The Bible in conversation with itself

SCRIBEIn my previous post I referred to a ‘conversation’ that took place in the Bible over a long period, possibly centuries; a process of questioning earlier ideas, reformulating them, while abandoning some as inadequate or unsatisfactory. There is considerable evidence within the Bible of this ongoing dialogue, as ideas are challenged, modified and developed. Scholars often refer to a process of ‘redaction’ taking place within an individual text or ‘book’ in the Bible as later editors add to earlier material, sometimes editing the existing material to bring it into line with the new information. We also see evidence of dialogue between the writers of the Bible as later texts/books build on ideas in earlier writings, or challenge them (as I noted in my previous post in the rejection by some writers of the ‘Deuteronomistic’ ideas about rewards and punishments).

Let’s look at a couple examples of this. For a long time scholars have recognised a remarkable similarity between three of the four Gospels in the New Testament. Matthew, Mark and Luke are so similar they are called the ‘synoptic’ Gospels because they tell the same stories, often in the same order, and frequently even use identical wording to tell the story. This has led to a number of theories to explain the similarities, the most popular and most likely being that Mark was written first and that Matthew and Luke used it as one of their sources. As a result, large sections of Mark were copied verbatim by Matthew and Luke and included in their accounts of Jesus’ life, almost unchanged. Some scholars theorise that Luke also had a copy of Matthew’s Gospel in front of him when he wrote his own account, which accounts for similar stories in Matthew and Luke which are absent from Mark (another theory, known as the ‘two source theory’, is that Matthew and Luke used a second source in addition to Mark, but this source – generally called ‘Q’ from the German quelle=source – has been lost). The striking thing about this is that Luke acknowledged in his introduction that he used other sources, and without naming them it is almost certain one of his sources was Mark and another was possibly Matthew, but he regarded them as inferior to his own account.

“Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.” (Luke 1:1-4).

What is so striking about this? Matthew says that having consulted these earlier accounts he decided to write an orderly account so that the person for whom he is writing (Theophilus) “may know the truth.” In other words, he didn’t think these earlier accounts were adequate for Theophilus to “know the truth” and by saying he decided to write an “orderly” account he implies that the earlier accounts were somewhat disorderly. So one writer of the Bible is saying that one or two earlier writers of biblical books weren’t quite up to standard and he had to improve on their work.

We see a similar process at work in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) in the similar accounts of the Kings of Israel and Judah in the Book of Kings and the Book of Chonicles. In some places Chronicles is so similar to Kings we can be confident that the writer of Chronicles copied large portions of Kings and incorporated them into his new work. But, like Luke copying from Mark, the writer of Chronicles felt the need to make some corrections as well as adding some new material. For example, Kings practically blames Manasseh for the Babylonian invasion and the destruction of Judah four generations later. Manasseh was so thoroughly wicked that even though his successor (Josiah) was a model king God had to eventually punish the kingdom for the sins of Manasseh (this notion of ‘transgenerational punishment‘ was disputed in the biblical book of Ezekiel, but this is a subject for another post). Despite Josiah being regarded by the writer of Kings as the best king of Judah ever (“Before him there was no king like him, who turned to the LORD with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his might, according to all the Law of Moses, nor did any like him arise after him” 2 Kings 23:25), the writer is careful to point out that his merits did not outweigh Manasseh’s evil.

Still the LORD did not turn from the burning of his great wrath, by which his anger was kindled against Judah, because of all the provocations with which Manasseh had provoked him. And the LORD said, “I will remove Judah also out of my sight, as I have removed Israel, and I will cast off this city that I have chosen, Jerusalem, and the house of which I said, My name shall be there.” (2 Kings 23:26-27).

However, when we come to Chronicles we read a different story about Manasseh.

“And when he [Manasseh] was in distress, he entreated the favor of the LORD his God and humbled himself greatly before the God of his fathers. He prayed to him, and God was moved by his entreaty and heard his plea and brought him again to Jerusalem into his kingdom. Then Manasseh knew that the LORD was God” (2 Chronicles 33:12-13).

The writer of Chronicles says nothing about Judah being punished and going into exile because of Manasseh’s sins, but instead he is commended for turning to God at the end of his life. There are several other differences in perspective between Kings and Chronicles but just focussing on this one difference for now it is evident that the writers of these two biblical books had different ideas about the reason for the exile and whether or not it was a punishment for sin. Kings reflects a more ‘Deuteronomistic’ theology: if Israel and Judah were ‘punished’ by exile then it must have been because they, or someone, had sinned and it was important to identify the sinner(s). There is evidence within Kings that it went through a process of editing, and it may only have been in the final stage (or stages) of editing that this Deuteronomistic theme was added. Chronicles reflects a different, and quite possibly earlier, tradition. So even while the writer of Chronicles was copying material from his earlier edition of Kings other editors somewhere else were working on a ‘revised’ version of Kings and their revisions were based on this Deuteronomistic approach which sought to blame someone for the exile. By comparing these two books we get an insight into the ‘conversation’ that may have been taking place between the writers and/or editors of the Bible as they recorded different perspectives of the same events.

By comparing the earliest versions of the Hebrew Bible – especially the Greek translation we know as the Septuagint and the Dead Sea Scrolls – with the Hebrew text that has come down to us as the Masoretic Text (the one from which translations are made into English), it becomes evident that in the ancient world there were various, and different, versions of several books of the Bible. The differences indicate that over time the books of the Bible underwent editing and revision. They were not static – they were not transmitted exactly as they were first written – but rather they were dynamic, changing over time and being revised possibly in response to new ideas and perspectives. We should bear this in mind when we think about ‘inspiration’ and ‘biblical inerrancy’ (the idea that the Bible is free of errors), but that discussion will have to wait for another day.

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s