I. The Quest for Sources

The History of Source Criticism

People have long noticed problems with the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible traditionally ascribed to Moses). For instance, it would report the events in a particular order, and later say the events happened in a different order. Some passages would repeat the same event two or three times. Some would say that the Moabites did something, and later it would say it was the Midianites. Moreover, the five books contain things Moses could not have known or was not likely to have said, such as the report of his own death or the statement that he was the humblest man on earth.

In the history of biblical interpretation we can distinguish four stages:

The tradition holds that Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible (Pentateuch, Torah), although the text itself does not claim to have been written by Moses. Nevertheless, Mosaic authorship was questioned from the very beginning, but problems were carefully explained away. Most deviations from the traditional belief were suppressed. A few exceptions have survived:

Isaac ibn Yashush (11th century) noticed that the Edomite kings listed in Gen 36 lived long after Moses was dead, thus the list was inserted later. He came to be known as "Isaac the blunderer." Bonfils (14th century) claimed that verses which refer to Moses in the third person were not written by him, but by a later prophet. Tostatus, bishop of Avila in the 15th century, wrote that Moses could not have written about his death.

In a second stage of investigation, critics held that Moses wrote most all of the five books, but that a later editor added certain phrase and statements.

In a third stage, scholars concluded outright that Moses did not write the Torah. Many of these scholars were persecuted for their beliefs. Thomas Hobbes in the 17th century first denied Mosaic authorship. The repetition of the phrase "to this day" was a clear sign to him that the books came later than the time they described. Isaac de la Peyrère, four years after Hobbes, noted the phrase "across the Jordan" in the first verse of Deuteronomy which implies that it was written in Cis-Jordan, not Trans-Jordon as Moses would have done. Spinoza at the same time published a thorough critique of the traditional belief in Mosaic authorship.

In the fourth stage of investigation scholars began to distinguish different sources in the Pentateuch. Richard Simon, although accepting Mosaic authorship for most of the Torah, argued that there were additions, incorporated by prophets, and collected, arranged, and elaborated from old texts. He recognized many doublets in the text:

two different stories of creation
two stories of the covenant between God and Abraham
two stories of the naming of Abraham's son Isaac
two stories of Abraham claiming Sarah is his sister
two stories of Jacob making a journey to Mesopotamia
two stories of a revelation to Jacob at Beth-El
two stories of God changing Jacob's name to Israel
two stories of Moses getting water from a rock at a place called Meribah

There independent investigators: Witter (a German minister), Astruc (a French doctor), and Eichhorn (a German professor) argued that the Pentateuch was composed of two old sources, but originating from a time after Moses. Two scholars noted some triplets of stories, and with the isolation of characteristic language, suggested the existence of a third source. De Wette observed in his doctoral dissertation that the book of Deuteronomy was strikingly different in its language from Genesis - Numbers, and concluded that Deuteronomy formed a separate, fourth source.

The classic form of what became known as the "Documentary Hypothesis" was formulated by Julius Wellhausen. He argued that the Pentateuch is composed of four distinct literary documents known as JEDP, dating from the 10th to the 6th centuries. Wellhausen's basic framework has been accepted by a majority of scholars, but the details have been refined considerably.

The Methods of Source Criticism

There are a variety of methods and procedures employed in source criticism:

  1. Compare parallel accounts (within a book and across books)
  2. Distinguished combined accounts: two or three different versions of the same story can be combined into a single account.
  3. Recognize distinct terminology and style: each source written by different person will have a unique style and vocabulary.
  4. Isolate independent blocks of material: some blocks of material are distinct from their context and may have a distinct origin.
  5. Recognize divergent view points: each source will have its own agenda and bias.

The Results of Source Criticism

Below is a traditional understanding of the documentary hypothesis (different understandings of this hypothesis exist). In the beginning there appears to have been a group of oral stories describing important events for the people of Israel: traditions of the ancestors, the sojourn into Egypt and Exodus, the covenant on Mount Sinai, wilderness stories, stories of conquest of Canaan. Date from 1200 - 1000 BCE. These stories were in poetic form, probably sung by bards much like Homer.

During the period of David and Solomon, a scribe in the royal court, referred to as J, drew upon many of these stories and produced a narrative account of the people of Israel beginning with creation and extending at least up to the time just prior to the conquest (Genesis - Numbers). It is possible that the work of J included the conquest and settlement of the land, which is now lost to us, or incorporated into another work, but this is uncertain.

