Monday, December 5, 2016

Approaching Higher Criticism from a Faithful Perspective, Part 2

If you look up the entry for "Higher Criticism" in Mormon Doctrine by Bruce R. McConkie, this is what you will find: "See Apostasy, Bible, Evolution, Revelation, Scripture." That is followed by an article about higher criticism that goes on for a page and a half and concludes, "In the final analysis [the conclusions of higher criticism] are doctrines of the devil, doctrines which destroy faith and prevent acceptance of the full gospel of salvation."

So what was it about higher criticism that made Elder McConkie call it a "doctrine of the devil"?

When McConkie included a cross reference to Apostasy he was not necessarily saying that anyone who engages with higher criticism is apostatizing from the church (though that also may have been the case), but rather the conclusions of higher criticism were the effects of the great apostasy. In his brief entry McConkie lumps the conclusions of higher criticism with all other false doctrines taught in other churches. The fact that a preacher or doctor of the church would even consider the implications of the documentary hypothesis is evidence that they do not have the spirit of revelation and are blinded by the effects of the great apostasy.

So what was it about the documentary hypothesis that prompted such a strong reaction from Elder McConkie? To bolster his claim that it is a "doctrine of the devil", McConkie points to the prophetic statements of Joseph Smith, which include the Book of Moses and the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible. Thus he is responding to the issue of authorship and authority discussed in Part 1. By highlighting the prophetic statements of Joseph Smith, McConkie is reaffirming the identity and authority of the author of the Pentateuch. He is unwilling to budge on the question of authorship, and therefore the authority of totality of the Pentateuch, and by extension the rest of the Old Testament. So McConkie rejects the documentary hypothesis on the grounds that it calls into question the authority of scripture. It is a laudable cause. He has a healthy respect for God's Word, but I find that such an uncompromising position is at odds with how God normally interacts with His children.

So how does evolution fit into all of this? Elder McConkie cross referenced evolution in his entry on higher criticism, which when you think about it is rather odd, unless you understand how the conclusions of the documentary hypothesis can potentially impact our understanding of the creation. Without that it would seem that Elder McConkie is simply applying one of the dirtiest epithets that he knows. But there is more going on here, and this brings us to the issues of Timing and Historicity.

Timing and Historicity

These two are interrelated so I will address them together. In my introduction to the documentary hypothesis I mentioned briefly the issue of when the different sources were written. Some scholars favor later dates (meaning in the range of 800-200 BC), while theologians tend to favor early dates (closer to 1200 BC). The issue with later dates is that it opens the way to first question whether the stories are accurate, and second to question whether to people in the stories really lived at all. The thinking goes, the more removed the actual writing is from the people in the stories the greater likely hood that they never lived at all. Perhaps Abraham was invented for political reasons? To justify political control of Canaan perhaps.

The example of Abraham being invented is not hypothetical. There are many scholars who consider Abraham to be an invention of the Jews to justify political control of Canaan. This view is so widely held that even the Wikipedia article on Abraham reports, "it is widely agreed that the patriarchal age [including Abraham] ... is a late literary construct that does not relate to any period in actual history." I'll lay aside the rather cavalier attitude of the Wikipedia author to the issue a historical Abraham, and just use this as an example of how the timing and historicity are linked. A late writing of the Pentateuch can easily translate (in their minds) into the patriarchs being nothing more than literary constructs (a nice way of saying fairy tales).

There are multiple issues with this view that I will not unpack here, but I will point out that the non-existence of Abraham is not based on multiple historical sources failing to mention him, or mentioning him in an entirely different context, or on hard archaeological evidence, but on a "careful" reading of the Pentateuch. It is a bit like watching Kenneth Branagh's version of Henry V and concluding that, based on a careful analysis of the dialogue, Henry was a fictional person.

A general trend I have observed is that as soon as one scholar proposes a late date for a part of the Bible, another one comes along and uses that as evidence for the non-existence one or more people in the Bible. In other words, using higher criticism there is a popular trend to systematically undermine the historicity of the Bible.

