Contradictions in the Bible?

Odil Steck’s book entitled Old Testament Exegesis: A Guide to the Methodology (2nd edition), published 1998, by SBL, is a very interesting book, because it lays out the nuts and bolts of liberal critical exegetical methodology in very practical ways. It is very much a “this is how you do it” kind of book, rather than a merely theoretical book. What is especially fascinating to a reader who disagrees with much, if not most, of the methodology espoused, is the reasoning behind the particular methodologies. What I wish to interact with and critique in this post is the following quotation, from page 79:

[I]t is necessary to offer a warning against the opinion that one can, or even should, limit oneself solely to exegesis of the final form of the text reached in BH and thereby avoid the hypothetical inquiry into older stages. In numerous cases, the final form of an Old Testament text indicates complex, even contradictory statements which must be clarified. Therefore, these statements force one to diachronic analysis (literary cricitism, see chapter 4) and synthesis (redaction history). Of course, the meaning intended in the final form must also be determined. However, it is only discernible if one can grasp the productive reaccentuation of the last hand. This task, however, presupposed clarification of the previous stages which have the same status as the final form of the text in the riches of the Old Testament witness. A so-called “holistic exegesis” must ask itself how it will avoid exegetical arbitrariness without diachronic textual perspective.

It is plain that Steck views contradictions as self-evident in the text of Scripture (this is also proven by several other places in his book where he speaks of “undeniable inconsistencies” (p. 48), and by his claim that the liberal critical methodologies were “not decreed by exegetes, but were occasioned by the biblical subject matter itself” (20). To put it somewhat crassly, his position is that the “text made me do it.” What is interesting is the way he has tipped his hand. The lynchpin of his argument is contradictions that are supposedly undeniable. What this implies is that if the contradictions are explainable in some other way, then his whole house of exegetical cards comes tumbling down. It doesn’t seem to occur to him that these supposed contradictions might not be contradictions at all. They simply have to be contradictions in his mind. There is simply no other way to read the text, according to Steck.

Secondly, he claims that the earlier stages have the same status as the final form. It is not clear on what basis he makes this claim. The cynical reader will think to himself, “Well, the exegete gets to determine what the previous layers are, and so he can fashion his own Bible, and thus make the Bible say what he wants it to say.” This is probably not far from the truth, as speculative as it might be about someone else’s motives. A close look at Steck’s criteria reveal that OT texts, in order to be coherent, have to be modernly coherent. A classic example is doublets. More recent literary approaches have different explanations than diachronic ones for material that is repeated. The diachronic critic, however, has to use doublets as examples of literary layering. This anachronistically forces a modern literary sensibility on to an ancient text. Hebrew, in particular, has a penchant for repetition, especially since there are no comparative and superlative forms of adjectives. One can form a comparative by using the preposition min. But it won’t be in the form of the adjective itself. Repetition, therefore, serves useful literary purposes and is enormously common in the Old Testament.

Thirdly, the real kicker is the last sentence. Apparently, it is only the holistic exegete who cannot (or would have great difficulty to) avoid “exegetical arbitrariness.” Is Steck really lacking in self-awareness to the point where he does not recognize that every single liberal-critical “layer” approach to any text in the OT whatsoever is debated, even in liberal-critical circles? If they cannot agree on these things, then how does the diachronic exegete avoid the charge of arbitrariness? What makes one diachronical approach better than another? What are the criteria by which one would navigate those waters? Arbitrariness quickly raises its ugly head in the diachronic school with a vengeance. I think I will stick with synchronic methods that depend on historical research, linguistic sensitivity, biblical-theological appreciation for the Bible’s organic unfolding nature, and the presupposition of inspiration of the final form of the text



  1. greenbaggins said,

    January 12, 2022 at 2:48 pm

    A couple more comments on this quotation that I thought about after the post went up. 1. He claims that the meaning of the final form is entirely dependent on being able to discern the last redactor’s hand. This means that anything not belonging to the final redactor’s hand is not determinative for the meaning of the final form. This is ridiculous.

    Secondly, later in the book, he advocates extreme caution regarding the process of form critical investigation, since “our insight into the markers and the rules of this structure and into the use of the Hebrew (or Aramaic) language is limited” (98-9). If this is so, why and how can he be so dogmatic about the presence of contradictions? One person’s incoherence is another person’s coherence. It seems perilous to start from the vantage point of an assumption of incoherence. He certainly would not want anyone treating his own book that way.

  2. James Wright said,

    March 1, 2022 at 2:38 pm

    Great post Lane! This is jwright82 at the Puritanboard, always enjoy our interactions there. Love the blog too. I just recently started a serious study of higher criticism and I noticed exactly what you point out. Before I knew enough about this area to do well in apologetic conversations with low to college type people but I decided to improve my knowledge in this area after studying Peter Enns, with whom I strongly disagree.
    But a whole new world of study has been opened up for me, I’m studying Brueggman and Kugel right now. And not ironically I “discovered” the same thing I did with philosophy, how empty these criticisms are. What good orthodox books do you recommend in this area? E J Young’s lectures at WTS are fantastic on this. Besides the two authors I mentioned who are other critical scholars influential today to study.
    I’m very aware of Wellhausen and classical liberal scholarship but it seems to me, and please correct me if I’m wrong, that outside the foundations of the “science” they aren’t as popular anymore. Do you think that makes Machen’s work dated? Anyway great post and interactions at Puritanboard. Sorry for all the questions and if I misspelled any names.

  3. Reed Here said,

    April 2, 2022 at 10:50 am

    Why does you have to sound so smart?! (As always, profiting from your reflections.)

    A take away here: Given the nature of Scripture, in the end it is one’s presuppositions that must be vetted. Otherwise, you end up with self-evident contradictions.

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