The Bible’s ancient redactors were not as OCD as modern apologists

Critics of source criticism will inevitably be directed to stories such as the two creation accounts in Genesis 1 and 2 or the story of a patriarch’s attempt to pass off his wife as his sister when passing through a powerful man’s territory. These types of scenarios are referred to as doublets, which are said to be evidence of multiple traditions combined into one.

The argument for multiple sources based upon doublets used to strike me as a little odd: why would whoever edited the sources together leave information so blatantly contradictory, or at very least in tension? Is it just that people nowadays are finally smart enough to notice?  Apparently, the redactors were either too stupid to notice the tensions, which no one seems to want to suggest outright, or the tensions are based on a misunderstanding of one or more of the texts in question.

In a recent post at Religion at the Margins, Thom Stark explains why there is a good alternative for explaining doublets (and triplets, etc.):

Redactors compiled source materials not as a modern would, in order to weave a seamless, consistent narrative, but rather to bring together various traditions into one body. Their reasons for doing this were often political. As one people with one set of traditions came together with another people with another set of traditions, redactors would combine the traditions so that the new unity of the two peoples is reflected in the new unity of their various traditions. This political motivation is seen especially in the combination of traditions from the Yahwist and the Elohist, reflecting the period after the fall of the Northern Kingdom when many Israelites migrated south to live among their Judean kinsmen.

As a case in point, Thom singles out the conflicts in the Flood narratives and the way scholars have tried to extract the two traditions that were integrated into the one story we have: he gives links to the composite version and a side-by-side comparison that scholars have come up with to make the best sense of the elements in friction, such as the number of animals taken on board, the names by which God is referred to, and others.

Now, as is clear from the reading, if the redactor of these two traditions thought the texts weren’t contradictory, then he really must have been stupid! But source critics don’t think the redactor was stupid. The redactor’s purpose was not to combine the sources into a coherent, internally consistent narrative, but rather to combine the narratives in a way that allows them to maintain their distinctiveness while at the same time uniting them. Redactors cared about their source material, not because they thought it was “inerrant,” but because the source material reflected the traditions of the peoples. When the post-exilic redactor compiled these two flood narratives, he was doing so on behalf of two traditions both of which continued to be represented by the inhabitants of a post-exilic Judea.

This is something Thom talked about in Human Faces: that our expectations of inerrancy are not nearly as old as the texts themselves. The Jewish religious authorities long before Christ accepted both Kings and Chronicles, both Ezra and Jonah, apparently without being too bothered by the contradictions in history and theology within them.

Deane Galbraith chimes in with his own reflections on Thom’s post, helpfully quoting a 1981 article by Jack Miles:

It is the [modern] critics’ inability to imagine an aesthetic of disorder, or of deliberately mingled order and disorder, that may separate them most sharply from the ancient writers and editors they study. As they acquire this ability, perhaps by relinquishing what in modern times has been their quasi-religious vocation, they may find that they have less taste for the harmony and smoothness that historical scholarship would impose on the text.

Howard Hughes, former aviator, engineer, indus...

Obsessing over purity can be hazardous to one's health.

I’m afraid that this contention that the ancients could live with more tension and uncertainty about historical details than we nowadays prefer will not make enough inroads among modern Christians who have swallowed modernism hook, line, and sinker. They have vilified post-modernism so much that they won’t recognize in it the cure for the disease they are trying through desperate apologetics to overcome: no, we don’t have all the facts, can’t look at everything as objectively as we’d like, undoubtedly get even key points of our theology wrong, and our sources of knowledge are likely screwed up even in important areas — but that’s ok. We live with the tension by making the best we can of what is available to us, and as Christians, we trust God with the rest.

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  • Steve,

    I wonder though (and I would like to ask Thom this) if the redactors are still being thought of as “too modern”.

    Who were the redactors? Were they typically scribes, priests? If so, then there could very well be a religious motivation to preserving contradictory information together.

    Think about clerics today in “less informed” societies and the view of their scriptures and the control they exhibit over these in many cases.

    I submit that it is possible (likely?) that the reason this information is preserved is that the redactor had no good way to distinguish between what was inspired and what was not and erred on the side of extreme caution for fear of removing something holy. When faced with the choice of keeping two contradictory traditions and “throwing away” scripture, it would seem that the keeping the information available would always be easier choice for a person who holds such a high view of scripture.

    • Thom Stark

      A good point, but to identify most of thse texts as “scripture” would be anachronistic. The legal material was closer to being understood as scripture, as you’re defining scripture, than the historical narratives were. The latter came to be identified as “inspired” only later by way of analogical extension from the law and prophets.

      • Thom – thanks for the reply (caught me by surprise!)

        Interesting and valid point. I probably used the term scripture too loosely.

        I’m going to assume here the progression of writings something like this:

        oral traditions (before writing) -> some original written records that underlie what we have now -> compiler (such as Moses?) of written and oral traditions -> redactors of written (sacred) records

        It seems to me that ancient cultures revered their heroes/prophets such as Moses, Abraham etc, so while I understand your argument, would you consider that by the time of redaction that the writings (considered as _accurate_ historic narrative) would be considered sacred by the redactors?

