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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive Sources of the Pentateuch: So Many Theories, So Little Consensus

As I ponder the post-Wellhausian quest for sources of the Pentateuch, the myth of Sisyphus haunts me. The numerous attempts by source critics to delineate definitively and ground historically the sources of the Pentateuch sooner or later have stalled without reaching the hilltop, and the rock has become well worn from its repeated downhill journeys.

In source-critical studies, the energy and focus have typically been on discerning the details and content of the sources. Rarely has there been a serious look at underlying methodological presuppositions. I want to raise a few of these methodological issues, pointedly.

It is difficult when an old construct shows its age and flaws, especially when a new, consensus-driven construct has not yet appeared. However, the failure of a new construct to coalesce does not necessarily lend credence to an old construct that may have outlived its usefulness.

Determining the Sources
Without doubt, the Pentateuch contains diverse literary styles and units. This can be seen, for example, by comparing the literary structure and systematic ordering of Gen 1 with the story-like nature of Gen 2-3. Once that diversity is recognized, however, key issues emerge. Can we articulately and consistently use these different styles and structures to discern earlier pentateuchal sources, as well as the historical matrix in which they were composed? And, how much reliance can we place on any particular iteration of the documentary hypothesis as we reconstruct various aspects of ancient Israelite religion, literature, and history? Entire worlds of biblical scholarship have been built on the documentary hypothesis construct. But has this helped us to understand the Old Testament? I cite David Clines's questions presented last year at the International SBL meeting in Edinburgh: "Is such a theory useful? Should I be interested in it? How important is it to have a theory of Pentateuchal origins?" [1] Many rigorous studies on pentateuchal sources have been published, but consensus regarding these sources continues to elude us. Yet, even if a stable consensus on the sources and their historical contexts were to appear, recent methodological concerns lead us to ask whether source-critical analysis is the best way to study the Pentateuch in the twenty-first century, since the conceptual framework for biblical scholarship is changing rapidly. See Rolf Rendtorff's excellent survey of recent source critical analysis. [2]

A foundational assumption of source criticism is that the pentateuchal text is best studied when divided into sources. Recent literary constructs, typically J, E, D, and P, have been assembled using criteria of literary style, convention, and format primarily derived from our modern Western world. Unfortunately, seldom is there any awareness of how bound readers are to contemporary perspectives regarding proper literary style. A primary example of this is the inclination to find at least two literary strands wherever there is what we, by our standards, view as redundancy in the text. Repetition must indicate different sources, it is assumed, even though the received text must have made good literary sense to ancient Israelite writers or editors, according to literary standards they endorsed. If they skillfully blended the materials they received, why is their literary product not worth our careful attention? Why see it instead as an obstacle we must get past in order to achieve our scholarly goals? If we shape modern literary constructs as the sources we propose for the Pentateuch, why should we decline to value the comprehensive ancient construct these writers/editors assembled in order to understand their heritage?

If repetition/parallelism is a core feature of the poetry of the Hebrew Bible, as scholars typically assume, then why is it deemed unacceptable in the prose of the Hebrew Bible? Allan Rosengren recently argued this point. See his discussion of divergent details in the Flood Story (Gen 6-8), such as the number of pairs of animals taken onto the ark, or the seven pairs of clean animals mentioned in one case, but not in the other.[3] Source critics typically take such differences in detail as pointing to different sources, without asking whether ancient Hebrew narrative style may not have incorporated such diversity within its notion of parallelism. Along similar lines, when I composed a study on parataxis in the Song of Deborah, I was amazed at the tendency of scholars to dissect and shorten the poetry of Judg 5: 26-27 simply because its lines are deemed excessively repetitive, even for Hebrew poetry.[4] As I argue, such repetition has a clear purpose in this text, providing catharsis for the Israelite victors, which supersedes typical scholarly criteria defining "proper" ancient Hebrew poetic structure and meter. My analysis led me to realize how strongly scholars are tied to contemporary criteria of acceptable literary style, and how insensitive recent scholarship can be to the varieties of styles and creative options employed by skilled ancient Israelite writers. The implications of this observation for attempts to discern sources for the Pentateuch should not be taken lightly.

Historical Contexts of the Sources
While Wellhausen's seminal work laid the foundation for subsequent source-critical work on the Pentateuch, Wellhausen himself saw his analysis as a prolegomenon.[5] That is, unraveling the pentateuchal strands was an entree to the more important task of reconstructing ancient Israelite history. Wellhausen's primary purpose was not to study the subtle nuances of the pentateuchal text. In the intellectual climate of late-nineteenth century Germany, under the influence of historical positivism as advocated by von Ranke and others, this historical-reconstructive approach was the presumed proper way to study the Pentateuch. One wonders, however, whether such a methodological mind-set provides a good fit for twenty-first century scholarship.

