Higher Criticism of the Pentateuch in the Twentieth Century


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GLEASON L. ARCHER, JR. (1916-2004), (B.A., M.A., Ph.D., Harvard University; B.D., Princeton Theological Seminary; L.L.B., Suffolk Law School) was a biblical scholar, theologian, educator, and author. He was a professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, where he taught from 1965 through 1991.

PERHAPS THE MOST helpful way to present the trends of Old Testament scholarship between 1890 and 1950 is to arrange the effect of their contributions upon the structure of the Graf-Wellhausen Hypothesis. Hence the order followed will be topical rather than strictly chronological.

As we have already indicated, much of modern scholarship has remained loyal to the methods of Documentary analysis, and their innovations have been limited more or less to isolating a few more “Documents” beyond the time-honored four, JEDP. Thus, for example, Otto Eissfeldt in his Hexateuchsynopse (1922) thought he discerned within J a Lay Source (L)—more or less equivalent to Julius Smend’s J1 (Die Erzählung des Hexateuchs auf ihre Quellen untersucht, 1912). This L (Laienschrift as Eissfeldt called it) reflected a nomadic, Rechabite ideal (cf. the reference to Rechab in 2 Kings 10 and the Rechabite ideal in Jer. 35:1–19), which was completely hostile to the Canaanite way of life. He concluded that L arose in the time of Elijah (ca. 860 B.C.) and found its way into Judges and Samuel as well.

Somewhat similar to L was the new document K (for Kenite). This dealt mostly with certain details in the life of Moses, or described relations between the Israelites and the Kenites. It was isolated by Julius Morgenstern (The Oldest Document of the Hexateuch, 1927), and identified by him as the basis for the reforms of King Asa (ca. 890 B.C.) as recorded in 1 Kings 15:9–15. Even Robert H. Pfeiffer (as already mentioned) announced in his Introduction to the Old Testament the discovery of a document S (for Mount Seir, the most prominent landmark in Edom) which appeared in the J and E sections of Gen. 1–11 and also in the J and E portions of Gen. 14–38. This supposedly appeared in the reign of Solomon (ca. 950 B.C.), but later additions (made from 600 to 400 B.C.) composed an S2. Thus we have as a result of the industry of the post-Wellhausians the additional letters K, L, and S, largely drawn off from J or E.

History of the Documentary Theory of the Pentateuch

For the most part, however, the trend of twentieth-century scholarship has been toward the repudiation of the Graf-Wellhausen theory, either in whole or in part. In order to sort out these attacks and arrange them in a systematic fashion, we may imagine the Documentary Hypothesis in the form of a beautiful Grecian portico supported by five pillars: (1) the criterion of divine names (Jahweh and Elohim) as an indication of diverse authorship; (2) the origin of J, E, and P as separate written documents, composed at different periods of time; (3) the priority of J to E in time of composition; (4) the separate origin of E as distinct from J; (5) the origin of D in the reign of Josiah (621 B.C.). Let us consider the criticisms leveled at each of these pillars in the above-mentioned order.

Against the Validity of Divine Names as a Criterion of Source

As early as 1893 August Klostermann (Der Pentateuch) rejected the inerrancy of the Masoretic Hebrew text in the transmission of the divine names, and criticized their use as a means of identifying documentary sources. But the first scholar to make a thoroughgoing investigation of the relationship of the MT to the LXX was Johannes Dahse in his “Textkritische Bedenken gegen den Ausgangspunkt der Pentateuchkritik” (“Textual-critical Doubts About the Initial Premise of Pentateuchal Criticism”) in a 1903 issue of the Archiv für Religionswissenschaft. Here he showed that the LXX has a noncorresponding name (i.e., theos for Yahweh or kyrios for Elohim) in no less than 180 instances. This means that the MT is not sufficiently inerrant in the textual transmission of the names to serve as the basis for such subtle and precise source division as the Documentarians have attempted. (This appeal to the LXX was all the more damaging because of the high prestige that version enjoyed as over against the MT in matters of textual emendation. Because the Documentarians themselves had been using it so freely for correction of the Hebrew text, it was more than embarrassing for them to be exposed as naively assuming the inerrancy of the transmission of the divine names in the Hebrew Torah.)

