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Who wrote the Bible? Rise of the Documentary Hypothesis


Who wrote the Bible? Rise of the Documentary Hypothesis

This post looks at the rise of the dominant scholarly hypothesis that the Old Testament came together through the efforts of various editors over time collating and editing a range of earlier sources. The structure and bulk of the contents of the post is taken from Philippe Wajdenbaum’s discussion of the Documentary Hypothesis.

The complete set of these posts either outlining or being based on Philippe Wajdenbaum’s Argonauts of the Desert: Structural Analysis of the Hebrew Bible, are archived here.

Before the Documentary Hypothesis there was Spinoza.


Let us conclude, therefore, that all the books which we have just passed under review are apographs — works written ages after the things they relate had passed away. And when we regard the argument and connection of these books severally, we readily gather that they were all written by one and the same person, who had the purpose of compiling a system of Jewish antiquities, from the origin of the nation to the first destruction of the city of Jerusalem. The several books are so connected one with another, that from this alone we discover that they comprise the continuous narrative of a single historian. . . . .

The whole of these books, therefore, lead to one end, viz. to enforce the sayings and edicts of Moses, and, from the course of events, to demonstrate their sacredness. From these three points taken together, then, viz. the unity and simplicity of the argument of all the books, their connection or sequence, and their apographic character, they having been written many ages after the events they record, we conclude, as has just been said, that they were all written by one historiographer.

So Spinoza was led to conclude (from the common style, language and purpose) that there was a single author (albeit one who used earlier source documents) and he opted for that author being Ezra.

Debt to Homeric Criticism – and left in the dust of Homeric criticism

Biblical literary criticism has since been based on “the idea that the writers of the Bible ‘edited’ previous documents, compiled” and that these were eventually compiled by a final redactor.

This idea was copied from classical scholarly studies of the Homeric texts. John Van Seters in a 2006 publication, The Edited Bible: The Curious History of the ‘Editor’ in Biblical Criticism (the link is to GoogleBooks where much of it is readable online), shows that the idea of the Bible being the work of an editor was copied from Homeric studies, and that though Classical scholars have since thrown out that idea as completely untenable, Biblical scholars have nonetheless stubbornly continued with it as an explanation for the Bible.

Interested readers may like to start reading Van Seter’s page one (via the above link) and see a certain problem with biblical studies that several scholar have addressed elsewhere is also applicable to scholarly studies of the Old Testament. Biblical scholars have been slow — slow as a full stop — to keep up with critical debates about relevant methodologies in classical studies.

Julius Wellhausen

Wellhausen, a Protestant theologian (the role of theologians as theologians will be shown to be significant), summed up the theories of Bible composition that originated in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and is thus associated with the Documentary Hypothesis:

  1. Up till the time of Moses passages that use Yahweh as the name of God are assigned to the J or Yahwist source
  2. Up till the time of Moses those passages that use Elohim for god are assigned to the E of Elohist source
  3. Deuteronomy is said to have a different theology from Leviticus so is thought to stem from a different theologian known as the D source
  4. Passages such as Leviticus and others referencing rituals are thought to stem from a Priestly or P source
  5. Finally a late redactor, R, compiled these sources together

Van Seters in the work cited above points out that various scholars use the concept of editor or redactor much like an irregular verb. It is a concept that can be manipulated and varied (now preserving texts in tact, now changing them to suit their interests) to make it yield the particular results they desire.

Gerhard von Rad gave the hypothesis personality:

  1. J belonged to the southern kingdom of Judah, was born in the reign of Solomon, and justified the Davidic dynasty
  2. E belonged to the northern kingdom of Israel, was born in the ninth or eighth century, and taught the “fear of God”
  3. D belonged to King Josiah’s time (late seventh century) and taught the centrality of the Temple cult and Jerusalem
  4. P was born during the Exile and was interested in the authority of priests

Note the evolutionary assumption:

This vague chronology of the Bible’s sources supposed an evolution of Jewish theology that could still be seen in the text. In the nineteenth century evolutionism was the dominant theory, both in biology (as seen in Darwinism) and in religious anthropology (Frazer and Tylor created hierarchies in religions according to their tendency toward monotheism). (p. 23 ofArgonauts)

Thomas Römer: The subjective basis of Wellhausen’s presentation

Römer observes the way theologian Wellhausen’s Protestantism is guiding his Documentary Hypothesis model. As Protestantism devalues Law so Wellhausen has begun with the assumption that the legalistic portions of the Old Testament must be late additions of a Priestly (P) redactor and by no means original to the faith of Israel.

