The Study of the Composition of the Pentateuch Part 2 – Challenges to the Consensus

1. Introduction. Start with Part 1 – The Documentary Hypothesis. The Graf-Wellhausen Documentary Hypothesis was the consensus view at the beginning of the 20th century and continued to dominate Biblical Studies until being seriously challenged in the 1970’s. It remains influential primarily among American scholars, especially those of the Albright/Cross-Harvard school. The first challenges came in the development of Tradition and Form Criticism, which shifted the object of study from the written sources themselves to the oral traditions behind them. 

2. Form and Tradition Criticism. Hermann Gunkel (1862-1932) was the first scholar to look beyond the written sources to the origin and purpose of the narratives themselves. He studied the stories of Genesis as individual units and emphasized their pre-written, oral history. Drawing on studies of European folklore, he saw Genesis as a collection of stories, Sagen, that had originated early in Israel’s history and been passed down over time. He noted that many of the stories seemed to have etiological and etymological origins, and their seemed to be common types of stories.

Form criticism seeks to identify these stereotypical patterns or forms within language, and then relate those forms back to a particular life setting, or Sitz im Leben. Tradition criticism studies the history of these oral traditions during their period of transmission. Form critical studies were also done by Hugo Gressman (1877-1927), who studied the Moses stories, and Albrecht Alt (1883-1956), who studied the laws distinguishing between case law and apodictic law.

Gerhard von Rad (1901-1971) built on Gunkel’s work, developing a comprehensive theory for the development of the Pentateuchal traditions. He suggested that there were two sets of traditions. One was the Exodus-Conquest (the entry into Egypt, slavery, Exodus, and taking of the promised land) which became the common heritage for all the tribes and was celebrated at the Feast of Weeks. These elements are represented in Dt 26:5-9. The second tradition was the giving of the law at Sinai. These two traditions were then united to form a unified theology of history, or Heilsgeschichte. He also suggested that the pre-Deuteronomical works dated to the 10th century, during a period of cultural enlightenment at the time of Solomon.

Martin Noth (1902-1968) further refined von Rad’s themes, arguing that there were originally separate traditions belonging to particular tribes or group of tribes. These traditions were pooled once the tribes united as a tribal league or “amphictyony”. He identified five such traditions: 1) The promise to the patriarchs; 2) The exodus from Egypt; 3) The wilderness wandering; 4) The revelation at Sinai; and 5) The entry into the land. This single work was called G for Grundlage or “foundation”. Thus J and E were separate works which drew on the common tradition of G, but also added their own material, and eventually were combined with J dominating. Noth also argued that Deuteronomy is a prelude to the Deuteronomistic History (Joshua-2 Kings), not an addendum to the Tetrateuch (Genesis-Numbers).  

3. Challenges to the Consensus. While Gunkel, von Rad, and Noth attempted to work within the framework of the Documentary Hypothesis, later scholars of the traditio-historical approach came into more tension with it.

4.1. Ivan Engell (1906-1964) and the Uppsala School. Several Scandinavian scholars argued for the predominance of oral tradition in the East (following Nyberg) and a late, exilic or post-exilic, date of composition for the Pentateuch. Most notable is Ivan Engnell (1906-1964), regarded as the founder of the “Uppsala School”. His most significant work was a tradition-history introduction to the Old Testament (1945). He was strongly opposed to the Wellhausen method and described JE and P not as written documents, but rather as strands of tradition. For Engell, the existence of doublets and repetitions reflected the process of oral transmission, not the existence of parallel sources. He also argued that the stylistic and theological characteristics which had been ascribed to the various sources were often arbitrary and artificial. While conceding that some forms were committed to writing early, he argued that the majority of the Old Testament was developed and composed at the oral level. He argued for a Tetrateuch which went through a long process of growth and expansion that was brought to an end by P in the post-exilic period. It should be noted that Engnell’s work was responded to by Mowinckel, who largely attacked his methodology, arguing for the need of both literary criticism and tradition-historical approaches. 

