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Does Higher Criticism Attempt to “Destroy the Bible”? II

July 13, 2011

In the first post of this… I guess, “series” is the best word for my… uh, stream of consciousness musings, I began to consider whether the purposes, assumptions, and aims of biblical criticism are to “destroy the Bible!”

The first assumption of scholars I noted was that historical critics maintain that the texts which comprise the Hebrew Bible and Greek New Testament have not existed forever. From this assumption comes the attempt to locate a date for the composition of a text. Many questions, social and political issues, and methodologies are brought to bear on such an assumption, but at the end of the day, basically: a text did not exist, then it existed, so when did this happen? There you have it. Assumption number one: The texts of any canon did not always exist. Shocking, dirty, and evil stuff those liberal scholars come up with!

The second assumption is almost as horrifying. Assumption number two: all texts, by their very nature, have to be written in a certain literary genre, and that genre can inform a reader as to some meaning of the text.

Now, I could bore you with a bunch of hermeneutics, with preunderstandings and presuppositions which become the fore-structure to interpreting any written text, but basically: writers choose a certain ‘genre’ for certain literary tasks. Writing in this genre sets reader expectations and aids in the reading of any text. Therefore some texts start, “Once upon a time,” another “It was a dark and stormy night,” another “Dear John,” another “Roses are red.” These are all cues to the reader as to how the text is to be read.

We do not read the comics in the back of the newspaper the same way we read page one of the news. A historical novel is not approached the same way as a comic book. A user manual and a murder mystery have completely different reader expectations.

Biblical scholars are widely read and familiar with the different genres of ancient literature to have their fore-structure adequately prepared for interpretation within the ancient categories. Cosmologies, wisdom literature, prophecy, law codes, covenants, proverbs, etc. and etc. These are all genres the scholar tries to familiarize himself or herself with in order to ‘hear’ what the text might be saying in their original context. There is a lot of literature from many of the neighbors and cultures that surrounded the composition of the biblical  texts, and from a wide range of history as well. The task in familiarizing oneself with it is not small.

Conversely, not having these categories or any familiarity with the other ancient literature, many modern readers are left reading the different genres of the Bible under one genre: the prophetic genre. Within this understanding the varied forms of the literature are reduced to, “what is the Bible saying to me?” Unfortunately from this approach the many forms, voices, and conversations within the literature are muted into an individualistic, modern, and severely truncated story.

Certainly, from these much different approaches the conclusions of scholars will differ from those who think the Bible was written “for them” and lack the categories to recognize some of the different forms in the Bible. However, at this point, I hope (really hope) that it is clear that what scholars are doing is not attempting to “destroy the Bible” because so far we have two assumptions: one, texts have not always existed; two, the literary genre of a text can help us understand a text better. These are methodological approaches that have nothing to do with trying to destroy the Bible or being anti-spiritual. In fact, as far as I can tell, these assumptions have absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with a wish to “destroy the Bible.”

Up next, assumption three: a human being (or more than one!?!) was involved in the composition of the texts.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. July 13, 2011 10:25 am

    Scott, there is another side to your second assumption. Many naive readers today are not sensitive to the genre of texts and, for example, read fiction as fact. Consider the reaction to The Da Vinci Code. It is mostly those who have formal training in literature who are sensitive to genre. But in the ancient world few people had any such training. So why do we assume that most people in ancient times, even authors in ancient times, had this kind of literary sophistication? They may have been quite capable of, for example, writing fact in a fiction genre, or vice versa, without even realising that they were breaking rules laid down thousands of years later. So while this concept of genre may be helpful for looking at modern literature, it just could be unhelpful or even counter-productive for ancient literature. So it should at least be taken with a large pinch of salt.

    • July 13, 2011 10:34 am

      I would find it difficult to believe that ancient scribes–who do show a great deal of sophistication at points-could not tell the difference between a Psalm and a Proverb for which they had different names.

      Also: apocalyptic, prophecy, wisdom, testaments (pseudepigraphal kinds), and a variety of other types of literature undermines your argument.

      • July 13, 2011 11:24 am

        Obviously they recognised some distinctions. That doesn’t imply that they recognised all the distinctions imposed on them by modern scholars, or considered the boundaries between them to be anything like as rigid as they are sometimes assumed to be.

        • July 13, 2011 11:34 am

          Of course Aramaic and Hebrew speaking persons in the 6th or 5th century BCE did not occupy the same conceptual space as modern persons but when a block of text begins לַמְנַצֵּ֥חַ עַֽל־הַגִּתִּ֑ית לִבְנֵי־קֹ֥רַח מִזְמֽוֹר or מִזְמ֗וֹר לְאָ֫סָ֥ף or לַמְנַצֵּ֥חַ אֶל־שֹׁשַׁנִּ֑ים or מִזְמ֡וֹר שִׁיר־חֲנֻכַּ֖ת הַבַּ֣יִת לְדָוִֽד it signifies something (because there are other formulas) and sets reader expectations, even if they are ancient ones we do not fully understand.

    • nazani14 permalink
      July 14, 2011 1:33 pm

      Even if we assume that residents of the Holy Land were less literate than other people living under Roman rule, I think they still would have been aware of various genres of writing. Satyricon and The Golden Ass may be our only surviving Roman works of extended prose fiction, but there must have been many more examples. Even if the Jews of occupied Israel hated Rome so much that they rejected all that culture, they would have been aware of actual historical accounts, such as the accounts of Alexander the Great’s life written by people who actually fought with him. No less than such 5 texts would have been extant in the 1st century. 1st century Israel wasn’t the middle of nowhere, it was an incredibly cosmopolitan, multi-ethnic region. Compare the details we have of Alexander’s likes and dislikes, his appearance and personality with what we are told about Jesus, who is a cardboard cutout in comparison.
      No, I think the scriptural authors made a conscious decision to write in a “mythic” style.

  2. Len permalink
    July 13, 2011 10:27 am

    Great post (again). One small comment:

    A user manual and a murder mystery have completely different reader expectations.

    I work in the technical communications industry (the bit that used to be called user documentation) – I’m not so sure that your statement is entirely accurate.

    • July 13, 2011 10:35 am

      I think that is a tongue in cheek statement but what I mean is that in one the reader expectation is that the manual is supposed to help you use something real and the other the expectation is that it is a made-up story: someone didn’t really get killed.


  1. August 2011 Biblical Studies Carnival « Daniel O. McClellan

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