This assumption, says Römer, lies at the root of Wellhausen’s preference for believing that the “authentic” or earliest sources of Israel’s faith belonged to the period of the monarchy. Further, it cannot be overlooked that Wellhausen, being a man of his time, and his time being the time of the unification of Germany in 1871 under the Hohenzollern dynasty, was eager to propagate monarchy as the ideal form of government:

Wellhausen avait d’ailleurs prononcé un discours devant l’empereur Guillaume à l’occasion de son anniversaire, dans lequel il démontra, à partir des livres de Samuel, que la monarchie était la forme de gouvernement idéale. (Thomas Roemer,L’exégèse et l’air du temps, Theolib)

Moreover Wellhausen had presented before Kaiser Wilhelm, on the celebration of his birthday, a demonstration from the Books of Samuel that that monarchy was the ideal form of government. (My translation)

Wajdenbaum comments:

Wellhausen’s aversion to legalist and religious aspects reflected his liberal Protestantism, and the idea that the ‘decadence’ of the ‘true’ Jewish religion had prepared for the advent of Jesus, prophet and reformer, who would reinstate the ethical principles of ‘true Judaism’. Römer points out how the fundamentals of the documentary hypothesis imply a degeneration of Jewish religion that justifies its replacement by Christianity. (p. 24, Argonauts, my emphasis)

Martin Noth

Noth (another theologian) qualified the Documentary Hypothesis by adding to it a “Deuteronomistic Historian” who wrote Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings during the Exile.

Noth attempted to find a way to explain how supposedly pre-monarchic oral traditions eventually came to be written down by the earliest authors, J and E.

But in the absence of evidence, this reconstruction was quite arbitrary. (p. 24, Argonauts)

F.M. Cross and R.E. Friedman followed Noth and decided that this Deuteronomistic strata was a collation of two sources: one written during Josiah’s reign and the other during the Babylonian Exile period. (Friedman suggested that the author of both strata was Jeremiah writing at different times of his life.)

Noth argued that the final redactor (R) found a way to combine and harmonize the first four books (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers) with the Deuteronomistic writings.

This provides him with a theory that allows him to fall back on Spinoza’s initial intuition. (p. 24, Argonauts)

Thomas Römer: The subjective bases of Noth and Cross

Noth conceived of an exiled writer who meditated on the causes of his country’s ruin, which was actually his own situation as he fled from Nazi Germany; a lonely historian writing in his office, hating the totalitarian regime that brought about the downfall of his nation. In the same way, Römer sees a typical American optimism in Cross’ theory of the first Deuteronomist, who know the flourishing kingship of Josiah, whose idealised portrait recalled the founding fathers of the USA. The second Deuteronomist would therefore have written only the pessimistic passages because he had to explain Jerusalem’s fall theologically. (pp. 24-25, Argonauts, my emphasis)

That sort of analysis worries me. It always makes me stop to look around at my own environment and experiences and ask myself what I am projecting.

Next post in this series will the on the collapse of the consensus on the Documentary Hypothesis.

Oh yeh – and merry xmas and all that.



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This post continues from my post some weeks ago in which I covered primarily Philippe Wajdenbaum’s account of the rise of the Documentary Hypothesis. At that time in one of the comments I explained I had paused to take stock of how best to address the challenge that has arisen against the Documentary Hypothesis. This is a study I undertook some years ago and so thoroughly enjoyed that it is easy for me to cover way too much detail. Maybe I will have to return to address some of the specifics in separate posts later. Once this is out of the way I would like to post another explaining how political anthropology offers a cogent explanation for the character of the biblical books as Hellenistic productions.

