Having been raised in a conservative religious environment, one of the things I struggled to understand during my first year of divinity school was how a person could take a critical, or academic approach to Bible and still claim Christianity. If a Christian accepts, for example, what is known as the Documentary Hypothesis (DH) or the various text critical methodologies employed to analyze the New Testament, how can their faith in a divinely inspired text remain intact? On the surface, both the Documentary Hypothesis specifically and Biblical text criticism generally, seemingly undermine claims of divinely inspired scriptural text.
Before continuing, some context for those who may be unfamiliar with critical examination of the Bible.
The documentary hypothesis identifies four documents, which are known by the abbreviations J, E, D, and P. D represents most of Deuteronomy and is not represented in Exodus at all. The other three were considered to be intertwined in the other books of the Pentateuch. The documentary hypothesis was a sophisticated development of earlier theories that sought to explain literary characteristics in terms of multiple sources (such as the fragmentary and supplementary hypotheses).1
The critical study of the text of an ancient writer whose work has come down in MS2 from the period before the invention of printing. Few scribes are able to copy a text exactly; it follows that the more often a text is copied and the greater the number of resulting MSS, the greater variation there is likely to be between them. The work of the textual critic is therefore to compare and evaluate the differences in the MSS (usually known as different ‘readings’) in order to reconstruct the history of the text through its various stages and ultimately to establish the original text as it left the hands of the author.3
The DH specifically, and text criticism generally, may cast doubt on traditional views of Biblical authorship. If a variety of later texts were used to compose the Pentateuch, for example, then clearly Moses could not have been the author, as is traditionally believed.
The earliest manuscripts we have of the Gospels lack the “Great Commission” found in most biblical translations. Thus, casting doubt on likelihood of this commission actually being part of the Gospels as originally written.
The pericope specifically known as “the Great Commission” is Matt 28:18–20, but the post-Resurrection narratives in the Gospels and Acts record other directives (Mark 16:15; Luke 24:47–49; John 20:21–23; Acts 1:8) as well that the risen Lord gave His church (Matt 16:18) to obey “to the close of the age” (Matt 28:20). Each account makes distinctive, but complementary, contributions to the Commission that has fueled the spread of Christianity to the present time4
There is a textual controversy over the ending of the book. Although this problem is best fitted to the science of textual criticism, survey students should have a working knowledge of the issue. These are the questions: Did the original text or manuscript end at 16:8? If so, did Mark end his writing here or has the original ending been lost? If not, what is the true ending of Mark? Is the well-known ending (16:9–20) genuine or an interpolation? If it is an interpolation, is the content of that section true, false, or a mixture? The extant Greek manuscripts contain at least three different endings: the abrupt ending (concluding at 16:8), a short ending, adding one verse, and the long ending (16:9–20).
Generally, debate centers around the abrupt and the long endings. The long ending has the support of long years of acceptance by the Church and of much manuscript evidence, although critics date these manuscripts late. Textual critics point out that the acknowledged best manuscripts (recently found) do not contain the long ending. They argue that if the long ending were original, it would be difficult to explain its omission in the oldest manuscripts. They also argue that if the abrupt ending were original, it would be easy to explain the addition of material to polish the ending. In observing the content of the long ending, it must be pointed out that the Greek word for “week” in verse 9 is not the same as in verse 2. The description of Mary Magdalene (16:9) does not seem natural here after her earlier introduction into the narrative (16:1). If the long ending were genuine, one would expect to find something more about Peter, especially since he was singled out (16:7). Many evangelicals note that some of the details of the Great Commission are not found elsewhere and seem to be inconsistent with Scriptural teaching (16:15–18).5
When I first started studying the Bible utilizing various critical methods I was simultaneously enthralled and terrified. It was amazing to see how various texts were leveraged by Biblical compilers and to see just how much we can learn about the Biblical text by carefully examining its structure, style, and composition. Yet at the same time I understood that entertaining or accepting certain conclusions drawn from this type of analysis called into question some of my most deeply held and cherished beliefs. As I looked around at my mostly liberal Protestant classmates and professors, I did not understand how they simultaneously held out the Bible as divinely inspired while at the same time accepting the implications of its critical examination.
I soon learned that my classmates and professors each approached the question of divine inspiration in their own unique way. Some viewed aspects of the Bible as myth or allegory. Others accepted some implications of critical analysis while rejecting others and maintaining more traditional views. There was, however, one thing common to the majority of my classmates and professors: critical examination of the Bible had caused them to closely examine their own faith and assumptions. They were willing to explore difficult questions head on even if it meant adjusting, discarding, or replacing existing beliefs.
I took their example to heart as I saw my classmates express deep religious devotion which I had previously assumed required a more traditional view of the Biblical text. As I began to shed my initial fear of these implications the most remarkable thing happened: my appreciation for the Biblical text grew while my own views on inspiration and faith transformed. For me, observing the incredible interaction between humanity and divinity in the composition of the Biblical texts was itself, an inspiration. Ultimately I still believed the Bible to be a miraculous and remarkable document; just not in the same way as I had before critically examining its contents.
Of course, this approach to the Biblical text does not appeal to everyone, nor is it requisite to gain a deep and sustained love of scripture. Each of us must approach scriptural texts in the manner most appropriate for our unique dispositions. As such, it is wholly inappropriate to judge or condemn others for simply reading sacred texts in a manner that differs from our own. Likewise, individual perspectives on the meaning and nature of divine inspiration and even divinity itself will differ greatly. How arrogant it is to assume that our views on these questions is uniquely correct or singularly acceptable. Rather than eschew, criticize or condemn as others express their views of divinity, we should listen in an effort to understand. We may just learn something by taking others at their word and treating their religious attitudes and experiences with the same respect we expect others to grant our own.
If God can speak to humankind through a donkey (Numbers 22:28), surely He can speak to us through the Documentary Hypothesis.
1 Stephen J. Bennett, “Exodus, Book of, Critical Issues,” ed. John D. Barry and Lazarus Wentz, The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012).
2 MS manuscript.
3 F. L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 1606.
4 A. Boyd Luter Jr., “Great Commission, The,” ed. David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 1090.
5 Robert G. Gromacki, New Testament Survey (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1974), 98.