Junior Ganymede
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On “Higher Criticism” and the Documentary Hypothesis

January 29th, 2013 by G.

Here are a few thoughts from a layman who has only a nodding acquaintance with the subject:

The documentary hypothesis is not the same thing as higher criticism, let that be said.

  • I don’t trust the motives of folks who push higher criticism. Even the Mormon ones on inspection often either want to loosen the authority of prophets who have read scriptures non-critically; or apologists who think there’s a little bit of argumentative coin to be banked (e.g., the Great Angel); or simply folks who don’t like being associated with a church whose mass is unsophisticated and approaches scripture with a declasse naivety, who hope to shout “fundamentalist” at us long enough that we learn to wipe the snot off our noses and use the salad fork.
  •  Them not being trustworthy isn’t the same as them being wrong. It just means that without a lifetime of my own to devote to scholarship, I am inclined to hold this decade’s certainties at arms’ length. I’ve read and enjoyed a number of things that could have been called higher critical.
  •  Incredulity about miracles and holiness drives a lot of the higher criticism I’ve seen or read. The premises drive the conclusions.
  • From C.S. Lewis

    In the earlier history of every rebellion there is a stage at which you do not yet attack the King in person. You say, ‘The King is all right. It is his Ministers who are wrong. They misrepresent him and corrupt all his plans –which, I’m sure, are good plans if only the Ministers would let them take effect.’ And the first victory consists in beheading a few Ministers: only at a later stage do you go on and behead the King himself.

    In the same way, the nineteenth-century attack on St. Paul was really only a stage in the revolt against Christ. Men were not ready in large numbers to attack Christ Himself. They made the normal first move—that of attacking one of His principal ministers. Everything they disliked in Christianity was therefore attributed to St. Paul. It was unfortunate that their case could not impress anyone who had really read the Gospels and the epistles with attention: but apparently few people had, and so the first victory was won. St. Paul was impeached and banished and the world went on to the next step—the attack on the King Himself.

  • Also from C.S. Lewis:

    First then, whatever these men may be as Biblical critics, I distrust them as critics. They seem to me to lack literary judgment, to be imperceptive about the very quality of the texts they are reading. The specific variant of this that I’ve seen is the ‘look every gift horse in the mouth’ syndrome, where the critics assume that if something fits nicely into a narrative or has potent symbolism, it must be an invention.

  • Bokovoy has a nice little Mormon defense of the documentary hypothesis and of higher criticism. But he inadvertently highlights one of the weaknesses of higher criticism. It is an academic pursuit, not a spiritual one. Its insights are not obviously life-changing. He tries to argue that one sceptic’s assertion that Barabbas was an invention helped him understand for the first time that Barabbas was meant as a type of revolutionary Judaism and a temporal kingdom. But this understanding is obvious and requires no particular scholarship, let alone scepticism. It’s a seminary-level insight.
  • The textual problems and inconsistencies the documentary hypothesis points out are more convincing than the hypotheses it elaborates to create it. One problem with historical scholarship of all kinds is that it does not properly account for the absence of evidence. If the theories we have are the best we can do given our sources, it does not follow that our sources adequately support our theories.
  •   Despite what its well-meaning advocates say, higher criticism and even the documentary hypothesis are at odds with mainstream Mormon beliefs going back to Joseph Smith, like the authorship of Isaiah. Advocates often are disappointingly squirrelly about acknowledging these problems.  Joseph Smith and mainstream Mormon belief aren’t infallible, but they aren’t negligible either.
  • From an Anglican priest:

    Today, however, there are teachers of biblical subjects in universities and seminaries who deconstruct the texts and reconstruct them in line with their own worldviews. The duly deconstructed then reconstructed Christ is a tame individual, with views similar to the collective ‘groupthink’. This is not evidence of the Spirit of God, but the spirit of the age. It promotes scepticism and doubt, including among church people.

  • Not everyone who doubts higher criticism has the same definition of higher criticism. C. S. Lewis, for example, thought it was obvious that Job and Jonah were literary stories, not historical events.
  • Higher criticism applied to the Book of Mormon is just a hoot. The more you show that it’s an ancient text with the flaws and other problems of ancient texts, the more you underline its authority. Which is why most higher critical readings of the book have been by faithful mormons and why those readings have usually had an undertone of wicked sass.
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January 29th, 2013 16:50:18
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