A self-guided walking tour of Higher Criticism

stvwhSo I wrote another book. At first I thought that I was writing a short article to explain why two different Reformation-era prophecies share the same title, but the project kept expanding. Along the way, I changed the way I think about biblical textual criticism and the Documentary Hypothesis.

The stemmata codicorum, the diagrams of relationships between manuscripts that we have inherited from previous generations of scholars, look so definitive when you see them on the page. If you’ve never tried constructing one yourself, particularly for an older text in an older language, you may not have a good sense for how much uncertainty or how many unresolvable textual problems those tidy diagrams might not show you—and very few people have direct experience today with reconstructing the history of an unstudied text, even among those with doctorates in the humanities who specialize in earlier periods. It is not until you find yourself confronted with twenty versions of a text, with no one else to guide you in determining how they are related and what the original looked like, that you realize how much painstaking labor goes into building a stemma, and how much uncertainty remains once you have finished.

If you read only the popular accounts, the process sounds easy: Identify textual variants, then select the lectio difficilior as the original, or apply some other canon of textual criticism to the same task. But is it more likely that an originally difficult word has been replaced with a reading that restores sense, or that a transcription error has rendered a mundane word into nonsense? (I encountered both.) Once you determine what the original reading is, you use shared innovations to classify the textual witness into groups. But is it really impossible that two copyists could have arrived at the same innovation independently? Sometimes unlikely things happen. Everyone knows that the oldest witness isn’t necessarily the best, but it still comes as a surprise when the latest witness turns out to reflect the earliest stage of the text. The tools that we have to answer our questions about textual history are inadequate to the challenges we face, and the data are always insufficient. And yet choosing to simply ignore the question is not an option.

stvwh-s1I classified my texts, sketched out the relationship between them, and attempted some internal reconstruction, as there were several cases of resumptive repetitions where later material appeared to have been added to the text at some point earlier than the common ancestor of all available witnesses. In doing my own textual criticism, I saw that preferring one reading over another was always an exercise in probability: It was usually far more likely that a passage had been deleted from one witness than added in all the others, or that a shared innovation derived from a common ancestor rather than arising independently in two separate texts—but the probability that all the inferences that motivated the text’s stemma were correct was itself vanishingly small. For all my uncertainty, I eventually came up with what seemed like the most plausible classification of my textual witnesses. You go to press with the evidence you have.

And then I discovered the source of my text. My sixteenth-century prophecy turned out to be a translation of a fifteenth-century French redaction of a fourteenth-century Latin work, the Vademecum of Johannes de Rupescissa, itself composed of citations from and references to numerous earlier texts. The basic diagram of texts eventually turned into a tree diagram with multiple roots and branches that split apart and then re-crossed.

stvwh-s2In other words, I had been given the rare opportunity to consult the answer key after completing my homework. How had I done? My basic outline wasn’t too bad, but it’s incomparably easier to distinguish an innovation from a retained original reading if you have the original. As for those resumptive repetitions? I was right about half the time. The rest of the time, what appeared to be a later insertion was present in every version of the text back to the earliest known source. In the end, there was no single best textual witness. Some uniquely correct readings were found in almost every textual witness, including some of the latest and most eclectic ones.

The processes of textual history are not universal, as different literate cultures permit different things with respect to particular texts or genres, but perhaps inevitably I now tend to interpret all textual historical claims in light of my own slight experience with it. They say that the Old and New Testaments have undergone a great deal of change during the history of their development, and this seems unquestionably true to me. The only texts that do not change are dead texts that no one reads. People created the Bible by reading it and improving it. Through the ongoing work of translation and adaptation to new contexts and into new media, the Bible continues to change today.

Sometimes on Mormon blogs, one comes across an attitude I’ve come to think of as pathetic Lachmannian inerrantism, the devout belief that the Bible would be clear and infallible if only we had access to the original versions. But the reality is that access to the original will not answer all our questions. (In my case, even access to the original text did not tell me everything I wanted to know about its first appearance in the Reformation era, a Dutch edition of late 1557 that remains stubbornly lost.) Even worse, there is no original. Reconstructing older forms of a text and even manuscript discoveries of miraculous serendipity will not restore lost moments of pure inspiration. What we would find instead are acts of textual expansion, compilation, adaption, commentary, and allusion reaching back to prior texts without end. The practices that corrupted premodern texts are the same ones that created them.

So what of Markan priority, Q, and the Documentary Hypothesis? After attempting some textual criticism of other texts on my own, I’m more likely to regard them as brilliant and possibly even correct, necessary but possibly irrelevant for devotional reading.

