The strange position I find myself in is that, on one hand, it doesn't shake my faith at all to consider these alternative ways of understanding scripture. Taking Isaiah for instance, what difference does it make whether one prophet in the 8th century BC wrote all of it, or whether it was written by several different people over 3-4 centuries and eventually collected as reflective of a particular "Isaianic" school of prophecy. The Holy Spirit is just as capable of inspiring multiple authors and editors as she is of inspiring just one guy. Thus I have no existential "need" to reject any of these critical theories simply out of hand. I'm completely open to new ideas and find that they generally strengthen, not challenge, my faith.
However, on the other hand, I do have some scholarly criticisms and doubts about the assumptions and methods that underlie some of the particular conclusions of the critical theories. Again, let me use Isaiah as an example. The literary-critical theory that the book of Isaiah is actually at least three distinct books (First Isaiah, chapters 1-39; Deutero-Isaiah, chapters 40-55; and Trito-Isaiah, chapters 56-66), and each book itself is composed of many different segments composed by different authors, is based on four observations about the text:
1) Differences in the language (e.g. syntax, grammar, vocabulary, morphology, etc.) between the different sections. The analogy given in class was that it was like taking poems by Shakespeare, Yeats, Jack Kerouac and Maya Angelou, mashing them all together and trying to pass them off as coming from the same author. It wouldn't take a scholar to figure out that something wasn't quite right. So, just as there would be a noticeable difference in the language of a 16th century Shakespearean sonnet versus a 20th century poem by Maya Angelou, we can infer a similar difference of time period and authorship between the various segments of Isaiah.
2) Differences in literary genres between different sections of the text. The book of Isaiah frequently switches between poetry, prophetic oracles, personal narratives and historical accounts. The assumption is that different genres should be attributed to different authors.
3) Differences in the content of the oracles. Parts of Isaiah are very doom and gloom, prophesying destruction and judgment, while other parts offer hope of deliverance and salvation. The assumption is that each of these must be the work of different persons.
4) Specific prophecies about events (such as a Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem and subsequent exile of the Jews in Babylon) which post-date the historical Isaiah by a century or more are assumed to be by later writers. The reasons for this are two-folds: first, it is unusual for Hebrew prophets to address situations that didn't relate to their immediate audience at all. In Isaiah's time, Judah was being threatened by the invasion of the Assyrians. Why then would any of his contemporaries pay attention if he started warning them about a Babylonian threat that wouldn't materialize for over a century? Second, critical scholars generally operate on the naturalistic assumption that predictive prophecy is impossible, and thus any specific prophecies about future events must have actually been written reflectively, after the fact.
Again, I have no fundamental resistance to the suggestion that Isaiah was composed by multiple authors, however, of the reasons for this that I just mentioned, I don't find all of them very convincing. The first one is the most solid, IMHO. It does seem likely that significant linguistic differences would be the result of multiple authorship. Unfortunately, without a personal knowledge of Hebrew, I can't say for certain how many of the divisions of the book are based on these sorts of differences.
The next two reasons, differences in genre and content, are entirely unconvincing to me. It's not authors are incapable of writing in more than one style, or of writing about more than one thing. To take the Shakespeare analogy again, he wrote both plays and poems, and he wrote about countless themes and ideas, some of which conflict with each other. Why assume that Isaiah is any less capable of literary diversity? In the absence of other supporting evidence, positing multiple authors based on these criteria alone seems unnecessarily complicated and unconvincing to me.
The final reason, predictive prophecy, is only partially convincing to me. I fully agree that it makes more sense for the Babylonian oracles to have been written around the time when Babylon was an actual threat, and not a century before hand. In this regards it's important to remember that the biblical definition of "prophecy" isn't primarily about "predicting the future". Rather it's about communicating God's will and intentions to God's people as they try to navigate the circumstances they are in. Thus it makes sense that God's words would have been first delivered at a time when they were most relevant.
On the other hand, if the rationale is primarily based on a naturalistic assumption that predictive prophecy absolutely cannot, and therefore does not happen, that seems illegitimate to me. I say illegitimate not as a supernaturalist (though I am one) but as an (aspiring) historian. Naturalistic assumptions about history are just that, assumptions - i.e. preconceived philosophical biases that get in the way of the more fundamental historical question of "what, in fact, happened?" The historian should make no judgment one way or the other about whether supernatural phenomenon can occur. Our question should simply be: "what is the evidence we have for what actually did occur?" And if the evidence supports the possibility of a supernatural occurrence, we shouldn't be so quick to rule out that interpretation of the events out of hand. And there have been a least a few instances in my OT class, and especially in the primary text book, where that presumption of naturalism has been the driving motivation for a particular interpretation of a passage.
At any rate, I guess in the final analysis I'd say that the more of these factors that come into play, the more likely it is that the text is the product of multiple authorship. However, not being a full-fledged Old Testament scholar, I can't exactly say how often there actually is more than one factor in consideration. My impression, especially given the wide disagreement even among literary-critical scholars about how exactly the text should be broken down, is that these divisions are not always so clear cut and that our commitment to this way of reading the text should therefore be held fairly tentatively. And I guess, ultimately, that's my biggest complaint about the "liberal" scholarship and this class in general: I have no problem with considering all of these theories as possibilities, but it's when they get passed off as nearly certain truths (and therefore anyone who raises questions about them must simply be a conservative reactionary) that it rubs me the wrong way. I'm starting to gather during my time at a liberal seminary that this is one of the defining differences between liberal (or conservative) moderns and emerging postmoderns like myself - not the content of our views, necessarily, but the relative degree of certitude with which we hold them.
Links to this post