Higher Criticism, my viewpoint and the Church

Stephen Marsh Mormon 11 Comments

I first learned about higher criticism in the context of the archeological excavation of Jericho.  The German higher criticism read was that Jericho never existed and that part of the Bible was a bad gloss.  Perhaps if I had gotten the introduction the other way around, I might have had more interest in something that has such a vainglorious name (“higher criticism” – really?).

It did not get much better with my second introduction, when I was doing some research into Ba’l, since the Bible Dictionary reference we inherited for free from the Church of England publishers dates back to the 1800s and is a little wrong.

Ba’l rides on the clouds, he has two hammers, thunder and lightening, he is banished by the summer drought, the pretender to his throne is the god of irrigation and he returns with the winter storms.  Regardless of what some Egyptologist thought in the 1800s, he is a storm god, not a sun god, which is why his priests took Elijah’s challenge to call fire from heaven down on a mountain top (lightening tends to hit mountain tops all the time).  There is a body of hymns to Ba’l that the higher criticism bunch claimed proved that the ancient Hebrews just stole all of the psalms and other literature from.

Except, if you read the actual parallels, the writing plays off the Philistine literature to highlight the differences, it doesn’t copy.  It actually gains meaning if you think of it in context.  Thus the emphasis on how God fails not (whereas Ba’l fails on a seasonal basis, every year), etc.  Again, my exposure to higher criticism came in the context of another place it was completely wrong.

As for the documentary hypothesis, I actually really started looking at the documentary hypothesis in the context of poetic structures it misses (though I do see how it fits in with LDS theology and provides some useful analysis).

My view of Joseph Smith has similar inputs.  When I was in the Hill Cumorah Pageant, we had a number of lessons we taught about Joseph Smith’s human, fallible side.  They were drawn from public addresses he gave about himself and his faults.  I had not heard the story of Sydney Rigdon daughter until the last month, when I read about it here, but, of course, we have a guest poster (my wife’s cousin) who will probably be addressing it and other related topics shortly.  Viz.

Joseph Smith made affidavit denying authorship of the letter, and Nancy Rigdon herself affirmed it had not come from Smith, “nor in his hand writing, but by another person, and in another person’s hand writing.”  Nancy’s father didn’t believe the letter was from Joseph either.  Neither copy of the notorious letter has been found to this day.  All we know of it is from what Bennett published. “ Of course this time the higher critics could be right.

I have to admit that at present there are many things I do not know about history, facts and reality.  What I do know is the witness of the Spirit and the complexity of what seems “obvious” and “undeniable” and “certain” extends from whether Jericho ever existed to whether Ba’l was a sun god whose literature was shamelessly copied by ancient Hebrews to criticisms of Joseph Smith and others.

Sometimes “higher criticism” really isn’t that high.  What do you think?

Comments

comments

Comments 11

  1. Good post. I recognize that there will always be smarter people than me that reach different spiritual conclusions. These same ‘smart people’ will reach different conclusions than each other. Higher criticism and the knowledge it produces is constantly evolving. It seems that the process of studying broadly, pondering and praying works well in our effort to gain wisdom.

  2. “The German higher criticism read was that Jericho never existed and that part of the Bible was a bad gloss. Perhaps if I had gotten the introduction the other way around, I might have had more interest in something that has such a vainglorious name (“higher criticism” – really?).”

    The problem isn’t that Jericho never existed (it has been around since approx. 9,000 BCE), but that the narrative about Joshua and the Israelites conquering Jericho isn’t exactly historically accurate in its telling based on what we know archaeologically (e.g. there is a destruction layer, but not one that really dates to the time-frame required by the biblical text). The arguments and debate are more detailed than this and you shouldn’t point to the vague “German Higher Criticism” to make an implied that biblical scholarship/archaeology is totally unfounded in its claims.

    “There is a body of hymns to Ba’l that the higher criticism bunch claimed proved that the ancient Hebrews just stole all of the psalms and other literature from.”

