Thursday, October 11, 2012


This post resumes the “series” of recent posts here about the history of research on the composition of the Pentateuch. For the sake of accessibility and reading pleasure, permit me a campy recap before leading into the most recent authors I have engaged.

What are you doing? I’m describing major contributions to the modern critical study of the Pentateuch and its formation, especially since Julius Wellhausen in the last decades of the 1800s. This will be obvious to many/most of you, but by “modern critical study” I refer to the mass of scholarship undertaken since the Enlightenment, whose context is the research university, and whose guiding principle is (arguably) the raw “will to knowledge,” the creation of the universal encyclopedia.              

Why are you doing that? First, because it is of personal interest to me, sort of in itself – as a fascinating confluence of things religious, technical, sociological. Of course this scholarship on the origins of the Pentateuch ultimately helps to sharpen my eyes as an interpreter of Scripture, intent on discerning God’s abiding character and will from these texts – though this is admittedly somewhat removed from its more immediate purpose of historical reconstruction. Studying the history of Pentateuchal research also satisfies my appetite for delving into depthless scholarly intricacies (few discussions are more byzantine than those about Pentateuchal sources). The sociology of this scholarship also lends it interest. In the critical study of the Pentateuch, we see western civilization reinvent its millennial dedication to the Bible by rendering it into the culturally favored post-Enlightenment discourse: the revered language of scientific investigation. Moreover, in its youth, Wellhausen’s paradigm exerted a massively destabilizing influence on western culture at large, maybe as much as Darwin: two major blows to the western worldview were the twin discoveries that we came from apes, and that Moses had little or nothing to do with the Pentateuch. I would love to study the Pentateuch in greater depth, and to do this responsibly in the academic discipline of biblical studies requires familiarity with the influential conversations that have occurred in the last century or so.                  

Does this stuff have anything to do with justice in the world, or is it just a self-indulgent pastime for middle class white men? This must always be a live question for disciplines with a mostly male, mostly Euro past like (historical) Pentateuchal scholarship. A couple things give me hope that it holds potential yet for the work of justice in the world, even in the admittedly oblique mode that is its purview. First, critical scholarship still blunts the edge of religious fundamentalism: as it did in Wellhausen’s day, critical research on the Pentateuch rules out the sort of big, sloppy, reductive theological claims that continue to fund tightly formed, reactionary worldviews. Pentateuchal criticism slows us down and asks that we tune in to the specificities of the texts in order to make more lithe and local claims. This is a preventative measure: but historicizing the Bible also may serve the cause of justice by making us more perceptive to historicity as such (in the sense of historical locality, not referential adequacy). If we are awake to the play of history, politics, ideology, and language on the Bible’s own formation, it’s harder for us to be oblivious to our own historical moment, in all its tumbled moral demands. Besides this, I also maintain the old-fashioned belief that the kind of rigorous attentiveness to the Bible that historical criticism represents also serves justice simply by exposing us as readers more intimately to the God of the Bible, the God of life, the faithful and merciful.    

