The source of Source Criticism

Becoming an Old Testament major was described by one of my undergraduate lecturers – with more than a hint of irony – as a ‘special calling’. I think he meant ‘special’ as in ‘special-needs child’. Nevertheless, I’ve decided to do just that.

Source Criticism
Among the many difficulties in piecing together history from a sketchy archaeological record, and knowing how the Biblical narratives relate to historical event, the Old Testament student also has to cope with scholars in the Biblical Studies department who engage in such activities as ‘Source Criticism’: the attempt to establish the sources from which the current text is composed. Obviously, there is some merit to such an approach: for example, the Biblical history in Samuel-Kings covers the period from Saul (ca. 1000BC) to the Babylonian destruction of Judea (586BC), so the book is self-consciously composed some 500 years after the first events that it describes, and so presumably it made use of various sources and received some editing over time. So Source Criticism looks at language and content to try to figure out what comes from where and when.

Repetitive Resumption
A professor at UCLA called Schniedewind gives an example from Chronicles for which we have a clear source document, namely the biblical book of Kings. And in this example we see an interesting scribal technique called ‘repetitive resumption’: where the second document departs from the first, the scribe book-ends the addition with a repeated line from the first. So, the earlier source reads as follows:

1Kg. 14:25 In the fifth year of King Rehoboam, Shishak king of Egypt attacked Jerusalem. 26 He carried off the treasures of the temple of the LORD and the treasures of the royal palace. He took everything, including all the gold shields Solomon had made. 27 So King Rehoboam made bronze shields to replace them and assigned these to the commanders of the guard on duty at the entrance to the royal palace.

2Chronicles more or less mimics this account, except for a significant insertion of extra explanation. The line ‘Shishak king of Egypt attacked Jerusalem’ is repeated after the insertion to show where the original story has been resumed:

2Ch. 12:2 Because they had been unfaithful to the LORD, Shishak king of Egypt attacked Jerusalem in the fifth year of King Rehoboam.
[Verses 3-8 describe Rehoboam’s repentance, which prevented the promised destruction at the hands of Shishak, but meant that tribute needed to be paid].
2Ch. 12:9 When Shishak king of Egypt attacked Jerusalem, he carried off the treasures of the temple of the LORD and the treasures of the royal palace. He took everything, including the gold shields that Solomon had made. 10 So King Rehoboam made bronze shields to replace them and assigned these to the commanders of the guard on duty at the entrance to the royal palace.

So that’s all very well, because we know that the readers of the Chronicler would have been aware of the books of Kings, and we have the main source document with which to make comparisons.

What I can’t understand is the confidence with which scholars talk about source documents that don’t exist. When examining Old Testament texts, they assign bits and pieces of the text to various authors that they call ‘the Deuteronomist’ or ‘the Yahwist’ or whatever, and they seem not to realise that they are completely making it up as they go along. So after making wild speculation x, they proceed to use x as if it is factual evidence in their argument. Schniedewind provides an example of this too.

The thesis of his book is that Israel was an oral society up until the time of King Hezekiah, at which time literacy spread to the ‘common man’, rather than being reserved for a scribal class. Because the book of Deuteronomy speaks fairly often about writing the law down, it must have been written after Israel became a literate nation. Although this is itself massively speculative, this seems to be a consensus among most of the OT scholars. The law in Exodus, by contrast, speaks about the oral transmission of the law, and not about writing.

‘Let me stop you there, Mr Schniedewind,’ you might be tempted to say, ‘there are some references to writing the law in Exodus too!’ And you’d be right (I did a word search…). But here’s where Source Criticism comes to the rescue. Anything that contradicts your argument simply doesn’t belong there. Obsoive:

In Exodus 24, Moses receives the Torah from God and writes down all the instructions given to him. This writing of the law is inconvenient to the idea that Israel was at this point dependent upon oral authority, not written authority. However, Schniedewind notes that there is repetition of the line ‘Everything the LORD has said we will do’ in verses 3 and 7. He takes  this as ‘repetitive resumption’ and concludes that the bit about writing is a later insertion by a Deuteronomistic scribe. In addition, there is a contradiction in these early verses with regard to who is to approach the mountain, which clearly points to dual sources. So, the original Exodus (of which there is no record) would not have mentioned writing.

