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26th April, 2010

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The bad smell that won't go away

While reading William Dever's "Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From?" recently, some old emotions begin to well up within me and sweep over me as I read these words:

Scholars have long. known that each of these "strands" of the literary tradition [of the books of Moses] in the Hebrew Bible, now so skillfully woven into a whole, is in turn a composite work, written and edited by a group of anonymous authors. The sources of the Pentateuch are thus divided into a "J" school (because of its preference for the divine name Yahweh.); and an "E" school (for the other Hebrew divine name, Elohim). Then a final "Priestly school" (known as P) edited both together into the work that we now have, adding priestly legislation, sometime during the exilic or post-exilic period (6th century B.C.) (p. 7-8).

Weep and wail! Gnash one's teeth. Tear out one's hair. It would be one thing if scholars built their multiple-sources thesis, known as the "Documentary Hypothesis" or "Wellhausen hypothesis" on solid evidence; then believers would be forced to slink off with tail between their legs. But the theory is a figment of extravagant imagination. Incredibly, Bible scholars still believe this unsupportable notion almost to a man.

In short, the idea goes like this. Discard the notion that the books of Moses were written by one man, let alone a man called Moses. The truth is (swallow hard here), what we know as the Pentateuch was actually compiled by a number of later editors from a number of original sources (three or four chief ones and who knows how many minor ones) written, or passed on orally by bards or the like, at some time in history (doesn't really matter when, so long as it wasn't around the time Moses lived - if he lived at all).

What is the evidence? Have scholars found manuscripts or copies of manuscripts of the alleged original sources? No. Did the classical writers ever suggest that the Bible or any other major work had been put together piecemeal? No.

So what's the evidence for the documentary hypothesis? Wait for it. Here it is. In the eighteenth century classical scholars suspected that some of the well-known Greek texts, especially Homer's Iliad, were not composed by a single author but had been cobbled together by later editors from a number of earlier sources. (They may have been right, who can say? But the evidence for the idea was entirely subjective in nature.) Along came Jean Astruc, a French professor of medicine, who got it into his head that the Bible could likewise be treated to similar literary analysis and put his ideas down in a book in 1753. Although nothing about the structure of Scripture compelled the conclusion the Pentateuch was compiled from a number of variant source

traditions, he simply assumed it to have been the case. (Evidence certainly exists to show that editing has occurred, but redaction is not the same thing as cobbling together multiple documents.)

Naturally, when anyone holds to a pet idea they find evidence to support it. Astruc noted that in certain passages in the Pentateuch God is referred to as Elohim while in others the name Yahweh is used. Genesis one, for instance, uses Elohim exclusively, while chapters two and three employ the formula "Yahweh Elohim" consistently and chapter four uses Yahweh alone in all but one verse (vs. 25). Aha! How could one doubt? What a clever fellow Astruc was to notice this. He concluded that a later editor (or editors) had cut and pasted bits from two different sources, the one being known to this day as the Yahwist source (abbreviated as "J"), and the other as the Elohist source (E). Even minimal thought should show up the nakedness of the idea; the use of the couplet "Yahweh Elohim" in chapter two should have been enough to scuttle the idea from the get go. But it's amazing what obstacles a little faith can overcome!

Later bandwaggoners extended the idea. In 1805, Wilhelm de Wette concluded that Deuteronomy represented a third independent source and in 1853 Hupfeld split the Elohist source in two, thus adding a fourth source, the Priestly source. But that was not the end of it all. Let The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible explain:

Modern study of the documents has resulted in some important shifts in perspective and conclusions. There is no longer the same certainty about the documents themselves. The neat four-source theory has disintegrated into a variety of multiple-source theories, or some form of the Fragmentary Hypothesis. Scholars have demonstrated the composite nature of the sources. and it is now customary to speak of literary strata rather than documents. The very existence of E as a separate source has been questioned, and efforts have been made to dissolve it into a series of addenda. The status of P as an independent document has also been questioned (Volume 1, "Documents").

And so on ad infinitum. Total chaos. One scholar's opinion vs another's. Would it not be more intellectually honest to acknowledge that the original idea is bankrupt and move on? Sadly, that won't happen, in spite of the continued lack of objective evidence for the theory. The theory has gradually accreted a halo of sanctity in the eyes of its proponents, a sanctity which none dares to defile.

The theory continues, in one form or another, to hold sway over the best minds for the simple reason that it suits them to believe it. But all is not lost for believers; the documentary hypothesis has one redeeming feature. It is, after all, good for a giggle.


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