After the division of the kingdom (beginning of the 9th century) another narrative of the people of Israel was written by a scribe referred to as E. We are not sure of the extent of E for much of it has not survived, but it does parallel J in its main narrative. It was probably written in response to J.

J and E were redacted into one work (8th century) in which J formed the main line of tradition and E supplemented it.

It is possible that a Priestly document was incorporated into this large narrative, adding a unique priestly perspective to the text, but this is uncertain.

2 Kings 22 records the discovery of a book of the law in the temple (621 BCE). Because of the religious reforms which were enacted by Josiah, scholars have identified this book with the core of the book of Deuteronomy.

This book then became the ideological program from which a whole new history of the people of Israel was written. But rather than focusing on the early period, this history began with the people entering the land of Canaan and stretched up to the present time of the author. This history is found in the books of Joshua - Kings.

This Deuteronomistic history is written in two phases. The first phase goes up to the time of King Josiah, the time when the book of Deuteronomy was discovered. When the people of Judah went into exile in Babylon, this history was revised and updated to reflect the new situation of the people.

During the exile, Priestly editors produced the final edition of the Torah by adding a new creation account to the beginning, filling in numerous geneologies, adding stories important to them, appending Deuteronomy to Genesis - Numbers, and adding the account of Moses' death at the end of Deuteronomy. The separation of these works into different books is probably the result of the size of a scroll.

Source criticism is also applied to other books of the Bible with less complicated, but similar results: namely, most books in the Bible exhibit some trace of composite authorship.

The formation of the Bible, then, proceeded by adding together and splicing smaller compositions to form larger entities. One should view the composition of the Bible through the metaphor of a large river system: our task is to paddle up river and explore the various tributaries.

II. The Traditional Pentateucal Sources

The Yahwist (J)

Composed in the south, in the court of David or Solomon, during the 10th century. As a result, the central role of Judah among the tribes of Israel is stressed. For instance: The patriarchs dwell in the south, in the land of Judah; the patriarch Judah convinces his brothers to sell Joseph to the Ishmaelites rather than kill him; Judah also pleads to have Benjamin spared, and offers his own son instead.

The Yahwist epic can be viewed as a national epic for the Davidic empire. Yahweh promises Abraham land, descendents and blessings, and the land promised to Abraham is equivalent to the borders of the Davidic empire (Gen 15:18-21).

The epic is not a full or blind endorsement of the Davidic empire. There is a subtle warning that Yahweh's purposes and judgments transcend any particular institution. For example, the first born did not aways have the special blessing; Yahweh could choose another. There is a warning to beware of human and kingly pride!

Distinctive vocabulary:

Yahweh, Sinai (the mountain of God), Canaanites (inhabitants of Palestine), Hobab or Reuel (Moses' father-in-law), Israel (the patriarch)
"to know", euphemism for sexual intercourse
"to call upon the name of Yahweh"
"to bless" as the beneficient action of the deity
"my lord/ your servant" formal address
"to cut a covenant"
"breath of life"
earthly language: adam from adamah
husband and wife; the male and its mate: ish and ishshah

The Yahwist is fond of etiologies:

Eve: the mother of the living.
Cain: the woman has "created" a man like Yahweh.
Noah: he will bring "comfort" from the curse.
Israel: the one who stives with God (given to Jacob after wrestling with the God).

The Yahwist relates the deeds of Israel's ancestors with gusto, even when their behavior is questionable or reprehensible. He does not white-wash them. Yahweh is presented anthropomorphically: He strolls in the garden in the cool of the day; seals the door of the ark for Noah; visits and dines with Abraham; spies out Sodom and Gomorrah to see if they are as sinful as their reputation.

But Yahweh is also a high-god and not a minor spirit. The Yahwist presents both a personal and transcendent form of God, which influenced Jewish and Christian theology for centuries.

The Elohist (E)

The Elohist epic was composed in the north, in Israel after the split of the empire, during the early part of the 9th century (900-850). The epic is characterized by the use of Elohim to refer to God prior to the revelation of the divine name to Moses on Mt. Sinai.

