[This blog post represents a light adaptation of a paper submitted this fall, so its length is a bit unwieldy; on the other hand, it's a summation of earlier, piecemeal work I put up on the blog -- and, I think, a pretty good intro to an important approach in current and 20th century biblical scholarship.]
Biblical scholars, especially Continental, continue to ply forms of biblical criticism that broadly coalesce under the terms “tradition-” or “transmission-history” (German: Überlieferungsgeschichte). These modes of inquiry work from features in the present form of the Pentateuch and following, related writings to identify oral/literary complexes antecedent to that final form. This enterprise operates primarily in the ambiguous and productive space of Bible departments in the modern (European) research university, where professional scholars serve both faith communities and the Enlightenment “encyclopedia project”: consequently, the results of tradition-historical scholarship have been claimed under both aegises. This post will make a brief attempt to answer the question, “what are the methodological criteria by which major scholars in this trajectory of scholarship have isolated bundles of tradition in the Pentateuch?” I will thus undertake my own form of tradition-history, this time in the 20th c. history of research on Pentateuchal formation, interrogating the method of Gunkel, von Rad, Noth, and Rendtorff, and showing lineal descent as well as speciation. My focus will not be so much on the cumulative results of each man’s work, but the methods that generated his conclusions.
Gunkel is at his most methodologically explicit in his short, introductory work, Legends of Genesis. In this book, Gunkel taxonomizes the various kinds of legends in Genesis and their common characteristics before exploring their history of development. His approach differs in a number of crucial respects from Julius Wellhausen’s. Wellhausen had gathered up the work of his scholarly forebears and had made an ingenious argument that the Pentateuch comprises a conglomeration of four distinct documentary sources: that is, four pieces of writing from different places and eras put together in the postexilic period. Three of these documents told essentially the same story, starting from creation and concluding in Joshua. Wellhausen isolated these writings on the basis of narrative discrepancies and doublets, as well as differences of divine name, vocabulary, and religious ideology.
Gunkel worked from a different basic unit: instead of long, literary strands, Gunkel took as his object of scrutiny the “individual legend,” the precursors to the Pentateuch’s narratives in their earliest oral form. Gunkel was partly influenced to this decision by folklore studies then current in the humanities at large. However, the reasons he adduces for this methodological choice in Legends are aesthetic, and accord with the originalist instincts of Romanticism: “many stories are entirely spoiled by following them up immediately with new ones which drive the reader suddenly from one mood to another.” The conjoining of stories often comes at their literary expense, and Gunkel seeks by recovering them in their individuality to restore their poetry (11). Gunkel assumed that popular legends – that is, legends in their vital phase, before the hibernation of textualization – “in their very nature exist in the form of individual legends” (43).
Gunkel never gave comprehensive articulation to his method for isolating these individual story-units, but his procedure follows a number of named criteria: instead of the clues on the surface of the text that were Wellhausen’s focus, Gunkel stripped stories down according to their minimal level of structural coherency. “Every single legend,” he writes, “is a complete whole to itself,” with a distinct introduction and a discernible close (43). Gunkel refers illustratively to the tale of Abraham seeking a wife for his son (Gen 24), which makes sense as a coherent plot on its own terms, excerpted from almost all other context. Gunkel also adduces a story’s unified rhetorical effect as an index of its integrity, stating that, for example, in the story of Isaac’s near-sacrifice (Gen 22), “emotion is predominant,” whereas the mood of Jacob’s deception of Isaac is comedic (Gen 27, p44). Gunkel uses further theological and stylistic considerations to discern the boundaries between legends. Some stories, for example, seem a-moral or a-religious, like God’s attack on Jacob at Penuel (Gen 32), whereas others feature varying degrees of moral and religious self-consciousness (107). Stylistically, Gunkel observes the differences between abrupt stories (like Noah’s drunkenness, Gen 9:20-27) and longer, more sculpted stories such as in the Joseph romance (Gen 37-50). Gunkel plots both these characteristics chronologically, placing the simple and a-theological early and the more “developed” later.
Gunkel is also attentive to the joints between stories, that is, the way that individual legends have been put together to form a larger body (In effect, these adhesives then also function as their own kind of criterion for determining the parameters of individual legends.) Gunkel writes that the “transition par excellence is the journey,” e.g., Jacob’s setting out for Aram at the conclusion of the Jacob-Esau story (Gen 28). The plots of distinct legends are also united through the conflation of characters. Thus, Noah in Genesis derives from three originally isolated figures: the ark constructor, the vintner, and the father of Ham, Shem, and Japheth (so also with Cain). The judgment of these stories’ original distinctness is based, apparently, on the structural considerations mentioned above. Closely related to the amalgamation of characters are geographical cues: regional stories that first were disparate became associated because of their common geographical orientation (97). Gunkel believed that the conglomeration of multiple legends into larger complexes began even in their oral phase, but accelerated during the desuetude of oral art and in a “a period generally disposed to authorship.”