There is thus a strong interface between Wellhausen's source-critical analysis and the history of ancient Israel as constructed by modern writers upon that base. Proposed pentateuchal sources feed into the reconstruction of ancient Israelite history, which, in turn, feeds back into the study of the sources. Such reconstructions are essentially incestuous, and the opportunity for circular thinking is boundless. The key question concerns just how much reliable data we can derive from this circular process. This can be like trying to nail Jello to the wall. In order for the construct to stick, there must be an undisputed center. Finding such a consensus-driven core is becoming increasingly problematic, and new methodological issues, noted below, reveal the shortcomings of source critical analysis.

Source critical reconstruction presupposes sufficient knowledge of ancient Israelite history to reconstruct the specific contexts of the several writers/editors who composed the various pentateuchal sources. Today, scholars are questioning this presupposition, and the dates and contexts proposed for the sources vary considerably. For example, John Van Seters places J in the Exilic era, rather than, as typically has been done, in the period of the early monarchy. [6]

The Priestly source (P), considered the latest source of the Pentateuch, is commonly placed in the Postexilic era, a time frame in which any attempt to reconstruct ancient Israelite history struggles. After the events of 587, 538, and 515 B.C.E., Israelite history essentially drops off the radar screen, with only the time of Ezra and Nehemiah receiving significant attention in biblical literature prior to the Hasmonean Era. Yet, it is precisely in this historical black hole that the final compilation of the Pentateuch is typically vested. The uncertainties of this period therefore provide a wide-open breeding ground for theories about the communities that produced P, as well as the final compilation of the Pentateuch. There is little dependable, core knowledge to which these theories can be attached. Scholars are, for all practical purposes, given a blank sheet of paper on which they can compose the nature of the historical community responsible for the source(s) that scholars have reconstructed. Reconstructed communities feed into reconstructed sources, which in turn feed back into reconstructed communities. But what is holding the Jello to the wall? And how solid an anchor for the study of the OT are these pentateuchal source theories?

Other Methodological Issues
Another underlying presupposition of source criticism is that the final form of the text is of minimal value. However, an issue raised by Childs, and not taken with the seriousness it deserves, is the undeniable fact that for many centuries the final form of the text has been the basis for study within both the Jewish and Christian communities. [7] Thus, on what grounds does scholarship brush aside the final form of the text and replace it with a variety of hypothetically reconstructed sources? If there were a resounding consensus among scholars about the content and scope of these proposed sources, as well as the socio-historical context in which each was produced, one might be less inclined to pay attention to the challenge Childs and others have raised. However, an encompassing consensus on these points is precisely what has been lacking. There is consensus that the Pentateuch has sources, and that P is a late source, but beyond that, consensus gets quite thin. I am unwilling to make decisions about the nature of the Old Testament on the basis of continually morphing theories and constructs. We need to find a better approach. A serious dialogue between those scholars doing source criticism and scholars engaged in the numerous other forms of contemporary biblical scholarship would certainly help source critics address these concerns.

Based on modern presuppositions, source-critics often assume that a single writer, or a school of writers, is responsible for composing each source. Unfortunately for this perspective, compositional processes are typically far more complicated and dynamic than this simplistic approach presumes.

The Book of Isaiah provides an example. Scholars have recently come to see the complex interwovenness of First, Second, and Third Isaiah. No longer can we view First Isaiah as a unit, composed in Preexilic times, with Second and Third Isaiah created as unified, discrete pieces in subsequent Exilic and Postexilic stages. It has been argued, for example, that the final form of First Isaiah has been significantly influenced by Third Isaiah.[8] Scholars are discerning considerable intertextual influence among the three Isaiahs, rather than interpreting each as a separate piece. Thus, the book of Isaiah is being interpreted holistically, with growing emphasis on the ongoing interplay and cohesiveness among the various elements of the book. By analogy, we should consider the possibility that we likewise view the composition of the Pentateuch too simplistically if we talk of four basic sources by four separate writers. There could have been far more dynamic intertextuality among the many sources of the Pentateuch than scholars have heretofore presumed. Of course, this makes the process of reconstructing the sources of the Pentateuch and their growth monumentally more complex. This, by itself, may suggest that source-critical analysis has gone as far as scholars can take it. If scholars cannot agree about the content and historical contexts of four pentateuchal sources, what might be the multiplicity of theories if a more complex formative process must be considered? Sisyphus's task would become considerably more difficult.

Many generations stretched between the time of David and Solomon, typically the earliest era to which a pentateuchal source is assigned, and the final compilation of the Pentateuch, commonly placed in Postexilic times. While, during this lengthy period, there likely was substantial interaction among the many pieces now found in the Pentateuch, there could also have been a great deal of interplay with other ancient Israelite texts, those in other portions of the Tanak, as well as others no longer available to us, such as the Book of Jasher (Josh 10:13), the Book of the Acts of Solomon (1 Kgs 11: 41), and the Book of the Wars of the Lord (Num 21:14). Such intertextuality not only goes well beyond our ability to reconstruct it; it also beclouds attempts to propose a mere three- or four-stage development of the Pentateuch's sources. Indeed, the growth of the Pentateuch was likely far more complex and interdynamic than most source critics have imagined.

