Thursday, May 17, 2012

NDH and Mimetic Theory

A case of Mimetics. "I'm the King," said Jesus. "No, I am," replied Elvis. 

I was reading an interesting article on the Neo-Documentary Hypothesis (NDH) over on the blog Textuality.

Joel Baden, an Assistant Professor at Yale Divinity School, is taking the Mimetic theory approach of the Hebrew scriptures and is focusing on features of narrative rather than historiography to create a model of how the Pentateuch might have come to be.

This approach to source criticism isn't new however. We have seen it before in the work of Randel Helms, a professor at Arizona State University in Tempe, and Dennis R Macdonald, who is John Wesley Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at Claremont School of Theology and co-director of the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity at the Claremont Graduate University, with regard to the New Testament.

I think many classicist historians have a hard time accepting that story-telling methodologies are just as valid of inferences as the cultural artifacts (found within either the historiography or archaeology of the various time periods) themselves.

Dennis R. Macdonald's approach to the NT is reflective of the NDH by Joel Baden, in that Macdonald finds the threads and themes within the lines of text itself which frequently mimics or echos, often times verbatim, the threads and themes of the lines of text found within the Greek epics.

What I find interesting is how many people (especially Christian historians/theologians) seem dismissive, if not outright put off, by this form of investigation. They don't want to admit even for the possibility that there might be influences and relationships between the Bible to more mundane texts. That would make the Bible both rooted in the unoriginal, same old, same old while at the same time showing that it has a basis in fiction rather than divine revelation.

But the dismissive attitude regarding this line of investigation is simply unwarranted. These aren't fringe theories involving vague comparisons we are talking about. Both Helms and Macdonald go into detail as to the mimetic relationships which exist between the texts, line by line, word by word. For example, colloquial and regional language usage specific to one area or one time period often saturates a text, and this helps identify who the authors might have been. 

One of MacDonald's points that has always stuck with me is that the NT writers, whoever they were, often use the language and sentence structures of Homer--which is out of place for the spoken language of their day. Unless, of course, you take into account that they were writing fiction, in which case, it makes sense that the NT authors utilized the work of that  they would have been most familiar with, in this case the Homeric epics.

Whether or not you have the gumption to deny these textual relationships in both narrative and form after it has been clearly laid out, is rather telling, I find, of the willingness to accept new lines of evidence or else dismiss it in favor of an age old dogma.

It sounds like, to me, that NDH is reflective of this same line of investigation but focusing on the OT instead of the NT. I will be interested to see where it leads and whether or not proponents of the OT will be as dismissive in its application as most proponents of the NT are with Mimetic theory.



Advocatus Atheist

Advocatus Atheist