No Fear Biblical Criticism – Part 4: Axioms and Subjectivity

No Fear Biblical Criticism – Part 4

Axioms and Subjectivity

(For those just joining us, here are Parts One, Two, and Three)

Perhaps the most important thing to understand about the intersection of Biblical Criticism and religious thought is that they have fundamentally different ways of thinking about and approaching the Tanakh. This isn’t a matter of proofs or faith, simply of axioms. An axiom is a starting point for a line of reasoning, one that is not proven, but simply accepted. Most axioms are understood to be self-evident, but that does not have to be the case. Sometimes, an axiom that some find to be self-evident can be disagreed with by others, without either side actually being able to prove their axiom more correct. Such is the case when it comes to Biblical Criticism, as I will attempt to demonstrate in brief.

The first and most important axiom to appreciate regarding Biblical Criticism is the Non-Existence of Prophecy[1]. This is in direct contrast to the basic assumption of most religions, certainly of Orthodox Judaism, that ‘א communicates His Will to man. This is important to realize because it enables proper understanding of things like the Documentary Hypothesis. The Documentary Hypothesis was never meant to prove that the Torah is not Divine. Rather it started with that assumption, with the knowledge that the text was human, and based its approach on that. It is true that Source Critics at no point ran into anything that made them stop and consider that the text might be Divine, but that was also never really an option. Orthodox Jews, on the other hand, tend to start with the belief that the Torah is Divine, or at least that such a thing is possible. Therefore when looking at the text Bible Critics and Orthodox Jews are more or less guaranteed to see different things, simply due to their underlying assumptions.

A second important axiomatic difference to appreciate is the understanding of Context[2]. Everyone agrees that ideas must be understood in their proper contexts, including Tanakh. However, the Academic and Traditional[3] approaches to the text differ in terms of what context they put the Tanakh in. The academic approach understands all things in terms of their Historical context. Israelite society and the Tanakh are put in terms of other Ancient Near Eastern civilizations and their literatures, both sacred and secular[4]. Such comparisons can be both helpful and misleading (This will be discussed further in a later segment on Archaeology and Patternism). The traditional approach sees Tanakh, and all of our sacred texts, in light of the Jewish Tradition. This is most obviously true in terms of Halakhah, which gets decided based on the various texts of the Jewish Tradition, but it is also true for Tanakh. Even where they are not decisive, midrashim and later commentaries are taken into account by the Traditional scholar when reading Tanakh[5].  Thus the traditional scholar and the academic will see the text of Tanakh in very different lights.

Having said that, it’s worth taking a look at the historical context of Biblical Criticism, at least at its origins. Biblical Criticism, and the Documentary Hypothesis in particular, sprouted up in the latter half of the 19th century[6]. This had a lot of ramification in terms of the way Critics treated Tanakh like other literature of the time, without proper understanding of Israelite Society, but its greatest effects on Biblical Criticism came from the Scientific and Religious atmospheres of the time.

The triumphs of evolutionism in natural science have made it a hallmark of intellectual modernity. Over against the essentially medieval unconcern (and unawareness) of history, so characteristic of theological exegesis, current critical exegesis opposes its perspective, developmental view of the text as its chief qualification for intellectual respectability in our time. Hence any proposal of literary development is better than none–better in that it demonstrates sophistication, that is, advance beyond medieval dogmatic prejudices and naiveté. (M. Greenberg, The Vision of Jerusalem in Ezekiel 8-11, pg.147-8)

Once science discovered the idea that nature and life had evolved over time, that idea spread like wildfire through the consciousness of the time, pervading all discussions. Everything had to have developed over time. In many, many, arenas this proved to be an excellent method, but it’s important to note that, as opposed to in the natural sciences, it was something external that was imposed onto whatever was studied, rather than something internal discovered through study. When it come to the text of Tanakh, some minor development over time is self-evident, letters and words and the like[7], but there is no obvious and self-evident evidence of a slow and steady evolution from a core text, or texts, to what we have today.

A second need for the historical-analogic method arises from the situation of the Christian faith community which is its matrix. First, that community must justify its retention of the Old Testament alongside the New, and does so by showing that light is shed upon the New by viewing the Old as a series of steps leading up to it. The more fully this can be worked out, the greater the value set on the Old Testament. Second (though less articulated), that community, though buffeted by change and modernity, affirms the validity of its ancient Scripture in the present. This affirmation is accomplished by showing that the biblical text itself incorporates a record of reinterpretation, adjustment to change and supplementation by later hands. Given the community’s overriding need for validating constant reinterpretation, any proposal that roots that process in the biblical text itself will have bias in its favor. (Ibid, pg.148)

Ironically, much of the challenge to Divine Unity of the Torah came not from secularist but from religious individuals. Julius Wellhausen, father of the Documentary Hypothesis, was a Professor of Theology who retired upon realizing that instead of preparing his students to join the clergy he was disqualifying them from that role[8]. Christianity needed Tanakh to have developed over time and to have been subject to constant reinterpretation, something Source Criticism confirmed with gusto. Thus the Documentary Hypothesis was accepted much more readily than it would have been otherwise. Thankfully, Biblical Criticism has moved away from these harmful mindsets, particularly with the rise of both Literary Criticism and the number of Jewish Academic Scholars in the second half of the 20th century.

At this point it’s worth taking a minute to point out something that has plagued Biblical Criticism from the start, namely, Subjectivity. Biblical Criticism is by its very nature an incredibly subjective field.

The book of Micah itself structurally alternates three prophecies of doom with three prophecies of restoration or hope…These restoration passages may seem a little out of keeping or out of step with the scathing denunciations or condemnations of Judah in the other parts of Micah’s prophecy, and so some scholars have suggested that…these must be interpolations by a later editor…But this is always a very difficult case or issue, because we know that the prophetic writings do fluctuate wildly between denunciation and consolation. So I think that a shift in theme alone is not ever a certain basis for assuming interpolation — outright contradiction perhaps — but a shift in theme or tone is never a solid basis for assuming interpolation. (Prof. Christine Hayes, from the transcript of Lecture 18 of the Yale Open University’s RLST 145: INTRODUCTION TO THE OLD TESTAMENT)

All textual analysis, regardless of what the text is or who is reading it, suffers from the subjectivity of the interpreter. It’s unavoidable. However, it is particularly prevalent in Biblical Criticism where so little is known about the historical nature of the text under discussion, and so any conception of what it “should look like” originally has to be incredibly speculative. This does not mean that all or any of Bible Critics’ conclusion are necessarily wrong, but it does indicate that we should look at their conclusions with a healthy degree of skepticism.

(The rest of this series is being hosted at Onward to Part Five.)


[1] For more on this, see this excellent lecture by Rabbi Jeremy Wieder.

[2] An excellent discussion of this idea by Rav Natan Slifkin can be found here.

[3] I switch here from the terms “Religious” and “Orthodox” that I have been using to the term “Traditional” as this is one area where even the religious may often make use of the Academic approach.

[4] This simple point is often missed by Rabbis who ridicule Biblical Criticism for not taking Midrashim into account. For one such example, see here.

[5] For more on this, see Rabbi Hayyim Angel’s lecture on contradictions between laws from Sefer Devarim and narratives from later in Tanakh, downloadable here. Pay particular attention to his discussion of “Halakhic Man” vs. “Tanakhic Man”.

[6] The ideas in this paragraph come a fuller and truly excellent discussion by Moshe Greenberg at the beginning of this article.

[7] For more on this, see our discussion of Lower Criticism, here.

[8] From his letter of resignation (quotation available here), cited in Robert J. Oden Jr.,”The Bible Without Theology”, Harper and Row, 1987.


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