No Fear Biblical Criticism – Part 4: Axioms and Subjectivity

No Fear Biblical Criticism – Part 4

Axioms and Subjectivity

(For those just joining us, here are Parts One, Two, and Three)

Perhaps the most important thing to understand about the intersection of Biblical Criticism and religious thought is that they have fundamentally different ways of thinking about and approaching the Tanakh. This isn’t a matter of proofs or faith, simply of axioms. An axiom is a starting point for a line of reasoning, one that is not proven, but simply accepted. Most axioms are understood to be self-evident, but that does not have to be the case. Sometimes, an axiom that some find to be self-evident can be disagreed with by others, without either side actually being able to prove their axiom more correct. Such is the case when it comes to Biblical Criticism, as I will attempt to demonstrate in brief.

The first and most important axiom to appreciate regarding Biblical Criticism is the Non-Existence of Prophecy[1]. This is in direct contrast to the basic assumption of most religions, certainly of Orthodox Judaism, that ‘א communicates His Will to man. This is important to realize because it enables proper understanding of things like the Documentary Hypothesis. The Documentary Hypothesis was never meant to prove that the Torah is not Divine. Rather it started with that assumption, with the knowledge that the text was human, and based its approach on that. It is true that Source Critics at no point ran into anything that made them stop and consider that the text might be Divine, but that was also never really an option. Orthodox Jews, on the other hand, tend to start with the belief that the Torah is Divine, or at least that such a thing is possible. Therefore when looking at the text Bible Critics and Orthodox Jews are more or less guaranteed to see different things, simply due to their underlying assumptions.

A second important axiomatic difference to appreciate is the understanding of Context[2]. Everyone agrees that ideas must be understood in their proper contexts, including Tanakh. However, the Academic and Traditional[3] approaches to the text differ in terms of what context they put the Tanakh in. The academic approach understands all things in terms of their Historical context. Israelite society and the Tanakh are put in terms of other Ancient Near Eastern civilizations and their literatures, both sacred and secular[4]. Such comparisons can be both helpful and misleading (This will be discussed further in a later segment on Archaeology and Patternism). The traditional approach sees Tanakh, and all of our sacred texts, in light of the Jewish Tradition. This is most obviously true in terms of Halakhah, which gets decided based on the various texts of the Jewish Tradition, but it is also true for Tanakh. Even where they are not decisive, midrashim and later commentaries are taken into account by the Traditional scholar when reading Tanakh[5].  Thus the traditional scholar and the academic will see the text of Tanakh in very different lights.

Having said that, it’s worth taking a look at the historical context of Biblical Criticism, at least at its origins. Biblical Criticism, and the Documentary Hypothesis in particular, sprouted up in the latter half of the 19th century[6]. This had a lot of ramification in terms of the way Critics treated Tanakh like other literature of the time, without proper understanding of Israelite Society, but its greatest effects on Biblical Criticism came from the Scientific and Religious atmospheres of the time.

The triumphs of evolutionism in natural science have made it a hallmark of intellectual modernity. Over against the essentially medieval unconcern (and unawareness) of history, so characteristic of theological exegesis, current critical exegesis opposes its perspective, developmental view of the text as its chief qualification for intellectual respectability in our time. Hence any proposal of literary development is better than none–better in that it demonstrates sophistication, that is, advance beyond medieval dogmatic prejudices and naiveté. (M. Greenberg, The Vision of Jerusalem in Ezekiel 8-11, pg.147-8)

Once science discovered the idea that nature and life had evolved over time, that idea spread like wildfire through the consciousness of the time, pervading all discussions. Everything had to have developed over time. In many, many, arenas this proved to be an excellent method, but it’s important to note that, as opposed to in the natural sciences, it was something external that was imposed onto whatever was studied, rather than something internal discovered through study. When it come to the text of Tanakh, some minor development over time is self-evident, letters and words and the like[7], but there is no obvious and self-evident evidence of a slow and steady evolution from a core text, or texts, to what we have today.