DEFENDING The Authorship of the Pentateuch

In England, a Jewish attorney named Harold M. Wiener began a series of studies in 1909 which dealt with this same troublesome discrepancy between the LXX and the MT. He argued that this uncertainty as to the correct name in so many different passages rendered the use of names impractical and unsafe for the purposes of source division. Wiener also discussed the alleged discrepancies between the various laws of the Pentateuchal legislation, showing that these so-called disagreements were capable of easy reconciliation and required no diversity of authorship. While he conceded the presence of some non-Mosaic elements, he insisted upon the essential Mosaicity of the Pentateuch.

The eminent successor of Kuenen at the University of Leiden, B. D. Eerdmans, also admitted that the force of this argument derived from Septuagintal data, and definitely asserted the impossibility of using the divine names as a clue to separate documents (Altestamentliche Studien, vol. 1, Die Komposition der Genesis, 1908). In this same work he attacked Wellhausian source division from an entirely different approach, that of comparative religions. He felt he could trace a primitive polytheistic background behind many of the sagas in Genesis, indicating a far greater antiquity in origin than either an 850 B.C. J or a 750 B.C. E. Even the ritual elements embodied in P were much older than the final codification of the laws themselves, because they reflected ideas belonging to a very early stage of religious development. The codifying priests included provisions of such antiquity that they themselves no longer fully understood their significance.


According to Eerdmans, the Mosaic era should be recognized as the time when much of the Levitical ritual had its origin, rather than in the Exilic or post-exilic age (as the Documentarians had supposed). Moreover, from the standpoint of literary criticism, the fundamental unity of the Genesis sagas was flagrantly violated by the artificial source division practiced by the Graf-Wellhausen school. Eerdmans therefore withdrew from the Documentary School altogether and denied the validity of the Graf-Kuenen-Wellhausen theory in the preface of the above-mentioned work. He felt that the earliest written unit in the Pentateuch was a polytheistic Book of Adam (commencing at Gen. 5:1) which originated sometime before 700 B.C. (although of course the oral tradition upon which it was based was many centuries older). Later there was united with this another polytheistic work which he called an Israel recension. But after the “discovery” of Deuteronomy, these earlier writings were re-edited according to a monotheistic reinterpretation, and after the Exile this entire work received some further expansions. In this alternative to the Graf-Wellhausen theory, we see a revival of the old supplementary approach, combined with an exaggerated dependence upon comparative religion techniques. But at least Eerdmans showed how flimsy were the ‘assured results’ of Wellhausen scholarship under the impact of a fresh investigation of the data of the Hebrew text. The revered triad of J, E, and P was no longer so secure upon its pedestal.

The attack of Sigmund Mowinckel, a Norwegian scholar, against the J-E source division was from a different standpoint, that of Form Criticism (see next section). In two articles published in the Zeitschrift für Altertumswissenschaft (1930) he denied the independence of the J and E traditions from each other, and denied also that E was of North Israelite origin. He asserted that E was simply a religious adaptation of J from the standpoint of a Judahite school. The stories of ancient times contained in E always depend upon the narratives contained in J, and E quite often employs Jahweh as a name for God. In this connection he denied that Ex. 3:14 represented a promulgation of Jahweh as a new name for God, but on the contrary it presupposed that Jahweh was already known to the Hebrews. (He shows from Josh. 24:2–4, an E passage, that the author knew that Abraham had lived in Mesopotamia, even though all of this account in Gen. 11 had been assigned to J.) Mowinckel concluded that E was really not an author at all, but an oral tradition which continued the same body of material as that which found an earlier written form in J. E then signifies a long drawn-out process between the period when J found written form and the final inscripturation of the E material after the fall of the Jewish monarchy.

W. F. Albright expresses skepticism concerning the reliability of the divine-names criterion, saying, “The discovery of relatively wide limits of textual variation antedating the third century B.C. makes the minute analysis of the Pentateuch which became fashionable after Wellhausen completely absurd. While it is quite true that there is less evidence of recensional differences in the Pentateuch than there is, for example, in Samuel-Kings, there is already more than enough to warn against elaborate hypothetical analyses and against finding different ‘sources’ and ‘documents’ whenever there appears to be any flaw or inconsistency in the received text. Such a subjective approach to literary-historical problems was always suspect and has now become irrational.” (While Albright remains basically Documentarian in his acceptance of J, E, and P as separate written sources, he feels that they must be identified by other criteria than the use of Yahweh or Elohim alone, and that their history was somewhat more complicated than Wellhausen supposed. Cf. Albright, p. 34.)


