Synchronic Versus Diachronic

One of the biggest debates in biblical scholarship today is the debate between synchronic and diachronic methodologies. Synchronic approaches read the text in its final, completed form. That is the only form that really matters, because it is the canonical form. It is called “synchronic” because it reads all parts of a given book of Scripture simultaneously, or synchronously. Diachronic approaches are determined to search out possible development of the text from earlier to later versions, hoping that this will cast light on the meaning of the text. The Documentary Hypothesis of JEDP (popularized by Julius Wellhausen) is a good (and famous) example of diachronic analysis.

Most Christians will not care very much about this distinction. However, what they don’t know could hurt them. It is important at this point to stress that not all diachronic approaches undermine the canonicity of a book. Consider, for instance, Kings and Chronicles, both of which are anonymous to us. We do not know who wrote them. It is theoretically conceivable that God could (through the Holy Spirit) have inspired a process of a developing book. Not every book of the canon need have been written all at one sitting. However, there is a great danger to the diachronic methods: atomization of the text. Context must be defined synchronically, since this is how God has providentially preserved His text. Diachronic methods often wind up destroying that context in favor of a completely different context. Furthermore, these methods are highly speculative and subjective. They rely on supposed stylistic differences to find “seams.” The problem with all stylistic arguments is that we do not have a large enough sample size, either in OT or NT, to determine different styles to such a nicety that we can base entire theories on them. Some stylistic differences are visible in the Bible. One can tell the difference between Paul and John, for instance. However, this has limited usefulness, because all the writers of the Bible could have written in a different style than the one they are known for, unless we want to posit the “stupid original writer hypothesis” (SOWH), whereby biblical writers are artificially limited to one and only one style.

In the Pentateuch, it seems important, biblically, to be able to say that Moses wrote it. That being said, we can ask the question of the last chapter of Deuteronomy. Is it possible that Moses wrote the account of his own death? Certainly it is possible. God could have revealed to Moses what would happen after his death. This is hardly difficult. However, isn’t it more likely that Joshua, also writing by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, added a final chapter to Deuteronomy? It is like Frodo and the red book, telling Sam that there is room for a little more, and leaving it to Sam to finish. It is also possible that there are minor editorial additions (in order to address a new context of living in the promised land) in the Pentateuch that Joshua could have added by inspiration of the Holy Spirit. This would not preclude us saying that Moses is still the author of the Pentateuch. But it is possible that it is slightly edited. This should not cause concern among us. There is a difference between saying something like this versus something like the JEDP hypothesis, which essentially denies to Moses any hand in creating the Pentateuch. They will often answer that it is not necessary to affirm Mosaic authorship, since Moses is the main character of the Pentateuch, then we can say it is the book about Moses. This would not, however, seem to square with Jesus’ confident assertion in John 5 that Moses wrote about Him (Jesus). Surely a straightforward reading of John 5 would come up with Jesus making a claim that Moses did the writing. There is no evidence that Jesus is speaking metaphorically or symbolically. He is speaking of typology, but that is something else entirely.

A growing number of scholars believe that there need be no opposition between synchronic and diachronic approaches. In fact, some believe that the diachronic approach can help us appreciate the final synchronic reading better. Perhaps. I have read several authors who claim this, but are unconvincing so far. Separating out layers of a text is still going to run counter to seeing the final form as the ultimate context in which we read any given part.

Where I think we need to be as Christians on this matter is two-fold. On the one hand, we need not have as rigid a view as is sometimes held. Some people think that saying any word of the Pentateuch was written by someone other than Moses is heretical liberalism. Editing has been going on for thousands of years. Are we seriously going to suggest that God could not use it or inspire it? We can say that if there is any editing in Scripture, that editing happened by inspiration of the Holy Spirit in order to address a new state of affairs. On the other hand, I think we need to reject the more radical, subjective, hypothetical forms of diachronic analysis. The final form of the text is what we interpret in the church. Period. That is the form God has decreed should be the norm and guide for the church. Diachronic analyses should not be confused with exegesis, for these analyses do not interpret the text. Rather, they dissect it.


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