Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Teaching about the Documentary Hypothesis

The Old Testament class I teach is billed as a first-year college course. As such, it should overview the content of the Old Testament, plenty of material for a semester’s worth of study. And that’s why I thought long and hard before doing what I did last night.

A little background. Because the class meets at night, it’s an older group than I usually have. Many of the students are workaday professionals. Night time is their time to take a college course. The class includes a veteran preacher, a real estate agent, a physician, and a high school science teacher.

Because it’s made up of a lot of eager and accomplished people, I made the decision to introduce the class to the old “Documentary Hypothesis of the Pentateuch.” If that’s an expression you haven’t seen before, you can read about it here.

I don’t subscribe to the theory. But I do think it’s significant because it has been significant in modern study of the Old Testament, not to mention the entire field of biblical research. So last night I walked the class through the rise and development of the hypothesis, some of the basis for its appeal, and some of the problems it has.

Before getting into that, though, I told them about my apprehension and about my confidence in their ability and maturity. I also told them that this was the most significant topic in the field of Old Testament higher criticism, the only one we would really get into all semester. If they didn’t like this section or started to feel lost, they could be confident that we wouldn’t be doing anything like this again.

I was fairly well-prepared to teach the material. I used visuals on the screen as well as handouts. From what I could tell, it wasn’t too much.

I closed by saying that there are problems with the goals, origins, development and conclusions of the hypothesis (deep breath) and that a good case can be made for the tradition that Moses is author of the “Books of Moses.” At the same time, it’s fair to acknowledge that Moses may have used oral and/or written sources (especially in writing Genesis), and that the received Pentateuch seems to include some editorial comments that come from a much later time. A good example is found in Genesis 36:31, where, in a list of ancient Edomite kings, the text explains that this was “before any kings reigned in Israel.”

Now, I have a lot of questions.

One is, In Christian universities, Bible colleges, and seminaries, what are the professors saying these days about the Documentary Hypothesis? I’m curious about the state of its influence and any discussion of it. My suspicion is that, in the O.T. classes in more conservative schools, there’s still a unit on what the hypothesis is and why it’s wrong. The better-read teachers in such schools probably (and should) bring in the newer voice of narrative-critical study which demonstrates literary artistry across huge sections of the Torah.

Clearly, though, the hypothesis is still the working assumption of many Old Testament specialists today. Even the decidedly-evangelical Word Biblical Commentary series includes volumes that proceed on its premise! All that to say, it doesn’t seem quite dead.

I have to confess that, although the history of how it developed intrigues me, the hypothesis itself seems like a literary version of Darwinism, hopeless and unconvincing. (Yes, I understand about the philosophical connections one can draw between Darwin and Wellhausen).

Anyway, what are your thoughts? Responses? Criticisms? I’m curious about what other students and teachers and searchers think.


Anonymous said...

Don't forget these:

Numbers 12:3 - "Now Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth."

Deuteronomy 34 - The death of Moses

I don't think we need to be scared of covering things as long as we know our audience well enough to do it. There are some groups of people bringing issues like these up just wouldn't be worth it.

Frank Bellizzi said...

Thanks, Matt, for pointing to these passages and for your input. I agree with you. Not every audience would be able to deal with a fair survey of the questions.

About the texts: In the class, we did look at Dt. 34, a place where many of the most conservative folks on this question will concede something like, "Well, maybe Joshua wrote this."

The Numbers 12 passage presents a different set of questions. While I might say, "This clearly seems to be from a different hand," I wouldn't want to call into question (not suggesting you would) every text where Moses is spoken of in the third person, because that's basically all of the references.

Stoned-Campbell Disciple said...

Richard Elliot Friedman has written one of the best contemporary expositions of the Documentary theory. It is called "Who Wrote the Bible." He makes a very thoughtful and good argument.

I find myself as a person who thinks there are indeed sources in the Torah ... there are in Kings and Chronicles (even cited like footnotes) so that does not bother me.

What is more important though is the canonical shape of the text. And more and more scholars are going with the canonical shape and basing their work on that.

