THE ORIGIN OF THE BIBLICAL MATERIALS
Practically all modern interpreters of the book of Genesis subscribe to a theory about the composition of the Old Testament known as the "documentary theory." In the following pages I will try to describe this theory as succinctly and as fairly as I can.
The kingpin of the documentary theory is the contention that the origin of the institution of an inspired official text, formulated in written form and given divine authority, began with the publication and canonization of Deuteronomy D). This event was related to the religious reforms introduced by King Josiah in 621 B.C. Once Deuteronomy had become sacred scripture, there was conceived the idea of giving the same form and authority to the records of the national history of the Hebrews. This national history was preserved in two separate versions, running parallel to each other. One, which was completed in the southern kingdom of Judah around 850 B.C., is called Jehovistic>(J) because it refers to the divinity as Yahweh, and the other, which was composed in the northern kingdom of Israel around 750 B.C., is called Elohistic because it refers to the divinity as Elohim. Shortly before or after 621 B.C., these versions were combined into one (J-E). What became the Pentateuch started as a scripture composed of J-E and D. After the Exile scholarly writers, known as Priestly (P) because of their preoccupation with religious law and ritual, wrote a sort of appendix-commentary to J-E, which reflected the religious institutions and practices of post-exilic society; the P writers' aim was to make the narrative of J-E systematic — as for instance by drafting genealogies, and more relevant — by relating historical events to laws and the origin of sacred institutions.
Stated roughly, the Priestly editors would have subjected the J and E versions to a scissors and paste procedure, taking snippets of text from one and the other and combining them together into a continuous narrative. Out of respect for the sacredness or authority of the original documents, the Pauthors would have altered them as little as possible. Most of their editing would have consisted of cutting off parts of the originals and cleverly combining what remained. In so doing in many cases they left standing different accounts of the same events. Having done this they added their own text for two purposes: one, to explain away the contradictions that remained, to rationalize the accounts, and to expand them; the other, to introduce their own tenets about religion and ritual.
Finally, around 400 B.C., P was fitted into the text of J-E and D by an operation called Redaction (R). This would be the way in which our Pentateuch came into existence. However, minor alterations in the text of the Pentateuch continued to be introduced up to about 250 B.C.
In order to evaluate the documentary theory, one must realize that it may be broken down into two separate theories. The first theory is the composite origin of our text of the Pentateuch: the Pentateuch was put together with materials of different origin, datable in one time or another of the monarchical period, and was edited, complemented, or adapted to fit the ideas, institutions, and practices of the Jews of the postexilic period. The process of combining different materials into a received text may have begun during the last period of the monarchy. The second theory is that this process of redaction took place according to the steps specified by the documentary theory.
For historical reasons one tends to forget to make a distinction between these two elements of the documentary theory. The reason is that those who from the second half of the eighteenth century began to point out the existence of several layers in the Pentateuch met stubborn resistance from those who for reasons of religious piety wanted to insist on the unity of the text, starting with the orthodox view that the Pentateuch had been written by Moses himself. This battle was settled, as far as scholarly commentators were concerned, with the development of the documentary theory. In the period 1876-1884 Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918) presented the documentary theory in such a form and with such arguments that it came to be accepted by the large majority of scholarly commentators. In the period that followed commentators came to be divided between committed fundamentalistsand followers of the theory of Wellhausen. Practically all scholarly commentators followed Wellhausen; the modifications or qualifications that were offered by several of them to his theory do not touch its substance.
Only after World War II did it become academically respectable to question the basic principles of Wellhausen's theory. However, none of the self-proclaimed new schools of Pentateuchal criticism has been able to come forward with a definable alternative. The main contribution of these dissenters has been the stress put on the importance of oral traditions which, even though inserted into our text of the Pentateuch at a late date, may be of very early origin. I most emphatically agree with the importance attached to oral tradition, since in all ancient civilizations most of the cultural heritage was transmitted orally; written texts were just the tip of the iceberg, although of necessity the modern scholar has to start his investigations with that visible tip of the iceberg, the written texts. However, the recognition of the role played by oral traditions should be concerned only with the history of our text of the Pentateuch and with determining how and when specific passages were included in that text, independently of the question of the origin of the notions expressed in these passages.
