No Fear Biblical Criticism – Part 2: Critical Approaches and the Documentary Hypothesis

No Fear Biblical Criticism – Part 2

Critical Approaches and the Documentary Hypothesis

 (For Part 1: Introduction, see here)

Perhaps the biggest issue people face when approaching Biblical Criticism is their misconceptions about what it really is. When most people hear the words “Biblical Criticism” they immediately think of the Documentary Hypothesis, but, ultimately, the Documentary Hypothesis (henceforth ‘DH’) is only a small portion of the vast tapestry that is Biblical Criticism. In truth, Biblical Criticism is such a broad field that the best definition might be “Academic Approaches to the Bible.” What this means is that Biblical Criticism (henceforth ‘BC’) includes lots of different approaches with lots of different interests. Some of these approaches, like Form Criticism and Source Criticism, parent category of DH, are solely an attempt to determine what sources the human authors of the Tanakh used to compose the texts we see before us today. Such an approach is obviously anathema to a religious believer dedicated to the idea of a purely divine text. However, BC also includes Literary Criticism, which might be thought of as “the study of the Bible as Literature.” While that same religious believer might take offense at calling the Torah as “Literature,” they presumably would not disagree with the literary critic about the incredible beauty and complexity of the Torah text, or the significance of every word. However, the picture I’ve just painted is not helpful to the average person’s encounter with BC. Instead of “just DH”, I’ve now given them “DH + all this other stuff.” With that in mind, I will attempt to begin to explain a few of these different approaches, as well as how they relate to each other and the religious believer. While some approaches, like Archaeology or Patternism, will have to wait for a later section, DH will be given primary placement in this segment, as it is both the most famous part of BC, and possibly the most challenging to the religious believer.

The Documentary Hypothesis is the culmination of hundreds of years of Biblical Scholarship, starting from the first medieval scholars that ever questioned the Mosaic Authorship of the Torah[1]. It’s first fully realized manifestation was the work of Julius Wellhausen. Wellhausen was the first to not only create a full picture of which parts of the Torah were assigned to which source, but also when in the history of the Israelites the different sources had been written. He broke the text down into four basic sources, (J)awhist, (E)lokist, (P)riestly & (D)ueteronomist, and a (R)edactor who put them all together. Historically, these sources had been broken up based on the different names they used to refer to ‘א, repetitive or contradictory stories, and writing styles. Wellhausen was the first to take these sources and figure out where they might fit historically. He placed the writing of J & E the time of the split kingdoms of Judah and Israel, with J being written in Judah and E being written in Israel[2]. He placed the writing of D in the reign of King Yoshiyahu, and the writing of P in the time of Ezra, in the Second Temple Period. However, this last placement of P has long been recognized to be based not only on some faulty assumptions, but also on some underlying antisemitism, as P includes most of the ritual laws that people associate with Judaism. Thus many people eventually began to place P earlier, at which point it becomes a matter of much debate amongst Bible scholars. Some even split P into P and H, the Priestly Source and Holiness Code, and suggest that while one was written earlier, one as written very late[3]. This, writ large, is the basic concept of the Documentary Hypothesis. Each of these sources may have had it’s own development, it may have been written by a single person, or perhaps even a school of writers, but whatever that may have been, these were the sources the Redactor combined to make the text we today call the Torah.

While much of this was initially challenging to Orthodox Jewry, Rabbi Mordechai Breuer developed what is known in Hebrew as “Shitat HaBehinot,” “The Method of the Aspects,” which said that all of these different voices and styles that DH scholars had found were really there, but that they represented not different human authors but different aspects of the Divine Truth, which cannot be put simply into Human language without compromise or contradiction (B”H we will return to this in a later segment). However, the DH was to suffer lots of critique from within BC, not only from literary critics, but also from within Source Criticism itself. In recent decades, advancements in the study of ancient languages and how they changed over time, the way scribal copying really used to work, and the like, has changed the face of Source Criticism, to the point where a critic’s ability to really identify sources with a large degree of accuracy has been called into question[4]. Thus the whole practice of identifying source documents is considered by many Source Critics to be rather passé[5]. Further, harsh critiques have been leveled against Source Criticism in general, and DH in specific, by the rising trend of Literary Criticism, as will be discussed below. For now, it is safe to say that DH need not trouble the believer too much.

Source Criticism, to reiterate, is the attempt to uncover the different sources that were combined to create the text as we have it today. This is done by rather intensive dividing up of texts based on repetitions, contradictions, and supposed authorial styles. There is a similar approach called Form Criticism, which intends to find the original forms of these sources, the original written or oral compositions that developed into the narratives the of the biblical text as we know it. This is done by determining the beginning and end of each unit of the Torah text, and then attempting to determine what “genre” the unit would fall under (examples: kingship myth, victory song, folktale, etc.). Then this genre can be used to determine the meaning of the text, as well as it’s sitz en leben, the situation in the national life in which the text would have (example: a funeral, a coronation, a sacrificial procedure, etc.). However, much as Source Critics are forever arguing over the correct divisions of the Torah text, so too Form Critics argue about the beginning and ends of units in the text. Moreover, there is little agreement among Form Critics regarding the number of genres in Biblical Literature, or what exactly those genres might be. That these two fields struggle from an incredible amount of internal debate[6]. However, perhaps their greatest critiques have come from the field of Literary Criticism.

