Source criticism

The attempt to ask questions of "introduction" about many biblical books, however, uncovers confusing data. Many books of the Old Testament, in particular, contain passages that seem to be older than others in the same book, or that are duplicates of narratives found elsewhere. A notorious example is the "wife-sister" stories found in similar forms in Genesis 12, 20, and 26, where one of the patriarchs passes off his wife as his sister to avoid being killed by a foreign ruler who wants her for his harem. Elsewhere, different versions of a story seem to be interwoven - see, for example, the Flood story in Genesis 6-9, where in its finished form the account is highly confusing. (How many animals entered the ark? How long did the Flood last?) This led eighteenth- and nineteenth-century scholars to postulate underlying documents or "sources" from which many books of the Bible, but especially the Pentateuch, were composed.

Source criticism of the Pentateuch reached its classic formulation at the end of the nineteenth century in the work of Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918). According to his analysis, there were originally four sources from which the Pentateuch was composed. These are conventionally know as J, E, D, and P, coming respectively from the ninth, eighth, seventh, and sixth (or fifth) centuries BCE (see G. Davies 2001). Important theological consequences follow from this: one is that Israelite monotheism, which is far more evident in the later than in the earlier of the sources, developed gradually over time, rather than having been part of an early "deposit" of faith given to Moses. Another is that the complex sacrificial and purity system that had come to characterize Judaism by New Testament times did not appear until after the Babylonian exile of the sixth century: it, too, had no early roots. These conclusions scandalized (and continue to scandalize) some orthodox Jews and conservative Christians, but they have been widely accepted in the scholarly community for over a century.

In the English-speaking world, acceptance of the Wellhausen hypothesis came about through the work of the Scottish scholar William Robertson Smith (1846-94) and an Oxford Professor of Hebrew, Samuel Rolles Driver (1846-1914). Subsequent scholars refined and revised Wellhausen's analysis. Especially in the German-speaking world work on this continues, with highly sophisticated theories about the composition of the Old Testament books. In the "historical" books, for example - those running from Joshua to Kings - a widely accepted theory postulates many sources and several layers of editorial work, with sigla such as DtrG, DtrP, and DtrN used freely in the scholarly literature. To the non-specialist reader, they impart an air of mystery, but are a shorthand way of signaling the composite character of these books, which tell a continuous story but one that is far from straightforward in its literary origins.

The Gospels are also a case where source criticism continues to be a lively scene. Most scholars think that the authors of Matthew and Luke (whoever they were) used Mark's Gospel, long recognized by most as the earliest. Many believe that the other material which Matthew and Luke share comes from a now lost document consisting mainly of sayings of Jesus, conventionally termed 0 (from German Quelle, "source"). Literature on this hypothetical entity runs into many thousands of books and articles, and it remains debated whether it really ever existed at all (see Tuckett 1996). If it did not, then Matthew must have had access to Luke, or vice versa - simpler hypotheses but with their own problems because of the different ways in which the same material is used in the two Gospels. John's Gospel is seen by some as based on the other three, to form what Clement of Alexandria in ancient times called a "spiritual" Gospel, but by others as quite independent of them and resting on its own complicated prehistory of many sources. Just as Old Testament source criticism is important because it helps us to reconstruct how religious thought and practice developed in ancient Israel, so source analysis of the Gospels has always had at its heart the hope of getting access to the authentic sayings of Jesus and the truth about his life and deeds. It belongs to the "quest of the historical Jesus," which has passed through several phases since the eighteenth century.

One of the heirs of this quest is the American "Jesus Seminar," in which scholars meet to discuss the authenticity of sayings of Jesus recorded in the Gospels, and actually express their conclusions through a vote. This strikes many as somewhat "reductionist" - as though such questions could be decided democratically - but its findings are influential for many scholars. The search for what can be known with reasonable certainty about Jesus and his first followers remains of intense interest to many both inside and outside the churches (cf. Crossan 1991, Sanders 1987), and in recent years has become important also to a Jewish constituency, which often claims that the real Jesus was a much more centrally Jewish figure that Christian apologetic has made him. The work of Geza Vermes, a pioneer in Scrolls research, has been central here (see Vermes 2000). Such claims can only be substantiated or confuted through serious source-critical work on the Gospels.

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