Is Neo-Source-Criticism A Thing?

At the Society of Biblical Literature annual conference in Baltimore last November I had the pleasure to hear a paper by Jean Louis Ska whose title, if I remember correctly, was “The Forgotten Virtues of the Supplementary Hypothesis.” For the most part, the paper was a sweeping and masterful synopsis of the 19th-century Pentateuchal scholarship that set the stage for Wellhausen’s Documentary Hypothesis. Ska’s paper was, in fact, the primary reason I chose to attend that session, one of the many Pentateuch sessions. (Even though I tend toward Pentateuch sessions, in general, there were other sessions in which I was interested for that time slot.)

Part of the reason I was so interested in Ska’s paper was because I feel that, while so much of today’s Hebrew Bible scholarly dialogue is built on the conclusions of 19th-century scholarship, not all (maybe even not most) contemporary Hebrew Bible scholars seem competent in pre-Wellhausen 19th century scholarship. Many young scholars today, I find, do not really understand what Wellhausen actually brought to the discussion at the end of the 19th-century, i.e. in what ways did he depart from the consensus and in what ways did he simply transmit what he had received from his predecessors. Because of the overwhelming dominance of the Wellhausen theory, Wellhausen’s name has unjustifiably become synonymous with source-criticism just as his J, E, P, and D sources have become such a fixed part of Old Testament scholarly language that even those who don’t subscribe to any part of what is Wellhausen’s specific set of ideas find themselves using his terms. This is unfortunate on many levels. The fact is that Wellhausen’s Documentary Hypothesis is not a method but a specific set of conclusions built upon a much older method, but this conflation of the method and the model has made them somewhat self-strengthening. Interestingly, both the source-critical method and Wellhausen’s specific conclusions have been thoroughly discredited for more than a generation. Even so, I find that 19th-century scholarship, especially pre-Wellhausen scholarship, often has quite a lot to say to me because of the kind of close attention those scholars paid to biblical texts. Hence, my interest in Ska’s paper.

A couple of the other papers from that session were not quite so impressive as Ska’s and actually, in my opinion, illustrated the precise lack of understanding among young Old Testament scholars that motivated my interest in Ska’s paper. What I saw and heard from these papers was an enthusiastic and uncritical acceptance and utilization of essentially 19th-century source-critical methods. One of the speakers even referred to himself and others who did as he did as neo-source-critics. I was actually shocked. Is neo-source-criticism a thing? Is it actually possible that so many recent PhD candidates and recipients don’t realize that source-criticism is dead, buried, and mostly decomposed? If you are going to perform diachronic study of biblical texts, source-criticism as a method has proven a completely unsatisfactory way to do diachronic study since at least the 1970s because of what it assumes about the texts under consideration and about what may be certainly discerned from certain kinds of features of those texts.

Even more importantly, diachronic study of biblical texts in general has had to wrestle with serious epistemological objections raised by late-20th century linguistic and literary scholarship. The fact is that there are lots of things that 19th- and early 20th-century diachronic scholarship claimed to be able to know about texts and the world behind them from those texts that are generally acknowledged today as unknowable without further empirical evidence (which will almost certainly not be forthcoming). In other words, while diachronic speculation remains a part of Old Testament scholarship (as it should), its epistemological status has been irrevocably downgraded to mere speculation without manuscript evidence to support it, and this downgrade is nothing really new. Scholarship as a whole has been moving away from old-fashioned diachronic assumptions for at least half a century, and what Robert Polzin refers to as the “operational priority” of synchronic or final-form study is more the rule today than the exception. I’m not saying we can’t re-examine old theories and re-evaluate them. My interest in Ska’s paper shows that I feel precisely the opposite. But what I heard in those couple of less than impressive papers at SBL in November was not a critical re-evaluation of a method previously thought to be discredited, but rather an un-critical acceptance of a discredited method apparently motivated by a kind of trendiness. Even though he means something slightly different, Larry’s Hurtado’s talk of “zombie” theories (i.e. a dead idea that is ill-advisedly re-animated periodically) comes to mind.

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