Saturday, July 25, 2009

10 Critical Issues in the Other Prophets 1

Previous posts in this series include:

1. Faith, Evidence, and Biblical Scholarship
2. The Old Testament Canon
3. Genres in the Pentateuch
4. Critical Issues in the Pentateuch
5. Critical Issues in the Historical Books
6. The Poetic Sub-Genre
7. Critical Issues in the Psalms
8. Critical Issues in Wisdom Literature
9. Critical Issues in Isaiah

Too much involved in this one for me to crank it all out at once, so here's the first installment.
We best begin to locate the prophetic writings of the Old Testament by dividing them into those prophets who lived before the exile of Judah to Babylon (586BC), those who date from the time of the exile, and those who were "post-exilic," who prophesied after the exile. Here we are speaking of the time when the prophet himself lived, in distinction from when the books we now have in the Old Testament were written or reached something like their "canonical" form, the way they appear in the Bible.

Amos and Hosea prophecied not only before the exile of the southern kingdom, but before the destruction of the northern kingdom in 722BC. They are almost unique among the prophets because they prophesied to the northern kingdom, although their prophesies were preserved in the southern kingdom. Some scholars argue that the form of Amos and Hosea we now have shows the hands of editors in the southern kingdom. Jonah was also prophet in the northern kingdom who lived before the exile (cf. 2 Kings 14:25). However, the book of Jonah itself does not include any prophecy to the northern kingdom, since it concerns prophecy to Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian kingdom.

Isaiah, Micah, Nahum, and Zephaniah prophesied around the time when the Assyrians destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel (722BC). Nahum in particular celebrates the justice of the northern kingdom's destruction. Habakkuk and Jeremiah then lived just before the time of the Babylonian invasion. The first wave of captives were taken to Babylon in 597BC.

Ezekiel and Obadiah then lived and prophesied at the beginning of the exile. Ezekiel and Daniel are both figures located not in Jerusalem or Judea, but prophesying in Babylon itself. The book of Daniel appears in the Writings rather than the prophets, and we will cover its issues in a later section. If one accepts the "three" Isaiah hypothesis, then the middle chapters of Isaiah (40-55) would also date from the last part of the exile in Babylon.

Haggai and Zechariah lived in the time just after return from exile (538BC) and urged the rebuilding of the temple, which took place in 516BC. If one accepts the three Isaiah hypothesis, Isaiah 56-66 would also date to this period. Then Malachi and perhaps Joel would date from the 400s BC.

Textual Criticism of the Old Testament
The branch of biblical studies that tries to determine the way the original texts of the Bible were worded is called textual criticism. It is surprising, even disturbing sometimes to some the first time they hear that we have none of the original documents of the Bible. For those who deal in ancient documents, however, it is exciting to know how many ancient copies of the biblical books that have actually survived. Things fall apart, and we thankfully have a wealth of copies of the Bible in comparison to what has survived of all other ancient writings.

Over a hundred years ago when archaeologists began to discover very old copies of the New Testament, many Christians were disturbed to find significant differences at some points, like the fact that the oldest copies of Mark did not have Mark 16:9-20. But these differences did not call into question the vast majority of the way the Bible had been printed over the years. As we would expect, there were those who reacted vehemently against these discoveries because it raised questions where all had previously been assumption. [1] They were caught off guard and, indeed, many of the scholars who raised such issues were hostile to faith.

But by the time the Dead Sea Scrolls came around in the late 1940s, the idea that the original text of the Old Testament might have differed a little from the text Christians bought in the Christian book store was not as shocking. These scrolls, which mostly date to the century before Christ, were about a thousand years older than any copies of the Old Testament we had at the time. For the most part, they confirmed the way the Old Testament had been printed in the Bibles of the day. In some other cases, the Dead Sea Scrolls pointed to alternative wordings we had known about, but had not used.

For example, the Old Testament was translated into Greek in the Egyptian city of Alexandria from around 250BC to just before the time of Christ. We informally call this Greek translation, the Septuagint, based on a legend about 70 Jews who translated the Pentateuch. We had known for years that this Greek translation sometimes was worded differently than the Masoretic text, the medieval text from about AD900 that had been used as the basis for printed Bibles since the invention of the printing press. In some places, the Dead Sea Scrolls have confirmed that the Septuagint was actually more original than the Hebrew text that stood behind our Bibles at the time.

For example, the King James Version of Deuteronomy 32:8 reads, "When the most High divided to the nations their inheritance... he set the bounds of the people according to the number of the children of Israel." Yet we had always known that the Greek Old Testament of this verse said that God set the boundaries according to the "sons of God" rather than of Israel. The Dead Sea Scrolls confirm that the original reading of Deuteronomy was likely "sons of God," referring to the spiritual powers worshipped by other nations. We have already mentioned the likely henotheism of ancient Israel in passages like Psalm 82. In any case, we can see why some rabbinic Jews might have wanted to alter the text.

