Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Folk Science and Science (Documentary Hypothesis Dept.)

Here's one that probably has no larger meaning, but it catches my fancy (and if any reader does extract a larger meaning, they'll get a special Underbelly medallion with oak leaf cluster).  Anyway, the subject is "science," versus bogus
"folk" science, as in "whatever passes for science in Texas or Louisiana. We all know the drills: scholarly/academic/scientific opinion crystallizes around some core complex of knowledge, only to get swept up in a prairie fire of opposition from those who say it is contrary to sharia law unBiblical, an affront to religion and an insult common sense. So climate change, so evolution and I'm sure we're not done yet. Beleaguered scientists draw their wagons into a circle, only to find that they have fanned the flames of rage and rancor among the insulted.
No news here folks, move along--except that it hits me that there is a curious precedent for the underlying discontinuity that drives these conflicts, much closer to the religious homeland. I'm thinking of the so-called "Documentary Hypothesis." Anyone who troubles to read this blog will recognize (at least in rough outline) the content, if not the tagline. I'm talking about a body of insights concerning the nature and provenance of the Bible.

Specifically by hallowed first principles, the Bible is the Word of God and in particular, the first five books. the Pentateuch, were (dictated, written down) by His servant Moses, he who led the chosen people to the Promised Land.

I gather that serious scholars found reason to doubt the single-author principle as long ago at the 11th Century.  I'm told that the British philosopher Thomas Hobbes in the 17th Century was perhaps the first noteworthy person to say flat out that Moses did not write the majority of the Pentateuch.

Flash forward to the end of the 19th Century; we have a German "theologian" (heh!), Julius Wellhausen, who assembles the core of the "hypothesis" of which I speak.  Integrating the work of distinguished predecessors, Wellhausen allocates the authorship of the Pentateuch among four different authors, identified by convention as J, E, D and P.   From this, much follows: not only that the Pentateuch is the work of multiple hands (working at multiple times) but that the whole of the Bible is the accretion of work by countless contributors extending,  not incidentally, over a vast reach of time.

I lay these facts out in a tendentious manner to make an important point. Specifically, this is old news. The "documentary hypothesis" has been around for a century or more. It may have been radical in its time: Wellhausen was startled enough at his own insight that he resigned his academic chair of theology (he found employment elsewhere). But over time, the "documentary hypothesis" (allowing for differences in particulars) has become the very bedrock of received opinion among students of religion. Richard Elliott Friedman, perhaps its most visible modern expositor, says:
At present [sc. 1987], ... there is hardly a biblical scholar in the world actively working on the problem who would claim that the Five Books of Moses were written by Moses--or by any one person. ...[T]he hypothesis ... continues to be the starting point of research, no serious student of the Bible can fail to study it, and no other explanation of the evidence has come close to challenging it.
--Richard Elliott Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible 28 (1987) 

So why am I spending energy on what is, by now, the religious equivalent of an ivy-covered monument?  Perhaps you anticipate me here: my point is that I suspect there are millions--literally--of self-professed Christians (and, I suspect also Jews, though I know less about them) who simply haven't got the word: who continue to believe, insofar as they consider the issue at all, that the Bible is a single self-contained immutable whole.  In other words, we have precisely the same discontinuity over the Bible that we see in politics over evolution and global warming: "respectable" scholarship on one side, the mass of believers on the other.

There is of course at least one notable difference between the discontinuity over Biblical authorship and that over evolution or global warming.  That is: over Biblical authorship, the flames have never glowed so brightly as they do over evolution and global warming.  Well: in the early days, proponents of the new view met resistance: there were heresy trials, people were stripped of employment and suchlike. But no one was  burned at the stake (okay, I grant that nobody has been burned at the stake over Darwinism either, though over global warming, I suppose you could say we are all at risk).  

Not exactly sure why we've had so little uproar over the authorship issue.  My impression is that the job of a professor of theology is to try to let the students down easy, to try to introduce them to the adult world without too abrupt a shock.  Aside from that, I take it neither side has any strong incentive to tell the masses; theology is not, at the end of the day, all that important.


Anonymous said...

Contrast to evolution, bible scholarship isn't taught in high school. (An intriguing idea, though. I doubt Mitt would be in the running, if it were.)

Contrast to global warming, bible authorship doesn't affect the bottom line at Exxon, Peabody, et al. If it did, I suspect we'd be hearing about the "war on Moses".

bjdubbs said...

Have we really proven there was not one author of the Bible? There are different source materials that date from different periods, sure OK. Any kid can see there are two accounts of the creation of man and woman. There is more evidence of authorship than there is to the contrary, I'd say. The scholars set themselves a short hurdle and gave themselves a gold medal for jumping over it. It's a bit like the consensus that Homer was an oral poet based on the evidence of Milman Perry's vacation in Croatia. Thin evidence for an absurd conclusion.

mike shupp said...

Strikes me that most people encountering The Documentary Hypothesis as something new are likely fairly devout Christians and that much of their reaction will be determined by the naturee of the expositor. If my church pastor suggests Exodus was written over a period of several centuries, he can probably do so without driving me berzerk. Richard Dawkins ... probably not, largely because Dawkins will come across as wanting to pick a fight with me and all my religious friends. I'm not making a judgement on the veracity of tDH, in other words, I'm just responding to an open enemy.

Same thing with evolution, really. Even people who claim it's false typically have an understanding of genes and chromosomes and inherited characteristcs and mutations and all that, and accept it quite happily. They just don't _like_ the sort of people who keep insisting that humans are just another type of monkey.

Ditto for climate change. You think global warming is a problem? Then you're an environmentalist! and all environmentalists are evil statists who must be opposed by conservatives without reserve.

Logic isn't involved, just the overwhelming comfort of belonging to a powerful group which makes it safe to hate you and your group. "Blues vs Greens" in the parlance of another elderly Republic.

(And how long were Romans killing each other in Blue vs Green squabbles? From Augustus' time up to Justinian's, if memory serves. What's that, six centuries?)