First, to recap the Documentary Hypothesis. This is the idea that the Old Testament was essentially a result of four separate sources that were originally written over a span of some centuries:

  • a Jahwist/Yahwist (J) written in the southern kingdom of Judah around the time of Solomon – 10th century bce / later shifted to the Babylonian Exile period:
    • Gerhard von Rad in 1944 “considers the time of Solomonic enlightenment to contain all the prerequisites for literary production, including history writing. It was first of all a time of political stability and economic prosperity. On top of this came the need of a new state to provide a history of its past. Finally the creative impetus following in the wake of the establishment of an Israelite state created this new literature.”
    • Subsequent scholarship revised this, arguing that “External circumstances were thought to provide the most likely background for this kind of literature.” (pp. 158-9 of The Israelites in History and Tradition, Niels Peter Lemche)
  • an Elohist (E) composed in the northern kingdom of Israel – 9th or 8th century bce
  • a Deuteronomist (D) in the southern kingdom of Judah at time of Josiah – late 7th century bce
  • a Priestly source (P) during the Babylonian Exile – 6th century bce

The dating of the sources is central to the hypothesis:

Essential to the history of scholarship expressed in Wellhausen’s synthesis [the DH is the result of W’s synthesis of two generations of OT historical-critical scholarship] was that these four discrete sources of the pentateuch were to be understood as literary documents created at the time of their written composition, and hence as compositions reflecting the understanding and knowledge of their authors and their world. (p. 2 of Early History of the Israelite People from the Written & Archaeological Sources, by Thomas L. Thompson.)

This meant, for example, that the Pentateuch was not a reliable source for the events it narrates, such as the Patriarchal period and Exodus.

But in recent decades biblical scholars are not so united in their acceptance of this explanation for the Bible or “Old Testament” portion of it.

Basically, the old consensus that had developed around the Documentary Hypothesis has gone, though there is nothing to take its place (Rendtorff 1997Whybray 1987). Some still accept the Documentary Hypothesis in much its original form, but many accept only aspects of it or at least put a question mark by it. There has also been much debate around the J source (Rendtorff 1997: 53-5) and the P source (Grabbe 1997). It seems clear that the Pentateuch was put together in the Persian period (Grabbe 2004:331-43; 2006). (p. 44 of Ancient Israel: What Do We Know and How Do We Know It? by Lester L. Grabbe)

So where have the cracks appeared?

Cracks were being pointed out at least as early as the mid 1970s but there has been a remarkable explosion of new ideas and challenges to the consensus since 1992. Lester Grabbe identifies three major publications in that year:

  1. The Anchor Bible Dictionary with its multiple-author entry on ‘Israel, History of’ (ABD III, 526-76) with Lemche on the Pre-Monarchic Period, Dever on Archaeology and the ‘Conquest’, R. P. Carroll on the Post-Monarchic Period;
  2. Early History of the Israelite People from the Written & Archaeological Sources, by Thomas L. Thompson;
  3. In Search of Ancient Israel, P. R. Davies.

On this third publication Grabbe writes:

but the book which in many ways made the greatest impact in that year came from a surprising quarter: this was P. R. Davies’ In Search of ‘Ancient Israel’. I say ‘surprising’ because Davies made no claim to originality; his aim was to translate and expound some of the recent trends and their basis for students . . . . Yet this book caused a storm: eliciting reviews, such as that by Iain Provan published in the Journal of Biblical Literature (1995), along with responses from Davies and Thompson. (p. 33)

I have picked out some of the key points of this work and set them out at

Other works followed:

  • The Tel-Dan ‘Ben-David’ inscription was published (1993) with a great flurry of claims and counterclaims
  • The History of Ancient Palestine from the Palaeolithic Period to Alexander’s Conquest, 1993, by G. Ahlström.
  • The Invention of Ancient Israel: The Silencing of Palestinian History, by Keith Whitelam (1996)
  • Several works by Lemche and then Silberman and others.

A central theme of the criticisms of traditional views of the Bible from most of these authors has been to point out the circularity of consensus arguments for the datings of the various biblical works. Another has been to reject the assumption that the biblical works should be accepted as reliable historical sources or frameworks for historical narratives without external confirmation. Whereas archaeology was once a tool to flesh out the “truth” of the Bible, it was now being thought more valid to study the archaeology of Palestine in the same way as archaeology is employed to uncover the history of any other civilization: understand the remains in their own right and only secondarily seek to see where the literary work best fits within what we learn from those finds.

As a result some of these scholars have come to view “biblical Israel” as a theological construct with a range of meanings rather than a fixed historical reality. The united kingdom of David and Solomonic empire have always been an assumptions through which archaeological remains were interpreted. The more evidence that has surfaced, however, has indicated to many of these scholars that there is no room in the primary evidence for a united kingdom or empire in the tenth century based at Jerusalem or Judea. The evidence that has surfaced has forced upon such authors that conclusion that such a power was an economical, demographic and technological impossibility. The evidence in the ground pointed to the kingdom of Judah not emerging to any significance until after the destruction of the kingdom of Israel (a kingdom that first emerged under Omri’s dynasty), and then the economic power-house city of Lachish, by the Assyrians.