There is a mutilated form of the Documentary Hypothesis that regards all of the Old Testament as a composition for Jews living in exile or returned from it. I am now more inclined to doubt that the original audience can be so neatly pinned down. The latest edition of my text appeared in 1691, but the text underwent numerous changes before that in the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries. Even the latest version owes much of its form to earlier centuries. But if one only had the latest version, it would be almost impossible to reconstruct that prior history or to correctly decide to which chronological layer much of the text belonged. The Documentary Hypothesis can be the source of important and devotionally useful insights (as Walter van Beek regularly reminds us), but I’m now more likely to see the significance of Exodus for post-exilic Jews, for example, as only one stop among many between an unrecoverable origin and modern Mormon devotional reading. The Bible has always been a transhistorical text.

22 comments for “A self-guided walking tour of Higher Criticism

  1. Craig H.
    September 9, 2014 at 11:07 am

    Very nice, Jonathan. I’d say you’ve summed up especially famous and thus frequently copied documents into a neat little formula: “there is no original,” but only “acts of textual expansion, compilation, adaption, commentary, and allusion reaching back to prior texts without end.” I’m not sure I’d use the term “corrupting,” though, not because it’s necessarily a wrong term but because of the connotation that term has nowadays (as in evil and sinister), and because doesn’t it imply some kind of pure original, which is what you’re arguing against? Plus I’m sure plenty of changers thought themselves “correcting,” just as later editors of famous texts have.

  2. September 9, 2014 at 11:14 am

    Sometimes on Mormon blogs, one comes across an attitude I’ve come to think of as pathetic Lachmannian inerrantism, the devout belief that the Bible would be clear and infallible if only we had access to the original versions. But the reality is that access to the original will not answer all our questions….Even worse, there is no original….The Bible has always been a transhistorical text.

    This is a great and useful observation, Jonathan. I’m reading the Old Testament right now, using primarily the Revised English Bible and then Robert Alter’s translations as my guides, and while I’ve wanted to blog about it, I’ve struggled to put into words the insight and delight I’m having in reading these ancient stories anew. I suppose it’s old hat to you and many others, but for myself, attempting to struggle directly with textual traditions which overlap and conflict with one another, stories of immense and often perplexing power, grace, and crudity whose seams between one narrative and the next are clearly visible, is something I’ve never done before. It’s strange; I think my commitment to and desire for these stories has actually grown as its been made clear to me, by finally getting away from the death-by-repetition language of the KJV, how different elements of Genesis, Exodus, etc., emerged first as folk tales, histories and genealogies, retroactive just-so stories, or primeval myths. You’re right: there is no original, not in any kind of “propositional” sense, anyway. There’s just these prophetic tales which have cut through historical time, appropriated and re-told hundreds of times, defining the lines of discourse for whole populations and schemes of religious faith as they do. It’s a wonderful thing to be exposed to, and some mornings it makes me wish I had an hour or more just to stick with the story. Anyway, thanks very much for sharing your insights (and for recommending another book which I’ll have to check out–congrats very much on that!).

  3. J. Stapley
    September 9, 2014 at 11:54 am

    This is great stuff, Jonathan. Thanks.

  4. WVS
    September 9, 2014 at 12:40 pm

    Freaking awesome.

  5. Howard
    September 9, 2014 at 12:51 pm

    Great post. Given that scholars have placed the later Isaiah chapters as being written after the Jewish exile to Babylon, how does that fit with LDS claims regarding its cannon? Are the scholars simply wrong? Do we need to rethink our approach to the cannon and history?

  6. Terry H.
    September 9, 2014 at 1:11 pm

    This is great. The more we study the Old Testament questions, the more there are. (I don’t say that as a problem for my faith, but it does require a lot more thought and effort.) Two recent examples, a friend of mine and I have regular talks on the scriptures. Let’s just say that his father was a doctrinaire (from a conservative) standpoint as the Church has ever had and he wrote the books to prove it). He often gets frustrated with exactly this problem in the Old Testament. As we talk about the Deuteronomist History, its as if the priests of Noah were writing about Mosiah I, Benjamin and Mosiah II. David was perhaps as bad or worse than most of the other Kings, but he’s let off the hook by the writers. Clearly, there’s an agenda there. I don’t think the Kings of Israel or Judah were as bad as portrayed. The second is that Judah visits Tamar when he thinks she’s a temple prostitute, but the story turns to how he is really filling his Leviratical responsibility for his dead son. I love that complexity and trying to sort out the motives too.

    @ Russell Arben Fox. the REB is my personal favorite among modern translations, but I like Fox better than Alter, although he’s nowhere near as prolific. He’s finally releasing his Josh – Samuel volume in November and its just as great as his Five Books of Moses from many years ago. By the way, I’ve had the same experience as you. It’s awesome.

  7. Julie M. Smith
    September 9, 2014 at 1:15 pm

    This is a great post for helping people understand how textual criticism works. I especially appreciated your suggestion that any conclusions need be extremely tentative given the limited data.

