The Bible is an incoherent document.
This is not news. It was noticed long ago and has spawned some two centuries of biblical criticism that has focused on answering the very simple question of how the biblical texts came to be incoherent – that is, if we reject the religious assumption that the biblical text is in fact perfect and that all seeming problems can be solved with creative interpretation, how do we account for the many contradictions, tensions, and repetitions in even short narrative passages?
Biblical scholars have proposed several different models for explaining how the biblical texts reached their present, sometimes peculiar, form, but I think that four explanations are particularly popular:
- Interpolation. A scribe in antiquity, reading a scroll with the text, makes a marginal note on the side. The note might reflect his knowledge of a similar story but with some different details or might be his own suggestion. The next scribe, though, when copying the text over, simply incorporated these marginal notes into the new copy.
- Rewriting. Some sections of the Bible clearly rewrite other sections. The author (or authors) of 1 and 2 Chronicles, for example, simply rewrote earlier historical books in order to emphasize what he/they found important.
- Additions. Scribes would add blocks of material – sometimes just words, verses, or whole sections – because something about the original text bothered the scribe. Sometimes these additions clarified the text, at other times they dramatically changed its message.
- The Documentary Hypothesis. This is what most well-known fruit of biblical criticism. According to this model, scribes had different sources that they wove together into a single semi-coherent narrative.
Rationally, I understand how scholars have arrived at each of these explanations. They often offer a nice and elegant solution to problems in specific passages. But when I stand back to consider the assumptions behind these explanations, I am left somewhat puzzled.
If we take the perspective of the scribe, I understand (1) and (2). We have many documented cases through the Middle Ages of (1) occurring in texts, and there is little reason to think that in the biblical period something similar didn’t happen on occasion with these texts. (2) makes the most sense: if I am confronted with a semi-coherent text, it would be easier to simply rewrite it than to edit it heavily.
But what about (3) and (4)? The assumption that seems to be behind them both is that the scribe thinks that the base text in front of him is considered so holy or sacred that he can’t actually change it or delete anything from it. He can only add to it. Now think about this for a second – how would this work? Would the same people whom I, as a scribe, are afraid of annoying by deleting or changing pieces of their text not also be annoyed if I inserted passages that might change the basic meaning of the text? Do I think that nobody is going to catch the problems that I just created?
I don’t have an answer to this. Explanations (1) and (2) might account for some of the problems in the biblical text, but not all. (3) and (4) don’t fully work for me, but I don’t have any better explanation to offer. If you do, please let me know.