The Appeal of Source Criticism

For those who have never been exposed to source criticism (you lucky dogs, you!), it is the attempt to find different sources in a given text. Sometimes, this enterprise is quite harmless. Finding out where Ronald Reagan got his quotes from during his Challenger Disaster speech can be fun and enlightening.

Sometimes, however, it is not quite so harmless. When scholars try to find four different sources in the Pentateuch (so-called J,E,D, and P sources, which stand for Jahwist, Elohist, Deuteronomistic, and Priestly), none of which are traced back to Moses, problems arise. The most serious problems have to do with applying an overly strict criteria for discerning the sources. For example, the so-called Jahwist and Elohist sources are so designated because the Jahwist used the name Jahweh for God, whereas the Elohist used the name Elohim for God. Are we seriously to believe that one author couldn’t possibly have used both names for God? Usually, this argument also depends on a manufactured contradiction between Genesis 1 and Genesis 2, and the order of creation. The argument goes that the order of creation in chapter 1 is plants, animals, man, whereas in chapter 2, it is man, then plants. Keil and Delitzsch answered this argument well over a century ago, but no source critic has ever listened, seemingly. Chapter 2 is not talking about all plants, only cultivated plants. The reason of chapter 2 is quite clear: there are no “plants” because there was no rain, and because there was no man to till the ground. In fact, chapter 2 cannot possibly be talking about all plants, because most plants, in fact, do not need man to till the ground. Chapter 2 is simply saying that cultivated crops did not really get going until after the creation of the cultivator, namely, man. Therefore, there is no contradiction whatsoever between Genesis 1 and Genesis 2.

Another big problem with saying that basically nothing came from Moses is that Jesus said it did. The liberals will typically argue that Jesus was only saying what the people of the day said. That is quite a stretch. Jesus had no problem correcting the people when their notions were in error. On the question of who wrote the Pentateuch, why would we believe that Jesus wouldn’t have corrected the people on this important point? Isn’t it much simpler and easier just to say that Moses did, in fact, write it, and that Jesus and the people He talked to both believed it because it was true?

So, the distinction between the Jahwist and the Elohist is a manufactured one. The question I want to raise is this: what is the appeal of this kind of source criticism? A generous estimation would probably point to the desire to see the prehistory of the text. Where did it come from, and are there previous sources on which the writer relied? Of course, this is all speculation in the case of the Pentateuch, since no such sources actually exist in any recognizable form. For the historical books of the Kings and Chronicles, there are references to other works that are cited. It is debated whether these refer to sources of which we now know nothing, or whether they refer to sources that are already in the canon. If the former, then the Lord did not consider it vital for us to have those sources, for in God’s providence, we don’t have them (notice the free use of “God” and “Lord” in the same sentence there). If the latter, then it is simply a biblical version of footnotes!

However, there remains another much more negative possibility, one which I consider more likely as a general explanation (of which there could, of course, be exceptions). It could be that source critics desire to eliminate final contexts of specific statements so that the final authority of a given text is eradicated. A text without a context is a pretext. There are several reasons why I consider this more likely. Firstly, source criticism does have the effect of atomizing texts, fragmenting them into thousands of tiny contextless pieces. Secondly, source critics almost never give the editor any credit for meaning anything. Usually some form of stupid redactor is implied. Thirdly, a very woodenly literal hermeneutic is applied in order to “see” the fractures. If, however, a different hermeneutic is employed, no fractures exist at all. Fourthly, source criticism comes almost entirely from a liberal set of assumptions: the non-inerrancy of Scripture, the cultural relativity (and therefore non-abiding nature of its authority) of Scripture, and the position of man as judge over Scripture instead of vice versa. Fifthly, it is quite suspicious that the more foundational a text is to Christian theology, the more likely it is to be shredded to pieces by the source critics. The prime examples are the Pentateuch, Isaiah, and the Synoptic Gospels.

It is important to note here that not all those of a liberal or moderately liberal persuasion are in favor of source criticism. There are a few Brevard Childses out there, who advocate studying the text in its final, canonical form. Also, in more recent years, rhetorical and literary criticism has become far more popular and influential (and far more productive, too, in my opinion, in the realm of theology). I had hoped that the Documentary Hypothesis was on the wane, even in liberal circles. But it is still quite alive and well, and even assumed in many liberal quarters. This author, at least, hopes that it dies soon.

