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janvier 2016

Source Criticism Is Not Credible

I’m late in catching up to the latest installment of “Ross Douthat vs the Society of Jesus”, the latest critical hit show on Netflix. 

The latest episode got started with this scholarly and valuable exegesis of the Markan and Matthean passages on divorce by John W. Martens. I view Ross Douthat’s response as invaluable, and I say this very sadly. I’ve read it several times now, each time with a deeper sinking feeling in my gut, a bigger ball of ice in my stomach, because it gets mercilessly at the problem of liberal Catholicism, or Catholic liberalism, which is that so much of it is not “liberal” in the political sense, but “liberal” in the theological sense of liberal Protestantism, i.e. all-too inclined to jettison not just small-t traditions but, at some point, the kerygma and the Creed. 

I think the important points have been raised. Dr Martens carefully raises the “f word”–”fundamentalism”–but Douthat points out that when “conservative” Catholics stubbornly point to the words of Jesus, their point is not so much that they have a “plain meaning” in the “fundamentalist” sense but rather that this is how the Church has consistently understood those words. The fact that a pretty good case can be made that they do have this plain meaning is, as it were, the icing on the cake. 

Douthat points out that Martens relies heavily on source criticism in his analysis of the relevant texts–indeed, simply takes it for granted. Leroy Huizenga is good at pointing out that an excessive reliance on source criticism goes against the grain of Dei Verbum and the Catechism, which is an important point, but I just want to raise here another, much more basic point, which is that source criticism is simply not credible as historical scholarship. 

A lot of people have used source criticism. Heck, John Paul II’s theology of the body makes extensive use of it (and a “conservative” Catholic is not going to criticize the theology of the body!).

The problem with source criticism is, quite simply, that there is no evidence for it, and that the evidence militates against it. And if we look at the historiography, we find that the idea at the heart of source criticism–that Biblical texts were collated from pre-existing and disparate sources–is almost never argued and almost everywhere (as in Martens’ case) simply presupposed. Almost every idea put forth in source or form criticism has later been shown not credible, but the overall framework itself is not questioned (except from fundamentalist quarters), even though you would think that if a theory produces results which are not credible, after a while you would start questioning the theory.

In the case of the Old Testament, Robert Alter–no fundamentalist!–has made an extremely convincing case that the best explanation for the famous repetitions and contradictions is not the collation or editing of disparate sources, but a literary device used by the Biblical author(s) to highlight different aspects of one story, and thereby make different theological/philosophical/psychological points. 

When approaching ancient texts from our own historically and culturally-conditioned perspective, I think it’s imperative to always keep in mind that we are on the other side of the reading revolution: ancient texts were written for an audience whose reception of books–especially, but not only–was not to simply read it, but to read it over and over and over again over the course of a lifetime. Books were structured, then, to yield their secrets over long rereading and rumination. On the ancient side of the reading revolution, the repetitions and contradictions in the Biblical text naturally appear as not only symphonic literary devices, but puzzles that invite the reader into a deeper meditation into the events described (and this is, of course, how the Talmud invites us to read the Bible). On the other side of the reading revolution, they look like oddities in search of an explanation (and on the other side of the materialistic and historicist revolutions, the explanation we look for involves power games and dissimulation, and not an earnest effort to faithfully testify to divine mysteries and salvation history). 

In the case of the Gospels, source criticism is marshalled as an answer to the so-called synoptic problem (which wasn’t viewed as a problem for 19 centuries, but now we know that people everywhere are conditioned by their own historical and cultural settings, except for ourselves). Aside from the quite inconvenient fact that there is no positive evidence for the two-source hypothesis, what’s even more relevant is that this is simply not how people wrote texts at the time when the New Testament was written, and in the ancient world. 

