Saturday, 19 April 2008

Source Criticism and the Final Form

Brevard Childs has often been accused of "flattening the text," i.e seeking literary unity where there is none for the sake of sticking with the text's final form. However, it is clear as one reads his 1975 Exodus commentary that nothing could be farther than the truth. Not only does he devote extensive space to source, form and tradition critical questions, he also consistently rejects more conservative attempts to find literary unity, even questioning the usefulness of such unity if actually present (such as U. Cassuto's suggestion of a structure behind the 10 plagues of Egypt).

In what, then, does the "integrity" of the final form consist, if not in its literary structure, and why is this so important to Childs?

A clue can be seen in Childs' endorsement of M. Greenberg's alternative to Cassuto's suggestion of a literary unity to the plague tradition. Greenberg simply delineates the major themes of the entire passage in its final form, which does not depend on identifying one final literary pattern. He sees the major theme of the plague story to revolve around the revelation by God of his nature to Pharaoh, to the Egyptians, and to all men. Within the movement of the book as a whole, the plagues function as a demonstration of God's power which shatter the human reisistance to this revelation.

Why does a thematic approach to the final form serve Childs better than literary analysis (the "canonical approach" has not been fully developed yet)? The answer lies with Childs' theological convictions. The text for Childs is not the product of human ingenuity alone, but has been ultimately called into being by God. The text's function within God's plan is to "witness" to the divine reality. As such, it is the divine reality which constitutes the unity of the text, and not the literal sense of the text itself. The literal sense serves as a "vehicle" to enable the interpreter to understand the broader reality behind it, but the vehicle is not to be confused with the reality itself. As such, contradictions at the level of the narrative point to the existence of various witnesses, each speaking of God from a different angle. It is in the unity of their perspectives that the unity of scripture consists and not in the existence of one perspective alone. It just so happens that the redactional shaping of the text belongs to the witness of text. This shaping functioned as a critical norm in order to guide way in which the multiple perspectives are correlated, so that it is at the level of the last redaction that the divine reality can be fully appreciated.

The theological exegete, then, is obliged both to look at the individual witnesses (e.g. JEPD) in all their particularity as well as the way in which they have been correlated by the final redactor. Ultimately, then, the theological exegete will need to draw on commentators of both a critical as well as conservative persuasion.

Ironically, this brings Childs closer to the approach of J. Gabler than H. Frei, something I will touch on in a follow up post.

NB Scripture and Theology have kindly posted this here, with a comment from internationally celebrated, world-renowned Childs expert, Daniel Driver (who, in his editing of the title, points out that this is about the early Childs).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Yikes, that's a bit over the top with praise. But thanks for letting us run the post again.