Sunday, November 6, 2016

Approaching Higher Criticism from a Faithful Perspective, Part 1

In my previous post I introduced the Documentary Hypothesis (DH), which is the idea that the first five books of the Bible, collectively known as the Pentateuch, are actually a combination of four original source documents written at various times and places. While there has never been any direct evidence for these sources (i.e. the sources existing as separate documents) by carefully reading the text we notice certain peculiarities which are best explained by there being multiple original sources that were combined at a much later date. This method of critically analyzing the text for indications of the original sources is referred to as Higher Criticism. In its most general sense, higher criticism is a method of analyzing a text to understand who wrote it, why they wrote it, and when they wrote it. With higher criticism there is more interest in the world and society that produced the text, and what its original meaning was, than how the text is interpreted and applied today.

Since our scriptures were mostly produced in a much different society it is necessary to "translate" the concepts into terms that we can understand. In order to do this we need to understand the original context of what was written and the intent of the authors. But if a great distance in time, society and space separates us from the original context we will have a hard time understanding the scriptures. To get around this we must reconstruct the original context from any textual clues available to us. This is the basis of higher criticism.

From this perspective it would seem that higher criticism would be a natural fit with religious study, and in fact there was a point in history when higher criticism was closely aligned with religious scholarship, but over the past 200 years there has been an apparently intractable separation between the two. This has lead to intense criticism from one camp towards the other, with the sometimes bitter criticism likewise being returned. So what is the source of this disagreement?

The points of conflict generally fall under four categories:

  • Biblical Inerrancy
  • Authorship
  • Timing
  • Historicity
Underlying all of these issues is the implications for modern doctrine and religious practice. While a general survey of the conflict between religious scholarship and higher criticism would be enlightening I will only focus on how it manifests in an LDS context. Therefore I will not consider the ramifications for biblical inerrancy since that is a non-issue for Mormons.

The question of who wrote what in the Bible is a subtly important question for an LDS audience. Mormons have a strong sense of authority when it comes to scriptures and religious writings. Who wrote what, and what authority they had to write it, are important questions for Latter-day Saints. Embedded in our understanding of scripture is a complex hierarchy of authority that determines what takes precedence over other writings, and to what degree.

For example, what is written in scripture takes precedent over the words (spoken or written) of any single apostle or prophet, with the exception that modern revelation supersedes any and all previously written words*. [*with some exceptions to the exception. I told you this was complex.] In all things the Bible and Book of Mormon are considered to be on equal footing, with the exception that if there is something from the Bible that does not mesh with our understanding, then, while not rejected outright, it is given a caveat that it may not have been "translated correctly". But if the same happens with the Book of Mormon then generally the text wins out and informs our understanding. The same holds true for the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price.

All this complexity comes from our idea that the statements of a higher authority supersede the words of a lower authority. When this is applied to scripture it becomes a complex question of who said what, and with what authority. So the question of Biblical authorship poses a difficult question to many members of the Church. If the author is known, and is someone who has proper authority, then what is written can easily be placed in the hierarchy of authority. If the author is unknown then it reverts to a default level of authority which will afford it some authoritativeness by association.

This is further complicated when someone in authority compiles or edits works which may or may not have been authoritative. The authority of the compiler, perceived or actual, passes to the edited material which means that even if the original work was not authoritative, it becomes so since someone who had authority included it in the final edit. For this reason Mormon is nearly always referred to as a Prophet Historian, not not just a historian. It has the effect of elevating the authority of everything he compiled, even if the original material was not authoritative or inspired. The Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible because it both elevates portions of the text as authoritative, while demoting others*. [*Nothing is ever that simple.]

When it comes to Biblical authorship some things may seem straight forward but with the Documentary Hypothesis, Mormons are presented with an interesting conundrum. Among members of the Church, the Pentateuch is established as relatively authoritative due to the supposed source, but if Moses is not the actual author, the the authority of the author(s) would be in question. But the question may be irrelevant if, and only if, the sources were combined authoritatively, and without knowing the identity of the redactor we cannot make that judgement.

For some Mormons, the question of Biblical authorship as proposed by the DH will not produce more than passing interest, but for some it will be a major issue since it potentially undermines scriptural authority. While almost all Mormons are comfortable assessing the authoritativeness of individual passages relative to others, we are hesitant to reexamine our ingrained assumptions of the authoritativeness of whole books. For something that important we look to established structures of authority in the Church, as we should, for guidance.

But in the case of Biblical scholarship and the DH, that reassessment of authoritativeness is coming from outside the recognized structures of authority and that may lead members to automatically reject the conclusions of authorship without considering the evidence. Because it is not a small thing to reconsider the authority of certain passages of scripture, especially considering the context where it is most important, we should be hesitant when working through these questions of Biblical authorship.

I should point out that the answers to the question of Biblical authorship are not firmly established. While there may be general consensus, that consensus can be overturned by new research, or an incredible archaeological find. For these reasons I think it is advantageous that Church leaders exercise caution before speaking authoritatively or even semi-authoritatively with regards to these matters. Because of our complex hierarchies of authority if a particular viewpoint is given a veneer of authority, it will be difficult to change if the consensus shifts.

Any shifts in our understanding of Biblical authorship are not fundamentally destructive to an LDS viewpoint because we already have the framework in place to accept any modifications given enough evidence and the guidance of our structures of authority. But it is a transition that is best handled gently so as to not generate confusion and undue spiritual consternation.

For members of the Church there are some non-negotiable points to the question who authored the Pentateuch, namely that even if portions of it were written after the death of Moses, and compiled much later, portions of it must have been written by Moses, and it should depict actual historical events, even if the story has been distorted through time, there must be a kernel of truth to it. This will become important when I address the question of historicity. So even if other authors wrote portions of the Pentateuch, there needs to be some basis in fact for what they wrote, and at least some part of it containing the original writings of Moses. Unpacking the writings of Moses from those of later authors may be a difficult task, and it may add modifications to how we structure the hierarchy of authority for the different parts of the Pentateuch, but we are theologically prepared for that. If we consider these questions then it will enrich our understanding of how God has worked with His people and how He allows those in authority to have stewardship over everything given to them, including the scriptures.

For part 2 of this post I will cover the question of timing, that is, when the different parts of the Pentateuch was written, and why that generates conflict for an LDS audience. I will also address the issue of historicity. These are the two main sticking points when it comes to the conflict between current Biblical scholarship and LDS belief.

1 comment:

LL said...

Interesting - looking forward to Part 2