I got an e-mail from a reader regarding Scripture and Christian formation. The reader reported that his parish was beginning a study of the Torah, and the priest began with a presentation on the Documentary Hypothesis. For those unfamiliar, the documentary hypothesis is a product of 19th and 20th century German and American scholarship that seeks to identify specific strands and layers of sources within the Torah. As one of the key features of this theory involves the names for God, J and E stand for two of them while the other two (P and D) identify theological emphases. I can see why a priest might start this way–it’s typically taught in seminaries at the start of OT study. I have nothing against the documentary hypothesis as a tool for scholarship; I think some scholars take it way too far and I find some of the methodology problematic, but it’s how some folks have made their academic careers.
But how useful is it to the church?
I want to be careful to answer this in the right way – it can be useful when it is set in its proper place and used for its specific purpose. It’s like the miter saw of the Christian formation workshop: there are a few specific tasks that it does well, but most of the time it should sit on the shelf. If you try and do large-scale woodworking with it, you won’t accomplish your task and you’ll screw up your tool!
Alright, smarty-pants – how would you do it?
What needs to happen first, in my opinion, is an orientation to the Old Testament in general and the Torah in particular. The place to start is by setting down some fundamental ground rules. Then as the group reads or studies, we can go back to these guiding principles and apply them as needed.
1. God and history: the first guiding principle must be something like this: as Christians, we believe that God has decisively interacted in history, but that history cannot define God. The basis of our faith is the understanding that the Supreme Being is not just a good idea – rather, we identify the Supreme Being as an active, hands-on presence at work in the world, in the lives of nations, and in the lives of individuals. Furthermore, God’s character is revealed to us through the patterns of action that emerge from God’s decisive interactions with history. However, the historical record itself rarely captures these interactions in an obvious or simple fashion. Thus, corollaries:
1.1. Historical events must underlie the decisive interactions between God and humanity: for example, creation occurred; Israel was freed from Egypt; the Jerusalem Temple was built and destroyed.
1.2. History and archaeology are blunt instruments that rarely confirm or deny the spiritual truths that Christians locate within these interactions: for example, the fact of creation does not prove the existence of a creator; historical science can tell us that population movements occurred, but cannot conclusively explain why they occurred; even when the facticity of an event is not in question, history and archaeology cannot hope to answer all of the natural and/or supernatural factors involved.
2. History and literature: the second guiding principle serves to complicate the first. History, and the facticity of God’s decisive interactions, are important to us. But they are usually not available to us. History is a complicated thing. The scholarship of the last 50 years or so has only reinforced that point. We now see history as more subjective, and less objective, always remembering the dictum that history is written by the winners. There are solid historical facts: cities existed, cities fell; kings reigned, kings died. But the fullness of the factors around these events is complex and imperfectly preserved. Any three competing histories of the Vietnam War will demonstrate that even in an era of recording and photography, history, interpretation, and truth are easier said than arrived at. In particular, interpretation is a big piece of any work of analysis and there are no “objective” stories; even an author striving to be as objective as possible will come from a particular perspective and read certain events in certain ways. Move into antiquity, and things get a whole lot more complex. Move into a body of religious literature, and understand that interpretation is central. The Bible, as we have received it, is literature. It is a written record. It is a written compilation of a wide variety of oral and written sources transmitted from different times, places, and purposes. (And this is where the JEPD thing comes in.) The collection as a whole does have a particular purpose. All of the texts within it were edited and selected (remember—there are books from the period not preserved within it; the OT isn’t just “everything ever written in Hebrew in antiquity”) for a reason: to recount the relationship between God and his people and to transmit the identity and consistent character of God through these stories. In large measure, then, especially in the Torah, and particularly in Genesis, we are not accessing history directly, but reading literature recounting stories set in the past that preserve history or historical remembrances as a secondary purpose. As such, we encounter it first as literature, and second as a record of the events recounted. As a result, our primary tools should not be of a historical nature, but of a literary character. The question on everyone’s minds at this point is whether the Bible is true. My answer is a simple yes – it is. It communicates the relationship between God and humanity as understood by the writers and editors of the canon. A more nuanced question asks whether all of the events recounted in Scripture are historically factual. My response (that some people may see as a cop-out) is that we are asking historical questions of a large collection of documents without first assessing the literary character and purpose of the section we happen to be reading. The first task of a literary expedition is to assess the genre of the text in front of you. In light of the specific question that we’re asking, we have to ask what the purpose and function is of the text we’re reading: is it seeking to document history according to 21st century American standards? The answer must be no. Some texts and passages do come closer than others. For instance, certain sections of the Samuel-Kings complex read as being very factual—some parts of Genesis read as less so. Does it mean that we trust one and not the other? No—it means that we regard their historicity differently, holding one more lightly than the other. Neither historicity nor facticity equal truth—if that were so, then we would not read Tolkien or Shakespeare or Coleridge and be transported and transformed by them. Nevertheless, this point must be held in tension with the first: we do believe that God has decisively interacted with history and thus we should not be too quick to write off the historicity of what we read. So, to state the corollaries:
2.1. Historicity does not exhaust truth.
2.2. The primary purpose of Scripture is to communicate the relationship between God and humanity and to reveal the consistent character of God and humanity.
2.3. While we do believe that God has decisively interacted with history, historicity is always at most a secondary concern of the literary text that we have received.
3. Literature and interpretation: Not only is the Bible a compilation of documents and sources, it is largely a compilation of theological interpretations either of life itself or specific events including certain historical events. A lot of interpretations are set side-by-side one another. Some of these are complementary, some are supplementary, others are conflicting. That is, the same historical events or life-events are understood in (sometimes drastically) different ways. Cases in point are the two different interpretations of the destruction of the Temple found in Psalms 74 and 79 or the differing approaches to life threaded throughout Proverbs and Job. What does this do to the “truth” status of Scripture? Nothing as far as I’m concerned… Rather, it means that different authors and editors have understood specifics about the relationship between God and humanity differently. They are united in their witness to the relationship, though, despite not reaching the exact same conclusions. Corollaries:
3.1. The Bible consists of a collection of diverse theological interpretations.
3.2. Even when biblical interpretations directly conflict, they are united in their witness to the nature and character of God’s relationship with humanity.
4. Purpose: Why do we read the Old Testament, the Torah, or Genesis? Because it gives us the backstory of the relationship into which we have entered. In the Nicene Creed we confess that the Spirit spoke through the prophets, affirming that the relationship described in the Old Testament is in fundamental continuity with the relationship described in the New Testament and the relationship lived out today in the life of the Church. As 2 Timothy reminds us, “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” We read so that we can learn the relationship, grasp the character of God, and unite our lives in witness to that character and the reconciling will that proceeds from it. It goes back to the fundamentals: how does this passage reveal God’s desire for the church to be built up in love for service and reconciliation? Sometimes Old Testament passages may seem to be remote from this question. When we find ourselves wrestling with that kind of passage, we can ask a few basic questions that can help re-orient ourselves to this question:
4.1. What does this passage show about the consistent character of God?
4.2. What does this passage show about the consistent character of humanity?
4.3. What does this passage reveal about the relationship between God and humanity?
4.4. How does this passage confirm or challenge what we understand to be the consistent character of God or humanity?
4.5. To what degree does the character of God or humanity revealed here cohere with the consistent character revealed in the person of Jesus Christ and confessed by the church?
4.6. How do these findings tie into what God desires from a mature Church participating within the reconciliation of God’s creation to himself?
One of the great strengths of the Church’s “pre-critical” typological and allegorical reading strategies is that they focus around the concept of a consistent character and pattern of behavior running through the relationship: God works in particular and consistent ways to maximize human freedom and liberation (despite humanity’s spotty record in cooperating with the divine will!).
Moving from these basic guiding principles, I’d open the Torah with a drive-by overview of the main genres that make up the first few books. Thus, we would identify the first 11 or so chapters of Genesis as cosmological epic. The point here is less historicity (certainly not scientific or anthropological accuracy!) than setting the stage: God is the author and source of creation, humanity works at cross-purposes to the divine will, yet God cares for creation and for humanity, working in particulars—through individuals and families. From chapter 12 on we are working with family epics that narrate the experiences of the great patriarchs and their families from Abraham through Joseph. The historicity factor may be a bit higher, but what is at issue is the relationships between family members with one another and with God and his liberating works. (The Icelandic family epics are very useful analogues for how and why people record family squabbles and internecine disputes.) With Exodus, we see a shift to a bit of heroic epic in the beginning with a focus on Moses, his origins and actions, before a move towards legal materials after the Sinai experience.
So—This is how I would go about introducing and contextualizing the reading of the Torah within a Christian community. What are your thoughts, questions, and caveats?