CCH – OT – Genesis – “Diversity and Continuity”

In this inaugural post (for more info on this series click here), I will attempt to outline and to hint at an answer to a fundamental concern in reading not only Genesis but the Pentateuch as a whole; dealing with the composite text left to us.

To properly understand the difficulties in reading the text of Genesis left to us, a brief historical examination is in order.  A primary reason behind the current struggle to interpret Genesis (and indeed much of scripture) stem from the watershed publication of Julius Wellhausen’s Prolegomena to the History of Israel in 1878.   As Marvin Pate has documented, it was this work among others in the “Religionsgeschichte approach” that “dealt the deathblow” to biblical theology in the 19th century (15).

According to Pate, Wellhausen’s Prolegomena made its splash by taking the (1) composite author theory of the Pentateuch and (2) Darwinism and combining them in a “popularized and integrated” way.  It is the composite author theory, or the “JEPD theory,” that is of lasting significance for studies of the Pentateuch, and our specific concern here (Ibid).

Basically, each letter of the JEPD theory stands for a specific “author” of the text, each of which had unique theological (and political) concerns that informed their memory/presentation of Israel’s history and it’s interaction with their God.  To note one popular example, in the Pentateuch God is called, among many names, both Yahweh and Elohim.  These different names are significant, because the actions and descriptions of God when named as Yahweh seem to present a fairly consistent picture of God, but one much different from the also relatively self-consistent Elohim.  This suggests that two different authors wrote these two depictions of God, one where Yahweh (the “J Source”) is portrayed with very human characteristics and one where the otherness and transcendence of God is emphasized (the “E Source”).  Each perspective was cut and pasted together over the centuries, leaving the composite text of the Pentateuch today.

The upshot of all this is that we are left with a diverse and composite text (even after the return of biblical theology as documented by Pate), “consisting of a patchwork quilt of traditions from various periods (Birch et al, 38).”  Despite the relative lack of attention given to the “documentary hypothesis” today, as Birch writes, “general agreement continues that Genesis 1-11 is a composite work (Ibid).”  The situation for the Pentateuch as a whole is no different.

At this juncture the problems of the Scripture’s authority and its ability to present a coherent understanding of God and humanity come into view.  Birch and company are right caution against a mere grab bag approach that would encourage the creation of an idol, but then how is unity maintained (29)?  A more complete answer to this question will come in a subsequent post that deals with the nature and tasks of systematic theology, but for now let me gesture at the concept of witness.  Briefly, this approach can be understood through Jesus’ rebuke in Jn 5:

You search the scriptures because you think in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf.  Yet you refuse to come to me to have life (39-40, NRSV).

By seeing the scripture as a witness, its unity is found in the One it points to, despite the diversity of ways it does so.

In sum, as we begin to examine Genesis, and much of the rest of scripture for that matter, we take from this initial inquiry into the composite nature of Genesis that one must have the courage to deal with the text as it, and often it turns out to be a great deal messier than probably all would prefer.  This however, is not an invitation to despair, but instead to look towards the “common focus on the character, activity, and will of Israel’s one God (Ibid, 30).”

*With that, off to bed for a couple hours rest before the weekend camping trip.  I will be checking the post on my mobile, so feel free to comment suggestions, pushbacks, questions, spelling/grammar checks, etc etc.  The CCH continues Monday, see you then!  


Birch, Bruce C., Walter Brueggemann, Terence E. Fretheim, and David L. Peterson.  A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament.  Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1999.

Harris, Stephen L. and Robert L. Platzner.  The Old Testament: An Introduction to the Hebrew Bible.  2nd ed.  New York: McGraw Hill, 2008.

Hartsfield II, Wallace.  Lecture Notes, “Hebrew Bible I.”  Fall 2008.

Pate, Marvin C., J. Scott Duvall, J. Daniel Hays, E. Randolph Richards, W. Dennis Tucker Jr., and Preben Vang.  The Story of Israel:  A Biblical Theology.  Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004.


8 responses to “CCH – OT – Genesis – “Diversity and Continuity”

  1. fünke's_medicine

    As an aside, this reads like the Documentary Hypothesis is a fully functioning theory today in scholarship. I think it’s fair to say that most biblical scholars do not accept it today (with the exception of the Priestly source) or it is treated as a passing fad in scholarship. The Germans and most Americans (sans Harvard) have moved well past it. I think that’s a fair summary.

    • First thing’s first: great pic & name! Now to your comment: I agree with you that the DH is not the primary paradigm in contemporary scholarship, but you might be underselling it a bit, at least in America. Fretheim, Brueggemann, etc have noted that the legacy of the DH is still very much alive in OT/HB studies (eg that the Pentateuch is a composite text), and they note more nuanced forms exist today as well. It was this legacy that I was wanting to highlight, and my discussion of the DH seemed appropriate as an entry point for that. I likely didn’t make that progression explicit enough, which I will try to fix on Monday. Thanks for the comment, hope to see you around here again soon!