A second need for the historical-analogic method arises from the situation of the Christian faith community which is its matrix. First, that community must justify its retention of the Old Testament alongside the New, and does so by showing that light is shed upon the New by viewing the Old as a series of steps leading up to it. The more fully this can be worked out, the greater the value set on the Old Testament. Second (though less articulated), that community, though buffeted by change and modernity, affirms the validity of its ancient Scripture in the present. This affirmation is accomplished by showing that the biblical text itself incorporates a record of reinterpretation, adjustment to change and supplementation by later hands. Given the community’s overriding need for validating constant reinterpretation, any proposal that roots that process in the biblical text itself will have bias in its favor. (Ibid, pg.148)

Ironically, much of the challenge to Divine Unity of the Torah came not from secularist but from religious individuals. Julius Wellhausen, father of the Documentary Hypothesis, was a Professor of Theology who retired upon realizing that instead of preparing his students to join the clergy he was disqualifying them from that role[8]. Christianity needed Tanakh to have developed over time and to have been subject to constant reinterpretation, something Source Criticism confirmed with gusto. Thus the Documentary Hypothesis was accepted much more readily than it would have been otherwise. Thankfully, Biblical Criticism has moved away from these harmful mindsets, particularly with the rise of both Literary Criticism and the number of Jewish Academic Scholars in the second half of the 20th century.

At this point it’s worth taking a minute to point out something that has plagued Biblical Criticism from the start, namely, Subjectivity. Biblical Criticism is by its very nature an incredibly subjective field.

The book of Micah itself structurally alternates three prophecies of doom with three prophecies of restoration or hope…These restoration passages may seem a little out of keeping or out of step with the scathing denunciations or condemnations of Judah in the other parts of Micah’s prophecy, and so some scholars have suggested that…these must be interpolations by a later editor…But this is always a very difficult case or issue, because we know that the prophetic writings do fluctuate wildly between denunciation and consolation. So I think that a shift in theme alone is not ever a certain basis for assuming interpolation — outright contradiction perhaps — but a shift in theme or tone is never a solid basis for assuming interpolation. (Prof. Christine Hayes, from the transcript of Lecture 18 of the Yale Open University’s RLST 145: INTRODUCTION TO THE OLD TESTAMENT)

All textual analysis, regardless of what the text is or who is reading it, suffers from the subjectivity of the interpreter. It’s unavoidable. However, it is particularly prevalent in Biblical Criticism where so little is known about the historical nature of the text under discussion, and so any conception of what it “should look like” originally has to be incredibly speculative. This does not mean that all or any of Bible Critics’ conclusion are necessarily wrong, but it does indicate that we should look at their conclusions with a healthy degree of skepticism.

(The rest of this series is being hosted at Onward to Part Five.)


[1] For more on this, see this excellent lecture by Rabbi Jeremy Wieder.

[2] An excellent discussion of this idea by Rav Natan Slifkin can be found here.

[3] I switch here from the terms “Religious” and “Orthodox” that I have been using to the term “Traditional” as this is one area where even the religious may often make use of the Academic approach.

[4] This simple point is often missed by Rabbis who ridicule Biblical Criticism for not taking Midrashim into account. For one such example, see here.

[5] For more on this, see Rabbi Hayyim Angel’s lecture on contradictions between laws from Sefer Devarim and narratives from later in Tanakh, downloadable here. Pay particular attention to his discussion of “Halakhic Man” vs. “Tanakhic Man”.

[6] The ideas in this paragraph come a fuller and truly excellent discussion by Moshe Greenberg at the beginning of this article.

[7] For more on this, see our discussion of Lower Criticism, here.

[8] From his letter of resignation (quotation available here), cited in Robert J. Oden Jr.,”The Bible Without Theology”, Harper and Row, 1987.

No Fear Biblical Criticism – Part 3: Lower Criticism and Textual Emendations

No Fear Biblical Criticism – Part 3

Lower Criticism and Textual Emendations

(If you’re just joining the series, here is Part 1 and Part 2

Lower Criticism is the study of the various texts of Tanakh in order to determine how the text has changed over time (as opposed to Higher Criticism which is concerned with determining who wrote the Torah and the like). This is done by comparing the text that Jews use today[1], referred to as the Masoretic Text, with the Dead Sea Scrolls[2], the Septuagint[3], the Vulgate[4], the Peshitta[5], the Torah of the Samaritans[6], the Aramaic Targumim[7], and the quotations from the Talmud. Comparison of these texts reveals words or letters that differ between the texts, presumably due to change over time. Based on this, some Biblical Critics have attempted to sift through the different versions and correct the Masoretic Text that we use today, or even to find the original texts of the Torah and the rest of Tanakh.