This trend manifests itself in interesting and odd ways. For example, there was an intense debate about whether or not King David was a real person. That debate has largely died down due to archaeological evidence for his existence and reign. As a more extreme example, I was part of an online discussion once where one commenter attempted to argue using higher criticism that Jeremiah was not a real person. That position is thankfully rare but there is a significant number of scholars who argue that because portions of the Bible were composed at a late date the main characters before David are nothing more than "literary constructs" at worst or fictional retellings of oral tradition at best. According to this way of thinking there may have been someone named Moses, but the exodus never happened, or it was severely limited to a few hundred priests or tribal leaders, without any miraculous occurrences.

In every field of study there is a drive to push the envelope, to be the researcher who finds the first, the highest, the newest, the strongest, the oldest, or the largest because that is what gets published and cited. In the field of Biblical scholarship the current fad of higher criticism is to show a later and later date for different parts of the Bible. For example, one Biblical scholar, David P. Wright, argued in a recent book that the Covenant Code (Exodus 20:23-23:19) was not written at an early date, but much later during the Neo-Assyrian period (740-640 BC). It may have been well argued but as one reviewer pointed out, "If the discovery of a piece of Mesopotamian law code in ... 2010 at Hazor is followed up by more such discoveries, Wright may have to do some quick backtracking on his proposed date. In fact, Wright's volume full of data can be explained better by an early date than by a Neo-Assyrian date."

In other words, a single archaeological find can overturn just about any argument based on higher criticism. It does not matter how complex, well thought out, or elegant the argument is, if evidence indicates otherwise it doesn't matter. The archaeological evidence prompted Cyrus H. Gordon, a noted Biblical scholar to declare arguments based on higher criticism to be untenable. "Though Bible scholars live in an age of unprecedented discovery, they stand in the shadow of nineteenth-century higher criticism, . . . even though archaeology has rendered it untenable." (Cyrus H. Gordon, "Higher Critics and Forbidden Fruit," Christianity Today, 4 (1959): 131).

In a drive for ever decreasing notoriety it has become fashionable to argue for later and later dates for Biblical authorship, but that has divorced many of the arguments from the archaeological record, and has increasingly relied on even more tenuous arguments about what was and was not possible three thousand years ago in Israel.

In part a major motivation for this was to remove the wondrous and miraculous as a possibility from history. If Moses never existed then you don't have to deal with whether or not he parted the sea. If Adam was nothing more than a mythological figure then arguments about the creation disappear. By undermining the historicity of the Bible the more miraculous aspects of the Bible do not have to be dealt with. Thus Elder McConkie equated higher criticism with evolution, because scholars were using higher criticism to give naturalist explanations to the Bible. This is what prompted such a visceral reaction and got it labeled a "doctrine of the devil".

But not all Mormons are ardent Biblical literalists in the vein of Elder McConkie. While the issues of when certain parts of the Bible may have a minor impact on how an LDS audience interacts with the Bible, the big issue is the question of historicity. If the J and E sources were written down 400 years after Moses it is not an insurmountable problem for Mormons, but if Moses and Abraham never existed then there will be major theological implications. As Latter-day Saints we may be willing to accept new arguments about certain events such as the Exodus, but on the basic issues of historicity we will not budge.

The question of when the Bible, as we know it, was written is of particular interest to Mormons since a major part of our faith is the Book of Mormon. As related in 1 Nephi, Nephi and Lehi carry with them the brass plates which contain "the five books of Moses.... And also a record of the Jews from the beginning, even down to the commencement of the reign of Zedekiah, king of Judah; And also the prophecies of the holy prophets, from the beginning, even down to the commencement of the reign of Zedekiah; and also many prophecies which have been spoken by the mouth of Jeremiah."

If major portions of the Pentateuch were written after the Jews went into exile then it would have been impossible for the brass plates to contain those things. This would be a major anachronism for the Book of Mormon. Thus a late date, as proposed by many scholars, would invalidate the historical claims of the Book of Mormon. But there would be no problem with an early or even a middle date. As Mormons we already have a built in theological mechanism to incorporate additions, commentary and redaction made at a later date from when the events actually occurred. The Book of Mormon is an excellent example of how someone can take many different sources and splice them together into a coherent narrative several hundred years after the fact and still have it be valid as scripture. With this in mind it is not that big of a leap to accept that portions of the Bible were written much later than we supposed, and were the work of editors and redactors. Latter-day Saints would generally have no problem with most timelines for the writing of the Bible, as long as basic historicity was preserved.

