by Neil Godfrey
This post will open by taking us back thirty or forty years to a scenario in Old Testament scholarship that is remarkably similar to a debate taking place right now among New Testament scholars. I am currently reviewing a book, Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity, that spotlights the flaws of the traditional approaches of form criticism and authenticity criteria to the studies of early Jesus traditions and the historical Jesus respectively. The editors of that book, Christ Keith and Anthony Le Donne, argue that attempts to pull apart the Gospels into various strata, pre-gospel Palestinian traditions and stories added by the early Hellenistic Church compiler-author, don’t really work. What is needed is an understanding and study of the Gospels in their final form, they conclude.
Compare the outcome of criticisms of the Documentary Hypothesis — the thesis that the Old Testament books can be pulled apart into different sources or strata — Priestly, Jahwist, Elohist and Deuteronomist (and a later Redactor).
This post continues from an article I posted on Christmas Day last year, Who Wrote the Bible? Rise of the Documentary Hypothesis. It continues with notes on Philippe Wajdenbaum’s case that the “Primary History” of the Bible (Genesis to 2 Kings) was inspired by the writings of classical Greek writings (especially Plato) and mythologies. It is, furthermore, best seen as the product of a single author writing in Hellenistic times. In my previous post on this book I included a quotation from chapter eight of Theological and Polical Treatise by seventeenth century Spinoza, to whom Wajdenbaum refers:
And when we regard the argument and connection of these books [Pentateuch, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, Samuel, Kings] severally, we readily gather that they were all written by one and the same person, who had the purpose of compiling a system of Jewish antiquities, from the origin of the nation to the first destruction of the city of Jerusalem. The several books are so connected one with another, that from this alone we discover that they comprise the continuous narrative of a single historian. . . . .
I have in the past posted in passing on another book with a similar theme, Jan-Wim Wesselius’ The Origin of the History of Israel : Herodotus’s Histories as Blueprint for the First Books of the Bible, and I have posted an overview of a section of that book on vridar.info. It is a pity that these sorts of books are priced out of the hands of most potentially interested readers. I have always wanted to post more on the Old Testament books, especially in comparison with other Greek works, in particular works of Herodotus and Plato, and hopefully will do so soon. Too many topics. Not enough time.
Here we continue with Philippe Wajdenbaum’s Argonauts of the Desert, picking up where we left off in December last year. Here he discusses the “collapse of the consensus” on the Documentary Hypothesis and introduces his rationale for proposing a single author for Genesis to 2 Kings.
It is necessary first to overlap with a point made in that earlier post. I elaborate upon it beyond Wajdenbaum’s own brief presentation that was intended for a readership familiar with the scholarly literature.
The above diagram demonstrates the old view of how the Homeric epics came into existence. Bards — perhaps one of them was “Homer” — composed and performed songs that were sometimes combined to create larger “epics”, and in the cultural “renaissance” in sixth century Athens standard versions of these were put in writing to provide a yardstick or canon by which to judge oral performances of the epics.
During the later Hellenistic period scholars in the Alexandrian library created an authoritative or “original” text of Homer by comparing variant written versions that had arisen in the meantime, and making judgments about which lines in which versions were authentic. Thus a “cut and paste” final and canonical edition was created.
That was the theory.
Compare the Documentary Hypothesis: various written version, Priestly, Jahwist, Elohist, Deuteronomist, were edited and combined into a new whole by a late redactor to give us our Pentateuch and other historical books of the Bible.
Through the twentieth century, however, the above scenario began to unravel — at least in Classics departments.
John van Seters in The Edited Bible — read the Google version, especially chapter 5 — lays out the evidence that such a notion of an ancient redactor creating a new text by stitching bit and pieces out of various versions is an anachronism. Such a practice was unknown until many centuries later. Rather, the versions created by the Alexandrian scholars never found widespread popularity among the wider readership.
Besides, the final text was too polished in many ways, and the characterization too consistent and subtle, to be explained by a “cut and paste” job.
Further, oral studies have shown that oral performances have often been associated with memory — after the performer writes it down! — (and there is evidence that the Greek “Dark Ages” did know of writing that went beyond mere book-keeping functions). The sorts of variations that arise through relaying oral performances do not explain the characteristics of our written texts.
The theory that the Athenian tyrant Peisistratus commissioned official written versions of the Homeric epics may well be as fictional as the notion among biblical scholars of an historical cultural renaissance at the time of King Josiah. There is certainly no indication in the record that Pisistratid versions were known by Alexandrian scholars or anyone else.
Now the point of this is that biblical scholars developed the Documentary Hypothesis on the back of the old classical model of the evolution of the Homeric epics. That model has crumbled away but biblical scholars have continued to use it regardless.
This brings us to some modern criticisms of the Documentary Hypothesis that I will continue in future posts.