Sunday, November 21, 2010

External Criticism: A Brief Reflection

Copyright © 2002 José Cossa

External criticism, which is also known as lower criticism, is a tool used by historians and exegetes to determine the validity of a document, particularly a document with some sort of historical significance. It is the first of two stages of inquiry for it is followed by internal criticism. It ventures towards inquiry regarding (a) authorship; (b) originality and accuracy of copy; and (c) if errors are found it helps assess the nature of errors found, i.e., if they are scribal errors or other kinds of errors.

In dating text, historians and exegetes assess if there are any inconsistencies in the source (text) rather than assume immediate knowledge of when the text was written, i.e., is the source what it claims to be? Does anything nullify the claim of the source? In the process of recovering, to the very best of his ability, the original text of scripture or of a document, the historian must resolve the inconsistencies found within the text or source and explain them.

Some of the dates found in the books of the Bible are conflicting with the actual times of historical events that are known to have happened in the time claimed in the books of the Bible and the names associated with them, i.e., Isaiah. Biblical lower criticism has preoccupied itself with explaining these errors or inconsistencies for as long as the external criticism technique has been in existence. With the advent of this method of criticism and others other forms of textual criticism, i.e., internal criticism, there has been conflict over whether the technique is moral for it challenges both the belief of inerrancy and infallibility of scripture; however, with general historical documents the technique is less of an issue. For example, Max Anders claims that the Bible as originally written was without errors and that any apparent error or contradiction can be explained – for him, one must separate fact from details that seem contradictory. He states that if he tells his wife that he is going to the post office and then on the way back he tells her that he picked a screwdriver at the hardware store, he would have not lied by omitting the trip to the hardware store. This, he claims, is one of the many incidents classified by critics as errors and contradictions in Scriptures.

Some biblical scholars agree that there are apparent contradictions, but the facts in the Bible remain true and untouched by the seeming contradiction – One example of this school can be seen in the field of Biblical theology of missions (e.g., John York, my former professor of this subject), where some schools claim that there is one underlying theme in the Bible, i.e., missio Dei [lat. mission of God], from which drives the entire message and purpose of the writings and is above all the seeming contradictions found in the minute details. According to this school, God’s mission of redemption of mankind is a theme that is left undisturbed by errors and seeming contradictions of manuscripts, and runs from Genesis to Revelations. This aspect of one theme will be discussed also within the context of internal criticism. I present this argument here to explain that one’s understanding of infallibility of the Bible can be a factor in determining internal evidence because some schools, not necessarily that advocated by York, have gone to extremes of not wanting to temper with the text of Scripture either because of its sacredness or because there is no need to do so since the purpose of scripture is to present a particular message and the details do not matter.

In spite of the contradictions between various biblical scholars and historians, both exegetes and historians have benefited from the technique of lower criticism because they have managed to make better sense out of conflicting passages within the literature that they analyze.

In determining authorship, the tool of external criticism helps the researcher and exegete to assess the author’s name, affiliation, i.e., religious group, political party, ethnicity, etc. In this phase the researcher attempts to determine authorship by (a) using internal evidence about the author; (b) using supplementary data from other material related to the descriptions in the text such as history, geography, etc.; (c) assessing the tone of document, (d) identifying patterns or streams that help establish connection to original author when dealing with anonymous writings; (e) identifying clues of authorship; (f) assessing the presence of second or third party speech writers, ghostwriters, and plagiarists.

In determining the evidence of date the researcher also looks at the language used, the sequence and relationship of events, the spirit and temper in the writing. There is also an attempt to detect spurious documents by assessing if the document is a forgery, if a result of plagiarism, and assess erroneous identities. The other element of investigation is questions of original form such as origin of corruption, i.e., collation, restoration of original reading, variant reading, and conjectural emendation. Another helpful tool is paleography (according to Father Michael Perko, my former history professor in graduate school), which can be very insightful in studying old documents with excellent forgeries. Paleography helps assess the quality of ink in the document and places such within a particular time frame.

Hockett uses Isaiah as an example for his discussion of authorship by providing evidence for the association between the developments of archeology, linguistics, and history with textual criticism. According to Hockett, there has been controversy over the authorship of the book of Isaiah; however, the history of Judah’s neighboring kingdom and the development of the dating technique started by Henry C. Rawlinson in the mid-nineteenth century, flowing from the deciphering of part of an inscription on the Behistun Rock, provided support for the theory that there were more than one author of Isaiah. According to critiques, contrary to conservative religious views, these developments have provided insight to the fact that there are more than three Isaiahs rather than one Isaiah as the author of the book. This internal evidence of the possible existence three Isaiahs rather than one is a result of development in academic fields that relate to what the text addresses, i.e., author, language, and events.

The book of Ruth is another example in Hackett. Ruth is an evidence of the application of the dating technique in light of the tone of the document because the theme (event) of the document is staged to have taken place “in the days when the judges ruled…” which led earlier (naïve, according to Hackett) scholars to date its writing right after the Judges; however, new scholars date Ruth after the return from the Babylonian exile because the book of Ruth presents itself (through internal evidence) as a reaction against the conservative reforms of Ezra, i.e., that all those within mixed marriages should separate from their pagan wives in order to preserve the purity of the Hebrew nation before God (Ezra chapters 9:1 and 10:44).

As seen in this discussion, the researcher and exegete as a first attempt to restore the original text, or its closest reading, must engage in determining authorship, date, and the trustworthiness of a document or source by understanding principles that guide external criticism and being well aware of advancements in related fields that will serve as supporting tools for the intricate task ahead.
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