The Return of the Son of Compare and Contrast

Since I’ve got a bit of time, and the plaster dust of renovation in stately biblicalia manor has settled to a degree, it’d be good to respond to Kevin Wilson’s last post over at Blue Cord. He’s got links there to all the back and forth over this, so see there for that.

Let me first air a clarification. I think Kevin may be supposing that my position is that I deny all development of all texts in the Hebrew Bible, but that’s not so. My position is still apparently one which is apparently quite outrageous to someone highly involved in source critical issues. Namely, while I do believe that the documents we possess in our various collections called the Bible did experience growth and alteration through several centuries, I do not believe that source criticism is sufficiently or appropriately nuanced in its work, and, for other reasons, believe that it is quite impossible to predict what those earlier sources looked like. I think source critics, particularly those working in the Documentary Hypothesis tradition, are wasting their time on scholarly pie in the sky. There are many others who believe the same thing, and this has been the case for a number of years, with the rise of various alternatives to the classical Documentary Hypothesis. As for comparative data, it is quite obvious that there is no way that someone would reconstruct the earlier versions of the Gilgamesh Epic from the later, no matter what theory one uses to explain the changes that can be observed; the differences between the works as a whole are surprising and non-intuitive, follwing no distinct pattern. Similarly, I find source criticism in the Hebrew Bible to be also a “consummately fruitless endeavor” as Charles Halton’s Professor Kaufman put it.

There is an approach to ancient texts of which we have multiple versions that objectively notes the differences arising in these texts from age to age. The similarities and differences are all quite clear. Even if one is forced to rely upon versional (by which I refer to translations into another language) evidence, it may be possible to gain evidence on how the text changed over time. Thus far all agree. One might even take the continually altering editions as evidence of a more traditionally accepted scheme, such as the Wellhausen/Documentary Hypothesis. This is precisely where I take issue with the process, for it is not the only conclusion possible, nor is it the most likely based upon the evidence. That the evidence can support a conclusion does not mean that it must, or even that it does. The potential and capability for (mis)construal is ubiquitous in scholarship, which most don’t often mention for it is not polite, but we all know that it goes on, regardless, and quite spectacularly, at times. This is the crux of the issue. The observation of certain alterations in one direction is a valid, objective pastime. However, to apply these data in the other direction, so to speak, is not, for there is no proper control. It is only supposition. The data are construed to reveal a pattern, yet it is a pattern which is limited by the texts, shorn from the wider cultural and linguistic context of their origin, and which is truly only a figment of the scholar’s imagination. We find in a text what we want to find.

But now briefly to respond to Kevin’s points.

Firstly, he splits one combined critique of my own into separate issues. In the beginning of source criticism, in its primitive “flat earth” days, the sources J and E were certainly based upon the usage of the Divine Name and the generic noun for divinity in Hebrew, “Jehovah/Jahweh” and “Elohim.” Everyone knows this basic fact, in all its charming innocence. I brought up just the example of Assyrian royal inscriptions and the presence, in one source, obviously contemporaneous with one another, side-by-side usage of divine names and generic titles/nouns for such divinities. My point in bringing up this usage was twofold: 1.) to stress that had this evidence been available to the earliest source critics (which it wasn’t), they would have not even suggested such a silly thing as separating sources by such terms; 2.) to keep things in the realm of realia. Kevin comments on such usage:

In source criticism, we are not simply looking at the different names in one passage. Instead, we are asking why in one chapter the divine name appears exclusively and in the next it is not used at all. The simplest answer is that we are looking at the work of two different hands.

No, the simplest answer is this: in this literary work, for some reason the author has chosen to use simply one or the other or both terms. Applying a modern narrative logic to an ancient work is anachronistic.

Kevin proceeds with an interesting discourse on differences between P and D. Yet this is not apt. The examples are stripped from their contexts: the legislation he notes for P is to be set in the wilderness camp, while the D material is specifically stated to be intended as the practice for those who are settled in the Land. The social/physical settings of the narrative framework in which these regulations are preserved is enough to explain the difference. One cannot draw distinctions like those if the context is taken into account.

Kevin is wrong in thinking that I naively assume source critics rely upon a single criterium for their discernment of sources. If anything, I read with amusement the discovery of new criteria every few years. When one is looking for something in a text, one will find it.

Kevin is fascinated by source criticism, and dabbles at it, it seems. I’m fascinated by textual criticism, and do the same. Now, I obviously need to explain what I meant when I wrote that textual criticism relies upon data, and source criticism does not, but relies upon theory. Firstly, it is the primary work of the textual critic, collection and annotation of variants, that I had in mind. The variants are objective data, culled from multiple sources, and arranged. That is the primary work of a textual critic: collection and arrangement of variants. Relationships between manuscripts are accomplished therefore objectively, according to the relationships of their variants. Theorizing on the reasons for the differences is limited, and the construction of eclectic texts is a niche in textual criticism, but not required. On the other hand, source critics use texts in a different way. They see in a given text various indicators which are part of their theoretical definition of sources A-F, and therefore split the text into different sections. The source critics are not sitting there tracking the changes through a manuscript tradition, for they generally lack such as the textual critic has. Rather, in essence, it is the theoretical framework providing them with further data, and corroboration of their theory, for having been able to separate a text, has the source critic not proven tha applicability of his theory yet again?

Kevin closes with this:

As a final note, I want to say that I would love to hear how Kevin Edgecomb (and Joe Cathey) explain the seams and uneveness that is found within the Pentateuch. If they reject source criticism, how do they account for this data?

There is more than one perspective on what is a “seam” and “uneveness.” Holding ancient Hebrews to a modern English (or any other modern language’s) standard of literary convention or logic is a common blindspot. Because the Hebrew Bible has had such an enormous influence on Western literature, it is often difficult to maintain a recognition of the difference between these ancient writers and ourselves. Certainly, we all know that they were ancients and very different, but the unexamined assumption is made that their literature should somehow follow the same course of logic that ours does, in small and in large. All ancient writing is just slightly weird and off-putting in certain ways that are hard to define. But because Western culture’s own perception of narrative logic bears a close (but not identical!) resemblance to Hebrew narrative structure due to the latter’s long and highly influential status throughout our histories, we often unconsciously assume identity, and that differences in Hebrew mean what such differences in English would mean. This kind of intercultural equation of narrative logics needs to be demonstrated.

What I suggest (indeed, what I practice!) is a reading of these ancient texts that assumes them to be largely the product of one hand each, usually, even if that hand is just a final editor. Who, what and when are generally irrelevant. We simply cannot know who most of the writers were, and Moses is as good a name for an author as Ezra is. What does one learn in this method of reading? Firstly, one is able to enjoy the story as it is written, in all its intended complication of language and telling, often involving chiasm/inversion and numerous other flourishes belonging properly to the investigation of the rhetorical critic (another interest of mine). Secondly, when one is struck by a strangeness, perhaps a “seam” or “unevenness” as Kevin termed them, one is reminded of the differences between the cultures of author and reader, sometimes strikingly so. Thirdly, however, (and critics have nothing to say on this) one will, if listening with the proper hearing and reading with the proper sight, read or hear the voice of the timeless, cultureless, eternal God. In the end, that’s what most people are reading this book for, and wrangling over sources, whether they have been or can be defined, is irrelevant to them in their purpose for reading. It has been and always will be.

Later in the season, I’ll spend time in interaction with Jeffrey Tigay’s Empirical Models for Biblical Criticism, a book edited precisely upon this subject and to answer exactly the criticisms that I have raised, in particular with Kevin, who I thank again, for pushing me to clarify and further hone the explanations of my position on this subject.

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