This post looks at the rise of the dominant scholarly hypothesis that the Old Testament came together through the efforts of various editors over time collating and editing a range of earlier sources. The structure and bulk of the contents of the post is taken from Philippe Wajdenbaum’s discussion of the Documentary Hypothesis.
The complete set of these posts either outlining or being based on Philippe Wajdenbaum’s Argonauts of the Desert: Structural Analysis of the Hebrew Bible, are archived here.
Before the Documentary Hypothesis there was Spinoza.
Let us conclude, therefore, that all the books which we have just passed under review are apographs — works written ages after the things they relate had passed away. And when we regard the argument and connection of these books 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. . . . .
The whole of these books, therefore, lead to one end, viz. to enforce the sayings and edicts of Moses, and, from the course of events, to demonstrate their sacredness. From these three points taken together, then, viz. the unity and simplicity of the argument of all the books, their connection or sequence, and their apographic character, they having been written many ages after the events they record, we conclude, as has just been said, that they were all written by one historiographer.
So Spinoza was led to conclude (from the common style, language and purpose) that there was a single author (albeit one who used earlier source documents) and he opted for that author being Ezra.
Debt to Homeric Criticism – and left in the dust of Homeric criticism
Biblical literary criticism has since been based on “the idea that the writers of the Bible ‘edited’ previous documents, compiled” and that these were eventually compiled by a final redactor.
This idea was copied from classical scholarly studies of the Homeric texts. John Van Seters in a 2006 publication, The Edited Bible: The Curious History of the ‘Editor’ in Biblical Criticism (the link is to GoogleBooks where much of it is readable online), shows that the idea of the Bible being the work of an editor was copied from Homeric studies, and that though Classical scholars have since thrown out that idea as completely untenable, Biblical scholars have nonetheless stubbornly continued with it as an explanation for the Bible.
Interested readers may like to start reading Van Seter’s page one (via the above link) and see a certain problem with biblical studies that several scholars have addressed elsewhere is also applicable to scholarly studies of the Old Testament. Biblical scholars have been slow — slow as a full stop — to keep up with critical debates about relevant methodologies in classical studies.
Wellhausen, a Protestant theologian (the role of theologians as theologians will be shown to be significant), summed up the theories of Bible composition that originated in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and is thus associated with the Documentary Hypothesis:
- Up till the time of Moses passages that use Yahweh as the name of God are assigned to the J or Yahwist source
- Up till the time of Moses those passages that use Elohim for god are assigned to the E of Elohist source
- Deuteronomy is said to have a different theology from Leviticus so is thought to stem from a different theologian known as the D source
- Passages such as Leviticus and others referencing rituals are thought to stem from a Priestly or P source
- Finally a late redactor, R, compiled these sources together
Van Seters in the work cited above points out that various scholars use the concept of editor or redactor much like an irregular verb. It is a concept that can be manipulated and varied (now preserving texts intact, now changing them to suit their interests) to make it yield the particular results they desire.
Gerhard von Rad gave the hypothesis personality:
- J belonged to the southern kingdom of Judah, was born in the reign of Solomon, and justified the Davidic dynasty
- E belonged to the northern kingdom of Israel, was born in the ninth or eighth century, and taught the “fear of God”
- D belonged to King Josiah’s time (late seventh century) and taught the centrality of the Temple cult and Jerusalem
- P was born during the Exile and was interested in the authority of priests
Note the evolutionary assumption:
This vague chronology of the Bible’s sources supposed an evolution of Jewish theology that could still be seen in the text. In the nineteenth century evolutionism was the dominant theory, both in biology (as seen in Darwinism) and in religious anthropology (Frazer and Tylor created hierarchies in religions according to their tendency toward monotheism). (p. 23 of Argonauts)
Thomas Römer: The subjective basis of Wellhausen’s presentation
Römer observes the way theologian Wellhausen’s Protestantism is guiding his Documentary Hypothesis model. As Protestantism devalues Law so Wellhausen has begun with the assumption that the legalistic portions of the Old Testament must be late additions of a Priestly (P) redactor and by no means original to the faith of Israel.
This assumption, says Römer, lies at the root of Wellhausen’s preference for believing that the “authentic” or earliest sources of Israel’s faith belonged to the period of the monarchy. Further, it cannot be overlooked that Wellhausen, being a man of his time, and his time being the time of the unification of Germany in 1871 under the Hohenzollern dynasty, was eager to propagate monarchy as the ideal form of government:
Wellhausen avait d’ailleurs prononcé un discours devant l’empereur Guillaume à l’occasion de son anniversaire, dans lequel il démontra, à partir des livres de Samuel, que la monarchie était la forme de gouvernement idéale. (Thomas Roemer, L’exégèse et l’air du temps, Theolib)
Moreover Wellhausen had presented before Kaiser Wilhelm, on the celebration of his birthday, a demonstration from the Books of Samuel that that monarchy was the ideal form of government. (My translation)
Wellhausen’s aversion to legalist and religious aspects reflected his liberal Protestantism, and the idea that the ‘decadence’ of the ‘true’ Jewish religion had prepared for the advent of Jesus, prophet and reformer, who would reinstate the ethical principles of ‘true Judaism’. Römer points out how the fundamentals of the documentary hypothesis imply a degeneration of Jewish religion that justifies its replacement by Christianity. (p. 24, Argonauts, my emphasis)
Noth (another theologian) qualified the Documentary Hypothesis by adding to it a “Deuteronomistic Historian” who wrote Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings during the Exile.
Noth attempted to find a way to explain how supposedly pre-monarchic oral traditions eventually came to be written down by the earliest authors, J and E.
But in the absence of evidence, this reconstruction was quite arbitrary. (p. 24, Argonauts)
F.M. Cross and R.E. Friedman followed Noth and decided that this Deuteronomistic stratum was a collation of two sources: one written during Josiah’s reign and the other during the Babylonian Exile period. (Friedman suggested that the author of both strata was Jeremiah writing at different times of his life.)
Noth argued that the final redactor (R) found a way to combine and harmonize the first four books (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers) with the Deuteronomistic writings.
This provides him with a theory that allows him to fall back on Spinoza’s initial intuition. (p. 24, Argonauts)
Thomas Römer: The subjective bases of Noth and Cross
Noth conceived of an exiled writer who meditated on the causes of his country’s ruin, which was actually his own situation as he fled from Nazi Germany; a lonely historian writing in his office, hating the totalitarian regime that brought about the downfall of his nation. In the same way, Römer sees a typical American optimism in Cross’ theory of the first Deuteronomist, who know the flourishing kingship of Josiah, whose idealised portrait recalled the founding fathers of the USA. The second Deuteronomist would therefore have written only the pessimistic passages because he had to explain Jerusalem’s fall theologically. (pp. 24-25, Argonauts, my emphasis)
That sort of analysis worries me. It always makes me stop to look around at my own environment and experiences and ask myself what I am projecting.
Next post in this series will the on the collapse of the consensus on the Documentary Hypothesis.
Oh yeh – and merry xmas and all that.
- Argonauts of the Desert: Structural Analysis of the Hebrew Bible (zwingliusredivivus.wordpress.com)
- Changing Perspectives 1-4 (zwingliusredivivus.wordpress.com)
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