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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