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.