Saturday, May 05, 2012

Book Review: Peter Enns 2

Way back in January, I blogged on the introduction to Peter Enns' recent book, The Evolution of Adam.  I've finally finished reading the first two chapters.  The second chapter is called, "When Was Genesis Written?" and Enns' purpose is to build to answer the basic question of the original, intended meaning of Genesis 1.  By the way, I saw earlier in the week that James K. A. Smith of Calvin College had written a response to Enns' book.

To determine the original meaning of Genesis, Enns first asks when Genesis was written. His basic conclusion is that "the Old Testament as a whole is fundamentally a postexilic document" (32).  In this age when Israel had been shaken to the core by the destruction of Jerusalem, "The Old Testament is not a treatise on Israel's history for the sake of history, but a document of self-definition and spiritual encouragement."  Or as he says elsewhere, "The creation of the Hebrew Bible... is an exercise in national self-definition in response to the Babylonian exile" (28).

In terms of scholarship, these are not controversial claims.  Of course Enns is probably wishful when he uses phrases like, "virtually unanimous" and "virtual scholarly consensus." In many circles, especially popular circles, the conclusions seem very controversial.  It gets to the question of "What is a scholar?"  Is it a person with a PhD? Is it knowing and understanding the arguments on all sides of an issue? Are there certain issues where an evidentiarily based conclusion is so inevitable that to hold a different position automatically disqualifies you from being considered a scholar--or at least an evidence based scholar?

So Enns presents the inductive evidence pointing away from Moses as the author:
  • Genesis never mentions Moses or says he is its author. 
  • Moses is always referred to in the third person throughout the Pentateuch: "he did this," "he said that," "Moses wrote down this law" (Deut. 31:9), and of course Moses went up into the mountain and no one knows where he's buried till this day (which sounds like it's being written a bit later).
  • More references that sound like the events of these books took place in the very distant past--the bed of Og can still be seen in Rabbah (Deut. 3:11); at that time the Canaanites were still in the land (Gen. 12:6), a situation that continued until the time of David.
Then there are stories that seem repeated but using different words for God.  Abraham and Sarai pull one over on Pharaoh and YHWH strikes Pharaoh's house (Gen. 12). Then a little later Abraham and Sarah pull one over on Abimelech and Elohim comes after Abimeleh (Gen. 20). This is not an isolated incident.  This repetition of the same basic story with a different name for God happens repeatedly throughout the Pentateuch. (James McGrath pointed out this phenomenon in a couple psalms as well). Enns' final point is that the Hebrew of the Pentateuch does not likely reflect Hebrew at the time of Moses.

Enns does not in any way deny that much of the material within the Pentateuch might go back to Moses. He also does not deal much with the main reason why this is an issue, namely, NT instances where Moses is implied to be the author, including instances where Jesus seems to imply that Moses is the author (e.g., John 5:46-47).  Interestingly, there are only a few times where the NT implies that the author of the Pentateuch is Moses.  Most of the attributions to Moses are attributions to the material in the Pentateuch, not to Moses as author of the whole sha-bang.

Enns doesn't spend much time on this issue.  He pretty much only addresses it in a footnote: "Jesus here reflects the tradition that he himself inherited as a first-century Jew and that his hearers assumed to be the case" (153 n.19). So our question is whether Jesus taught in the categories of his day or in these sorts of references intended to give answers to these sorts of questions.

While this debate is very old, there were some things in the chapter that I learned. Enns presented some of the ways in which Chronicles differs from Samuel. He does this to argue for how the exile affected the self-understanding of Israel--and thus setting up his argument for the overall purpose of the Pentateuch.  In 2 Samuel 7:16 God tells David that he will set up his, David's, kingdom forever. In 1 Chronicles 17:14, the same passage, God tells him he will set up my, God's, kingdom in my, God's house, the temple. So this is arguably a reorientation away from David's dynasty (since it would not be in place at the time of Chronicles) to the temple and God's kingdom.

We are of course free to disagree with Enns. I do think, however, that there is not much to object to here in terms of inductive scholarship.  Smith is perhaps right that there is a more fundamental question we will have to address if we are ever going to move past these sorts of debates. Are these things a matter of gathering evidence, forming hypotheses, testing the hypotheses, and reaching evidentiary consensus? If so, then there won't be much debate about Enns conclusion. The scholarly consensus will be "virtually unanimous."

But there is another approach, one that comes to the Pentateuch with its conclusion in hand. It assumes it must take the references of the NT as bindingly literal attributions of authorship. So it applies its intellect to finding ways to argue around what it considers to be the apparent evidence. So Moses' death was added later or God told him ahead of time and he wrote it down as prophecy. So the references that sound later are updates to the original Mosaic text. Or perhaps differing strands of source material were combined by none other than Moses himself.

There can be no rapprochement of these two approaches. They involve decisions one intentionally or unintentionally makes prior to interpretation. I fear, however, that to insist that only the second approach is valid will lead many of our children, especially those that look into these issues in detail, to lose their faith.

I recommend we not focus on these sorts of things and go spread the good news instead.


Martin LaBar said...

Thanks for doing this.

"I recommend we ignore those who focus on these sorts of things and go spread the good news instead." - That's good advice, but arguments are too much fun for some of us.

Anonymous said...

If I understand correctly what you describe as the second approach to Scripture and its potential harm to a person's faith, how optimistic are you that the first approach will become the norm for average Christians who may have been taught all their lives that anything but #1 is dangerous and undermines the inerrancy of Scripture? I find this particularly important when we consider that we Wesleyans hold to inerrancy (though I take it with varying interpretations of what the word means). Do you think this means we are bound to approach the text with a rigid mindset and a set of predetermined conclusions? I find that possibility unsettling.

I share your concern about the damage that may occur when we force people to perform mental gymnastics to square the evidence with what they are told about the necessary origins of Scripture. I think the real danger is that people will develop a very hard but brittle faith that falls apart when the slightest flaws start to appear in their armour. Better to give people, as they need it, the tools to deal with the evidence in such a way that they will form a strong but flexible faith, like a skyscraper in the wind.

Finally, how common is the first approach among Wesleyan educators and decision-makers? Are we likely to see it filter into popular circles where, as you note, Enns' conclusions would be controversial? (I can just imagine what would happen if many people at my church saw me reading The Evolution of Adam.)


Ken Schenck said...

Chuck, I'm not vouching for what Enns will say in later chapters of the book. I haven't read them yet. It seems to be a significant book in the current evangelical discussion.

I would say that the method of interpretation that all the Wesleyan schools teach is inductive Bible study, which is basically what I mean by the first approach. The goal is to let every biblical text say what it said. It is the English Bible method so many of us learned at Asbury.

I think a lot of young pastors are eager to help their congregations learn how to read the Bible in context, to be aware of when they are seeing things in the text that aren't there. Most people use the Bible as a mirror of what they already think, in my opinion.