We are all familiar by now with the Richard Dawkins of the world, “atheists” (I put that word in quotes becasue they have a god, just not a supernatural one) who are utterly dismissive of faith. They generally present “scientific” arguments against the existence of God, ignoring completely the limits of science itself and the imposition of their agenda upon the data. There is another “scholarly” avenue of attack against religion that has not caught the public’s imagination as much as Dawkins, et. al., but that I have personally watched undermine the faith of some very committed Christians when they reached seminary. This avenue is the critical study of the texts of faith, that is to say, the Bible.
Monday, the New York Times carried a piece by
Why, you may ask, is that so provocative? Well, the very word “written” challenges the deep faith of most believers. That word implies that the Bible was composed, that is to say authored or thought up, by those that wrote it down. Most believers would argue that the Bible was “recorded,” some believing in various levels of supernatural inspiration or dictation and others acknowledging that most of the Bible originally started as oral storytelling later recorded in writing. This latter understanding of “recorded” applies not just to the sacred texts of Judaism and Christianity, but to common literary text like the epics of Homer.
One can forgive a provocative headline as a means of drawing readers, but the Kershner piece is just chock full of such word choice prejudice.
The article contains phrases like, ” the composition of biblical works that constitute the basis of Judahite history and theology,” (“Composition?” Really?) and “could have some bearing on a century-old debate about when the main body of biblical texts was composed,” (Again, there is that word “composed.”) and “against drawing too many conclusions about when the first major part of the Bible was written.” (And there is the word from the headline.)
The article is based on statistical, text critical analysis of some provisioning orders found in an ancient fort near the Dead Sea, excavated decades ago. Statistical, text critical analysis is basically analyzing text for little tells (word choice, phrasing quirks, handwriting, that sort of thing) to determine the number of authors of a text, how far apart they wrote, and other breakdowns of the text. To say it is an inexact science is to state the obvious. And yet from the analysis the study’s leaders draw all sorts of conclusions that cannot possible be in the data:
“There is something psychological beyond the statistics,” said Prof. Israel Finkelstein of the Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Civilizations at Tel Aviv University
Honestly, if you have done a statistical study how can you possibly draw conclusions outside of the statistics? Haven’t you just undermined your own methodology? The article goes on sprinkled with speculation and the word “if.” Wonderful, I am certain I can find something “psychological” beyond the genetics and speculate about flying pigs. That does not tell be anything useful about actual pigs.
It is not until two-thirds of the way through the piece that you hear about other scholars that think this whole thing is a massive over-reach.
Most of this scholarship is Jewish which has a very different perspective on the texts and their place than does Christianity. This work is within the boundaries of the Jewish perspective. But I do think a decent reporter might acknowledge that somewhere in the reporting. Christians and Jews share a lot of the same sacred texts, even with our unique approaches and perspectives. I think it is important that we acknowledge those differences while respecting the other.
This piece, with its word choice and speculation, to the average Christian who believes the totality of the Bible to be the sacred Word of God would be perceived as a massive slap. Given its lack of acknowledgement of the Christian perspective one must ask the intention of the authors, and if those intentions are innocent, clarification is due.