Recent Trends in Biblical Source Criticism: A Draft

by David Stern

…all hypotheses are working proposals until confirmed in detail, and … many must be discarded while others will require drastic overhauling in the face of new evidence. There is a grave temptation to hold on to a hypothesis that has served well in the past, and the more serious temptation to bend data to fit, or to dismiss what cannot be accommodated into the system. The commitment must always be to observable or discoverable data, and not to a hypothesis, which is always expendable. 1

The mid-eighties and the early nineties witnessed a resurgence of biblical scholars challenging, revising, and even rejecting the documentary hypothesis.2 First and foremost, scholars relinquished claims to a scientific methodology. In Empirical Models for Biblical Criticism, Jeffery Tigay insists that "The degree of subjectivity which such hypothetical [source critical] procedures permit is notorious."3 In fact, Tigay characterizes these procedures as "reading between the lines."4 Moreover, Edward Greenstein maintains that source critical analysis is analogous to the blind men and the elephant: "each of five blind men approaches a different part of an elephant's anatomy. Perceiving only part of the elephant, each man draws a different conclusion as to the identity of what he encounters."5 According to the preceding remarks, not only are source critical methods subjective, they also account for only a fraction of the total evidence. Especially when analyzing a literary corpus "as bulky and complex as an elephant,"6 a system which fails to consider all the evidence and wherein "scholars shape the data into the configurations of their own imagination"7 hardly warrants the label scientific.

While surveying many conflicting proposals for the nature of the hypothetical sources, Gerhard Larsson gives a more specific account of the methodological shortcomings. He says that "there is no sound objective method for recognizing the different sources, there is also no real consensus about the character and extant of sources like J and E, [and] no unity concerning limits between original sources and the insertions made by redactors."8 Rather as Greenstein says: "each scholar defines and adapts the evidence according to his own point of view."9 Such an approach not only yields results which are, as Tigay highlights, "hypothetical (witness the term 'documentary hypothesis'),"10 but, as David Noel Freedman declares, allows and encourages, "the pages of our literature [to be] filled with endless arguments between scholars who simply reiterate their prejudices."11

The lack of a sound and rigorous methodology leads scholars to produce varying and even contradictory theories, which ultimately undermine the enterprise as a whole. In addition to Wellhausen's four sources J, E, P, and D, some scholars speculate about sources labeled Lay (L), Nomadic (N), Kenite (K), Southern or Seir (S) and the "foundational source" Grundlage (G). Not only do scholars "multiply" the number of sources, some, applying the same methodology, "fragment" J, E, P, and D into further subdivisions, and view these documents as products of "schools" which "shaped and reshaped these documents by further additions."12 After summarizing the different opinions,13 Pauline Viviano says, "The more 'sources' one finds, the more tenuous the evidence for the existence of continuous documents becomes, and the less likely that four unified documents ever existed. Even for those able to avoid skepticism and confusion in the face of the ever increasing number of sources, the only logical conclusion seems to be to move away from [Wellhausen's] Documentary Hypothesis toward a position closer to the Fragmentary Hypothesis."14

In addition to being a victim of its own ambition, the documentary hypothesis suffered many challenges from the time of its inception through contemporary scholarship. Scholars have contested and even refuted the arguments from Divine names, doublets, contradictions, late words, late morphology, aramaisms, and every other aspect of the documentary hypothesis.15 As a result, some scholars denounce source criticism en toto,16 while others posit alternate hypotheses. However, one wonders if these hypotheses will not share the same fate as the ones they just disproved.