Today, in spite of the stir created by those who have questioned the value of the documentary theory, this theory remains the main tool of scholarly interpreters. The current modifications of the original documentary theory consist principally in multiplying the number of documents of the J and E level and in dating at least parts of P before the Exile. This clinging to the documentary theory, in spite of all objections, is due to the fact that those who formulated the documentary theory formulated also a system of principles and techniques, a definite method that can be followed almost mechanically, independently of subjective attitudes or preferences.
Following the central methodological principle of the documentary theory, one can identify the vocabulary and the literary style of the writers of J, of the writers of E, and of the writers of P. Because of the historical breaks determined by the troubled last years of the Kingdom of Judah, the Fall of Jerusalem (586 B.C.), and the Exile, the language, the style, and the intellectual outlook of P is completely different from that of J and E. During the nineteenth century there was developed a method for the study of texts of all ancient literatures; this method, known as philological analysis, aims at establishing the way in which an ancient author composed his work, how he utilized earlier authors, and how he gathered his information. According to the guiding principle of the documentary theory, the tested methods of philological analysis should be applied to the biblical text, irrespectively of its having been composed as a sacred text, with the same spirit in which one studied any ancient text.
As I have tried to wade through the polemics of the last thirty years between critics and defenders of the documentary theory, I have found that a great part of the inconclusiveness of these debates is due to a semantic confusion by both sides on the question of oral tradition. What has been forgotten is that all ancient literatures could be said to be oral literatures. Classical scholars know that Greek and Latin authors were written to be read aloud; there is evidence that the practice of reading a Latin text silently did not begin before the fifth century A.D. The ancients were able to transmit a text orally for a series of generations. The text of the Mishnah, which is the central part of the Talmud, was transmitted orally for several generations, and there were rabbis whose duty it was to remember the text. The Talmud itself, although we are inclined to think of it as a very bookish big book, could be described as a collection of oral traditions.
In dealing with ancient literatures one should not distinguish between oral tradition and written documents, but between texts that have been formalized and those that have not. The Hebrew term sepher, which we translate as "book," could be applied to a text transmitted orally. A set of rules or a set of mathematical formulas could be called sepher, even though not put in writing; a good literal translation of sepher is the English word tale, if one keeps in mind the etymology of this word. A great emphasis has been put on the role of scribes in the ancient Near East, but when one considers the organization of scribal schools in Egypt and Mesopotamia, one realizes that a major function of these schools was to transmit information orally from one generation of scribes to the next.
Perhaps the problem of the origin of the Pentateuch could be better understood if one kept in mind the model provided by the composition of the Quran. Muhammad referred to Jews and Christians as "people of the book" and wanted his followers to be "people of the book" too, but he never intended that the Quran should be written. Muhammad is the author of AI-Qur'an, "The Reading," although he was illiterate. According to Muslim tradition the surahs (chapters of the Quran) had been put in writing individually and circulated separately before the Prophet's death, but the transmission of the Sacred Text was entrusted to those who had committed the whole of it to memory. It was only after most of these were killed in a battle soon after Muhammad's death, that it was decided to put the Quran in writing as a whole. However, it was only in the Caliphate ofOthman (644-655 A.D.) that the authoritative text was drafted on the basis of all existing written copies of individual surahs and the recollections of those who had committed the Quran to memory. This is the orthodox version of the events. It is also the orthodox view that the final arrangement of the surahs is that of the Prophet himself, even though it is evident that the arrangement of the official text was made on the basis of concepts of subject matter, without regard for correct chronology, and that some surahs were composed of passages from different experiences of revelation. In principle each surah should be the contents of one prophetic inspiration.
Muslims distinguish between the Quran itself and the sunnahs which are rules of law and explicatory commentaries based on what Muhammad is said to have spoken or done when he was not in a prophetic state. The subject matter of the sunnahs has some similarities with what is called Priestly material in the Pentateuch. The intent of the Priestly writers may have been to make more explicit what was implied in the received text.