Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Documentary Hypothesis Not Compatible With Current Research

Alice C. Linsley

The Documentary Hypothesis put forth by J. Wellhausen (1895) was largely accepted in academic circles for most of the 20th century. According to this hypothesis the five books of Moses were created c. 450 BC by combining four originally independent sources: the Jehovist, or J (c. 900 BC), the Elohist, or E (c. 800 BC), the Deuteronomist, or D, (c. 600 BC), and the Priestly source, or P (c. 500 BC). However, no manuscript evidence of these documents has ever been discovered and there are no ancient Jewish commentaries that mention any of these documents or sources.

In my view there is only one source: the Horite Hebrew ruler-priests. This royal caste included Methuselah, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Samuel, and David. Their ancestors were Nilotes and Proto-Saharans, and the oldest layers of Genesis and Exodus reflect their cultural context. The documentary theory served to obscure the cultural uniformity of Abraham's ancestors and his descendants up to the time of the Babylonian captivity. Today many question the usefulness of the documentary theory. It is not helpful in an anthropological approach to the Bible. 

A rebuttal of the hypothesis comes from Yehuda T. Radday who designed a statistical study of the Documentary Hypothesis. Using computer-assisted statistical linguistics, his research team produced an interpretation of the authorship of Genesis. The team did not find statistical validity for the attribution of the book to J, E, and P. Instead, the evidence calls for a division of the book into three categories: divine speech, human speech, and the narrator. The book provides much of the mathematical material on which the conclusions are based.

In Genesis: An Authorship Study in Computer-Assisted Statistical Linguistics (Analecta Biblica No. 903, Vol. 20) Radday explains:

Biblical scholarship in the nineteenth century, and until quite recently, concentrated either on Lower Criticism, i.e. reconstructing an allegedly corrupt Massoretic text, or on Higher Criticism, i.e. differentiating the sources from which the Massoretic text was thought to be composed. Lower Criticism, as it would be, finds little need to attend to matters of structure, while Higher Criticism, which takes any repetition in the flow of a narrative as evidence of separate source materials, is by definition bound to overlook the very essence of chiasm, namely the fact that such repetitions may have been employed in a given composition as an intentional stylistic device. The result, in the final analysis, is that both approaches, and indeed the somewhat myopic scholarly fixation on detailed and minute analysis generally, can combine to preclude even the most dedicated scholar from perceiving the overall structure of many compositions which reveals the presence of chiasm in longer passages and entire books.

But scholarly attitudes are changing. The general attitude toward biblical exegesis has become less text-critical, especially as the discoveries of Ugaritic and Essene literatures frequently sustain the Massoretic text against its major detractors. Furthermore, disillusionment with the crass rationalism of the last century has brought about a more cautious posture vis-î-vis ancient literatures than the confident attitudes which spawned much of Higher Criticism. These changes in the intellectual climate have slowly enabled scholars to agree that several techniques other than the naturalistic manner of telling a tale may exist in the Bible.

From here.

Unfortunately, the Genesis King Lists were not part of the team's analysis as they do not fit into any of the three categories. This necessarily skews the results. It is through analysis of the marriage and ascendancy pattern of the Horite Hebrew rulers that we are able to recognize them as one people, one source, and as kinsmen who share a common expectation of a Righteous Ruler who overcomes death and is the "son" of the High God.


DDeden said...

I don't see a conflict with Horite Priestly caste and the 4 author-types proposed by the Documentary Hypothesis, they were the same, but had different yet overlapping temporal and geographical/linguistic environs. The computer modeling does not impress me, these tend to produce results favored by the programmers. I agree the Horite marriage pattern is significant, but so are many other factors not normally considered at depth by Bible scholars/Critics.

Arimathean said...

I think you have presented a rather simplistic and dated form of the Documentary Hypothesis. It has come a long way since Wellhausen. One need not believe that J, E, P, and D actually existed simultaneously as independent written sources in the post-Exilic period to believe that the DH sheds light on the differnt points of view found in the Pentateuch. I think it is currently accepted that a draft of the Torah incorporating the different "sources" existed before the Exile. J and E might never have existed as separate written documents, but they clearly draw on distinct oral traditions.

Fundamentalism is always wrong, and that goes for a fundamentalist belief in the DH. Like any model, it should be understood as a tool that sheds light on reality, not as a comprehensive depiction of reality. (As a micreoeconomic theorist, I am quite conscious of this.) The way the DH was taught to undergrads in the 20th century (like so much of what is taught in colleges), skipped this important methodological point.

If the DH has become passe, it is not because it has been set aside, but because it has been milked for most of what it's worth. Academic incentives require that research proceed to new, more fruitful areas. Fortunately, the literary approaches that have gained popularity in recent years are often more useful than the old "higher criticism" for theological exegesis.

Arimathean said...

P.S. I am currently reading a fascinating book that I found on Fr. John Behr's reading list for his OT class: How the Bible Became a Book by Willliam M. Schniedewind. It looks at the origins of the written OT in connection to the development of widespread literacy in Jerusalem in the 8th-7th centuries BC, and the resulting transition from an oral religious culture to the authority of a written text.

Alice C. Linsley said...

All the sources come from the same people, if we are to believe what the Bible tells us.

BibleGeorge said...

Hi Alice,
Yehuda T. Radday's book sounds like it would be a very interesting read. Does it shed light on the historical realities of the times? Does it also give time periods for the divine speech, human speech and narrator?

Alice C. Linsley said...

Not really, George. It is a computer analysis by which patterns are classified into general categories. I only mention it because it is a example of contemporary Jewish doubts about the validity of the Graff-Wellhausen hypothesis.