Friday, May 21, 2010

Jesuit D.J. McCarthy on Source Criticism and Biblical Interpretation

Fr. D.J. McCarthy, S.J., longtime professor at the Biblicum and one of the twentieth century's most significant contributors to the concept of "covenant" in the Bible and the ancient Near East, on source criticism and biblical interpretation:

"But the primary object of literary study is the text, its primary tools a knowledge of words and phrases and a feel for their use. A first call then: let us read the text for what it is with all the wit and skill we can bring to it. This sounds very simple, but it is not. Normally, the Biblist does not read the text. He breaks it up and reads parts. He tears out its sources. He does not explain the significance of the so-called “plague stories” in Exodus. He merely explains what the Yahwist writer or the Priestly writers thought about plagues. But it is the narrative as it stands which interests the Church or the men of culture concerned with the world’s classics. This also should be the Biblist’s interest in so far as he is concerned with explaining the Bible." [D. J. McCarthy, “God as Prisoner of Our Own Choosing: Critical-Historical Study of the Bible,” in Historicism and Faith (ed. P. L. Williams; Scranton, PA: SCS, 1980) 40]


Lee Gilbert said...

"He merely explains what the Yahwist writer or the Priestly writers thought about plagues."

Yes, and seminarians force marched through the JEPD theory will become priests whose treatment of scripture will suck the life out of their people, who will then fall away in time of temptation- as is happening now.

There is no way to prove it, but I am absolutely convinced that the so-called pedophilia scandal had its origins in the JEPD theory.

In the late 1900's Johnny said goodbye to his girlfriend, mom and dad, and all his friends and went off to the seminary. There on the first day of Bible 101 he learns-because it is conveyed either implicitly or explicitly- that there are no miracles, no angels, no demons. There is only Wellhausen.

Johnny is left reeling. The whole thing is a charade! But it is a charade to which he is fully committed. With his faith eviscereated, hope vanishes, and he gives himself up to sensuality out of despair. Did this happen to everyone? Obviously not, but to too many.

Several months ago we had a desiccated priest who could not bring himself to say, "Blessed Mary ever virgin" in the canon, but only "Blessed Mary..." Often in his sermons he would disabuse us of our various "naive" beliefs about things in scripture. Obviously he had been put through the drill, a drill that we lay Catholics paid for and are continuing to pay for in many ways-including the loss of our children, nieces and nephews to the faith.

How long, O Lord, do we have to put up with this nonsense, nonsense that has NO extratextual support. How far would this sort of scholarship go in Homeric studies, or Shakespeare studies?

Thirty-five years before the Holocaust Rabbi Solomon Schecter called the so called higher criticism "The higher anti- semitism." Was he wrong? He pointed out then that it is antagonistic to the very raison d'etre of the Jews and therefore a threat to their very existence.

And yet, 65 years after the Holocaust has come and gone, one can find on the reserved reading shelf of a major seminary four or five scholarly tomes premised on the JEPD theory.

What good has it done? What life has it brought? What light has it shed?

Why do we have to suffer it a moment longer?

Daniel said...

"But it is the narrative as it stands which interests the Church or the men of culture concerned with the world’s classics."

The question is exactly what is the narrative "as it stands." It seems that this is the question that source criticism seeks to answer rather than merely assume.

Take Jeremiah for instance. There are substantial differences between manuscripts of the Septuagint and manuscripts of the Masoretic text (Also differences between St. Jerome's Vulgate and the Clementine Vulgate). These effect the narrative and are two very different versions of the narrative "as it stands". How does one resolve them without source criticism?

John Bergsma said...

Daniel, what you are actually describing is textual criticism, not source criticism. Traditionally, source criticism was described as "lower criticism" to distinguish it from the "higher criticism"--which in the late 1800's was virtually synonymous with source criticism. Textual criticism attempts to establish the original text, whereas source criticism tries to separate the text into the hypothetical sources from which it comes.

Daniel said...


I see your point here but I wonder if they are not hopelessly entwined. Take the Pericope Adulterae for example. In the earliest manuscripts we have it is absent. It is stylistically very different from the rest of the Gospel of John, and seemingly out of place with the narrative. This is where source criticism meets textual criticism. On questions such as there it can be very helpful.

On it's documentary merits the Pericope Adulterae should be excluded from the text of the gospel. It's only through an exercise in source criticism that we have a compelling reason to include it. Why isn't it disregarded as a mere pious interpolation like the Comma Johanneum? Because of differences in theorized sources. Because many believe the Pericope Adulterae to be in some way an authentic representation of the teaching of the author if not his original composition of the text while most scholars believe the Comma Johanneum to be an insertion totally unrelated to the author of the text. For this sort of reason I think source criticism can be helpful.

petebrown said...

Yes John,

This is true, the text as it stands should be the object of our interpretation. However, a very close analysis of the text as it stands does sometimes give rise to the belief in separate sources, as when material from one period might sit side by side with material that is probably from decades if not centuries later. So yes, final form readings are generally the way to go but if you want to pay attention to the historical referentiality of the text (which we must do as Catholics) you cannot ignore diachronic questions entirely. You press too much with a literary final form reading and you end up abstracting from history! Or so it seems to me.

John Bergsma said...

I'd just like to remind everyone the quote was from D.J. McCarthy, not J.S. Bergsma. I'm glad it provoked discussion.

petebrown said...

Not sure if the first one took. Just wanted to note...the blogger John Bergsma is distancing himself from his own sources....some temporal and theological "distance" between them it seems. Mighty diachronic of you John :) LOL