Saturday, September 22, 2012


As of the past few weeks, I have joined the throng of Old Testament scholars and enthusiasts before me who have trekked through Julius Wellhausen’s seminal work, Prolegomena to the History of Israel.

Of course I have breathed the ambience of Wellhausen for years now: in intro classes I have endured the piecemeal demonstrations of textual discrepancies (the creation stories, the flood stories, the versions of the exodus in Ex 14, 15) and the customary allocations to such and such a source. I have written about the Priestly this or that in papers, I have talked in a self-conscious, half-informed way about the “non-priestly materials” in the Pentateuch. But I never really engaged with the arguments that got this whole paradigm off the ground.

Now I have – and, truth be told, whatever the estimate of Wellhausen as an innovator or just an articulate tradent, there is no question that this work is a tour-de-force. Its intellectual clarity is startling; it is lucidly organized, amply detailed, surefooted and punchy. I can see why it quickly won over a generation of scholars.

I had read some things years back that portrayed Wellhausen as a thrall to the methodological naturalism and developmental worldview of his age: in other words, if you abstract out God somehow from the process of considering the Bible’s origination, and if you assume a vaguely Darwinian view of evolution from simpler to complex, you end up inevitably with something like Wellhausen’s view. This is a move made by conservatives to conjure his arguments away by relativizing them, i.e., “Since we believe in God’s activity in history (whatever that means) and no longer see the world according to a linear, better-and-better progressivism, Wellhausen has no traction on us.”

But I actually think this doesn’t work at all: it would be stupid to claim that Wellhausen’s approach is theory-neutral (we’re way too late in the history of philosophy to say stuff like that). But at the same time, the backbone of his proposal are the blazingly simple answers he gives to some fairly ecumenical questions – questions that everyone now needs to answer in a more persuasive way than he did.

Wellhausen asks questions like:

Why is it that the patriarchs blithely worship here, there, and everywhere, when Deuteronomy insists on one place of worship? Why does Exodus (in one place) legislate for the first state of affairs (Ex 20), while in the following tabernacle materials assumes a unitary center for Israel’s cult?

Why do some minor prophets (the earlier ones) not mention the centralized cult, but assume a multiplicity of worship sites?

Why does the tabernacle disappear after its construction in Exodus and its literal centrality as Israel journeys in Numbers – why is it absent throughout Judges and the Samuels and Kings?  

Why does Ezekiel give a different explanation for the state of the Levites than Deuteronomy, i.e., demotion from full priesthood to temple helpers (“hieroduli”) versus just starting off in that auxiliary office in the Pentateuch?

Why do understandings of sacrifice differ across the Pentateuch, from simple, reciprocal meals with God in many places to elaborate, unilateral rituals in Jerusalem?  Why do the sacred festivals differ in number and kind in the first four books of the Pentateuch from Deuteronomy? Why are these injunctions in the Torah not observed throughout the historical books?

Why does Chronicles seem like the redux of Kings, only now with greater conformity to the laws of the Pentateuch?

Wellhausen, drawing on the arguments of his predecessors in critical scholarship, arranges these data into a framework of three basic, sequential tiers: first the Israelites worshipped and sacrificed everywhere at local shrines, as we see the patriarchs and people doing in Genesis and also much of the historical books. Then we see the Deuteronomistic reform, as Hezekiah and Josiah seek to eliminate local cults in favor of centralized worship in Jerusalem, in accordance with Deuteronomy (which, notably, legislates for a situation of monarchy). Lastly, the (priestly) laws of Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers envision a hierocracy rather than a monarchy, and, in fact, seem absent from most of the Old Testament except for Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah – all certainly postexilic books. Thus the brilliant conclusion that these laws are, far from emerging directly from Moses’ pen, postexilic. Brilliant. In Christopher Seitz’s words, “the single most destabilizing insight in the history of interpretation.” Wellhausen admits that much of his argument is from silence (why doesn’t anyone know about the tabernacle?). But he defends this by charging that it is even more tortuous to assume (for instance) that the law was operative in the days of Samuel than just to admit that (obviously) it is not.

Now, there is a definite developmentalism and some anti-Semitism to Wellhausen’s picture. He regards the Priestly Code as colorless, rigid, and pedantic – more characteristically Jewish in his view. His vision is linear, from the alleged universalism of Genesis, where the patriarchs sacrifice and worship and believe with much in common with other human communities, to the intensely particular, abstract, and complex ritual of Leviticus. In fact, this aspect of Wellhausen’s work (namely, the priority of J/E) has come under criticism since the 1970s. I will be interested to see as I read on how these challengers marshal the same information as Wellhausen to argue for a J that is even later than P: in other words, that the stories of the patriarchs were written after the Priestly Code. I know that these folks say that the literary length and sophistication of these ancestral stories belies the archaism Wellhausen sees in them, and also that their universalism is not primitive, but assumes the monotheism of the postexilic period (like Second Isaiah). Furthermore, that a scribal culture capable of writing such lengthy stories existed in the preexilic era struggles increasingly against epigraphic and archaeological data indicating a more modest and late-blooming monarchic bureaucracy. But these new critics of Wellhausen on my read still have to account for the cultic diffusion in Genesis and the historical books that Wellhausen uses as a mainstay in his argument for their earliness relative to the Torah.

Another aspect of Wellhausen’s proposal that has suffered attrition in the last half-century is his rather (in retrospect) naïve view of Israel’s history. If people like Noth, von Rad, and Bright can earn the accusation that they only give a rationalistic paraphrase of the Bible’s own version of Israel’s history, then Wellhausen deserves it all the more. His fidelity is almost charming: he takes at face value the fact that the nomadic Hebrews did, in fact, go down to Goshen in Egypt because of famine and came back up (although that Exodus was just the result of high night winds on a shallow sea), detouring through Sinai and then conquering Canaan. For all the radicalism in its day of late-dating the priestly parts of the Torah, by contemporary standards Wellhausen’s account of Israel’s history is positively biblicist. Old Testament scholarship these days is rather wary of claiming much about anything pre-monarchic, or even really preexilic, leastwise on the basis of the Bible.

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