Where do the works of the Bible fit in here?

The dating question is important:

It is surely extremely naive to believe that the meaning of biblical books can be properly exposed without knowledge of their date of composition, about the ideas current in that age or the beliefs common to their audience; and it is of no consequence whether the subject is a narrative as a whole or parts of it or just single concepts and phrases. (p. 295, Niels Peter Lemche, ‘The Old Testament — A Hellenistic Book?” in Did Moses Speak Attic?)

Traditional dating of the works of the Old Testament has been faulted for the circularity of its approach. It has been assumed that dates for various parts of the Bible must be found that belong to the narrative told by the books themselves, that is, somewhere within either the kingdom of Israel discussed or the exile or among those who returned from the exile. The Biblical narrative has been assumed to be indicative of historical reality and that its authors — J, E, P, D — must belong to that very historical period that is the topic of narration. As Wajdenbaum says, such an approach is merely a modern adaption of the myth told by the Bible itself.

The result of this approach has been a quite complex product:

In the end, the higher criticism ended up with an enormously complicated structure, sometimes ridiculed because of its seeming absurdity . . . [T]he narratives of the first four books of Moses have been dissolved into a kind of jigsaw puzzle of isolated elements, passages, verses, and half-verses. In its mechanical form the documentary hypothesis is monstrous . . .  (p. 158, The Israelites in History and Tradition)

And this has meant that scholars have been blocked from reading the books as literary wholes as they focus on narrow segments seeking some evidence of an historical core to each part. The works have ceased to be read as coherent literature.

It is significant that the first biblical definite evidence of the existence of the biblical texts is in the Hellenistic period — after the conquests of Alexander the Great and the spread of Hellenization (Greek culture and language) throughout the Middle East.

Lemche stresses that a justifiable dating of a text must come from the latest material found within it even if it does contain some earlier material. So if the Pentateuch contains passages that can only be explained as of Hellenistic provenance then the Pentateuch as we have it surely must date from the Hellenistic times even if it contains some Mesopotamian material (e.g. the flood story) that is earlier. Lemche points out, for example, that Karl Ilgen first told us 200 years ago that Numbers 24:24 can only possibly be a reference to the Macedonians and that Martin Luther had likewise made this clear in notes to his translation — hence the poem must be dated to the late fourth or third centuries bce. Yet despite this clear pointer to a late date scholars have generally dated this chapter as some of the most archaic of poetic literature, certainly pre-monarchic. The chapter was later moved to the monarchic period when the name Balaam turned up in an eighth or seventh century Aramaic inscription. Meanwhile, the poem itself keeps murmuring, “Hellenistic”. (p. 160, Israelites in History and Tradition).

In a recent post I re-used in another context Lemche’s resurrection of Maurice Vernes’ 1889 advice that the starting point for dating analysis must be the time where there can be no doubt that the biblical literature existed and only from there move back to where we have more questions. Since the earliest period in which we have concrete evidence for the existence of the biblical works is the Hellenistic era, we must start from that point and consider what, if any, evidence we have that they had an earlier origin.

Linguistic arguments have sometimes been hailed as keys to identifying sections of the Bible separated by decades but they have proven to be falsified when they have been shown to be unable to distinguish books that have turned out to be centuries apart.

To sum up, the Documentary Hypothesis has been judged by these scholars to have been little more than a rationalization of the Bible narratives themselves. Past scholars, they say, forgot to read the texts as evidence of themselves and as evidence of the intentions of the authors and not of the tales they told. An Italian scholar, Mario Liverani whom I have quoted several times on this blog, chastises “the indolence” of many historians who all too easily fall into the temptation to merely paraphrase or rationalize (remove the miraculous bits) a narrative that is ready-made and at-hand.

“Biblical Israel”, for example, has been shown to be more a theological construct than a historical reality. The stories do contain some names and events that do belong to real history, but they are not themselves historical narratives. The narratives are said to reflect the theological and political interests of either Persian or Hellenistic governments and peoples in Palestine. Many of the tales are said to be mythical reiterations, “midrashic adaptations”, of one another and not discrete events at all. Example, the dividing of waters at the Creation is reiterated in the narratives of the Flood, the Exodus, the entry into the Promised Land, and later in the accounts of Elijah and Elisha — always with the same theme of new creation or the creation of a new people of God. We see repetition in the Patriarchal narratives and Wajdenbaum sees the character David being an inverse reiteration of Jacob.