Most of the texts that are compared to our Torah text are translations, and thus comparison requires first translating the texts back into Hebrew, and then comparing them. At this point the texts have been translated twice, so the accuracy of the text suffers somewhat, but not beyond usefulness. While these texts have not revealed extreme differences such as differing conceptions of god or the like, there are differences[8]. While these could present a difficulty for an Orthodox Jew, they could also be dismissed as a function of translation errors, or as intentional mistranslations on the part of sectarians; i.e., perhaps the Qumran sects intentionally changed their Torah to fit their own views. What presents more difficulty is the differences between the Tanakh text as we have it today, and the way Tanakh is quoted in the Talmud.

There are often differences in the quotations from Tanakh that the Talmud uses, and the text of Tanakh that we have it today. The first thing to note about this is that not every one of these differences indicates that the sages of the Talmud had a different text than we do. It’s also possible that somewhere in the years since the compilation of the Talmud, scribal errors were made in its transmission, and so what looks like a misquotation of Tanakh is actually a mistake in the text of our Talmud[9]. However, there are cases where it is clear from the discussion of the Talmud that the original quotations was in fact different from our text today.

The problem this presents for Orthodoxy is that most Orthodox Jews ascribe to Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles of Faith, thirteen statements of belief that a Jew must affirm. The Eight Principle is that the Torah that we have today is exactly the same as the Torah that was given to Moshe[24]. According to this, to admit to even slight changes between our texts today and those of the time of the Gemara, let alone before that, would be heresy. Thus we are presented with a contradiction between the words of Rambam, and the contradictions that we see before our own eyes. However, salvation from this conundrum may be found if we extend our view beyond Rambam, to the other sages of the Jewish Tradition[10].

Rambam’s Eighth Principle expresses a very simple view of the text of the Torah[11], which is problematic not only in terms of the texts as know they existed, but also in terms of other Jewish opinions held by other great sages. One contradiction of the type mentioned above is found in Masekhet Shabbat on page 55b. Tosafot comments there (s.v. ma’avirim ktiv) and, instead of denying or brushing aside the contradiction, states, “הש״ס שלנו חולק על הספרים שלנו,” “Our Talmud argues on [read: contradicts] our Books [of Tanakh].” Rabbi Akiva Eiger comments there and, in possibly his largest comment in all of the Talmud, he brings the locations of every place in the Gemara where a quotation of Tanakh contradicts our text today. The Rashba, in discussion of the various cases where our Talmud contradicts our Tanakh, suggests that there are times when it might be appropriate to actually amend our Torah text in order to match the quotations of the Gemara[12]. The Chatam Sofer, by no means a liberal voice in the Jewish tradition, actually gives these contradictions as the reason why we do not make a berakhah when performing the mitzvah of writing a Sefer Torah[13]. These are only a few of the voices in the Jewish tradition that readily affirm the differences between the Talmud’s quotations of Tanakh and the Tanakh as we have it today.

However, there are also sources, from before Rambam, that suggest such changes had occurred to the text of Tanakh. The gemara in Masekhet Kiddushin, page 30a, discusses the possibility of determining the exact midpoint of the Torah, and concludes that it cannot be done because, by the time that they were having the discussion, they had already forgotten the correct spellings of many of the words[14]. There is also a midrash regarding the Torah that was used upon the return of Ezra HaSofer to Israel.

Three books they found in the Temple court, the book ‘מעונ, the book זעטוטי, and the book היא. In the one they found written קדם א׳לוהי מעון and in the two they found written מעונה (Deut. 33: 27), and they upheld the two and set aside the one. In the one they found written ישראל בני זעטוטי את וישלח and in the two they found written וישלח את נערי בני ישראל  (Exodus 24:5) and they upheld the two and set aside the one. In the one they found written nine times היא, and in the two they found written eleven times היא ,and they upheld the two and set aside the one[15]. (Jerusalem Talmud, Masekhet Ta’anit 4: 2)

This midrash states that the text of Ezra’s Torah was actually composed by going with two out of three torah scrolls on every occurrence of debate between them. While this is both logical and in accord with the halakhic principle of following the majority, the likelihood of our that Torah, let alone our text today, being exactly what Moshe gave to Bnei Yisrael in the desert drops dramatically with each contradiction.

While these sources discussed forced or accidental changes, there are sources that discuss the possibility that the text of the Torah was intentionally changed. Rashi makes a powerful statement on this matter in regard to the odd phrasing of a verse in Bereishit (18:22).

and Abraham was still standing, etc.: But is it not so that he did not go to stand before Him, but the Holy One, blessed be He, came to him and said to him (above verse 20): “Because the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah has become great, etc.,” and it should have been written here: “and the Lord was still standing beside Abraham?” But this is a scribal emendation (that they [the scribes] switched it to be written like that) (Gen. Rabbah 49:7).

