Sunday, November 08, 2009

Problems of Multiple Authorship

In many books of the Old Testament, such as Daniel, Isaiah and especially the Pentateuch, it has become commonplace among scholars to attribute the authorship of these books to multiple authors (First and Second Isaiah, or especially J,E,D and P in the Pentateuch). I have in the past stated my opinion that these multiple authorship theories subtly undermine faith (see here and here). One commentator stated in the combox to one of these posts:

"I agree with the idea that scholarly concepts as the Documentary Hypothesis or multiple authorship of Isaiah are potentially detrimental to the idea of a consistent and unitary Revelation, I still don't think that there's a necessary link between the two. In other words, it's hard for me to see what difference it makes how many people over however long a period of time wrote the book of Isaiah, so long as we are guaranteed that the ultimate author of its content is God and that He will guide the Church to the true meaning of the text."

This is a fair question. Though I have maintained the traditional authorship of Isaiah by a prophet of the same name living in the 8th century BC, what difference does it make to Revelation if in fact the book was a compilation of two or more authors? In the first place, I point to the Pontifical Biblical Commission's 1908 statement on Isaiah that there is no good reason to doubt a single authorship (see here). But beyond this statement, how does asserting a second author to Isaiah in particular (or multiple authors to any biblical book in general) undermine faith? In the words of the commentator, where is the "necessary link" between multiple authorship and heterodoxy?

I personally think the link is not in the fact of multiple authors, but of the chronology one builds around those alleged authors. There is nothing inherently wrong with postulating multiple authors of the Scriptures. At the minimum, we already have 50+ human authors to the Bible, probably a ton more if you factor in scribal additions to the Old Testament throughout the centuries. What is the real difference whether we posit 50 authors or 75 authors? The Church acknowledges that God inspired these authors, and so who they are is not entirely of that much importance in and of itself (although I would suggest identity is much more critical in the New Testament). Was II Samuel the work of a single scribe or mutliple scribes over decades? These type of questions, in and of themselves, are not problematic.

They do become problematic in two cases, however (1) When the book in question is prophetic in nature, and when (2) positing additional authors causes us to shift the date of the composition of the book to beyond the events prophesied.

Say we take the Book of Daniel. Daniel traditionally was composed during the period of the Exile, sometime between 550-450 BC. However, the book prophesies many events that do not occur until the time of Alexander and then some things that occur in the time of Christ. Now, suppose we look at these prophecies from an anti-supernaturalist viewpoint by assuming that they could not be legitimate. If we take this as our axiom, then the only way we can explain away these prophecies (which would otherwise be miraculous) is by saying that the prophetic portions of the book must have been written in what is called ex eventu ("after the event") narration. This means there must have been a second author who added to the book of Daniel, in a sense writing prophecy backwards to make it look like Daniel had made accurate prophecies when in fact they were written by some other person after the events prophesied had already come to pass (see this article on Daniel's historicity).

Now we have come to a place where the assertion of a second author causes a real problem, for by saying that this second author came centuries later and added ex eventu prophetic portions to Daniel, we are in effect denying the supernatural prophecies of the book and thereby denying the supernatural nature of revelation; Daniel (or Isaiah, or whatever) clearly says such-and-such is a prophecy still to come, but by positing a second author, we offer a naturalistic explanation for the prophecy and rob these passages of their supernatural character.

Interestingly enough, the PBC condemns this thinking in the same response in which it deals with the question of Second-Isaiah. The following position is condemned:

That the predicitions read in the Book of Isaiah-and throughout the Scriptures-are not predictions properly so called, but either narrations put together after the event, or, if anything has to be acknowledged as foretold before the event, that the prophet foretold it not in accordance with a supernatural revelation of God who foreknows future events, but by conjectures formed...and shrewdly by natural sharpness of mind...

Regarding Isaiah in particular one notices an abundance of prophecy. The Exile and return are foretold; the name of the king who would issue the edict of return is stated (Cyrus); future judgments on Egypt and the nations are described that later come to pass, not to mention all of the Messianic prophecies found throughout Isaiah. Now, if Isaiah prophesies the Exile to Babylon and the return, this is truly miraculous, given that these events did not occur until almost two hundred years after Isaiah. But if we say there was a Second Isaiah writing after the exile, then we can just say "ho hum" when the book makes these prophecies, for we have vacuumed out the supernatural, or in the words of the PBC, asserted that the alleged prophecies are simply "narrations put together after the event." And this is what Second Isaiah is all about; do a simple Wikipedia search on "Deutero-Isaiah" and you will find this explanation:

Passages of Isaiah 40-66 contain some events and details that did not occur in Isaiah's own lifetime, such as the rise of Babylon as the world power, destruction of Jerusalem, and the rise of the Persian king Cyrus the Great and his destruction of Babylonian Empire.On the other hand, the first section of Isaiah saw the destruction of Babylon at the hands of the Medes and the Elamites(13:1-20, 21:2) . This is generally explained by either considering Isaiah to have been given such information by divine means, or by considering the later sections of the book to be, not written by Isaiah, but written by those who lived later than Isaiah himself. Those that reject the supernatural revelation of God's foreknowledge to Isaiah hold to the second explanation and the mainstream scholarly understanding.

