Source Criticism

I’ve been reading a lot of commentaries on the Minor Prophets. Most of them focus rather myopically on source critical questions. While I think source/redaction criticism is generally valid and can be useful in certain situations, its fundamental philosophical basis is flawed. (Source criticism is the process of determining the sources, editions, redactions or layers of a particular biblical book.)

First, source criticism of the Bible, especially the Old Testament, relies entirely upon internal evidence. Now internal evidence is not invalid, it just cannot be substantiated by hard data like manuscripts, archaeology, etc. I suppose some source-criticism bases itself on interpretations of archaeology, but rarely.

Second, what is the purpose of source-criticism? Does it really help you read a book better when you know who the supposed editors were and how they differed from the “original” author? Sometimes it seems comparable to reading the Constitution by trying figure which lines were proposed or rejected by various members of the Constitutional Convention. And while flipping through the early drafts of the Constitution may be interesting from a historical perspective, it doesn’t really shed that much light on what the Constitution actually says. Why? Because the Constitution was a compromise document. So the important part is the consensus, the written page, not the intentions, motivations or even the individuals involved.

So when it comes to the Bible and getting the general reader interested in picking up the Good Book, it seems source-criticism really isn’t going to give them that much. The general reader needs to pay attention to the “consensus” or the “compromise document.” What do I mean by that? The regular reader should not be concerned with the redaction history of Amos or Zechariah, but should focus on what the text says as it stands, what it means in its present context, what God is saying through the Sacred Word. Picking apart the various layers of development has a limited usefulness even for the expert. Because what matters is not the development, but the end-product. Likewise, the end-product of the Constitutional Convention is what matters. It is the law of the land, not the notes and scribbles of Jefferson or Madison or whomever. So with the Bible, the canon is what counts, not the theories and re-workings of the scholarly class.

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