DH 21: Quot homines, tot sententiae

DH 21: Quot homines, tot sententiae April 25, 2014

“As many men, so many opinions.” Terence.

My friend Matt Roper sent me the follow summary of the state of flux of the Documentary Hypothesis as understood by Gordon Wenham in his introduction to his commentary on Genesis, Genesis 1-15, (1987)


“In the kaleidoscope of new pentateuchal hypotheses the existence of J remains one of the few points of agreement conceded by nearly everyone” (xxviii). This has occurred, however, largely at the expense of E (xxix). As far as Genesis is concerned, “E has become very much the Cinderella of the pentateuchal sources in recent criticism” (xxx), which raises the question of whether there is such a thing as “E” in Genesis at all. “This brief survey of the current discussion of Genesis has shown how some of the most deeply rooted convictions and of the critical consensus have been challenged in recent years. The extent and date of J, the existence of E, the date of P, even the standard criteria for source division have been questioned. This is certainly not the first time since Wellhausen that these theories have been rejected by some commentators, but in the past, rejection has usually come from orthodox Jews, conservative Christians, or others on the fringes of mainstream scholarship. The striking thing about the current debate is that it emanates from within the heart of critical orthodoxy; indeed the protagonists of the new positions include some of the most respected names in pentateuchal scholarship” (xxxiv).

He acknowledges that while the fairly traditional theory of JEDP, “still forms the heart of most lecture courses on the Pentateuch, No new consensus has evolved to replace Wellhausen’s basic theory, so it continues to be assumed by many scholars, though there is now widespread recognition of the hypothetical character of the results of modern criticism.”

He cites Rendtorff, “We possess hardly any reliable criteria for the dating of the pentateuchal literature. Every dating of the pentateuchal `sources’ rests on purely hypothetical assumptions, which ultimately only have standing through the consensus of scholars.”

He cites W. H. Schmidt who laments, “How united was OT scholarship for so long, how deeply divided now! The change has come about at some vital points; what was more of less self-evident and undisputed has become doubtful . . . the connection of Deuteronomy with Josiah’s reform, the early date of the Yahwist. Even the legitimacy of source division in the Pentateuch is contested.”

Wenham notes, “H. C. Schmid (1985) has distinguished four major approaches with minor variations current in Germany. This situation is one in which there is no king in OT scholarship. Everyone is doing what is right in his own eyes!” (xxxv).

He also notes, “tension between the older source criticism and the newer literary criticism, because some of the old criteria for source division are seen quite differently by literary critics. Repetition, duplicate narratives, varying names for God, and other changes in vocabulary were typically seen as marks of different sources. But according to literary theory, such features may not be signs of change of author but the skill of one sophisticated author intent on holding his hearer’s attention by recapitulating the story at key points (repetition) and by introducing subtle variation (contradictions). Van Seters and Coats in particular have allowed the insights of literary criticism to influence their source-critical judgments. Van Seters (1975) states explicitly that apparent duplication of narratives or changes in divine name are not sure guides to source analysis. He has sought to formulate new criteria for distinguishing sources within Genesis, following in the earlier footsteps of Redford (1970)” (xxxvi).

“Recent scholarship has shown a marked preference for a simpler source-critical analysis of Genesis. This is most obvious in the tendency to eliminate the E source and to view the Joseph story as a substantial unity. And this is a trend with which this commentary identifies. Literary explanations of doublets, variation of divine names, and to some extent theological emphases tend to make redundant, if not implausible, many of the traditional arguments for source analysis.”  He thinks, “Most of the narratives in Genesis are so vivid and well told that it seems high-handed to deny their substantial unity and split them up into various much less fetching parts” (xxxvii).

While a number of oral and written sources were no doubt used in compiling Genesis, “defining and identifying these sources is much more difficult. Ockham’s razor `Do not multiply entities beyond necessity’ and C.S. Lewis’s complaint that biblical critics claim to see fern seed when they cannot spot an elephant ten yards away makes me very cautious about complex source-critical analysis. That Genesis makes use of multiple sources is doubtless true, but it is much more difficult to be very specific about where one source ends and another source or editor begins. This makes me dubious about the traditional documentary analysis that divides Genesis into three continuous strands, J, E, and P. As already pointed out, the existence of E is now widely questioned.. This seems to me right. But I also doubt the view that J and P are two continuous written sources in their own right or that P is an editorial layer grafted onto J” (xxxvii-xxxviii).


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