Friday, September 01, 2017

Biblical studies roundup


Ages ago as I prepared to write my dissertation, which treated a medieval illuminated Bible, I sought to gain some understanding of the findings of modern critical studies of the Bible.  Although not brought up as a Christian, I was somewhat familiar with contemporary apologetic writings and knew that they were not what I was looking for.

Needed help came from a book by Bishop Stephen Neill, The Interpretation of the New Testament (Oxford, 1962.  A new edition of 1988 contains some updating by Tom Wright.

I will not attempt to summarize the work of these scholars, but to give my own account as to the present state of the question in Bible research, with particular emphasis on the last half century.

  1. An absolute divorce must now prevail between the Old Testament and the New Testament, for in no way is the collection of documents in the former category (now better termed the Tanakh or Hebrew Bible) a prologue to or prophecy of the later collection.  The only link between them lies in quotations or allusions by New Testament writers to what they commonly termed simply Scripture.
  2. Which translation(s) then?  Regrettably, there are no fully adequate translations. Older ones, such as the King James version are hard to follow because of changes in our own language.  Many recent renderings are marred by doctrinal intrusions.  More recently, the so-called “Inclusive” versions are simply wrong, as when “our father [who is in heaven]” is translated as “our parent” or even “our mother.”  Only the original texts - in Hebrew, Aramaic, and koine Greek are authoritative.  Luckily, there are good dictionaries that allow one to look up words and phrases in the original.  Failing that, one can consult an interpreter competent in the original language(s), always being on the lookout for biases of course.
  3. Being guided, somehow, by the original texts is only the first step, though.  One must place each passage in its primordial Sitz im Leben, the social and historical circumstances that presided over its birth.  Because of controversies about dating it is not always easy to determine these factors.
  4. Rabbis and Jewish scholars generally know Hebrew.  Can we not rely on them in our study of the Hebrew Bible?  Actually, in many cases not, because they tend to filter the information through the anachronistic lens of the Talmud.  Oftentimes they seek to ignore findings which have long been established, such as the documentary hypothesis for the Pentateuch.  There are some exceptions, and Israeli archaeologists have uncovered evidence debunking or at least revising long-held views.
  5. Traditional attributions of authorship have been discerned as unsound, including Moses (the Pentateuch), David (the Psalms), and Solomon (Wisdom).  The book of Isaiah is now generally regarded as a fusion of three original documents.  The model for much of this research is a set of findings known as the Documentary Hypothesis.  Discarding the idea that the Pentateuch was literally revealed by God to Moses, the text is regarded as a composite account stemming from several source documents. This finding recognizes four basic source streams, designated as "J" (Yahwist), "E" (Elohist), "P" (Priestly), and "D" (Deuteronomic). While the hypothesis had several antecedents, it reached its mature expression in the late nineteenth century through the work of Karl Heinrich Graf and Julius Wellhausen; thus it is also sometimes termed the Graf-Wellhausen hypothesis. The hypothesis further ascribes the combination of the sources into their current form by an editor known as "R" (for Redactor), who supplied additional editorial comments and transitional passages. The specific identity of each author remains unknown, (although a number of candidates have been proposed). However, textual elements identify each source with a specific background and with a specific period in Jewish history. Those who favor an early dating - now regarded as unlikely - associate "J" with the southern Kingdom of Judah around the ninth century BCE, and "E" with a northern context slightly later.  Continuing this line of thought, the combined "JE" text is ascribed to the Kingdom of Judah following the destruction of Israel by Assyria in the 720s BCE. "P" would then be associated with the centralizing religious reforms instituted by king Hezekiah of Judah (reigned ca. 716 to 687 BCE), and "D" with the later reforms of Josiah (reigned ca. 641 to 609 BCE). "R" is considered to have completed the work, adding transitional elements to weave the stories together as well as some explanatory comments, sometime after the Jewish exiles returned to Jerusalem from the Babylonian Exile in the fifth century BCE.  Recent scholars doubt the early dates for the original four strands, suggesting further that the text as we have it may stem from as late as the Hellenistic period.  Even though resistance continues among conservatives here and there, the basic structure if considered an established fact, so that the term hypothesis is no longer appropriate, though it persists out of habit.
