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Confessions of a Methodological Skeptic

By Raymond F. Person, Jr.
Ohio Northern University
Professor of Religion; Chair
Department of Religion & Philosophy
February 2012

The historical-critical methods of biblical study developed out of a growing sense that the biblical text was the product of a lengthy, gradual process of composition and transmission and, therefore, these methods assume such a process of composition. I share many of the assumptions behind the historical-critical methods—for example, the tremendous textual diversity of the Book of Samuel strongly suggests that Samuel (or any one individual) did not write it and that the process of composition included a variety of individuals drawing from a variety of sources. In that sense, I am a strong advocate for source and redaction criticism.

However, as is often acknowledged, the “objectivity” of these (and other) historical-critical methods is only relative. That is, the historical-critical methods provide some objectivity to the process of interpretation, but they nevertheless have not eliminated the subjectivity of any particular interpreter. One of the most obvious pieces of evidence that such subjectivity continues is the existence of certain schools of thought that, at least to some degree due to their sheer numbers, determine what the “scholarly consensus” is. For example, in the study of Deuteronomy–Kings most commentators fall easily into two schools of thought: (1) those who argue for a dual-redaction (Dtr1 and Dtr2) (mostly Americans) and (2) those who argue for a trito-redaction (DtrG, DtrP, and DtrN) (mostly Europeans). Both of these schools continue to use the same methods of source and redaction criticism, but nevertheless their results differ significantly and often those of one school of thought simply ignore the arguments made by the other school of thought. Moreover, there are differences of opinions within each of these schools—for example, during which reign did Dtr1 compose or how many DtrN’s there were—but this only belies the subjectivity of the methods even within each of the schools as well as between them.

Because of this obvious subjectivism within the application of source and redaction criticism, I am a skeptic about their utility as methods when applied on their own. For this reason, I am completely uninterested in reading another monograph or article that simply assumes JEDP or distinguishes one Dtr from another on the basis of operating within the confines of the “scholarly consensus” by means of the standard application of source and redaction criticism. This does not mean that there has been no value to the “scholarly consensus.” In fact, in my teaching I am more than willing to teach, for example, JEDP for its heuristic value. Furthermore, I will concede that using such formulations in the writing of commentaries makes sense, since we all need some basis for preceding on such matters; however, another commentary that assumes the validity of DtrG, DtrP, and DtrN and applies it to a particular text will not convince me any more of the utility of that particular school of thought. This “scholarly consensus” had tremendous value at one time. For example, Noth’s “Deuteronomistic Historian” and Cross’s Dtr1 and Dtr2 were brilliant in the 1940s and the 1970s, respectively, and later they played a tremendously significant role in my own intellectual development as a scholar. But, as a methodological skeptic, I now insist on more robust methodologies to approach such ideas and constructions.

The higher-critical methods were developed within the context of significant interdisciplinary interactions, especially between biblical studies, folklore, and classics. Unfortunately, too often many of the current higher- critical studies are based on formulations of the higher-critical methods as developed a century ago without a continuation of the type of interdisciplinary dialogue that characterized the early history of the higher-critical methods. In fact, increasingly even biblical studies itself is becoming more and more fragmented, so that, for example, some redaction critics are unaware of the relevant work in text criticism and simply apply redaction criticism to the Masoretic Text.

Although I am a methodological skeptic and I am uninterested in reading another work based on models from forty or fifty years ago, I have not yet given up on the quest to understand the complex compositional processes that led to the formation of the Bible. I have not yet given up, because I am hopeful that interdisciplinary methodological reflection may facilitate our understanding this process further. As a skeptic, I may not have the same goal as some others, in that I think it highly unlikely that anyone with any method can adequately tease out all of the complexities of this process and, therefore, I am unwilling to play that game by postulating my own formulation of, for example, how many Dtr’s there might have been and which verses belong to each of them.

In my most recent monographs—The Deuteronomic School (SBL 2002) and The Deuteronomic History and the Book of Chronicles (SBL 2010)—I have striven to provide exegetical results based on methodological progress related to interdisciplinary work. In both works I have drawn extensively from text-critical conclusions as (somewhat) empirical controls on my redactional arguments and I have applied insights from the study of orality and oral traditions to my understanding of the process of composition and transmission. In this way, I hope to have contributed to the discussion of sound methodology in biblical studies as much as (if not more than) to the discussion of these particular texts. I strongly suspect that some of my colleagues may choose not to read my work, because it appears to be one more study based on, for example, Noth’s notion of the “Deuteronomistic History.” Although my understanding of the “Deuteronomic History” differs from Noth’s and others, I can certainly understand their reluctance, since I too am not interested in reading studies that simply assume such formulations. Therefore, to some extent, I acknowledge that I too am guilty as charged, in that we all stand on the shoulders of those who preceded us. However, I have striven to provide some type of methodological advancement in my research agenda. In fact, just as early higher-critical scholars sometimes contributed to discussions in classics and other literatures because of some new methodological perspective, I also have contributed new methodological perspectives to discussions of other literatures, including for example Homer and Shakespeare. Therefore, I think that as biblical scholars become more familiar with other disciplinary approaches—in my case, conversation analysis and the study of oral traditions—they will not only find new ways to discern better the composition, transmission, and reception of the Bible, but they will also be able to bring insights learned from their study of the Bible and its cultural contexts into discussions of the other disciplines from which they draw. In this way, biblical scholars will not simply be consumers of other disciplinary approaches, but also active contributors to other disciplines. This was certainly the case in the early days of the higher-critical method and has been exemplified in the work of other contemporary scholars as well, three of whom are Elisabeth Schüssler-Fiorenza, R. S. Sugirtharajah, and Vincent Wimbush.

Admittedly, I have chosen examples here— Schüssler-Fiorenza, Sugirtharajah, and Wimbush—that some may perceive as extreme especially in relationship to the higher-critical methods, but from my reading of their work, they have not abandoned the higher-critical methods entirely (despite at times some of their rhetoric). Rather, they simply insist that the higher-critical methods must be used in combination with methodologies that take seriously issues of gender, race, and poverty in the here and now. Their emphasis may be different, but their approaches nevertheless have important consequences for how we (re)imagine the ancient world.

Even if others take a more traditional approach to methodological innovation (as I have at least in comparison to Schüssler-Fiorenza, Sugirtharajah, and Wimbush), if more biblical scholars would join in such methodological stretching, I am confident that my (and others) methodological skepticism would slowly begin to subside, at least somewhat, and the field of biblical studies would be able to provide more leadership within the study of the humanities more broadly and have a more profound impact within communities of faith that share an interest in the Bible.