While writing eventually comes into play, since the content of the Pentateuch did become a written text, it is all too easy, with our modern literacy rates and massive print media, to focus on writing as the main process in the creation of the Pentateuch. What if orality played a far more dynamic role, one that continued until the final transcription of the Pentateuch? Susan Niditch demonstrates how, regarding the relationship between orality and the written word, the ancient Israelite world was very different from our world. [9] Even intertextuality masks this, because the interplay of oral materials prior to their being written down may have been more extensive in ancient Israel than the intertextuality we can now observe in the written texts. This oral cross-fertilization can easily have continued until the final stages of the compilation of the Pentateuch. Orality is an extremely difficult process to track, but that does not mean we can ignore it, and only speak of writers in describing the creation of the Pentateuch.

Studies in ethnicity also promise to help enrich our study of the Pentateuch. James Miller's article "Ethnicity and the Hebrew Bible: Problems and Prospects" will appear next year. [10] In it, Miller notes, "given the problems associated with detailed historical reconstructions of ancient Israel, I have suggested reading texts in terms of their function within a more general historical setting." As these ethnic studies look beyond kingly courts and priestly circles, how much more might we learn about the impact of larger social groups and broader social movements on the development of oral literature subsequently found in the Pentateuch?

Deconstruction, when carried to an extreme, leaves only crumbs and shards, and no focal point. Source criticism, however, has erred at the opposite end of the spectrum, devising one ingenious Gestalt after another as a means of reconstructing pentateuchal sources. A key point taught to us by deconstructionists, and ignored at our own peril, is that we should continually reexamine our constructs precisely when we believe we have things figured out. We must relentlessly seek factors that could force us to rethink our positions. A center exists only to be challenged and decentered when forced to encompass what was previously marginalized. Centers are not absolute, and meaning conveyed is relational, not essential.

Deconstructionism teaches that we grow by being challenged, especially when confronted by new issues. Therefore, a key flaw of source criticism is that, rather than reexamining its conceptual framework, and rather than probing for its methodological flaws, it continues to generate nuanced reiterations of its central construct, assuming that the best way to study the Pentateuch is to divide it into its sources, place each into its own proposed historical context, and then interpret the content in this conceptual framework. Source-critics have rarely questioned the cogency and usefulness of this approach.

Factors that should challenge the center of source criticism include our growing awareness of the complex interrelationships among the many parts of the Pentateuch, as well as with other ancient Israelite literature, both oral and written; the difficulty of reconstructing the particulars of historical contexts for specific periods/events in ancient Israelite history; our imperfect understanding of ancient Israelite literature, its conventions, its variety, and the ways in which creative writers played on these; and the promise of new methods that can help us better evaluate the text of the Pentateuch. Taken as a whole, these factors demonstrate the need for a thoroughgoing reassessment of the foundation on which source critical studies have been based for well over a century.

Alan J. Hauser, Appalachian State University

[1] David Clines, "Response to Rolf Rendtorff's 'What Happened to the Yahwist? Reflections after Thirty Years'," SBL Forum (August 2006).

[2] Rolf Rendtorff, "Directions in Pentateuchal Studies," Currents in Research: Biblical Studies 5 (1997) 43-65.

[3] Allen Rosengren, "Why is there a Documentary Hypothesis, and What Does It Do to You If You Use It?: A Response to David Clines," SBL Forum (August 2006).

[4] Alan J.Hauser, "Judges 5: Parataxis in Hebrew Poetry," Journal of Biblical Literature 99.1 (1980) 23-41.

[5] Julius Wellhausen, Prolegomena to the History of Israel (New York: Meridian Books, 1959 [1878]).

[6] John Van Seters, Prologue to History: The Yahwist as Historian in Genesis (Louisville, KY Westminster John Knox, 1992).

[7] Brevard Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979). See also Umberto Cassuto, The Documentary Hypothesis and the Composition of the Pentateuch (trans. I. Abrahams; Jerusalem: Magnes, 1961 [Hebrew 1941]); Benno Jacob, Das Erste Buch der Tora: Genesis (Berlin: Schocken Verlag, 1934).

[8] See for example, Marvin Sweeney, "The Book of Isaiah in Recent Research," Currents in Research: Biblical Studies 1 (1993) 141-62; and "Reevaluating Isaiah 1-39 in Recent Critical Research," Currents in Research: Biblical Studies 4 (1996): 79-113; Roy Melugin, "Isaiah 40-66 in Recent Research: The 'Unity' Movement," in Recent Research in the Major Prophets (ed. Alan J. Hauser; Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, forthcoming)

[9] Susan Niditch, Oral World and Written Word (Louisville, KY. Westminster John Knox, 1996).

[10] Forthcoming in Currents in Biblical Research, 6.2 (2008).

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Citation: Alan J. Hauser, " Sources of the Pentateuch: So Many Theories, So Little Consensus ," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Aug 2007]. Online:


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