by Neil Godfrey
A conservative evangelical student, asked to read Wellhausen and discuss the reasons for his ordering of sources in the Pentateuch, will not want to read Wellhausen and will try, if possible, to escape from the imposition: what he will do is to read a work which will tell him why Wellhausen was wrong. His pastoral advisers, if he has any, will council him to read this kind of book: they will not advise him to read energetically the works of Wellhausen himself, or of de Wette, or of Kuenen. (James Barr, Fundamentalism (London, SCM, 1977), pp. 121-122.)
Below I have copied an article by Tim Widowfield demonstrating the apparent truth of this state of affairs with a response to Dr James McGrath’s remarkable post, The Best Evidence for the Documentary Hypothesis is in the Psalms. Tim, by the way, is a supporter of the Documentary Hypothesis but would rather find company among others who understood what they were talking about. Does a professor of biblical studies really not understand the facts of the Documentary Hypothesis? (Not that Dr McGrath would describe himself as a “conservative” scholar, but he undeniably does have confessional interests and there are such scholars who do find ways to “apologize” for God and the Bible even if their efforts are dressed up in more modern sophisticated “liberal” motifs.)
Before Tim’s post, however, a word about the quotation above. James Barr’s words were used by Niels Peter Lemche to open his 2003 online article, Conservative Scholarship-Critical Scholarship: Or How Did We Get Caught by This Bogus Discussion. One of a number of explanations for this decline in standards, Lemche suggests, is the shift in the geographic centre of scholarship:
A generation ago the center was definitely Europe, and here German scholarship was unquestionably the flagship. European scholars were all brought up in the shadow of de Wette, Wellhausen, Kuenen, Alt, Noth, and von Rad, and without accepting these scholars as leading stars; nobody would be allowed to enter the temple of academic biblical studies.
That has changed:
Now days, biblical scholarship is dominated by American scholars, presenting a much more colorful picture. Historical-critical scholarship has no monopoly like it used to have in Europe; academic institutions may be — according to European standards — critical or conservative, but in contrast to the European tradition, these very different institutions will communicate, thus lending respectability also to the conservative position.
This definitely represents a danger to biblical scholarship as an academic discipline in the European tradition. Entertaining a dialogue with an opponent who has different goals from the ones of the critical scholar means the same as diluting one’s own position: in the universe of the critical scholar, there can be no other goal than the pursuit of scholarship — irrespective of where his investigations may lead him or her.
Tim Widowfield’s Response to “The Best Evidence for the DH is in the Psalms.”
On his blog today Dr. James F. McGrath makes a startling claim: “The Best Evidence for the Documentary Hypothesis is in the Psalms.” Who would have thought that one could find evidence for the Documentary Hypothesis (DH) in the Ketuvim, a collection of works which probably made their way into the canon about seven centuries after the Torah was recognized as canonical? And not just any old evidence, but “the best evidence”? Certainly not me.
Just what in the world is he talking about? And does he have a point? I will attempt to present Dr. McGrath’s argument as fairly as possible and explain why he’s wrong. I welcome any corrections.
First, a little background information. Within the J, E, P, and D traditions we find different names for God. The two most important indicators are Elohim (or El) and Yahweh. Before the theophany at the Burning Bush, the Elohist (E) and Priestly (P) source materials refer to God as Elohim, while the Yahwist source tends to use Yahweh (YHWH) from the very start. For E and P, Moses received a crucial revelation at a significant moment in history. The true divine name of God was finally made known to his chosen people.
Dr. McGrath writes, “Sometimes challenges have been raised to such source criticism on the grounds that varying the way one refers to God is quite common within unified religious traditions and their musical expression of their faith.” Actually, I think this point is pretty much conceded by modern proponents of the DH. If you read the works of Richard Elliott Friedman you’ll discover that simply finding story doublets, consistency of content, the two names for God, etc., is not sufficient to prove the DH.
In his excellent defense of the DH found in The Bible with Sources Revealed (p. 7, Collection of Evidence: The Seven Main Arguments), Friedman writes,
“Above all, the strongest evidence establishing the Documentary Hypothesis is that several different lines of evidence converge.” [emphasis original]
So simply finding Yahweh over here and Elohim over there would be a tantalizing (albeit insufficient) clue, but the collection of evidence taken together is what seals the deal.
Dr. McGrath continues:
“For me, the strongest support for the Documentary Hypothesis’ distinction between sources based on different ways of referring to God comes from the Psalms, specifically Psalm 14 and Psalm 53.”
He’s referring to the well-known fact that these two Psalms are nearly identical, except for some apparent scribal alterations, one of which is the different name for God. For McGrath, this is extremely significant. He writes,
“I don’t see any way of accounting plausibly for these two psalms being part of this collection other than in terms of there being different groups, or regions, or kingdoms, which had different preferences regarding how to refer to and address God.”