Against the Origin of J, E, and P as Separate Documents

Hermann Gunkel was associated with Hugo Gressmann as a founder of the new school of Formgeschichte (Form Criticism). In New Testament criticism this approach assumed that during a period of oral tradition, a.d. 30–60, stories and sayings circulated as separate units in Christian circles. Gradually these became altered and embellished according to the theological views current in each circle, as the discerning critic can discover as he seeks to get back to the original nonmiraculous and unembellished kernel of each of these units. (Unfortunately for this method, however, the opinions and tastes of the critic himself inevitably influence his procedure in a very subjective way.) Gunkel’s most important contributions in the field of Pentateuchal criticism were Die Sagen der Genesis (The Sagas of Genesis), 1901; a fifty-page contribution to Hinneberg’s Die Kultur der Gegenwart entitled “Die altisraelitische Literatur” (“The Ancient Israelite Literature”) published in 1906; and his 1911 work, Die Schriften des Alten Testaments.

Form Criticism, according to his formulation of it, maintains: (1) no accurate literary history is possible for the older period (attempts to reconstruct the sequence of the development of written documents have broken down under the impact of contrary data from the texts themselves, and we really know nothing for certain about these hypothetical documents of the Graf-Wellhausen hypothesis); (2) the only practical approach to the Pentateuchal literature is the synthetic creative (rather than the analytic critical of the Documentarians), whereby we must define the various types of categories or genres (Gattungen) to which the original material belonged in its oral stage, and then follow through the probable course of the development of each of these oral units until the final written form which they assumed in the exilic period or thereafter (note how completely this approach erases the fine distinctions which Wellhausen had drawn between J, E, and P); and (3) as a practitioner of the methods of the religionsgeschichtliche Schule (comparative religionist school), Gunkel paid strict attention to the parallel phenomena of the religion and literature of ancient Israel’s pagan neighbors, where the development of these Gattungen (literary genres) could be more clearly discerned and illustrated. In the light of the Egyptian and Mesopotamian materials it was possible, he felt, to ascertain with fair precision the Sitz im Leben (life situation) of each example of these different types and see through what process they evolved in their subsequent history. Thus, Genesis was really a compilation of sagas, for the most part, and all these were handed down in a fairly fluid oral form until final reduction to written form at a late period.

It will be observed that this Formgeschichte approach throws the JEP analysis into discard as an artificial and unhistorical attempt at analysis by men who simply did not understand how ancient literature like the Torah originated. Insofar as it demonstrates the artificiality of the Wellhausian source analysis, Gunkel’s treatment of the Pentateuch represents a certain gain, from the Conservative viewpoint. He should likewise be credited for recognizing the great antiquity of much of the oral tradition material which lay behind the text of the Torah.

But Gunkel’s assumption that the books of Moses found a final written form only as late as the Exile seems to ignore the cumulative evidence that the Hebrews were a highly literate people from the time of Moses onward. To be sure, the earliest scrap of written Hebrew thus far discovered by archaeology is the schoolboy’s exercise known as the Gezer Calendar (ca. 925 B.C.), but nearly all of Israel’s neighbors were recording all types of literature in written form for many centuries before that period, and even the underprivileged Semitic laborers at the turquoise mines in the Sinai Peninsula were scrawling their alphabetic inscriptions as early as 1500 B.C., if not earlier. Even up at the northernmost tip of the Canaanite area, at Ugarit, the contemporaries of Moses were recording their pagan scriptures in alphabetic characters. It requires an excessive credulity to believe that the Hebrews alone were so backward that they did not know how to reduce to writing their most important legal and religious institutions until after 600 B.C. The Pentateuchal record itself abounds in references to writing, and portrays Moses as a man of letters. Even a common term for “officer,” repeatedly used in Ex. 5 (a J passage) and elsewhere in the Pentateuch, is the Hebrew shōṭēr, which is derived from the same root as the common Babylonian verb “to write” (shaṭāru). Therefore this feature in Gunkel’s theory seems to be beset with insuperable difficulty in view of this textual evidence. Furthermore, the fact that Deuteronomy follows a form that was discontinued after 1200 B.C.—the Hittite type of the suzerainty treaty—is proof positive that it could not have been composed after 1200, when suzerainty treaty forms followed a different pattern (no historical prologue, divine witness between the stipulations and the curses, the series of blessings for covenant keeping). Failure to defer to this clear evidence means that the late-date theory goes counter to the evidence of comparative literature and therefore must surrender the claim to be “scientific.”

