Critical Scholarship Lacks Self-criticism

Some scholarly debates reach a ‘consensus’ because, although unresolved, scholars get bored of discussing them. The majority position is assumed to have won, and no one is allowed to talk about it anymore. One such view is the belief that the Old Testament is comprised of multiple sources and that little bits of the Pentateuch can be pigeon-holed into compartments labelled ‘Jahwist’, ‘Elohist’, ‘Deuteronomist’ or ‘Priestly’ (JEDP). These little bits and pieces are given their own theological motivation and an entirely new chronology. You would hope that people calling themselves ‘critical scholars’ would have some sort of evidence for their slicing up of the text, at least something that distinguishes it from what is popularly called ‘making stuff up’.

A parable:

The text: ‘It was 1920. I was walking past the German butchery on my way to my lodgings when a horse and rider galloped past me down the street. The sound of a car engine and a sudden blast from its horn startled the horse, and the rider fell from its back, injuring his wrist. I decided to get some Bratwurst.’

As an accomplished historian and source critic, I approach the text knowing that travel on foot was characteristic of pre-technological stages of human development, that domestication of horses for transportation purposes was common for three millennia or so, and that motorised transportation became popular in the mid 20th Century. Therefore, it can be noted that the above text has gone through three stages of historical development, where one tradition, which we shall call P (for Pedestrian), represents the earliest story layer dating from an age of prehistoric forms of transportation. The second source, which we shall call E (for Equine), represents a significant development in the life of this story, but an intermediate stage about which little is known for certain. What is much clearer is the work of the final editor, which we shall refer to as M (for Motorised), whose work included the provision of the late date (1920s), as well as the ‘Teutonicising’ of the text in order to turn this centuries-old travel narrative into a post-World-War-I apologia for the German nation. It is of course the character from the P source who shows sympathy by entering the German butchery after the great ‘fall’ that precedes it, and not the expected M source, but this is clearly an attempt by M to edit out the P material. He was not entirely able to do so, as the remnants of P are still discernible.

While the above is clearly ludicrous, you’d be surprised how many doctorates are handed out for work that appears to me to be only slightly better dressed than my parable. Heck, I could possibly get a doctorate simply for coining the term ‘Teutonicising’. A book I’m busy reading by Claus Westermann, purporting to explain what blessing means in the Bible, does just this sort of thing. He approached scripture with a pre-formed historical paradigm (courtesy of the generalisations of the early 20th C ‘history of religions’ school) through which the biblical material is to be assessed. In this case, it is the assumptions that a) ancient Arabic beliefs about magic spells were commonly held in the Ancient Near East, and that b) belief in magic words securing fertility for the family was the ‘original’ belief, followed later by belief that God or a god was responsible for blessing even whole nations, followed later still by the belief that blessing came via religious activities. [Do I need to point out that each of these views is held concurrently today?]

So he sets about hunting for this three-stage development through which religions are supposed to pass, and because it doesnt exist in this way in scripture, he turns to the wonder of source criticism, finding vestiges of the early beliefs ‘under the surface’ and ‘stripping away’ the work of later editors that tried to ‘theologise out’ these previous magic-words beliefs about blessing. In other words, if there’s a detail that can be made to fit with my paradigm, but seven other details that make it impossible, source criticism provides me with an academically acceptable means of ignoring the information that stands in the way of what I believe.

Take for example the story of Balaam, hired to curse the Israelites so that they would be unable to succeed militarily. Here, says Westermann, is an example of the early belief that certain people were in possession of ‘power-laden words’, people who could be hired to send evil upon others by magic. This is one of only two places that later editors were ‘unable’ to fully remove evidence of the ‘early beliefs’, showing that blessing is indeed related to magic words and ‘soul power’.

Unfortunately for Westermann, as CW Mitchell points out, the Balaam story completely opposes this view in every way. Balaam was hired because what he said was reputed always to come true. But he specifically says that he has no innate power to curse, but only to report what the gods determine to do (Numbers 23:8 ‘How can I curse those whom God has not cursed? How can I denounce those whom the LORD has not denounced?’ — this sort of thing is repeated a number of times in the story). He doesn’t attempt to curse Israel only to find his power removed or overcome. He refuses to curse Israel, because the One with the power to curse is determined to bless.

Westermann then uses this ‘evidence’ of the supposedly ‘early’ view to revise the way that the earlier texts should be understood. According to his fictional paradigm of history, magical views of blessing precede God’s promises of blessing, as so any divine promises to Abraham has to be the work of later theologians, who really ought to have known better than to buck Westermann’s system that he just made up.

If one is critical of the critics’ paradigms and divination of the seams between sources, and if one rather looks at the way that the blessing words are used in scripture (and even in non-Israelite literature from the region), it emerges that all the uses of the word actually share the same things in common: blessing is to do with receiving a good thing from God, or wishing a good thing from God upon another, or living in a state of goodness from God, all on account of a relationship between God and man. It has nothing at all to do with magical incantations from Arabia.

Imagine. Biblical scholarship that uses the Bible instead of foreign interpretive paradigms and an over-eager scalpel. A man can dream. For now I have to read the rest of Westermann.


One thought on “Critical Scholarship Lacks Self-criticism

  1. youthguyerik says:

    Wow. Great essay! I was initially struck by the title and sorta expected this to be an attack on christianity in general. When I read the documentary theory for the pentateuch in your opening paragraph I was quite riveted. I wrote on the same topic yesterday, though my post related to the faults in the theory. Now, I’d argue that there are voices of descent, but that critical scholars just ignore them. Well done! great defense of the scriptures and scholarship!

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