Tuesday, 11 December 2007

On the Extension of Prophetic Tradition

Having summarised the midrashic theories of prophetic extension as well as Zimmerli's influential theory of Fortschreibung (see my post yesterday), Childs (1996) looks at two more theories and then critiques the lot.

The theory of Editorial Redaction holds that texts are reworked by later editors in accordance with a particular perspective. Thus, H. Barth (1977) isolated an "Assyrian redaction" of the book of Isaiah during the period of Josiah. Though similar to Fortschreibung, the two approaches differ in emphasis. The major force evoking Fortschreibung is the desire for clarification of a text. The impulse is specific and text orientated, whereas in editorial redaction there is a shift in focus. The emphasis falls on the effect of changing sociological forces on the editors who then sought to harmonize and original text with their new perspectives through a systematic process of literary layering. Nevertheless, in both cases there is a core written tradition which is reinterpreted and extended, in which later historical perspectives are retrojected, and which requires critical reconstruction in order to disengage the levels.

Etiology has been used as a means of historical retrojection, understood as a particular form of causality. An etiological story is one which proceeds from observing an existing phenomenon in nature (Gen 19:26) or in the cult (32:32) which it links causally and retrospectively to an ancient occurrence in the primordial past. This form of explanation can be extended to entire redactional layers, O. Kaiser (1981), for example, claimed that a layer in Isaiah stressing divine retribution functions to etiologically explain a sociological change which occurred in the Persian or Greek era.

Despite the genuine contributions of these approaches, Childs outlines serious problems with each approach:


Despite Zimmerli's concern to retain a meaningful continuity along a developing trajectory, as exemplified in his Ezekiel commentary, younger scholars working with the same exegetical assumptions ended up deconstructing this theological continuity within the book of Ezekiel e.g. Garscha, 1974). Fortschreibung became absorbed within redactional criticism along with its emphasis on literary tension and discontinuity. Later, Greenberg (1983) argued that Ezekiel's style was from the beginning non-memetic and did not develop in a trajectory. Much of Zimmerli's hypothesis came to be seen as unproven.

Conceptual Rationalization and Literary Fragmentation

The problem with redactional analysis is that under the guise of diversity "the biblical text is subjected to the criteria of rigorous, conceptual coherence which has been defined according to modern conceptual categories" (369). The result is acute fragmentation accompanied by the lack anything even vaguely resembling a scholarly consensus. Though Childs accepts that major tensions are to be found, the crucial exegetical task remains how skillfully to handle the different kinds of tension present.

The Misapplication of the Term "Midrash"

In addition to pointing out that contemporary uses of the term "midrash" misunderstand its original function, Childs claims that theories of textual expansion which use the concept do not rest on a descriptive textual analysis, but on a prior theological value judgement respecting the content which equates a story with fantasy and illusion. Under the rubric of midrash a whole set of assumptions regarding the content of a story has been made which exceeds the task of tracking editorial redaction.

Theological Reductionism through Etiological Reconstructions

Within modern redactional criticism, the concept of etiological causality has been expanded, so that post factum events now function retrospectively as a means for explaining the growth of redactional layers. By reversing the direction of the main force of growth, Israel's history becomes a literary construct without genuine historical rootage.

Though Childs recognises the presence of post factum elements in the prophetic literature, he resists seeing this as the major force in the development of the entire prophetic tradition. He notes three exegetical implications:
  1. Traditional historical controls for dating the material are weakened, as history is now simply a matter of patterns of events retrojected into the past.
  2. The influence of Israel's religious faith on the shaping of the prophetic corpus has been largely subordinated to political, economic, and social factors which are deemed to be the only real forces at work in the world. The result is a massive demythologizing of the OT.
  3. Retrospective redactional criticism presents a major threat to the theological substance of the Hebrew Bible. The literature which claims to be Israel's response to divine intervention is now rendered into ideological constructs of editors whose agenda is largely determined by wishful thinking or self-interest.

Childs concludes this section thus:

"The point is not to deny that human factors were at work, but the total impact of the prophetic literature calls into question this cynical evaluation of the whole" (372, italics mine).

What is this "impact of the whole" that leads Childs to a different understanding of the nature the whole? That is the subject of my next post: Temporal Sequence and Prophetic Dialectic (isn't that a juicy title?).

I understand that this post is highly condensed. I'd love for it to generate discussion, so please feel free to ask questions for clarification, or point out that Childs is missing the point and that this is really just a waste of time!


Bob MacDonald said...

Have you seen "The Shape of Book Four of the Psalter and the Shape of Second Isaiah" JSOT 1998 by Jerome Creach. My question may be 'off the subject' for I am a late starting student but - I wonder (and I will work at it soom when my first draft is complete) who copied whom - did the redactor of Isaiah 40-55 model his work on Book 4 or did the editor of the 17 psalms of book 4 use Isaiah 40-55 as a template? Or is the connection in vocabulary usage 'in sequence' accidental?

Phil Sumpter said...

Hi Bob,

I downloaded the article but still haven't got round to reading it yet (it'll be a while till I get there!). So sorry, I have no idea. I've not come across the comparison yet.

Thanks for reminding me that I have it! I went through a downloading frenzy when SAGE offered free access to their articles for a month, so it's buried amongst a bunch of other less relavent stuff.