13 Comments

  1. Steve Drake said,

    February 17, 2016 at 6:39 pm

    The question I want to raise is this: what is the appeal of this kind of source criticism?

    One answer can be found here

  2. greenbaggins said,

    February 17, 2016 at 6:43 pm

    Good point, Steve. lol

  3. Steve Drake said,

    February 18, 2016 at 9:19 am

    Lane, yeah, I liked that post. Very apropos. We must constantly be on guard against abstract thinking (what the natural man does) and more in line with analogical thinking (thinking God’s thoughts after Him). I’m reminded of Jesus’ own words in John 5:44:

    How can you believe, when you are accepting glory from one another, and yet you do not seek the glory that is from the one and only God

  4. Stuart said,

    February 19, 2016 at 11:14 am

    I very much appreciate the following part of your post near the end:
    “It could be that source critics desire to eliminate final contexts of specific statements so that the final authority of a given text is eradicated. A text without a context is a pretext. There are several reasons why I consider this more likely. Firstly, source criticism does have the effect of atomizing texts, fragmenting them into thousands of tiny contextless pieces. Secondly, source critics almost never give the editor any credit for meaning anything. Usually some form of stupid redactor is implied.”
    I don’t know how redactors are generally viewed by various Bible critics but IMO, the interrelated issues of textual unity (or integrity), canonicity, and meaning are very much at stake in this debate. I see evidence that Luke probably used Mary as a source (Lk 2.19, 51) but that does not affect the integrity of his product (nor would potential reliance on Mark at points). The integrity of human authorship seems to by one manner by which God enables us to differentiate canonical products that employ humans from merely human products. To be sure, there are interesting issues around the edges like how post-Mosaica affects the discussion. However, if the canon as a whole attributes Deuteronomy to Moses (as it does), I think that a fundamental unity of the text is to be inferred that helps us see that this is a distinct canonical product and that the overriding factor of inspiration dominates in defining its unity. Inspiration goes with God’s use of chosen canonical human authors (cf prophets, Deut. 18, Nu. 12) that we may distinguish from non-canonical authors and traditions (e.g. R. Akiba, Mishna, etc.). We run into at least two epistemological difficulties when the text is, as you say, “atomized.” We lose contextualized meaning and we lose the distinction between authoritative text/context and merely human compilation. A lot of the hermeneutical debate about how to use extra-biblical material seems to bring authoritative context to the same level as purely human contexts (e.g. 2TJ stuff). This denies the analogy of Scripture.The ultimate result is loss of a recognizable inspired text/context and blinding ourselves to the supernatural underpinnings of our faith.

  5. Don said,

    February 19, 2016 at 12:25 pm

    Stuart (and maybe Greenbaggins too),
    You seem to imply that an (unattributed) redactor could not assist in the production of an inspired text. Am I understanding you correctly? If so, why not?

  6. greenbaggins said,

    February 19, 2016 at 2:09 pm

    Don, I am not saying that there could be no editing. I actually think that Joshua went through the work of Moses (while also being as inspired as Moses was), and updated a few passages for the people once they entered the Promised Land, while also recording Moses’ death at the end of Deuteronomy. I believe there can be such a category as “divinely inspired editor.” But that is a far different thing from JEDP and the supposed mindless redactor, which removes Moses from being in any sense the author of the Pentateuch.

    Also, in terms of how the Gospels came about, I think that Kenneth Bailey’s theory of informal, but controlled oral preservation before the Gospels were written makes far better sense of the similarities and differences in the Gospels than the Mark/Q hypothesis. I just don’t think that written dependence is as likely as oral preservation.