    At the same time, I want to push back a little on the idea that this kind of thing is not relevant to devotional reading. Here’s the problem: you read about the creation and think–did God create men and women at the same time (Gen 1:26) or did he create males first (Gen 2:21)?

    1. If you read for the seams, you might assume there are two earlier accounts combined here and ask what each one’s theology re gender was.

    2. If you don’t, you might assume one of the classical apologetic readings (e.g., the first creation is spiritual and the second physical).

    3. Or maybe you think about what was going on in the redactor’s mind when giving us this iteration of the text–how did he not see a conflict between the two (or did he?) and what does that tell us?

    Regardless of which position you take, it will very profoundly shape your view of the meaning of gender, gender differences, etc. So it has to be relevant for devotional reading, because the position you take shapes your reading of the text.

  8. September 9, 2014 at 1:21 pm

    Terry, thanks for the recommendations. Michael Austin (who has written a great book on Job; get a copy and read it, if you haven’t already) were talking about Alter just this past Sunday; Michael’s great fear is that Alter will die (he’s 80) before he finishes the OT. He’s done the Five Books, Psalms, the Wisdom Literature, and the Former Prophets, but he still has the real post-Moses meat of it, the Major and Minor Prophets, still to go.

  9. FarSide
    September 9, 2014 at 2:08 pm

    Jonathan, you make two statements in your post that I cannot reconcile, to wit:

    1. “So what of Markan priority, Q, and the Documentary Hypothesis? After attempting some textual criticism of other texts on my own, I’m more likely to regard them as brilliant and possibly even correct, necessary but possibly irrelevant for devotional reading.”

    2. “The Documentary Hypothesis can be the source of important and devotionally useful insights …”

    As Julie said in her comment, I think you got it right the second time.

    (Nice essay, by the way.)

  10. September 9, 2014 at 4:38 pm

    Thanks for the comments. Craig, I agree; I think ‘corruption’ and ‘contamination’ are the wrong terms to use. I would have put ‘corruption’ in scare quotes in my post if the use of scare quotes were not the greater sin.

    Howard, what does “written after Jewish exile” mean? Originally composed? Revised from earlier material? And how is anyone going to tell the difference at this point? And what does the inclusion of a passage from Isaiah in Joseph Smith’s translation of the Book of Mormon tell us about the existence of Isaiahn texts at some earlier time in the Americas? Since there are multiple legitimate ways to answer both sets of questions, it seems pointless to look for contradictions between one and the other.

    Julie, and FS, do note the possibility in “possibly.” Walter has done a nice job of showing how the DH can be relevant to devotional reading, but that relevance does not exist automatically. Even if you read for the seams, not every seam will tell you something interesting. And how confident are you in detecting seams, anyway? Sometimes it’s clear, but other times a seam might be undetectable, and there’s a risk of false positives. Are you going to stake your theology of gender (or anything else) on it?

    To put it another way, even identifying the first chapters of Genesis as the combination of two earlier accounts doesn’t by itself erase any of the classical readings. It’s the combined text that we canonize, so we can’t escape the duty to consider both accounts. We don’t have that same obligation towards the J text, or towards whatever textual structure is put forth as significant. Particularly for Mormonism, it’s up to the DH to prove its devotional relevance. Since we don’t look to the Bible as the supreme source of revelation and authority, we can mostly just shrug our shoulders whenever someone puts forward a theory of what the original biblical text looked like. Rather than saying that how we read the Bible profoundly affects our theology, I’d say that our theology is a complex dialogue that includes scripture as only one of many partners in conversation.

  11. Terry H
    September 9, 2014 at 4:45 pm

    @ Russell. My thoughts on Mike Austin’s book can be found at ldsmag.com (Meridian). Its called “The Long and the Short of the Book of Job”. Julie M. Smith and James Faulconer also got included. As for Alter, I have them all, but prefer others. Of course, Alter’s sense for poetry is fantastic.

    @ Julie. Your comments are dead on as to devotional reading. As if the scriptures weren’t deep enough for us.

    There is a reason my Stake President calls the Old Testament the “Best Testament”.

  12. Terry H
    September 9, 2014 at 4:49 pm

    By the way Jonathan, I love that throw away line. “So I wrote another book.” Classic

  13. September 9, 2014 at 6:06 pm

    The Old Testament (says my pastor) ought always be read through the interpretive grid of the New Testament.

    And the gospel. The forgiveness of sins for the ungodly. The reason that Christ Jesus died upon the Cross. And that leads to “freedom” (Gal.5:1)

    Thank you.

  14. Terry H
    September 9, 2014 at 6:42 pm

    @Russell. I just got the word that Alter’s next volume will be out in March. Its called As Strong as Death is Love and it will contain Song of Songs, Ruth, Esther, Jonah and Daniel. He’s trying but will he run out of time?

