A Core of Belief

We’re constantly reminded by the modern academic establishment of the qualities required in its writings. A witch’s brew of transgressiveness, cynicism, and originality are claimed to be essential, but this seldom pans out: in every field there is an established orthodoxy, the strayer from which will be ostracised. Whether this be literature, economics, or physics, transgressing the transgressives will not be tolerated in this age of tolerance! This is no less the case in the nebulous group of quasi-disciplines which gather under the banner of “Biblical Studies”. The archest of humor and self-promotion is found in the synonymous umbrella term “higher criticism”: the application of overly lively imagination to objective data, the collection and description of the latter having been termed “lower criticism,” although its evidentiary value is objectively higher. Nineteenth century bored, drunk, liberal, syphilitic, Protestant German theological professors and their lickspittles are to credit for the terminology and much of the methodology of “higher criticism”, which combines a distinct hatred of all things Israelite with a self-proclaimed “objective” or “scientific” criticism of the Old Testament. It is a paradise of atheistic unbelief: where the methodologies are, however, not evolved by chance, but guided and nourished by the never-gently wafting strains of an antisemitism of Wagnerian grandeur and stridence, now generally brushed under the carpet for its inconvenience.

This establishment fails entirely, however, when it turns its bloodshot and bespectaled eyes to the past in an attempt to project their own mentalities and concerns, particularly their own cynicism, onto the ancients. A key failure in this regard is the unspoken general assumption that every ancient writer was as much of an unbelieving mediocre hack as so many of the modern writers (in print and online) are: cynically opportunistic to move the unsuspecting reader to support his own ideas, which really don’t reflect reality at all, but are his creation, usually in the cause of some ideology or movement or other. But every human being did not come of age in the 1960s, and such ideas of rank propagandism are ill reflective of the deeply rooted belief systems that are apparent in ancient writings, which depths of belief are backed by modern anthropological examination in numerous cultures, industrial and not, past and present. Likewise (Glory to God!), nearly all of the ancient writers are a great deal more talented and intelligent than the vast majority of those commenting upon them these days. The intellgent reader is likely to be more angered by wasting money and time on the latest all-praised volume than to gain anything of permanent use from it, such as one finds in the beautiful, skillful, and moving writings of the ancients, aesthetic and intellectual adepts such as they were.

But much of this skill of the ancients lies precisely in their immersion in cultures driven by religious belief. They lived in a numinous world, one in which the powers of Deity permeated everthing, whether as monolator, monotheist, or polytheist. The intermediary forces, emissaries of the Divine realm, were everywhere. The idea of a cynical, atheistic opportunist in such an age is an anachronism, yet it is the assumed (and required!) preconception for the “findings” of “higher criticism”. In the case of Israel and its writings, nothing could be further from the truth.

As I alluded to in my last post (in The Center of the Old Testament), and as I’ve touched on briefly before (in posts titled A Prophetic Perspective and Disobedience and Exile), the Old Testament is an archive of writings from the guild of the Israelite prophets and their supporters. These were the true believers of ancient Israel, ecstatic prophets and those who supported them materially and through prayers. These prophets would ecstatically prophesy, usually in song to the accompaniment of various instruments, and these oracles were remembered, recorded, and collected. They likewise constructed a history of the world and their nation and the dynasty that they had been told was specially favored by God, running from Genesis through the Pentateuch, then through Joshua, Judges, Ruth, and the books of Samuel and Kings, with the latter extended at various periods after an initial ending likely early in the reign of Solomon. Other books come from the hands of descendants of those supporters who shared the exclusive prophetic faith of the prophets. Eventually, through rule of law, the prophetic faith was established as the sole faith of the Israelites, but this took much longer than it should have, and was not consistently the case, sadly, until long after the exile. Pre-exilic Israel was not a paradise of faith, where happy throngs crowded the beautiful Temple Solomon built in Jerusalem, bringing free-will offerings to the only true God, Creator of the heavens and the earth. More often than not, the Temple was used as the center for something very similar to the other national cults in the Levant, a chief god worshipped with consort and friends or children, lacking the purity of the prophetic faith and not adhering to the oracular prescriptions for purity of cultus.