If Schniedewind prefaced all of this saying, ‘It is oh-so-very-slightly possible that this is a later addition’, then I could have no quarrel. Of course it’s possible. However, it’s presented as though it’s virtually certain (because it serves the picture that he’s painted of Israel back then), when in reality it is perhaps the least likely explanation of that text, for a few good reasons:

  • The ‘repetitive resumption’ is not a perfect repetition, as though the scribe has picked up from where he left off. The two oaths that the people make are slightly different in form, which suggests, to me anyway, that it is intended to be read as two oaths rather than as a record of an insertion.
  • There are scores of other reasons for repetition in narrative, as repetition serves both style and emphasis. For example, in the story of Daniel’s friends being cast into the furnace, the author painfully repeats the full list of instruments that would be the signal for worship, and the list of officials checking for compliance. The suggestion that this would indicate a series of insertions and resumptions is absurd. The repetition has a clear stylistic story-telling function. Similarly here, the repetition cannot be assumed to be resumption when there are so many possible reasons for it. For example, it could easily be intended to emphasise the nation’s verbal pledge, which soon is set in contrast with their behavioural rebellion.
  • The repetition in Exodus 24 is explicable even apart from story-telling concerns. There is every reason to believe that the significance of the giving of a legal, national and religious code from God Himself would occasion more than one oath of obedience. In the first occasion, having just come down from the mountain to an expectant nation, Moses tells what the Lord said, and the next day he reads his written record of it. The second oath confirms that the written record matched the initial report.
  • The alleged contradiction between God’s orders that Moses alone should approach the Lord (v2) and that the 70 elders did approach the Lord (v9f) is not actual. V1 states that the 70 are to ‘come up’ to the Lord as representatives, but only Moses is to ‘approach the Lord’. V9 says nothing more than that God revealed himself to those witnesses, but not that they ‘approached the Lord’ as Moses alone was to do. V12 still persists in maintaining a distinction between the place where the elders were, and the place to which Moses alone was allowed access (God still says ‘Come up to me’, and Moses and Joshua have to ‘set out’ from where the elders met God). The picture is consistent.

In other words, Schniedewind has no earlier source material or any actual evidence of sources with which to compare our current version of Exodus, and he has not demonstrated anything in the text that genuinely undermines the integrity of this story. His larger thesis requires that Deuteronomy is late and that Exodus is exclusively oral, and so where the evidence contradicts him, the evidence is forced to conform, and Source Criticism allows him to expunge those details that cause him problems.

The ‘Jesus Seminar’ people have this down to an art too. Their whole mandate is to rank bits of text from the Gospels according to whether or not it subscribes to their preconceptions about who Jesus is. If Jesus says something that doesn’t fit with ‘their Jesus’, then the answer is simply that Jesus could not have said it. Genius!

Similarly, there is supposed to be a large distinction between Jesus’ teaching and ‘Christianity’, which was supposedly invented by Paul. Jesus was all about love and good deeds, and Paul is harsh and angry (which is, incidentally, a very unfair caricature). In order to sustain this contrast, whenever scholars meet anything ascribed to Jesus that is grumpy or judgmental or overly churchy, they say that a later hand from the Pauline school added it in. hat’s settled then! Who needs evidence when you just have to tack on clever-sounding names to the stuff you’ve made up?

For the most part, the only source behind Source Criticism seems to be the imagination.

The Soul and Human Nature

Some weeks or months back now, I had some brief exchanges with one diligent reader, known as Hephaestion, about human nature. Heph contends that the Biblical view of humanity distorts our thinking about ourselves, contradicts what we know from science, and has seriously undermined the progress of the species. I promised that I’d respond properly to his thoughtful comments, but have put it off for so long because of the scope of what is required for a satisfactory answer. Seeing that I am unlikely to meet those requirements any time soon, I have to opt for an unsatisfactory answer instead.

The short answer to the supposed conflict between Christian and scientific views of human nature – in my opinion – is firstly that science is not infallible nor objective (so that its conclusions are devoid of speculation and opinion), and secondly that Christianity has often misunderstood what the Bible says about humanity, or ‘filled in the gaps’ in what the Bible says with Plato or Aristotle or whatever else is fashionable. In consequence, the lack of harmony between Christianity and science is often only apparent, and where conflict exists, there is no reason to think that the ‘scientific’ view is cold, undeniable fact and therefore preferable to the Christian one. The interpretation of the evidence gleaned from science is not necessarily and freer of speculation and metaphysics.

