Continued from Being Honest to the Bible’s Texts (Part 2a).
2. The Documentary Hypothesis: What is a Hypothesis?
Some readers here (one in particular with a new alias) rather than commenting on my posts are caught up in a game of disclosing and then responding to their own assumptions about the intended aims of my work and the aims and methods of biblical scholarship in general by referencing misleading and inaccurate views about the Documentary Hypothesis and then insisting that these mistaken views are the aims of my work. In the present case this is rather disconcerting since the Documentary Hypothesis is not even mentioned nor alluded to in my initial post, Being Honest to the Bible’s Texts, which again reflects the fact that these particular visitors are caught up in a game of responding to their own misguided assumptions and ignorance about our object of study rather than to the actual content of my posts and/or the biblical texts themselves! Nonetheless, let me attempt to respond to these misguided few.
First, a couple definitions:
A hypothesis is a conceptual structure which serves to organize and render intelligible a mass of otherwise disparate and disordered observations. (Campbell & O’Brien, Sources of the Pentateuch)
A scientific hypothesis is presumed to be sound until it is challenged by another hypothesis that explains the current data equally well and also accounts for the inconsistencies that the prevailing one cannot account for. (source unknown, cited from an SAT)
Before addressing our object of study—the biblical texts—let me briefly present an analogy to consider. If my memory serves me well, the Bohr model of an atom that we all learn of in high school is nothing more than a hypothesis! No one has ever seen an atom. One cannot verify this model from direct observation! It is a hypothesis—a conceptual model—that best explains the observable data collected from photon accelerators I believe. Indeed this hypothesis has even changed over the last few decades and is no longer the reigning hypothesis. Nonetheless, with this simple hypothesis, we have successfully explained numerous chemical, biological, and physical properties and phenomena, built satellites and iphones, skyscrapers and operating tables, genetically modified crops, DNA, etc. Basically we’ve built a lot of shit upon this hypothesis. Now imagine for a moment a group of individuals that did not allow the human species to develop and advance its knowledge because they were stuck on the hypothesis part. Since our notion of an atom is just a hypothesis—not verifiable through direct observation—then other advancements ought not be built upon this fabrication such individuals might argue, while undoubtedly using all of the comforts of society built upon this hypothesis! One easily grasps through this analogy just how intellectually and conceptually bankrupt these individuals’ thinking is. Indeed, all sorts of hypotheses are rendered valid on a daily basis and have helped to create the world we currently live in—hypotheses that are in essence merely conceptual models that explain such-and-such observable data and/or phenomena.
It should furthermore be noted that this hypothesis as well as others are drawn from the observable data as objectively as possible. It is not based on subjective beliefs, but drawn from the observable data collected from the object of study—what we would call the scientific method. Moreover, this objectively drawn hypothesis (from our object of study’s observable data) is radically different from a subjective belief claim about the nature of atoms such as, for example, that held by the Greek philosopher Democrites who speculated that atoms had little hooks on them to combine with other atoms and thus create larger compounds. This view is no longer tenable because the observable data drawn by later generations and built upon ever increasing advancements and knowledge about the object’s field of study display that such subjective beliefs are no longer tenable. Not surprisingly, all of these same principles also apply to the biblical texts as an object of study!
So with respect to our object of study—the biblical texts (note: our object of study is not the interpretive assumptions embedded in the label “the Holy Bible,” not God, not faith, not the reader’s subjective belief claims, etc., but the texts themselves)—the Documentary Hypothesis is likewise a conceptual model drawn and continuously redrawn for more than 300 years (going back to Witter’s 1711 work which hypothesized 2 sources) from the observable textual data! That’s a longer and more pronounced track record as a hypothesis that best explains the observable data than the hypothesis of an atom from which my readers’ iphones were built! That is to say, the biblical texts themselves have lead to, and continuously substantiate, this hypothesis which is the only reigning hypothesis that has successfully explained the observable textual data the Bible reveals when objectively studied—its differing styles, Hebraic lexical and grammatical differences, differences in vocabulary and phraseology, duplicate stories, anachronisms and other historical references, anomalous chronologies and genealogies, duplicate itineraries, anachronistic geographical landscapes and cities, differing geopolitical worldviews, and finally differing, competing, and/or contradictory theologies, ideologies, law codes, worldviews, and beliefs about Israel’s god, sacrifice, the cult, salvation, the priesthood, kingship, prophecy, Christ, and so on and so on and so on. Some of these textual data were even observed and commented on by early church fathers who proposed theological and/or subjectively-oriented explanations for them. But like Democrites’ views on the atom, these ancient views have also been largely debunked by our increased knowledge of the Bible’s texts, other texts of the ancient world, the hows and whys behind scribal schools and their compositions, who wrote ancient texts, why, and to whom, and most importantly our increased knowledge of these texts on linguistic, philological, stylistic, theological, thematic, and even ideological grounds. Being ignorant about this knowledge and its field of study is no excuse for arguing that the conclusions it draws from the observable textual data is untenable. Being ignorant of the textual observable data—that is, being ignorant about these texts—does not invalidate the hypothesis drawn from this textual data! It is incumbent upon the readers to acquire this knowledge before they make pronouncements about these texts—otherwise their pronouncements are little more than subjective belief claims about the nature of these texts forged by their own whims and their ignorance of the textual data, and/or by the influences of later and exterior reader-focused interpretive traditions or theological convictions! See Part 2a.