It should be pointed out, moreover, that the comparative literature of the ancient Near East serves to render highly questionable some of the basic presuppositions of Form Criticism. Thus, the doctrinaire premise of the Gattungsforschung methodology is to look for small fragments and scattered utterances as being the original form which the oral tradition took at the very beginning. But in so early an Egyptian work as the Admonitions of Ipuwer (now dated at 2200 B.C.), we find long and extended tirades, rather than the short, disconnected apothegms which Form Criticism would lead us to expect. In the Babylonian oracles also (as Sidney Smith points out in Isaiah XL–LV, [Toronto: Oxford, 1944], pp. 6–16) occur long connected passages. Kitchen says in The New Bible Dictionary, the practitioners of Formgeschichte “have failed entirely to distinguish between the complementary functions of written transmission (i.e., down through time) and oral dissemination (i.e., making it known over a wide area to contemporaries), and have confused the two as ‘oral tradition,’ wrongly overstressing the oral element in Near Eastern transmission.”

In 1924, Max Lohr published the first of his series on “Investigations of the Problem of the Hexateuch” entitled Der Priestercodex in der Genesis (The Priestly Code in Genesis). By means of minute exegetical study of the so-called P passages in Genesis, he showed that no independent existence of such a source could be established. Its material was so inextricably involved in the J and E sections, that it could never have stood alone. Lohr even went on to reject the Graf-Wellhausen analysis altogether, and came to the conclusion that the Pentateuch in general was composed by Ezra and his assistants in Babylon, drawing upon a heterogeneous store of written materials from the pre-exilic period. These materials included sacrificial laws and other ritual directions, religious and secular narratives of various sorts, and sundry prophecies and genealogical lists. But these prior written materials were incapable of identification with any large, specific documents such as Wellhausen’s J and E.

In 1931 Johannes Pedersen of Copenhagen came out with a radical critique of the Documentary Theory entitled Die Auffassung vom Alten Testament (The Concept of the Old Testament). In this work he rejected Wellhausian Source Criticism as inadequate to describe the culture of the ancient Hebrews. He made four specific points.

  1. In such J and E stories as the communications between Jahweh and Abraham, the cycle connected with Sodom, the Jacob and Esau narrative, the Tamar and Judah episode—all accounts of this sort are of very ancient origin, even though they did not receive their present written form until after the Exile. (This meant that J and E components of this category were both much more ancient than the 850 B.C. and 750 B.C. dates of the Documentarians, and also much later, i.e., contemporaneous with the Priestly contributions.)
  2. It must be said that in general, J and E cannot be maintained as separate narratives without artificially imposing an Occidental viewpoint upon the ancient Semitic narrative techniques and doing violence to Israelite psychology.
  3. In document D it is impossible to make out a clear distinction (as the Documentarians had attempted to do) between older and newer elements. On the contrary, the anti-Canaanite bias which pervades Deuteronomy shows it to be the product of post-exilic conditions (for only after the return could such a self-contained Israelite community have arisen such as D depicts). This means that we must abandon the older date of Josiah’s reign for the composition of Deuteronomy.
  4. As to document P, it shows post-exilic composition clearly enough from its schematic arrangement and its style of diction; but on the other hand it contains many legal regulations which point to pre-exilic conditions. Particularly is this true of the social laws. In other words, all the “sources” in the Torah are both pre-exilic and post-exilic. We cannot make out the 850 B.C. J document and the 750 B.C. E document which Wellhausen tried to isolate in the Mosaic material. We can only conjecture that the earliest nucleus of the Torah was the Moses saga and the Passover legend contained in Ex. 1–15.

In 1945 in Uppsala, Sweden, appeared a work by Ivan Engnell called Gamla testamentet, en traditionshistorisk inledning (The Old Testament, a Traditio-historical Introduction), which more or less followed the line which Pedersen had taken. Engnell boldly condemned the Wellhausian fabric of criticism as representing a modern, anachronistic book view, a purely artificial interpretation in modern categories which do not apply to ancient Semitic material. He asserted that an adequate treatment of this Hebrew literature required a radical break with that whole approach. He then made the following points.

