The Silliness of (Some) Source Criticism

My current course load includes one class on the Former Prophets, and this week we’ve dealt with the critical theories about these books’ composition. Of course for Joshua-Kings the prevailing scholarly consensus is the “Deuteronomistic (or Deuteronomic) History,” most famously postulated  by Martin Noth but having undergone many subsequent revisions. For Noth and most OT scholars, the DtH builds on the earlier Documentary Hypothesis, and specifically on de Wette and Welhausen’s claim that the D (Deuteronomic) source was written in the 7th century in response to Josiah’s reforms. According to Noth, the Dtr uses D and attaches to the larger narrative he writes to compose the entire DtH, spanning from Deuteronomy through Kings.

I’ve been knee deep for months in both of these critical theories, and one particular thread sticks out to me. I’ve read biblical scholars across the spectrum on this, from primary sources (e.g. Noth’s seminal volume) to Robert Polzin’s literary approach to Provan et al. and Alexander’s more conservative approaches. The common denominator that runs through them all is a criticism of the methods and conclusions of the original theories. Even Noth, who assumes the Documentary Hypothesis, is critical of the variety of contradictory conclusions that are made in response to Welhausen and de Wette’s seminal articulations.

These criticisms can be grouped, I think, into three categories. First, there are criticisms of the methods used by pioneers of the two theories. Both Polzin and McConville, for instance, criticize Noth for relying on changes in noun/verb numbers to identify sources, noting that this is an arbitrary source critical device and that it has not yielded any sort of scholarly consensus in subsequent scholarship (more on that in a moment). The same types of criticisms are leveled at Welhausen from all manner of OT scholars across the theological and philosophical spectrum (see e.g. T.D. Alexander’s forceful critique in From Paradise to Promised Land).

Second, and related to the arbitrariness of method, is the arbitrariness of the historical assumptions that lie behind these approaches. The most prominent and important of these for both theories is that D was composed in response to Josiah’s reforms in the 7th century. And yet, today, the opinion of the guild seems to be that there is nothing in particular that requires this conclusion. As McConville points out, there are equally valid reasons for thinking much of DtH is pre-exilic (esp. Joshua-Samuel) as there are for thinking that it is post-exilic, and there is nothing in the text that demands a 7th century (and beyond) setting. So the methods used and the historical assumptions that govern these theories are suspect.

Third, and because of the arbitrariness of both method and assumption, both the Documentary Hypothesis and DtH are criticized because neither the approach nor the methods used have led to anything like a scholarly consensus. If one reads the history of both of these critical theories, it becomes readily apparent that with each and within each subsequent generation of scholarship, there is much more disagreement than there is consensus, either with past or present peers. McConville, for example, notes the variety of perspectives on DtH since Noth, many of which directly contradict one another. One would think that if the methods are “objective”, as modern biblical scholarship claims to be,  these would yield a consensus position. And yet they have not.

I would add a fourth criticism, which is that the progenitors of these theories were highly influenced by German philosophy and Enlightenment suspicion. They went to the text looking for, e.g., a Hegelian dialectic development of ideas and texts, for ways to chop up the text so they could then deny its authority, and to verify positively a historical background using “objective” methods. This, too, has been highly criticized by recent biblical scholarship from across the theological spectrum, in that most biblical scholars now recognize the postmodern turn, thus rejecting “objectivity”, and also have moved on from the German philosophical schools of the last two and a half centuries.

All of this leads me to two questions that are (obviously) mostly rhetorical.

First, if the 1) methods, 2) assumptions, 3) conclusions, and 4) philosophical underpinnings of the seminal works for both of these theories are questioned by virtually all contemporary biblical scholarship, why do we still refer to them as if they represent scholarly consensus or as if they are the only way to understand the composition of the Pentateuch and Former Prophets?

Second, how can any non-confessional scholar look an evangelical in the eye and claim objectivity of method and conclusion when a) neutral objectivity is an Enlightenment myth and b) the supposedly objective methods and conclusions are claimed by their own peers to be arbitrary and contradictory?

One final comment: I named this post “The Silliness of (Some) Source Criticism” because I do not want to suggest that source criticism is of no value. It does have value. But when it is appropriated and used in service of “objectivity” and German philosophy, and then left to its own devices by subsequent scholarship, it devolves into self-contradictory silliness.

Gordon McConville on the Paradox of Deuteronomy

Lately much of my research has focused on the Solomon narrative in 1 Kings 1-11. With this it is impossible to escape the voluminous amount of secondary literature that has been written on the Deuteronomistic History where the narrative is embedded. While researching various theories on the DH and the theology of Deuteronomy in general I came across a lecture on Deuteronomy from Gordon McConville. McConville is a leading scholar on Deuteronomy and OT Theology. This lecture is on the Paradox of Deuteronomy that he delivered at the Lutheran School of Theology in Aarhus. You can listen to the lecture here.