The Pentateuch as Anthology?

I am currently reading a book which I am greatly appreciating. It’s entitled God’s Word in Human Words: An Evangelical Appropriation of Critical Biblical Scholarship. The book is a 400-pager given to us by author Kenton Sparks, professor of Biblical Studies at Eastern University.

Maybe the title is not the most drawing of titles for a book. But I have appreciated interacting with the thoughts a well-studied PhD professor who desires both to maintain a belief in the God-breathed and authoritative nature of Scripture while also faithfully engaging in the world of historical-biblical criticism. And I would say this is also my own aspiration, at least to some degree. Would I agree with every approach of Sparks? No. Still, I find it a very solid evangelical work, similarly in the vein of Peter Enns’ Inspiration and Incarnation. Such a combined goal of maintaining a faith-filled focus and scholarly effort is not easy. But, from what I have read thus far, being about half-way through, Sparks has done well.

For anyone who has done any studies in Old Testament, or biblical studies in general, one will be well aware of the claims of historical criticism in regards to the authorship, dating and nature of specific parts of Scriptures, if not the whole text. Such a phrase – historical criticism – sounds exceptionally destructive for evangelical Christians. But, such is not inherently atheistic, agnostic or liberal. Maybe that would have been true many decades or even a couple of centuries ago. Yet, just as evangelicals are starting to see the findings of biology, geology and astronomy as not anti-God with regards to our origins, so also are many Christians re-examining the claims of historical criticism.

And so, with the biblical text, one specific part that gets examined quite a lot is that of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament). What was centred some 100+ years ago in the scholarship of people like Julius Wellhausen and Karl Graf (known as the Documentary Hypothesis), though by no means was such started by them, these theories have developed and evolved over time as more and more historical-archaeological research and resources have become available.

Here now, decades and decades later, Sparks approaches some of the challenges of critical scholarship with regards to the Pentateuch and, in my opinion, does a fine job in helping us understand how Scripture was formed and passed down to us. Sparks’ whole thesis is that the Pentateuch is not straight forward history, in the sense that we think in our modern day. Rather, he believes the Pentateuch should be better seen as anthology.

How does he flesh this out? Let’s read some of his thoughts:

Modern scholars have been trying for a long time to explain the inherent tension between the literary unity of the Pentateuch and its generic diversity. Though it tells a kind of story, the Pentateuch is a veritable pot pourri of generic types that includes myths, legends, histories, novellas, etiologies, genealogies, king lists, itineraries, ritual descriptions, ritual prescriptions, treaties/covenants, lawcodes, census data, speeches, blessings, curses, poetry and prose, and any number of other generic types. Moreover, in many instances the Pentateuch provides us with several quite different renditions of the same events or materials. (p219)

Sparks goes on to state:

In light of this comparative information [with other ancient near eastern literature], the most natural explanation for the content of the Pentateuch is that it is not a book of history so much as an anthology, in which its author (or authors) attempted to bring together Israel’s ancient traditions, laws, and rituals into a single compendium or library of texts. Viewing the Pentateuch as an anthology helps us understand why it contains two or more versions of so many stories, and also why it contains so many types of genres. Its author (or compiler) was clearly more interested in preserving Israel’s diverse traditions than in providing some kind of coherent book of history. (p219)

For many evangelicals, to suggest anything like what Sparks has done would make us quite uncomfortable with such conclusions. But remember, Sparks is not ultimately looking to cause major problems with the Scripture. Rather, he is trying to help Christians maintain their faith-filled perspective with Scripture while also helping draw reasonable conclusions in regards to critical learning.

Thus, if there are two creation traditions in early Genesis – one in Gen 1:1-2:3 and a second in Gen 2:4-25 – Sparks reckons the author-compiler of the text is, in anthological style, maintaining the traditions of both accounts, rather than meticulously combining every detail into one story. Not to mention that the Genesis account(s) would probably have been combatting certain aspects of ancient Mesopotamian and/or Babylonian accounts.

So, if Genesis and the rest of the Pentateuch are presented as straightforward, factual history, then we most likely have problems on our hands, for there is a reasonable case that this isn’t how some of early world history ‘literally’ took place. But if Genesis and the Pentateuch come to us as an anthological combination of specific traditions of the Hebrew people, all the while weaving together varying literary genres across the text, then we have no problem in recognising that this is not supposed to be an objective and literal history.

In all, I found these thoughts of Sparks both intellectually satisfying and faith stirring. Intellectually satisfying as it engages with critical scholarship; faith stirring as I consider how the ancients carried on and preserved the God-breathed Scriptures across the generations. I’m looking forward to finishing up the book in the coming week or two.

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