So let’s recap. There are two Psalms that are nearly identical. One calls God Elohim, the other calls him Yahweh. The only plausible reason, says McGrath, is that two groups had different names for God. Here comes the verdict. He concludes:
“And that makes it seem plausible to account for the different passages in the Pentateuch which refer to God in different ways in terms of those same distinct traditions or groups.”
His conclusion relies on certain unstated and unsubstantiated presuppositions, so let’s get those out of the way now. He says the two Psalms could have entered into the collection only if there were two different groups with different preferences for how they addressed God. Implicit in this statement is the assumption that the two Psalms existed side by side within two substantially contemporaneous, but separate, traditions, perhaps arising from an earlier common oral tradition. However, that is not the way Biblical scholars have explained the origin of the two Psalms.
A cogent analysis appears in “The Archetype of Psalms 14 and 53” (JBL, Vol. 46, No. 3/4 (1927), pp. 186-192) by Charles C. Torrey. The author notes that the OT contains a handful of cases in which the same hymn is “preserved, in more or less widely differing form, in more than one place.” Psalms 14 and 53 are perhaps the best known of these cases. Torrey explains that the original Psalm was a “vigorous and well planned” composition. In other words, the original was a finely crafted written document.
So how did we end up with two different versions from a single autograph? Torrey writes,
“The divergence is mainly due to accidents of scribal transmission . . .”
It’s true we have to consider questions of taste, oral transmission, popular usage, etc., but Torrey concludes that
“The two psalms which are now before us illustrate especially the way in which a slight corruption of a written text, in the process of copying, may bring with it a change of meaning – or the loss of all meaning – and thus lead to a more or less thorough revision of the immediate context.”
Clearly, Psalm 14 is closer to the archetype, but even it has deviated from the original text.
“As a matter of course there has been contamination of the text in both directions [i.e., in both Psalms],” writes Torrey, “attested still further by occasional variant readings in the extant Hebrew manuscripts.”
In other words, we are witnessing textual corruption, change, and drift over time, not between contemporaneous communities. The change from Yahweh (probably read aloud as Adonai) in the original text to Elohim was a later preference by later scribes.
So, do McGrath’s twin Psalms have anything to teach us about the DH? For McGrath’s argument to make any sense, we would have to be dealing with a hymn that existed in the Elohist tradition and in the Yahwist tradition, or the Northern Kingdom and the Southern Kingdom, respectively. That would make some sense of his claim that the names for the deity in the two psalms imply two different groups that
“account for the different passages in the Pentateuch which refer to God in different ways in terms of those same distinct traditions or groups.” [emphasis mine]
However, this is decidedly not what we’re dealing with here. First of all, the fact that Psalms 14 and 53 are nearly the same, word for word, demonstrates a literary dependence. In other words, one is either dependent on the other, or both are dependent on an earlier written source. Are we to imagine that this Psalm was written in David’s time, and then a copy made its way to Israel (a kingdom that had rejected the Davidic dynasty!), where the name of God was changed, while another copy remained in Judah, where the name remained the same? And that when the Northern Kingdom fell, the mutated psalm somehow traveled to the Southern Kingdom, where it was preserved along with the original? It strains credulity.
However, the main reason Dr. McGrath’s argument completely fails is he presupposes that E, the tradition of the Northern Kingdom (Ephraim, Elohist) preferred not to use Yahweh as the divine name. One of the major differences between the two groups, he contends, is
“that one addresses God using the divine name YHWH, and the other does not.”
This is a fundamental misunderstanding of the Documentary Hypothesis.
As Friedman explains (op. cit.), many people mistakenly characterize the issue as
“a matter of terminology: namely that different sources use different names for God. But that is not correct.”
This is where McGrath has missed the boat. The key point is not a preference for one name over the other.
“The point,” Friedman writes, “is that different sources have a different idea of when the name YHWH was first revealed to humans.”
After Moses learns God’s true name, both E and P freely use the divine name. In fact, that’s one of the reasons it becomes tougher to separate E from J after Exodus 3:15. We lose the distinctive marker after that point.
The Psalms, of course, are writings that are supposed to have been written well after Moses. If we assume that both Moses and David were historical characters and that the conservative estimates for their dates are correct, then we’re talking about 500 years. By the time the kingdom is divided, it’s more like 600. By then everybody knew the chief God of the Hebrews was named Yahweh (YHWH) and no one was reluctant to use it in print. Yes, uttering the divine name became taboo – hence the practice of saying Adonai instead of YHWH. But I know of no study that would indicate that this was a geographic or sub-group preference within Judaism.
In conclusion, Psalms 14 and 53 are not the “best evidence” for the DH. In fact, they have no bearing whatsoever on the Documentary Hypothesis. Seeking evidence in the Ketuvim to bolster source-critical conclusions in the Torah is simply wrongheaded. As a proponent of the DH myself, I welcome public support by professional advocates. However, I would prefer it if my fellow advocates would take the time to read and understand Wellhausen, Noth, Frank Moore Cross, Friedman, etc., so they knew what they were talking about.