Redaction Criticism and Wikipedia

I’ve been thinking about redaction criticism lately. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about the folly of assuming that a book of the Bible was composed by a single author simply because it has traditionally been attributed to a single author. For instance, the Pentateuch was most probably edited from several source documents over the course of a few centuries, rather than being written all at once by Moses (with Joshua adding a tag at the end). It is also highly likely that 1 and 2 Corinthians have at least a couple interpolations, from marginal notes being copied into the text. Interestingly, the sample problems are being explored in Homer scholarship, too — whether the Iliad and the Odyssey were written by Homer (who may not even have existed) or were composed over the course of a long period of time and only later attributed to Homer.

(As a sidebar, I do wonder if conservative Christians during the early 1900s rejected historical criticism not for the methodology so much as for the results, which they saw as an attack on their faith, and, rather than thinking through  the evidence, shooed it away and declared it anathema. But that’s another post for another day.)

Let’s take a contemporary example of redaction and interpolation: Wikipedia. We all know that no one single person is “the author” of Wikipedia. However, let’s imagine a time, maybe 1000 years in the future, where the original Wikipedia was lost to the ravages of the Internet, but someone had the foresight (or luck) to preserve a print copy of some of Wikipedia’s entries, which was then, through some miracle of history, meticulously copied and transmitted for 1000 years. Over the course of a millennium, a tradition has cropped up regarding Wikipedia, assigning a single author to each of the articles.

By this time, a group of Wikipedia scholars has cropped up. However, because the only remaining evidence of Wikipedia is the collection of articles, which have no authorship attached, but which also show clear signs of multiple authors, there is a lively debate in this niche of scholarship about Wikipedia’s authorship. On the one side, some scholars claim that, because each article is a unified source, each article must have been written by a single person. On the other side, other scholars claim that they have determined, through redaction and linguistic criticism, that the articles were, in fact, written by several people over the course of time. (Thankfully, scanners and photocopiers kept the number of textual variants to a minimum!)

We all know, of course, how silly it is to assert that a given Wikipedia article, especially one of the featured articles, has been written by a single author. But, assuming all we had was the text of major Wikipedia articles, would it be any more valid to say that Wikipedia articles are the work of a single author? Of course not.

The implications of this Wikipedia principle are, I would hope, very clear. In the case of a text like the Pentateuch, or the Iliad and the Odyssey, or even our hypothetical Wikipedia, multiple authorship is infinitely more likely than single authorship. It is invalid to perpetuate a tradition in the face of contrary evidence.

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