Although the point is not directly methodological, Gunkel’s continued use and recalibration of Wellhausen’s source-criticism would exert a lasting influence on the methodological course of critical Pentateuchal research. On the one hand, Gunkel accepted Wellhausen’s thesis about the documentary sources, but he also basically reimagined their role vis-à-vis source materials. Instead of composers, Gunkel posited collectors: “schools of narrators” that agglutinated the legends they found at hand (whether individual units or larger narrative strings) with great conservatism regarding their details (130). Gunkel recognized that this recasting of J and E changed and even obscured their character (135). But his integration of source-critical findings with his own form-critical project ensured that the methods remained conjoined for at least another half-century.
Von Rad and Noth
Von Rad’s essay on “the Form-Critical Problem of the Pentateuch” takes as its point of departure the stultification in critical study of the Pentateuch: on the one hand, the settlement of source-criticism with its documentary conclusions and on the other hand the consensus of form-critical research on individual stories (1). Von Rad situates his own endeavor between these two extremes in the development of biblical traditions, primitive and (near) final: complexes of tradition larger than Gunkel’s multi-episodic “romances” but not coextensive with biblical books or the Pentateuch as a whole. Where these units sat along the oral/literary spectrum is not wholly clear. Rendtorff and others afterwards use mostly textual categories to describe the complexes of tradition that von Rad outlines (“composition,” 15). But von Rad also claims that the Yahwist theologian seizes on cult legends that were undergoing a process of de-localization and disuse – giving them new life, in part by textualizing them (50).
Von Rad’s method for isolating larger units of tradition inherits its basic structural orientation from Gunkel. Like Gunkel, his criterion depend on content and coherence rather than the “surface” phenomena of the text by which source-criticism makes its judgments. The difference is one of scale: Gunkel seeks structural and thematic coherence at the smallest level, whereas von Rad identifies these across bundles of individual stories. Von Rad speaks thus writes concerning the Sinai narrative in Ex 19-24, 32-34), “[t]he almost insoluble literary problem barely concerns us, however, for it is the internal structure of the material that interests us here, the unity of the material as such rather than its literary unity” (16).
One corollary of increasing the scale of the units under consideration is that another procedure opened to von Rad for verifying the boundaries of a tradition: cross-referencing. Gunkel could only ask, “do the characters and plot elements of one story cohere when abstracted from neighboring characters and plot elements?” Von Rad could ask, “do various witnesses to a tradition indicate any awareness of other, neighboring traditions?” The absence of this kind of cross-traditional awareness suggests an earlier independence of the traditions in question. For example, in establishing the integrity of the Sinai materials as a late insertion into the Exodus-settlement storyline, von Rad examines a number of ostensibly early poetic rehearsals of the salvation drama, e.g., Pss 78, 105, 135, 136, Ex 15, 1 Sam 12:8, Josh 24. None of these include mention of the events in the Sinai materials, and in fact, only the relatively late Ps 106 and Neh 9 feature the Sinai episode as part of the Exodus story (53).
Discriminating between these complexes of tradition also involved, as with Gunkel, thematic and theological profiling. Von Rad differentiated the Sinai tradition from the Exodus story not just through structural observations and cross-references but also through theological description. For von Rad, Sinai attests primarily to Yhwh’s righteousness, while the “Settlement tradition” operates by a simpler and more purely soteriological conception (“Law and Gospel”). So also with the primeval history and the patriarchal stories: conceptually, the emphasis of the early Genesis chapters on human sinfulness offers a generally different profile than the stories of promise, which pass scant judgment on their characters (67).
Von Rad’s method delineated four main blocs of tradition in the Hexateuch: the primeval history (Gen 1-11), the patriarchal cycle of stories (Gen 12-50), the “settlement tradition” (encompassing the Exodus, the wilderness wanderings, and, originally, the occupation), and the Sinai materials, each with its own structural integrity and theological thought-world. Von Rad also saw smaller, independent chunks, such as Ex 1-14 and the Balaam story (Num 22-24). The application of the above method seemed to result in a picture of each bloc as formerly completely independent and only lately streamlined into a single connected plot. However, von Rad’s “little credo” hypothesis prevented him from reaching this conclusion: while von Rad recognized the independent nature of each tradition complex, he also held that the main lines of the “fathers”-to-Exodus-to-settlement story were traceable back to Israel’s earliest confessions. In these allegedly primitive rehearsals of Israel’s rescue from Egypt and settlement in Canaan, the character of the “fathers” remains undeveloped; the primeval history, the Sinai event, and the conquest are unmentioned. But on von Rad’s telling, archaic creeds already lay at hand in the day of the 10th c. Yahwist, who could use them as the framework upon which to hang the other, varied traditions of the Pentateuch. This decision to see important components of the Pentateuch’s plot as linked from the earliest time – even over against the evidence that they were only lately combined – would have enduring consequences for Pentateuchal research.