    This is a mis-characterization of and simplification of what scholarship says about the relationship between Israelite poetry and Ugaritic poetry. Rather, some of the Psalms show dependence and continuation of ideas and literature that was part of the world that Israel interacted with. Is it too much to believe that a culture would show any sort of influence from its neighboring culture and peoples, even to the extent of literary allusions, parallels, and sometimes dependence? This doesn’t mean it was “stolen.”

    “…the writing plays off the Philistine literature to highlight the differences.”

    Not sure what you are referring to here by “Philistine” literature. I am not aware of any Philistine literature; are you referring to Ugaritic literature, which is where Ba’al figures prominently? If so, these are two entirely different cultures.

    “As for the documentary hypothesis, I actually really started looking at the documentary hypothesis in the context of poetic structures it misses (though I do see how it fits in with LDS theology and provides some useful analysis).”

    If you want to know some basics about the evidence for the Documentary Hypothesis from the standpoint of a popular summary, you should take a look at the introduction of Richard Elliot Friedman’s “The Bible with Sources Revealed.” I don’t agree with all of his source divisions, but his summary of the evidence should be enough to demonstrate the cogency of the argument. The DH is something that has been hotly debated in recent times, and if one wants to look at one of the more sophisticated arguments for it, Joel Baden’s “J, E, and the Redaction of the Pentateuch” is a good read. The purpose of the monograph is more about disproving a certain widely-held theory about the DH, but it has some excellent material on the history of DH scholarship as well as a good summary of some methodological points and a summary of the transmission and compilation of the Pentatuech. Also, I noticed you mentioned the DH in connection with your examination of “poetic structures”, and I wanted to mention that the DH is a theory that applies to the Pentateuchal narratives and not to the rest of the biblical text. It is an often misunderstood point that needs to be remembered because there are those that try to discount it by using its methodology and assumptions to explain other texts that it doesn’t work with. The DH is a specific theory to explain a specific set of issues with the narratives of the Pentateuch and though there have been those in the past that have tried to apply it to other portions of the Bible unsuccessfully, most now realize that the rest of the bible (Deuteronomistic History, Psalms, Prophets, etc.) all of their own unique compositional history.

    “Sometimes ‘higher criticism’ really isn’t that high. What do you think?”

    Sometimes we need to be careful about making assumptions regarding things that we may in reality know little about. I also think that we need to give biblical scholarship a fair shake and not simplify what are often complex cultural/historical issues, as well as make sure that the scholarship we are reading is up-to-date. For what its worth, I don’t typically hear the term “higher criticism” thrown around a lot anymore in recent biblical, historical-critical scholarship unless one is referring to the scholarship of past generations.

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    JSVLB, glad to know you don’t think the sea peoples, be they Minoan, Mycenaean, Hellenic, Ugaritic or Phoenician, (though dna studies seem to indicate that the Phoenicians were distinct from the Philistines) had any literature aside from the Ugaritic. One learns something every day. I’m certain George Mylonas would be surprised to learn that the Mycenaean branch of the sea peoples, at least, had no literature. [An aside to anyone reading my response, the Philistines, at different times, are different groups. They are vaguely the sea peoples who spread after the destruction of Thera. However, they share some gods with the Phoenicians and others and the cultural groups that the Bible is referring to when it says “Philistine” appear to include a very wide base. A simple place to start is http://www.bookrags.com/research/baal-eorl-02/ for more on Baal which will give you an idea of why JSVLB is referring to the Ugaritic peoples for that purpose].

    There was early criticism that claimed Jericho never existed. I’m well aware that since then, since Jericho has been found, that the analysis has shifted. But I’m talking about my introduction to the topic, and that was at the level that Jericho never existed, prior to later developments. I don’t think anyone believes that higher criticism hasn’t shifted, though minimalists still abound (I recently read through a number who insist that there was no David, that Solomon is really a local deity whose temple was later confused with the house of David, etc.).

    Early analysis of the Psalms differs from the later. You will note that I mention that my encounter with the early analysis came in the context of the Psalms showing a continuation of ideas and interaction with local cultures, which is the current approach. But the reading I encountered definitely was about at the level of Black Athena and claims that the material was just stolen by culturally deprived Hebrews.

