Re: [asa] A question on Genesis

From: George Murphy <>
Date: Tue Mar 24 2009 - 21:55:06 EDT

Preston -

The question you pose below is a very important one but also one that's not easy to get at. A lot of the earlier critical study of scripture was devoted to taking the text apart, trying to determine different sources, when they may have been written, their theological emphases &c. While sometimes the critics got carried away with this and were overconfident about the "assured results" of biblical research in this regard, that analytical work was an essential step. It could not, however, be the last word. Having taken the text apart & studied the pieces, we need to put it back together. That has led, 1st, to the work called "redaction criticism," in which the process (redaction - or sometimes I just call it editing) of putting material from different sources to form, one of the gospels, is studied. Then "canonical criticism" is the study of the different parts of scripture as part of their canonical whole. I.e., Genesis is not just chapters 1-50 but those chapters as a part of the OT or of the whole Bible.

I should say at this point that the very idea of the canon is rejected by some "religious studies" people for whom the canon is essentially arbitrary. But for anything like traditional Christianity it's crucial. The apocryphal gospels are interesting & can be helpful in understanding the development of Christianity, but they are not part of the authoritative scripture.

OK, your question is how the redactional process took place to give us the final form of the Pentateuch & Genesis in particular. Unfortunately we have very little information about how that took place. The "documentary hypothesis" was that the sources of the Pentateuch were documents called the J (by the Yahwist, but that begins with J in German), E (Elohist), D (Deuteronomist) and P (Priestly). The way this hypothesis used to be presented did sometimes give the picture of a scissors and paste job, someone gluing the different parts together in a sometimes clumsy way. I certainly don't think it happened that way. For starters, we don't even know that there were "documents" rather than, e.g., oral tradition for much of this. But whatever we call them, they are integrated much more skillfully than that picture suggests. The very fact that for centuries not only common people but biblical scholars could read these texts and only occasionally sense some discontinuity shows that. Once one becomes aware of the possibility of sources and starts looking for evidence of them - e.g., when there are what look like duplications of essentially the same story or apparent discrepancies (why is Hagar carrying her 16 or 17 year old son in Gen.21:14-15) - you can find them. But there clearly was an attempt to compose a unified text.

However, that doesn't mean that it was all made internally consistent in the way that a modern western academic might want. If we were combining sources and wanted to preserve the integrity of each we'd clearly indicate which piece came from which source with footnotes or different font or something like that. (See, e.g., a modern edition of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle or something like that.) If we just wanted a single account to replace the individual sources we'd eliminate the duplications and get rid of the discrepancies. Moses wouldn't get called by God twice in Exodus and his father in law wouldn't have different names in different places. And we'd be sure that there were no theological differences - God wouldn't disapprove of Israel having a king in some parts of I Samuel and OK it in others. But these things apparently didn't bother the Israelites who gave us the present form of our text.

Unfortunately we don't know how the redactors thought about that. Were they simply not aware of some of these differences? That seems hard to imagine but today intelligent people can miss those differences and even vigorously resist the idea that there are any. Did they see a higher theological unity? Or did they simply see texts that are apparently contradictory (like the provisions for sacrifice in Leviticus and the condemnations of sacrifice by the prophets) as both inspired and therefore needing to be preserved? (If the latter, however, they didn't just put them together "mindlessly.)

Those are legitimate questions but in the end we need to get beyond just the intentions of writers and redactors and take seriously the idea that scripture is inspired, not only in writing but also in rbinging together its parts. And while some theologians would object to it, I think there's some truth in the old idea of a sensus plenior, a "fuller sense" of scripture than what the original writers and redactors understood. I.e., the one whose intentions are ultimately important is not the human writers or editors but the Holy Spirit.


