by W. Jackson Watts
Raven Tuttobene, a graduate student at Welch College, presented a paper entitled “I Love Lucy: Assumptions in Using Cultural Evolution as the Basis for the Documentary Hypothesis.” We’re always pleased to have first-time presenters on our program, especially ones who can further expose some of the errors in modern thought about Christian Scripture and doctrine.
Though “I Love Lucy” was a famous television program years ago, the Lucy referred to has in mind the common name of a collection of bone fossils discovered in 1974 in Africa. Lucy is thought to be something of a missing paleontological link between modern human beings and our ancient relatives. Tuttobene uses this play on words, it seems, to make a connection between the theory of cultural evolution and how this is the actual underpinning of a broader, beloved theory or hypothesis about how the biblical documents came to exist in their present form.
The Documentary Hypothesis (sometimes referred to as JEDP) is the dominant model used to explain the origin and composition of the Pentateuch. Made famous by the German scholar Julius Wellhausen in the nineteenth century, this perspective sees the first five books of the Bible not as a unified work from a single author (Moses, for example). Rather, it sees it as a series of sources collected over a long period of time by different editors or redactors. Thus, JEDP stands for Jahovist, Elohimist, Deuteronomist, Priestly.
Although this theory has undergone some revision, and some biblical scholars have jettisoned it in favor of other theories, it still is the basic theory underlying much of critical biblical scholarship. Anyone who has taken a basic Bible Survey course is at least familiar with this theory. For those who have made use of biblical commentaries, it is quite likely some of those commentators assume this paradigm.
Tuttobene’s paper isn’t interested in reexamining all the particulars of the theory. Instead, she wisely focuses on a deeper idea or assumption underlying the Documentary Hypothesis: cultural evolution.
By cultural evolution we essentially mean the notion of history as the inevitable progression and development of human reason, and the human race being further educated, moving toward deeper degrees of rationality. Religion recedes where complexity and rationality in society increases, and evolves into more complex religion.
The original basis for the Documentary Hypothesis was a Romanticist view of cultural evolution which saw early religion as free, simple, and innocent. Yet in the context of the Enlightenment, evolutionary thought about culture and religion saw early religions as barbaric and violent (60). So which is it?
Tuttobene asserts that the very existence of cultural evolution is a problematic basis for religious interpretation. The developments described by the evolutionary model of religion have never been observed. Instead, what Wellhausen did was focus on “demonstrating the progressive nature of the Israelite religion and retroactively superimposed this standard on the whole Pentateuch.” (59). Yet therein lies some of the many problems with his approach.
There is a great degree of ambiguity in the theory and methods associated with historical criticism. How does one situate a text in its ancient context? Does the context help us understand the text, or the text the context? Is there a consistent textual standard? If not, by what means might one divide the JEDP documents? Why are other ancient near eastern texts treated as discrete, unified documents, but biblical texts are treated radically different?
Tuttobene attempts to put her fingers on the contradictions between a Romanticist view of cultural evolution, and the evolutionary model of religion of the Enlightenment. Moreover, she raises questions about how these contradictions give rise to other ambiguities in the actual application of biblical historical criticism.
I think the biggest takeaway from Miss Tuttobene’s presentation is two-fold. First, it is incredibly difficult to uproot widely accepted theories once they have taken hold. Therefore, one quite literally needs to focus on the roots of such theories, as well as the components of the theory’s application, in order to launch an effective critique on a bad theory.
Second, I don’t think we have given nearly enough consideration to how secular views of progress (whether they concern religion or society in general) undergird much of our contemporary life. When we think about how many ethical debates go, whether on human rights, capitalism, religious liberty, or other matters, we can always tease out some implicit view of progress that is supposedly what should direct where we land on these debates.
Instead of spending all of our time debating the particulars of policy proposals (and we should do this), we need to spend more time and energy targeting the problematic assumptions about cultural progress that underlie our debates. Tuttobene’s paper helps us think about this concerning biblical scholarship, but even in other areas also.