Therefore, yes, positing multiple authors can be very damaging to faith, if they involve prophetic books and chronologies.

Is there ever a licit recourse to multiple authorship? Sure. The PBC said, in its day, it saw no reason to posit more authors for Isaiah, and nor do I. That's not to say there couldn't have been, only that the PBC saw no necessity in arguing for them. But let's say that maybe Isaiah dictated his prophecies to a series of scribal pupils who compiled them over several decades. This is highly possible and would account for various stylistic variations. Let's say Isaiah wrote half of it and the latter portion was composed by pupils after his death who nevertheless heard his words, just like Aquinas' pupils finished the Summa for him. That is plausible, too. But if you are going to say that it was added to centuries later by persons who wrote in prophecies retroactively, then that is damaging to faith.

So, to answer the commentator, it is not simply sufficient to say one the one hand that we believe the author is God and that the Church gets the true context if, on the other hand, we take up critical exegetical positions that lead us to deny everything supernatural about the book.


Richard said...

Thank you for elucidating your views.

I see that your intent is to safeguard the supernatural from naturalistic assumptions, and I agree with your aim.

Also, I agree with the notion expressed several times in the PBC that it is not licit to doubt the traditional account where there is no sound, prudent basis for doing so.

At this point, I'd like to reiterate that my intent here is not to promote historical critical demythologizing theories (i.e., Modernism) over and above traditional information, but rather to weaken Protestant (specifically 7th-day adventist) arguments from prophecy by using historical criticism to bolster the argument that prophecy (and by extension, the entire Bible) cannot be subjected to an idiosyncratic game of shoehorning historical similarities into OT models to arrive at preconceived goals.

Perhaps my approach is fundamentally flawed, and perhaps it is ultimately not possible to do this without denying the reality of prophecy, in which case I will gladly concede. But I think that it is possible and ought to be attempted for the following reasons.

Richard said...

I'll reproduce here item IV from the PBC's "On the Mosaic Authorship of the Pentateuch":

Subject to the Mosaic authorship and the integrity of the Pentateuch being substantially safeguarded, may it be admitted that in the protracted course of centuries certain modifications befell it, such as : additions made after the death of Moses by an inspired writer, or glosses and explanations inserted in the text, certain words and forms changed from archaic into more recent speech, finally incorrect readings due to the fault of scribes which may be the subject of inquiry and judgement according to the laws of textual criticism?
Answer In the affirmative, saving the judgement of the Church.

This seems to me to allow for subsequent reworkings of an originally inspired text, so long as the modifications do not impugn the concept of an original inspired author and content. It also seems to me that many historical critical models of textual transmission (e.g., scribal schools, popular recensions, etc.) could reasonably function as the mechanisms for such modifications without denying the existence of the original revelation or attempting to explain it away in naturalistic terms.

As one example of how this appears to be accepted by the Church, consider the authoritative place given to both the Septuagint and subsequently to the Vulgate because of (or in spite of) what some might call translational "errors", e.g., the meaning of "parthenos".

Richard said...

As a more specific example, take the book of Daniel. There seems to me to be sufficient reason to prudently raise the questions (NB: but not to reject as inherently implausible the traditional account!) of the book's authorship and composition date based not only on the book's linguistic/stylistic characteristics, but also due to what we know about ancient near eastern textual composition and transmission and canonization. Over the course of such investigations, it appears that in addition to other pieces of information, many of the book's prophetic details dovetail quite well with events in the mid-2nd century BC so as to render plausible (NB: but not inherently more valid than other explanations!) the theory that the book achieved the form in which we have it at around that time, perhaps in response to the events it apparently alludes to.

At this point, you seem to be saying that we have a choice between two options: 1)Believe that the prophecies in the book as we now have it are substantially those made by Daniel himself in the 6th C. BC such that the events of the 2nd C. BC were supernaturally predicted. Or 2)Believe that the details coincide too well to accept any possibility of supernatural knowledge before the fact, which in turn leads to a general denial of supernatural influence in Scripture.

I think there's a third way, namely, to accept that Daniel did receive a revelation from God and that he did foretell the events that would happen under Antiochus and express them in the prophecy that underlies the book as we now have it, but that the community in possession of the text clarified the details after the fact to correspond more exactly to specific times, places, and peoples.