----- Original Message -----
From: "Preston Garrison" <>
To: "George Murphy" <>; "ASA list" <>
Sent: Tuesday, March 24, 2009 1:29 AM
Subject: Re: [asa] A question on Genesis

> George,
> I don't really disagree with anything you say. But I remain unclear
> on one thing. Do you think that anyone put the sources together with
> a unified intention, or did someone simply assemble them in a more or
> less mindless way because they were all highly regarded, and they
> just thought they should all be available together? Or do you have
> some other view?
> Obviously, any such view is a matter of literary and theological
> judgement based on the text itself aided by the kind of information
> about the culture and history and such that Dick puts together. So
> what do you think - relatively mindless assembly, perhaps by a
> committee, or a unified viewpoint?
> Preston
>>In order to respond adequately I need to say some preliminary things
>>about theology.
>>Theology is, in essence, thinking about what we belief - "faith in
>>search of understanding" in the classic phrase. There is "one
>>faith" (Eph.4:5) but believers in different contexts with different
>>concerns will think & speak about the faith in different ways.
>>Theological consensus then does not mean that we must all think &
>>speak in the same way but that our different theologies must in some
>>sense be equivalent.
>>I find it helpful to make an analogy with physics here. Different
>>observers in different reference frames will see things differently
>>and measure some quantities (e.g., lengths and times) differently.
>>What Einstein did with relativity theory was to provide a
>>transformation that relates observations in one frame to those in
>>another frame moving with respect to the first, and require that
>>the true laws of physics be invariant (or technically, covariant)
>>under this transformation - i.e., be of such a form that they are
>>valid in every frame. In a similar way, a valid theological
>>expression of the Christian faith must be properly related to other
>>valid expressions of the faith. (Lest anyone be concerned about
>>"relativism," remember that in relativity everything is NOT
>>relative. There are absolutes - e.g., the speed of light.)
>>The different biblical writers thought about and expressed the faith
>>of Israel & the church in different ways - i.e., they had different
>>theologies. In the NT, e.g., the way that Paul speaks about law,
>>faith, righteousness and other matters is different from the way
>>Matthew speaks about them. The different gospel writers have
>>differing theological emphases. Luke, e.g., likes to emphasise the
>>theme of prayer. In the Johannine books Jesus is the Word of God
>>while other NT writers use the picture of him as Holy Wisdom. This
>>does not mean that the different writers simply "contradict"one
>>another! But it takes some serious reflection to see gow the
>>theology of one writer is the "transform" of another writer's
>>To illustrate this for classes I've often given a handout that has
>>two texts about the death of Lincoln - one from a good historian's
>>(Benjamin Thomas) bio of Lincoln and the other Walt Whitman's poem
>>"O Captain! My Captain!" They of course speak of Lincoln's death
>>in very different ways - one focusing literally "Just the facts" and
>>the other very figuratively on the meaning of Lincoln's death. It
>>would be utterly wrong to try to "harmonize" them historically.
>>Even their views of the significance of the event differ because one
>>was written just after it happened & the other ~ 90 years later.
>>But it would be even more wrong to say that they "contradict" one
>>Turning now to the Pentateuch, and Genesis in particular,
>>theological differences among the different "sources" that critical
>>scholars have discerned can be seen. What is called the P source
>>shows a much greater concern than the others for ritual matters,
>>e.g. (That's where the P comes from - it's the Priestly source.)
>>You see that already in the first creation account with the 7 day
>>framework, pointing to the Sabbath. & in fact there are other
>>differences between the 1st & 2d account. In one we have a
>>sovereign God who brings things into being effortlessly by his
>>command alone while in the other God literally gets down in the dirt
>>to create the human. That's a difference of theological expression.
>>& scripture is richer for that difference. It gives a broader
>>picture of Israel's God than either account separately. God is, to
>>use later philosophical language, both transcendent and immanent.
>>We would be poorer for it if we had only one account, which is just
>>one reason why many of the attempts to "harmonize" the two is so
>>unfortunate. The situation is similar with the four gospels.
>>How can we say that these different views aren't contradictory? One
>>basic reason is that they are all included in the canon of
>>scripture. In fact it's the canon that in a sense that gives us the
>>limits of permissible theological diversity. Not all theologies are
>>----- Original Message -----
>>From: "Preston Garrison" <<>>
>>To: "George Murphy" <<>>
>>Sent: Monday, March 23, 2009 6:49 PM
>>Subject: Re: [asa] A question on Genesis
>> > >
>>>>This is not to say that no harmonizations of such texts are
>>>>appropriate. But it should be theological harmonization rather than
>>> The reason I think we should look for coherence in the story and very
>>> likely a single author who used source materials is because the
>>> theological perspective seems to be consistent. It looks like someone
>>> put it together to tell a set of related stories from a very
>>> consistent theological perspective, just as Dante and Milton did.
>>> Preston

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Received on Tue Mar 24 21:56:03 2009

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