In a few rare cases, the Dead Sea Scrolls have presented us with texts we had never known before. For example, the transition from 1 Samuel 10:27 and chapter 11 had often puzzled interpreters. Where did this Nahash the Ammonite come from in 1 Samuel 11, showing up unannounced. The Dead Sea Scrolls have a paragraph after 10:27 that helps explain, now included in the New Revised Standard Version:

"Now Nahash, king of the Ammonites, had been grievously oppressing the Gadites and the Reubenites. He would gouge out the right eye of each of them and would not grant Israel a deliverer. No one was left of the Israelites across the Jordan whose right eye Nahash, king of the Ammonites, had not gouged out. But there were seven thousand men who had escaped from the Ammonites and had entered Jabesh-gilead."

If this paragraph is original, it would fill a gap in the existing storyline.

The reason we are addressing the textual criticism of the Old Testament in this section is the fact that the Greek text of Jeremiah presents some very interesting and significant variations from the Hebrew. The Greek text is about an eighth shorter than the Hebrew text as we have it. Several passages are missing. Also interestingly, the oracles against the nations, which appear in chapters 46-51 in our Bibles, are inserted after 25:13 in the Greek. One of the fragments of Jeremiah found at Qumran seems to confirm at long last that the Greek is probably the more original version.

These sorts of findings cause us to sit back and reflect on the way we approach the biblical text. The initial reaction in such cases is often to deny a new idea without truly examining it. Significant intellectual energy might be applied to finding ways to finesse the evidence to make a different interpretation plausible. And maybe in some cases, these alternative explanations are correct. It is telling, however, that what is initially troubling to one generation often poses no issues to the next, implying that the initial reaction had more to do with emotion and perceived insecurity rather than substance. Textual criticism, which was a big issue to some in the late 1800s was not a big issue for their grandchildren in the 1900s.

So evangelicals came to grips with textual criticism long ago. Anyone who uses the New International Version or the English Standard Version implicitly accepts the science of textual criticism as valid. But as one person said, we have to wonder about an approach to the Bible that puts a premium on an inerrant text we do not have and has no problem with an "errant" text we do have! [2] Apparently God was not concerned to correct anyone about the order of the text of Jeremiah these last few thousand years, which implies that He is not as concerned with the minute details of the biblical text as some think He is.

There are popular legends you sometimes hear about the care with which the Bible was copied. But these stories come from the medieval period and do not seem to apply to the time of Christ or Old Testament times. All the evidence from the first three centuries of Christianity, as well as the formative period of the Hebrew Bible, seems to point rather to a kind of fluidity to these texts. Indeed, it is difficult to decide what it might mean to speak of the "original manuscript" of a text like Isaiah or Jeremiah. A good argument can be made that they were more like living oracles, snowballs that started rolling through Israel's history with core prophetic material from the prophets themselves, then gathering material for a century or two after the prophet himself had passed from the scene.

A good argument can be made that God inspired reinterpretations and expansions of them for later generations. Then at some point they reached certain roughly fixed forms that were passed along as somewhat independent traditions of how the texts read. Some would strongly object to this model. For them it is very important to think that Jeremiah himself either wrote the book in its current form or that he was still alive to approve most of it in this form even if someone else might have edited the material together. Each will have to make up his or her own mind.

However, as we mentioned in the Introduction, regardless of what the biblical texts meant in the past, the crucial moment for them as Scripture for me and for you is now, as I read it. Do I need to know the original meaning of Jeremiah to hear God speak throught it? Do I even need to know the textual history or the original wording of Jeremiah to hear God speak through it? Surely the answer to these questions is a resounding "No!" From a pragmatic perspective, very few people have heard God's word through these texts if we can only hear God through the original meaning.

This is why I do not think it should bother us if in fact we have been looking at a "less than original" form of Jeremiah--or the ending of Mark--all these centuries. God did not and does not need the original wording to speak to us. And it is why I believe on a broader scale that we should be open to any scholarship that is honestly trying to hear these texts in their original contexts, even if some of their suggestions are initially unnerving. A case can be made that some evangelicals have made a cottage industry out of trying to put out perceived fires set by new evidence, a kind of well established coping mechanism. In an age that emphasizes authenticity, this type of scholarship may not yield much fruit among those who might otherwise believe.

If we accept that we can read the text Christianly, regardless of its so called original meaning, the preoccupations of twentieth century evangelical scholarship become largely tangential. Again, this is not to say evangelical scholarship has been wrong all the time, only that it has often seemed blatantly biased in its treatment of evidence rather than even attempting transparency in its motivations. God has and does speak through the biblical text whether a person has studied these issues or not. The New Testament itself models this approach, as we have seen, for its authors heard God speaking in the Old Testament text often despite its original contexts.

[1] Even today, there are a few Christians who might call themselves "King James only," an artifact of a century ago.

[2] Although I personally object to using the word "errant" of the text we do have. It is no error when something attains its intended standard.

No comments: