Monday, September 29, 2003

PROFESSOR CHRISTIAN BRADY of Tulane University e-mails in response to my comments last week on his Christianity Today article, "What Do the Stones Cry Out?":

I just wanted to point out that I am well aware of the texts you site, but I still insist that such differences do NOT have serious bearing on the meaning of the text from a theological perspective. (And on that point perhaps I should have been more precise.) The issues raised by these differences in texts and MS traditions are very important for us and the work we do, but they do not significantly alter the landscape of Judaism and Christianity of today, or the last 2000+ years, to imply otherwise is somewhat misleading. Here is the point, in fact, at which I think people can often �miss the forest for the trees.� All of the evidence that archaeology and textual research can produce are interesting, useful, and often invaluable for certain types of study, but they have yet to offer any serious challenge to the biblical accounts or, more importantly for Jews and Christians, to the theological claims of the texts.

I am grateful to Chris Brady for taking the time to reply. A few comments in response.

If he is saying that the textual state of the Bible is such that no basic theological doctrines taught in the various books are obliterated or thrown into doubt by textual criticism, I quite agree and did not mean to imply otherwise. (Whether the books themselves are internally consistent on such matters - even important ones - is quite another matter, but that's another discussion.)

I think I do disagree with the last sentence (although see below). Archaeology has certainly offered serious challenge, for example, to the biblical picture of a lightning conquest of the land in the generation after Moses at around 1400 B.C.E. Maintaining that the archaeological record supports this story can only be done by admitting that one of the biblical accounts got the date wrong by between one and two centuries, which is what Professor Brady does when he suggests that the numbers in 1 Kings 6:1 which put the Exodus in the mid-fifteenth century can be disregarded. That's a pretty significant error (and talk about "perfect numbers" doesn't make it less of an error - at best the author of 1 Kings didn't know the right date and made a highly inaccurate guesstimate), but the alternative to accepting the error is to accept that there's no evidence of a violent conquest when there should be. Even then, the evidence for a thirteenth century conquest is hardly without problems (such as the case of Ai).

Another serious challenge: if the Pentateuchal stories and texts about and attributed to Moses were composed in the Mosaic period, they ought to be written in something like Ugaritic, not the late Judean Iron-Age Hebrew in which they are written (and even with updating over time much of the earlier language ought to survive). No one who doesn't have a theological agenda takes these texts (apart from a few possibly early poetic pieces) to be from the time of Moses, in part because of the archaeological evidence for what 15th-13th century B.C.E. Northwest Semitic actually looked like.

As for textual criticism, what I was objecting to is the tendency of Evangelical biblical handbooks and popular works by Evangelical scholars to gloss over difficulties in order to assure their audience that scripture is reliable (textually and historically, which is taken pretty much as prerequisite to arguing that anyone should take it seriously theologically). Because Evangelical laypeople are rarely told the details about the biblical texts in the Qumran library, they tend (in my experience) to have the impression that the biblical text was transmitted pretty much without copyist errors during its history. Showing them the critical apparatus of a Greek New Testament can shock some of them. If scholars would simply say something to the effect that the manuscripts we have do have a considerable number of copyist errors in them but, using textual criticism, we can usually weed these out (nearly always with the New Testament and often, but by no means always, in the Old Testament), this would express the actual situation more clearly and forthrightly.

I would love to see an article in Christianity Today that grappled from an Evangelical perspective with some of the more interesting variants in, say, the Cave 4 Samuel manuscripts and 4QJoshuaa, and with the two editions of Jeremiah. And I bet the target audience would find it challenging and interesting too. It might upset some of them, but in the long run it would do them good. How about it Chris?

I was just about to post this when I received another message from Chris Brady:

If I may clarify one more point, archaeology does offer challenges, some serious, just not insurmountable from my perspective. Now of course, as I note in the article, if one is predisposed to viewing the biblical account as largely fiction then no amount of archaeological evidence supporting it will validate the Bible. (The same is true of course for those who insist that the Bible is the inerrant and infallible word of God.)

My primary focus in that article was the argument found in popular articles like Lazare's that state that "archaeology disproves the Bible." I know of very few colleagues who would go that far.

As to the first paragraph, I'm not sure why we need to think in terms of "surmounting" problems with the Bible unless it's already part of the agenda that they need to be surmounted. That language makes me wary: my agenda is to try to work out what actually happened in the history of the ancient world and I don't care one way or another about which sources turn out to be accurate or not about what. I agree that if one is determined to find a specific outcome in advance, the evidence will be made to fit.

I agree with the second paragraph. I would, however, say that the most reasonable working hypotheses, based on archaeology and critical analysis in general, hold that a fair bit of the Bible is historically inaccurate.

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