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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive What Happened to the "Yahwist"?: Reflections after Thirty Years

This article was the focus of a special session at the SBL International Meeting in Edinburgh.

It was in Edinburgh in 1974 that I presented a paper entitled "Der Jahwist als Theologe? Zum Dilemma der Pentateuchkritik" (The 'Yahwist' as Theologian? The Dilemma of Pentateuchal Criticism).[1] In this paper I questioned the validity of the Documentary Hypothesis when faced with new questions about the theological intentions of the authors of the Pentateuch, as raised in particular by Gerhard von Rad.[2] Obviously, time was ripe for this kind of questioning, since in the years that followed there appeared independently from each other several books dealing with fundamental problems of the methodology of the critical analysis of the Pentateuch. In 1975, there appeared the book by John van Seters Abraham in History and Tradition,[3] where he briefly dealt with the question of the Yahwist that he later explicated more fully in several books [4]; in 1976, a book came out by Hans Heinrich Schmid titled Der sogenannte Jahwist. Beobachtungen und Fragen zur Pentateuchforschung,[5] and finally in 1977, there appeared my own book Das überlieferungsgeschichtliche Problem des Pentateuch,[6] which was later translated into English under the title The Problem of the Process of Transmission in the Pentateuch.[7]

The discussion about the whole problem was further stimulated in 1977 by a special issue of the Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, which had recently been founded in Sheffield by David Clines, David Gunn, and Philip Davies. In this issue, several authors had been invited to react to my Edinburgh paper. Some of them explicitly asked whether we are "at last witnessing the demise of the Documentary Hypothesis" (to quote R. N. Whybray). Indeed, this was — and still is — my own intention. But what happened instead in the following years was a discussion not about an alternative to this hypothesis but about its refinement. In particular, there began a widespread discussion about the central pillar of the hypothesis, the so-called Yahwist. Indeed, this seemed to be almost unavoidable because it was a central point in my paper. I tried to show that the great theologian, whom von Rad saw at work in the Pentateuch, could not be understood as one of several authors of "sources" according to the Documentary Hypothesis, but that he was a theological author of a special kind. Von Rad himself had made this quite clear, when he opened the last paragraph of his fundamental study, "Das formgeschichliche Problem des Hexateuch," with the following words: "Not that the conflation of E and P with J would now appear to be a simple process, nor one which could be altogether explained to one's satisfaction."

[At this point I have to make a remark. Unfortunately, in the printed version of my Edinburgh paper a mistake had happened. In the passage just quoted, two words are left out, including the word "P" for Priestly Code. So the printed text does not speak about the addition of two more "sources" to the Yahwist, but only of one additional source, namely E. The translation in JSOT tried to make sense of the fragmentary text and spoke about "the conflation of E and J". But this is far from what von Rad himself had written. ]

Here von Rad explicitly declared that his "Jahwist" could not be understood by means of the Documentary Hypothesis. He continued, saying, "but these problems are generically different from the ones we have been dealing with in our present study." Von Rad did not explicitly reject the Documentary Hypothesis, but he was not interested in dealing with those "purely literary questions." He did not even feel it to be necessary because: "The form of the Hexateuch had already been finally determined by the Yahwist." The writings of the "elohist" and the priestly writer "are no more than variations upon the massive theme of the Yahwist's conception."

Von Rad's words were written in 1938. Almost forty years later, in the mid-seventies, there began the new discussion that I mentioned before. It is not my intention to unfold the whole history of research in the last thirty years. But I want to mark some characteristic positions that show the great diversity in the present scholarly debate.

