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The MOST Theological Collection: Basic Scripture

"Chapter 8: The Pentateuch"


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In chapter 3, in order to answer some objections, we needed to say a few things in passing about the Pentateuch. Especially we saw the modern views on the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, and something on the Documentary theory. The tendency to reject Mosaic authorship probably stems mostly from the belief that if Moses were the author, then, since he would have been an eyewitness, we would have much history in the Pentateuch. We will explore that question more fully in our chapter on Genesis.

The objections raised to Mosaic authorship (considering authorship on the broad base suggested by the Biblical Commission, which we saw in chapter 3) rest on very weak arguments, e.g., that Moses could not have recorded his own death in Dt 34. Of course not, but someone could have added that section. Again, there are expressions inserted e.g., at Dt 34:6 "until this day" that point to a later time. But when we remember the ancient Near Eastern attitude to authorship in which a later hand felt free to add things, this is hardly strange. Again, there are claims of anachronisms, e.g., mentions of the Philistines in Gen 26:14-18, who were not there at the time - but this again can be the effect of later hands. Or, the Philistines of Gen 26 may have been an earlier wave of migrants from Crete (Cf. Kitchen, op. cit., p. 80. Kitchen also on pp. 82-884 gives other ancient instances of such an "anticipation" of a name).

Interestingly, Joseph Jensen in God's Word to Israel (2nd ed. Collegeville, 1982, p. 79) repeats what has often been said, that if the Bible did not tell us about Moses, we would have to invent him, and adds that surely some great genius who worked with "heroic fidelity" must have had a part in the formation of Israel.

Meanwhile, the rejection of Mosaic authorship leads naturally to the theory of multiple documents by others, which we saw briefly in chapter 3, but need to explore more fully now.

Documentary theory: The first beginnings of the theory go back to a priest, R. Simon, who in 1678 argued from repetitions, discontinuity in chronology and logic and stylistic variations to the conclusion that there was a sort of corps of "public secretaries" whose gradual accretions up to the time of Ezra (5th century) produced the Pentateuch. His theory was not well received until 1776 when a German translation of it appeared.

H. B. Witter in 1711 suggested that the variation in names for God (Elohim/ Yahweh Elohim) pointed to different documents.

The Yahwist document (J) prefers the name Yahweh, it stresses events after the Patriarchs as the fulfillment of the promises God made to them. It speaks of God in human terms - anthropomorphisms - and speaks of God as angry and regretting that He had made man, and as coming down to see the tower of Babylon. The Elohist document (E) prefers the name Elohim, and is much less inclined to use anthropomorphisms. The Priestly Code (P) is noted for its special interest in cultic things and religious laws. Thus the Book of Leviticus would be entirely P. The Deuteronomist (D) is found especially in Deuteronomy, with influence from that view also seen in Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings. The Deuteronomist document (D) tends to be oratorical or homiletic in tone, and stresses the importance of fidelity to God's laws, resulting in reward or punishment.

These documentary beliefs were especially promoted by Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918) whose study of Israelite laws led him to think Israel began with a naturist religion, then the prophets introduced ethical monotheism. The Pentateuch reached full development during and after the Exile, c. 450 B.C.

He thought he could give a relative dating of the documents. He held that the law book discovered in the 18th year of King Josiah (2 Kings 22) was Deuteronomy. Many still hold this view. So he thought the D document must have been composed at that time, in the late 7th century. He did not seem to consider it could have been something much older, just discovered then. He thought the Yahwist (J) and Elohist (E) documents came from the 9th and 8th centuries, respectively, in the early monarchy. He thought the books of Kings showed no acquaintance with the special laws found in the priestly code (P) but that the books of Chronicles did know it. Chronicles he said was postexilic. P seemed to him to be an advance on the provisions found in chapters 40-48 of Ezekiel, and so put the composition of P in the 5th century, after the end of the exile. Wellhausen thought an 8th century BC author could not know anything substantial about the Patriarchs, and so made a free creation in his writing.

Today, even scholars favorable to the Documentary Hypothesis admit that Wellhausen's skepticism about the historical and religious traditions can no longer be held, since advances in our knowledge of the biblical background pretty well rule out such skepticism. Wellhausen depended much on pagan panArabic parallels, for he did not really know the ancient world. Further, modern study would not favor the idea that documents were composed at definite times. The dates assigned are really, it is thought, not those of the origin of the material in the document, but mark the end of a long development, so that even P, which is considered the most recent, has much ancient material. The tendency today is to speak of traditions or sources rather than of documents.

Many still hold the documentary theory. Pope John Paul II, in his conferences on Genesis (Original Unity of Man and Woman, Catechesis on the Book of Genesis, Boston, St. Paul Editions, 1981) seems to favor it. Of course his use of these things does not constitute a teaching given to the universal Church. Further this is a matter of history, not of faith.

Many others today are strongly rejecting the theory. A major example appeared in R. N. Whybray, The Making of the Pentateuch (JSOT Supplements 5, Sheffield, 1987). It was very favorably reviewed in CBQ of Jan. 1989, pp. 138-39 by Joseph Blenkinsopp who said that it is clear that the hypothesis is "in serious trouble, with no viable alternative yet in sight." Whybray, according to the review easily showed the fragility of many of the arguments given for the theory, showed that the criteria used to tell one source from another require "an unreasonable level of consistency" in the sources themselves, so that it has been necessary to suppose a multitude of subsidiary sources. Yet the same consistency was not supposed to be found in the redactors. Whybray himself suggested the Pentateuch came from a single genius, no earlier than 6th century B.C., who used many sources, not all of them ancient. But this idea does not take into account the long development of the legal tradition in Israel.

