Seeing With New Eyes

A Reflection on Effect of Assumptions in Interpretation


The older that I get and the more that I study textual issues related to Scripture, more importantly if one looks closely at the methods used to study it and begins thinking through it, the weaknesses of the various textual hypotheses become evident and wind up either causing more confusion than actually producing helpful information. One of the issues that crops up is the incorporation of new data into the informed interpretive grid: if the hypothesis is the means by which one interprets the data, then contrary data will necessarily be excluded. Whereas if one sees the data as informing the hypothesis then the hypothesis is helped.

Also, this post is merely about my own observations in regard to matters of scholarly consensus and the underlying problems with such appeals. It is meant to be more of an outline or rough sketch of the issues and not necessarily exhaustive in its look. I recognize that scholarship is wide and varied, so here I am just looking at the most popular, and most accepted, and what one might see discussed or emphasized in the popular literature, and not in the scholarship itself.

Out With the Old

Probably the best example of this is seen in what is known as the Documentary Hypothesis (DH), a textual hypothesis that ruled much of scholarship in the mid to late 20th century. The focus of the hypothesis was primarily on the Pentateuch and how the five books attributed to Moses came about. The primary thrust of the hypothesis is that 4 independent sets of documents or traditions were merged together to form a single document.

However, in the past 25 to 30 years, new examinations of the the text, informed by the data has caused either a stark revision of the hypothesis or it has reintroduced another generation to an older hypothesis known as the Supplementary Hypothesis (SH).

While the DH believes that there are 4 sources identified by the letters J,D,E, and P. (Yahwist or J-source, Deuteronomist, Elohist, and Priestly), the SH only focuses on 3, seen in chronological order: D,J, and P. The D-source is seen as the earliest, most likely composed prior to 700BC, with the J-source being composed during the Babylonian exile, and the P-source being composed sometime in the post exihilic period, serving as the impetus to merge them sometime in the late 4th to 3rd BC.

Now what we have to remember is that these hypotheses often work backward from observations made about certain facts that are present in the text (divine name usage, parallel accounts, etc) and make assumptions about how the text came to be. As such, these fall under what is known as source criticism. What is interesting criticisms of source critical methodologies is that they often assume what hasn’t been proven, namely that such sources actually existed or would be recognized as such by the original authors. This is not to say that the biblical authors did not use sources, in fact they often refer to these sources, or that they report something as commonly understood or accepted as a source for their report.

In With the New

Indeed, the New Testament has its own forms of source criticism, namely one that is often referred to as “Markan Priority”. Now I have a fairly extensive post on the matter, so I won’t rehash that here, and there’s a fair summary of it here. My major complaint is that those holding onto it simply assumes that it is correct then interprets the data in light of that assumption. For those who follow logic: that’s known as a circular argument. The problem is that we don’t know if any of the assumptions about it are true.

Okay, I am going to rehash for a second just to demonstrate the problematic nature of the assumption of Markan Priority: most proponents of the hypothesis will assert that Mark has the correct order of events and that Matthew and Luke shift and rearrange events to fit their narrative intentions. The question is, how do they know that Mark has the correct order? The truth is that they don’t: it’s simply assumed. Mark simply doesn’t say that he’s putting events in a particular order, but Luke does. Now does that mean that Luke is refuting Mark’s order? Of course not because Mark never makes such a claim to begin with. It does mean that there are a number of unjustified assumptions that the one accepting Markan priority must hold on to and, to me at least, that causes one to wind up arguing in a circle. The point is, if you’re going to assume it at least know what you’re getting into and how it will effect your argument. Let me stress though, I’m not arguing about the observations, rather about the conclusions.

Now, Markan priority isn’t the only view, but it is the dominant view. And being the dominant view, it is the one that is present and informing interpretations in virtually all modern New Testament commentaries, which is something to keep in mind when referring to them. And therefore it sets up for alleging contradictions and or disagreements, which to be true must make certain assumptions. And it is the assumptions that ultimately effect your conclusions.

I should also note that I recognize the fact that Markan priority is not a unified, singular hypothesis, rather it is a heading under which a number of varied hypotheses are nested. I use the term in a general sense to capture the fact that all necessarily argue for mark’s priority.

Where I Stand

If I were in a position to propose a hypothesis, I would—of necessity—have to draw it up in terms of Supplementarianism. Similar to the Pentateuch, I would posit a common source that the writers could draw from in order to provide the common core of the gospel narratives.

A common tradition informs the authors of the Gospels

Of course the response argument would be, “Well, you’re just positing a Q-source or some other unnamed source like the Markan priority folks, so how’s that any better and how does that cut against the problems that Markan priority produces, like arguments against historicity; after all, if Matthew and Luke are dependent on Mark then we don’t have four witnesses, but only 2 (Mark and John) and they don’t agree?” Of course, the conditions upon which one can base such agreement is based on certain assumptions.

The question then becomes, how can all four be considered as historically reliable, yet retain their individuality of perspective in what differs between them without being considered derivative of the other or being divergent?

In other words, what can sever the Gordian knot that has become known as the “synoptic problem”?

I believe that taking a note from the Supplememntarian perspective of the Pentateuch solves any such problem. That is that there is a common, to borrow a term popularized by Bart Ehrman, “proto-gospel” narrative that all four are familiar with. Given that assumption the Synoptics can supplement particular points of view to that common core of testimony. That means that whenever there is an intersection in the narrative we are getting two things: the core gospel message as well as perspectivised data unique to the synoptic gospels themselves. This even helps to reconcile certain difficulties where the synoptics intersect with John’s gospel.

This means that, rather than having a competitive perspective on particular events, where the author is accused of disagreeing with and even correcting another writer, the writer is working cooperatively, or even in a complementary manner. This means that even if one assumes Markan priority with regard to chronological preeminence, that doesn’t mean that Mark would have been contentious with anyone supplementing to his work with regard to content or order, anymore than of one assumes Matthew or Luke would have been contentious if one used their works as a foundation to supplement. The Supplememntarian doesn’t have to assume that one is derivative of the other, rather that each can stand uniquely on their own feet in light of the historical and textual data.

Final Thoughts

Let me be clear: I am not dismissing meaningful observations about the texts of Scripture. I’m also not dismissing the discoveries that have helped us understand the text better. What I am addressing is the fact that certain textual theories create many more problems than they actually solve. Many of them force certain views onto the text and hope against hope that no one looks to closely or thinks to seriously about the issues to question their reasoning.

The Supplementarian view, in my opinion, chooses to recognize both the independence and the interdependence of the writers of Holy Writ without—at the same time—sacrificing it against any possibility of reconciliation. It allows me to appreciate the text and handle it fairly without attributing unfair and unjustified motives to the writers that ignores the common methods that writers of the period would have normally employed in their historical and cultural milieu, and that we readily accept in any other historical text without impingement on the motives or intentions of the author.

In the end, it’s about being fair to and with the sources, as they are and not how we would like them to be.