        Perhaps a key question is: “When did writings in ancient civilizations take on a quality of sacredness? What examples do we have of this phenomena and what are the earliest examples?”

        I’m probably way off base here. I think its hard to determine if historical narratives were considered sacred or not (in the culture they existed in), and by what time frame they became considered sacred (and therefore treated with deference).


  • Well it depends partly on which period we’re talking about. So the final redaction of the Pentateuch took place in the post-exilic period but we still have texts being written, and some written much later (like Daniel in the second century BCE. And then you have different groups with different books in their collections; not all of them had everything. And of course the Sadducees rejected most of what is now the Hebrew Bible. So when Jesus quoted Daniel at the High Priest, that would be like Rob Bell quoting the Gospel of Thomas at John Piper.

    So even in the first century CE, which texts were sacred was relative.

    No, Moses was not a compiler. It’s doubtful he was even a real person, although his legends may be rooted in a historical figure of some significance in one of the proto-Israelite tribes in Canaan.

    There are several periods where major compilations occurred. The first important one was after the fall of the Northern Kingdom; that’s when J and E were combined. Then in the late seventh century you have the Deuteronomist (someone under the employ of Josiah) collecting the various sources (including the forged Deuteronomy scroll) and compiling Deuteronomy through Kings (of the Hebrew Bible, so not Ruth). Then, a few decades later, after Judah went into exile, another Deuteronomistic redactor went back and made some edits and revisions all throughout Deuteronomy, Joshua, Samuel and Kings (but especially the first and the last of those two), in order to explain their present experience of exile. So the editor added warnings about being expelled from the land if they were unfaithful, and he added comments about how the sins of certain Judean kings were responsible for Judah’s expulsion, etc.

    Then during and after the exile you have the Priestly Writer doing his thing with the Pentatuech, and then a final redaction overseen by the orthodox school of Ezra, that put the Pentateuch all together and solidified it as Torah.

    Those are some of the major movements.

    So, the legal traditions were pretty much always considered divinely inspired, because according to the conceit, they were given by God directly to Moses. And the Prophets were considered to be inspired, but usually after the fact by the establishment. But the historical materials were mostly just popular folk legends (oral traditions) and royal records (written chronicles), and so there was no sense initially that they were scripture. They were preserved because of the importance of folk religion within Israel on the one hand, and because of the obvious importance of the monarchy on the other. But sometimes folk legends would get mixed in with the royal records, as in the case of the story of David and Goliath in 1 Sam 17, which was spliced in after the main body of Samuel was written (not long after David became king) as an apology against accusations that David usurped the throne of Saul by treachery. In the original body of Samuel, Elhanan killed Goliath. But Elhanan was one of David’s mighty men, so the tradition developed that it was David who did it, and at some point between the writing of the original body of Samuel and the composition of Chronicles (approx. 500-year time span), the legend of David and Goliath got spliced into Samuel. But whoever spliced it in spliced it in as a story about how Saul first met David. Funny thing is, he spliced it in immediately after another, different story about how Saul first met David. And he didn’t bother to fix that, or to take out the part about Elhanan killing Goliath. So obviously at this stage, they must have had the view that it was the traditions that were important, and not so much the “history” behind them. Or something like that. History as remembered (in different ways), rather than history as it happened—that’s how the culture worked.

    So anyway, once we get to the Babylonian exile, then the books become a little more significant, because they’re without a temple for many decades. So by the time they rebuild the temple in 516 BCE, it’s time to start hammering out this book and make it official.

    But again, even as late as the first century, their “canon” was fluid, flexible. Obviously by then it was all considered scripture, even Daniel, which was only written about 150 years earlier. But there was never any concept of “inerrancy.” The scriptures were inspired, but not in the sense at all that they had to be consistent. Their hermeneutic wasn’t such that consistency mattered anyway, because they didn’t much care about the historical-grammatical meaning of the text. Especially among apocalyptic Jews like Jesus, everything in the text was actually talking about the present time, in a mystical, symbolic sort of way. Much of the interpretation was very arbitrary. Scripture was more of a tool to say what each group wanted to say, rather than a fixed message to conform to—in practice, that is; but the conceit was that each group was the only group really conforming to the scriptures.

    • Paul D.

      Interesting that you place the Priestly writer doing his thing far down the line. It was my impression that he would have been writing before the Exile.

      • There’s still debate over whether P or D came first. The dominant position has been that D came first, which would place P during or after the exile. But some (like Richard Elliott Freedman, who’s got some good arguments) place P a bit before D. It could be either way, but I was just going with the standard working assumption here.

  • Richard Goulette

    Thom Stark, didn’t you know that Moses was the fallen Amenhotep IV? You know, the drunk uncle who’s family, but always embarrasing you monotheistically, so you’ve got to kick him out of the palace gracefully with a few figs and some wineskins and some people to lead to real freedom?