Apologetics: May 2011 Archives

In his commentary on on II Kings 12, which deals with King Joash's temple repairs, T.R. Hobbs argues that the chapter could not have come from a priestly author:

The record of the events undoubtedly has a Judean origin, but it is highly unlikely that it can be attributed to priestly circles. The Kings account of the temple repairs, compared to that found in 2 Chr 24, is decidedly critical of the priesthood. The blame for the lack of repair to the temple after Joash's original order is laid upon their shoulders ... and, as a result of that failure, new regulations are introduced.... In the procedure outlines by those new regulations the priests play a minor role. In 2 Chr 24:4-7 it is the failure of the Levites, not the complete priesthood, which is noted.

The reform also takes place at the initiative of the king, not the priesthood, nor one of its members such as Jehoiada. The king's accountant actively participates in the reform ..., and the priests themselves are eventually refused access to a source of income they had hitherto enjoyed ... because of their failure to obey the king.

The tone of the chapter then is far from "priestly," and is in fact highly critical of the priests.

The background to this is Wellhausen's hypothesis that the biblical narratives came from a number of hands across several centuries, with one source specificially coming from a priestly hand in order to promote priestly agendas in opposition to the other agendas of biblical authors that conflicted with priestly concerns. Wellhausen's specific proposals have largely been rejected, even if some of his structure has been retained by many critical scholars. None of them can agree on any of the details, which is some reason for wondering if the whole thing should be rejected as thoroughly unfounded, but the fact remains that many scholars accept something of Wellhausen's source proposal. As for this chapter, I wonder if we can really say much about the authorship. Hobbs overstates his case in several places.

For one thing, the priests are not a larger group than the Levites, as if pointing to them means a smaller subsection of the priests. The reverse is true. Sometimes the Levites are treated as a contrast with the priests, and so the context makes it clear in such cases that the non-priestly Levites are in mind. There is such a reference to "the priests and the Levites" in the Chronicles parallel that Hobbs refers to. But the Levites are the broader category, and failing such a context we might just as easily take a reference to the Levites to include the priests, who were indeed from the tribe of Levites. There is some reason to take the Levites in Chronicles as the non-priestly Levites, given that both are mentioned earlier, but it could just as easily be a shorthand to reference both groups mentioned earlier, since the priests are Levites. If so, then the Chronicles mention of Levites rather than priests might simply indicate that all those who served in the temple were responsible, and the Kings reference to priests might reflect the fact that the priests were ultimately responsible for whatever happened in the temple, even if non-priestly Levites were partly at fault.

But that isn't something I'd rest a lot on. Even so, I'm not following the reasoning here. Is the argument supposed to be this?

1. This passage is critical of the priests at this time.
2. No priestly writer would ever be critical of priests at any time.
3. Therefore, this passage couldn't have been written by priests.

The second premise is undoubtedly false. Why couldn't a priestly writer be critical of other priests, even an entire generation of them? Perhaps this is what is meant:

1. This passage is critical of the priests at this time.
2. Wellhausen's supposed priestly source P is never critical of priests at any time.
3. Therefore, this passage couldn't have been written by the supposed priestly source P that Wellhausen concocts out of thin air.

That argument I can agree with. Wellhausen proposed a certain agenda for his priestly writer(s). But Hobbs says that it's "highly unlikely that it be attributed to priestly circles". I just don't see how that follows from the conclusion of this argument. It's not likely to be from a circle that uncritically seeks to justify or excuse everything the priests might ever have done, but I'm not sure any of the biblical texts come from anyone like that. I certainly don't think Wellhausen's supposed P author, if that's an essential characteristic of that source, could have produced the biblical material we actually have, unless a later editor thoroughly reworked things to remove such assumptions.

I'm open to source theories of composition, especially in Samuel and Kings, where the text tells us that sources were used. But too often we get this sort of argumentation passing for scholarship with rhetoric about scientifically determining what those sources must have been and what the agendas of the various source traditions were. Sometimes you even get some kind of nonsense about the final editor stupidly placing contradictory materials side-by-side as if the final editor had no clue or no care about the supposed theological contradictions going on. Or you might instead get some proposal of an agenda being portrayed by the narrator that conflicts with the agenda in one of the sources, and the editor comes out as someone who must have been pretty poor at masking alternative agendas in the source materials. I have a hard time calling this stuff serious scholarship, since there have long been ways to deal with supposed contradictions that can just as easily deal with supposed conflicting agendas. Literary scholarship in recent decades has shown how anachronistic, Western-centric, and uncharitable such readings are.

High Priest

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The Hebrew term for "high priest" is often not present in the Samuel-Kings narrative. Instead there's often just "the priest" with a context making it clear that this is a priest who is over the other priests. Sometimes the Torah passages that discuss the high priest are therefore thought to be a late addition (the implication being that the Pentatechal narratives are deceptive in presenting a false history to justify a later practice, or else some view gets concocted according to which everyone knew it was presenting a fictional history of Israel so that it only deceived later generations).

I have little patience with speculative reconstructions of the history of Israel that don't actually have evidence supporting them, especially when the actual evidence we have is only what we see in the actual historical narratives we have, narratives that certainly present things in the order of Exodus coming before Kings and not the other way around. The onus of proving an alternative hypothesis seems to me to require a bit more than things like the absence of terms like "high priest" in the writings discussing later periods. We'd have to have no available explanation for why the term might have dropped out for that to count as much evidence.

