Does Higher Criticism Attempt to “Destroy the Bible”?
This is a series that I started last year that I never finished and would like to revisit and bring to a conclusion. Enjoy!
One of the dodges by some Christian “philosophers”, theologians, fundamentalists, and others, is to suggest that the goal of higher criticism is to “destroy the Bible” or “destroy faith.” Typically, this is a rhetorical device intended to dismiss higher criticism in its entirety. This kind of argumentation is important as it leaves the person suspicious of higher criticism with a feeling of comfort, and much more importantly: they never have to consider any of the procedures or evidence of biblical criticism.
This sort of argument has a brother: persons who declare, “There is absolutely no evidence for evolution.” Of course, they haven’t studied astrophysics, micro-biology, or geology–and they wouldn’t under any circumstance–but they say their mantra over and over “no evidence, no evidence, NO evidence!” And they never have to consider the actual evidence, one way or the other. Some critiques of biblical scholarship often function the same way. “Oh they’re just out to destroy the Bible,” or “They’re anti-spiritual,” or “They don’t believe in inerrancy,” and really the goal of such argumentation is to try to set up a situation in which none of the evidence has to be considered. This kind of “thinking” can even find its way into “academic” work: “there is no compelling or even reasonably decent argument for supposing the procedures and assumptions of historical biblical criticism are to be preferred to those of traditional biblical commentary.”
Either “they” are trying to destroy faith, or there’s no good argument to consider their presuppositions or procedures. Basically then, this sort of argument is nothing more than trying to lump all of scholarship together, and create a “Christian” anti-intellectual environment in which no evidence is necessary other than “beliefs”, tradition, and favorite proof-texted verses… and worse of all, sometimes, these verses stand as self-evident evidence!
Now, while those who are involved in scholarship can see the unfairness of painting all of academia as the boogeyman (Beware ye who enter here!), and there just is no brush that you can color the varied purposes of scholars with, ultimately, we understand the purpose of (well-meaning?) pastors, dilettantes, and bad philosophers: to protect Christians from evidence, because cognitive dissonance is hard and sometimes quite difficult to put the pieces back together once Humpty has fallen.
But do biblical scholars try to “destroy the Bible”? Well, I have read and marked a lot of papers (too many!), and I have yet to see the thesis statement: The purpose of this paper is to destroy the Bible and/or faith. I’ve read a few thousand thesis statements and I have yet to run into that one. Perhaps many conclusions from these papers are incompatible with the presuppositions that refuse to consider evidence, but the goal of the paper is not to “destroy the Bible.”
So what do scholars do? What are their “goals”? And why should their procedures and assumptions be considered? It will probably take more than one post to consider these questions, but I shall begin here. Here’s assumption number one: the texts that make up the Hebrew Bible and Greek New Testament have not existed forever.
I hope that if any conservative Christians are reading this, your faith is still intact after I dropped that bomb-shell on you.
Once upon a time, there was a popular story in Second Temple Judaism that suggested the Torah of God had existed forever. In an ancient book called Jubilees, Moses goes up Mount Sinai and an angel dictates to him the books of Moses from the heavenly tablets that have existed for eternity in heaven. So basically, Moses merely transmits the words of God that have existed forever.
Evil scholars (and a whole lot of Christians) don’t believe that.
Scholars suggest that there was a time when the books, songs, poems, letters, etc. that eventually made up the different canons did not exist! Gasp… What? This then leads to the next question: well then, if there was a time they did not exist, when did they come into existence? In attempting to answer this question all sorts of issues have to be incorporated: orality, dating, authorship, social context, history, religious function, and so on and so forth. Lots of evidence needs to be considered, and does significantly affect dating.
Obviously, I am generalizing, and I think I will have to for this series, as many scholars favor different approaches, and others would word things differently than I would, but hopefully, I can give you a basic idea of how this biblical studies student functions and thinks at the very least, and possibly, you may see the value of at least some of the things we do.
So assumption one: texts have not always existed. Up next, assumption two: what kind of text am I reading?