March 6, 2008

Why so much Old Testament scholarship is so far off

Last night in our Passage class BS 101 - "The Bible for the Rest of Us" I taught on the subject of the authorship of the Hebrew Scriptures--particularly the first 5 books of the Bible (the Torah, or Pentateuch). I told the class that I would post an older entry from another blog I wrote on the validity (or lack thereof) of the Documentary Hypothesis. The following is a slightly altered version for anyone in the Dojo who may be interested:

Most critical scholars in mainline seminaries and college religion departments follow what's called the "Documentary Hypothesis" whereby supposed "redactors" or editors have combined at least 4 different works of literature--often quite poorly, resulting in "contradictions"--into what is now the 5 books of Moses. They even have names for these hypothetical authors: "J" (the Yahwist), "E" (the Elohist), "D" (the Deuteronomist) and "P" (the Priestly writer).

The only problem with all of this is that it is completely based on the subjective assumptions of scholars in and around 19th-early 20th century Germany (Interesting how right before the most massive engagement of persecution against the Jewish people in history broke out i that very area the Scriptures which Jewish people have always cherished were deemed inauthentic, untrustworthy, and clumsily compiled...hmmm...)

Anyway, I came across a paper that one of my former Professors wrote in order to demonstrate the absolute silliness of the Documentary approach to Pentateuchal scholarship. It's by Dr. Jeff Niehaus (Ph.D, Harvard; professor of OT at Gordon-Conwell) and consists of his "Critical study" of a story his 5-year-old son made up during one of their nightly story times before bed. He even uses the format and note abbreviations commonly found in Documentary commentaries.

Since many in the Dojo may not be up on their scholarly abbreviations (shame on you! ;)) here they are:

dl - Doublet
(dttg) - Dittography
> omn Mss et vers - All existing Manuscripts and versions

For anyone familiar with this discussion or OT scholarship in general, it's absolutely brilliant satire! Enjoy:


from Paul & Father

2There was once a farmer who was out in his field. 3While he was out in his field he felt that it was starting to rain. 4He thought he would stay out just a little longer. 5But aat lasta he kept thinking bhe would stay out a little longerb, until at last it turned into a thunderstorm. 6Then the farmer said, "I'm going to hurry in."

7After he had gone in, he thought about his farm, and what he had done I his farm, and all that he had done that day in it. 8Then, when he was tired of doing that, he started to read his books. 9And after he had read two of his books, then he had his Bible study and prayer time.

10After he had his Bible study and prayer time, he went to the window to see if the thunderstorm was over. 11He saw that it had stopped. 12So he went out again. 13But in one hour it started to rain again. 14Then he went in and had supper.

15After supper he went to bed. 16He slept, sound asleep, that night.

17The next morning he woke up and got his clothes on. 18And then he had breakfast. 19And then he went into his field. 20After he had gone into his field, he came back in. 21He had gotten a mosquito bite while he was out there. 22Then he put on some Caladryl where he had gotten the mosquito bite. 23And then he stayed sitting down for fifteen minutes. 24And then the Caladryl was all dried up. 25Then he had his Bible study and prayer time. 26Then he looked at three of his books. 27Then he went out in his field again. 28Then he came in and looked at another book of his. 29Then he went on a walk. 30Then he came home and put some manure around his plants in his farm.

31Bye. This is the end of the story.a


1a-31a > omn Mss et vers

5a-a dl (dttg)

b-b dl (dttg)



Although this story appears in no other Mss or versions (cf. 1a-31a), it still deserves attention as a typical example of a doublet, and of two sources rather clumsily connected, the seam of which editorial work is still visible.

The two sources, in the order presented by the editor, may be termed T (for "thunderstorm," which figures so prominently in the first source) and M (for "mosquito," which plays an important role in the second).

The T source (vss. 2-16)[1] has a smooth, flowing style, marked by generally longer sentences. The narrative is well-rounded and well-constructed. The story begins with a conventional introduction, in keeping with the stylistic canons of language ("There was once a farmer"). Likewise, it ends with an appropriate concluding action (the farmer goes to sleep).

The T source also has a loftier theology, and a more advanced view of humanity. According to T, the farmer is driven indoors by a thunderstorm. Thunderstorms have long been regarded as embodiments of the sublime (cf. Longinus, Kant), and even as symbolic of the numinous. Moreover, his encounter with the thunderstorm drives the farmer indoors, where he reads two books and studies the Bible—clear indications of a high regard for the contemplative life and for spiritual development.[2]

The M source (vss. 17-31) has a staccato style easily distinguished from that of T. The sentences are generally shorter. The abrupt effect of the shorter sentences is enhanced by stereotyped sentence introductions: "And then" (vss., or simply, "Then" (vss. By contrast, T uses "Then" only four times (vss. 6.8.9 [differently, not to being the sentence but in the middle of it].14), and never uses "And then" at all.

M's narrative is obviously tacked onto the T source, and is poorly constructed. The last action has the farmer manuring his plants (vs.30). This is followed abruptly by the highly artificial conclusion, "Bye. This is the end of the story." M obviously was not acquainted with, or at least was not a skilled practitioner of, the received literary conventions of his culture. This contrasts his style sharply with that of the more urbane T.

M is theologically and philosophically more mundane. A mere mosquito bite drives the farmer away from his labors, and toward his Bible study. M has the farmer "look at" three books, unlike T, whose farmer actually reads two books. For the more intellectually advanced T, reading is more important than just looking. In fact, M's "looking" may reveal a scant acquaintance with books, and the higher number, "three" in his account may indicate a source with less access to education, and more likely to be impressed by mere numbers of books (contrast the two books in T).

Despite the obvious differences, there are important similarities. The narratives are broadly the same. Both describe a day in the life of a farmer. Both show the farmer initially in his field, but then driven indoors by some natural cause. Both include episodes of book and Bible time. In both cases, the farmer goes out into the field a second time. There can be little doubt, when we take all the similarities into account, that we are dealing here with two independent accounts of the same event, with undeniable stylistic and theological differences, but clearly rooted in some legend or saga, now lost to us in its original form.

[1] The title, vs. 1, is most likely an addition by the editor. The identities of "Paul and Father" are not known. Probably the title and attribution of authorship were added later to give the story the ring of authenticity.

[2] There are some text-critical difficulties in vs. 5, but these can be explained as dittographies and need not mar our appreciation of the text. 5a-a ("at last") is doubtless a dittography from the same phrase later in the verse; similarly, 5b-b ("he would stay out a little longer") can probably best be accounted for as a dittography of the almost identical phrase in vs. 4 ("he would stay out just a little longer"). If these are removed, vss. 4-5 in their most likely original form then read: "He thought he would stay out just a little longer. But he kept thinking, until at last it turned into a thunderstorm"."

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