These problems have brought source criticism to a sad state. In Greenstein's words, "Many contemporary Biblicists are experiencing a crisis in faith…. The objective truths of the past we increasingly understand as the creations of our own vision."17 He continues, "all scholarship relies on theories and methods that come and go, and … modern critical approaches are no more or less than our own midrash."18 This "crisis," or "breakdown" to use Jon Levenson's characterization,19 has encouraged droves of scholars to study the Bible synchronically,20 a method which effectively renders source criticism irrelevant.21

Among other advantages, the synchronic method of Biblical study encourages scholars to detect textual phenomena which, upon reflection, seem obvious, but have not been recognized until recently. Levenson explains these recent detections as follows: "Many scholars whose deans think they are studying the Hebrew Bible are, instead, concentrating on Syrio-Palestinian archeology, the historical grammar of Biblical Hebrew, Northwest Semitic epigraphy, or the like-all of which are essential, but no combination of which produces a Biblical scholar. The context often supplants the text and, far worse, blinds the interpreters to features of the text that their method has not predisposed them to see."22 This statement could not be truer when referring to source criticism, and to this end Larsson says, albeit in a harsher tone: "Source criticism obscures the analysis. Only when the text is considered as a whole do the special features and structures of the final version emerge."23

The rediscovery of the Bible's special features and structures has proven to be extremely rewarding in its own right, and, in addition, it has recurrently forced scholars to revise and even reject source critical theories. Larrson states this latter statement quite clearly: "many scholars have found that when the different [patriarchal] cycles are studied in depth it is no longer possible to support the traditional documentary hypothesis."24 Even the flood narrative, traditionally lauded as two independent strands (J and P) woven together, has been unified by scholars who perceive a chiastic structure integrating the various sections of the story.25 In fact, a statistical analysis of linguistic features in Genesis lead by Yehuda Radday and Haim Shore demonstrates that "with all due respect to the illustrious documentarians past and present, there is massive evidence that the pre-biblical triplicity of Genesis, which their line of thought postulates to have been worked over by a late and gifted editor into a trinity, is actually a unity."26

1Freedman, David Noel. "On Method in Biblical Studies: The Old Testament." Divine Commitment and Human Obligation: Selected Writings of David Noel Freedman. Volume 1. Ed. by John R. Huddlestun. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1997a. 160

2Kikawada, Isaac M. and Arthur Quinn. Before Abraham Was: The Unity of Genesis 1-11. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1985. For a counter argument see McCarter Jr., Kyle. "A New Challenge to the Documentary Hypothesis." Bible Review April 1988: 34-39. Radday, Yehuda T. and Haim Shore. Genesis: An Authorship Study in Computer Assisted Statistical Linguistics. Rome: Biblical Institute Press, 1985. For a critique of Radday see Portnoy, S. and D.L. Petersen. "Statistical Differences among Documentary Sources: Comments on Genesis:An Authorship Study,'" Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 50 (1991) 3-14. For criticisms of Both Kikawada and Radday see Friedman, Richard Elliot. "Some Recent Non-Arguments concerning the Documentary Hypothesis." Texts, Temples, and Traditions. A tribute to Menahem Haran. Eds. Fox, Michael V., Victor Avigdor Hurowitz, Avi Hurvitz, Michael L. Klein, Baruch J Schwartz, and Nili Shupak. Winnona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns: 1996. 87-101. Blenkinsopp, Joseph. "The Documentary Hypothesis in Trouble." Bible Review. Winter, 1985. Larsson, Gerhard. "The Documentary Hypothesis and the Chronological Structure of the Old Testament." ZAW 97, 3 (1985) 316-333. Walker, Larry L. "Notes on Higher Criticism and the Dating of Biblical Hebrew." A Tribute to Gleason Archer. Eds Kaiser, Walter C. Jr and Ronald F. Youngblood. Chicago: Moody Press, 1986. Whybray R. N. The Making of the Pentateuch: A Methodological Study. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement 53. England: Sheffield 1987. Wenham, G. J. "Genesis: An Authorship Study and Current Pentateuchal Criticism" Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 42 (1988) 3-18. Nicholson, E. W. "The Pentateuch in Recent Research: A Time for Caution." Congress Volume Leuven. 1989, ed. Emerton, J.A. Supplements to Vetus Testamentum 43. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1991. Greenstein, Edward. "Formation of the Biblical Narrative Corpus" AJS Review 15,1 (1990)151-178. Greenstein, Edward. "Biblical Studies in a State" The State of Jewish Studies. Eds Cohen Shaye J. D., and Edward Greenstein. Detroit: Wayne State University, 1990a. 23-46. Levenson, Jon D. "Response." The State of Jewish Studies. Eds Cohen Shaye J. D., and Edward Greenstein. Detroit: Wayne State University, 1990b. 47-54. Rendtorff, Rolf. The Problem of the Process of Transmission in the Pentateuch. Trans. Scullion J.J. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, 1990. Wenham, G.J. "Method in Pentateuchal Criticism." Vetus Testamentus 41 (1991) 84-109. Viviano, Pauline A. "Source Criticism." To Each Its Own Meaning: An Introduction to Biblical Criticisms and their Application. Eds. Haynes, Stephen R. and Steven L. Mckenzie. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993. 29-51. See notes 28 and 29 for earlier arguments, and see also Van Seters, John. Abraham in History and Tradition. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press,1975. See the next two who were quoted by Gunn (1992) Vincent, J.M. "Studien Zur literarischen Eigenart und zur geistigen, Heimat von Jesaja, Kap. 40-55." Shmitt, H.C. "Prophetie und Schultheologie im Deuterojesajabuch." ZAW 91 (1979) 43-61. See Tigay, Jeffery. Empirical Models for Biblical Criticism. Ed. Tigay, Jeffery H. Philidelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1985. 1-7. Even though his ultimate goal is to defend source critism, he raises some methodological shortcomings.