  1. There never were any parallel, continuous documents of prior origin from which the Torah was finally composed in its post-exilic form.
  2. The evidence of the LXX text shows the unsoundness of the criterion of divine names for Source Division; and even as they have been marked off by Wellhausen, these supposed sources are by no means consistent in their use of the names for God. We must understand that the true explanation for the usage of these names is to be found in the context in which they occur, for it is the context that determines which name is most appropriate, as Conservative scholars have always maintained.
  3. Rather than being of Judahite origin, Deuteronomy more strongly suggests North Israelite background. It is most unlikely that D could ever have been concocted in the Jerusalem temple, in view of the prominence it gives to Mt. Gerizim rather than Mt. Zion.
  4. The only safe division that can be made of the Pentateuchal material is (a) a P-work extending from Genesis through Numbers and evidencing characteristics which point to a P-type school of tradition; and (b) a D-work (Deuteronomy through 2 Kings) which shows a different style of treatment and points to a definite D circle of traditionists. The legal material in Exodus through Numbers originated from the oracle-giving and judicial functions of the various local sanctuaries, where along with oral tradition some early written traditions were cultivated. Genesis is made up of an Abraham cycle, a Jacob cycle, and a Joseph complex. Gunkel’s analyses of the individual stories and legend cycles are trustworthy. These were originally cultic legends connected with different sanctuaries. Doubtless, the book of the covenant (Ex. 20:23–23:19) was one such collection; Ex. 34:17–26 (the so-called ritual Decalogue) was another; and the Holiness Code (Lev. 17–26) represents still another complex. P represents a southern tradition, whereas the Deuteronomic work (Deuteronomy through 2 Kings) represents a northern tradition7 although the final form imposed on it reflects the viewpoint of those who wished the cultus to be centralized in Jerusalem.
  5. Oral tradition played a major role in all this until the final reduction to writing. We must therefore reckon, not with written sources and redactors, but with units of oral tradition, circles of tradition, and schools within these traditionist circles. Continuous written documents would necessarily have exhibited consistent differences of style and purely linguistic constants which would occur only in the document concerned. But as it is, no consistent distinctives of this sort can be made out, and those which the Documentarians claim to have discovered can be maintained only by question-begging devices such as redactors and glosses and later emendations. (This of course implied that the elaborate word lists and tables such as are drawn up in Driver’s ILOT must be discarded as unsound.)

Another interesting writer who perhaps could be listed in this group is Wilhelm Moeller, who was originally a convinced adherent of the Wellhausen school. But after a careful reexamination of the evidence, he became impressed with the inadequacy of the Documentary Hypothesis in the light of the actual data. His first attack was published in 1899 in German under the title of Historico-critical Considerations in Opposition to the Graf-Wellhausen Hypothesis by a Former Adherent. A more powerful onslaught appeared in 1912: Wider den Bann der Quellenscheidung (Against the Spell of Source Division). Here he demonstrated the weakness of the arguments for the Documentary Hypothesis and cogently argued the case for the unity of the Pentateuch. In his 1925 work, Ruckbeziehungen des funften Buches Mosis auf die vier ersten Bucher (Backward References of the Fifth Book of Moses to the First Four Books), he showed that Deuteronomy contains numerous references to Genesis through Numbers which presuppose their existence prior to the composition of Deuteronomy and their availability to the author himself. But perhaps Moeller should not be listed with these other critics, since his investigations led him back to the position of the historic Christian church in regard to the authorship of the Pentateuch, and he thereby became an adherent of the Conservative cause. All the others, of course, were (or are) Liberals.

Yehezkel Kauftnann of Hebrew University in the 1940s and 1950s reexamined the assumption of the Wellhausen school that P omitted all mention of the centralization of the sanctuary because it took this centralization for granted. He found this to be utterly unwarranted circular reasoning and argued that monotheism characterized Israel’s religion from the beginning. (Cf. his Religion of Israel [Chicago: U. of Chicago, 1960], p. 205, quoted in this text on p. 110.) Yet he still accepted the four documents as separate entities, even though the priority of D to much of P could no longer be sustained.

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Against the Priority of J to E

In his 1920 work entitled Deuteronomy and the Decalogue, R. H. Kennett advanced the argument that E was really the earliest of the written documents rather than J, and was composed about 650 B.C. for the mixed or hybrid population of North Israel (subsequent to the deportation of the ten tribes in 722 B.C.). J was written a few decades later, down in the Hebron area as a sort of counterblast to Josiah’s reforms (with his insistence on the sole legitimacy of the Jerusalem temple); its date was about 615 B.C. This J was probably the document referred to by Jeremiah 8:8, “But, behold, the false pen of the scribes hath wrought falsely.”

