Literary Criticism and Countermissionaries

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Anyone who has ridden the New York City subway on a daily basis for years has surely come across a Christian missionary of one sort or another. The wise thing is to just ignore him and leave him in boredom rather than give him the satisfaction of an engaging debate. Nevertheless, there are some Jews who choose to engage them. This is even more common in online forums where misionaries feel free to enter Jewish areas and proselytize. One argument that I have seen frequently is the usage of modern literary criticism to dissect the Christian “New Testament” into historical layers and present an evolving model of Christian theology in which many core beliefs were created by later characters within the text. This is standard modern scholarship of the Christian Bible, but is it a legitimate counter-missionary argument?

This has always left me uneasy. I reject literary criticism of the Jewish Bible because, I believe, the methods assume human authorship of the Bible. If one rejects that assumption then all of the conclusions about multiple strata and the evolution of theology fall to the wayside. If I reject these methodologies on the Jewish Bible, can I then argue that they show flaws in the Christian Bible? For that matter, can I accept the conclusions of literary criticism on any form of literature – from Homer to Shakespeare – if I reject its conclusions on the Jewish Bible?

I believe that the answer is yes and no. On the one hand, it is entirely consistent for me to claim that critical literary techniques apply to all human documents but, since the Jewish Bible is not a strictly human document, these techniques do not apply to it. The fundamental assumption of literary criticisim is not applicable to it. Since I consider Homer and the Christian “New Testament” to be entirely of human origin without any bit of divine inspiration, the fundamental assumption does apply to them and, therefore, the methodologies of literary criticism are legitimate.

On the other hand, the argument of literary criticism is not particularly powerful. Anyone who believes that the Christian Bible is of divine origin will simply respond to all literary arguments the same way that I do in respect to the Jewish Bible. Such a believer will simply reply that the argument is based on an assumption – strictly human authorship – with which he disagrees. End of discussion.

The only time in which the argument has power is with someone who is deciding whether to believe that the text is of human or divine origin. In that case, if one can demonstrate that the most plausible conclusion is arrived at using critical literary techniques then one can convince another that the text has literary strata of different origins. In other words, for such an argument to make sense one must phrase it as: “Do you really believe that God wrote this? Consider the evidence to the contrary…” Otherwise, you are either being inconsistent or simply arguing against an unshakable belief.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America. He also serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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