First, there are Old Testament scholars who still adhere to the traditional hypothesis of Pentateuchal sources. In the framework of our discussion, it is interesting to see the intention of certain defenders of this theory. One of them, Richard Elliott Friedman, quite recently presented his well-known reading of the Pentateuch for a broader public.[8] He named the traditional sources: J, E, RJE, P, D, R. Then he translated a piece of text from Exodus printing the sources in different colors: J in green, E in red, and P in blue. And then he claimed that when the sources are read individually, "each source makes perfectly good sense when read alone." What we now have before us is not one Bible but a number of texts, reconstructed by modern scholars, cutting the Bible into pieces by "taking the Biblical text apart." But what happened to the Bible itself ? What happened to the text as it has been delivered to us through more than two thousand years? It seemed to me to be one of the fundamental mistakes of the modern historical-critical analysis of the biblical texts that it does not — or at least not sufficiently — ask the question, what is the meaning and significance of the given text. Of course, this critical question is not only to be addressed to the defenders of the classical documentary hypothesis. But the example just presented shows explicitly that the biblical text itself in its given form is not at all taken as a subject of scholarly interpretation. I believe that this cannot be the last word of scholarly Bible exegesis. I will come back to this question later.

As a second group, I want to mention a position that could be called a "reduced documentary hypothesis." In the text quoted above, Von Rad saw the Yahwist as a source in the framework of the documentary hypothesis; but he had no concept of how to interpret the relation of his Yahwist to the other sources, so actually his documentary hypothesis remained a fragment. But when, in the seventies, the new discussion began, things had changed. First of all, there was almost no mention of the Elohist. That means that the "classical" documentary hypothesis with four sources did not exist any longer.

Instead, the Yahwist came into the center of scholarly interest. This is demonstrated by the books mentioned above by John Van Seters and Hans Heinrich Schmid, which are both concentrated on the Yahwist. These two scholars also agree on another important point. They do not believe the Yahwist to be a rather old source, dating from the times of the early Israelite monarchy, as former scholars believed, and some still do. Instead, they saw the work of the Yahwist in a certain dependence on the Deuteronomistic tradition. It is obvious that this meant a fundamental change in the understanding of the Yahwist. This is true not only with regard to the dating of the Yahwist, but in particular with regard to the question of an independent Yahwistic work. For Hans Heinrich Schmid, the Yahwist was of a rather elusive character, as expressed already by the title of his book, "The So-Called Yahwist." Therefore, he wants not to speak of the Yahwist as an individual writer but rather of a Yahwistic process of redaction and interpretation. Of course, here we are far from the image of the theological personality of von Rad's Yahwist.

The conception of John Van Seters is quite different. In his book Abraham in History and Tradition (1975), he presented a concept of a new kind of Yahwist (see note 4). For him, the Yahwist is an individual personality; however, he is not a theologian like von Rad's Yahwist, but an historian. He lived and wrote in the period of the Babylonian Exile. His message is to be seen in close relationship with that of Deutero-Isaiah, being addressed "to the despairing community of the exile." According to Van Seters, this Yahwist is not one of several pentateuchal sources, but he is the one who takes up earlier traditions forming them into a new whole.

Thus far, Van Seters' concept seemingly could be compared with that of Gerhard von Rad because there is only one central figure in the literary development of the Pentateuch. But there is one fundamental difference between the two. While von Rad took the existence of other sources for granted, even if he did not want to deal with them, for Van Seters there do not exist any other "sources" in the traditional sense of the Documentary Hypothesis. According to his concept, there are no other authors but only several levels of tradition. These are taken by Van Seters as either pre-Yahwistic or post-Yahwistic. The Yahwist himself is the only identifiable author. One could call this a "reduced documentary hypothesis," namely a one-document hypothesis. Of course, one must ask whether this can still be called a documentary hypothesis. But in any case, this reduced or even fragmentary hypothesis with the Yahwist as its main pillar became a central point in the scholarly debate of the following years.

In 1993, there appeared a monograph by Christoph Levin titled Der Jahwist.[9] Levin also locates J in the exilic period, later than the book of Deuteronomy but nevertheless earlier than the Deuteronomistic History. J represents the perspective of a more popular form of religion, as well as the concerns of the diaspora. For this reason, Levin argues that J defends the diversity of the cultic places where YHWH may be worshipped, as opposed to the authors of Deuteronomy, who wish to limit the location of the cultic site. According to Levin, J is foremost a collector and a redactor; he is the first to combine his older sources into a narrative that covers (more or less) the extent of the Pentateuch. Levin actually combines a fragmentary theory with a supplementary theory, since more than half of the non-Priestly texts of the Pentateuch are supplements, which numerous redactors added to the combined Yahwistic and Priestly narrative.