  6. Over the years some Christian scholars have been involved in an enterprise that they term “Old Testament Theology.”  In part this quest stems from their unacceptable kidnapping of the Hebrew Bible, imposing on it a proleptic goal that never animated the formation of the original documents.  These scholars have struggled with a somewhat chimerical pursuit of their self-assigned task.of defining the unity of the Old Testament.  In my view, all such efforts have failed, as the material is too heterogeneous in character and diverse in its points of origin.  Clearly, the purported prophecies of the coming of Christ are too rare and sporadic to provide this unity.  In consequence many have fallen back on the idea of salvation history, the notion - stemming perhaps from the secular idea of progress - that the story of Israel is one of increasing moral maturity as the underlying concept of monotheism became better understood.  In this perspective the historical books, such as Joshua, Judges, and Chronicles, assume the leading role.  The story is that of God’s march through history. The problem is that some important Biblical books do not fit, preeminently Psalms and the Wisdom Literature. The Hebrew Bible is not so much a book, as a set of books of diverse origin.
  7. As regards sacred history, the recent works of the Minimalist scholars, buttressed by the generally supportive efforts of archaeology, have shown that much of early Israelite history is mythical.  Despite many earnest efforts, no evidence has been found in Egyptian records for the Sojourn in Egypt.  Many now accept that the Exodus never took place.  In the time of Solomon, around 1000 BCE, the town of Jerusalem housed only about one thousand inhabitants.  Moreover, the historicity of such figures as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, as well as Moses, Saul, David, and Solomon is problematic.  In view of the absence of convincing archaeological evidence, it is likely that none of them actually existed.  (There is a slender indication of "the house of David" in the Tel Dan inscription, though it is much later and the interpretation is disputed.)
  8. We turn now to the New Testament, where the first issue that deserves to be addressed is the Synoptic problem.  During the Middle Ages, and for some time afterwards, the Gospel of Mark, the shortest, was thought to be a mere epitome or summary of the other two.  In due course it was realized that in reality the sequence occurred in reverse order.  Mark was the first, and the other two gospels (of Matthew and Luke) were created by annexing the Markan material and supplementing it with another sources, the so-called Q material.  No such text has actually been found, but it is clear that in some fashion the material must have been available to the authors of Matthew and Luke.  The Gospel of John, of course, stands apart.  Whoever its author was, he is unlikely to be identical with the author of Revelation.
  9. Modern scholarship recognizes that none of the four Gospels was actually composed by the writer to whom it is ascribed by custom. The author of Luke, whoever he was, also composed Acts.
  10. It is common, and perhaps natural to assume that the twenty-seven texts now contained in modern versions of the New Testament constitute an organic whole. However, the status of Revelation has long been problematic.  In all likelihood it is a Jewish work, lightly Christianized.
  11. With regard to authenticity, the status of the epistles ascribed to Paul (ostensibly thirteen) is varied.  Most scholars regard seven letters (here noted with consensus dates) as genuine: First Thessalonians (ca. 50 CE), Galatians (ca. 53), First Corinthians (ca.53-54), Philippians (ca.55), Philemon Second Corinthians (ca. 55-56), and Romans (ca. 57.  Two are disputed; Colossians and Second Thessalonians.  Generally regarded as pseudepigraphic are Ephesians, First Timothy, Second Timothy and Titus.  The Epistle to the Hebrews has long been regarded as spurious.
  12. Ongoing discoveries have disclosed a score of documents that might have made their way into the New Testament, but did not.  A number of them are associated, rightly or wrongly, with Gnosticism. The Gospel of Thomas (actually a collection of 114 sayings attributed to Jesus, 31 of them with no parallel in the canonical gospels) has probably garnered the most attention, and is sometimes included in a set of Five Gospels. Two others that have attracted particular attention in recent years are the Gospels of Mary and Judas. These noncanical texts, with their varied accounts of events, and implicit leverage for theological variation, have invited some scholars, such as Elaine Pagels, to create a kind of DIY version of Christianity - perhaps more liberal and more attuned to feminist concerns than the one usually acknowledged.


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