Dealing with DeWette: Evaluating Bias and Evidence in Biblical Studies

You know what my favorite thing is about blogs? Comments. By which I mean, “commenters.” A comment thread is sometimes no more than a string of unconnected exclamations or diatribes, but at best, the comments to a blog post take a genuinely interactive course and add some serious value to even the best of posts. When authors devote the same kind of care to their comments as they would to their own blog posts, sure, they add value to their own name, or “brand,” since they often (but not always) are linked to their own blogs or profiles. But more, they add value to the posts to which they comment, unpaid and (outside of the small circles who do this “web” “log” thing), unacknowledged.

I woke up this morning to belatedly discover a short exchange on DeWette, a biblical source critic who preceded the better-known Julius Wellhausen. Kevin Edgecomb finds himself rightly appalled at the anti-Judaic biases that have animated Protestant biblical scholarship, especially early source criticism. Briefly, his commenters judge that, while Kevin is correct in discerning bias, he has not made his case that a) DeWette’s source-critical conclusions lack evidentiary support, and that b) later biblical scholars have uncritically preserved DeWette’s (or Wellhausen’s) conclusions and ignored the anti-Judaic biases with which those scholars approached the biblical evidence. Doug Mangum has posted a response and a follow-up.

On the one hand, Kevin is doing exactly what he should be doing: reading the early source critics with a hermeneutic of suspicion (self-link). How do their arguments and conclusions reflect their anti-Judaic (and for that matter, anti-Roman Catholic, anti-ritual) biases? How does the rhetoric of their arguments and conclusions seek to reproduce those biases in the reader? Terribly important questions, these.

On the other hand, I’d argue that Kevin’s initial post dismisses DeWette’s conclusions without addressing his use of evidence and line of reasoning. Doug brought up the “intentional fallacy,” and I would further specify the fallacy of “poisoning the well”: the fallacious idea is that, once DeWette has been brought into (deserved or undeserved) ill repute, we can just assume that his arguments are inconsequential. Finally, Kevin makes the rather sweeping claim that later biblical source criticism has willfully ignored the plain biases in the work of its predecessors. In other words, he argues that while he reads DeWette with a hermeneutic of suspicion, biblical scholars on the whole (who agree with DeWette on dating the core of Deuteronomy to the 7th century) have not done so.

I call attention to the comments to these three posts, because they represent the kind of conversation typical of strong scholars concerning this procedural issue. How do we acknowledge the biases of our forebears (once recognized as such) while still engaging in our continuing work their use of evidence and their lines of reasoning?

It is essential that we model “best practices” in this regard, because our own students and their students will learn from our example and read us accordingly when our own biases, invisible to us, come to be recognized. On the matter of bias and evidence, as on any matter, as we comment, in such a mode can we look forward to being commented on.

3 Responses

  1. Thanks very much for your insightful comments, Brooke.

    Part of the problem here with the perception of my “poisoning the well” and such is that I’m already several steps ahead of the de Wette material in my reading, reading which conclusively reveals the trend is absolutely entirely consistent throughout German liberal Protestant scholarship well into the twentieth century, that very same scholarship lying at the root of consensus these days. None of this is based solely on a superficial reaction of mine to a short summary of merely de Wette’s attitudes toward Jews. He is a large root however, of an evil tree. More than a year of my reading has already gone into the subject, and I’m sure more than a year will follow.

    I absolutely do not say or believe that there has been widespread willful ignorance among modern scholars of the root and branch antisemitism involved in these foundational studies. It is necessary to clarify this. Rather, it is, for the most part, true ignorance, in that people simply don’t know the history of these scholars’ thoughts and their motivations in proposing their theories, which are all but objective. The typical introduction to them is a summary of the conclusions for which they are regarded as “discovering”, followed by summaries of the tertiary scholarship which supports their positions. Actual deep and close reading of the material of these scholars seems to occur only rarely, and in dissertations such as those of Pasto and Gerdmar, that is, vanishingly rarely. Were you introduced to Semler, Herder, Schleiermacher, de Wette, and Wellhausen as Enlightenment era Romantic German nationalist/republican radicals? Such they were, and their works are part and parcel of that. But we’re usually told something like “in [date], [name] discovered [x matter of consensus]” and the discussion moves on to the consensus position, without discussion.

    Related to the consenus issue is that part of the reaction I’m seeing is simply saying, it seems, “Yes, but look at all this other work that supports their conclusions.” This is the only possible reaction of a person or program accepting of their dialectic, which every critical program has done since the late nineteenth century. This is to be expected. By definition, “critical” is consistently used in exactly this restrictive sense: relating to precisely that tradition of post-Enlightenment liberal Protestant German scholarship. It is more of an institutional set of blinders than individual, and not, I would say willful. Only individuals have a will, and only they can themselves be willfully ignorant, which I would think is a rather rare situation.

    Thank you again for your interesting post. I must now go catch up on others!

    • Hi, Kevin,
      Thanks for checking in. I know how time-consuming the “responding to responders” bit can become.

      First, I agree with you not only about the often-noted anti-Judaism of DeWette and Wellhausen, but about the persistence of that worldview in Protestant reading of the Bible (critical and non-academic alike). It enters my classroom annually with each crop of earnest, well-meaning introductory students, and I find all too much evidence of it in the commentaries. Nor, of course, did it begin with DeWette et al.

      What I would argue is twofold. First, it’s not so much that their anti-Judaism leads to their relative dating of the Pentateuchal texts, but rather that their anti-Judaism influences how they interpret those results. Anti-Judaism doesn’t put D after Old Epic and P after them both—the internal evidence does that—but it does interpret that ordering as a “fall” away from living religion into an ossified husk, ya-da ya-da. Second, critical biblical scholarship has been having a conversation about its propensity toward systemic anti-Judaism, at least since the Shoah. It is in the context of that internal critique—not in the absence of such a critique—that a 7th-century dating for the core of Deuteronomy continues to find assent (without, at this point, bringing in the so-called minimalist set of objections).

      When I said, “willfull” ignorance, I had in mind your comment that the anti-Judaic biases of the Protestant source critics had been “swept under the rug.” My point is that I don’t think they have been, though I heartily grant that some individual scholars, teachers, and preachers seem to have missed the memo.

      In any case, you’ve gained a reader who supports your concern with persistent anti-Judaism in Protestant reading of the Hebrew Bible!

  2. Thanks, Brooke. Yes, “swept under the rug” is not the best metaphor, as it connotes intent.

    All I can say is, “stay tuned.” Too much circularity is involved in the argument that formulations of D/Dtr support an early dating, because they spring not from truly independent studies, but from out of the same dialectic. This will be a separate (and necessarily later) critique of the circularity of the logic lying behind the system of source criticism, following and not strictly identical to my current critique of its original motivations.

    As you say, some seem to have “missed the memo.” Some, in fact, seem to wish to ignore the memo.

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