Friday, May 01, 2015

Who Moved My Exegesis?

Speaking of how long it takes something to "trickle down" to the people:

In 1860, the year after the publication of Origin [of Species, Darwin's famous work], seven Anglican clergymen published "Essays and Reviews," a series of articles that made the German Higher Criticism of the Bible available to the unsuspecting general public, who now learned to their astonishment that Moses had not written the first five books of the Bible, King David was not the author of the Psalms, and biblical miracles were little more than a literary trope.  At this time, German clerics were far better educated than their counterparts in Britain and America, who were ill-equipped either to follow German scholarship themselves or to explain it to their flocks.
Armstrong, p. 247,

I entered seminary in 1993, 133 years after the publication of this book.  According to Armstrong, Essays and Reviews was the influential book on believers in the 19th century, not Darwin's Origin.

It sold twenty two thousand copies in two years (more than Origin in the first twenty years of its publication), went through thirteen editions in five years, and inspired some four hundred books and articles in response. 
Armstrong. p. 248.

And yet everything about the German Higher Criticism was completely new to me.  A year or two before I entered seminary Harold Bloom had collaborated in the publication of the Book of 'J,', a reconstruction of the work of the Jawhist from the Torah.  It was a revelation to most of the public that there was a "Jahwist" portion of the Torah.   I'd certainly never heard of it before then. The Jesus Seminar further stirred the pot with its "red-letter" edition of the Gospels, presenting what they thought were the "true" (or truest, anyway) words of Jesus of Nazareth.  The foundation for their analysis was laid down by the German Biblical scholars more than 100 years earlier; and still their work was controversial.

I studied the German Higher Criticism in studying both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures.  It was a given, the foundation, the starting point, of all Biblical exegesis at my seminary.  Yet it was still a wonder and a challenge and a controversy to my congregations when I took it to them.

And people wonder why we can't change culture in a generation.


  1. The denomination to which I belong is a direct "descendent" of 19th century German Biblical scholarship* and yet I betcha there are people in the pews at shul who would reject German Higher Criticism and hew to literal divine authorship of the Torah. Heck, some of those people are actually less orthodox in their religious practice than some of us who do not reject Higher Criticism.

    * The original JTS was a seat of the Jewish version of such scholarship. The American JTS was modeled on the German/Polish JTS. And the Conservative/Masorti movement grew out of the JTS: ours is a case where the movement came from the seminary rather than the seminary being established by the movement

  2. "it was still a wonder and a challenge and a controversy to my congregations when I took it to them."

    That something remains a novelty after a hundred and fifty years is, I suppose, a testament to people's lack of curiosity. It's not like any of this work has been hidden or outlawed.

    I was taught most of this stuff in college in a couple of undergraduate courses on old and new testament (it was a Presbyterian liberal arts school). But we also read Schweitzer's "Quest of the Historical Jesus," whose survey of the attempt to cull a modern or scientifically-vetted life of Jesus revealed a fairly consistent theme of the researchers verifying their own ideas and values in their lives of Jesus.

    Though not novel, I'm not surprised that this enterprise has remained controversial. As far as I can tell, Schweitzer's conclusions about past attempts hold for those since his time. Not that I haven't enjoyed learning the four-document theory, the two source hypothesis, the application of various criteria of historicity to the biblical materials. It's just that I find the results largely sterile. I was interested in both the "Book of J" and the Jesus Seminar's "Five Gospels," but I don't think that isolating the "J" material did much more for me than leaving me longing for Genesis. Neither did I think the Jesus left over after the Seminar culled out the "authentic material" a figure of much real interest.

    These things seem to me as applicable to Christian life as, say, critical material on Shakespeare is to Shakespeare's work itself. It's interesting to get the background, the parallels, the influences,the latest theories of composition, the current controversies. But if I had to choose between those and an earnest student performance of "King Lear," I'd go with the latter.

  3. No, it hasn't been outlawed, Rick. It just hasn't been taken up, either.

    Yes, it's been available. But, as I said, it was wildly popular (and controversial) in the 19th century. It prompted the rise of Fundamentalism in the early 20th century. Fundamentalism is still with us, but the "Higher Criticism" is still considered mildly heretical if not downright atheistic.