3Tigay 1985:2. He says this despite the fact that his book attempts to demonstrate that other features of source criticism are methodologically sound.

4Ibid what page ????

5Greenstein 1990a:164.


7Greenstein 1990b:30.

8Larsson, Gerhard. "Documentary Hypothesis and Chronological Structure of the Old Testament" ZAW 97 (1985) 319.

9Greenstein 1990b:31

10Tigay 1985:2.

11Freedman 1997a:153.

12Viviano 1993: 43.

13Ibid. 43-44.

14Ibid 44.

15See Viviano 1993 especially note 29, Walker 1986, WhyBray 1987 and many others.

16 See for example Brichto, Herbert Chanan. The Names of God: Poetic Readings in Biblical Beginnings. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. ix.

17Greenstein 1990b: 36.

18Ibid 37.

19Levenson 1990:47.

20"Plainly things have changed. The study of narrative in the Hebrew Bible has altered dramatically in the past ten years, at least as far as professional biblical studies is concerned. That is now a truism." >From Gunn, David N. "New Directions in the Study of Biblical Hebrew Narrative." Beyond Form Criticism: Essays in Old Testament Literary Criticism. 1987. Ed. House, Paul R. Sources for Biblical and Theological Study volume 2. general ed. David W. Baker. Winnona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns. 1992. 412-423.See Alter, Robert and Frank Kermode eds. The Literary Guide to the Bible. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1987. 4, and see 6 "Literary criticism, long thought to be peripheral or even irrelevant to biblical studies, has emerged since the mid-1970's as a new major focus of academic biblical scholarship." For a more detailed discussion see House, Paul R. "The Rise and Current Status of Literary Criticism of the Old Testament." Beyond Form Criticism: Essays in Old Testament Literary Criticism. Ed. House, Paul R. Sources for Biblical and Theological Study volume 2. general ed. David W. Baker. Winnona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns. 1992. 3-22. See also Berlin, Adele A Search for a New Biblical Hermeneutics." The Study of the Ancient Near East in the 21st Century. Eds. Cooper, Jerrold S. and Glenn M. Schwartz Eisenbrauns, 1996. 195-208.

21See Friedman, Richard Elliot. "The Recession of Biblical Source Criticism." The Future of Biblical Studies:THe Hebrew Scriptures. Eds. Friedman, Richard Elliot and H. G. M. Willaimson. Atlanta, Georgia: Scholars Press, 1987. 81., who bemoans the fact that "Most biblical scholars of our own generation have studied, but do not practice, source-critical analysis. And the current literary study of the Bible … usually ignores it."

22Levenson 1990:51.

23Larrson 1985:322.


25Wenham 1991, and see Emerton, J.A. "An Examination of Some Attempts to Defend the Unity of the Flood Narrative in Genesis." Vetus Testamentus 38 (1988) 1-21.

26See Wenham 1988:10 who quotes Radday, and see Portnoy 1991 and Friedman 1996.