Now we have before us three different ways of understanding the Yahwist in the framework of the Documentary Hypothesis. With von Rad, the Yahwist has become not only an author, but also above all a theologian.[10] For Van Seters, J is also an author, but he lives five centuries later and is more an historian than a theologian. For Levin, J is a redactor; his Yahwist shares with Van Seters' Yahwist the exilic location, but Van Seters would never agree with the idea of J as a redactor.[11] One could add several variations to these three types held in the recent scholarly debate. There is general agreement that in this framework there is only one narrative "source" alongside the Priestly and Deuteronomistic elements; namely, the Yahwist. Erich Zenger, in his Einleitung in das Alte Testament, calls it JG: "Jerusalemer Geschichtswerk." As mentioned before, the Elohist had almost completely disappeared from this discussion.

But in the meantime a growing number of scholars, who more or less belonged to the second group with a reduced documentary hypothesis, found it difficult to identify the Yahwist. The only clearly identifiable element in the Pentateuch, alongside the Deuteronomistic tradition, seemed to be the Priestly texts. Even on this point there is some discussion about details, but in general the existence of a particular P level was taken for granted. But what about the Yahwist? Almost everything came under discussion: his age and dimension, his inner coherence and theological orientation, and finally his existence at all. In 1999, Professor Christoph Levin in Munich invited a number of scholars, who shared these critical positions, for a public discussion under the title "Der Jahwist und seine Kritiker" (The Yahwist and His Critics). This group of critics later collected their contributions and invited an additional number of scholars to contribute to a book that appeared in 2002 under the title Abschied vom Jahwisten. Die Komposition des Hexateuch in der jüngsten Diskussion (A Farewell to the Yahwist. The Composition of the Hexateuch in Recent Discussion).[12]

This book presents a panorama of different approaches to the question of the Yahwist. The predominant impression is that of great methodological diversity. Jean Louis Ska expresses this by the title of his introductory essay: "The Yahwist, a Hero with a Thousand Faces." Indeed, this collection of essays shows many different faces of "J." And for many of the authors, the Yahwist has no face at all because he does not exist any longer.

The majority of the authors exemplify the problems by individual chapters or smaller corpora of texts. Joseph Blenkinsopp, e.g., deals with the chapters Gen 1-11. He points out that these chapters have almost never been investigated with regard to their non-Priestly material, either by the proponents of an early J or by the revisionist scholars, and that there was little attention paid to the relationship between the putative J material and P. In his essay, Blenkinsopp shows that the J elements in Gen 1-11 are added to an earlier priestly text. In his view, they represent a "lay, intellectual milieu of the province of Judah some time during the two centuries of Iranian rule." Blenkinsopp continues to call this material "J" or "J supplementary source"; thus he remains within the accepted "reduced documentary hypothesis" with the two "sources" P and J, the Yahwist being post-Priestly.

Several essays deal with the question of the interrelations between the main themes of the Pentateuch. One example of this approach is the essay by Jan Christian Gertz with the title "Abraham, Mose und der Exodus. Beobachtungen zur Redaktionsgeschichte von Gen 15."[13] It is well known that there is no narrative connection between the story of Abraham and that of the Exodus from Egypt; however, in Gen 15:13-16, within the Abraham story, we find a brief prediction of Israel's oppression in Egypt and the Exodus. Gertz investigates the interrelations between the two themes and comes to the conclusion that in the time of the formulation of Gen 15 they were still independent from each other. Versus 11.13-16 belong to a post-Priestly redaction. Hence it follows that at that time a Yahwistic narrative work did not exist. The given text is a post-priestly combination of two originally independent traditions. A pre-Priestly "J" does not exist.