Furthermore, I'll note that prophetic language (esp. apocalyptic) often employs symbolic and literary devices, and therefore it should not be assumed that in every instance it must be 100% literally accurate or that there should be 100% symbolic correspondence. This in no way undermines its divine origin, however. So it seems reasonable to posit the situation in which people might want to clarify an obscure prophetic text after the fact in order to better recognize and celebrate its fulfillment. After all, look at how often Matthew explains OT prophecies in his Gospel.

This might seem rather equivocal, but it certainly is no more so than the idea that the traditional account ought to be considered true until definitively proven untenable and that any other explanation is a blunt denial of supernatural activity. Again, I do take seriously the admonition against imprudent speculation, but at the same time the Either/Or manner in which you frame your conclusions seems to bite off more than it needs to chew and may set us up for unnecessary backpedaling upon future discoveries.

In any event, the interpretation I've put forward seems to me both to conserve the supernatural basis and original authorship of the text, and to avoid painting ourselves into a corner on issues where there is plenty of legitimate ground for prudent questioning, but scarce definitive information concerning precise historical mechanisms.

Plus, apropos my original intention, it allows us more easily to attack as unfounded and idiosyncratic those interpretations which attempt to ignore the historical questions and to use that ignorance to arrive at wildly inappropriate conclusions (e.g., Daniel and the middle ages).

Boniface said...


These are all important points to take into consideration, but I would say that the dangers to inspiration are so great that I would just as soon not go down that path at all, despite your good intentions and orthodox approach. I think at this juncture, it is not prudent to open up any other "windows" or "options" in addition to what we already have. Call it fundamentalism if you will - I have no problem being considered a Catholic fundamentalist.

This in no way undermines its divine origin, however

Be careful of this phrase - many people apostasize, blaspheme the Holy Spirit and utterly deny the inspiration of the Bible and then tack this phrase onto the end. Not saying you are, but saying that just because we close our argument with this phrase doesn't mean we are not actually undermining inspiration.

Richard said...


Regarding your first point, I'm perfectly comfortable with leaving the discussion at a difference of prudential judgment. And I'm not surprised that I seem to have taken a more "liberal" line in this discussion, given that I'm currently living among rather strict conservative Protestants. In any case, far be it from me to go throwing around such loaded labels as "fundamentalist"!

As for the second point, I almost did mention as an afterthought the fact that heretics throughout history have steadfastly insisted upon their orthodoxy. So I am aware of that issue. But thank you for pointing it out, as it only takes one step to fall over the edge and it may happen imperceptibly.

Well, this has been fun. Thank you for the opportunity to air my thoughts, and thanks for running a great blog. God bless!

Boniface said...


Thanks. I don't find your position exceedingly "liberal", for a liberal would not bother to maintain that the prophecies truly are prophecies before the fact. I do, however, think that your "third option" is somehwat needlessly complicated (ie, if you acknowledge that there prophecies were recieved before the fact, why complicate the matter by saying they were 'polished up' later, just to maintain some kind of notion about the date of authorship because of 'stylistic' reasons?

That being said, you have a valid point that those who tack too much onto an overly-simplistic view of the bible may have their faith shaken when they find out it is more complicated than they thought. But I think the danger today, by and large, is not that people take the bible too literally but that they do not take it literally enough.

This article on fundamentalism might interest you - I wrote it in May 2009.

Blessings, Boniface

Johannes said...

To assess the current relevance of the PBC decisions during the first half of the XX century, first of all it is crucial to read carefully the Motu Proprio "Praestantia Scripturae", which I quote below (capitalization of key words is mine).

First the part on the PBC:

"the Pontifical Biblical Commission has happily given certain decisions of a very useful kind for the proper promotion and direction on safe lines of Biblical studies. But we observe that some persons ... have not received and do not receive these decisions with the proper OBEDIENCE."

"we do declare and decree that all are bound in conscience to SUBMIT to the decisions of the Biblical Commission relating to doctrine, which have been given in the past and which shall be given in the future, in the same way as to the decrees of the Roman congregations approved by the Pontiff; nor can all those escape the note of disobedience or temerity, and consequently of grave sin, who IN SPEECH OR WRITING CONTRADICT such decisions"

So, the decisions of the PBC are "very useful", and the Pope commands OBEDIENCE, not adherence, SUBMISSION, not assent, to them. If you disagree with a PBC decision, just keep the dissent to yourself. But if instead of keeping a respectful silence you contradict the decision in speech or writing, you incur in grave sin of disobedience or temerity. No mention of heresy, and no excommunication involved.

