I often ponder what leads people to believe in ideas like the documentary hypothesis of the Pentateuch. An idea that has been mostly championed by German biblical critics and their followers, the documentary hypothesis posts at a minimum that four documents, called J, E, P, and D were artlessly combined together by an incompetent redactor into the five books of the law that we now have. Though I have commented before on the sources of Genesis [1], I have not generally commented at length on my rather dismissive thoughts of the documentary hypothesis as a whole, but I thought it worthwhile to do so, not as a formal academic exercise, but as a statement of thoughts to spark conversation among others.

J, E, P, and D stand for four different names and concerns that the books of the law possess. J and E are supposedly different documents, one with the name Yahweh and the other with the name Elohim, supposedly coming from two different religious traditions. P stands for the priestly documents, mostly those like Leviticus that supposedly favor the interests of the priestly establishment, while D stands for the Deuteronomist whose interest in laws reflected an exilic development of Hebrew law. Quite honestly, I think that the hypothesis is a load of bunk, completely worthless and contrary to every practice of writers and editors in the actual world. Let us discuss why.

First, the idea that someone would clumsily redact different sources together, paint them as different sources, and avoid obvious harmonizing is contrary to all experience with works of literature. Let us provide some examples. Tatian’s famous Harmony of the Gospels and the Heliand [2] are both examples of harmonizations of the Gospels, and both works of sublime historical excellence and considerable antiquity. Both of them take existing source material (the four Gospels) and weave them together into a coherent work that smooths out rough edges and presents a story from a single perspective. This is so even though the four Gospels (rather famously) have their own distinct approaches and focus and intended audience and language (witness Matthew’s use of “Kingdom of Heaven” instead of the more common “Kingdom of God,” to give but one example).

What we find in the Penteteuch is something completely different. Instead of having one simple perspective of God’s name or one focus, as we find in Tatian’s work and the anonymous Heliand, the Penteteuch has two clear names for God (with many variations), besides long codes that deal with the priests and Levites that are separate from genealogies and narrative sections. Any editor that is seeking to smooth out rough edges would do as Tatian did (and other harmonizers of the Gospels or other texts do), and not leave the rough parts in as the Penteteuch does, showing both obvious (and minor) updating of terms and place names as well as fidelity to an ancient body of work that appears to have been largely respected and left as is, with no attempt to eliminate tensions within the text itself, or apparent duplications (like the two rebellions of Meribah or the two battles of Hormah [3]). Why would a redactor behave this way?

The most straightforward reason is that there was no redactor at all. Genesis and other books of the law plainly show evidence of citing sources, whether they be embedded within the text itself like the different “generations” of Genesis or the Book of the Songs of the Lord or the Book of Jashur. Given the frequent appearance of writing within the Law itself and given the willingness of Moses (or whomever wrote the Penteteuch) to openly cite sources, it beggars belief that this would merely be a cover for the existence of sources of which no one has any evidence, of which the book itself does not claim, and that would make the work a crazy quilt patch job instead of a coherent text if such an editing methodology was used against all human practice and behavior.

The only solution that makes rational sense is that the Law represents a coherent work written probably by Moses, using existing sources (like Genesis) about Israel’s history, including different names for God with theological reasons (that continue on into the Wisdom literature, where the name Yahweh presupposes a coventanal relationship while Elohim is a more general name used largely for generally accessible works of Hebrew sacred literature, like Ecclesiastes). Rather than assuming that any duplication of accounts (like the two different accounts of Creation) represent different textual sources, it is far more profitable to examine what the accounts say to point to a complexity of perspective and a tension between different theological truths that must be placed in balance (like the imminence and transcendence of God, or the tension between recognized central priestly and civil authorities and the need for prophets that critique often corrupt leadership). When we accept the text as is and seek to understand it, we gain far greater insight than in assuming that God, believers, or the ancient Hebrews thought in a narrowly rationalistic way that would suit Greeks or Germans when that is clearly not the case. After all, if a redactor would have sought to make a superficially clean and straightforward account that smooths over textual difficulties, clearly he would have done a better job in eliminating the distinctiveness and variety within the text of the Law that we have itself. Clearly God is too large for our boxes, and so is the Law too complex for bogus documentary hypothesis. We simply need to take God at His terms.




About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Bible, Biblical History, Christianity, History and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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