Furthermore, this website and my scholarship in general is not dedicated to substantiating the Documentary Hypothesis. There is over three centuries of literature that has and continues to successfully do this. It is the responsibility of readers to acquaint themselves with this knowledge. A good start is Joel Baden’s recent book, The Composition of the Pentateuch: Renewing the Documentary Hypothesis (2012), whose aim is to reacquaint the public with this field of scholarship and to illustrate through the biblical texts why the Documentary Hypothesis is still the prevailing model in explaining the Pentateuch’s observable textual data, even if scholars nowadays do not strictly hold to Wellhausen’s initial thesis.
As for myself, I’m less interested in saying look here is J and here P. I’m more interested in saying look here, how this later version of a traditional story had been modified when it was retold or rewritten by a later and perhaps different scribal guild or in a different geopolitical world. Let’s understand that! Why and how did this later author modify the tradition that he himself inherited, etc. The focus is always on understanding the text on the terms of the text. And again, there are loads of books out there by biblical scholars more proficient than myself showing how this hypothesis is confirmed and supported by the textual data. See, to name a few: Knohl, The Sanctuary of Silence: The Priestly Torah and the Holiness School (1995); Carr, Reading the Fractures of Genesis: Historical and Literary Approaches (1996); Levinson, Deuteronomy and the Hermeneutics of Legal Innovation (1997); Campbell & O’Brien, Unfolding the Deuteronomistic History: Origins, Upgrades, Present Text (2000); Crawford, Rewriting Scripture in Second Temple Times (2008); King, The Realignment of the Priestly Literature: The Priestly Narrative of Genesis and Its Relation to Priestly Legislation and the Holiness School (2009); Person, The Deuteronomic History and the Book of Chronicles (2010); or any one of the Anchor Bible Commentaries (Yale University Press) on the books of the Pentateuch!
In point of fact, I am not much of a proponent of Wellhausen’s Documentary Hypothesis. And indeed the paradigm in biblical scholarship has changed a bit (which I have discussed in limited fashion here). That said, I much prefer to speak of a Source Hypothesis, whether those sources are documents, oral traditions, or other scribal traditions. For who could refute this (and why would they?). For any glance at the Bible’s table of contents only reinforces this fact. The Bible is a compilation of different sources, literary or otherwise! So yes, I’ve quickly moved from hypothesis to fact, visually verifiable from the evidence that this collection of ancient literature’s once independent scrolls and codices bears witness to. Indeed, in many circumstances we are no longer talking about a hypothesis but real, genuine, verifiable fact!
First, the Bible’s table of contents irrefutably reveals that its content are diverse and once independent documents—all of which were collected together at a later date to form the Bible in the late 2nd c. BCE, at the earliest. Prior to this we had a collection of ancient scrolls that were identified as the Law and the Prophets, attested as earlier as the 1 c. BCE, which were made up of a lesser selection of these different textual sources and documents. And prior to this there is evidence of a collection of edited scrolls coming from Babylon in the early 5th c. BCE which was labeled by these same editors as the “Torah of Moses” (Neh 8:1). Regardless how this collection of documents was viewed and labeled by its 5th century readers, this “Torah,” like the collection “the Law and the Prophets” and the even later collection “the Bible,” also reveals a composite textual nature.