Who are the Scandinavians, and why are they important? In a nutshell, Julius Wellhausen gathered up the work of his scholarly forebears and made an ingenious argument that the Pentateuch comprises a conglomeration of four distinct documentary sources: four pieces of writing from different places and eras put together in the postexilic period. Wellhausen’s procedure was to isolate these sources on the basis of narrative discrepancies and doublets, as well as differences of divine name, vocabulary, and religious ideology. Excepting certain inevitable bastions of resistance, his proposal swept the field, resulting in a broad consensus in mainstream scholarship that would last over a hundred years. Along came Hermann Gunkel at the turn of the century, another German scholar. Gunkel accepted Wellhausen’s thesis about the documentary sources, but, under the influence of folklore studies happening in the humanities at large, turned his study towards the oral traditions underlying the documentary sources. Gunkel sought to isolate these traditions by attending to their form: instead of the clues on the surface of the text that were Wellhausen’s focus, Gunkel stripped individual stories down to their smallest structural units and identified them according to genre (trickster tale, geographical etiology, ethnic etiology, etc). Gunkel was also encouraged to do pursue this tactic because of the burgeoning wealth of ancient near Eastern data at his disposal, which enlarged the literary corpus against which he could calibrate the genres he identified. Wellhausen worked in source criticism; Gunkel inaugurated form-criticism. After Gunkel, it occurred to the (German) scholars Gerhard von Rad and Martin Noth that there must have been intermediate units between the atomistic, individual stories Gunkel isolated in the oral tradition and the written sources Wellhausen drew out: sometime along the way, they reasoned, single stories were gathered into longer strands before being frozen, much further down the line, in writing. This pair authored influential essays that argued for the discernability of these larger bundles of oral tradition, which became known as “themes”: thus, the exodus theme holds together as a unit, and the Sinai materials, and the wilderness wandering, and the settlement in the land, etc. Procedurally, von Rad and Noth operated with logical criteria (does the sequence of exodus-settlement need the wilderness wandering for its basic intelligibility? if not, what does this mean?) as well as geographical (do the settlement stories come from the same central Judaean area, indicating perhaps they arose there?). In a somewhat radical way, von Rad and Noth argued that these themes originated in diverse places, mostly various Palestinian shrines and festivals. Where Wellhausen thought that different versions of the whole patriarchal-exodus-settlement plotline had come from the North or the South, the court or the temple, von Rad and Noth believed that the basic chapters of that story were initially alien to one another, and only lately combined. Their practice was called tradition or tradition-historical criticism. It assumed both form- and source-criticism.      

The Scandinavians overlapped to some extent chronologically with von Rad and Noth (40s, 50s, 60s), and developed a parallel project, also inspired by Gunkel’s turn towards the oral traditions beneath the written Pentateuch. Von Rad and Noth did not see an opposition between Wellhausen’s style of documentary investigation and their own research on the oral layers of the Pentateuch. But the influential Swedish scholar Ivan Engnell thought that Wellhausen’s approach was basically mislaid: it assumed a bookish, hyper-literate scribalism that was simply inaccurate to the realities of an ancient oral culture. Not only that, but Engnell challenged some of the key arguments of Wellhausen’s publications, which had (largely) won the day on the Continent. Engnell saw doublets as signs of orality, not juxtaposed documents; he dismissed the use of divine names and distinctive vocabulary as a criteria for discerning sources as arbitrary and circular; he attacked the fulcrum of Wellhausen’s chronology by saying that the book of the law that Josiah found (2 Kgs 22f) does not correspond meaningfully to Deuteronomy. Engnell and his students argued for the relative reliability of the oral traditions, because of their stable use in the ancient cult(s). Engnell and others also refused to try to locate the “original words” of the prophets, or even to play ostensibly earlier materials off of later ones – because of the obscuring effects of their long and overwhelmingly oral evolution. For them, writing was a late and almost trivial stage in the history of these traditions. Engnell was only willing to identify two large bodies of tradition in the Pentateuch: “P” (Genesis-Numbers) and “D” (Deuteronomy), which were roughly contemporaneous. Sigmund Mowinckel was another important Scandinavian scholar, who took a more mediating position with regards to the orally dominated scholarship of his colleagues in the north. He accepted source-criticism as legitimate and defended the capacity of critical research to trace the development of the oral traditions across time from earlier to later forms. He did, however, jettison some aspects of Wellhausen’s hypothesis, such as the integrity of E and P as separate sources (rather than just editorial layers, as he thought). This Scandinavian scholarship is important because it demands that Pentateuchal criticism take seriously the oral nature of the materials that eventuated in the first five books of the Bible – and about the sites where this oral literature was live (shrines? festivals?). The Scandinavians also offer a good epistemological warning to the (sometimes) overblown claims of biblical criticism: how much do these data enable us to say in good conscience?      

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