Saturday, 26 June 2010

Historical criticism and theological reality: a case study

In light of the recent debates on the relation of faith and critical Biblical scholarship (see espeically the long dialogues on John Hobbins' blog here, as well as on mine here), I thought I'd provide an exegetical example for how it is possible to be one - critical (in the sense of "analytical" and not "cynical") - as well as the other - religiously committed (in the sense of subscribing to the basic theological truth claims of the Bible). Whether the result is successful or not I leave for you to judge. I don't want to claim that the relation is easy (contra this simplistic view)[*], but I do claim that with humility and the capacity to "eschatologically" suspend one's judgement ("one day this will come together - at some level, somehow"), the dialectic between reason and revelation can be fruitful.

My case study is Childs' analysis of the plague traditions in Exodus. I've already given a detailed overview of the "kerygmatic" nature of these traditions here. Today I focus on the question of the theological reality lying behind these witnesses (a question systematically ignored in Biblical studies as being, somehow, and yet inconceivably to me, "irrelevant").

Childs holds that the literary sources in Exodus grew out of a response to a prior tradition which was religiously authoritative for them. Exegetically more significant, however, is the question of the nature of this response. Childs holds that they are a theological response to a theological problem present within that ancient tradition.

For example, Childs notes the presence of a “strange atmosphere” of “historical distance” that pervades the combined testimony of the final edited form of the text.1 His search for the original Sitz im Leben of these traditions has led him through the history of transmission to “a primary, non-derivable stage.” There is, prior to the construals of J, P, and E (etc.), a level of tradition in which Moses is universally seen to be a man “possessed of power to perform miracles.” Yet, despite this power, he was unable to force the king of Egypt to release the Israelites.

In fact, this fundamental failure of the miracles to subdue Pharaoh accounts for the variety of reflections which sought an explanation. Pharaoh's heart was hardened; Pharaoh continued to renege on his promise; the magicians used magic to copy Moses. Only in the plague stories was a tradition retained in which such great miracles, constantly repeated, continued to fail. The fact that ultimately plague X did not accomplish its end, did not remove the difficulty of the earlier one, nor explain the failure.2

Childs concludes:

the sense of the mystery of Pharaoh's resistance lies at the root of the tradition. Now it is apparent that the essential problem with which we began is not ultimately form-critical in nature, but profoundly theological. The interpreter is still faced with the task of penetrating the mystery of God's power before human pride.3

Indeed, within the body of the commentary itself (i.e. interpretation of the final form rather than the prolegomena of form and literary criticism), Childs notes that despite the presence of different sources, in the final form there is no real tension.

Rather, they contribute to the richness of the narrative and vary the pattern of the series to prevent the threat of monotony in recounting the long series. Because the concessions reach an impasse, in the final analysis there is no real conflict in terms of content between the ... approaches to Pharaoh's resistance.4

What Childs has done here isn't in itself full-blown theological exegesis (which, given that the Bible is theological, is the most legitimate form of exegesis). That comes when one starts to think about the nature of the historical experience, and the nature of the responses to that experience. As I showed in my last post, a significant element of that response was the canonical shaping of Scripture itself. We thus move from "diachronic" to "synchronic" yet all the while with an eye to that one reality that (who) evoked the tradition, the source, the redaction, the interpretation in the first place.

What is the content of the Bible and how can we perceive it? Does a commitment to a dichotomy between faith and reason, the latter being compartmented to the sphere of private piety, really help us to understand the Bible itself? I think Hendel's claims will result in a methodological and thus exegetical catastrophe of the first order.

[*] "Der Konflikt von persönlichem Glauben und kritischer Bibelwissenschaft ist nichts Ungewöhnliches. Er tritt meist schon im Studium und bevorzugt bei Studenten mit pietistischem Hintergrund auf, die allerdings bald ergreifen, dass nicht die Geschichte den Glauben, sondern der Glaube Geschichte macht." (p. 45). [for translation see comments]Wie bitte? Is this supposed self-evident? The fact that it contradicts 2000 years of Jewish and Christian theology and the very substance of the Bible itself would imply that this is at best a personal decision on the part of the author. And as far as conservative students are concerned, I don't have the statistics but I can tell you that a large number don't simply "get" this "fact," they lose their faith altogether and leave the church (or stay in the church but abandon the creed to become sociologists of religion, cultural analysts, or social workers).

1Childs, Exodus, 142.

2Childs, Exodus, 149.

3Childs, Exodus, 149.

4Childs, Exodus, 155. Emphasis mine.


mhelfield said...


I would like to have your email, is there any way you can get in touch with me?

Do you have my email through my postings to your blog?



Kyle Essary said...

Would you mind translating the key lines of Lüdemann's statement into English for those of us whose studies didn't require theological German, ha? Thanks.

Phil Sumpter said...


you can contact me on philsumpter at hotmail dot com.


The quote wasn't by Lüdemann but by the author of the article. The article defends the decision to relocate him to the history department because it's a contradiction to be employed by an confessional organization whose confession your reject. He then goes on to say that really there need not be tension between being a civil servant of the state and an employee of the church at the same time. Tension may arise (i.e. between commitment to confessional creeds and commitment to "objective" truth), but he then brushes this aside with the following statement: "The conflict between personal faith and critical Biblical scholarship is not unusual. It usually already occurs at an undergraduate level, particularly for those students with a Pietistic background. It doesn't take long, however, for these students to grasp the fact that it's not history that creates faith, but faith that creates history."

No wonder he doesn't feel the tension himself.

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