Nevertheless, the fact that the term "high priest" is hardly ever used in the Samuel-Kings narrative is at least a very small piece of evidence, even if I wouldn't consider it enough to outweigh the strong presumption of the only chronology we're ever given. It's still something that ought to have an explanation, and it's worth thinking through what that might be. The usual term is "the priest" in Samuel and Kings, and that isn't what you'd expect given the Pentateuchal narratives that precede Samuel-Kings in the traditional chronology.

There seem to have been two figures taking that title during the time of David, and there's no statement that they were back-to-back. They seem to have been simultaneous. I've explained in another post why I disagree with the speculative reconstruction about Zadok that holds sway among most liberal scholars and why I think a better reconstruction of events is that the high priesthood changed hands from the Eleazarites (descended from Aaron's third son) toward the Ithamarites (descended from Aaron's fourth son). That seems to have ended when the line of Eli finally died out. From that point on, there was one priest called "the priest" among the other priests, and it was always a Zadokite from Eleazar's branch of the priests. The only geneological information we actually have traces Zadok to the line of Aaron's third son Eleazar and Eleazar's son Phinehas. (The oldest two were killed in Leviticus during their early days as priests, and presumably they had no offspring.)

But why the terminology of "the priest" rather than the Torah term "high priest" if the Kings narratives were indeed written after the Torah texts that discuss the high priest? Remember that the period of the judges led to such decentralization, with every priest doing what's right in his own eyes, that there was in effect no one high priest but just people taking that position in particular locations. Perhaps Eli was one of them. You might have had relatively faithful descendants of Aaron here and there, and the evidence suggests that other descendants of Levi were functioning as priests also, but there's no reason to think very many of these priests or Levites were faithful and much reason to think many weren't. It's quite possible that Eli was the highest geneologically-descended priest who was faithful in his time, and thus he was called high priest because he was the most rightful high priest willing to serve the proper function of a high priest. If the entire line of Eleazar was unfaithful during this period, we might expect something like that. But when someone faithful to God's law like David came along and began to rely on Abiathar, a descendant of Ithamar, as his sole priest, he might have been loath to call him the high priest because the high priest should be descended from Eleazar. Then when he found Zadok, who had every reason to be called the high priest, he was unwilling to demote his close friend and confidant Abiathar, and they were thus both listed as "the priest" in parallel for David's early reign. Eventually, Abiathar betrayed David and sided with Absalom, and that ended. From that point on, Zadok was "the priest". I wonder if terminology just stuck, at least in some quarters, and you didn't get a resumption of high priestly terminology until a later revival reintroduced the scriptural term.

That reconstruction of events makes a good deal of historical sense, given the text's presentation of chronology (which, again, is our only strong evidence of chronology). Scholars pick at little things that are hard to make sense of without some thought about what might have happened, such as the sudden appearance of the Zadokites and the use of the term "the priest" instead of the term "the high priest". But it seems to me that there are explanations available for these things, and the speculative reordering of events to suit some contemporary fad at undermining the historical accuracy of the biblical narratives seems less intellectually-motivated to me than does the simple effort to find a way to make sense of the historical texts we've got, which does take some speculation but not on such a grand scale. So even without any motivation to maintain the historical reliability of scripture, I think there are good intellectual reasons to resist the revisionist readings.

Michael Kruger reviews Bart Ehrman's latest offering Forged: Writing in the Name of God -- Why the Bible's Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are. [ht: Justin Taylor]

A common strategy among anti-Christian apologists (and some skeptical sorts in liberal theological circles, I should add) is to attribute complete idiocy to the biblical authors and editors. See my discussions of Exodus 22 and Judges 3 for particular cases where I've complained about this before.

Michael Kruger has identified a strategy in a recent book by Bart Ehrman that does that sort of thing, but in this case it's even worse. It attributes complete idiocy to the entire history of the church. In this case, the issue is whether Ephesians could have been written by Paul. Ehrman joins that 50% of scholars who manage to find some reasons to deny Pauline authorship (reasons I've never thought came even close to showing such a thing). One of his arguments has to do with a supposed conflict between Paul's theology in I Corinthians and this supposed other author of Ephesians. Ehrman goes as far as claiming that the Ephesian letter, in saying we're seated with Christ in heavenly places, adopts exactly the view that Paul condemns in I Corinthians when he says we don't have spiritually-resurrected bodies in this life.

Kruger points out that it requires theological unsophistication of a severe order to confuse these statements as if they're in conflict, but he notices an even worse problem. Here's the key quote:

Beyond all of this, are we really to think that early Christians would have widely affirmed the canonicity of Ephesians if it so plainly denied the bodily resurrection, one of the most cherished beliefs in early Christianity? Ehrman would have us believe that all early Christians (not to mention later Christians) were just too blind to notice such a thing until modern scholars have come along to point it out for them.

We thus have a kind of cultural superiority about modern, western biblical scholars whereby they can proclaim themselves literarily and theologically more acute than the entire history of the church. It's not just attributing simplicity and moronic behavior to an editor of a text who can't manage to figure out that contradictory ideas are placed side by side, as in the Exodus and Judges cases I linked to above. It's attributing the inability to recognize that Ephesians and I Corinthians flatly contradict each other and insisting that the theological understandings of those texts that have lasted two millenia have basically misunderstood what the text actually says, even though the people who were much closer to the cultural milieu and who actually spoke the language the documents were written in saw no such contradiction and could even attribute the books to the same author.

Ehrman's thesis here is pure hubris. It amazes me how easily this sort of thing passes for responsible scholarship in certain circles.

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