Christianity and dualism
Referencing Pinker’s Blank Slate (which I have not yet read, unfortunately), Hephaestion aligns Christianity with a doctrine of human nature labelled ‘The Ghost in the Machine’, translated in Christian terms into the doctrine of the soul, particularly, the idea that people are flesh suits that spring to life (eternal life, no less) when they have a soul inserted into them.

Although the Creation story gives superficial support to dualism when it pictures God creating us from mud and breathing life into us, it is very unlikely that dualism is a Hebraic way of thinking. Certainly, dualism is far from consistent in scripture. Scripture represents the whole human being from multiple perspectives, not simply body and soul. We are described as body, soul, mind, spirit and flesh, each of which refers to an aspect of the whole person rather than a divisible part. ‘Flesh’, for example, refers literally to our meatiness, but also to our relatedness to those things that are fleeting, sensual or sinful, which is (in dualist thinking) a soul activity. Soul (whatever that is) and body are a unity.

Furthermore, some key doctrines seem to oppose dualism. Outsiders to the faith often don’t realise that spiritual existence in heaven is not the eternal resting place of Christians. The Bible teaches a resurrection to bodily life in a new earth as our final state. Certainly, any notion that the physical is bad and the immaterial is pure and eternal comes from Plato, and not from Christ.

Science vs the soul
In terms of the scientific arguments against a soul, these seem also to be problematic.

According to Heph, dualism between mind and body (and by extension soul and body) is refuted as follows:

“But, for all our wishes, it seems there is no mind-body dualism – one gives rise to the other. As Michael Shermer cheekily put it, hit yourself over the head with a brick and see what faculties you lose. All the evidence indicates that our minds arise from our brains, and our brains are a complex neural network. Destroy the network and you destroy the mind.”

One could add to this the recent research that discovered a zone in the brain responsible for moral thinking. By merely applying magnetism to this zone, subjects became incapable of reaching ethical conclusions that they had uniformly agreed upon before in the absence of the magnetism.

It is fact that destroying the brain destroys the mind (and the soul to the extent that those are synonymous), but the implications of these facts depend very heavily on the presuppositions that one brings to the table. Even though killing the brain kills the mind, it does not follow that brain and mind are the same thing. Smashing my radio puts an end to the music that it plays, but the radio itself is not the musician. It is a conduit for music, but not the source of the music. Similarly, crackly radio speakers play crackly music, even if the original broadcast was perfect quality. In the same way, one’s soul/life may be considerably more than brain function, yet the soul may interface with material existence by means of the brain. This means that its ‘transmission’ will be played only as effectively as the brain is functioning.

The scientific facts do not allow us to say anything with conviction but that the brain is important to our thinking. It doesn’t even rule out the dualist belief in soul/life independent of the body; it only shows that the brain is an indispensable point of interface between the two.

So whatever one’s objections to the idea of soul, science has not proved anything this way or that, and certainly nothing has been scientifically demonstrated that would compel us to worry that upholding the Christian view is backward or damaging to society.

What is the soul?
We tend to speak about the soul as though everyone knows what it is, but I’m convinced that virtually the opposite is true. There is so little consensus over what a soul is that we simply find it less tiring to take its definition for granted than to try and hammer out an answer. I’m not sure that scientists have ever thought that ‘soul’ might be something empirically discoverable (perhaps some soul ‘stuff’ kicking around our pipes, or a measurable force within a person, like an aura, except real), but I wouldn’t be surprised if there are some who have thought it possible. For others, the soul is by definition immaterial, and so the search would be absurd.

In the Biblical languages, soul is rendered by nephesh in Hebrew, meaning literally the throat, and by extension the soul, self or life. Greek typically uses psuche (a cognate of ‘to breathe’ and referring to the soul or self), and possibly pneuma (rational soul, spirit, breath, mind). It is questionable, therefore, whether it is necessary to think of soul as something separate from one’s life and personality. Some have gone so far as to say that the soul is no more than a blueprint in the mind of God for who you are, a personality to be recreated at the Resurrection at the end.