It goes without saying that the views of Pedersen (see p. 105) belong also in this division, for if all the materials of the Pentateuch are post-exilic in their final written form, there can be no more talk of the priority of J to E. The same is true of Engnell (see pp. 105–6). If all of Genesis was made up of legend cycles preserved at the various local sanctuaries, and if all of Exodus through Numbers belongs to a P school of tradition, then there is no room for a J prior to E, nor indeed for any separate written J and E at all.


Against the Independent Existence of E as a Document Later Than J

Paul Volz and Wilhelm Rudolph cooperated in 1933 in the publication of a study entitled Der Elohist als Erzahler: ein Irrweg der Pentateuchkritik? (The Elohist as a Narrator. A Mistake in Pentateuchal Criticism?). After a careful reexamination of the E passages, these scholars drew the conclusion that there were really no good grounds for making out a separate, coherent E source. They were simply parts of J or supplements to it. Volz proposed to do away with separate J and E sources and return to something comparable to the old Supplement Hypothesis. In Genesis we have only a single story writer (J), and E was no more than a later editor of this J work who may possibly have inserted a few sections of his own. As for P, no stories at all emanate from him; he was only the recorder of legislation and the composer of doctrinal sections such as Genesis 1 and 17.

The contribution of Mowinckel (pp. 101–2) may be referred to here. E was to him no separate document from J, but simply a Judahite religious adaptation of the Jehovistic material. E was more of a process than a document. Likewise, Pedersen’s approach (p. 105) involved a complete denial of the separate existence of J and E. Both represent oral material going back to the earliest time, and together they received written form after the exile.

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Against the Josianic Date for Deuteronomy

Ever since De Wette’s identification of Deuteronomy as the book of the law which was discovered by Hilkiah in the temple and read aloud to King Josiah in 621 B.C., the Josianic date for D was considered one of the surest of the “assured results of modern scholarship” by the whole Wellhausen school. As Wellhausen himself declared in his Prolegomena: “About the origin of Deuteronomy there is still less dispute; in all circles where appreciation of scientific results can be looked for at all, it is recognized that it was composed in the same age as that in which it was discovered, and that it was made the rule of Josiah’s reformation, which took place about a generation before the destruction of Jerusalem by the Chaldeans.”

Against the background of this confidence, it is interesting to compare the treatment of the Josianic date (so pivotal to the whole Documentary Hypothesis) accorded by the twentieth-century critics from 1919 onward. Some of these insurgents shifted the date of D’s origin to a much earlier period than 621 B.C., while others preferred to transfer it to the post-exilic age. But both groups were unanimous in condemning the Josianic date as altogether unthinkable in view of the data of the text itself and of the historical conditions known to have prevailed at that time.

Critics Preferring an Earlier Date for Deuteronomy

In 1919, Martin Kegel produced his Die Kultusreformation des Josias (Josiah’s Reformation of the Cultus) in which he gave his grounds for considering the 621 date unsound for D. Since even those influential leaders (such as the priesthood of the high places and the pro-idolatrous nobility) did not raise the issue of the genuineness of Deuteronomy as an authentic work of the great lawgiver Moses (even though they had every incentive to challenge its authenticity), it follows that D must have been a very ancient book indeed by Josiah’s time, and must have been known as such. (Kegel was even inclined to doubt the identification of the discovered book of the law with Deuteronomy alone; he felt that the evidence pointed toward the inclusion of all the other parts of the Pentateuch which were already in writing.) Furthermore, the oftrepeated assertion that the main purpose of Josiah’s reform was to enforce worship at the central sanctuary (the Jerusalem temple) was not at all borne out by the evidence of 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles; they show that his chief concern was the cleansing of Jehovah worship from idolatry.

In 1924, Adam C. Welch of Edinburgh pointed out that a “law of the single sanctuary” would have been quite impractical for the seventh century B.C., for it did not reflect conditions which prevailed at that time. Furthermore, he showed that many of the legal regulations in D were much too primitive in character to fit in with the late Jewish monarchy.10 Rather than showing a Judahite origin, some of the laws indicated a North Israelite origin. It was therefore far more justifiable to look to the age of Solomon (tenth century B.C.) as the time when the main core, at least, of the Deuteronomic legislation was written down. One insertion only was definitely assignable to Josiah’s time, and that was Deut. 12:1–7 which made the central sanctuary mandatory (a passage which was used by Josiah to sanction his reform program). But the primary purpose of the book in its original form was to purify the cultus at all the various local sanctuaries and thus to combat the contaminating influence of Canaanite theology and practice.

