In the 2nd century, there lived a bishop named Marcion. He had conflicted thoughts regarding what he read in Scripture: The God of the New Testament (Jesus) is very kind, loving and merciful, whereas the God of the Old Testament seems to be the complete opposite: cruel & vengeful. As he could not reconcile these two images of God in his own mind, he concluded that they must be fundamentally different figures. The Old Testament God, he reasoned, was a projection of the primitive and violent cultural characteristics of those days. Once Jesus finally came, he cleared up what He was really all about, so we now have a correct understanding of God. Marcion further reasoned that the Old Testament was, therefore, fundamentally flawed and Christians should discard it; we should only read the New Testament. His ideas were deemed heretical and Marcion was excommunicated. (see CCC 123)
This basic idea that the Old Testament has nothing for the Christian and should be ignored is called Marcionism, after its first proponent. Variations on this theme have lived on through the centuries, popping up from time to time.
The Church answers Marcion by noting that the Old Testament has a dominant theme of Promise and Fulfillment. As we saw regarding Abraham, God made promises which He ultimately fulfilled in Jesus and the New Covenant. Thus, we read the Old Testament to understand these promises; this makes the New Testament intelligible as a description of how God fulfilled His promises. In fact, the New Testament is written in such a way as to constantly refer to these Old Testament promises. One who does not understand the Old Testament cannot understand everything the New Testament is saying. We end up with St. Augustine’s axiom: “The New Testament lies hidden in the Old and the Old Testament is unveiled in the New.”(Quaest. in Hept. 2,73:PL 34,623)
In the mid-19th century, a school of theology developed in northern Europe called Liberal Protestantism. (Here, the word “liberal” is not like our current, American political view; it just means a way of Protestantism that offered more liberties to its adherents.) The basic idea of Liberal Protestantism was that the dominant message of Christ is a way of life based on treating others with love. Thus, the liturgical ceremonies as well as the moral laws were unnecessary items, added on over the centuries for no authentically Christian reason. The only thing Christians needed to do was to love their fellow man and serve the community. The most famous proponent of this school was Albert Schweitzer, the famous philanthropist. Adoph von Harnack and Rudolph Bultmann were also well known exegetes of the school. This theology entered some the Catholic schools around 1900, where its Catholic variant was called Modernism; it was condemned by Pope St. Pius X in his encyclical, “Pachendi.”
The theology of Liberal Protestantism was well suited for a rise of neo-Marcionism. The Old Testament became anachronistic, a relic of a primitive world where people fought bloody wars in the name of God. The entire Old Testament, save maybe the 10 commandments, was meaningless in an authentically Christian worldview.
At the same time as this neo-Marcionism developed in the late 18th century, a new school of Bible Scholarship was also developing. Called the Historical-Critical approach, it made use of recently developed methods in the analysis of ancient texts. The "chiastic parallelism" we explored in St. John's Resurrection narrative is an example of this Historical-Critical approach.
The Historical-Critical approach became very popular among Liberal Protestants, as it generated novel ideas congruent with their theology, mainly in providing an allegedly scientific basis for discarding many traditional views. During the 20th century, the Historical-Critical approach dominated bible scholarship. It seems to be, however, on the wane. As the critical techniques become more refined, they are finding problems with previous conclusions and instead are finding stronger arguments for the traditional views.
Here are some ideas you may run into from time to time, based on older Historical-Critical results combined with a Liberal Protestant tendency.
Myths in the Bible
Scholar Rudolf Bultmann believed that the Bible has too many myths built into it – stories that never happened, or were based on a kernel of truth, but were later excessively elaborated upon. He proposed to identify these myths, so that modern Christians could avoid them as unnecessary – a process called demythologization. Nearly the entire Old Testament would be classified as myth. Bultmann’s idea became profoundly powerful and dominates Old Testament studies. When seen as mere myth, the stories no longer have any spiritual meaning; they are simply stories of wars and slaughters, identifying heroes and conquests. Their meaning is only to pass on old modes of thoughts and what people believed in a long time ago.
The word “critical” in “Historical-Critical” method means to apply one of several forms of critical analysis to the texts. Redaction criticism is one such form; it’s an analytical method of determining different authors, based on stylistic differences. Redactors were ancient peoples who took a Scriptural text and added to it. For example, many scholars over the past few decades have struggled over the Gospel of John, seeing such abrupt changes in topic that they theorized there was some initial Gospel, which was later clumsily built upon over the first few centuries by several redactors. More recent scholarship has found, however, an elaborate chiastic parallelism scheme in John that explains all of these abruptions, without inventing a need for multiple authors over time. Of course, the books of the Old Testament were consistently seen as works of multiple authors over many years. Newer scholarship is beginning to discredit these views.
