Introduction to Pentateuchal Criticism
Since at least the third century AD, the term “Pentateuch” (derived from the Greek pentateuchos, “five-volume work”) has been used to denote the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Jewish tradition has favored the designation “Torah,” usually translated as “law,” although “instruction” would perhaps be more accurate. Penned originally in Hebrew, the books of the Pentateuch were already important texts by at least the fourth century BC, and over the years they have had a significant influence, both knowingly and unknowingly, upon the religious outlook of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. In spite of this, most people today have only a passing familiarity with their contents, and much within them is likely to strike the modern reader as strange and/or incomprehensible.
For an introduction to the contents of these five books, the reader should consult part 2. The opening chapters, here in part 1, provide an introduction to contemporary academic approaches to the Pentateuch and offer a critique of them from an evangelical perspective. After almost a century of relative stability, Pentateuch criticism is currently in a state of turmoil as various theories vie with one another in an attempt to dethrone the Documentary Hypothesis as the explanation for the process by which these books were composed. Naturally, it is not possible to do justice to all that has been said, and I am conscious of the limitations of what follows. Nevertheless, it is hoped that this contribution may provide a basis for and a stimulus to further study.
Before focusing on the Documentary Hypothesis, it may be helpful to briefly survey how the Pentateuch has been approached in the modern period. During the past 250 years, scholarly research on the Pentateuch has developed around four main methods: source criticism, form criticism, traditio-historical criticism, and literary criticism. Since each method addresses a specific set of issues, it is important to understand how they differ from one another. Moreover, as we shall observe, the rise of each method signaled a new stage in the study of the Pentateuch.
Source criticism was the first of these four methods to be employed, and it has established itself as a major tool in pentateuchal criticism. This method, which to some extent originally came into being by chance, seeks to uncover the literary sources that may have been used in the composition of the books of Genesis to Deuteronomy. Although pushed into the background by other methods during most of the twentieth century, it continues to exercise considerable influence, particularly in relation to the exegesis of the pentateuchal books and scholarly reconstructions of the history of ancient Israel. In chapter 2 we shall trace the development of this method from its origins in the middle of the eighteenth century to the end of the nineteenth century, by which time there evolved the influential Documentary Hypothesis of Graf, Vatke, and Wellhausen. For the present it is sufficient to recognize this hypothesis as proposing that four distinctive source documents were combined during a period of five or six centuries to produce the Pentateuch as we now know it, the end of this process coming in the fifth century BC.
Following the almost universal acceptance of the Documentary Hypothesis, biblical scholars turned, perhaps not surprisingly, to consider the oral phase that was thought to lie behind the source documents. Pioneered by Hermann Gunkel in the early decades of the twentieth century, a new methodology arose, subsequently termed form criticism. This approach sought to analyze the pentateuchal material into different categories on the assumption that each had its own particular life setting (technically known as Sitz im Leben). By identifying the form of a particular passage, it was thought possible to recover the historical context in which the material was composed. Fundamental to the development of this method was the belief that Genesis consisted of numerous short episodes that originally circulated both orally and independently of one another. Only at a much later stage were these oral compositions brought together and committed to writing, eventually creating the four source documents from which the Pentateuch was composed. A fuller description of this method comes in chapter 3.
Having determined (1) the earliest oral forms of the pentateuchal material and (2) the four main source documents, the next stage in the history of pentateuchal criticism was to describe the process by which the former were combined to produce the latter. Since this method was interested in the history of the traditions underlying the Pentateuch, it was designated traditio-historical criticism. Two of the main scholars associated with the development of this approach are Gerhard von Rad and Martin Noth. Regarding their contribution, see chapter 3.
The preceding three methods all focus on the process by which the Pentateuch was composed. Form criticism identifies the earliest oral stage, traditio-historical criticism describes the process leading up to the formation of the longer written source documents, and finally, source criticism explains how the source documents were brought together to create the Pentateuch as we now have it. In following chapters we shall outline in more detail the use and results of these methods, at the same time evaluating the success of each in achieving its objectives.