The Documentary Hypothesis—Defending Moses’ Authorship of the Pentateuch

Other more recent writers who favored a pre-Josianic date for Deuteronomy include R. Brinker (The Influence of Sanctuaries in Early Israel, pp. 189ff.), who argued that the essentially Mosaic legislation of Deuteronomy was later supplemented by priests in the various local sanctuaries; but its main thrust was opposition to Canaanite idolatry. Gerhard von Rad suggested that Deuteronomy arose among circles of rural Levites and must have been completed by 701 B.C. (Studies in Deuteronomy, 1953, p. 66). A. Westphal felt that it dated from the early part of Hezekiah’s reign. Both Albright (The Biblical Period from Abraham to Ezra, 1963, p. 45) and Eissfeldt dated Deut. 32 (the “Song of Moses”) to the time of Samuel, citing MS fragments from 4Q.

In the following decade a series of articles was issued from the pen of Edward Robertson in the Bulletin of John Rylands Library, in 1936, 1941, 1942, and 1944, in which he defended the thesis that at the time of conquest, the Hebrews must have entered Palestine as an organized community possessing a nucleus of law, including the Decalogue and the Book of the Covenant (Ex. 20–23). After their settlement in Canaan, they split up into various religious communes, each with its own special sanctuary. These various local traditions of Mosaic law were combined by Samuel (cf. 1 Sam. 10:25) on the threshold of the establishment of the United Monarchy. This background satisfactorily accounts for the diverse elements and inconsistencies of the background material of the Tetrateuch. As for Deuteronomy, it was composed shortly thereafter, about 1000 B.C., in order to cement together the new political unity. This work then was lost and not rediscovered until the reign of Josiah.

During the 1940s and 1950s, Yehezkel Kaufmann of Jerusalem argued for the priority of P to D, saying, “Only in D and related literature is there a clear and unmistakable influence of the centralization idea. In the time of Hezekiah the idea began to gain favor; Josiah drew its ultimate conclusions. Thereafter Judaism was enthralled by the image of the central sanctuary and chosen city. It is incredible that a priestly law which evolved at this time should pass over this dominant idea in silence. It has been shown above that there is no trace whatever of D’s centralization idea in P; P must therefore have been composed before the age of Hezekiah.” This meant that P had to be dated early in the eighth century or before, rather than being a product of the exilic or post-exilic age. Kaufmann was convinced that monotheism characterized Israel’s religion from the very first, and that the tabernacle was an authentic, historic shrine employed in the days of Moses. “The idea that the tent is a reflex of the Second Temple is a baseless contention of modern criticism.”


Critics Preferring a Later Date for Deuteronomy

R. H. Kennett’s work on Deuteronomy and the Decalogue has already been referred to (p. 107). It was his thesis that the legislation of D presupposes not only J and E, but also H (which according to the Wellhausen scheme did not arise until 570 B.C. under Ezekiel’s influence). Particularly is this true of Deut. 12. The inference is, then, that D must have been late exilic at the very earliest. (According to Kennett, the order of the documents was EJHDP, i.e., E—650 B.C., J—615 B.C., H—570 B.C., D—500 B.C., P—450 B.C. Contrast this with Wellhausen’s EJHDP.)

In 1922 Gustav Holscher produced his Komposition and Ursprung des Deuteronomiums (The Composition and Origin of Deuteronomy). In this work Holscher quite decisively denied that D could have constituted the book of the law which Hilkiah found. The characteristic legislation of Deuteronomy does not at all conform to the contemporary conditions prevalent in Josiah’s time. For example, the enforcement of a single sanctuary law would have been utterly impractical idealism before the tragedy of the fall of Jerusalem and the restoration of the exiles from Babylon to make a new beginning in the land. During the centuries preceding the exile, how could even a visionary reformer seriously expect that whole communities in Israel which had embraced the worship of false gods or the worship of Jehovah with images could be put to the sword by the central government (as Deut. 13 and 17 required)? Kings and Chronicles testified to the fact that almost every municipality in Judah was infected with this idolatry, not excluding Jerusalem itself.