Second, many of the authors of the Bible’s texts also inform us, per the conventions of ancient literary practices, that they themselves used sources in composing their compositions! The author of the gospel of Luke, for example, informs us that he had sources which he readily used, the author of Jude identifies Enoch as a “scriptural” source. Obviously Matthew and Paul used the LXX as sources for their compositions, and so on. But more than these trite examples, are those of our Old Testament writers. For example, the author of (parts of) the book of Numbers uses material from a source which he identifies as “the scroll of the wars of Yahweh” (Num 21:14). We also hear of “the scroll of Jashar” which was used as a source for the author of Joshua 10:13. Whoever wrote much of the genealogical lists in Genesis identifies his source as “the scroll of the genealogy of Adam” (Gen 5:1). The authors of the books—scrolls—of Kings frequently reference a couple of their sources, “the chronicles of the kings of Israel” and “the chronicles of the kings of Judah” (1 Kings 14:19, 14:29, 15:7, 15:23, etc.). The author of the books of Chronicles, which is a later, and as we shall see, divergent historical narrative covering the same period depicted in the books of Samuel and Kings, not only uses these books as sources, but mentions others as well: “the chronicles of David” (1 Chr 27:24), “the chronicles of Samuel the seer” (1 Chr 29:29), “the scroll of Gad” (1 Chr 29:29), “the scroll of Jehu” (2 Chr 20:34), etc. “The scroll of the records of your fathers” is mentioned by the author of Ezra (Ezra 4:15), and so on. That the biblical writers—or perhaps seen in this perspective, scribes who transmitted traditions—used sources is evident from the biblical texts themselves. The texts and their authors tell us this fact! There are even specific incidences where a scribe has disagreed with a source that he has incorporated into his composition, and there were even specific literary conventions that scribes used to indicate to other scribes where they inserted other textual material—the resumptive repetition is one such scribal feature. Fundamentalist readers can only ignore the biblical texts for so long. Or can they just keep ignoring these texts indefinitely? Because God knows (now I’m making a theological assertion, more rhetorical than anything) that these readers’ beliefs about the Bible’s texts are more important than what the texts themselves say and do not say on their own terms! So I suppose they can indefinitely go on like this—to the detriment and neglect of the very texts themselves, their authors, and their competing beliefs, worldviews, messages, ideologies, etc.
Third, add to this textual evidence our growing knowledge about the scribal culture of the ancient Near East and this hypothesis finds even more supporting data. We know from biblical and extra-biblical texts that scribes often added variant or different traditions onto existing scrolls that were handed down through traditions and scribal culture. Scribes were not authors in our sense of the word. They were transmitters of tradition and they often reinterpreted or made amendments to the traditions that they themselves inherited! For example, laws codes that witnessed changes due to later kings or under changing geopolitical worlds were simply added to existing scrolls that contained earlier and often obsolete law codes. We have examples of this practice well into the Persian period! Scrolls, in other words, often preserved earlier traditions/sources, even when, and perhaps especially when, they were preserving variant traditions! The Bible as a whole bears witness to this on numerous occasions. Let’s get this straight—that is its textual data bears witness to these variant and even competing traditions, ideologies, emphasis, etc. That which is assumed in the title “the Holy Bible” does not! And that is the nature of the real issue here. But before we get to that conversation, my plea is that we first learn how to be honest to these ancient documents and the literary conventions and scribal culture that produced them, and that starts by just acknowledging them on their own terms—not the terms dictated by later traditions and theological constructs.
The reader should start to see that the real problem here is ignorance! Biblical illiteracy—and what I mean by this phrase is ignorance about the texts of the Bible, the scribal cultures that produced them, ancient literature in general, who wrote it, why, to whom, according to what scribal conventions, etc.—is a growing and systemic problem in this country. Indeed, it is becoming increasingly worse! We have actually been moving in the wrong direction—towards more biblical illiteracy and ignorance. Again, ignorance of the textual data and three-hundred years of knowledge does not invalidate the Source Hypothesis—especially when, as we just saw, the scribes of these texts explicitly inform us that they used sources!
To therefore hypothesize that the book of Genesis, for example, was composed of different sources seems more like a given than a hypothesis—even more so when one has equipped oneself with our growing knowledge of ancient literary conventions and how scrolls were composed and transmitted, and by whom and for what purposes. What we today call the book of Genesis wasn’t created until the 2nd century BCE! That’s a whole 7 centuries after what scholars estimate are the oldest layers of texts in this so-called “book”! When I say Genesis wasn’t conceived until the 2nd century I am specifically referring to the title “Genesis”—a Greek title that gets imposed onto this scroll in the 2nd century BCE when the Hebrew scroll whose conventional name was its first word, bere’shit, gets translated into Greek and even later when this translated scroll gets reformatted as a codex—our modern book! Indeed, it is perhaps this form—the book—which was a later creation, that imposes the most sway on modern misinformed readers in thinking that Genesis is a book with a unified narrative, a single message, and single author. They have fallen prey to the oldest adage: they’ve judged a so-called book by its cover which says “Hey, I’m a Book,” and not its content which declares otherwise!
Prior to this we have to ask, when was the scroll bere’shit composed? And more pertinent, how? Looking at the extra-textual data first, our earliest textual reference to such a scroll comes from the 1st century BCE! That is, no reference to the existence of such a scroll is made prior to this date. Indeed, although not explicitly stated, Ezra, a priest of the Babylonian captivity who returned to Judah to offer instruction (torah) to the Israelite community returning there, brought with him what for the first time gets identified as “the Torah of Moses” (Neh 8:1). This Torah, scholars surmise, must have been compiled (or written in part) by the educated priestly community in captivity during the 5th century BCE, most likely as a means to preserve and provide teaching for the exilic community in the face of their near extinction. If we assume that Ezra’s Torah was similar to the Torah as it now stands, then we might also assume that that the scroll bere’shit may have existed as earlier as the 5th century in some form or another. But even here we are granting much.
