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After Biblical Criticism, What?–Wellhausen, Jerome and the Possibility of Faithful Criticism

Julius Wellhausen, (May 17, 1844 – January 7, 1918)

In 1882 Julius Wellhausen, perhaps the most towering figure in modern biblical scholarship, resigned from his post in the theological faculty at the University of Greifswald.  His letter of resignation said this:

I became a theologian because I was interested in the scientific study of the Bible.  It has only gradually dawned on me that a professor of theology also has the practical task of preparing students to serve in the Evangelical Church, and that I was not performing this practical task, but rather, in spite of all restraint on my part, I was actually incapacitating my listeners for their position.

Famously Wellhausen had argued that the Pentateuch, the alleged Five Books of Moses, had not been written by Moses at all but rather had been composed out of writings from various stages in Israel’s history–all post-dating Moses by quite a bit–which were subsequently blended and edited into a single narrative-cum-legal code which did not receive it’s final form until the Second Temple Period.  For many, not least Wellhausen, this theory, often referred to as “the Documentary Hypothesis,” undercuts not only the traditional attribution of these biblical books to Moses, but also undermines the traditional view that these books were written under special divine inspiration and are, therefore, divinely authoritative.

Let me be frank, I am rather sympathetic with Wellhausen’s view.  I find the evidence for the Pentateuch having been pieced together over a very long time to be compelling.  And, again, let me be frank, I have, at times, struggled with the question of just what accepting that way of thinking about the Pentateuch (and other biblical books, too) might mean for how I conceive of the Bible theologically.  Can I still think of it as inspired? Authoritative?  Infallible?  As the very Word of God?  Am I yet another minister whom Wellhausen has incapacitated for service in the evangelical church?

I sure hope not.

Certainly, Wellhausen’s theories and those like it raise significant questions about just what the Bible is and what the Bible is for.  To take just one example: What sense could it possibly make to talk about “the inerrancy of the autograph” for a text which has no autograph, a text compiled and composed by many hands over many years?  In the face of such questions, the road from the point A of what the text says to the point B of what it means for you and me today seems much more long, winding, and treacherous than it did before I picked up Wellhausen’s Prolegomena.

Michaelangelo da Carravaggio's "Saint Jerome," (1606)

But it has helped me to know that, in principle, these sorts questions were being grappled with long before Wellhausen.  One of the obvious texts that tells against Moses’ authorship of the Pentateuch is the account of his burial in Deuteronomy 34 (few autobiographers get around to narrating their own burials).  Verse six tells us that “no one knows the place of his burial to this day (ad hayom hazeh),” a phrase which suggests that the narrative was written quite some time after that which it narrates.  In the 4th century the man who was perhaps the most towering figure in ancient biblical scholarship, Saint Jerome, commenting on this text said:

We must certainly understand by ‘this day’ the time of composition of the history, whether you prefer the view that Moses was the author of the Pentateuch or Ezra reedited it.  In either case, I do not object.

Ezra, you will recall, is a figure of the early Second Temple period, and, so, we may justly say that the view which Jerome here countenances is precisely the view that the final redaction of the Pentateuch dates to the Second Temple period–which was Wellhausen’s view.  But Jerome seems far less troubled by this possibility than were Wellhausen and Wellhausen’s students–and far less troubled than many contemporary Christians who raise hackles about historical criticism of the Bible.

And, to be sure, Jerome was not the only father, doctor, or reformer of the Church to hold critical historical opinions about the Bible’s origin while also holding the Bible to be inspired and authoritative.  Origen disputed the attribution of the Letter to the Hebrews to Paul.  Luther disputed the attribution of the Gospel of John to the Apostle John.  Calvin disputed the attribution of Second Peter to the Apostle Peter.  In the great stream of the Christian theological tradition there has always been an undercurrent of faithful historical biblical criticism–a criticism that is, nevertheless, both undertaken in full faith and that tries to be faithful to Jesus–a criticism that still trusts that God is God and Jesus, the risen Lord, is His Anointed; that trusts that however, whenever, and by whoever the Scriptures were written, compiled, edited, the Spirit was superintending the process to give us the Word that God wants us to have.

Don’t get me wrong.  It can still seem a long, winding, and treacherous road to walk, this road of historical biblical study–and I frequently envy those who breeze through the Bible, blissfully unaware of the issues such study raises.  But I take heart from the fact that it is a road which has been trod upon by some of the most outstanding Christian theologians of all time.

Faithful criticism, however difficult it might be, is, with God’s help, possible.  But it is a practice–a practice which Wellhausen neither cultivated in himself nor imparted to his students.  It is a spiritual practice to be undertaken in a context of prayer, meditation, and openness to God.

I am still learning this practice.  While in school it was all too easy to approach the Bible as a mere historical artifact–asking only what it meant way back when, and rarely wrestling with what it means for us here and now.  Approaching the Bible in this way is also a spiritual practice, albeit a spiritually deadening one.  It is the practice in which Wellhausen’s incapacitated students found themselves trapped.

But I am learning to tread this long, winding, treacherous road of faithful criticism–and I trust that this road is the road to Emmaus.



2 thoughts on “After Biblical Criticism, What?–Wellhausen, Jerome and the Possibility of Faithful Criticism

  1. I had a “Wellhausen experience” last year after reading a lot of the OT in reverse order (prophets first and then historical and Hexateuch). Because of the compact sequence I was able to notice while deep in the Torah that the prophets seem to have known almost nothing of its details or even its general outline. It’s as if it didn’t exist until … the Babylonian captivity!

    One way to ‘stay the course’ with a post-Wellhausen view is to exhalt the verse stanzas in the Prophets, the Psalms, Job, Wisdom, etc. – and the New Testament

    Posted by John Anngeister | December 6, 2011, 12:18 am
    • Thanks for responding, John! Your point on the prophets is well taken. Particularly when the Lord speaking through Amos asks, “Did you bring to me sacrifices and offerings during the forty years in the wilderness, O house of Israel?” (Amos 5:25) I remember reading that, scratching my head and thinking, Well, yes. Yes they did. (Ex 24:5; Lev 9:1-24; 10:1-20; Num 7:10-89, etc., etc.) It’s almost like the Priestly material, with all that stuff about sacrifices and whatnot, had not yet been incorporated into the Exodus story….

      Anywho, for my part, “staying the course” means reading the Torah and all of the OT with the faith conviction that what God did in Christ–the divine identity, the Messianic career, the atoning death, the vindicating and recreative resurrection of Jesus–He did, as one of our earliest creeds (1 Cor 15:3-4) says, kata tas graphas, “in accord with the Scriptures,” namely, the Scriptures of Israel. To my mind, that means that however God chose to piece together the OT Scriptures, whatever their relationship to events on the ground in the ANE, whatever literary forms, genres, texts or what have you He elected to lead Israel to include in them, God was piecing together the texts that would find their proper climax and their true fulfillment in Jesus: being the texts whereby we interpret His significance, and His career being the lens whereby we reinterpret them, in turn.

      I’ll probably write more on this theme soon.

      Posted by dmwilliams83 | December 6, 2011, 3:33 pm

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NCSU Graduate Christian Fellowship

Hi! I'm David, the campus minister for InterVarsity's graduate and faculty ministries at NC State and Meredith College. I hope you'll join me as I learn to "practice resurrection" in the City of Oaks, in her universities, and in the wider world. You can contact me at dmwilliams83@gmail.com

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