis, and also those who haven’t gotten past a bad textbook that regurgitates half-understood Wellhausen, it seems a fairly mainstream conclusion, resting on as solid foundations as are possible in that particular variety of criticism. Maybe bad textbooks are orthodoxy these days…

        But I am reminded of a particular type of argument for an early P that makes many religious people very uncomfortable about textual criticism: that Jeremiah knows P and creates some quite sharp rhetorical reversals upon it. It seems to cause a lot of upset when a later Biblical author doesn’t show suitable reverence to the work of an earlier one.

        The P/H split is something I need to do more reading on, as it’s never really jumped off the page for me.

        • Well, I was educated in the late 70s and early 80s, and it wasn’t all that orthodox then. I agree it has become much more orthodox over time, but I guess I still have the feeling I had when I discovered Migrom’s good work.

          The P/H thing is less certain, and I think the boundaries, at least, are pretty difficult to define precisely. But it’s still worth thinking about.

          As for Jeremiah vs. Torah, I tend to really like that sort of thing. That’s the tradition showing life as it develops. It makes it real.

  • This is a great post.

    And when we refuse to apply critical approaches to matters related to our faith (presumably because we’re afraid to), skeptics and unbelievers see that and conclude, among other things, that we doubt the ability of our texts and doctrines to withstand criticism and/or that we have chosen to be willfully ignorant.

  • Susan_G1

    Good exhortation. People can and do choose to be willfully ignorant on both sides, and it does nothing to bring us together on any number of other issues.

  • […] Henry Neufeld writes: […]

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