Genre again – is Biblical higher criticism scientific?

Cal’s reponse to my last post set me thinking again about both the documentary hypothesis of the Pentateuch, and the redaction theories of the New Testament. I guess I had in mind the idea that one can’t regard the Pentateuch as “history” because that genre didn’t really exist until Herodotus in 450BC, well after even the latest dates given for the Bible text. So, according to the received wisdom, one has to look back to the original “sources” in the category of “myth”, “heroic epic”, “court chronicle” etc. But this way of thinking leaves a massive assumption unchallenged.

The time-honoured Documentary Hypothesis (and its modern variants) all assume that within the Pentateuch are the traces of multiple lost sources, whether documentary or oral, classically Yahwist, Elohist, Deuteronomic and Priestly, which have been woven together in ways, and at times, that vary according to the scholar and the prevailing theory, into the unity we see today. This, then, would place the Pentateuch in the overall genre of “highly redacted ancient document.”

In other words, just as one looks to the rest of ancient literature to find that history, in the modern sense, only appears with the Greeks, so such a necessarily complex and sophisticated process as the weaving together of multiple sources, often verse by verse, into a coherent narrative ought to be attested by other examples in contemporary ANE literature. It is, after all, a radically unusual way to compose a major work even today, and even more brilliant an innovation in a world where usually a scribe wrote a book, or an oral tale was slowly elaborated or streamlined by a tradition.

So I searched the internet to find examples of redaction in ancient literature. In fact it turns out to be almost impossible to find anything outside of Old Testament, and New Testament studies. There’s some discussion of such sources in Homer, but (a) Homer is not an ANE text, (b) the discussion is about the codification of variant traditional poetic texts, not disparate sources and (c) the whole approach began at much the same time as it did in Biblical studies, only seems to have largely gone out of favour now, many Greek scholars working on the assumption that a real Homer wrote real poems, however they may have suffered through time.

But apart from Homer, I – at least – could not find any evidence that anyone in the ancient world ever thought of constructing a text from sources. In other words, the whole genre is merely a modern construction based on modern assumptions (such as the assumption that it’s possible to manipulate several large scrolls physically sufficently dexterously to make use of a few verses, or even one verse, from each). Ask yourself – is it more likely that Hebrew scribes (or prophets!) would have invented the truthful and orderly accounting of historical events independently of the Greeks, or that they would have pioneered the art of cut and paste in a world without scissors or paste?

Turning to the New Testament, the Gospels (primarily) have, for a similar period, been subject to the processes of source criticism, form criticism and redaction criticism to explain the similarities and variations found especially in the synoptics. That something interesting has gone on in their composition can scarcely be doubted. But it is assumed by almost everyone, even amongst Evangelical scholars, that they have arisen from the combination of multiple literary, as well as oral, sources. There is complete confidence that individual stories and sayings of Jesus passed through a process of “traditionalising” by the church before being, finally, written down by one or other of whomsoever the pseudonymous Evangelists actually were. And so a passage taken, more or less at random, from an Evangelical commentary on Luke runs:

According to Schurmann … Luke 4:14-15 reflects a source containing a variant of the tradition behind Mark 1:14-15, 21-28, 32-39 (6:1-6). This source represents the second half of a “report from the beginning” available to Matthew and Luke, the first half of which, while more detailed, runs parallel to Mark 1:1-13 and is reflected in Luke 3:3-17 (21-22); 4:1-13. Luke makes use of this report to construct this pericope… (John Nolland, Luke 1-9:20, Word, Dallas, 1989, p.185.)

Nolland, it should be said, disagrees with this particular line on this passage, but not because it’s tosh. Imagine Luke’s supposed compositional process: he constructs a new story based on half another story from a source containing a variant of a tradition behind the gospel he’s using as his template (Mark). He appears to have inherited his penchant for cutting and pasting, and his skill in juggling scrolls, directly from the Pentateuchal redactors, even though he presumably believed it was written of a piece by Moses himself.

Yet it’s generally agreed now that all four gospels are actually fairly typical examples, except for their supernatural subject matter, of Hellenistic biography. So are they more likely to be written as that genre was normally written, from the experience of a single author, only occasionally quoting blocks of other authors, often from memory? Or is it more likely that they all invented an entirely new technique, the “cut-and-paste final redaction biography”? Do we have other examples in the New Testament period of such a technique being used? Again an internet search seems to show Bible scholars attributing similar processes to other NT works or apocryphal gospels, but apart from the countless pages of references to Synoptic Gospel studies, the secular historians seem strangely silent. Suetonius and Caesar appear to have been assumed just to write books in the same way that people today do.

The whole idea of multiple-source literature, then, is almost completely restricted to the books of the Bible, especially the Pentateuch in the Old Testament and the Synotic Gospels, born of a different time and civilisation, in the New. It is not typical of other ancient literature – indeed it is virtually unique. So to some people it wouldn’t seem to meet the reproducibility criteria of science. Some might call it, therefore a miraculous occurrence. Or maybe, like astrology, a figment of a whole discipline’s collective imagination, born of an uncritical adherence to an outmoded view of the capabilities of unaided reason.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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3 Responses to Genre again – is Biblical higher criticism scientific?

  1. Cal says:

    I’m honored to have sparked a post! 🙂

    You made some excellent points about the OT being written before there was “history” (as a discipline).

    Another funny thing is that many try to dig more out of the text than provided. There is purpose to what is written and included, it isn’t like a stenographer of all of Israel. Everything is to illustrate something. We may speculate, “Well, who is Melchizidek? Who is his father and what lineage is he from?” but that’s not the point of why he’s included.

    Echoing John, if we were to write of all the wonders of Jesus, we’d run out of space for all the books! The same applies to the past.

  2. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    It seems often to be the popular preachers who are the worst offenders there. I’ve heard entire sermons built on the gaps in the text. More worryingly, nobody else seemed to notice.

    But the counterpart to that is that you can be sure, if something is mentioned, it’s there for a purpose and not because it simply happened.

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