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

July 15, 2011

So far in this conversation we have been considering some of the presuppositions and assumptions that biblical scholars have concerning ancient texts. The first assumption of scholars I noted was that the texts which comprise the Hebrew Bible and Greek New Testament have not existed forever. The second presupposition I noted was a belief that 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. A third assumption: If texts did not always exist, and if they are written in a specific genre and human language to aid comprehension, then they must have been written down at some point by a person or group.

At this point then, in a nutshell, scholars “assume” that texts can be located historically, and that they give us some clue as to authorship and audience.

Very likely these assumptions would be welcome in most seminaries or conservative Christian schools. While there are some other assumptions we could probably mention I think it would be profitable to move towards some of the procedures that scholars use in their academic investigations.

So let’s call this Procedure One: If there is one thing that scholars do very well it is to read texts very closely. In fact, I think that the critics of higher criticism do not realize how closely scholars read a text, and quite often, this reading is informed by a close familiarity of the genre. Scholars will take a book and read it, read it again, translate it, think about it, look at the relationship of the different parts… and read and re-read some more!

One of the characteristics by which I am so often impressed after reading good scholarship is how intimately familiar a scholar can be with his or her source material.

The importance of this can not be stressed enough. Many of the more ‘controversial’ theories that come from higher criticism are not built on a tendentious aim to “destroy the Bible!” but rather, are usually the end product of spending many hours, days, weeks, months, and years with a certain text. Add to this peer-review, editing and re-writing of hypotheses and papers, and you usually have formidable observations built on good data.

So what does this look like? I want to give you two examples, but seeing as this is a blog post I will try to keep them as brief as possible, however, you should get the basic idea.

1 Enoch

First, an extremely important sacred text(s) for some groups during the Second Temple period was 1 Enoch. One of the formative myths from this book tells the story of angels lusting women from heaven, coming down to earth and marrying the women, and then having giant babies that are evil (cf. Gen 6:1-4). However, upon a closer reading of the Enochic materials it appears there are two competing versions of the story woven through the different booklets that comprise 1 Enoch, and competing versions of the myth even in the first booklet the Book of Watchers (BW) itself.

In the one form of the myth, Shemihazah is the leader of angelic forces that make a pact in heaven to go and get their angelic freak-on with the daughters of men. This leads to improper sex and global impurity that God must rectify with a flood. In the second version of the myth interwoven through the material, an angel by the name of Azazel is the leader of the angels that are primarily ‘bad’ because they reveal improper knowledge to human beings. George Nickelsburg writes, “The identification of Asael as the archdemon marks the beginning of a tendency in most of the strata of 1 Enoch and in other Jewish literature: (a) to continue to mention the descent of the watchers and the procreation of the giants; (b) to expunge the name of Shemihazah; (c) and to emphasize the name of Asael/Azazel, though not necessarily the sin of angelic instruction.” (1 Enoch 1, p. 172)

The main point here is that different forms of the Watchers myth were told and re-told during the Second Temple period and at some point this material was written down and finally redacted into BW and the other texts that comprise the Enochic corpus. Without boring you with a ton of evidence (you can read the Hermeneia commentary yourselves!) this conclusion is built upon good solid scholarship and a very close reading and familiarity with 1 Enoch.


Another text that scholars think had multiple authors and bears evidence of different sources is Genesis. This, of course, is a tad more contentious issue than 1 Enoch for some people! The classic formulation of this theory is called the Documentary Hypothesis, and is also known as JEDP.

I want to demonstrate to you a couple of the reasons scholars would arrive at such a conclusion from Genesis 1-9.

First, there are two creation stories: a P account from 1:1-2:4, and a J account from 2:5-3:24. Before anyone dismisses this out of hand as possibly coming from two sources I would ask you to do two things: one, read out the narrative in Genesis one and try to draw it at the same time; and two, write out the order of which things are created in both stories and compare them (if you have a keen eye you could also compare day 1 and 4, day 2 and 5, and day 3 and 6 in chapter 1). If you know Hebrew you can also look at some of the keywords that appear in either narrative.

Second, there are two genealogies: a J genealogy in chapter 4 and a P genealogy in chapter 5. As hard as it is for moderns to believe: ancients loved genealogies and they communicated a lot to those who understood their context. However, I won’t bore you with an intro to ancient genealogies, but notice for the time being: two genealogies.

Third, there are two flood accounts; however things do get a little trickier here. The creation narratives and genealogies are fairly easy to identify as they are distinct blocks, but it appears as if the flood accounts have been interwoven. To save you some time I have separated them according to Speiser’s work. This is no mere “flight of fancy” on the part of scholars, as even a cursory reading rather quickly evidences the consistency of the two stories on their own once they have been untangled.

P Flood Narrative

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J Flood Narrative

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There are a myriad of issues that could be studied at this point but we will keep it brief here. In the two flood narratives you could ask questions such as when did Noah go in the Ark, how many animals did he take in with him, how long was the flood, and what happened after the flood (once again the keen reader could compare the language from the P creation account to the P flood story [be fruitful and multiply!] and the J to the J, and start to posit theories as to the differences). Once the many differences in details, language, and theology are considered the question that must be answered: is it more likely that this is the work of a single consistent author, or of more than one author?

Digression: Just for the record: there are those that have affirmed more than one author for Genesis and still have their “faith” quite intact and view the Bible as inerrant Scripture. They also consider their theological convictions for doing so intellectually satisfying and spiritually healthy. (Of course, others not so much! But hey…)

While this post has been much longer than what I normally do here, the point has been to demonstrate that the procedures of scholars are not built on some tendentious attempt to “destroy the Bible!” or challenge “inerrancy.” Rather, from very close readings scholars try and arrive at reasonable theories and conclusions that account for the greatest amount of data and are sustainable under peer-review. This means then that the scholar must often “follow the evidence” so to speak.

Rather, from very close readings scholars try and arrive at reasonable theories and conclusions that account for the greatest amount of data and are sustainable under peer-review.

At this point then we may be coming closer to an answer as to why some view biblical scholarship as so problematic that they will encourage the uninitiated to avoid it altogether. I envision two more posts: the first concerning something as to reason and epistemology, and the second concerning something about the criteria for applicability for “faith,” which is perhaps the ultimate issue. Hopefully, we will arrive at some sort of a conclusion soon!

As always your thoughts and interpretations are welcome as I “think out loud” here on the blog, as what makes sense in my head on a first typing may need more clarification for you the reader.


4 Comments leave one →
  1. Greg permalink
    July 15, 2011 1:18 pm

    I’m not disagreeing with anything you are saying (and I am finding this series fascinating) but I was just curious how you became so interested and informed in Biblical studies? Did you use to be a Christian? Are you just sick and tired of ignorant Christians and wanted to set the record straight? I’ve only been reading your blog for a bit so really I was just curious in your background.

    • July 15, 2011 1:26 pm

      I have an undergrad in Religion and theology with an emphasis on biblical studies and languages and an MA in biblical studies.

      Just what I do…

  2. Greg permalink
    July 15, 2011 1:50 pm

    Cool. What got you interested in biblical studies? Do you teach somewhere?


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

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