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.