The past thirty years have witnessed the introduction of an alternative way to view the Pentateuch, known as literary criticism. While interest remains strong in uncovering the process by which the Pentateuch was composed, many scholars either have acknowledged or are gradually recognizing the need to comprehend the Pentateuch in its final form. This shift in emphasis entails a switch from a diachronic (through time) to a synchronic (at the same time) reading of the text. Instead of locating portions of the text in different historical periods, literary criticism seeks to understand the Pentateuch as a coherent, unified work composed at one specific point in time. Literary criticism recognizes that the Pentateuch cannot be understood solely on the basis of the components that have been used in its construction: the whole is much greater than the sum of its parts.
Two further dimensions of literary criticism ought to be noticed. First, the designation “literary criticism” embraces a wide range of differing approaches that may be used to interpret texts (e.g., structuralism, deconstruction, reader-response, rhetorical, narrative, feminist). Scholars primarily interested in the study of modern literature have developed many of these approaches. Second, some proponents of literary criticism adopt a very ambivalent attitude toward historical issues. They are primarily interested in the text alone, viewing questions concerning the growth of the text and its historical context as irrelevant to their particular approach. While there may be a place for adopting an ahistorical reading of some texts, it needs to be asked if this is really appropriate for the study of the Pentateuch.
In theory, the four methods outlined above are complementary, asking different questions of the Pentateuch. In practice, however, literary criticism, by revealing more clearly how the biblical text is constructed, has challenged many of the results obtained by the other methods. For this reason, in recent years literary criticism has had a major impact on the study of the Pentateuch, and it continues to do so. Nevertheless, the results obtained by the other methods still enjoy substantial support. Consequently, as we move into the twenty-first century, the academic study of the Pentateuch is marked by a greater diversity of opinions than possibly at any stage in the modern period. What follows, therefore, makes no claim to be a comprehensive description of all current views. Rather, it is designed to (1) explain how the present state of affairs came into being, (2) evaluate some of the more influential contributions, and (3) offer some tentative suggestions as to how Christians may best approach the Pentateuch as an important theological text.
The Rise of the Documentary Hypothesis
Contemporary approaches to the Pentateuch have their roots in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. For this reason, in this chapter we shall survey, briefly and somewhat selectively, the development of source criticism as applied to the Pentateuch, from the period of the Enlightenment to the end of the nineteenth century. This historical overview provides an important introduction to the topics we shall explore in more detail throughout the rest of part 1 of this book. It will also help us to understand more clearly some of the different directions being pursued in contemporary discussions.
The origin of source criticism as a critical method may be traced back to the middle of the eighteenth century. From somewhat unusual beginnings, it became the dominant tool for the study of the Pentateuch. Undoubtedly this development owed much to the new climate of intellectual freedom, associated with the Enlightenment, that permitted the questioning of traditional views. Although the source criticism of the Pentateuch developed largely through a slow process of evolution, with new ideas being introduced and refined, it is possible to distinguish a number of distinctive stages. These are helpful in highlighting various models that may be used to explain the process by which the Pentateuch was composed (see below under the subhead “Models for Explaining the Composition of the Pentateuch”).