Read as a whole the Bible’s books are tied together with common theological and literary theme. The history of Israel opens and closes with Babel. The theme of God’s ways being alien to the thoughts of mankind is there from Eden to the poetic literature, and the lesson to submit to the will and mind of God overrides each successive “new Israel’s” desires for land and kings.

Significantly, these historians argue strongly that it is only by the time we reach the Persian and/or Hellenistic eras that we eventually find the cultural, economic and infrastructural conditions in Palestine that would be required to produce the bliblical literature. Some have suggested the period of King Josiah, but this is judged by others also to be problematic. Certainly this period saw the rise of a literate class required for administrative writing. But there was no historical heritage that could explain the particular sorts, and diverse richness of, the narratives we read in the Bible. Finkelstein and Silberman have not produced any evidence actually tying this literature to this time period in their popular work The Bible Unearthed.

It must also be kept in mind that the Hebrew Bible was not known to have existed until well into the Christian era. Before then we only have evidence of the Greek language Biblical books, and in this Greek language version we encounter several books that are undeniably Hellenistic in origin: Ecclesiastes, Daniel, Song of Songs, Maccabees, Ben Sira.

Many of the concepts and themes are Hellenistic, and some have argued that the final collection of biblical books was based on the works of the Greek historian Herodotus. I have addressed some of the arguments for this in older posts here. One of the arguments related to this urges us to consider that the frequent contradictory narratives set side by side (e.g. Creation, the rise of King David) Lemche sees several strong (including structural) parallels between the Bible and the works of the Roman historian Livy as another testimony of a common Hellenistic background.

In short, the documentary hypothesis has given expression to what scholars have traditionally merely assumed — the historicity of the united Kingdom of Israel that began in a pre-monarchic period and that has been identified by its unique religion. Historians have approached this literary construct as if it were a historical precursor of the Church of their faith.

If the biblical works were not composed until the Persian (Davies) or Hellenistic (Thompson, Lemche) era, an increasing number of scholars have found more satisfying solutions to matching the themes of the books with the facts of archaeology. The stories of David and Solomon become in one sense romantic legends like the tales of King Arthur in a Camelot that really was fictional no matter the occasionally genuine geographic locations found in the adventures. But the biblical stories had a strong theological theme (not unlike Herodotus who wrote his Histories to illustrate the over-riding will of the Delphic God Apollo against the hubris of mankind — first the Persians and then (imminently) the Greeks themselves.

I realize that this outline has omitted many details — the themes of exodus, migration, landlessness, inheritance, the people of the land and Canaanites, the Temple — but this has to be of necessity a blog outline. Some are addressed in the pages on Davies’ book.

My own aesthetic preference is for a hypothesis that reads the biblical literature as a coherent whole if that can be justified at all. And the historical books — and prophetic ones, too (and these, too, often refer directly or indirectly to the Persian era) — do come together to tell a coherent story. The evidence for the books being products of the Hellenistic (or Persian) era is, I believe, strong. I don’t know how this can be well reconciled with a hypothesis that the whole has been stitched together from a J, E, P & D.



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Did a Single Author Write Genesis – II Kings? (Demise of the Documentary Hypothesis?)

This post will open by taking us back thirty or forty years to a scenario in Old Testament scholarship that is remarkably similar to a debate taking place right now among New Testament scholars. I am currently reviewing a book, Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity, that spotlights the flaws of the traditional approaches of form criticism and authenticity criteria to the studies of early Jesus traditions and the historical Jesus respectively. The editors of that book, Chris Keith and Anthony Le Donne, argue that attempts to pull apart the Gospels into various strata, pre-gospel Palestinian traditions and stories added by the early Hellenistic Church compiler-author, don’t really work. What is needed is an understanding and study of the Gospels in their final form, they conclude.

Compare the outcome of criticisms of the Documentary Hypothesis — the thesis that the Old Testament books can be pulled apart into different sources or strata — Priestly, Jahwist, Elohist and Deuteronomist (and a later Redactor).

