Friday, December 18, 2009

American Evangelicalism Losing Its Mind: Old Testament Scholarship and CT Magazine

This post is part of a series focused on evangelical Christianity's reception of, and reaction to, world-class Old Testament scholarship. Evangelicals are known for being committed to the Christian Bible as Holy Scripture. But how has Evangelicalism interacted with the larger world of biblical scholarship? In order to explore that question, I have used Christianity Today magazine, the flagship publication of popular American Evangelicalism, as a gauge.

From the pages of CT, it's clear that evangelical leaders of the 1950s and 60s were determined to inform the rank and file of current Old Testament scholarship, and to offer persuasive counters when the prevailing theories ran against evangelical commitments and sentiment. New Testament and theological counterparts to the Old Testament articles abound in the early years. The number and size of the articles make it obvious that the editors wanted the considerable readership to know about such topics as
  • the Documentary Hypothesis of the Pentateuch
  • the Synoptic Problem
  • the priority of Mark among the Gospels

They also wanted their readers to know about the ideas of influential theologians like Karl Barth, Rudolf Bultmann, and Emil Brunner. What this post will show is that, by the late 1970s, the substantial attention and criticism, along with occasional appropriation, had all but vanished.

One of the earliest treatments of the Pentateuch to appear in the pages of CT was, ironically, written by the Jewish scholar, Cyrus H. Gordon. In his article, “Higher Critics and Forbidden Fruit,” [1] Gordon complains that he is faulted even from the right because he is “not devoted to JEDP, the badge of interconfessional academic respectability.” One can only wonder who it was to Gordon’s right faulting him in this way. My guess would be that it was some of his Jewish colleagues. It certainly wasn’t any fundamentalist or emerging evangelical.

Gordon recalls from previous years that he came to realize that his knowledge of biblical archaeology and his commitment to higher critical views of the Pentateuch were “mutually exclusive.” Indeed, a commitment to “any hypothetical source-structure like JEDP is out of keeping with the true scholar’s obligation to go wherever the evidence leads him.” As he explains, following World War II his studies in Ugaritic and Sumero-Akkadian materials revealed that in pre-Mosaic texts there were to be found literary themes and even specific phrases that also turn up in the Bible, indicating that the biblical texts are not necessarily later. Instead, because of the similarities, it is more likely that such biblical texts are early, dating from the same period as the materials with which they compare.

There are plenty of other arguments, says Gordon. For example, a different style does not mean a different author; the same speaker will use remarkably different styles in different settings. Moreover, repetition is no ground for positing different authorship because “repetitions are typical of ancient Near East literature.” Gordon says that it was, again, his studies in Ugaritic that led him to reject the different divine names as a criterion for source identification. Every sort of literature, from Ugaritic to the works of Herodotus, reveals that many gods had more than one name. Thus, the two-name expression Yahweh Elohim no more justifies the notion of conflated J and E sources than the Egyptian Amon-Re is “the result of combining an ‘A’ document with an ‘R’ document.” The only certain sources of the Old Testament are the ones cited in the biblical text itself, such as “the book of the Wars of Jehovah cited in Numbers 21:14.” As it stands, “No two higher critics seem to agree on where J, E, D, or P begins or ends.” And this leads to a dismal experience. Gordon writes:

I am distressed to meet ever so many intelligent and serious students who tell me that their teachers of Bible have killed the subject by harping on the notion that biblical study consists of analyzing the text into JEDP. The unedifying conclusion of all such study is that nothing is authentic.

Here we should note that Gordon does not claim that the Pentateuch has no literary sources. He asserts the opposite. Because the Bible was written within a “great international culture” it “cannot be devoid of sources.” But, he adds, the problem is that modern attempts to probe the development of the biblical text have led to very few conclusions on which we can stand. Thus the “hypothetical system” should be abandoned.

In a later article, “The Minoan Bridge: Newest Frontier in Biblical Studies,” Gordon asserts that the language of Minoan Linear A is Semitic. Indeed, “early Hebrew and Greek literatures have a common denominator and should be used to illuminate each other.” This, it turns out, confirms Gordon’s contention that the genealogy of Genesis 10 reports an historical reality: “the cradle of our civilization was One World and not a compartmentalized Near East.” One of the more-remarkable facets of this piece, and several others that are found in the early volumes, is its level of sophistication. Throughout, it is expected that the reader already knows the basic outline of the Documentary Hypothesis and is capable of understanding what is being put forward as evidence against it.[2]

Two years later, in another significant article, evangelical Edwin Yamauchi compares Homeric studies to biblical studies. The ancient Greeks, he begins, assumed the Homer had composed both the Illiad and the Odyssey. But in the late eighteenth century scholars, now referred to as analysts or separatists, dissected the poems into various layers. In the same way the likes of Astruc, Eichhorn and, most-notably, Wellhausen distinguished in the Pentateuch the source documents J, E, D, and P. In both enterprises, “the results were generally nihilistic.” But biblical archaeology, from its inception with the excavation of Nineveh begun in 1842, has overturned the negative evaluation of the historicity of the Pentateuch. The once-doubted existence of the Hittites was established in 1906. Customs referred to in the book of Genesis have been confirmed with the discovery of “10,000 texts from the Hurrian (biblical Horite) city of Nuzu in northern Mesopotamia.” Genesis 37-50 reveals a remarkable knowledge of ancient Egypt. And “Most biblical archaeologists . . . are now convinced of the substantive historical accuracy of the biblical traditions” (citing, with approval, the works of W. F. Albright). Nonetheless, the documentary hypothesis continues to be a pre-supposition of almost all Old Testament scholars. And this means that there is every reason to protest those who say they are not convinced by recent evidence from archaeology. To ask for irrefutable proof “is to overestimate the demands that can properly be placed on archaeological evidence—evidence that is circumstantial in nature, often fortuitous in discovery, and always but partial in survival.” [3]

To repeat and summarize then, in the early years of CT, the number and quality of articles dealing with biblical studies is impressive. But for what must have been a number of reasons, beginning in the mid-1970s, the once-common articles on subjects like the destructive Documentary Hypothesis or how the historical-critical method must be kept in the service faith begin to wane in number and size. It’s no exaggeration to say that by the early 1980s, the once-considerable coverage of the scholarly field was no more. For example, in place of the annual surveys of recent literature in the various fields was the occasional “Special Book Section” which featured mostly popular titles. [4]

Much more recently, a review of the first volume of the New Interpreter’s Bible leaves the reader with nary a clue that anyone ever suggested sources for the first three books of the Bible. Instead, the authors of the commentaries (T. Fretheim, W. Brueggemann, and evangelical W. Kaiser) are graded in terms of how well they juggle the various new schools and trends in biblical studies. [5] The next year’s volume of CT contains only a few articles dealing with the Old Testament and none, really, that match the depth of articles published in the early volumes. Instead, what we find for the most part are light reviews of light books. For example, the issue for March 4, 1996 contains a review by a New Testament specialist of three popular books on the Old Testament, all having to do with Jesus. [6] The “Annual Bible Issue” for that year turns out to be a conglomeration of a few light and cheery book notes combined with several sleek ads for new books and Bible-study software, an article on Old Testament divine warfare in the shadow of the Cross, and a series of sidebars on “My Favorite Old Testament Passage” written by contemporary evangelical heroes like scholar J. I. Packer and evangelist Luis Palau. The relatively-sophisticated pieces that made Julius Wellhausen notorious among the previous generation are completely gone.

[1] CT, IV (November 23, 1959), 3-6.

[2] CT, VII (Mar. 15, 1963), 3-5. Significantly, an editorial blurb accompanies this second article by Gordon and describes the author as follows: “A member of a conservative synagogue, he may best be described as upholding the Jewish tradition of those for whom scriptural study is not only an academic pursuit but also a sacrament and way of life.”

[3] CT, X (November 19, 1965), 3-6. Here, Yamauchi’s position can be compared to John Bright. Regarding the question of the historicity of Scripture vis-à-vis archaeology, the normal procedure is to give the biblical record every benefit of the doubt.

[4] See, for example, CT XXVIII (September 7, 1984), 29-52.

[5] CT, XXXIX (April 3, 1995), 104-05.

[6] CT, XXXX (March 4, 1996), 58-61.

1 comment:

Brian said...

a dumbing down...indeed..
very interesting how data can be against a popular conclusion but it seems too late for most to reconsider. Why are we that way?