Y. T. Radday and H. Shore, in Genesis: An Authorship Study in Computer- assisted Statistical Linguistics (Analecta Biblica, vol. 103, 1985) report the results of feeding the Hebrew text of Genesis into a computer at the Technion Institute in Israel. They conclude: Genesis has only one author. (Cf. also U. Cassuto, The Documentary Hypothesis and the Composition of the Pentateuch: Eight Lectures. Jerusalem, Magnes, 1961).

A major argument for the theory comes from supposed doublets, i. e, it is claimed that creation is told twice, in Gen 1 and 2. There are two genealogies of the descendants of Adam, in chapters 4 and 5. The flood is told twice there are some inconsistencies in the number of animals and on the timetable of the flood. And Noah enters the ark twice. There are also two accounts of the selling of Joseph into Egypt.

However, these special features may be due to a well known Hebrew pattern of using concentric circles in narratives: the story begins, after a bit, it goes back to the beginning, is retold with other details. This may go on for two or three rounds. Further, Kenneth A. Kitchen, of the University of Liverpool, in Ancient Orient and Old Testament (InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove IL, 1966. pp. 112-21) has discovered similar patterns of repetition in documents from Urartu and Egypt.

As to the so-called inconsistencies in numbers of animals taken into the ark, there are two answers: a) Within the concentric ring pattern, at first a general preliminary statement is made, which is then fleshed out in the second ring, which also adds the distinction of clean/unclean animals; b) in 6:19-20 the Hebrew is shenayim - which is a dual ending (besides singular and plural, Hebrew had dual, for a pair). Now one cannot add a plural ending on top of a dual, hence we see the form which indicates pair, without saying how many pairs. In 7:2-3 we translate "seven pairs". Actually, the Hebrew has shivah shivah = seven seven. Hebrew is not rich in forms.

Another major argument proposed for the documentary theory is the variation in divine names, between Elohim, and Yahweh Elohim. Again, Kitchen has found parallels to this sort of thing in other ancient Near Eastern literature (pp. 121-22): There are three names for the god Osiris on the Berlin stela of Ikhernofret; In the Lipit-Ishtar laws Enlil is also called Nunamnir, and in the prologue to the Code of Hammurapi we have Inanna/Ishtar/Telitum; in the Babylonian Enuma elish epic, three gods have double names. The same phenomenon is seen in Canaan, Old South Arabia, and among the Hurrians and Hittites. In none of those cases do scholars try to invent two or three documents.

Those who favor the Documentary theory also point to stylistic differences: the style of the Yahwist has unified scenes bound together by a continuous thread. He prefers the concrete, is good at character portraits. The Elohist lacks the picturesque manner, has less dramatic vigor. The Yahwist goes in for anthropomorphisms, the Elohist does not. But we reply: The reasoning is in part a vicious circle: the alleged documents were differentiated on the basis of the styles - then the styles are used to prove different documents. Again, Kitchen helps us (p. 125) by showing that style variations are common in the Near East. He mentions the biographical inscription of an Egyptian official Uni (c 1400 B.C. ), which contains flowing narrative, summary statements, a victory hymn, and two different refrains repeated at suitable but varying intervals. A similar phenomenon is found in the royal inscriptions of the kings of Urartu.

To sum up: we have not disproved the Documentary theory, but we have shown that its proponents are far from proving it too.

One further question for now: Could we believe that some of the names and facts were really transmitted orally for centuries? We know definitely that such a thing is possible. For example, the first name on the Assyrian King List is King Tudia. For long it was thought he was only a legend. But now the picture has changed: An Italian archaeologist, Paolo Matthiae, began excavations at Ebla (about 35 miles south of Aleppo in Syria), in about 1963 and uncovered a major ancient civilization, almost unknown up to that date. In 1969 he showed an inscription to epigrapher Giovanni Pettinato, who quickly recognized the name of King Ibbit-Lim of Ebla. Pettinato dates the clay tablets from Ebla at about 2500 B.C. Pettinato further has found a text of a treaty between the King of Ebla, and King Tudia, founder of the first dynasty of Assyria. So we now are certain that Tudia is not legendary but historical - the Assyrian king list giving the name of Tudia dates from about 1000 B.C., while the tablet from Ebla shows Tudia made that treaty around 2350 B.C. So memory preserved correct data on Tudia for about 13 centuries. (Cf. G. Pettinato, The Archives of Ebla, Doubleday, 1981, pp. 103-05 also 70 & 73).

Roland E. Murphy, one of the editors of the NJBC (p. 4) says that today there is a tendency to think more in terms of an expansion of J, especially from E, which provided added traditions to insert, but which may have never existed independently on its own.

Finally, we should mention some current terminology that one may meet in reading. Tradition History means a study of the various stages a unit went through before being incorporated into the present form. The study of the final form is called Redaction Criticism.

There is also a Literary Approach, which concentrates on the literary qualities of the text, and does not concern itself with questions of history or documents. Canonical Criticism concentrates on merely the text as we now have it, as the Postexilic community saw it, leaving aside all questions of its formation.

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