Rashi is saying that in order to demonstrate proper reverence to ‘א the scribes changed the text of the Torah. Moreover, this is not a local incident, as he uses this explanation in a variety of places throughout Tanakh[16]. An even bolder midrashic formulation, in a discussion of certain words throughout Tanakh that have dots above them, attributes words throughout the text to the authorship of Ezra.

Wherefore are the dots? Thus said Ezra: “If Elijah will come and say, why have you written these words? I shall say unto him: I have already put dots over them. And if he will say, thou has written well, I shall remove the dots over them.[17] (Bamidbar Rabbah 3:14, Avot de-Rabbi Nathan 34:5)

This midrash is saying that Ezra added these words to Tanakh, even though he was not 100% certain they belonged there. Therefore he put dots over the words in order to make it obvious that they were his additions, and that way they could be removed if Eliyahu HaNavi determined them to be out of place. Thus the midrash is suggesting that before the Gemara, before even the Dead Sea Scrolls of the Second Temple Period, Ezra had changed the text of the Torah.

Rambam’s Eight Principle flies in the face of all of these sources[18], and the evidence we see with our own eyes. It is hard to state with confidence that we possess the exact same text, letter for letter, that Moshe had. an interesting approach to this difficulty was taken by the Seridei Eish, Rav Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg.

Rambam knew very well that there variations existed when he defined his Principles. The words of Ani Ma’amin and the words of the Rambam, “The entire Torah in our possession today,” must not betaken literally, implying that all the letters of the present Torah are the exact letters given to Moshe Rabbeinu. Rather, it should be understood in a general sense that the Torah we learn and live by is for all intents and purposes the same Torah that was given to Moshe Rabbeinu. (Fundamentals and Faith, 90-91)

While this was not Rambam’s intent in writing his Eight Principle, it does provide a more workable model for someone confronted with all of this evidence and source material. Rather than burying our heads in the sand and pretending that the Torah has never changed, we should simply appreciate that there has been no truly significant changes [19], and that the Torah is for all intents and purposes the same as it was when Moshe gave it to Bnei Yisrael.

This brings us to the discussion of textual emendations. While Lower Criticism is a field of study in and of itself, it also has ramifications for the interpretation of Tanakh. Critical Scholars often switch or remove words and letters that seem to them to be incorrect in order to create a text that reads more correctly to them. The Orthodox Tanakh Scholar Shemuel David Luzzato also used such critical methods in his commentary on the Torah. However, both this approach to textual interpretation and the attempt to find the “original text of the Tanakh” have received critiques from within Biblical Criticism. In a study of a passage from Sefer Yehezkal, Moshe Greenberg argues that, regardless of which versions may be original, changing the Masoretic Text based on other versions often ignores and obliterates the brilliance of the text[20]. Critics often perceive “textual flaws” and instead of looking for a deeper reason for the text to be written that way, simply change it to a reading they find more fitting. Greenberg argues that perceived defects in the text of Tanakh should be a springboard for a deeper investigation, as they often point the way to discovering the masterful artistry of Tanakh. Meir Weiss argues similarly that most textual emendations are enacted based on faulty understanding of the text[21]. He says that most critics simply do not know enough about what the text should look like, and work off faulty assumptions about the nature of Biblical Poetry and Narrative. Greenberg also argues against the idea that scholars could determine the “original texts” of Tanakh, not because of the difficulty of the task, but because there is no such thing[22]. He argues that at any point at which there was a fully developed text of a book of Tanakh, there was multiple versions. He does make a caveat that the text of the Torah itself seems to have been concretized pretty early, but he still maintains that there were multiple versions. This final argument of Greenberg is complex from an Orthodox perspective. It contradicts the idea that the Torah was given by ‘א at Sinai, but not incredibly. It makes a similar statement regarding the books of Nevi’im and Ketuvim, but there is no principle of Faith in any part of Judaism that requires one to believe in the giving of a book of Nakh all together at one time. Jeremiah 36:2 in fact suggests otherwise.

Take you a scroll of a book, and write therein all the words that I have spoken to you against Israel, and against Judah, and against all the nations, from the day I spoke that to you, from the days of Josiah, even to this day.

