Forward to the Past: More on the Documentary Hypothesis

In an earlier post I commented on the recent revival of the idea called the Documentary Hypothesis.  For those unfamiliar with this idea, it originated in European scholarship in the nineteenth century, and is the product of a process now often called “source-criticism.”  The basic idea is that the books of Genesis through Deuteronomy were composed by a person, often referred to as a “redactor,” using material from four previously existing sources.  These were given the labels, J (Yahwist), E (Elohist), P (Priestly), and D (Deuteronomist), and the application of the hypothesis involved dividing the Pentateuch into these earlier sources.  This idea became more complex as various questions were raised about it.  To what extent were these sources written documents or collections of oral tradition, or a mixture?  Could one of the sources, perhaps P, have been the product of the redactor, who wrote this material as a way of organizing all the other sources and putting them together?

The Documentary Hypothesis fell into some disfavor during the last quarter of the twentieth century for several reasons.  First, attempts to assign sequential dates to the sources became quite speculative and were connected to ideas about the development of Israelite religion, which were often anti-Semitic.  Second, literary methods came along that provided productive ways to work with the final form of the text, so that source-criticism was no longer necessary in order to do biblical scholarship.  The troubling thing about this was that in order to create some academic “elbow-room” for themselves, those making use of these newer methods of reading seemed to think they needed to denigrate source-criticism, going so far as to declare it bankrupt or even dead.  The positive aspect of this is that the best of the new methods, such as rhetorical-criticism, narrative-criticism, and various sociological approaches, made tremendous progress over a period of three to four decades in helping us learn to read the biblical text and think about it better.

Source-criticism did not fully go away, however, because so much of what it had observed about the text was useful to other methods.  Phyllis Trible, the foremost practitioner of rhetorical-criticism, specifically commended the source-critics of the past for their keen observations and urged those using the method she was developing to continue to pay attention to and make use of them (see the first chapter of her Rhetorical Criticism:  Context, Method, and the Book of Jonah).  Moreover, many of these observed difficulties could not be fully resolved by other methods.  They could explain the effects of narrative incoherence, for example, but could not say why the text looked this way.

Let me end with one example.  The account of Hagar, Abraham’s second wife is found in two places in Genesis, 16:1-5 and 21:8-21, which would be assigned to two different sources.  The first text tells of the birth of Ishmael to Hagar and fits rather nicely in its context, heightening the tension created by the barrenness of Sarai.  The second text is placed chronologically about fifteen years later, so it can include a scene in which the two brothers, Isaac and Ishmael, born fourteen years apart, are together.  The narrative incoherence comes in 21:14-15 where this fifteen or sixteen year old boy is placed on his mother’s shoulder and she later throws him under a bush.  This is also (part of) a story originally about Hagar when Ishmael was an infant.  In the next entry I will offer some possibilities of two sets of methods, once thought to be enemies might work together to resolve the difficulties of this text.

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