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.


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