A recent Journal of Biblical Literature forum on the state of source criticism of the Pentateuch has produced the beginnings of an important conversation about methodology in pentateuchal studies. While scholars representative of three major approaches to pentateuchal criticism have contributed to this forum, only two of those three approaches are discussed in any detail and those discussions presume a high level of familiarity with this field’s discourse. The purpose of this essay is to introduce, on a basic level, the state of pentateuchal criticism today: what are the questions being asked? what are the different approaches to answering those questions? and what, if any, points of agreement are there among these approaches?
There is a shared recognition among most scholars that there are literary problems in the Pentateuch. Among other issues, there are laws that contradict each other, narratives that contain inconsistent historical claims, and prose that indicates a breakdown in the voice of the narrator. The debate among pentateuchal critics lies in their proposed solutions to these literary problems. Despite the broad differences between these solutions, some common ground does exist: there is evidence of multiple authors/redactors, the Pentateuch is the result of the combination of multiple pre-existing texts, and these texts are, in some way, related to other texts in the Pentateuch. It is the nature of this relationship that is at the heart of the debate.
There are three main approaches to pentateuchal criticism. The first and least broadly accepted approach is that of arguing for a unified text. In the recent JBL forum, this approach is exemplified in Serge Frolov’s analysis of Deuteronomy 34. Using this approach, one reads the biblical text with the presumption of literary unity until he is forced to concede otherwise. A biblical text is chosen and read and if it can be understood as coming from a single author, then it comes from a single author. As is the case with Frolov, and Umberto Cassuto before him, such readings often employ harmonization techniques to make such readings possible. They also rarely, if ever, attempt to read the entirety of the Pentateuch from start to finish; the focus instead is episodic.
The documentary hypothesis (source criticism) shares a similar starting point; it, too, presumes literary unity until forced to concede otherwise. The documentary hypothesis was developed in the late 19th century by Karl Heinrich Graf, Julius Wellhausen, and Abraham Kuenen. It posits four sources (J, E, D, P) and multiple stages of redaction (J+E, JE + D, JED + P). In the mid-twentieth century, this hypothesis was supplanted by a new approach (discussed below). In the last thirty years, the documentary hypothesis has been revisited and revised. Scholars such as Menachem Haran, Baruch Schwartz, and Joel Baden have made a renewed argument for the validity of this hypothesis while simultaneously critiquing and modifying the criteria by which sources are identified. The combination of these four sources was performed by a single redactor. This revised version of the documentary hypothesis is called the neo-documentary hypothesis. From this perspective there is a focus on the Pentateuch as a whole. Each text must be read within its larger context. Discontinuity in the text is identified primarily on the basis of three types of narrative problems: contradictions, doublets, and discontinuities. This approach stresses that the multiple texts that emerge when contradictory elements are separated can be aligned with each other and when this is done, a coherent and reasonably complete narrative results. Currently there is no single work that offers a complete analysis of the Pentateuch from the neo-documentary perspective.
The third main approach to pentateuchal criticism takes as its point of departure the smallest identifiable independent units of text. It then proceeds to trace the development of these small independent units into the final form of the Pentateuch. This approach began in the mid-twentieth century with Rolf Rendtorff as an alternative to the documentary hypothesis. This approach applies form and tradition criticism, previously used to analyze pre-literary stages of the biblical text, to the literary development of the text itself. Once the smallest literary unit has been identified, the task shifts to the identification of the expansions (supplementations) made over time to that unit. Each expansion, it is posited, has a kind of theological or ideological agenda, and the meaning of the text shifts with each supplement. An example of this kind of analysis would be the identification of the “Abraham cycle,” “Jacob cycle,” and “Joseph cycle” as originally independent literary units that were then combined with some material about Isaac into the text of Genesis 12-50 as we have it today. There are at least two analyses of the entirety of the Pentateuch from this supplementarian perspective, one by Erhard Blum and one by Christoph Levin.
Despite the fundamental differences among these approaches, there is some common ground in the results of their analyses. Both supplementarian and neo-documentarian scholars by and large agree that a distinct Priestly text exists. The nature and composition of that text, however, remain significant topics of discussion. They also agree, for the most part, that Deuteronomy is a discrete entity. This leaves only the non-priestly, non-deuteronomic parts of the Pentateuch under debate, in neo-documentarian terms: J and E; in supplementarian terms: much of Genesis, Exodus, and Numbers. In the end, it is important to recall that each of these approaches to pentateuchal criticism is a hypothesis. There is no concrete evidence, no fragment of a scroll from an original J or Abraham cycle. Given the evidence we do have, the final form of the Pentateuch itself, these different approaches reflect the different perspectives as to the most plausible answers to the questions posed by the text. Were new evidence to arise tomorrow, new analyses and new hypotheses would need to be formulated.
Baden, Joel S. The Promise to the Patriarchs.
Schwartz, Baruch J. “What Really Happened at Mount Sinai? Four biblical answers to one question," Bible Review 13 (1997): 20-30.
Stackert, Jeffrey. A Prophet like Moses: Prophecy, Law, and Israelite Religion.
Blum, Erhard. Studien zur Komposition des Pentateuch.
Rendtorff, Rolf. The Problem of the Process of Transmission in the Pentateuch.
Schmid, Konrad. The Old Testament: A Literary History.
Unified Text Approach
Cassuto, Umberto. The Documentary Hypothesis.
Liane Marquis is a PhD student in Hebrew Bible at the University of Chicago. Her interests are in the relationship between narrative and ritual, stratification in the Priestly source, and pentateuchal composition more broadly.
Find her on Twitter @LianeMarquis