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Thursday, November 12, 2009

Mark Smith: From Scriptures to Bible

We are now reaching the end of Mark S. Smith's The Memoirs of God, but Smith adds a “postscript” - Biblical Memory between Religion, Theology and History - in which he attempts to address some of the issues that he has inevitably raised in the course of the book but has not yet discussed. Smith's concerns center around the nature of revelation.

Biblical Narrative and Systematic Theology

Smith begins by noting that, in the Bible, Israel generated a “master narrative” of God's relations with man, running from Genesis through the books of Kings. As this narrative came to be recognized as “scripture,” became “the Bible,” it was also transformed from Israel's traditions into what Smith has termed the “memoirs of God.” But this new development could not hide the past, nor the highly complex way in which the individual narratives came into being and were later incorporated into a master narrative:
This master narrative was modified as it went on, with older modifications overwritten by later ones. The modified biblical narrative often left vestiges of older versions of the past, issuing in a text with a dialectic between the master narrative and other earlier, or even contemporary, conflicting versions. Israel's representation of its past in the Bible also incorporates competition and compromise over the meaning of that past. What becomes recognized as revelation is more than a single revelation about the past. (161)
Obviously, to enshrine such narratives as the “word of God” presents theoretical problems, not least of which is: what could God have intended by this procedure, and how are humans to decide among the conflicting versions and representations of God's relationship with man?

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Mark Smith: Memory and Amnesia in the Israelite Scriptures

Chapter Four of Mark Smith's The Memoirs of God, “The Formation of Israel's Concepts of God: Collective Memory and Amnesia in the Bible,” is dense and difficult. Smith is attempting to deal with the issue of historicity in the Israelite scriptures:
What are we biblical scholars dealing with in the Bible, what or who are we as we deal with it, and what means can we deploy to plumb the difficulties in these questions and to assess these issues? In this chapter, I focus on the last of these questions. In particular, I wish to advance the claim that the academic study of collective memory offers important intellectual help for understanding the biblical representations of Israel's past. (125)
This is a complicated topic, and at times Smith stumbles in selecting his terminology, but I believe he is very much on the right track.

1. Collective Memory and Amnesia

Smith begins by setting out two fundamental points about the Bible's treatment of the past.
First, the Bible is not a record of “events”... “What we have are various witnesses to an event.” (quoting Brevard Childs) ... Second, the Bible is teaching (Torah in Hebrew), much of it religious in character. Ancient Israelites ... as well as modern Biblical scholars, largely recognize the Bible's pedagogical purpose, and this teaching function extends to the Bible's narratives of the past. (126)
Smith refers to “the Bible's treatment of the past” and “the Bible's narratives of the past.” There are several problems with this choice of words, most of which problems Smith later recognizes to varying degrees. While the “Bible” is for us a book, its constituent parts were mostly not written to be part of a book—they were themselves books that were self contained units. The authors and redactors of some, but not all, of the various books that constitute what we call the Bible do in some cases treat of past events--or sometimes of events better described as set in the past. Whether the narratives do in fact describe actual events is quite another matter, as is the question of the original authors' intent. Other books, particularly some of the prophetic books, treat of what, for the prophet, were current or contemporaneous events, although at times also referring to the past. Therefore, while the redactors who formed what we now know as the “Bible” may well have had a view regarding the historicity of the narratives in the Biblical books that treat of events set in the past, that viewpoint must be carefully distinguished from the intentions of the actual authors of those books.