    And I don't think we should scrap Genesis for "J", or the gospels for Crossan's "The Essential Jesus" (an even more radical revision of the Gospels than the Jesus Seminar undertook). The problem is more fundamental than that: seminaries and the pastors they train have been using these tools for a long time, now. Even Fr. Raymond Brown, a noted Catholic priest and Biblical scholar, used them without concern.

    But when you take them out to the congregation in any form whatsoever; when you use them, as I often did, simply to exegete a passage and try to find new life in it for a new day, you meet rigid resistance. If I preached like John Donne or Jonathan Edwards, I wouldn't have met much positive response, either. Eliot was intrigued by the sermons of Lancelot Andrewes, but his exegesis would have been intolerable to my congregations.

    So what, then? Tell them comforting nursery stories about Jonah and the whale and Noah and the Ark, and leave it at that? Explain, as it was told me in Sunday school, that the "eye of the needle" that Jesus said the camel couldn't get through was a narrow gate in Jerusalem, not the sewing needle Paul would have held as he stitched tents and sought converts? Continue to act as if there really was a Red Sea in Egypt that apparently dried up millennia ago, so Charlton Heston could cross an ocean hundreds of fathoms deep?

    I don't have to discuss the latest theories of Biblical composition in order to tell my congregation the Torah is a human document, not a divine artifact. I don't have to use only the approved words from the Jesus Seminar in order to navigate the sayings of Jesus and try to explain to my congregation that when he said "Blessed are the poor" he meant the destitute, the physically poor and not merely those who thought themselves spiritually humble. I don't have to hold a seminar to try to treat the "miracles" in the Synoptics as "acts of power" and the same miracles in John as "signs." And understanding Q and the debt Matthew and Luke owe to Mark, and especially the interesting link between Luke and John (as well as understanding how John was written to a community of converted Jews fighting with other Jews for existence; John can easily be the most anti-semitic of the gospels if you don't take it's historical context seriously), can help to exegete those gospels.

    Aside from understanding some of the letters attributed to Paul weren't really by Paul.

    You don't have to hold lectures on Biblical exegesis in order to teach people lessons they haven't learned but in many cases need to. One of the affirmations of John's gospel is that the truth will make us free. I think the truth of the nature of the gospels, a nature we have learned and and understood anew again and again, keeps them fresh and alive and human.

    Without it, they become fossils, stones, and mere idols. Culture changes very, very slowly; sometimes for the worse. But when it doesn't change, the consequences are always unintended, and always bad. Analogous, I think, to an earthquake, where the fault line was always present, and the pressure for movement means when the change comes, it will be almost catastrophic.

  4. Well, we've had these discussions before, and I'm probably just repeating myself. All history is to some extent speculative, even natural history, and the past is never directly accessible. We have only the relics, which always require interpretation.

    Of course Paul may not have written the Letter to the Ephesians. I'm not entirely convinced, but, were it so, does it make a difference? Can we ignore it now? Were we required to pay it more deference before? What does that matter to a Christian?

    You know me, I love the Germans. Their work has been necessary, but in a negative way rather than positive, I think. To me they've shown we can't get down to an ascertainable historical truth capable of consensus, even among the enlightened. We reach a point of unconquerable Uncertainty. Which I don't think would have surprised our old friend Kierkegaard. Did he ever express, to your knowledge, any opinion about this enterprise?

    I do not envy the task of the preacher and pastor. It is an admirable think to try to mediate this work to the mostly uninterested. I'll end with a reference to a few words I posted on Noah. It's an attempt to defend "Sunday School" exegesis. I don't know if you'll think much of it, but it occurs to me that I shouldn't criticize without offering some sort of attempt to suggest an alternative.

  5. I never wanted to discard any work from the canon; but understanding it better, with all the post-Enlightenment tools at my disposal, did benefit my exegesis of the texts.

    We are creatures of our time, no matter how timeless and eternal we think our understanding is.

  6. You might be interested in looking at this from Barth's introduction to the second edition of his Epistle to the Romans. On page 11, at this site:

    (sorry, I don't know an easier way to get there)

    There Barth defends himself against those who, from a reading of the first edition, considered him an enemy of the historical-critical method. Barth here insists that he values it, but considers it but the merest introduction to the real work of the exegete.

    What is interesting, to your original point, is that Barth is making these criticisms in 1921. As you rightly point out, most of this was out and about before our parents were born. Yet every Easter and Christmas, like clockwork, some newsweekly reports on "shocking" and "scandalous" theories that were old hat in 1900.