We are told that many sayings of Jesus (nevermind the fact that there is simply no evidence for the widely-touted, and in Martens’ article, assumed, idea that the Gospels were compiled from compilations of “logia” that circulated before the Gospels) were inserted to solve theological debates within the Church ; but the problem is that we know from Paul’s earlier letters what the debates within the Church in the decades after the Crucifixion were, and they are simply not addressed by the Gospels, which in fact suggests that the authors tried to do careful historical work. We know from ancient historiography that although ancient historians did not have our concept of history-from-a-neutral observer they did require and demand facticity. We know that, say, a long investigative piece in the New Yorker is “edited” and “shaped” in countless ways to tell a story, highlighting some facts and not others, and weaving them through a narrative that, as an expression of authorial subjectivity as all narratives are, is not a “view from nowhere” (which is impossible anyway) and can therefore be engaged and questioned on that basis, but this is not the same thing as saying that parts of it are simply made up, or that if we read a New Yorker story that has narrative style, we can simply assume that the author twited or invented facts to suit his thesis. The same goes for Herodotus–he may have been biased, he may have had an agenda, he may have gotten some things wrong, but that’s not the same thing as saying he simply made things up when it suited him. 

The other problem of source criticism is just how little explanatory power it has. Because there is no evidence for the theory, what is or isn’t a source, and which source is authentic and which one is not, and which is earlier and which is later (and the assumption that the earlier source is the more accurate one, which is a non sequitur) is, necessarily, pure speculation. Source criticism doesn’t take us an inch closer to solving the problem pointed out by Schweitzer over a century ago, which is that the historical-critical hermeneutic can be used to validate every imaginable picture of Jesus (every imaginable one, except the picture of the Creeds, that is…), and therefore validates none. At the risk of tautology, a theory that has no explanatory power is not a useful theory. 

The Gospels quite clearly and explicitly present themselves as works of history and testimony, and the way works of history and testimony were written was not through compilation of sources and of “logia” but through something that to us looks a lot like journalistic reporting: interviewing of sources, research, and so on. Richard Bauckham makes an extremely compelling case for the Gospels being works of oral history, one that provides an elegant and explanatory answer to the “synoptic problem”. It’s worth noting that Bauckham’s thesis is not a full-scale return to the “traditional view”. For instance, he agrees that Mark is earlier than Matthew, and argues that the author of John’s Gospel is indeed the beloved disciple, and also the John the Elder who is mentioned in several later sources, but not John son of Zebedee and one of the Twelve, as tradition usually holds. (I don’t fault Dr Martens for being seemingly unaware of the latest scholarship in this area. Sometimes curious amateurs catch things that academic blinders can cause us to miss…)

Though this is never made explicit, given their own self-presentation and genre, the argument for source criticism is simply an argument that the Gospels are not simply potentially-flawed and imperfect human works, but that they are frauds. That’s what it is to write something that presents itself as history and testimony but is in fact largely fabricated. Now, as a historical hypothesis, it shouldn’t be dismissed a priori, but it certainly puts a heck of a lot of weight on those who would prove that hypothesis, a weight that the evidence for source criticism doesn’t even come close to lifting.

Now, of course, maybe that’s the case just because the “orthodox party” within the Church was so good at suppressing contrary evidence (and, implicitly, the scholar is so smart for deciphering the code). This is not a “hermeneutic of suspicion”, it is, quite simply, a conspiracy theory. The logic of the conspiracy theory is that the evidence against the theory is taken as evidence of just how deep the conspiracy goes. In every other context, we recognize this as just madness, that is to say, a logic which is completely circular and by its very nature unchangeable by fact or evidence. And we shouldn’t confuse conspiracy theories and serious scholarship.

To summarize, then, source criticism: 

  1. Has no conclusive evidence for it.
  2. Has strong evidence against it.
  3. Relies on self-defeating logic.
  4. Has no explanatory power. 
  5. Gives answers that are less compelling than serious and reasonable alternatives to the questions it raises.

Therefore, quite apart from any theological considerations, we should stop considering it as serious scholarship. 

Since we are all so aware, these days, of how each generation is profoundly shaped by its historical and cultural context, we should take it for what it is: one of those very embarrassing fads of the ‘60s and ‘70s that we now never look without cringing, like Lacanian psychoanalysis or, in an earlier era, phrenology. 


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