The Older Documentary Hypothesis
In 1753 a leading French medical professor, Jean Astruc (1684–1766), published in Brussels a work titled Conjectures sur les mémoires originaux dont il paroit que Moyse s’est servi pour composer le livre de la Genèse, in which he argued that Moses had compiled Genesis from older documents. Astruc made three important observations regarding Genesis: (1) certain events are recorded more than once (e.g., the creation; the flood); (2) God is designated by the names Elohim and Yahweh; (3) certain events are reported before other events, although chronologically they occur later. These observations suggested to Astruc that Genesis was composed of older records, and so he proceeded to “decompose” Genesis. In one column, which he termed A, he placed passages using or linked to the divine name Elohim. Next to this first column he placed a second column, B, containing passages associated with the name Yahweh. However, it soon became apparent that two columns would not suffice. A third column, C, was introduced for passages that (1) were repetitions of events already included in both columns A and B, and (2) did not employ any divine designation. To this column Astruc assigned with certainty only two verses (7:20, 23). Other passages that did not contain the name of God still required attention. When Astruc noticed that the remaining passages recorded events foreign to the history of the Hebrew people, he placed them in a fourth column, D. With regard to this final column, Astruc thought it unlikely that it once formed a continuous document. Rather, it consisted of fragments from other minor documents. Finally, Astruc was unable to assign certain verses to any particular column. These verses, he felt, could be common to two or three of the original documents (Gen. 7:24 to A, B, and C; Gen. 9:28–29 to A and B). Astruc proposed that Moses had originally placed these four columns side by side, but unfortunately a later copyist mistakenly combined them, thus creating the continuous narrative that now constitutes Genesis.
Some fifteen years after the death of Astruc, Johann Gottfried Eichhorn (1752–1827) published his Einleitung ins Alte Testament. In the second volume (1781) of this three-volume work, Eichhorn investigated the authorship and composition of the biblical books. Concerning Genesis, he maintained the orthodox view of Mosaic authorship; indeed, he argued that Moses was particularly well suited to be the author. Moses, however, had employed older written records, and Eichhorn held that it was possible, in most of Genesis, to discern two distinct documents. These documents could be distinguished (1) by the divine epithet employed and (2) by repetitions in the text. Apart from certain minor modifications Eichhorn followed the division suggested by Astruc, although he asserted that Astruc did not influence him.
A further significant development in the source analysis of Genesis occurred in a work by Karl David Ilgen (1763–1834), published at Halle in 1798, titled Die Urkunden des jerusalemischen Tempelarchivs in ihrer Urgestalt als Beytrag zur Berichtigung der Geschichte der Religion und Politik. Ilgen, the successor of Eichhorn at Jena, suggested that Genesis comprised seventeen individual documents. These were, however, composed by merely three authors, two of whom used the divine name Elohim, whereas the third employed the epithet Yahweh. Ilgen referred to them by the terms Sepher Eliel Harischon (First Elohist), Sepher Eliel Haschscheni (Second Elohist), and Sepher Elijah Harischon (First Yahwist). He concluded that the First Elohist was responsible for ten sections of Genesis, the Second Elohist for five sections, and the Yahwist for two sections. Ilgen’s contribution was important in that he was the first to forward the idea that more than one author used the divine name Elohim. This idea, however, did not gain recognition among scholars until it was advocated afresh by Hermann Hupfeld in 1853 (see below).
The position adopted by Astruc, Eichhorn, and Ilgen for the source analysis of Genesis is sometimes referred to as the Older Documentary Hypothesis. This particular approach represents the earliest phase of the source criticism of the Pentateuch. The conclusions reached by these early critics were based mainly on a consideration of the book of Genesis alone. Apart from the early chapters of Exodus, no attempt was made to extend the theory to include the other books of the Pentateuch. Furthermore, source criticism as a methodology arose more by chance than by design. It was the presence of particular phenomena in Genesis that led Astruc, Eichhorn, and Ilgen to propose the existence of earlier literary sources, and these same phenomena continued to form the basis of future scholarly research. Thus from its inception source analysis of the Pentateuch has relied heavily on the presence in Genesis of differing names for God and apparently duplicate accounts of the same events.
These initial developments in source criticism were soon recognized by scholars interested in how the theology of the Old Testament developed. Especially noteworthy is the pioneering contribution of Georg Lorenz Bauer (1755–1806), who has the distinction of being the first person to produce an Old Testament theology. In the “Introduction” to his Old Testament Theology, he writes, “We shall endeavour to place before the reader an imparti...