Literary Criticism is an approach that eschews the whole practice of searching for the origins of the biblical text, not because it’s difficult or impractical, but because such an approach cannot tell you what the text means. Literary Criticism says that regardless of whether the author of the Torah may have been using varied sources or not, the text was composed with great intent. Therefore the meaning of the text can be best assessed not by picking it apart, but by looking at it as a unitary text. In fact, such an approach says that even if the text is a combination of older sources, what matters is how they were put together, not what they were separately. Therefore, what appear to be seams uniting two texts will often unlock the greatness and meaning of the larger text[7]. This approach was developed by thinking of Tanakh not as scripture, but as literature, and thus subject to Literary Theory. This type of analysis originally suffered due to comparing Tanakh to various forms of literature, such as Homer or Shakespeare, where the comparison was totally artificial. However, as knowledge of the Ancient Near East and, more importantly, the field of Literary Theory[8] improved, Literary Criticism became an approach that truly appreciates the incredible nature of the text of Tanakh. It is from this literary vantage point that many critiques have been launched against Source Criticism and Form Criticism. One of the foundational concepts of Source Criticism is that a repetition means the combination of two sources. However, repetition often serves a purpose within a narrative, so assuming that it requires a combination of sources is far from necessary. An excellent example is pointed out by Professor Robert Alter in his seminal work, “The Art of the Biblical Narrative.” He points out that when Yosef reveals himself to his brothers (Bereishit 45), he says, “I am Yosef. Is my father still alive?,” then a verse later he repeats himself, “I am your brother Yosef whom you sold to Egypt.” Source critics split these two verses into two separate sources, but Alter argues that the repetition is obviously a function of the psychological and dramatic narrative, where the brothers are initially dumbfounded, and only after they draw closer and Yosef repeats himself, can they truly understand[9]. Professor Adele Berlin, in “Poetics and the Interpretation of the Biblical Narrative,” argues that many such repetitions also come from switches between various perspectives, not from multiple sources. In the same chapter[10] she compares Form Critical analysis of Tanakh with Form Critical analysis of the Epic of Gilgamesh, and shows that even in the case of the Epic of Gilgamesh where we have obvious and empirical development from primitive sources to more complex literary works, such development still cannot account for the literary complexity of the final composition. All the more so in the case of Tanakh, where there are no extant version of primitive sources, the text can really only be understood in terms of an author with full control over the text, not someone gingerly combining older sources. All in all, Literary Criticism is actually a realm of Biblical Criticism where the religious believer can feel fairly at home.

The first mistake in approach BC is believing that it is a monolithic entity. It is a large tapestry, and not all the different strands get along with one another. Moreover, even within each strand there is much disagreement. BC is not some big scary entity to be fear or adored, to be either entirely accepted or entirely rejected. Hopefully this segment has conveyed that one can examine BC critically, and see that we do not need to fear the elements we cannot accept, and perhaps also that there may be some element we will want to embrace.

 

(Onward to Part 3)

 

[1] Much of the information in this paragraph comes from Richard Elliot Friedman’s “Who Wrote the Bible?”, a clear and easy text explaining the development of DH, and one which a clear-headed believer should not haven much trouble with.

[2] This type of assignment is usually made on the assumption that the biblical authors would only have written things that would benefit themselves, and thus a source that talks about Hebron must be from the Kingdom of Judah, which was originally based in Hebron. Simply put, this assumption is one of several options, and not necessarily the preferred one, as people, particularly religious people, are often motivated by something other than personal gain.

[3] Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus, Yale Anchor Bible Commentary, Vol. 1, Introduction.

[4] For more on this, see Professor Alan Brill’s fantastic interviews with Professor David Carr and Professor Jacob Wright.

[5] This has also called into question some of R’ Breuer’s conclusions, and thus many religious academics have failed to embrace it. However, it should also be noted that this newer conception is largely based on the assumption that ancient Israelite society functioned just like the societies around it, something not necessarily conclusive.

[6] For more on the development of internal debates of Form Criticism, see Appendix II of Meir Weiss, “The Bible From Within”.

[7] This was the “Holistic Method” of Moshe Greenberg, which is wonderfully and masterfully demonstrated in his analysis of Yehezkal’s vision of Idolatry in the Bet HaMikdash in Yehezkal 8-11.

[8] For a survey of the development of Literary Criticism, including the literary-critical sides of Form Criticism, see the First Introduction to The Bible From Within.

[9] Robert Alter, “The Art of the Biblical Narrative”, Chapter 8, “Narration and Knowledge”.

[10] Her critiques can be found here.

 

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