Connecting Literary-Historical and Final-Form Readings

By Joel S. Baden
Yale Divinity School
March 2013

Often—indeed, nearly universally—literary-historical scholarship and contemporary final-form readings are kept at arm’s length. Sources, layers, authors, and editors are of little interest to the theologian of the final form of the text, and creative exegesis of the final form has little impact on the historical inquiries as to how the text came to have its canonical shape. In many ways, this is sensible enough. There are many different questions to be asked of the biblical text, and they can point in very different directions. Even when the same basic issues lie at the heart of most analyses of the Bible, how we frame the inquiry has a dramatic effect on what sorts of answers we produce. Even as we may all recognize a contradiction or a difficulty in the biblical text, the scholar who asks “how did the text come to be this way?” will use different methods and achieve different results from the scholar who asks “how do I interpret the text as we have it now?” The diachronic and the synchronic nod pleasantly to each other, and occasionally make small talk, but basically have little to say in the way of substantive conversation. (Later, each will go to its friends and badmouth the other for being so rude.) Since we are, however, all stuck in the same relatively small elevator known as biblical studies, it would be more interesting, and certainly far more pleasant, if a way were found for the two sides to have a friendly chat now and again.

The basis of the division—sometimes verging into outright antagonism—between the two approaches is relatively easy to understand. From the perspective of the literary-historical critic, the synchronic reader is interpreting what is essentially a false data set. How does one say anything meaningful, far less definitive, about a text that is so manifestly the product of dozens of anonymous and barely identifiable hands? From the other side, the reader of the final form may well wonder of what interest the literary historian’s work is, or was, to anyone who lived in the past two thousand years. Until the advent of modern criticism, no one ever thought to interpret the Bible in any form other than the final one. By dividing the text into a variety of layers and sources, nothing is added to its meaning; meaning is only taken away.

Obviously I exaggerate a bit here. Yet it remains the case that almost never does one find a literary-historical scholar engaging in final-form theological analysis, nor does one encounter much canonical interpretation that takes account of the text’s literary history. Literary-historical scholars care very deeply about the theological content of their reconstructed sources and layers, of course; but it is often the perceived lack of theological clarity and integrity in the canonical text that drives their critical analysis in the first place. Final-form readings, on the other hand, do sometimes recognize that the text has a complicated history, but do so only to mark a line beyond which they will not venture; that history has nothing to do with how we may understand the text as we now have it. (I will leave out of the discussion those final-form scholars who insist that the historical-critical method is dead or intellectually bankrupt.)

And yet there are some important points of contact, or at least potential points of contact, where the two methods may come together, where acceptance of some basic principles from the other side might be of significant benefit. I want to lay some of these out, briefly, with the recognition that what follows is not meant to be prescriptive, but rather suggestive.

We may begin with the literary-historical critics, and what they might take from a final-form analysis. First, and most important, is the starting point of the investigation, which is to say, the final form of the text. It seems obvious. But literary historians have a marked tendency to begin not with the text before us, but with a preconceived theory about how the text came to be. But the need for historical analysis in the first place derives not from any theory, but from the fact that the text presents problems for the reader. If the text were unproblematic, there would be no need to press the question of its authorship. Final-form readings have existed for over two millennia, and they are always shaped by their cultural contexts. Hermeneutic principles change over space and time. The text remains the same, and it is there that we must start. For if we begin with theory, with hermeneutic principle, then we are condemning ourselves to be dated at some point in the not-too-distant future. The text must be the starting point.

Along the same lines, historical critics are well advised to recognize that the identification of problems in the text is a final-form issue before it becomes a historical one. The best readers of the biblical text, the ancient rabbis and medieval Jewish commentators, were the most committed to a final-form reading (without calling it that, of course). Where they found a problem, we ought to pause as well. Even as solutions to ostensible literary difficulties are proposed, in various ways for various periods, the need to solve something persists, and is relevant for the literary-historical scholar whether it is identified by an ancient rabbi or a modern New Critic. On the flip side of the coin: if no final-form reader has ever identified a particular problem as such, perhaps it might be worth asking whether we are reading too much of our own historical-critical theory into the text.