  7. Stuart said,

    February 19, 2016 at 8:31 pm

    Re #5, I don’t know if this answers the question but here goes: Part of our ability to identify canonical writing is some means identifying or labeling the discrete books of the Bible that are canon and the inspired text ties to an inspired writer. I assume–because I take a cautious approach to such a serious subject–that so-called postmosaica of the Pentateuch are inspired which implies that singularity of human authorship of every detail is not absolute for every word in every book. However, the self-attestation of Scripture does make a general attribution of the Pentateuch to Moses, identifies one Isaiah, etc. Some may say that is “just” conventional but I think those who do bring hermeneutical presuppositions that ultimately may lead to “atomization” (as it has been called). I see no problem with an “inspired” Luke using an inspired Mark (or Genesis) in his activity that is or may resemble redaction. We also have compilers or authors of Scripture that are unknown to us by name. However, I don ‘t see biblical evidence (i.e. self-attestation) of an inspired “committee” (synchronically or diachronically) producing a single book that we typically identify with a singular author (leaving aside a relatively inconsequential mass of additions like postmosaica or perhaps some notes of an amanuensis or currier in Paul’s letters). Because I think caution should be a hermeneutical consideration when it comes to the Bible, I do not doubt the inspiration of such additions. Obviously a great cloud of witnesses are used to produce the whole of canonical Scripture. Inspiration is the overarching principle.

  8. Don said,

    February 21, 2016 at 1:35 am

    Part of our ability to identify canonical writing is some means identifying or labeling the discrete books of the Bible that are canon and the inspired text ties to an inspired writer.

    My somewhat flippant response to this is, why should we be concerned about this, when Scripture isn’t? Beyond a sizable fraction of Scripture being anonymous (which surely isn’t an accident), Matthew 27:9 even misattributes its citation of Zechariah 11:12 to Jeremiah!

  9. Don said,

    February 21, 2016 at 1:40 am

    But I’m glad you brought up Isaiah, since that seems more interesting, and maybe more important, than trying to figure out who wrote some random verse in Numbers. Atomization of the text isn’t useful, but differentiating between “tradition” and a scholarly understanding of the text may be. So let me ask, where does Scripture say that the book of Isaiah was written by one person? And why would it matter?

    Before getting to my main point, let me say I believe–and I think this is more or less the Reformed position, even if I’m not stating it very well–that prophesy is written for the edification of its first audience and is generally about immediate events. That’s why we believe Revelation is about perseverance in persecution, and not about “666” hidden in UPC codes or Soviet helicopters or whatever the Late Great Left Behind books are claiming these days.

    Now, Isaiah 40-66 is undoubtedly about the return from exile. How would that be of any use to its initial hearers, if they lived in the late stages of the Southern Monarchy? Would it not be more consistent with the pattern of Scripture for this message to have been delivered to the exiles themselves? And if you’re concerned about Scriptures from this part of the book being attributed to “Isaiah,” why couldn’t this guy be named Isaiah too? I don’t see how an attempt to understand the context will “eradicate” the “final authority of the text.”

  10. Trent said,

    February 21, 2016 at 9:16 pm

    Rev Lane,
    Have you read “New Directions in Pooh Studies: Überlieferungs- und traditionsgeschichtliche Studien zum Pu-Buch,”? I highly suggest that you do!

  11. Carradee said,

    February 22, 2016 at 1:38 pm

    It’s my experience that any form of analysis, argument, or criticism can be carried out to an extreme that renders it vain and self-defeating. Not all arguments or analysis methods are even universally applicable. Context matters.

    Perhaps the problem is that some critics place the criticism itself on a pedestal and forget that context and critique have a synergistic and symbiotic relationship, rather than a tyrannical one. (Is that not the point of Proverbs 27:17 and Acts 17:11?)

  12. February 22, 2016 at 4:22 pm

    […] the Presbyterian Church in America and is pastor of Lebanon Presbyterian Church in Winnsboro, S.C. This article appeared on his blog and is used with […]

  13. Stuart said,

    February 24, 2016 at 6:54 am

    Re #9: Matt 1-4 attributes texts from Isa 1-39 as well as 40-66 both to Isaiah (e.g.Mt 1.23; Mt 3.3). One may argue this is purely a convention; on balance I think this is the sort of answer that can be too hastily adopted and lacking in caution. Further (re #8) the OT seems to make a point of connecting some known historical men as prophets who are specifically called (ergo inspired) with some books that get received as canon. It is not a mechanical attribution or connection (e.g. some prophets like Elijah or Elisha may not have directly written books); but a significant overlap exists (e.g. Isaiah) so we can discern the author/inspiration/canon connection.


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