This post continues from an article I posted on Christmas Day last year, Who Wrote the Bible? Rise of the Documentary Hypothesis. It continues with notes on Philippe Wajdenbaum’s case that the “Primary History” of the Bible (Genesis to 2 Kings) was inspired by the writings of classical Greek writings (especially Plato) and mythologies. It is, furthermore, best seen as the product of a single author writing in Hellenistic times. In my previous post on this book I included a quotation from chapter eight ofTheological and Polical Treatise by seventeenth century Spinoza, to whom Wajdenbaum refers:

And when we regard the argument and connection of these books [Pentateuch, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, Samuel, Kings] severally, we readily gather that they were all written by one and the same person, who had the purpose of compiling a system of Jewish antiquities, from the origin of the nation to the first destruction of the city of Jerusalem. The several books are so connected one with another, that from this alone we discover that they comprise the continuous narrative of a single historian. . . . .

I have in the past posted in passing on another book with a similar theme, Jan-Wim Wesselius’ The Origin of the History of Israel : Herodotus’s Histories as Blueprint for the First Books of the Bible, and I have posted an overview of a section of that book on It is a pity that these sorts of books are priced out of the hands of most potentially interested readers. I have always wanted to post more on the Old Testament books, especially in comparison with other Greek works, in particular works of Herodotus and Plato, and hopefully will do so soon. Too many topics. Not enough time.

Here we continue with Philippe Wajdenbaum’s Argonauts of the Desert, picking up where we left off in December last year. Here he discusses the “collapse of the consensus” on the Documentary Hypothesis and introduces his rationale for proposing a single author for Genesis to 2 Kings.

It is necessary first to overlap with a point made in that earlier post. I elaborate upon it beyond Wajdenbaum’s own brief presentation that was intended for a readership familiar with the scholarly literature.


Biblical scholars borrowed the idea that the final text was the creation of a final redactor who “cut and paste” from earlier variant texts.



The above diagram demonstrates the old view of how the Homeric epics came into existence. Bards — perhaps one of them was “Homer” — composed and performed songs that were sometimes combined to create larger “epics”, and in the cultural “renaissance” in sixth century Athens standard versions of these were put in writing to provide a yardstick or canon by which to judge oral performances of the epics.

During the later Hellenistic period scholars in the Alexandrian library created an authoritative or “original” text of Homer by comparing variant written versions that had arisen in the meantime, and making judgments about which lines in which versions were authentic. Thus a “cut and paste” final and canonical edition was created.

That was the theory.

Compare the Documentary Hypothesis: various written version, Priestly, Jahwist, Elohist, Deuteronomist, were edited and combined into a new whole by a late redactor to give us our Pentateuch and other historical books of the Bible.

Through the twentieth century, however, the above scenario began to unravel — at least in Classics departments.

John van Seters in The Edited Bible — read the Google version, especially chapter 5 — lays out the evidence that such a notion of an ancient redactor creating a new text by stitching bit and pieces out of various versions is an anachronism. Such a practice was unknown until many centuries later. Rather, the versions created by the Alexandrian scholars never found widespread popularity among the wider readership.

Besides, the final text was too polished in many ways, and the characterization too consistent and subtle, to be explained by a “cut and paste” job.

Further, oral studies have shown that oral performances have often been associated with memory — after the performer writes it down! — (and there is evidence that the Greek “Dark Ages” did know of writing that went beyond mere book-keeping functions). The sorts of variations that arise through relaying oral performances do not explain the characteristics of our written texts.


Homeric scholarship abandoned the redactor thesis as untenable and inconsistent with what was known about ancient editorial practices, inconsistent with the literary polish of the final text, and inconsistent with latest oral tradition studies. But biblical scholars did not keep up with these changes.

The theory that the Athenian tyrant Peisistratus commissioned official written versions of the Homeric epics may well be as fictional as the notion among biblical scholars of an historical cultural renaissance at the time of King Josiah. There is certainly no indication in the record that Pisistratid versions were known by Alexandrian scholars or anyone else.

Now the point of this is that biblical scholars developed the Documentary Hypothesis on the back of the old classical model of the evolution of the Homeric epics. That model has crumbled away but biblical scholars have continued to use it regardless.

This brings us to some modern criticisms of the Documentary Hypothesis that I will continue in future posts.



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New Understandings of the Old Testament: Jacques Cazeaux

This post is a continuation of a protracted series on the views of Philippe Wajdenbaum whose doctoral thesis, arguing that a good many of the Biblical stories and laws were inspired by Greek literature, has been published as Argonauts of the Desert: Structural Analysis of the Hebrew Bible.

