Posted by: Johnold Strey | October 1, 2009

Theories without Evidence

religion-on-trialTheories without evidence are merely speculation.  If a lawyer presents a theory that has no evidence to support it, chances are he will not convince the judge or the jury.  In the world of theology, however, a lack of evidence doesn’t seem to stop theories from perpetuating.

One of the most common theories proposed about the Scriptures is that they are a “cut and paste” job from preexisting documents.  This theory is applied especially to the first five books of the Old Testament, the Penteteuch, and to the first three books of the New Testament, the Synoptic Gospels.

A common theory about the Pentateuch is that it is a compilation of four sources.  These sources are labeled J, E, D, and P — hence, the “JEDP theory.”  The “J” source is assumed to be a writer who used the Hebrew word Yahweh (Jehovah) for God.  The “E” source is assumed to be a writer who used the Hebrew word Elohim for God.  The “D” (Deuteronomic) source is assumed to be a writer of legal materials (i.e. civil laws, moral laws, etc.).  The “P” (Priestly) source is assumed to be a writer of priestly materials (i.e. sacrifices, worship, etc.).  According to the theory, an editor brought these four sources together into the first five books of the Old Testament.

There’s just one problem.  It is a very popular theory among liberal religious scholars, but no evidence exists.

A similar theory exists for the Synoptic Gospels.  (Syn = together; optic= view.  The synoptic Gospels have a similar outline and arrangement of the ministry of Jesus).  There are four sources assumed, called Ur-Markus, Q, M, and L.  “Ur-Markus” is an assumed predecessor document of the Gospel of Mark.  “Q” (from the German Quelle, meaning “source”) is an assumed collection of sayings of Jesus that were brought into Matthew and Luke.  “M” is the material unique to Matthew’s Gospel, and “L” is the material unique to Luke’s Gospel.

You know what I’m going to say next, don’t you?  That’s right.  No evidence.

I once had a discussion with a liberal theologian about this theory.  I pointed out that the church father, Papias, who lived shortly after the apostle John and was a student of one of John’s students, stated that the traditional authors of the Gospels wrote the Gospels.  The professor noted that the quote attributed to Papias was recorded by another church father several generations later — in other words, the evidence comes later in history and so it is not as strong as one might think.  I responded that there is no evidence for the four-source theory about the Synoptics.  The professor acknowledged that my statement was true — the liberal theory has no evidence — but went on to say that most scholars hold to the four-source theory.  My retort: Since when does majority opinion substitute for the best answer?  Look at the politicians we elect —  don’t tell me a majority vote equals the right answer!

By the way, this discussion was very polite and respectful on both sides.  One does not have to be a jerk to disagree.  But one does not have to refrain from disagreeing to be polite.  (I’m still working on both of those!)

This scenario leads to the quotation I’d like to post.  Craig Parton addresses the lack of evidence for modern theories around the Bible in his book, Religion on Trial, which I mentioned in a post earlier this year.  From a lawyer’s perspective — a perspective that would do the church quite a bit of good! — Parton examines the modern theories that surround the Scriptures and concludes that there is a great lack of evidence to support these theories.  All emphasis is from the original.

 A well-known school of criticism arose in the nineteenth-century that postulated that the first five books of the Old Testament were not written by Moses (as Jesus Christ believed and taught) but were a much later paste-up effort created from at least four different sources after generations of erratic oral tradition.  This approach became known as the “J-E-D-P Theory” — an acronym reflecting the first letter of each of the supposed four disparate sources for the first five books of the Old Testament. …

This effort [of trying to determine the sources behind ancient documents like the Bible], unfortunately, has been found to be hopelessly subjective.  No less an eminent literary critic than Oxford Don and Cambridge University Professor C.S. Lewis says that this precise methodology (i.e. getting at the “true” sources of a particular work) was attempted with his Chronicles of Narniaseries of children’s fables.  Lewis said the speculators engaged in quite “rational” and “reasonable” hypotheses as to the literary origins of Lewis’ central figure in these novels, the lion Aslan. …

Interestingly enough, Lewis concluded that the critic’s conclusions were both “reasonable” and absolutely wrong.  And not just wrong once but on every single opinionthey offered on the “true sources” of Lewis’ works.  The disturbing aspect of this discovery for Lewis was that the critics operating with his material were his contemporaries and were dealing with no foreign language or foreign culture.  The so-called “source” or “form” critics of the biblical documents, however, are speculating as to the true origins of materials centuries old, written in essentially dead languages, and birthed in a culture totally foreign to that of twentieth or twenty-first century England or Germany.

From a legal standpoint and from the standpoint of admissible evidence, there is a more profound problem with these efforts to get at the “true” sources of the biblical records: There are no such sources!  The supposed sources that are speculated to have comprised the first five books of the Old Testament — called J-E-D-P — do not exist.  You cannot go to a museum or a library or a university — or anywhere else — and ask to look at J, E, D, and P and compare them with Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.    The same situation exists for the supposed “true” sources that were collated and edited into what we now know as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  The application of this method of finding the “true sources” of the Gospels postulated a source called “Q.”  Author Q supposedly is the written material that one finds in Matthew and Luke, but is not included in Mark.  However, “Q” also does not exist as a document that can be handled and examined in a court of law — it is a product of pure speculation.  As any competent trial lawyer will tell you, such testimony about a phantom written source would be subject to the “best evidence rule” (namely, the “best evidence” of “Q” is the “Q” document itself, not speculation about what “Q” might contain) as well as being objectionable as wholly speculative and inadmissible hearsay. …

This effort has been wholly abandoned in the study of English ballads, the conclusion being that getting at the “true sources” and oral tradition of that material ends in hopeless speculation.  It is worth noting that the oral tradition from which such ballads supposedly evolved is in the realm of hundreds of years in length, while the most that can be said about any “oral history” of the New Testament material is that perhaps 20-30 years elapsed before the first written records appeared.  Even that is actually quite extreme in light of the fact that the New Testament epistles, which predate the Gospels, have dates beginning at the latter half of the 40s of the first century and yet they even reference the fact that writings were already circulating at that time concerning the life and work of Jesus.

Perhaps as telling, internal guerrilla warfare now rages between the “higher critics” of the biblical material as to the number and origin of the sources that underlie the biblical documents.  For example, J-E-D-P have now been supplemented by a “K” source (and sub-sources to “D”), and even now a K-1 source.  Critics of the book of Isaiah in the Old Testament have divided authorship into at least two distinct books instead of holding to the traditional understanding for centuries that, amazingly enough, Isaiah himself wrote the entire book of Isaiah.  Why this effort to discredit Isaiah as the sole author?  Because Isaiah contains predictions of events that occurred as precisely as predicted by Isaiah, and since modern scholars simply know a priori that such predictions or prophesies cannot in fact occur save for some kind of after-the-fact fudging, the assumption is made that a second author — writing much later — must have created the prophetic material to fit events that had already occurred.

Lawyers, trained in the rules of evidence, would then expect that a discovery of very early manuscripts containing the Book of Isaiah amongst the Dead Sea Scrolls in the 1940s would reveal two authors (or, at a minimum, show a literary break between where one author ends and another begins).  The scrolls show no such thing, but instead provide evidence of a unified document.  Thus the oldest and best evidence we have on the authorship of the Book of Isaiah wholly refutes the contemporary critic’s theory of multiple authors.

-Craig Parton, Religion on Trial, pp. 62-66

P.S. If this topic interests you, you would probably also enjoy listening to the Issues, Etc. program from August 31, 2009 with guest Dr. John Warwick Montgomery, discussing the problems with liberal “historical critical” approach to Scripture.




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