It would never have occurred to a lawmaker after the population of Israel had settled down along the whole tract of Palestine, all the way from Dan to Beersheba, to enact a provision that all the male inhabitants had to forsake their homes and farms for days or weeks at a time no less than three times a year, just to participate in religious rites at some central sanctuary. The only sensible conclusion to draw is that Deuteronomy was drawn up when the Jewish remnant under Zerubbabel and Jeshua had newly resettled the land. (At this point it would be appropriate to suggest that if Deuteronomy does so clearly point to a time when the Hebrews had newly settled the land and were still grouped closely together, these specifications admirably accord with the time and setting the book of Deuteronomy gives for itself [1:1–4], that is, when Israel was all assembled on the plains of Moab just prior to the conquest [ca. 1400 B.C.]. But Holscher does not even discuss this possibility.)


With this conclusion of Holscher’s, Johannes Pedersen (cf. p. 105) was in general agreement. He felt that the pervasive anti-Canaanite bias in Deuteronomy pointed to the antiforeign spirit which prevailed in the age of Zerubbabel and Nehemiah. (But Pedersen likewise failed to consider the possibility that such an anti-Canaanite spirit characterized the age of Moses and Joshua, when the whole corrupt culture of the Canaanites lay under the condemnation of God.)

How shall we characterize the trend of twentieth-century scholarship in its treatment of Pentateuchal criticism and of the Wellhausen hypothesis? At the very least it must be regarded as a period of reaction against the neat, tight structure erected by the Documentary Theory of the nineteenth century. Almost every supporting pillar has been shaken and shattered by a generation of scholars who were brought up on the Graf-Wellhausen system and yet have found it inadequate to explain the data of the Pentateuch. At the same time it must be recognized that for the most part, even those scholars who have repudiated Wellhausen have shown no tendency to embrace a more conservative view of the origin of the books of Moses. They have undermined the defenses and torn down the bastions which buttressed the Documentary Hypothesis, but they have gravitated quite definitely into an even more implausible position than that occupied by their predecessors: despite the analogy of Israel’s pagan neighbors and contemporaries (who embodied their religious beliefs in written scriptures long before Moses’ time), the Hebrews never got around to inscripturating the records of their faith until 500 B.C. or later. It requires a tremendous willingness to believe the unlikely for an investigator to come up with a conclusion like that.

We close with an apt quotation from H. E Hahn, “This review of activity in the field of Old Testament criticism during the last quarter-century has revealed a chaos of conflicting trends, ending in contradictory results, which create an impression of ineffectiveness in this type of research. The conclusion seems unavoidable that the higher criticism has long since passed the age of constructive achievement.”

It is of great importance to biblical scholarship that students of higher criticism be accurately informed as to the contribution and distinctive emphasis of each modern critic so that he understands his presuppositions and his line of evidence and logic so as to be able to explain this to an inquirer even though he doesn’t accept it as sound theology. It is important to have a mastery of the contributions of Liberal or Negative Criticism in order to respond intelligently in dealing with their errors. This facilitates effectiveness in discussion or confrontation with those who have been trained in the school of Negative Criticism. Otherwise a defender of the historical Christian position may be taken as imperfectly informed in his theological training and scholarship. A good conservative scholar must be able to analyze accurately and fairly the positions taken by Rationalist scholars before he can successfully refute them. Therefore, we have prepared an excursus with a more detailed discussion of some of the more recent scholars who carry on the tradition of the Documentary Hypothesis or Formgeschichte so we may be well-informed as to what and why these scholars believe as they do. This enables the evangelical student to understand the fallacies of those approaches when dealing with the data that bears upon the subject at hand. In this way a student of conservative conviction may find himself on much more advantageous footing than would be the case if he simply ignored and rejected without serious refutation those liberal views and conclusions which he understands to be false. See Excursus 3.

Keys to Identify Liberal Criticism

1.   Employs circular reasoning

2.  Textual evidence is devalued in favor of Hegelian dialectic

3.  Assumes lower literary standard for Hebrew authors than contemporaries

4.  Gives pagan documents prior credibility over Scripture

5.  Assumes a purely human origin for Israel’s religion

6.  Artificially concocted “discrepencies” are manipulated as proof text for biblical error

7.  Espouses literary duplication or repetition as demonstrating diverse authorship

8.  Claims “scientific reliability” for dating documents according to a theory of evolution

9.  Assumes a superior knowledge of ancient history over original authors who lived 2000 years plus closer to the events which they record.[1]

[1] Gleason Archer Jr., A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, 3rd. ed. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1994), 99–112.



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