Konrad Schmid[14] asks a similar question, using the Joseph story in Gen 37-50. He accepts the interpretation of this story as a "Diaspora Novella," but understands it as referring to the Egyptian diaspora after the end of the Northern Kingdom 720 BC. Here Egypt is seen at least as a temporary Lebensraum for Israel. Therefore, the Joseph cycle could be called an "anti-Deuteronomistic work." It was originally independent and then was connected to Gen 12-36; later it was expanded as a bridge to the events narrated in Exodus. That means that there was no original text including both the stories of the patriarchs and that of the Exodus. Interesting enough, Schmid does not explicitly mention the consequences for the question of the existence of a Yahwist. Perhaps it is too evident in his view, in particular in the framework of this book, of which he is one of the editors. Nevertheless, the question arises: What are the consequences for "J" and, moreover, for the Documentary Hypothesis?

Thomas Römer asks another question that is important for this problem, namely, Where do we find the end of the Yahwist?[15] This end is often seen in the book of Numbers (Numeri). But Römer shows that even supporters of the traditional Documentary Hypothesis, e.g., Martin Noth, had difficulties find tracinges of J in Numbers. Römer himself sees Numbers as a post-Priestly text. Therefore, it cannot be understood as part of a Yahwist, of whatever kind. But if Numbers is separated from the first three books of the Pentateuch, the whole Documentary Hypothesis will have to be re-examined.

Thomas Dozeman asks the question of "Geography and Ideology in the Wilderness Journey."[16] It would go beyond the scope of this paper into enter this interesting question. But Dozeman also raises another important question. After a discussion of the position of Van Seters, who sees the Yahwist as the author of Num 20-21, Dozeman declares: "The Yahwist of Van Seters has nothing to do with the Yahwist of the Documentary Hypothesis."[17] He continues to speak of "anonymous authors" who appear by new literary hypotheses, and he claims: "They must be named, and their names must be broad enough to embrace distinctive emerging hypotheses."

This is an important point. I raised it already in 1974 in my paper when I said that it was "an historical accident that von Rad ascribed the final formation of the Pentateuch (or Hexateuch) to someone he described as the 'Yahwist.' He could just as well — or better and more appositely — have chosen another, less loaded name." Of course, to choose another name would have meant to leave the context of the Documentary Hypothesis —even though that is what von Rad actually did in 1938, unintentionally and without being aware of it. In the meantime, many scholars do the same thing: They argue in a way that is not really compatible with the Documentary Hypothesis without being aware of it, or at least without being willing to leave this hypothesis explicitly.

This situation is clearly expressed in the preface of the volume we are dealing with. The editors declare with regard to the contributions to this volume: "Gemeinsam ist ihnen, dass sie der Teilthese eines Jahwisten den Abschied geben." (They have in common that they say goodbye to the partial thesis of a Yahwist.) I never heard the word "Teilthese" before. But I understand what it expresses: to say good-bye to the Yahwist while keeping the Documentary Hypothesis. That would mean to keep the Documentary Hypothesis with one single document, namely some kind of P. But can that still be called a documentary hypothesis? Some of the contributors to this volume touched upon this question briefly and rather hesitantly, so that the reader gets the impression that there is a kind of uncertainty.

This brings me to another point in the preface. The editors write that in Old Testament scholarship, comprehensive theories of the Pentateuch seem to have a life span of about one century. They mention the Introduction of Johann Gottfried Eichhorn from 1783, then the books of Julius Wellhausen from 1876/77 and 1883, and finally the beginning of the new discussion in the 1970s. Indeed, this rhythm is interesting. But there is also a fundamental difference. The first two dates mark the establishment of a new theory that was more or less accepted within the scholarly community for the next hundred years. The third date marks only the end of the common acceptance of the Wellhausen theory, but not the birth of something new. The editors do not want to call this a "crisis." According to them, it only shows that the "source model obviously cannot always provide the most fitting interpretation of the findings in a text." But in the next paragraph they continue saying that it became evident that there must be a fundamentally new approach ("dass grundsätzlich neu anzusetzen ist").

At the end of the preface, the contributors declare that this volume would have reached its goal when Pentateuchal research in the twenty-first century could get along without the Yahwist. But they leave open the question whether research should continue with the old methods, in particular with the documentary hypothesis or, more precisely, with the torso of this method that would be left after the Yahwist would have passed away.