However, within the prophetic phenomenon, there is a key: in the similarity of oracular pronouncements one to another over centuries, the consistency of concerns, the same voice is consistently heard in the prophecies. The prophetic experience was ecstatic, one involving the faculties of the seer, but in a complicated manner, as is the case in ecstatic utterance to this day. The seer is not gone, but is an instrument whose strings are plucked by an invisible plectrum, whether Divine or otherwise. There is the potential for the inspiring spirit to be either truthful or untruthful, yet Divinely-sent to either lead aright or to lead astray. So we learn from Israel’s own prophetic archives. What we do not hear of is false prophesying simply made up by the prophet, whether of oral or literary nature. The prophets methods were legitimate and real: these false prophets were also ecstatics, but the spirit speaking through them lied. We do not at all read of cynical literary pseudo-prophesying, though this certainly did come to exist in time, and is found in much later pseudepigrapha literarily tied to either Israelite Prophets or Christian Apostles. Yet not in that time, the time of the initial creation of the Hebrew Scriptures. Even so, we’re not entirely certain that some of these pseudepigraphic works do not originate in later prophetic circles, or what the methodology of their production actually was. Though they are certainly literary works, there was no dearth of ascetically-induced ecstatic prophecy, even amongst the early Rabbinic movement, as seen in Merkabah and Hekhalot mysticism. Early Christian ascetism is likewise replete with such accounts, from those to the present day. But what is lacking in those writings which are considered orthodox is any kind of cynical motivation to further a particular goal. Such cynicism doesn’t appear in other illustrative literature of the time. There’s no reason other than the projection of modern scholarly cynicism anachronistically into the past to expect that it was there. Today’s unbelief and opportunism cannot be a guide to the lives, practices, and writings of the ancients. There is a core of devotional belief in those writings in comparison to which modern Enlightenment-based exegetical and hermeneutical writings are pale, withered, gasping things.

Remember the core of belief in the ancients, and your own. Let them guide you in your readings. And try better in that regard to understand how the ancients, even more vividly faithful in their own times, less distracted by worldly concerns, studies, professions and so on, would have constructed such writings while living in the fear of God. This is a necessary adjunct to the approach of any faithful person to his or her Scriptures. And may God bless us all with greater understanding for this simple ascesis.

22 Replies to “A Core of Belief”

  1. Little old me?

    I just love a dash of rhetoric with my coffee in the morning!

    Every one of those adjectives is historically defensible, by the way. Those are some of the uncomfortable truths, all ignored now in their unearned hero-worship, of the foolishness of the field: they were not lilies!

  2. Kev…

    Let’s keep it simple… I read the Fathers and Scriptures “po-prostu” (“straight-up”) with no mixer, if you please. That is, I read no contemporary “scholarly” commentary! Why? If I wish to know the Church’s take on a particular Scripture, I break open Blessed Feofylact. That is not only written in accessible prose (not that dense pseudo-academic glop beloved of modern “scholars”), but, it is approved by the Church.

    Why waste one’s time reading such trivial ephemera? God shall take you to account for a waste of the time He gave you at the Last Day for that, Kev. For instance, if you want to know about Fundamentalism (the real thing, not the modern perversion), read Machen, not his pygmy detractors.

    The Silly Sixties are still hanging about, like a shunned, drunken, old uncle. We should leave such things where they belong…

    Cheers,
    Vara

  3. Very true, Vara! I’ve unfortunately wasted a lot of time reading much garbage. But as I’ve learned many of its weaknesses, I hope to help others to realize that we are not beholden to it for anything, not one single bit. Truth will out! That stuff is all a pile of lies built on syllogisms proposed by disgusting and opportunistic frauds, all of it perpetuated by their lackeys.

    The more people know that, and rather than feeling obligated to accept it they instead turn to the Fathers of the Church for a proper perspective, the better things will be for them and for all of us.

  4. Thanks Kevin. Excellent post! I did a far bit of mucking around in my protestant days, and with wisdom you can learn to warn others away from that stuff. Fortunately, to confirm Vara’s point, I learned of Machen in those days as well. He was so well regarded that even Mencken, certainly not a believer, wrote highly of him at his death.

    Dr. Fundamentalis

    Michael

  5. The idea of a cynical, atheistic opportunist in such an age is an anachronism, yet it is the assumed (and required!) preconception for the “findings” of “higher criticism”.

    That is neither an assumed nor required preconception. Nor have I ever heard anybody, ever, put forward such a ridiculous idea.

    1. Doug, I don’t think the ancients fall short on commentary because they were part of the living tradition, part of the living stream of transmission from the authors to our own day. I have in mind the failure of the vast majority of modern Enlightenment-based scholarship (there are a number of diamonds in the muck, however), which subsumes the texts into its own concerns, permitting no peep of the original context’s vitality to escape, and denying validity to the entire tradition of exegesis except where convenient. Again, this is a thoroughly Protestant tactic, and transferred from the religious to the scholarly realm.

      JewishAtheist, are you upset by my use of “atheist”? Are you unaware of the assumed and required separation of faith and reason in academic Biblical scholarship? Or do you presume that everyone uses “atheist” with the connotation of “vituperation against God”? But “godless” or “faithless” are neither accurate nor appropriate either, for such people as I have in mind have gods in various methodologies, prophets and saints in their originators and propounders, and faith in the superiority of those methodologies. It is certainly required of modern academic Biblical scholarship that it be atheistic, in the sense that one’s confessional faith and concerns are to be set to the side.

  6. Likewise (Glory to God!), nearly all of the ancient writers are a great deal more talented and intelligent than the vast majority of those commenting upon them these days.

    OK, now I’m curious. Who falls short?