The Biblical data is also not as supportive of an eternal soul as one might imagine. It is again more on Plato’s account that we have long believed that souls are eternal in themselves (his argument for the eternity of soul towards the end of the Republic is a quaint example of the limits of rationalism). Scripture by contrast teaches from the start that life is breathed out by God and sustained by ‘the Tree of Life’ in the garden (the death sentence upon man is carried out by barring him from access to the Tree, not by actively killing him). Eternity for souls, then, depends upon God granting them existence, and ‘eternal life’ in the New Testament is a gift that is carried out by Christ drawing man up into the life of God. Eternity is seemingly not something that man possesses by virtue of being human, but only by relationship with the Eternal One.

On this account, one that I favour, the soul corresponds to the Image of God given to man in Creation, and refers (simplistically speaking) to our capacity to relate to Him. Our existence after the intrusion of death is only possible because relationship with God persists if He chooses to persist with it. Indestructible life will be given as a gift by the one who possesses life within Himself. Souls per se do not.

A brief comment about one additional critique

“Christianity subverts this notion of personal responsibility and accountability through such things as inherited punishment, divine providence, future punishment (post death) and vicarious redemption. Ultimately, responsibility is conceded to the absolute sovereignty of God. Beyond even the most extreme form of totalitarianism one can imagine, in Christianity one’s thoughts are under constant surveillance (giving rise to thoughtcrime, in which thinking “sinful” things is equivalent to doing “sinful” things), and punishment lasts for eternity.”

Christianity holds in tension God’s sovereignty over events and human responsibility for our own behaviour. Whether or not one finds this to be an acceptable paradox or a gross contradiction is happily besides the point here, which is merely to assert that Christianity (in its Biblically dependent form at least) repeatedly holds people to account, and never adopts a fatalistic position towards human behaviour. Even Judas, though he was a necessary figure in God’s plan, is held responsible for betraying Christ (Mark 14:21 “For the Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born.”). Future judgment is also never used as a licence for immorality. It is used as a motivation not to take revenge and as a comfort that injustice will not rest, but it does not ever function as an excuse for injustice.

On ‘thoughtcrime’, it is not the case that thinking is made equivalent to doing. Judgment in the Biblical law is only levied against actions. Jesus makes lust and anger akin to adultery and murder not to suggest that they are exactly the same, but to show that our inner life demonstrates what we truly are. We cannot consider ourselves to be morally perfect merely by maintaining a clean public image, because lust and hate belong to the same family as adultery and murder. We can’t claim to be holy (‘other’ with regards to sin) if our inner life bears the family resemblance of moral depravity.

James 1:15 says that temptation fuels inappropriate desire, and “desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin” which clearly indicates that the primary moral concern remains with how we act. Nevertheless, in scrutinising our thought life, God demonstrates that it is our inner being that requires transformation, not our external behaviour. Conversion of the heart (i.e. the will) is what matters, and a transformed will ultimately issues forth in transformed behaviour. As James goes on to say “Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.” Superficially good behaviour from a rotten source is not truly good. God cares about who and what you are, ultimately, not that you did this or that, or refrained from doing this or that.

In this regard, pejoratives such as ‘totalitarianism’ cloud the issue here. ‘Big Brother’ watches everyone intently, ready to punish any variation from the regime. By contrast, God knows all of our deviations from the straight and narrow – all the things that we have stolen without anyone seeing, all of our physical, verbal and sexual abuse of one another, all of our lies and hate – and in spite of that He invites forgiveness and reconciliation. “For one will scarcely die for a righteous person – though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die – but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” A totalitarian regime loves its power and its ideals but not its people. They’re like cattle to be kept in check. God has power and perfection, but sets it aside in order to be incarnated as Good Shepherd and to die for His flock.

God’s knowledge of our darkest secrets is not an invasion of our privacy, it’s a fact of His being. Another fact of His being – His love – means that He has responded to our darkness by doing something about it.

David Hume on Miracles

I was recently directed towards a useful article on one writer’s assessment of the most influential philosophical principles throughout history. At number 6 was one of David Hume’s contributions, which the writer summarises as follows:

by DAVID HUME, 1771-1776

‘A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence’ sounds like advice you know already. But it’s more easily agreed with than followed, and the results can be uncomfortable. No wonder David Hume felt the need to restate it. In his essay Of Miracles he says: ‘A weaker evidence can never destroy a stronger’. Sounds obvious. But when it comes to the miraculous, has the testimony of any witness ever been stronger evidence than the testimony of all the rest of life, which tells us that nature’s laws do not admit exceptions? If not, says Hume, then anyone who claims to base belief on evidence can never believe in miracles.