    You make nice comments about the Documentary Hypothesis. The poetic structures I was reading about were ones in the first five books, especially creation and other narratives. You are right that the tools are useful to apply to other places, though the other texts require different compositional theories.

    I would very much agree that the scholarship of past generations is considered incorrect today. Which is my point. Every round of criticism and analysis has shifts in what it considers certain and definite. What some took as definite you now see as so out of touch with what is currently believed as to be a miss-characterization. I’ll agree it was really wrong, but it really was pretty much what they were expressing (just like the scholars who insisted that Baal was a sun god). Many things are out of date. Assyro-Babylonian anyone?

    Finally, Sometimes we need to be careful about making assumptions regarding things that we may in reality know little about. — that was the point I was trying to make. It is much too easy to accept without realizing that we are buying into assumptions about things we know little about and that are not necessarily as certain or definite as they appear.

  4. “JSVLB, glad to know you don’t think the sea peoples, be they Minoan, Mycenaean, Hellenic, Ugaritic or Phoenician, (though dna studies seem to indicate that the Phoenicians were distinct from the Philistines) had any literature aside from the Ugaritic”

    I’m sure the Philistines (which I realize are an enigmatic group that in some ways are difficult to define), just like Israel and others, had their own literature, but I am puzzled by your reference to “Philistine literature.” Can you please tell me what literature you are referring to, as I am unaware of any literature known as “Philistine” literature?

  5. Also, in regards to comment 3, I read the original post as having implied derogatory tones about biblical scholarship in that it always evolves and changes and is not so “high” and, therefore, that we need not pay much attention to it. I apologize if I misread and misunderstood your OP.

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    “Philistine literature.” — I was using it as a short hand for the literature of the people associated with the Philistines in the Bible. I guess I could have used it to mean literature that has “An attitude of smug ignorance and conventionalism, especially toward artistic and cultural values” but that tends to be the people who reject all of the scientific analysis — though it would have added a layer of irony to my post.

    You are right, I did over simplify. I really do think we should pay attention to scholarship on the Bible, I think it greatly enriches our understanding and application. I’m not calling for us to become Philistines in the alternative sense (the definition I quoted), just to be more nuanced in our acceptance.

    Thomas, I’ve actually been reading about the purple/green study and what it implies. Sobering how racism can develop.

  7. The process of how scholarly opinion reaches various segments of the public and comes to be accepted wisdom, even when it is shown by later research to be dead wrong might be an interesting study. Misconceptions may persist for years. It’s also impossible to predict how much of today’s cutting edge scholarship will be sustained by tomorrow’s work and how much will be overthrown. This is compounded by the problem that a large fraction of scholarly literature in fields touching religion represents partisan advocacy to one degree or another rather than unflinching scholarly integrity.

  8. Re Stephen

    I would very much agree that the scholarship of past generations is considered incorrect today. Which is my point. Every round of criticism and analysis has shifts in what it considers certain and definite. What some took as definite you now see as so out of touch with what is currently believed as to be a miss-characterization.

    Hmm, sounds similar to a certain church and group of leaders who claim that revelation is ongoing. As you’ve said, I think we need to pay attention to the scholarship, as well as our leaders, but keep it in the back of our mind that it might not be quite right and will likely be revised or redacted later.

    Re #8

    The process of how scholarly opinion reaches various segments of the public and comes to be accepted wisdom, even when it is shown by later research to be dead wrong might be an interesting study.

    Absolutely. Additionally, research into what causes so many supposedly independent “experts” to draw incorrect conclusions would be a nice corollary.

  9. With respect, I think this is the old saw that says “so many things are unknowable that perhaps it is impossible to know anything, except for the import of these feelings I have which very clearly mean that God appeared to a 14 year old boy in the woods and later sent him an angel with gold plates.” IOW, while it is right to say that some things are difficult to discern it is a complete dodge and an enormous unjustified leap to pretend that nothing is knowable.

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