Fundamentalism of the Sources: Problems with Some Practices of Source Criticism – Part 10

Also, just consider the following. Gen 1 is ascribed to the “Priestly” author and Gen 2-3 are ascribed to the “Yahwist.” The authors’ names are rooted in the characteristics of the texts inferred to be written by diverse authors, as stated in a previous post. For the Yahwist is called such because he calls God Yahweh. But if this mode of procedure dominates in me, I may have a strange approach to Satan’s words. For Satan says to Eve, “….”.

OBJECTION: It nowhere says “Satan”! It says only “serpent”. Who are you to say that it is Satan? After all, the New Jerome Biblical Commentary (NJBC) even states that the ur-source for Gen 2-3 used the ‘serpent’ as the bad guy in order to indicate the possible reason why we humans seem to have a native fear of snakes. Wow! Really guys? What a profound reading of the text. I didn’t realize the text was all about serpent-phobia. Cool.

To the contrary. Such a reading ranks up there with the Tabloids in the Grocery store. So much for deep meaning. I bet if they all went to work on the classical epic Gilgamesh they’d manage to turn that profound piece of literature into the trash heap of a praise for the lotus leaf. What nonsense! Instead of proving themselves wise as “etiological inferrers” they prove themselves clueless to the depths of mystery in their own breast! I refute the utter banality thusly with this kick in the pants.

But back to the Satan. I assert that this is Satan because Almighty God does. How so? He gave us the lexicon in Rev 12, which identifies all these: Satan, Ancient Serpent, Dragon, Deceiver, Devil, and yes Accuser (‘who accuses them day and night…’). Do I need to add a major premise from Vatican II to be convincing? All that the human author asserts the Holy Spirit asserts. Thus spoke Dei verbum.

So, then, back to Satan. The serpent speaks of God not with the word “Yahweh Elohim” but simply with “Elohim.” And, notably, Eve does the same.

How shall we approach this lofty text? If we let source critical concerns dominate, we may well be running around trying to do damage control. “This is the Yahwist. Or is it? Yada yada.” But none of us would be listening. Let us listen, then. Why does the Devil say “God” only? Why does Eve do this also? Could alienation be part of the story?

The point – at this point – is not to say that the findings of the Mosaic source critics are false. I’ll let real bible scholars discuss that. (Such as the important critic Cassuto; check also this one.) The point is to examine the guts of the enterprise, as it is very frequently practiced and taught, and show up the logical status of the inferences and evidence. To point out the definite errors that some make, contrary to the faith of the Church, and lastly to warn about the distortive influence a domination of source critical questions brings to the experience of reading.

Lastly, on this note: There is one scientific item of major note for all practices of source criticism. It is this. There is not yet, to my knowledge, even one piece of manuscript evidence for any single source critical claim, with the possible exception of the important texts that lack the Logion at the end of Mark. But None for the Books of Moses. None for Psalm 51. None for Isaiah. None for Matthew and Mark and Luke (the so-called Q and special Mt and special Lk). Etc. This indeed raises a significant question mark regarding the stability of the quaking reed inferred. Not that it crushes the bruised read. But it does cast its shadow, this lack of light.

There are, I think, much healthier first principles one ought to establish. There are sound guidelines long proven in the tradition.

And one of the chief of these is the division of the literal sense into the proper and improper. And that division regards: words, phrases / sentences, and even whole units or books. E.g., a psalm is definitely a literary device of note. And there are various kinds of psalm. Yes, yes, yes.

At the same time, the Church’s major rule is wise: Because we are not a fabulous religion but a true one, because our God acts historically and really and not mythically, each passage ought to be read in the proper literal sense unless there is manifest reason not to do so. One clear example of manifest reason is God walking. It is philosophically demonstrated and also a truth of faith that God is purely spiritual and incorporeal. Ergo, he has no legs.

Sometimes, the ‘manifest’ reason is not a demonstrated fact but an opinion so widely held and so nearly universally considered true, while not being manifestly opposed to the faith, that it can be taken as true – hypothetically – and thus serve as principle of interpretation. Example. That the sun stays still relative to the earth seems to have the whole world behind it. Ergo, let’s take it as true. (Let us also note that it is not verified demonstratively in the strong sense of that word.) If it is true, then the passages about the sun staying still should be read as in the improper literal sense, reflecting the truth of the way things appear. Nothing wrong about this. After all, you still say, “At sunrise, I shall fish.” We speak in this mode. It is fine. It is just improper, if indeed the earth is not the center. While bracketing this as hypothetical may make one a laughing stock in a certain generation, it is nonetheless a true bracket if we examine the status of the knowledge. Thus, if we have a longer audience in mind (say, 500 years hence), we more prudently bracket the matter. It is not a reflection of suspicion. It is a sign of the very status of the knowledge, just as almost all claims in contemporary particle physics have the status of hypotheses being verified.

So then, one goes to work, utilizing such founding reasons as ways to approach the mystery of the text. All the while, the text is believed rightly to be inspired and inerrant. One is seeking the meaning as a disciple, not as its pedagogue.

2 thoughts on “Fundamentalism of the Sources: Problems with Some Practices of Source Criticism – Part 10

  1. Just to clarify…you are using “literal sense” to refer to the meaning intended by the author, right? (I think that is how Aquinas uses it, but I don’t recall if you have defined it.) If so, would it be right to think of “literal” as referring primarily to the concepts of the human author, and “proper/improper” as referring to the written words used to express those concepts?

    1. It is difficult to define the literal sense. I might say the meaning first intended by the author, insofar as the author is God. Or, the meaning intended by the author, insofar as the author is man. It is distinguished from the spiritual senses.

      I often describe rather than define this. I say the literal sense is the ‘reference’ from the text to the first meaning, be it a historical object or a truth. I say the spiritual sense is the ‘reference’ from this first reference to yet a further reference, which further reference is intended by Almighty God.

      It is an interesting question what is the relation between the concepts and the words. After all, unless metaphor is merely a phenomenon of words, and not intellectually intended, which is clearly false, because it is not merely a phenomenon of words and is intellectually intended, then the author must be able conceptually to enact metaphorical meaning. No?

      I suppose the distinction I would draw is this. At the level of affirmation, some truth is being conveyed. Its exact expression is the proposition. Its instrument is the sentence. I would need to give this some thought. What a fascinating problem.

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