At least some of von Rad’s discernment in this matter is probably theologically influenced: that the one continuous element in Israel's religion was a recital of “the facts of redemption” conforms better to some Christian sensibilities than that exilic or postexilic redactors joined previously alien religious traditions (8). Also, what von Rad’s method enabled him to pronounce upon was the lineaments of the major Pentateuchal tradition-blocs: what it left unexplained was the process of formation subsequent to Gunkel’s single units preliminary to the coalescence of these blocs. Von Rad also left the process of formation between the emergence of the tradition-blocs and the stabilization of the Pentateuch somewhat vague.
Methodologically, Noth largely agrees with von Rad, but is slightly more explicit about the criteria by which he distinguishes the five major blocs within the Pentateuch (in the order of their “tradition-historical priority”: guidance out of Egypt, guidance into arable land, promise to the patriarchs, guidance in the wilderness, and revelation at Sinai). His structural focus is evident in his choice of the word “theme” (Theme) to name the organizing category for these Pentateuchal traditions. Even more than von Rad, Noth delimits Pentateuchal materials on the basis of their common lead ideas rather than by, say, any literary indicators. Noth also leans on discontinuities in narrative logic: to demonstrate the prior independence of the theme “guidance into arable land” from “guidance out of Egypt” Noth cites the hiatus between Israel’s exit point from Egypt (southwest) and their entry point into the land (southeast; 54). So also with the original competition between the themes of patriarchal promise and “guidance into arable land.” Placing these themes together required both the suppression of the fulfillment motif in the patriarchal stories and its introduction to the “guidance into arable” land materials: they are originally foreign to one another. Noth follows von Rad’s use of cross-referencing, asking, “what knowledge does this tradition show of (an)other tradition(s)?” The wilderness wandering stories, for example, depend for their intelligibility on the Exodus and the settlement traditions – while the reverse is not true (56).
Where Noth departs from von Rad is not methodologically inflected. More than von Rad, Noth pays more attention to the geographical cues that organize and delineate the various traditions, e.g., place-names indicate that arable land traditions derive from the central Palestinian tribes and wilderness guidance and Sinai traditions from the southern tribes (53, 58). Noth rejects the Yahwist in the form of von Rad’s grand monarchic synthesizer, and prefers to envision the merger of the various traditions as a more gradual and diffuse process. In these regards Noth steps closer to acknowledging the initially total distinctness of Pentateuchal traditions. But he accepts (perhaps less enthusiastically) the “little credo” hypothesis, and leverages it far less in his work; Noth also speaks more than von Rad of the role the Priestly writings play as the scaffolding for the whole Pentateuch. Less clear is the extent to which, for Noth, the admittedly late Priestly plotline depends on a sequence of events that were interrelated at a much earlier point, i.e., for Noth, how much were the Pentateuchal “themes” already affiliated with one another before their Priestly reworking?
Both von Rad and Noth continued, as with Gunkel, to synthesize their tradition-historical findings, no matter how tenuously, with the “established” results of Wellhausen’s documentary hypothesis. Until R. Rendtorff’s watershed 1977 book on The Problem of the Process of Transmission in the Pentateuch, the essentially different questions and, indeed, conclusions of these two methods remained undeveloped. Rendtorff’s work takes up the methodological apparatus of his tradition-historical predecessors – especially using structural information, theological profiling, and cross-referencing – and disentangles its implementation from the legacy of source-criticism. Rendtorff also, more subtly, perhaps, releases von Rad’s and Noth’s lingering sense that the most basic storyline of the Pentateuch (fathers-exodus-settlement) dates from Israel’s earliest period. Rather, he writes: “a result of our study is that the mutual independence of these complexes is considerably greater than has been generally accepted to date” (177). His cross-referencing also leads him to call for more attention to the implications of the silence in pre-exilic writings about the main themes of the Pentateuch, i.e., the relative lateness of these traditions’ combination (204).
Since Rendtorff’s’s ground-clearing work, tradition-historical research has set off in the directions he first suggested. Konrad Schmid in particular has (in great detail) developed the increasingly accepted thesis that the ancestral stories were separate from the “Moses story” even up to the Persian period. Nevertheless, his and all other works in this trajectory of research stand in a continuing debt to the methodological pioneering of Gunkel, von Rad, and Noth.