Saturday, June 29, 2013

Some basic questions about redaction of Biblical texts

The Isaiah scroll from the "Dead Sea Scrolls"

Peter J. Leithart - who is always worth reading - has posted a great little piece on the First Things Blog which I want to share with you. Now, “I have no particular dog in this race”, because since my first tertiary level study of the Bible (in 1971) I have had an interest in theories as to how the texts reached their definitive forms. Clearly, processes of redaction are part of the story. BUT - to put it mildly - this is an area in which the theological and philosophical presuppositions of the scholar have a huge capacity to determine or “skew” the results of individual studies. Then, it’s only a step or two down the track to a purportedly peer-reviewed “scholarly consensus” against which other research is measured and then rejected - NOT because such research is of itself lacking in scholarship or logical argument, but because it is not governed by the same presuppositions, which - it turns out -  must be protected at all cost.

It is impossible not to have presuppositions. But, surely - as in real life -, the onus is on the scholar to admit them, and be prepared to defend them. That’s the debate very few seem interested in!  

Anyway, read Leithart’s little piece about the “practicalities” involved in the kinds of redaction theory that almost everyone wants to believe today:


The always-innovative Michael Goulder wonders how and why redactors might have changed the text of Isaiah, as critics believe (Isaiah As Liturgy, 1-2): “Glosses in the margin may be believable for brief phrases like even the King of Assyria, but many of the supposed insertions are of a verse, or several verses. Early manuscripts which survive, like the Dead Sea Scrolls or the papyrus fragments of the New Testament, do not have large margins. Suppose, for example, that one were a redactor and wished to insert the ironic passage on women’s finery in 3.18-23, generally thought to be an insertion. We cannot think that on each occasion the redactor made an incision and sewed in a new piece of skin/papyrus. It seems more likely that such insertions were made when the whole text was recopied. But then scholars give a wide span of dates for these later additions; so there must have been rather frequent recopying. But now we are into a situation which is difficult to make plausible. What sort of public was there for such frequent editions of the book? Did many people want a copy? Were they read privately? Or did one go to consult the temple copy?”

He wonders about authority too.

Is it plausible to think that the High Priest authorized a scribe to recopy, and to make whatever changes he thought the text needed. As Goulder says, “the text was believed to be the Word of God.” He whimsically suggests that there might have been a committee, “a beth-hammidrash from the seventh century.”

Goulder thinks that these problems arise when we think of Isaiah as a writing as opposed to a preaching prophet. Isaiah preached, eventually the core of his preaching was written down, and then his disciples continued to adapt his message over the years after he died. The whole body of Isaianic preaching was committed to a scroll around 400 BC.

I think this reconstruction is also implausible, but along the way Goulder has raised questions that most critics don’t think to ask. When you try to pin down exactly how and why the things that critics said happened to the text happened, it becomes difficult to make a plausible, much less convincing case. The critical reconstruction of Isaiah makes best sense if we assume the luxuries of modern book production and the demands of a modern reading audience. Which is why most critics stay at a fairly high level of abstraction, talking about redactors without ever stopping to ask about parchment, papyrus, pens, and the other tools of the trade.


Alice Linsley said...

When it comes to these very ancient texts, we must admit that we do not know how they came to be in the form which we have received. I've studied the book of Genesis intensively for over 30 years and I have not a clue. There is evidence of redaction in Genesis, and it reveals a much later historical period than the Patriarchs. This little claim about Ham or that little detail Isaac do not align with the overall picture. Yet the picture is not obfuscated. The trajectory is not lost. God has superintended these ancient materials so that we have received the Message clearly. The Message is what matters!

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