Compare that with what the Pope says on the case of the decree "Lamentabili sane exitu" (the so-called Syllabus), issued by the Inquisition, and his encyclical letter "Pascendi dominici gregis":

"we do by our apostolic authority repeat and confirm both that decree of the Supreme Sacred Congregation and those encyclical letters of ours, adding the penalty of excommunication against their contradictors, and this we declare and decree that should anybody, which may God forbid, be so rash as to defend any one of the propositions, opinions or teachings condemned in these documents he falls, ipso facto, under the censure contained under the chapter "Docentes" of the constitution "Apostolicae Sedis," which is the first among the excommunications latae sententiae, simply reserved to the Roman Pontiff."

Johannes said...

Secondly, it is important to understand the context in which the 1907 Motu Proprio was issued. To that effect, I found very useful the following comments posted by "quodlibet" in a British blog on January 19, 2008.

In the early 20th century, the Pontifical Biblical Commission came up with some findings on the authorship of certain Old Testament books. Rome required that Catholics should SUBMIT to these, and stated that not to do so was to incur mortal sin.
It is now almost universally recognised that many of these findings were wrong. The PBC and Rome came to a reasonable judgment based on the evidence in front of them, but subsequent scholarship showed that they were mistaken.

The PBC stated (for example) that Moses was the sole author of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the OT), and that the prophet Isaiah was the sole author of the book of Isaiah. I doubt there is a now a single reputable biblical scholar of any denomination who agrees with these findings. Without wishing to get technical, in both instances the arguments for multiple authorship are simply overwhelming.

For a balanced account which is respectful of the PBC but in tune with the best contemprary scholarship, check out "The Jerome Biblical Commentary"

Praestantia Scripturae says of the decisions of the PBC: "all who in speech or writing contradict such decisions cannot escape the note of disobedience or temerity, and consequently of grave sin"

The context of all this is that at the time modernists were using the findings of academic biblical scholarship to try to undermine orthodox teaching, and the positions rejected by the PBC were (in the first decade of the 20th century) closely associated with liberalism and modernism. In making the judgments they did, the PBC and Pius X were exercising their proper pastoral function in protecting the faithful from the spread of harmful ideas.

Pius XII’s encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu in 1943 exhibited a greater (though very cautious) openness to modern biblical scholarship, not least because it had become clear that being a Catholic biblical scholar who subscribed to the methods current in the field of biblical scholarship did not necessarily imply doctrinal modernism and liberalism.

The PBC was restructured in 1971 by Pope Paul VI in such a way that it ceased to be an organ of the teaching Church, and became "a commission of scholars who, in their scientific and ecclesial responsibility as believing exegetes, take positions on important problems of scriptural interpretation and know that for this task they enjoy the confidence of the teaching office" (the words of Cardinal Ratzinger in 1993).

In 1993 the PBC published a document entitled "The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church" which clearly favoured the methods used by modern biblical scholarship (previously, and for understandable reasons, rejected by the PBC under Pius X).
The ex officio President of the PBC at the time was Cardinal Ratzinger, and he wrote a preface to the document which was broadly favourable to the methods of biblical scholarship as practised in the academic world while at the same time critical of its faults and limitations.

Johannes said...

(Continuation of quodlibet's comments on the context of the Motu Proprio.)

Apologies if my explanation was confusing.

Basically, at the time of Pius X the kind of things being discussed by biblical scholars in secular and Protestant universities (such as the question of whether or not Moses wrote the first five books of the OT) were being taken up by Catholics with unorthodox beliefs to back up their heretical positions.

So-called "historical criticism" was the method used by scholars to determine, for example, how a text in the Bible might have been understood by its readers at the time when it was written and without the benefit of two thousand years of Church tradition.

In the right hands, this "historical criticism" had the potential to enrich our reading of sacred scripture. In the wrong hands, it had the potential to undermine Church doctrine and lead to relativism.
Quite rightly, Pius and the PBC wanted to protect the faithful from the spread of heresy, and, because of the connection between heresy and what some people were saying about who wrote the books of the Bible amd how the final versions of those books came to be put together, they were understandably concerned that biblical scholarship as practised in the universities at the time was a threat to the Catholic faithful.

In the hundred years that have elapsed since then it has emerged that, undertaken in a spirit of fidelity to Catholic orthodoxy, the methods used by biblical scholars in the academic world can be used to defend and promote Catholic faith.

As ex officio president of the PBC, Cardinal Ratzinger was aware both of the potential of academic biblical scholarship to defend and promote orthodox Catholicism, and also of its potential when undertaken in the wrong spirit to undermine Catholic orthodoxy.
Cardinal Ratzinger’s concerns were exactly the same as those of Pope St Pius X, but he perhaps had a more nuanced views of the strengths and weaknesses of the way in which professional theologians go about interpreting the Bible.