Several of the more recent posts have examined challenges to the traditional view that most of the Biblical books were composed during the late years of the Kingdom of Judah, in particular during the period of the Babylonian captivity, with a few latecomers in the Persian era. That conventional understanding has largely been based on an evolutionary model that sees the literature incorporated into the Bible being the result of a long process of oral traditions, variant traditions being mixed and matched by early editors with competing religious biases, and with later redactors putting finishing touches to certain books or the collection as a whole. Recent scholarship has seen explorations into the possibility the Bible was a very late composition, even later than the Persian empire, and even that the major historical portion of it, Genesis to 2 Kings, was composed by a single author. There have been an ever increasing number of publications comparing that historical portion with Greek historical literature, in particular with the Histories of Herodotus and even later Hellenistic histories (e.g. Sara Mandell and David FreedmanKatherine StottJ.W. WesseliusFlemming NielsenRussell Gmirkin).

Jacques Cazeaux

Jacques Cazeaux

The next few posts in this series will look at the contributions of several scholars who have led this new perspective on the Old Testament literature and whom Wajdenbaum discusses in Argonauts of the Desert: Jacques Cazeaux, Philip R. Davies, Niels Peter Lemche, Thomas L. Thompson. I may add a few posts discussing other names along the way, and sometimes supplement Wajdenbaum’s descriptions based on my own readings of their works.

Unfortunately I have read nothing by Jacques Cazeaux, though the French titles of some of his books do certainly intrigue me and I’d love to follow them up. Till then, I rely on Wajdenbaum’s synopsis of his views.

Jacques Cazeaux

Jacques Cazeaux is a philologist specializing in Plato, Philo and the Bible. He is interested in the Bible as we have it, or in its final form, as opposed to its various supposed sources. “He thinks of the Bible as a coherent and well-written book” (Wajdenbaum, p.31). According to Cazeaux the biblical author was seeking to teach that Israel’s truth lay in the fraternal unity of the twelve tribes: not a single tribe was to be lost, neither Joseph nor Benjamin. In opening chapters of Numbers, for example, the theme is Israel’s unity as all twelve tribes act as one, each prince making the same offering. (Wajdenbaum finds the foundation of these twelve tribes in Plato’s ideal laws and political structure.)

The story of the Bible is “an anti-royalist prophecy”:

From the genealogies of Genesis to 2 Kings (or rather the other way around, as the text was probably conceived to begin from Kings) through the wandering in the desert and the troubled period of the Judges, everything is prepared for the reader to admit that Israel’s truth is in the Law, and not in the possession of a land or in the ostentation of a monarchy. (p. 31)

(It might be interesting to know if many Israeli scholars, or even many conservative Christian scholars, would agree with such an understanding of the Bible’s theme.)

Wajdenbaum’s own comment:

Cazeaux seems to be right, as he only reads the biblical text rather than dissecting it into a meaningless, primitive and naïve prose.

Cazeaux thinks of the “final chronicler” used such a heavy hand in the editing of the books that he could be thought of as an author, and that he may have lived in the third century B.C.E. If so, he was surely aware of Plato’s philosophy.

According to him, the speech of Samuel decrying monarchy in 1 Samuel 8 — when Israel asks the prophet to install a king — is the core of the biblical tale. God, through Samuel, explains how the king will behave as a tyrant, appropriating both land and people. That prophecy eventually became reality when the kings of Israel brought about the fall of the country through their sins.

Retrospectively, the previous books from Genesis to Joshua can be read as participating in this long ‘prophecy’ against kingship by proposing ideal portraits of the Patriarchs — who resemble kings — and the founding of the twelve-tribe State, governed by laws. (p. 32)

Cazeaux is thus primarily interested in interpreting the final form of the Bible’s books so as to shed some light on the final intentions of its “author”. Wajdenbaum, on the other hand, is interested in identifying the Greek sources “in accordance with Cazeaux’s political reading”, and will show in his own book, Argonauts, that Samuel’s speech warning against the institution of the monarchy is based on


Some specifics

The story of Abram and Sarai in Egypt is foretelling of the Exodus that is to happen to his descendants. Abram journeys into Egypt, quarrels with the Pharaoh, Egypt is plagued, and Abram sent packing. (Other “minimalist” scholars such as Thomas Thompson have seen here the biblical theme of reiteration of the experiences of Israel, the old always being replaced by the new, failing again only to anticipate another “new Israel”, ultimately the readers for whom the stories were written.)