Some, such as Elder McConkie, and his fan club might object, but I would think that most Latter-day Saints would have no problem as long as historicity and authoritativeness of the Bible were clearly delineated by proper authorities.

In this post I have briefly mentioned some of the difficulties Latter-day Saints will have with higher criticism and how it relates to when different parts of the Bible were potentially written and how that impacts whether or not the people involved were historical figures. In Part 3 I will point out some of the ways the Documentary Hypothesis can help Latter-day Saints understand the Book of Mormon and and give us some perspective into how scripture is written. This can help us digest how more modern scriptures came to be. Using insights from both the Documentary Hypothesis and the Book of Mormon, we can begin to understand the complex world that produced the scriptures we know and use.

In the meantime I would recommend Reflections on the Documentary Hypothesis by Kevin L. Barney. It gives a very good break down of the issues (with references) for an LDS audience.


LL said...

Bruce McConkie never was a favorite of mine. The Lord called him home before he could be prophet...made sense.

Quantumleap42 said...

Some times it feels like when ever I talk about Elder McConkie it's to point out where I disagree with him. I used to be much more critical about his stuff, but I've learned that given the time he was writing and speaking he had reasons for being so hard nosed about stuff. He was the right apostle for his time. He acted as a counterbalance to certain ideas and societal forces at the time that are no longer relevant, and for the most part we don't remember that they were an issue.

When Elder McConkie wrote that entry in Mormon Doctrine there were very few members of the Church who had engaged with Biblical Scholarship on an academic level. Many of those that did had left the Church, been excommunicated or generally became critical of Church doctrine. One example is David P. Wright (though almost all of his work came in the 80's and 90's). In grad school Wright had a "conversion experience" (his words) and came to the conclusion that based on higher criticism he was able to determine that Joseph Smith had just made up the Book of Mormon. He went further and insisted that if members of the Church just viewed the BoM as an elaborate work of fiction authored by Joseph Smith, then we would all be much better off and then we would focus on truly "important" things, like love, equality, social justice, and not judging people who break commandments, instead of focusing on things like angels, visions, priesthood authority, prophets, the resurrection, miracles, the divinity of Jesus, and all those other "inconvenient" doctrines.

When David Wright started teaching these things at BYU he was politely invited to find another place to teach. A short while later he left the Church because they (Church leaders) refused to even consider his brilliant ideas that would bring the Church out of the dark ages and into the brilliant light of academic understanding. He predicted that unless the Church leaders accepted his teachings then the Church would drift into intellectual obscurity and be lost in the mists of darkness of ignorance of ages past. In a letter to his Bishop he maintained that for Church leaders to question his scholarly conclusions was "improper, morally questionable, and even destructive to the Church." And that "The Church's investigation of my scholarship is an indictment of and an attack on my profession and scholarship at large. It is an attack which will contribute to the characterization of the Church as anti-intellectual."

If Elder McConkie represents one extreme on the issue, David Wright represents the opposite extreme. At the time David Wright was firmly in the mainstream of Biblical Scholarship (and mostly still is), but since then the field has relaxed somewhat and which allow Church scholars more freedom to approach higher criticism from a faithful perspective. The intellectual destruction that David Wright predicted never materialized. In fact the Church is undergoing a flowing of scholarly activity that is greatly improving member's interactions with academia. I personally know three LDS Biblical scholars who are part of the middle ground between the extremes of McConkie and Wright.

In the end I think McConkie was the right man for the time since it helped keep the Church out of the intellectual swamp advocated by David Wright, at least until the field changed enough that faithful members could successfully navigate the many pitfalls of the field.

LL said...

There are different schools of intellectual thought within the Church and it's useful to have those discussions, in much the way that you do here (good blog). As you point out, McConkie represented one of those perspectives. Being a faithful member and still pursuing intellectual honesty should allow for discussion. I'd never heard of Wright, but it seems that he started to take himself too seriously.