You mentioned the Word Biblical series. The volume by Philip J. Budd on Numbers, I bought years ago when I was doing some work on that book and that is basically all it is concerned with ... what source here or there. A complete waste of my money!

Bobby Valentine

Frank Bellizzi said...

Bobby, thanks for your feedback. I haven't read "Who Wrote the Bible?" but really want to now.

Regarding the canonical approach (which, for those who haven't come across this before, deals with a book of the Bible as it IS not as it WAS or may have been): As you know, Bobby, it grew out of Professor Childs' reaction against a complete emphasis on the pre-history of the biblical text, its sources and earlier forms.

In that sense, what some call "canonical criticism"--a phrase that Prof. Childs really doesn't care for--assumes the validity of modern critical procedures, just not their goal(s).

The problem is, most fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals can't be "post-critical" with someone like Childs, because they were never "critical" to begin with. They are, and have always been, "pre" and/or "anti" (take your pick) critical.

Both sides, someone like Childs and someone like your typical member of the Church of Christ, have issues with the other. To the liberal, (please pardon and go with the terminology) the conservative seems naive, unable or unwilling to acknowledge the development of the text.

To the conservative, the liberal may get to the right conclusions about what a given book of the Bible means and does, but the liberal has gotten there along an illegitimate path, or so it seems to the conservative.

Because of this, I don't like the idea of OT teachers among the Churches of Christ using Childs' "Introduction" as a main text. That's because Childs' approach either tramples on the introductory construal of the students, or it teaches the students to trample on the introductory construals of their future hearers. Not every young preacher knows how to handle his intellectual revolutions.

I think that the question of propriety should take our teachers and students to a text like the one by LaSor, Hubbard, and Bush. I know, I know, to some of my "brethren" that's way too liberal. For them, only Gleason Archer will do. But that's another post. Rant over.

Anonymous said...

And I just bought that Numbers commentary a couple weeks ago :(

Anonymous said...

I also meant to ask what you thought about Dillard and Longman's Introduction. I do like a few things about Child's approach but as with most anything there is a balance to be found.

Frank Bellizzi said...

Matt, I've only seen the Dillard and Longman book. Haven't read it. What little I've read by T. Longman, though, I thought was very good.

By my last comment I certainly didn't mean to say "Childs here, evangelicals there, and never the twain shall meet." It's just that Childs begins his treatment of each OT book with "Historical Critical Problems." These sections usually assume way too much for me.

However, his other two parts, "Canonical Shape" and "Theological and Hermeneutical Implications" typically resonate. Again, I typically appreciate where he goes. But I wouldn't get there the same way.

Acutally, it's hard to find a better book than Childs' Intro. for getting a sense of what's going on in any given section of the OT.

Thanks again for your comments. No, you can't sell the Numbers commentary to me. I already have a copy too.

Amarillo Band of Brothers said...

John Willis (ACU's OT scholar emeritus) appears to believe, along with some recent work by Peterson and Campbell, that a more realistic view of OT authorship is in order. Specifically pertaining to the book(s) of Moses, I can't say what Willis would say. But Willis and Trevor Thompson have certainly rocked my CoC-derived theory of inspiration in regard to both OT and NT.


Stoned-Campbell Disciple said...

What does Trevor know about the Hebrew Bible?? :-) He is a NT guy ... I had classes with him at Harding Grad.

Frank a really good book is Brueggemann and company "A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament." Should be required reading I think.

And I will give you my Budd commentary on Numbers!! :-)

Bobby Valentine

Frank Bellizzi said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Howtindog said...

[The Numbers 12 passage presents a different set of questions. While I might say, "This clearly seems to be from a different hand," I wouldn't want to call into question (not suggesting you would) every text where Moses is spoken of in the third person, because that's basically all of the references.]

Frank, I think you missed the point. That person was saying a humble person wouldn't call himself the most humble man on earth.

Frank Bellizzi said...

Howtindog, I get the point about why someone would question the Mosaic authorship of Numbers 12:3. It certainly does appear to be from a different hand.