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.