Cazeaux sees the kings of Israel, beginning even with David and Solomon, as Israel’s worst enemies. The faults of David and Solomon were the initial cause of the breakdown of the twelve tribe unity. Jacob’s prophecy that the tribe of Judah would be the royal tribe over the others carried the implicit prophecy of the State’s demise. Hence the wise Joseph was portrayed as “a king who is not a king”.

For Cazeaux, Genesis reflects an inverted image of monarchic Israel and Judah through the idealized portraits of the Patriarchs. A single, common message permeates Genesis-Kings: the Law is higher than the king. The Israel founded by Joshua — that if the twelve tribes without a government — should have prevailed eternally, but the violent period of the Judges led Israel to ask the prophet Samuel for a king. As Samuel foretold it, a king would bring the country to its downfall (1 Sam 8:10-18).

The Patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are the opposites of the kings, as they abdicate their power and renounce the possession of the land promised to them. . . . Even though each received a divine promise to possess the land, and all had the might to conquer it . . . they all renounce their claim.

Genesis’ happy ending in Egypt can seem somehow disappointing to a reader who does not understand why Israel stayed out of its Promised Land . . . According to Cazeaux, this end perhaps reflects how Israel’s truth lies in permanent Exile rather than in the Promised Land’s corrupting tenure. The true Promised Land of Israel is the Law . . . a guarantee of the fraternal unity of Jacob’s twelve sons. (p. 58)

The period of Judges, according to Cazeaux, functions to demonstrate “that the fraternal unity of Israel is better than kingship.” Wajdenbaum adds,
Indeed, with the exception of Abimelech, the Judges do not pretend to be kings of Israel. The book ends with a civil war in which Benjamin is almost exterminated. This story, often considered by scholars to be an addition because no ‘judge’ seems to emerge from it, in fact makes perfect sense. The next book, Samuel, explains why Israel will make itself a king, moreover one that comes from the very tribe of Benjamin, Saul.” (p. 214)

Cazeaux’s analysis of Solomon shows that the biblical author was implicitly comparing him with the Pharaohs of Egypt. This explains why Solomon is portrayed as a tyrant who leads Israel back into slavery. Cazeaux is quoted by Wajdenbaum:

The naïve temptation that leads some to transform biblical heroes into pharaohs or Egyptian characters, does not understand the context: Egypt is present everywhere in the Bible, but from the inside, the great Egyptian being Solomon.(Cazeaux, p. 382)

English: Solomon's Wealth and Wisdom, as in 1 ...

Solomon (Photo credit: Wikipedia)



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Keeping Up with Richard Elliott Friedman

Somebody on Facebook today posted a link to that leads to an interesting article by Prof. Richard Elliott Friedman. It’s called “The Historical Exodus: The Evidence for the Levites Leaving Egypt and the Introduction of YHWH into Israel.” In it, Friedman argues that the Exodus really happened, but it was just a small group (the Levites) who did the “exodusing.”

It turns out he has a book on the way that will explain his argument in detail. No word yet on its release date, but here’s a tempting preview:

[David Noel] Freedman added that this had implications for the historicity of the exodus. Many scholars and archaeologists say the exodus never happened. 90 percent of their argument is based on the lack of artifacts in Egypt or Sinai and on finding few items of Egyptian material culture in early Israelite sites, which we would have expected if the Israelites had lived in Egypt for centuries. But that isn’t evidence against the historicity of the exodus. At most, it is evidence (more correctly: an absence of evidence) against the tremendous number of participants that the Torah pictures.

I had included the idea of a non-millions exodus in my Who Wrote the Bible? back in 1987, and I raised the idea there, just as a possibility, that the smaller exodus group was just the Levites. That possibility looks substantially more tangible today than it did in 1987.

If you’re interested in this subject, you can read an interview from spring 2014 over at in which Friedman argues that “The Exodus Is Not Fiction.” He says:

There is no archaeological evidence against the historicity of an exodus if it was a smaller group who left Egypt. Indeed, significantly, the first biblical mention of the Exodus, the Song of Miriam, which is the oldest text in the Bible, never mentions how many people were involved in the Exodus, and it never speaks of the whole nation of Israel. It just refers to a people, an am, leaving Egypt.

It wasn’t until a much later source of the Exodus—the so-called priestly source, some 400 years later—that the number 603,550 males was added to the story.

I don’t see a title or a release date for the forthcoming book, so we’ll just have to keep an eye out for it.

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