Previous posts include:
1. Faith, Evidence, and Biblical Scholarship
2. The Old Testament Canon
3. Genres in the Pentateuch
Some of the earliest firestorms in biblical studies centered on the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible. The reason they created such controversy was not only because they called the historicity of these books into question but also because they came at a time when some of the most fundamental ways of looking at Christian faith were being challenged from every side. All in all, there are four basic responses we might make to these issues.
The first and the last were those taken respectively by fundamentalists and modernists in the early twentieth century. Modernists largely reformulated what Christian faith they had around being a good person and denied the supernatural element of the Pentateuch and the Bible in general. Fundamentalists, on the other hand, focused--one might even say reformulated their Christian faith around defending the historicity of the biblical texts tooth and nail.
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, two additional gradations present themselves. The one might accept the general historicity of the Pentateuchal accounts, while not being overly concerned with variations that might result from the use of sources or in the variations of oral tradition. Another largely ignores the historical issues altogether, finding the Scriptural import of the text in the theological meaning and significance Christians have ascribed to the texts.
Source criticism is that branch of biblical studies that asks what written sources might have been used by various books of the Bible. It has been applied in particular to the Pentateuch in the Old Testament and the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke in the New Testament. In theory, God clearly could inspire a person to edit sources just as easily as to inspire a completely new writing. Nevertheless, the idea of sources behind various biblical writings initially encountered strong resistance, particularly in relation to the Pentateuch.
We can suggest several reasons why source criticism of the Pentateuch has encountered such strong resistance. Perhaps the most obvious is that source criticism has generally tended to diminish to one degree or another the historicity of the Pentateuchal narratives. In itself, the idea of sources would not need to imply that the final form of the text was not fully historical. But the way the discussion of the Pentateuch proceeded in the 1800s led in this direction, especially the form it took in the theory of Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918).
A second reason is the fact that the New Testament, including Jesus in the gospels, seems to think of Moses as the author of the Pentateuch (e.g., Luke 24:44). Most of these instances are referential rather than substantial, meaning that they might simply be taken as ways of referring to material in the Pentateuch in the categories of Jesus' day. However, Pentateuchal source criticism--especially as Wellhausen developed it--has tended to go further to suggest that the bulk of the material about Moses is not historical either, especially the sacrificial material.
Wellhausen is usually the target of attacks on the documentary hypothesis, the idea that certain documents have been spliced together to form the five current books of the Pentateuch. But the idea in various forms had been around for well over a century before he published his version of the idea in 1878. For example, W. M. L. de Wette (1780-1849) had earlier suggested that the "book of the Law" found in 2 Kings 22:8 was a portion of Deuteronomy rather than the entire Pentateuch.
Whether one agrees with this suggestion or not, it is easy enough to see why de Wette suggested it. The phrase "book of the Law" does not appear anywhere in Exodus, Leviticus, or Numbers. In Exodus, we find only the expression "book of the covenant" used once, and it seems to refer only to the legislation from Exodus 21-23 (cf. Exod. 24:7), presumably given while Israel is still at Mt. Sinai in the desert.
At the same time, if one takes a statement like Deuteronomy 31:26 as a literal presentation of history, then Moses is speaking about putting the "book of the Law" in the ark of the covenant, and this is forty years later in time. But if he is saying this about a book, then the part of Deuteronomy telling about him saying it could not be part of the book he is talking about. de Wette took this statement as a presentation of history and so concluded the book of the Law was a portion of Deuteronomy.
It is primarily the book of Joshua (e.g., 1:8) and 2 Kings where this phrase "book of the Law" is used. And Joshua 1 follows closely on the heals of Deuteronomy 34. Following an inductive method, it is at least understandable why de Wette saw 2 Kings 22:8 primarily referring to a portion of Deuteronomy. Only Deuteronomy mentions such a book in relation to some of its own content. So before Wellhausen, de Wette had argued that there was a source behind the Pentateuch that consisted of a portion of the book of Deuteronomy.
Another idea that preceded Wellhausen was that there are distinct sources behind the Pentateuchal narratives based on the name for God used in particular passages. For example, God tells Moses in Exodus 6:3 that He did not reveal himself to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob by his name Yahweh. Instead, He revealed himself as El Shaddai. When we turn back to the patriarchal narratives, the stories of the fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, we interestingly find some stories that refer to God as Yahweh and other stories that refer to God as Elohim, the more generic word for God in Hebrew.
Again, regardless of what one concludes, it is easy enough to see why some scholars of the Old Testament came to the conclusion that there was a Yahweh source and at least one Elohim source that Genesis, Exodus, and Numbers had edited into one storyline. The idea is that in the Elohim version, God is not called Yahweh until Exodus 6. In the Yahweh version, on the other hand, God is called Yahweh from the very beginning. Only occasionally do we find a passage where both names are used in the same pericope or section.