  7. OK, now I’m curious. Who falls short?

    The P author (or group of authors) wasn’t too brilliant:

    P is notable for its repetition of lists, long, unexciting, interruptions to the narrative, cold unemotional descriptions, and the lack of a high literary standard… P is regarded by the majority of scholars as particularly inelegant, and most think themselves able to recognize a text from P on sight due to this.

    1. The failure in that is that P doesn’t exist as a separate entity. The description is circular. Lists, etc, are taken to be exemplars of the P source, based in the nineteenth century libreral Protestant assumption that a post-exilic, devolved (religiously and literarily) priestly cabal could produce nothing but lists, etc. These were then superseded by the Christian enlightenment, and brought to fulfillment of glory in the liberal German Protestant writings of the nineteenth century. I reject this dialectic entirely.

      Rather, the so-called P materials are integral to the authorship, and are representative of concerns of the Prophetic Guild. Note the legal material: all is related to have been prophecy. Note the Moses-Aaron relationship: who is God to whose Prophet? Again, in the Moses-Aaron relationship: who is the faithful one and who is the tool of the syncretistic aristocrats and people? None of the legal material falls outside the realm of prophecy. I recommend a close reading of the excellent collection of relevant ANE prophetic texts by Nissinen, et al: Prophets and Prophecy in the Ancient Near East. The concern of such texts revealingly covers cultic matters, in addition to others. In this, the OT texts are no different.

      This is not to say that I do not believe the various texts of the OT are not constructed from multiple sources (even the texts themselves explicitly record various sources), only that the current source criticism is entirely wrong, and has been improperly following a religiously-based dialectic that doesn’t take into proper account the contextual materials of the ancient Near East. Again a recommendation, unfortunately this time for a title out of print: the Jeffrey Tigay edited Empirical Models for Biblical Criticism. Though Tigay is well-disposed, as are the authors of the volume, toward Wellhausenian dialectic-based source criticism, the chapter-articles indicate various shortcomings in it.

      The texts as we have them, in their final form, are brilliant. They’re some of the most engaging that survive from the ancient world, and this is reflected in their continued popularity, with both general readers of many levels of literacy and with literary critics. There is no comparable collection preserved from the ancient Near East. In this I mean there is no comparable set of writings that were produced and preserved to the present day by a continuous tradition of transmission: none. The value of the writings has stood well the test of time in that respect alone.

  8. Higher criticism is not my area of expertise, so I can’t really get into that any further, but I would like to address another argument. You write “There is no comparable collection preserved from the ancient Near East” and imply that’s because of the work’s beauty and genius. But I have another hypothesis — they survived and were preserved because of the religions that hold them to be holy!

    500 years from now if the book of Mormon is the most popular book from the last few centuries, would you argue that it’s because it’s a work of genius? Or is there another factor at work?

    Don’t get me wrong — some of the OT is quite good, especially the plotting and characters (as opposed to, e.g., the style, although certain books are quite good in that department as well.) But it’s really not in the same league as, for example, Shakespeare or Homer. The Odyssey has survived comparably long WITHOUT one religion backing it.

    1. I don’t imply that it was solely for issues of “beauty and genius,” nor that the religious import is absent. Scribes transmitted texts that they found valuable. Christian and Jewish scribes have transmitted a particular subset of texts out of the total produced in their traditions. Some texts have been lost. Why? Because they were considered not valuable enough to copy and hence they were not preserved. To say they were preserved simply because some religions hold them to be holy is overly simplistic, for various texts that were at some point held sacred certainly fell out of transmission. The quality of the works themselves contributes to their preservation, clearly, even within a religious context. Some texts are of higher quality, and are therefore preserved in more copies and with better concerns for transmission than others.

      You are mistaken about a religion not backing the transmission of Homer’s works. It is precisely Greek Christian scribes who preserved the Greek texts of Homer, and Plato, and any number of other great works, because they were considered of great literary value, and were to a degree (for some of these writers) seen as precursors to the Gospels. I recommend Constantine Cavarnos, Orthodoxy and Philosophy, for an overview of that phenomenon.

  9. The two Protestant works of the last century that most affected me are easily King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and Bonhoeffer’s “The Cost of Discipleship”. Needless to say, neither was a “commentary” in the traditional sense.

    1. Those are two good ones! I haven’t read any Machen, though I have a list from Esteban that he sent me a while ago to start with. I expect good things there. I’d have to look around at home to bring to mind the others I’ve valued, though much has simply been online, read in passing, and made its impact but the sources are forgotten.

      Most of the best and most useful writings of the last century (it’s fun to say that) for me have been Orthodox, Jewish, and Catholic, in that order, actually. There are too many writers to list them all, though in the Catholic category I’ve always found much of benefit in the writings of Joseph Ratzinger, who is something of a model for the proper approach to the Scriptures that I have in mind.

      But I’ve spent much more time reading Patristic sources than anything else over the last ten years, and that has had its effect.

    1. What a hippy!

      He’s more interested in the secondary academic evaluation than the witness of the texts, this being the same utterly lame disdain for primary sources taken on their own terms that passes for scholarship in general these days.

      Thanks, Doug!

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