The Documentary Hypothesis
The most famous application of redaction criticism is the theory of four sources of the Torah, called the Documentary Hypothesis (DH). Usually associated with Julius Wellhausen, this theory became so dominant that for many, it is no longer theory – it’s fact. Prof. Wellhausen identified four separate authors in the Torah, each from a different period in Israel’s history and each with a particular vantage point from which they added to the Torah. These authors are called the Yahwehists, the Elohists, the Deuteronomist and the Priestly sources – each of these corresponds to the religious leaders of Israel during different periods. These authorships are abbreviated as JEDP (J stands for Jehovah, the German version of Yahweh). For example, the standard “DH” analysis of the creation story in Genesis says chapter 2 was written first, by the Yahwehist authors. Later, the Elohist authors took Genesis and added chapter 1. This, scholars say, explains stylistic differences between the two chapters. More recent scholarship proposes, however, that the stylistic differences are related to a contextual technique of ancient Hebrew literature, to connect the covenantal aspects between creation and matrimony.
Hopefully, you can see one concern with some aspects of the Historical-Critical method – there is nothing to be gained spiritually from learning such things. Such knowledge adds to my scientific knowledge, but I grow no closer to God.
There is a very recent trend away from the dominance of the Historical-Critical method, which will likely reach full steam perhaps 50 years from now or more. A newer school is emerging, of which Aidan Nichols, O.P. and Pope Benedict XVI are good examples. The theme of this newer school is that the Bible is the revelation of God and its primary value is in understanding God and our relationship with God. To help us in this endeavor, we have 2000 years’ experience in developing tools and techniques for bible study and no reason to use just one; use them all for maximum benefit. And always read Sacred Scripture in the light of Christ crucified & risen,
Two Creation Accounts
Let’s look again at the two creation accounts which we glossed over above.
Genesis chapter one narrates God’s creation of the cosmos, establishing order in a six day cadence. On the seventh day, He rests; and so begins chapter two. The story continues, but takes a sharp turn: creation is again repeated, but the focus is on the creation of man rather than the cosmos. We can sense a difference in the style, even in English translation. While chapter one was concise and orderly, chapter two is more free flow, more like story telling. A clear difference noted in the Hebrew is that chapter one refers to God as “God” (Heb: Elohim), while chapter two refers to God as “the LORD God” (Heb: Yahweh Elohim), introducing the personal name of God to be introduced historically in Exodus’ account of the Burning Bush narrative.
To the followers of Wellhausen’s theory of four sources (JEDP), the stylistic differences between the two chapters and the use of God’s name in the second is explained by redactive criticism. The second story was written by the Yahwehist source, who employed God’s personal name (Yahweh) when referring to Him. The later Elohist source redacted (added) the six-day narrative of chapter one later. They did not use the name of Yahweh in their writings and only used the impersonal word for “God” (Elohim). Now, this theory may explain the stylistic differences between the two chapters, but such explanatory knowledge adds nothing to my relationship with God. The texts do not make more sense or add a new spiritual dimension. It’s rather flat; true or not, such an analysis means little to me.
A newer idea (or maybe an ancient idea newly recovered) is that the stylistic difference is a literary technique. Chapter one describes creation as a covenantal action, wherein God swore His covenant with our first parents (as described elsewhere). A new narrative begins, repeating the creation account, now from a matrimonial point of view, as matrimony is the earthly paradigm for our covenantal relationship with God. In Gn 1:26-27, the covenant is sworn; before that moment, humanity looks to God as the impersonal Creator. After that moment, however, our first parents look to God as Father – we now have an intimate relationship with God as family. As a result, we call God by His name. The change from the impersonal Elohim to the personal Yahweh Elohim reflects this new, personal relationship.
Genesis chapter two becomes, then, a commentary on chapter one. It uses the same images: water, dry land (ground), plants, animals, man, food. It culminates in the creation of Eve and the “matrimony” between her and Adam. Here Adam represents God and Eve represents humanity – their covenantal relationship representing our relationship with God, which is the very essence of our Faith. A critical analysis of the differences between chapter one and chapter two brings this out. These differences are not, then, an accident of history, but intentional components of an integral whole, teaching us something important about creation: not merely that God created, but that the purpose of creation is the covenant.