In my view, this book shows very clearly that the end of the Yahwist means at the same time the end of the Documentary Hypothesis. A documentary hypothesis with just one single document cannot work like an hypothesis that was originally established and developed with four or at least three documents or sources, whose interrelations are a basic element of the method of working in the framework of this theory. As I mentioned before, only a few of the essays in this volume deal with this question, and they touch it just briefly and rather hesitantly. Instead, the question is raised of the interrelations between certain blocks, such as patriarchal stories and Exodus traditions or Genesis and the following books. These are questions beyond the Documentary Hypothesis. By the way, this was already the key point in my paper of 1974. Other scholars developed this approach more deeply and broadly, first of all Erhard Blum in his two books from 1984 and 1990.[18]

It is highly interesting now to meet Erhard Blum among the contributors to a volume about the farewell to the Yahwist.[19] He does not need to say good-bye because he did it very explicitly more than twenty years ago. In the introduction to his first book, he spoke about the need to free oneself from the "Systemzwang der Urkundenhypothese" (the pressure of the system of the documentary hypothesis). It seems that several of the contributors to this volume have freed themselves from that pressure, even if inexplicitly and perhaps unconsciously. Anyhow, the most of the discussion in this book takes place beyond the Documentary Hypothesis.

Again: What happened to the Yahwist? The answer: He faded away, and he took with him the building he had lived in because there are no inhabitants any longer.

Rolf Rendtorff, University of Heidelberg

[1] Congress Volume Edinburgh 1974, (G. W. Anderson et al. (eds.); Vetus Testamentum Supplements 28, Leiden: Brill, 1975), 158-66,

[2] G. von Rad, Das formgeschichtliche Problem des Hexateuch (BWANT 4.26, Stuttgart, 1938; reprinted in G. von Rad, Gesammelte Studien zum Alten Testament (München: Kaiser, 1958), 9-86.

[3] New Haven: Yale University Press, 1975.

[4] J. Van Seters, Prologue to History. The Yahwist as Historian in Genesis (Zürich: Theologischer Verlag, 1992); The Life of Moses. The Yahwist as Historian in Exodus-Numbers (Louisville-Kampen: Westminster-Koks, 1994); The Pentateuch. A Social Science Commentary (Trajectories) (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999).

[5] Zürich: Theologischer Verlag, 1976.

[6] BZAW 147, Berlin: De Gruyter, 1977.

[7] JSOT, Supplement Series 89; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1980.

[8] Richard Elliott Friedman, "Taking the Biblical Text Apart," Bible Review 24.4 (2005): 19-23, 48-50.

[9] Christoph Levin, Der Jahwist (FRLANT 157; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1993).

[10] See also Hans Walter Wolff, "Das Kerygma des Jahwisten," Evangelische Theologie 24 (1964): 70-98.

[11] John Van Seters, "The Redactor in Biblical Studies: A Nineteenth Century Anachronism," Journal of Northwest Semitic Languages 29 (2003): 1-19.

[12] Ed. J. Chr. Gertz, K. Schmid and M. Witte; BZAW 315, Berlin: De Gruyter, 2002.

[13] Abschied vom Jahwisten, 63-81.

[14] Abschied vom Jahwisten, 84-118.

[15] "Das Buch Numeri und das Ende des Jahwisten. Anfragen zur 'Quellenscheidung' im vierten Buch des Pentateuch," in Abschied vom Jahwisten, 215-31.

[16] Abschied vom Jahwisten, 173-85.

[17] Abschied vom Jahwisten, 188.

[18] E. Blum, Die Komposition der Vätergeschichte (WMANT 57; Neukirchen-Vluyn, Neukirchener Verlag, 1984); Studien zur Komposition des Pentateuch (BZAW 189; Berlin: De Gruyter, 1990).

[19] "Die literarische Verbindung von Erzvätern und Exodus. Ein Gespräch mit neueren Endredaktionshypothesen," in Abschied vom Jahwisten, 119-56.

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Citation: Rolf Rendtorff, " What Happened to the "Yahwist"?: Reflections after Thirty Years," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited June 2006]. Online:


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