Sefer Yirmiyahu seems to have been written more than once, at various stages of its development. Similarly the Gemara suggests that Sefer Shemuel was written in parts by Shemuel HaNavi, Gad HaChozeh, and Natan the Prophet, and then all those were compiled to make Sefer Shemuel as we know it today[23]. We have a lot more flexibility in terms of how we understand the books of Nakh than we do in terms of how we understand the Torah.

Lower Criticism can tell us a lot about the nature of the text of Tanakh, but it cannot tell use what this information means. What this means in terms of the text of Tanakh is up to us. We can either hold tight to a strict interpretation of Rambam’s Eighth Principle, or we can accept the true nature of the text, and embrace the sages and sources that understood Tanakh in this manner.

(Onward to Part 4) 

[1] The oldest version of our text that exists today is known as the Aleppo Codex, written in the 10th century, and was used by Rambam as the basis for his Hilkhot Sefer Torah. For more, see here.

[2] Tanakh texts from the Second Temple Period found hidden in caves in the Israeli desert area of Qumran, by the Dead Sea, thought to be written by jews of varying sects and then hidden from the Romans. For more, see here.

[3] An early Greek translation discussed in Masekhet Megillah 9a-b. Of the fifteen deliberate mis-translations recorded there, only 2 are found in the Septuagint as we have it today. For more, see here.

[4] An 4th-century Latin translation used by the Catholic Church. For more, see here.

[5] An early Syriac translation that is likely from the second century. For more, see here.

[6] The Samaritans were brought to Israel and settled in Samaria during the First Temple Period. They have their own traditions and a Torah that are similar to that of Rabbinic Judaism. For more, see here.

[7] The most famous of these Aramaic translations are the Targum Onkelos on the Torah and the Targum Yonatan on Nevi’im and Ketuvim. For more, see here.

[8] Kaiser, Walter (2001). The Old Testament Documents: Are They Reliable & Relevant?. InterVarsity Press. p. 48.

[9] For more on this, see this shiur by Rabbi Jeremy Wieder, Rosh Yeshiva of YU.

[10] I am indebted for many of the sources that follow to Marc Shapiro’s “The Limits of Orthodox Theology: Maimonides Principles Reappraised”. These sources and others can be found in the article that was later expanded into the book, which can be found here, pages 10-21.

[11] It is important to note that this principle is only referring to the Five Books of Moshe, not to all of Tanakh.

[12] She’elot u-Teshuvot ha-Rashba ha-Meyuhasot le-Ramban (Warsaw, 1883), #232. See also Meiri to Kiddushin 30a, Kiryat Sefer, 57-58, and She’elot u-Teshuvot ha-Radbaz; #1020

[13] She’elot u-Teshuvot Hatam Sofer, Orah Hayyim, #52

[14] The form of spelling mistakes under discussion are what is called in Hebrew “מלא וחסר,” “plene and defective” in English. This is the spelling of words with or without extra letters that neither make a sound nor affect the meaning, rather they simply denote that sound is made by the vowel on that syllable.

[15] Translation from Marc Shapiro, Op Cit. This midrash is also found in Sifre Piska 356., Masekhet Soferim 6:4, and Avot D’Rabbi Natan, Ed. S. Schechter, (Vienna, 1887), Recension B, chapter 46, p. 65a;

[16] See Note 140 in the article by Marc Shapiro cited above in note 10. It seems that this is not necessarily the correct interpretation of the midrashic phrase “תיקון סופרים,” “Emendation of the Scribes,” but it is how Rashi understood it. For more on the proper interpretation, see this article by Avrohom Lieberman.

[17] Translation from Marc Shapiro, Op Cit.

[18] This is without even going into the discussion of the last eight verses of the Torah, a view from the Gemara that Rambam would have qualified as heresy.

[19] The only real ramifications are for the midrashic approach where every letter is of the utmost significance, which is beyond the scope of this discussion. Two quick points that should be mentioned: 1. This approach is not to be considered totally unusable, but it does have to be understood in light of this whole discussion. 2. There has always been a second midrashic school which did not place ultimate value on each letter.

[20] Greenberg’s article can be found here.

[21] The Bible From Within: The Total Interpretation Method, pp.

[22] Greenberg, Op Cit.

[23] Masekhet Baba Batra, 15a

[24] For a rather different, and not mainstream, understanding of Rambam’s Eight Principle that does not contradict the evidence, see here.

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.