The Evolution of the Bible – and the Evolution of Us

Note: Some of this, especially near the end, is taken from the reading response I turned in very early this morning for my Amos class, but I’ve adapted it heavily for my blog audience.

As I was finishing the reading I needed to do for this upcoming short course on the book of Amos, it struck me that one of the older themes of this blog – seeing God as a multifaceted God of evolution – had cropped back up again.

Scholars disagree on how we got to the current text of Amos, but most agree Amos didn’t just get up and start preaching the words of 1:1, end with the last verse of chapter 9, then go home. Even a literal reading precludes that possibility, as it mixes oracles with visions, includes a narrative of confrontation between Amos and the high priest Amaziah, and seems to assume a significant time lapse over the course of the book. Besides which, we know Amos spoke his prophecies; at some point, they were written down, but we don’t know when or by whom.

Nineteenth-century source criticism was all about trying to uncover the various layers of Amos (and every other book of the Bible). The idea was to isolate the “true” historical Amos underneath the edits and redactions made by future generations compiling his spoken oracles into a single volume. There’s nothing wrong with this, but the problem lies in the assumption of those earliest scholars – the notion that the “true” Amos was more valuable than the rest because it was more historically accurate. That’s very modernist, and it’s very unfair to the text. We have the canonical version of Amos for a reason, however the evolution took place.

On the other extreme, traditional evangelicalism recoils against the notion that Amos is not written by Amos at one tim, in the eighth century B.C.E. The notion of finding “seams” within the text and arguing for a core set of oracles surrounded by later additions is considered heretical to the notion of the inerrant word of God. Such a process in composing the final text seems too … human.

Yet we know God uses humans and their imperfect methods to do his will. Simply because God doesn’t work the way we think he would in delivering his word to us doesn’t mean that’s not what he actually did (triple negative!). In other words, declaring off-limits the possibility of textual evolution doesn’t change the fact that the text did in fact evolve.

Not every scholar thinks Amos evolved; some cite the literary unity of the book to argue for single-source authorship, whether Amos himself, a follower or some other observer. I tend to agree with others that some pieces are a bit too Judah-centric to have been spoken as part of the oracles against the Northern Kingdom. The final verses, containing hope for the end of exile, would have been irrelevant to the 10 northern tribes, who never returned from exile and were lost. The best explanation is that the original Amos oracles survived the Assyrian decimation by being sent to Judah, where subsequent generations added their own interpretations in the same style and tone as Amos’ work.

I think there’s incredible value in trying to uncover how this might have happened, despite the rampant speculation such a process tends to engender. The value comes not in excising and removing pieces of the text as somehow inferior to the historical core but in understanding how that core evolved into what we have today.

One scholar, Jorg Jeremias, argues that “tracing the redactional trajectory can offer insights into a living text that was modified over time and reappropriated for new situations by later believers in Yahweh.”

That can not only help us better understand what we have in front of us – perhaps, as some argue, the original Amos condemned the inequalities and injustices of Israel with vague threats of punishment, while the bloody details were added after the fact in an effort to explain the perceived abandonment of the nation’s deity – but it can help us better understand how we should interact with what we have.

I’ve spent a good deal of time lately talking about Amos’ message for us in the 21st century, and yesterday I posted a trio of modern-day reinterpretations of key texts in the book. To me, this is how modern biblical scholarship is a ministry: It brings the ancient texts forward and makes them newly relevant for modern contexts. Criticism cannot stop with simple analysis of the book’s redactional layers.

As Daniel M. Carroll R. writes, “The study of the biblical text cannot be a strictly academic exercise. The prophetic word, as it were, must move outside its pages either to capture or perhaps even to repel its readers, either to inspire them or to make them cast doubts upon its voice.”

Another scholar, Daniel Escobar, studies Amos from his perspective as a Puerto Rican from a Hispanic Pentecostal church.

“Spirituality cannot remain disconnected from the actual conditions of the context it serves,” Escobar writes in his article on Amos. “The poverty, racism, illiteracy, etc., that is witnessed in our cities [should] color our prayer. Spirituality should be incarnated.”

Not only that, it should color the lenses through which we read our incarnated scriptures. Amos says nothing if the only people to whom he speaks are the shocked residents of Bethel and poor, confused Amaziah. But Amos has quite a bit more to say to the titans of Wall Street and Pennsylvania Avenue – if scholars will help give his message the modern-day contexts in which to speak.

Only by continually reinterpreting works such as Amos can we and subsequent generations see with new eyes the message God has for us – a message about himself, about his priorities and about his love. This is the ministry of scholarship – not to remove and disregard pieces of the canonical text, but to reveal how an evolving text invites us into conversation as we ourselves evolve into a closer relationship with God.


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