A timeline of (post documentary hypothesis) Old Testament Theology

1870s – Wellhausen’s Documentary Hypothesis (Source Criticism): Identifies JEDP – the four voices alleged in the Pentateuch. Breaking the texts into parts based on their use of names for God, theological focus (on ritual, or law), and on literary style. This followed about 100 years of source criticism.

Here’s what the breakdown of the text looks like (from Wikipedia):

1890s – Vos takes up a position as a professor of Biblical Theology in Princeton in a move designed to combat the emergence of text criticism as the dominant interpretive paradigm. Princeton was apparently looking for someone familiar with the German school and committed to a framework of Biblical Theology, Vos, having studied under the German school was perfect.

1940s – Noth and Von Rad (following Gunkel) introduced the idea of common oral sources (form criticism) for significant moments in Israel’s history. Noth also pioneered “the Deuteronomistic History,” the idea that Joshua to Kings represented a cohesive sociological-historical account of Israel for post exilic (7th century BC) use, at the same time both he and Von Rad saw Joshua as part of the same unit as the Pentateuch, arguing for a hextateuch (to me it seems like only a small step from Joshua to Judges which would make a septicheuch).

1941 – Cassuto, a Jewish Rabbi who wrote in Italian, offered a substantive criticism of the Documentary hypothesis that was not translated into English until 1961. He proposed that the Pentateuch was a single text, written by one author in the tenth century BC. His dating was a subsidiary to his criticism of the Documentary Hypothesis. He demonstrated that textual criticism – the notion of examining inconsistencies in the text to identify separate voices – was essentially cultural imperialism reading modern mores into ancient writings – and that the style of writing presented in the text was entirely consistent with Hebrew literary structure.

1976 – Schmid (another German) almost singlehandly removes the notion of the Jahwist voice (J), and some see him as having done away with all but the Deuteronomist.

1977 – Rendtorff went a step further than Schmid, he did away with both J and E, suggesting a Deuteronomic School was the most likely final editor of the OT, though allowing for a later “priestly” redactor.

My thoughts

Given my bias for Biblical Theology (ie a unified view of the text and an emphasis on inspiration), I’m glad the Documentary Hypothesis is on its way out the academic door. But I think it has provided useful insights (provided it sits under the umbrella of divine inspiration).

So here’s what I think.

The Pentateuch was probably around in some sort of oral/written form pretty early on, which was discovered (and possibly edited into a more cohesive form) under Josiah (there’s reference to a book of law being found in the temple under his reign so it must have existed before then), though compiled in its final form, and attached to the “deuteronomistic history” post exile as Israel struggled to come to terms with its identity. I think the Old Testament as a whole is a subjective retelling of Israel’s history so sociological and literary approaches to the text are useful, historical criticism is useful only insofar as it assumes the accounts will be flavoured in favour of Israel and genre is taken into account.