      • fünke's_medicine

        That’s what I was unsuccessfully aiming at in my comments (i.e., the Priestly source is the one most seriously studied these days, but that still admits the formative role of DH on current reading). I might have been just misreading your original post, but it seemed like you were suggesting that DH was a settled issue, which Cassuto certainly wanted to de-mythologize it formally back in 1947, if not earlier.

        But merely asserting that the text is a composite isn’t tremendously helpful either unless we can agree to some degree on that nature of that composition. There are those who insist that we cannot understand a single sentence in Genesis until we establish it Sitz im Leben in post-exile Judaism (when it was originally written in some scholars’ minds). I’m not sure what that kind of composition-centered scholarship can offer to us.

        Even more, the “as it is to this day” statements strewn throughout Genesis, the Pentateuch, and the historical books were sufficient evidence of “composition” to ancient and modern interpreters. So I wonder if the DH actually brings about a new construct concerning composition, or just gave higher critical schools the necessary fuel for their Kantian flame to consume traditional readings.

        I honestly don’t know, I’m just skeptical that a natural reading of these texts doesn’t beg the same questions to which DH gives more specific, if misguided, answers. Just thinking out loud here.

  2. fünke's_medicine

    BTW- I applaud your effort here and hope that you can see it through.

  3. I might suggest that the problem with the Documentary Hypothesis is its strict alignment with one direction: disassembly backward in time. The text cannot say a unified thing because it did not have a unified origin, IOW. But this ignores the human communities for whom the redactional process produced scripture which spoke to them. While it is necessary to see the composite nature of the material we have, it is likewise necessary to see it precisely as a composition.

    Example: Isaiah (though we’re in Pentateuch land at the moment) is widely regarded now to be tripartite, and recursively edited at each stage. But the product of the redaction that included Trito-Isaiah is Isaiah. The product of the redaction that produced Deutero-Isaiah is Isaiah. (Including the view that the spoken-of redeemer matches Cyrus, and therefore should have been written in as such.) At every point it was the living document of a living community of faith, and it bears the marks of that life. Composite editing is simply a means of understanding part of the meaning of the combination of these components.

    Tools are not teleological beings; their users apply intention to them. The question remains how we will read the documents we have before us, and so how we will use the tools available to us. If we let it stand that the authority of scripture is based on a historically singular origin, and the faithfulness of the present text to that putative original, we have missed the point of scripture and the stories it tells. We have missed the text itself as it stands before us, for want of a reason to invalidate it. And it is not so difficult for the interpreter for whom the story has meaning in faith to negate this supposed invalidity. Know what they would have you know, and then tell the story as it stands, knowing that. Learn about the text’s community. Envision the community, and preach its promise to the community. And voila, you will see that you have a text that works as its stands.

  4. This thread has probably gotten cold already, but let me just throw a quick response out to both of you. A major reason why I appear as sympathetic as I do to the DH and it’s legacy is rooted in my experiences in pretty conservative/fundamentalist independent churches for nearly all my life. Coming from that background, learning of the composite nature of much of scripture was liberating for me and my reading of scripture, although it probably goes without saying that Dru’s concern of “the Kantian flame” is nearer the real reason for its initial popularity. Basically, my generally positive posture towards these kinds of constructs is birthed out of my somewhat parochial ecclesial experience.
    So Dru when you say “But merely asserting that the text is a composite isn’t tremendously helpful either unless we can agree to some degree on that nature of that composition” & Matt you say “We have missed the text itself as it stands before us, for want of a reason to invalidate it” you seem to be assuming that my goal here is to relativize the importance of the “finished product,” but my goal is the opposite. Understanding the composite nature of the Pentateuch and much of Scripture has positive theological significance in standing over against those who believe that inerrancy is the only way to uphold the importance of the Scriptures for the life of faith. So yes, I agree that we must deal with the text as we have it today, but by recognizing its composite nature some churches could be freed from a problematic position. Unfortunately, when I’m not careful I forget that this isn’t of primary concern for most Christian academics, and misunderstanding can result. So in sum let me say that I agree with much of what you’ve said, and hopefully my generally rosy assessment of these issues makes more sense against that backdrop-at times I revert back to fighting battles that are settled for most other Christians. Either way, I really appreciate this initial response to the CCH-I hope the entire summer can look like this!

  5. I suspected that this might have been lingering in the background of your thinking. As Vinnie famously retorted (in “My Cousin Vinnie”), “I’m wit choo.”

  6. Derek,

    Not wanting to drag out a thread you seem to be done with, I simply wanted to let you know, if you’re looking for some additional reading, I just finished reading __The Prophets and the Promise__ by William Beecher, a compilation of lectures delivered at Princeton from 1902-1903 (or somewhere around there. I’m going from memory). It’s a long read 400 pages or so, and replete with interaction with the Hebrew as part of the basis for some of his arguments. Bottom line, he interacts quite a bit with the topics you are examining here. At the very least, he’s worth your consideration as you delve deeper into your study.


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