As an example of this line of thinking, Genesis 15 and 16 refer consistently throughout the two chapters to God as Yahweh. The LORD (the way God's proper name is usually translated into English) promises Abram will have numerous descendants. Sarai follows common Ancient Near Eastern practice and suggests Abram have a child by Hagar, which he does. Then when we get to Genesis 17:1, God now calls himself El Shaddai. Once again, God promises Abraham that he will have numerous descendants. Sarah laughs at the thought of having a child at the age of 99, and so forth.
Genesis 15-17 flows fine as a single narrative, but we can see from it what some scholars prior to Wellhausen were thinking. They considered Genesis 15 and 16 largely to come from an epic of Israel's story that used the word Yahweh consistently for God. They called this source "J" because these thinkers were mostly German, and Yahweh is spelled Jahweh in German (although pronounced similarly to the English). Meanwhile, they saw Genesis 17 as part of a different epic that had God call himself "El Shaddai," or "God Almighty" to Abraham, only to reveal himself later to Moses as Yahweh. They called this source "E" for Elohim.
[chart breaking out supposed J and E sources in the Flood story]
From the above discussion, it is clear that Wellhausen's work was really much more of a synthesis and systematic presentation of ideas that had already been around prior to him. He followed others in proposing that the Pentateuch was the result of four basic sources edited together. Two were epics of Israel's history, one of which used Elohim for God up till the point of Moses (E2) and the other of which used Yahweh throughout (J). D was then some form of the book of Deuteronomy.
Finally, Wellhausen suggested that another source that used "Elohim" for God represented the work of a later editor who contributed most of the priestly material in Leviticus and so forth. The scholars that followed Wellhausen called this source "P" for priestly, although Wellhausen himself did not. It was probably this suggestion, more than any other, that fueled opposition to Wellhausen.
Although he did not originate the idea that this so called P source was a later priestly editor, Wellhausen argued for the notion more than any had before him. Earlier scholars had accepted the idea of another Elohim source of this sort, but they had argued it was early. By arguing it was one of the latest sources, Wellhausen basically implied that none of the sacrificial legislation of Leviticus actually went back to Moses.
Again, whether we agree with this theory or not, we can see why Wellhausen drew this conclusion. So much of the sacrificial element of Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy seems completely absent from Judges, Samuel, and Kings. Wellhausen's first writing was on Samuel, so he particularly noticed its absence. So he concluded that sacrificial legislation did not exist at the time. The other possibility is of course to see this teaching as largely ignored by Israel until the time of Josiah.
The letters JEDP have long since become synonymous with Wellhausen's documentary hypothesis. Of course those who believe there to have been sources of this sort have not simply reproduced Wellhausen's ideas these last hundred thirty years. The idea of an "E" epic has often been questioned, and the "holiness codes" of Leviticus are not usually considered part of some P document in later scholarship. So while the idea of sources continues, current theories look significantly different from Wellhausen's famed suggestion.
As we mentioned at the beginning of this section, Christians react differently to these suggestions. Some will deny the idea of sources altogether, arguing that any editing done was either done by Moses or was done using Mosaic sources. Others will insist that, whatever sources might stand behind the Pentateuch, its essential historicity is intact. Still others, as we mentioned, find questions of historicity tangential to the essential meaning of the Pentateuch as Christian Scripture.
In the early twentieth century, a number of Old and New Testament scholars at least recognized that before the stories about Abraham and Moses were written down, they would have been passed along as oral tradition. Although this was a great insight, it was not profitably pursued at the time. It has only been in the last couple decades that the idea has begun to pay off.
In the early twentieth century, an inordinate amount of attention was given to various forms that oral tradition allegedly took. The study of such forms was called form criticism, as if the ancients only used certain "templates" when they told stories of various kinds. It was a similar kind of thinking that led Adolph Jülicher (1857-1938) to suggest that Jesus could only have told parables that had one point, because that was--he argued--the form of a parable. Parables with more than one point could thus not truly go back to Jesus, at least not in the form they appeared in the gospels.
Nevertheless, the suggestion that we might find in the Pentateuch or synoptic gospels different versions of the same original story is not ridiculous. Whether in the end we agree or not, it is curious that we find three versions of a very similar storyline in Genesis involving a patriarch, his wife, and a king. So we find Abraham telling Sarah to pretend she is his sister to Pharaoh (Gen. 12:10-20 in a text that uses Yahweh). We find Abraham telling Sarah to pretend she is his sister to Abimelech (Gen. 20:1-17 in a text that uses Elohim, and Sarah is at least 90 years old). And we find Isaac telling Rebekah to pretend she is his sister to Abimelech (Gen. 26:6-11).
Form critics like Hermann Gunkel (1862-1932) suggested that these were all versions of the same oral tradition. He suggested that the earliest form of the story was that of the lesser known individuals Isaac and Rebekah in relation to Abimelech. But then the story gravitated to the better known Abraham and Sarah and then from Abimelech to the better known Pharaoh.
The way one reacts to ideas of this sort will depend on how important one considers exact historicity for God to speak authoritatively and truthfully through the biblical text. For some, it is essential to consider each of these three versions distinct historical events. For others, it will matter little whether they are three versions of the same oral tradition or not. Each Christian will have to work out their own sense of what the limits of inspiration are.