It is actually not so difficult to identify the ways that final-form readings should impact literary-historical investigation. It is somewhat harder to make the case for why the literary history of a text should have anything much to do with how we read it today, more than two thousand years after it gained its current form. The shape of a text should, in a reading that engages the text fully, have major significance for its interpretation. The biblical text is famously problematic. Few scholars would argue that there are not many voices present in the text, however they are identified and defined. The question is what to do with those voices. One can choose those with which one agrees, but this necessarily ignores large swaths of text. One can try to find the common ground among all of the voices, but this results in relatively banal interpretations: anything that every biblical author agrees on can hardly be a revelation for the reader.

The historical-critical method is, uniquely, designed to isolate and define the various voices that make up the Bible. However they came to be part of the biblical corpus, they were included in the broader category of what we call scripture. They may disagree—they certainly do disagree, more often than not—but they are equally present, and have been passed down to us through the millennia as worthy of preservation and attention. The form of the text that comprises these divergent theological viewpoints demands that they be respected. The existence of a Bible that looks like this, with all of its problems, speaks to the abiding importance of these various theologies from the past to the present. The literary-historical scholarship that has invested so much energy in close readings and interpretations of the interwoven component parts of the Bible thus presents the canonical reader with a full picture of the multivocality of the text, and with an opportunity to bring those voices into fruitful discussion. No single voice is dominant; all are there to be heard. A canonical interpretation that is attentive to the diversity of the Bible will, in many ways, be truer to the form of the text than one that ignores or intentionally silences any individual element or elements. How the Bible’s divergent voices are brought together is, as with all contemporary interpretation, subjective. But an honest appreciation of the voices, based on the literary-historical identification of them, can be productive in new and challenging ways.

I have presented here only a programmatic view of how the diachronic and synchronic approaches may benefit from closer cooperation.1 What is most important to my mind is that each of the two sides recognizes that there is benefit to be found in the perspective of the other. Literary-historical scholarship need not ignore final-form readings, and canonical interpretation need not dismiss historical criticism as irrelevant. One need not feel forced to cross the bridge between the literary-historical and final-form approaches. But it may be a comfort to know that there is actually a bridge across that divide.


1 I go into more detail on this issue in my most recent book, The Promise to the Patriarchs (Oxford University Press, 2013).

Comments (2)

Great stuff.

#1 - Jim - 03/08/2013 - 10:53

Professor Baden: I appreciate your article. And I agree with you that the synchronic and diachronic approaches can and should be held in conversation with one other as we seek to understand the Bible’s formation and meaning. May I suggest that there is an additional way “to bridge the divide” between these approaches. In my own work (e.g. my 2007 book on the ark narratives) I have tried to link these two via a “textual-exegetical approach” (e.g. Moshe Goshen-Gottstein, JBL 102/3, 1983, 365-399; well exemplified nowadays in the work of Julio Trebolle), in which the different “final” texts of the Bible (Hebrew [MT, DSS, etc.], Greek, Latin, etc.) are studied both individually and comparatively. Such a polyglot approach can facilitate an interesting and rewarding synchronic-diachronic conversation since analyzing divergent “final” forms alongside one another simultaneously helps to appreciate their individual literary nuances and supports the notion that there was a developmental process which led to those differences. Granted, in many, perhaps most instances the differences between the various texts relate to the latest editorial stages of biblical writings rather than the much earlier sources and layers we discern on the basis of literary-critical methods, yet I still think the “textual-exegetical approach” provides one helpful angle for entering into the two-way discussion and “bridging the divide.” Thanks again for your helpful comments.

#2 - Robert Rezetko - 03/10/2013 - 00:24

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