I’ve come across this before, not least because CS Lewis makes mention of this in his book entitled ‘Miracles’, which is a favourite of mine. Lewis’ point against Hume is still a good one. He says the following:

The question, “Do miracles occur?” and the question, “Is the course of Nature absolutely uniform?” are the same question asked in two different ways. Hume, by sleight of hand, treats them as two different questions. He first answers, “Yes,” to the question whether Nature is absolutely uniform: and then uses this “Yes” as a ground for answering, “No,” to the question, “Do miracles occur?” The single real question which he set out to answer is never discussed at all. He gets the answer to one form of the question by assuming the answer to the other form of the same question.”

So, Hume dismisses miracles on the basis of uniform experience: We have had it confirmed ad infinitum that nature’s laws are consistent, therefore it is always more reasonable to believe that testimony of the miraculous is less reliable than these laws. Lewis’ major contribution to the discussion is to point out that Hume’s reasoning is circular: when we question the plausibility of the miraculous, we are questioning the uniformity of nature, and so we can’t take the latter as a given in our answer.

Perhaps Hume’s point is only to show that it is more reasonable (when the two are in conflict) to believe the consistent testimony of nature than the shaky testimonies of people. This holds true in general, I think. We would reject the testimony of someone who claimed to have seen a pack of Allosauri hunting on Table Mountain, simply because we have countless centuries of human existence without a single report of the re-appearance of the Allosaurus, Table Mountain is well explored, and of course everyone knows that Allosauri don’t hunt in packs. The crucial difference however, is that the existence of dinosaurs is a question of natural phenomena, whereas the miraculous is a question about the interruption of nature. Hume’s argument fails (in my humble opinion) when applied to miracle because of what miracles are.

As Lewis points out, miracles are puncture-holes in the uniformity of nature. Because a miracle is something outside of nature that flies in the face of our ordinary experience, this creates a problem for Hume’s maxim: ‘A weaker evidence can never destroy a stronger’. Our ordinary experience simply cannot be offered as evidence against miracle, just as producing more intact fabric fails to be evidence that there is no hole elsewhere on the cloth. It doesn’t matter how many times I sink when I step out onto a body of water, my normal experience has nothing to say about whether or nor Jesus demonstrated his mastery of nature by defying normal experience.

This means that we remain at an impasse with respect to the possibility of miracles, seeing as we cannot philosophically demonstrate that they do or do not happen (unless we can prove the existence of a God who intervenes in the world, as Lewis tries to do). At least we can say that we need to judge each case on its merits. When it comes to the resurrection of Christ, that case is not as easily dismissed as skeptics make out. While it’s not the time now for an exhaustive case, here are some hasty thoughts on the matter:

Many of the easy-way-outs of the resurrection accounts comprehensively fail to deal with the actual data of the testimonies. For example, dismissals of the gospel reports as mass hallucinations are common enough, and yet mass hallucination occurs under certain conditions only, conditions that do not match most of the reports of Jesus’ resurrection that we have. Reasonable people should at least not dismiss evidence in a way that proves contrary to fact and sound thinking.

Positively, the most secular of Biblical scholars still date the composition of the Old Testament to sometime before the New Testament, and yet there is significant foretelling of the death and resurrection of Christ in those documents. Lest you’re ready to protest that Christ’s followers saw what they were expecting to see, Christ’s death and resurrection came as a surprise to them, as these Old Testament prophecies clearly did not feature as part of their expectation of the Christ. Even the religious leaders of the day thought that killing Jesus would be a good way of ending the belief that he was king, which would have been dumb if the king was expected to be betrayed, die and rise.

Jesus’ post-death existence was witnessed by many people in many circumstances and at many times. The proclamation of Jesus as raised began publicly in the place of his execution only 50 days after his execution. The earliest written account in the canon of scripture dates to about 50AD – twenty years after the events – and invites readers to seek out the many living witnesses of the events. I.e. there was ample occasion for fictions and inconsistencies to be exposed.

For these and other reasons, while we might acknowledge that a reasonable case against the resurrection can be made, the case for the resurrection is unusually strong and demands more than off-handed dismissals. It certainly demands a more reasonable response than Hume’s effective case that ‘the resurrection didn’t happen because resurrections don’t happen’.