It is difficult to characterize the Elohist because of its fragmentary state, but it appears that the Elohist placed special emphasis on early Israel as a religiously and ethically obligated community in covenant with God. The Elohist was less awed by governmental authority than the Yahwist. E is fairly explicit in presenting criteria for defining Israel that transcended and criticized the current kingdoms of Judah and Israel. The Elohist epic was a conscious corrective to J.

The Elohist draws moral conclusions and admonishes readers, often with a preaching attitude: the danger of apostasy is exposed and a call to repentance and obedience is made. The Elohist glosses over the moral imperfections of the ancestors: Sarah was Abraham's half-sister, thus he did not lie; Jacob was blest by God, thus he did not really steal from Laban.

The Elohist epic probably originated in the prophetic circles of the north, such as those centering around Elijah and Elisha. It presents several of the ancestors as prophet-like figures, models for leadership: Abraham, Joseph, Moses, and Miriam. The patriarchs are described living in the north, in the territory of Ephraim. The major patriarchial cult centers are the northern shrines of Bethel and Shechem.

Distinct vocabulary:

Horeb (the mountain of God), Amorites (inhabitants of Palestine), Jethro (Moses' father-in-law), Jacob (the patriarch).
"the River" as a reference to the Euphrates.
"the fear of God"

The Elohist has a strong ritual interest. The numerous altars which the patriarchs erect are used for sacrifice. In J these altars serve only a memorial function.

Compared to the Yahwist, God is less immanent for the Elohist. God does not communicate with humans directly but rather through rituals, dreams, visions, and divine messengers.

In its present form, E is extremely fragmentary. The J epic, probably because it was from the south, served as the basis for the main narrative. E only supplemented the narrative. Some scholars (including myself) have questioned the existence of an independent E epic, suggesting instead that it is composed of unrelated supplements to J.

The Priest Writer (P)

The priestly edition of the Tetrateuch (Genesis - Numbers) was composed during the exile or shortly after (550-450 BCE). There is a dispute among scholars as to whether P was an independent written source or simply the result of redactional activity.

The priestly writer was concerned to supplement the old traditions with materials which would underscore the institutional and ritual constitution of the people as the unique community of Yahweh. With loss of nationhood and temple cult with the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, the priestly writer addressed the problem of what does it mean to be "Jewish", the people of Yahweh. The answer was present in the form of an institutional and ritual constitution. Circumcision and Sabbath observance were crucial aspects of Jewish identity. Also a whole host of ritual requirements, particularly with regard to cleanliness.

The priestly writer used Elohim to refer to Yahweh prior to the revelation of the divine name to Moses on Mt. Sinai. P also employs a host of archaic names for Yahweh: El-Shaddai, El-Olam, El-Berith, El-Bethel, El-Ro'i, El the god of the fathers, the kinsman of Isaac, the bull of Jacob.

God is quite transcendent for the priestly writer. God is revealed through his kabod, his "glory". The priestly edition has a very cosmic perspective.

For the priestly writer the dietary laws and sacrifice begin with Moses. Thus an absence of sacrifice by the ancestors.

Distinctive vocabulary:

"be fruitful and multiply"
"according to its kind"
"on the face of all the earth"
"throughout your generations"
"be gathered to one's people"
"to establish a covenant"
"male and female"

The priestly writer ties the narrative together with geneologies and chronological markers. There are two prominent structures which give order to the priestly work.

1. The history of the ancestors is divided into ages by a series of formulas: "these are the generations of . . ."

the heavens and the earth (Gen 2.4a); Adam (5.1a); Noah (6.9a); Shem, Ham, and Japeth (10.1a); Shem (10.10a); Terah (11.27a); Ishmael (25.12); Isaac (25.19); Esau (36.1, 9); Jacob (37.2); and Aaron and Moses (Num 3.1).

2. Sacred history is also sharply periodized by three perpetual covenants. These covenants also had a narrowing focus.

Covenant with Noah: The sign is the rainbow. The promise to all humanity is that God will never again destroy the earth.

Covenant with Abraham: The sign is circumcision. The promise to Abraham and his descendents is that there will be numerous descendents and God will give them land.

Covenant with Israel, mediated by Moses at Mt. Sinai: The sign is the Sabbath. The promise to the people of Israel is that Yahweh will be their God and they will be his people.

For the priestly writer, the whole history of Israel's ancestors leads to Mt. Sinai and looks back to Mt. Sinai.