I’ve just finished The Lost World of Scripture by John H. Walton and D. Brent Sandy. The book seeks to address the issue of biblical inerrancy, in light of what we know about how ancient documents were created. The authors attempt to dwell in a middle ground that is largely uninhabited: maintaining a high view of both the authority of Scripture and the historicity of the events reported in Scripture, without the burden of maintaining that the Bible records historical events in a letter-by-letter or word-for-word fashion.
Biblical inerrancy, as the authors know well, is a hot-button topic: a litmus test for orthodoxy and a sticking point in relations between (what we may frankly call) the left and right wings of American Christianity. When these sorts of issues are raised one becomes instinctively defensive. What do you think of when an author tries his hand at revising the notion of biblical authority? I think of someone who has lost his faith for other reasons and who enjoys taking pot shots at the faith of the least sophisticated people he knows. (It’s unnecessary to name names, because the names will come quickly to the minds of anyone with even a passing familiarity with biblical studies.) But in approaching this book I had the advantage of setting aside those expectations, because I had classes from these two gentlemen when I was studying at Wheaton in the 2013-2014 academic year. Both are devout evangelicals, and, far from desiring that the faithful be scandalized, are actually working hard to make sure that that does not happen. (I would add some qualifier such as “so far as these things can be known” to that judgment, but refrain because it might communicate some doubt.)
I think the major argument of the book can be summarized as follows. Because of the way that the chips fell in the fundamentalist-modernist controversy, evangelicals who took a high view of Scripture and maintained faith in the supernatural intervention of God expressed their faith by saying that the Bible was inerrant. (This might be qualified to something like, “inerrant in all that it affirmed, in the original manuscripts.”) The problem with this kind of statement is that it projects modern ideas about accuracy onto ancient Hebrew and Greek literary cultures. In fact, there is good reason to believe that the Hebrews and Greeks were not nearly so… uptight… about transmitting documents as we were. In the ancient Near Eastern contexts, documents could be updated as they were transmitted. In both the ancient Near Eastern and Greco-Roman contexts, the authors argue, orality dominated textuality, so that there is every reason to suppose that the documents circulated first orally and were only later committed to writing. The authors argue that oral cultures can faithfully preserve texts, but not according to our letter-for-letter standards. Understanding the production of the Bible against this background provides a way for faithful readers to parse out inconsistencies between the Gospels, or between Samuel-Kings and Chronicles, without giving up faith in the historicity of the events recorded in these works.
I find this argument to be basically convincing. On the one hand, the authors raise their points with a clear application in mind: to free Bible-believing evangelicals from the straightjacket of an untenable expression of confidence in the Scriptures, and to give them instead a tenable expression of the same confidence. But the research is carefully done. They are not picking over the primary sources for evidence; most or all of the claims are drawn from studies that were originally making other points. (I found the evidence for the priority of orality in the New Testament to be especially compelling.) It is moreover plain to see that the default evangelical idea of what it means to be free from error is informed by our experience with written texts, and moreover with texts that are reproduced mechanically, or duplicated electronically. If that twenty-first century conception of accuracy were reflected in the reproduction of Bronze and Iron Age documents, it would be extremely surprising. Oral transmission of texts, manual duplication of texts, and non-Western assumptions about what it means to be faithful, go a long way to explaining the variations that we see. It is still a matter of faith that this process produced a document that is faithful to the relevant aspects of God’s revelation, but that faith need not be expressed anachronistically; it can be expressed in terms of what we know about ancient literary and scribal culture.
My overall satisfaction with the book is barely affected by a few outstanding issues. First, I think the authors are a bit credulous in accepting the ability of oral cultures to faithfully transmit texts. I have heard the reports of “oral cultures” who memorize texts automatically and recite epic poetry at the drop of a hat. I have also had the experience of an illiterate guard who could not be sent to the bazaar for more than three items at a time, because he couldn’t remember any more items than that. I am not sure how many present-day models we have of oral cultures that can successfully transmit information orally, simply because literacy is an index of development in today’s world. For that reason I am skeptical of ever having a very clear sense of how much faithful oral transmission I can attribute to human culture rather than to God’s intervention.
I am also uncertain about the concept of authority in the ancient world, and the parameters within which authority is preserved by tradents, even as they update the texts they are transmitting. (This was particularly part of the discussion in the Old Testament sections.) Absent some ancient code of tradential conduct, I’m not sure how we can ever understand this process, or come to an objective understanding of the limits within which it operated. For this reason, I suspect that more is to be gained by understanding variation in details as the result of the text’s earlier oral transmission.
Finally, the authors lack an account of the transition from orality to textuality, and of the transition between a looser transmission of texts in the ancient context to the remarkable and obsessive attention to detail evidenced in the Masoretic text. The concordance between the Leningrad Codex and the Dead Sea Scrolls provides evidence for at least one thousand years of nearly flawless transmission of the Hebrew text. What changes in a culture for there to be such a sudden clamp-down on textual transmission? Until some kind of answer can be given, I can’t fully accept the authors’ depiction of ancient literary culture.
My only final comment is to suggest that the concept of inerrancy be further re-examined in light of relevance theory. I will outline my thoughts briefly for those who can benefit from overly-simplistic explanations of things. We can have a representation: “John likes Mary.” That could be an utterance of its own, or it can be used as a meta-represented in an utterance like: “Bill said John likes Mary.” Hearers will consider that utterance to be used fairly, even if Bill’s exact words were, “That idiot likes Mary” or “The skinny nervous guy likes Mary.” There is sufficient interpretive resemblance between all of those utterances for it to be a fair representation.
Ernst-August Gutt writes persuasively about translation as an interpretive use of language. Gutt claimed that in translation, the translator is saying the equivalent of, “The text says, ‘John likes Mary.’” Translations can be judged to be successful to the extent that the interpretive representation of the utterance (i.e., the translation) is faithful to the original. Faithfulness can be defined in a principled and technical way; informally, the translation needs to do the same thing for the hearers that it did for the original audience. If all that important is the identity of the speaker, then “John likes Mary” (let’s say, in Spanish), is an acceptable translation of, “The skinny nervous guy likes Mary.” If speaker’s attitude is important toward John as well, then “John likes Mary” would be an unacceptable translation. (Separately, this means that translations need to be sensitive to differing levels of background knowledge, and that they need to meet audience expectations.)
I wonder whether the ancient transmission of texts can be enriched with this model. If Jesus said, “You must love even your enemies,” and that is later reported as, “Love your enemies,” then I have very little grounds for complaint. There are very many possible interpretive uses of language that would result in variant wordings and other apparent contradictions. Relevance theory provides a way to talk about those differences, without even the need for inference about ancient literary or scribal culture.