But beyond this we can’t say anything! In the Pentateuch alone, the only text that makes reference to itself as a text are specific passages from Deuteronomy (but see Exodus 17). So the texts of the Bible themselves do not bear witness to their own textualization (see Schniedewind, How the Bible Became a Book: The Textualization of Ancient Israel) until at earliest the 7th century text of Deuteronomy (again there is a plethora of literature available pertaining to why scholars date the core of this text to the 7th century based from its internal textual evidence and external textual comparisons). In other words, bere’shit as an individual scroll or unified whole document that existed prior to the 5th century is not even a possible hypothesis! There are no textual or extra textual data to buttress such an assertion!
Consequently then, our knowledge about the compositional nature of the scroll bere’shit must ultimately come from the study of the text itself—our object of study. And once again the observable textual data strongly suggests and has reaffirmed for over 300 years that Genesis is a composite text! Period. Either you are honest to the texts and what it is telling us on its terms, or not.
Analogously, say we had an anonymous film. It was black and white, and the cinematographic quality and even acting—all the observable cinematographic data that we could collect—led us to the conclusion that the film was composed prior to the 1950s. Likewise for an anonymous film that references certain historical events, or say has the Twin Towers in its setting, we could conclude that it was composed prior to 2001. This is just one of the ways that biblical scholars make assessments about the ancient texts of the Bible. Not only does its Hebrew witness differing styles, syntax, vocabulary, tone, and lexical register—imagine an anonymous English text that at parts displayed Shakespearean English and at other parts modern English, and at others British English, and imagine furthermore that when each one of these styles reoccurred specific themes and ideologies only found in each style also resurfaced. You might start to get an idea of what biblical scholars working on the Hebrew text have discovered. Or said different, what the Hebrew text reveals when studied objectively.
It is from these observable textual data that we are able to confidently hypothesize that the text of Genesis is composite in nature, especially when these differing styles also display differences in content, theology, etc. And this conclusion is buttressed by the fact that other biblical scribes explicitly mention sources that they used in their composition, as well as our increased knowledge about how traditions were recopied and different textual traditions were amended onto existing scrolls, and how different communities in different geographies or chronologies retold their traditional stories in varied manners, from our expanding knowledge about ancient literature in general. Just because a reader of the Bible is ignorant of this knowledge—that is, ironically, ignorant about the text itself!—doesn’t mean that this knowledge does not exist and it doesn’t mean that this particular reader’s beliefs about the text without this knowledge holds any weight at all.
Another textual tool that helps scholars understand the compositional history and nature of say the scroll of bere’shit is looking closely at the geography, the cities mentioned, borders, and other place names referenced in the stories in this scroll. Often when a scribe of say the 8th century BCE narrates a story or event from the archaic past, in his narration he projects into the past the geopolitical world of his own time period! How was this conclusion arrived at—again the texts tell us so. So it is no coincidence that the source identified by scholars on textual, linguistic, and content grounds as the Yahwist for example, displays a keen interest in the geopolitical world of Judah as it was during the 9th and 8th centuries BCE. The place names invoked in this text: the borders of cities, of Judah, and her neighbors described in these stories all represent the borders of Judah and its environs as they were in the monarchic period—reaffirmed by other texts, Amos, Hosea, or even Kings. So in effect, Abraham is walking around ancient Canaan as its borders and place names where known to scribes of the 9th and 8th centuries! Levine (Anchor Bible) even discusses a specific incident involving the borders of Judah and Edom, which was Judah’s southeastern neighbor. There was only one point in history when Edom’s border expanded westward and rested upon the Judean city of Kadesh. So stories in Numbers 13-14 for example where the narrator identifies the Edomite border resting on Kadesh, along with other textual data, reveals that this text was composed by an author who had knowledge of Judah’s borders as they were in the 9th century when Judah was occupied with skirmishes with its northern neighbors Israel and Aram, and Edom took advantage of that by pushing its border westward. These are but a tiny example of the textual data that has lead scholars to make claims about the compositional nature of these texts and their authors. Again, when readers lack this knowledge, pretend its not there, or dismiss it—that is dismiss the texts!—and then have the audacity to proclaim anything about these texts, their authors, and their messages, then they are just being dishonest and negligent toward these texts, their authors, and their once independent messages.
If as a culture our most cherished beliefs about these texts—beliefs handed down and forged by powerful, longstanding and authoritative interpretive traditions—are called into question by what the texts themselves reveal and have revealed for over 300 years when objectively studied, then we have an obligation to these texts and their authors to acknowledge that, and move forward. This is what I’m calling Being Honest to the Texts and the Beliefs and Messages of their Authors.