Kevin Wilson at Blue Cord rightly takes me to task for my rhetoric, which, of course, is rhetoric and isn’t intended to be addressed, but is my way of keeping such tediously boring drivel as this interesting for my readers. What can I say? I like English and slinging it about like playing airplane with a kid. I even say, “Whee!” in real life.
Regarding the substance of my off-handed critique of one or more of Biblical Studies sacred cows (heavens, what a fuss!), we will still have to differ. I am completely unconvinced that all the source critical work, even since the 1970s is even fundamentally right-headed, much less of truly permanent value. I don’t mean that to sound unkind, but I think it’s true, and I’ll give some of my reasons below, in no particular order.
Kevin begins with a defense of source criticism as it is practiced now, while I particularly had in mind its origins. It was particularly in its beginnings that suggestions were made in source criticism by Astruc and Eichorn, both in the eighteenth century, based primarily upon the “Divine Names,” (really rather one Divine Name and one Divine Title or Noun). Had either of them even one Assyrian royal inscription to hand, and could they have read it, seeing the Assyrian’s chief god referred to by name as both Aššur and Bêlišu, “His Lord,” they would likely never have followed up on the idea. From there, it’s a matter of continuing the process and “discovering” other bits and pieces, leading to more and more sources. The excesses of the early twentieth century in Hebrew Bible source criticism weren’t an aberration as Kevin would have it, but rather its logical conclusion. Source criticism has, however, continued, backing off from that early plethora of sources, in realization that such detail is unknowable. Actually, it all is, and the sources are invented, not discovered.
Kevin mentions the discernment of various theologies particular to the sources. Theology in a non-theological literary work is always in the eye of the beholder, and many have beheld much theology that has since disappeared from the Biblical texts. Discerning a particular theological emphasis and isolating it to a single time is fundamentally wrong-headed. I presume Kevin is particularly thinking of theology like that imputed to the construed “Deuteronomist.” Let’s rather look at the Babylonian and Assyrian texts for examples of something similar to Deuteronomism (is that even a word?). Is there ever a time when Marduk’s beloved home was not Babylon, and in which one must go there to find him? Was there ever a period in Mesopotamia when exile was not a tactic used in warfare by victors over conquered cities? Did the Egyptians not use exile and depopulation in their dealings with Canaan in the 18th and 18th Dynasties? Even in 19th/18th century Mari, with those who Malamat refers to as the first known “intuitive prophets” both implicitly and explicitly warn of the dangers of disobeying the commands of the god. Sounds pretty centralized, pretty Deuteronomic, not isolated to one city, one time, even one nation, or even one age. Such ideas are certainly not only possible, but are found throughout history, Ancient Near Eastern and otherwise. The same holds for the theologies imputed to JE and that to H or P, such as they are. Of course, if one creates a separation of texts according to any set of criteria, BEHOLD!, we have discreet collection of texts that represent only the criteria by which we separated them, which particular collection supports our theory that our criteria are good for determining such separation. Isn’t that clever? Yet, when we have examples, objective, real-world data, again as in the case of the indubitably now-wearied Gilgamesh Epic, we seen their develpment doesn’t correspond to the pattern suggested by standard source criticism. Data speaks. Theory only suggests. When data contradicts a theory, the theory is rejected. Except perhaps in Biblical Studies, it seems, where, as I’ve said before and will say again, Occam’s razor never cuts.
I prefer data. With a larger textual base, something along the lines of what we have for Akkadian or Greek or Latin, we might be able to construct an objective evolution of Hebrew and discern properly what this or that style is. As it is, we don’t have that, and using a series of texts that have already gone through a process of centuries-long management and attempting to define a style in them is an uncontrolled experiment. Works passed through the generations are capable of being rewritten in a style of any of those centuries, or even all of them, which is exactly what we see in things like the Gilgamesh Epic in Sumerian and Akkadian. Or they may be more subtly altered, perhaps with the insertion of matres lectionis or such other indicators tied to the development of Hebrew, which we know happened, but cannot precisely date without the external evidence. Input from earliest fragments (DSS, etc) of the textual tradition are still from a period after the management of the texts as a sacred corpus had long already been in place. The very, very few fragments we have of texts from the ancient times when the language was vibrantly alive are insufficient: not many ostraca, but mostly of only one period; a couple amulets; many seal impressions from various periods, but these are not so useful for such reconstructive purposes. There is simply insufficient evidence to reconstruct in detail such development for Hebrew and its texts, unlike in the case of Mesopotamian and even Egyptian documents and literature and language, all such preservation being due to the particularities of climate and writing material. To do so is possible, but shouldn’t ever be expected to receive acceptance as scientific or even very likely. It should remain in the misty realms of discussion as possibility, not, as they are, considered fact.
In the end, I object, and always will object, to textual or other work built solely upon theories, and not on objective data, whether Biblical or any other texts. That’s all we have in Hebrew Bible source criticism. We lack all the necessary truly objective data in Hebrew. We always will, almost without a doubt. Textual criticism, which actually does indeed work with the objective data we have, is something that I enjoy, support, and find immensely fascinating. Source criticism, on the other hand, to me, is a charade. It pretends to be based upon objective data, but it is not. It is based upon imagination, then more imagination, and then further imagination, until an industry, Biblical Source Criticism, has been built of imagination. That’s fine for the Magic Kingdom, but not, I think for Biblical Studies, particularly regarding a book which, to many if not most, is of much greater value than any Disney movie.
I trust that’s more clear, and that my closing rhetorical flourish is forgivable!