4.2. Rolf Rendtorff (1925-). Rendtorff was a student and then colleague of von Rad. Similar to Engnell, he argued in The Problem of the Process of Transmission in the Pentateuch (1977) that traditional source criticism and the traditio-historical method were incompatible. He saw the Pentateuch as largely a Deuteronomistic composition, while P was not a source but supplementary. He focused on the smallest units of tradition which were built by stages into larger blocks of material, and eventually combined at a late stage (early post-exilic) into a “history” by someone who already had the Deuteronomistic history. Rendtorff’s student, Erhard Blum, developed his thesis further and in more detail. He saw the priestly work as an attempt to correct certain elements of the Deuteronomistic theology. Further, he saw the impetus for the Pentateuch as a Persian demand for an official “Jewish law” within the Persian empire.  

4.3. John Van Seters (1935-). The tradition-history approach represented by Engnell argued for a late date for the written form of the Pentateuch, but also for the general reliability of oral tradition. However, in his study of the patriarchal narratives, Abraham in History and Tradition (1975), Van Seters argued that these stories better fit a date of composition in the late monarchic or early exilic period. His argued that the supposed Nuzi parallels to the social setting of the Patriarchs were forced and selective, while much better parallels exist in 1st millennium cuneiform literature. Similar conclusions were reached by Thomas Thompson in his The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives (1974). Van Seters also argued that the analysis of the process of oral tradition is too speculative, since we only have the written form. Instead, he suggested a new Supplementary Hypothesis following a model of historiography rather than theology. It was common for ancient history writers, such as Herodotus, to use folk traditions in order to fill in their works. He sees three main sources which are not parallel, but directly dependent on one another: D, J,  and P. Here, Van Seters turns the traditional dating on its head, suggesting that the Tetrateuch is actually an addition to Deuteronomy, written first by J in the exilic period and then supplemented later by P in the post-exilic period.

4.4. Hans Heinrich Schmid (   ). In 1976 Schmid published Der sogennante Jahwist which also called into question the early date of J. Schmid argued against von Rad’s notion of a ‘Solomonic Enlightenment’ and tried to show that J was actually heavily dependent on prophetic traditions and the Deuteronomic school. Thus he concluded that J should be associated with both. His student, Martin Rose, argued further that D was prior to J, in agreement with Van Seters.  

4.5. R.N Whybray (1923-1997). In his The Making of the Pentateuch (1987), Whybray presented probably the most complete methodological critique of the Documentary Hypothesis. In sum, he argued that its adherents recreate the hypothetical documents by simultaneously relying on the criteria of inconsistency and consistency. Sections are assigned to a specific document  based on the assumption that each document has internal consistency of language, style, and theology. However, the documents are distinguished within the final written form based on the criteria of inconsistency. If the redactors are not concerned with inconsistency in their final product, then how can we assume that the authors/editors of the individual documents were? He argued that consistency is a modern western literary value, not necessarily an ancient Near Eastern one. He tentatively suggests that the Pentateuch was the work of a single author, an antiquarian historian similar to Van Seters, who used many folk tales of his time to create a history, perhaps as a prologue to the Deuteronomistic history.

5. Conclusions. A major methodological flaw of the Documentary Hypothesis was its tendency to multiply sources. Early scholars attempted to escape this by moving beyond the written sources to the oral traditions. This had the interesting side effect of pushing the date of composition later, into the exilic and post-exilic periods. Further, while early scholars had great confidence in the historical reliability of the oral traditions, the studies of Van Seters and Thomas Thompson began to undercut that reliability. Thus, while the Documentary Hypothesis was the consensus view at the beginning of the century, by the end its exact opposite was gaining popularity – late composition by a single author.

Explore posts in the same categories: Text Criticism

3 Comments on “The Study of the Composition of the Pentateuch Part 2 – Challenges to the Consensus”

  1. dfrese Says:

    Great work. This’ll help for my comps as well – thanks for posting!

  2. Kent Says:

    Have you seen the new collection of material on the Pentateuch released on Pre-Pub from Logos Bible Software? It includes books by Rendtorff, Whybray, and others, and contains extensive discussion on the DH. I thought you might be interested: Pentateuch History and Origins Collection (10 Vols.)


  3. I am really thankful to the owner of this site who has shared this impressive piece of
    writing at at this place.

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