  15. Mary Ann
    September 9, 2014 at 11:37 pm

    Howard, If I read the above post correctly, it actually encourages us to take scholarly “consensus” with a grain of salt. One particular line that is applicable to the multiple Isaiah issue was when Jonathan said, “The rest of the time, what appeared to be a later insertion was present in every version of the text back to the earliest known source.”

    As far as how LDS Scholars have dealt with the multiple Isaiah theory, in the past they’ve usually gone with the Book of Mormon as evidence of the unity of Isaiah. More recently, the concept of modern expansion has been proposed where the current text of the Book of Mormon is “a revelation Joseph Smith experienced through his own intellectual framework” (David Bokovoy). Still canon, just not a literal translation of the ancient record. Others have adopted a “wait and see” approach, where they respect the scholarship on multiple authors of Isaiah, but they also support the Book of Mormon as a literal translation. They just live with the tension, figuring the future will eventually bring out new research and new evidence supporting the historicity of the Book of Mormon.

  16. September 10, 2014 at 3:50 pm

    Loved this — though it looks like this was complicated and perplexing, it must have been tons of fun. Well done on a very interesting project and thank you for distilling things you’ve learned from your work in this context as well. Very valuable. I’m currently reading Bokovoy’s book and have really enjoyed Austin’s Re-reading Job.

  17. September 11, 2014 at 8:19 am

    TOA, definitely sometimes.

    Thanks, John. It was definitely a fun project. I should have one more post about it.

  18. September 13, 2014 at 7:40 am

    Thanks for the reflections, Jonathan. So it sounds like the documentary hypothesis (in whatever particular form) is a necessary hypothesis, given complicated textual histories, but the evidence is never sufficient to provide more than a tentative reconstruction of earlier and, in some sense, more authentic versions of the text. While scholars may be able to live with that degree of textual uncertainty, most lay readers are troubled. One can see why many conservative Christians are happier simply ignoring DH, which raises questions no one can definitively answer.

    But what exactly is a “devotional reading”? I don’t think we can bracket the whole textual issue, so on Sunday we simply pretend the text is inerrant, then on Monday go back to grappling with thorny issues. At least those who write the manuals or those who teach the classes on Sunday ought to be aware of the textual issues so as to avoid invalid applications of the text and to avoid teaching a “model” of scripture that you argue against. We LDS need a better informed approach to “devotional reading.” But my sense is that that there is a minefield that lies between the current LDS devotional reading and an achievable more informed approach.

  19. James Olsen
    September 13, 2014 at 7:53 am

    It was wonderful to read your personal experience on this Jonathan. Thank you for sharing.

  20. Ben S.
    September 13, 2014 at 4:07 pm

    I suspect a fully-informed devotional reading would look something like Canonical Criticism. That is, “regardless of how they came to be, this is the text as the community has received it. What do we make of it in that authoritatively received form?”

    Also, you capture my own feelings about much of this. I think there’s certainly something to source criticism, but reluctant to assert the degree of certainty and micro-surgery of some of its proponents.

  21. September 14, 2014 at 3:48 pm

    Dave, the position that Ben sketches out is one I’m quite sympathetic with. This isn’t to say that the KJV is the only translation worth reading, or that GA commentary is the only source of answers to our questions, but sometimes we need to acknowledge that we’re part of a specific tradition of reading and interpreting scripture. It would be boring if that’s the only way we ever read, but it would be almost disingenuous to act as if the Mormon tradition of scriptural interpretation had no meaning for us.

    If we dispense with the overriding concern for originality, then every stage of the text and every way of reading it become equally authentic. The textual problems don’t go away, but the inaccessability of the original text is no longer a crippling obstacle, as a post-exilic, early Christian, and (although we may not admit it) medieval Christian and Reformation-era Protestant reading of the Bible are all authentic parts of the tradition that we belong to, and potentially the source of spiritual insight that we value personally or as a community. I’d like us to be both unembarrassed that, for example, our understanding of the sticks of Judah and Joseph may not be exactly what the passage suggested to the earliest audience of Ezekiel, while also more willing to consider other interpretations. I’d like to think we can be both more confident in our own tradition and more generous towards other traditions.

    I’m not quite ready to give up on the idea of a misreading or an invalid application altogether, but I think experience shows that it’s much more likely to identify a misreading by an appeal to community norms than it is by arguing only from the text. People can make the Bible say the darndest things if they put their minds to it. Also, there’s some tension between treating all versions of the text as authentic and 1 Ne. 13:24 and 14:23, so I might be overestimating how easily we can dispense with the idea of a pure original text.

  22. living in zion
    September 14, 2014 at 6:56 pm

    I love reading books and posts written in a foreign language. As in, I Have No Freaking Idea What This Is About.
    Now returning to youtube videos about kitties chasing puppies.

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