Convergence and Divergence in Pentateuchal Theory

The Monday before Thanksgiving in Baltimore, at the Society for Biblical Literature’s annual conference, the rest of us had a great opportunity to listen in on a scholarly colloquium that went on for most of the 2012-2013 academic year at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. It was a group of scholars — or, rather, two groups — that spent the year discussing “Convergence and Divergence in Pentateuchal Theory.” To put it on a more basic level, it was a gathering of “documentarians” (those who believe the Pentateuch was assembled from the earlier documents long ago labeled J, E, D, and P) and “non-documentarians” (those who believe the process of creating the Pentateuch was more complicated and its predecessor texts were more widely varied).

If “non-documentarians” strikes you as an awkward label, most of the participants in the group would agree with you. But that is one of the few things they would agree on. (There are a couple of others; see Konrad Schmid’s remarks.) With Bernard Levinson of the University of Minnesota presiding, the group presented their differences to a large audience. Here is what I heard:

Baruch Schwartz, Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Schwartz was the “captain” of the documentarians in this presentation. He described the challenges faced by the Documentary Hypothesis these days and tried to lay out the differences between those who follow his approach and those who contest it.

The challenges:

(1) Some who disagree with the Documentary Hypothesis are arguing with Wellhausen rather than current scholarship.

(2) Some find current scholars too simplistic.

(3) Some rally to false claims: e.g. that the covenant of H [the Holiness Code, Leviticus 17-26] actually belongs to the nonpriestly materials.

(4) Some opponents hold to positions that have been refuted; see Biblica a year ago. (More on this in Schmid’s remarks.)

And the scholarly distinctions between the documentarians and their opponents:

(1) Documentarians are not following an approach but trying to solve a problem. Those who disagree with them say that there must have been a complex process no matter what — that is, they start from an ideological perspective.

(2) Opponents of the documentary approach find refashioning and reshaping to be essential to the creation of the Pentateuch; documentarians distinguish this from compilation.

(3) The opponents claim that the Pentateuch began with original textual kernels that must have once existed. Documentarians, by contrast, think the original impulse for the writing of each of the documents was to provide Israel’s laws along with an account of how they came about. The non-documentarians think that the primary literary activity was at the level of the individual tale (Bible stories) and that the redactors operated at this same level.

Konrad Schmid, University of Zurich
– Schmid led the opponents of the documentarians in the morning’s session. He introduced his remarks by recalling the classical saying made famous in the modern age by Isaiah Berlin, “The fox knows many [small] things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” If I understood him correctly, he took Schwartz to be calling himself a hedgehog and Schmid a fox, to which he responded that both sides had aspects of the fox as well as of the hedgehog. He also responded to Schwartz’s point #4 by noting that the articles by himself and Joel Baden in Biblica last year represented an exchange of views, not a refutation of his view by another. More importantly, he began by focusing on the convergences of the two groups rather than their divergences.

These are the five things that (according to Schmid) both groups agree on:

(1) The Pentateuch is pre-Hellenistic and dates (as a complete work) from the 1st-millenium BCE.

(2) It is a composite work.

(3) There is general agreement that the writing down of oral texts, assembly of written documents, and redaction all played some role in its composition.

(4) Everyone essentially believes in the “documents” posited by Wellhausen; we should give up using such terms as “supplementarians” and “fragmentarians.”

(5) We all agree on P [the priestly document] as independent and primary.

But, said Schmid, there are seven aspects need more attention:

(1) What is the value of our historical reconstruction?

(2) How complete can a literary explanation of the Pentateuch be?

(3) How biased are we in our assignment of texts by our approaches? Both groups have accused each other of circular reasoning. [I can recall a presentation at an earlier conference when Schwartz said one approach used “special pleading” to bridge a logical gap in its explanation; but a few minutes later he used what I took to be some special pleading of his own.] Again (said Schmid), we need more courage to leave blank spots and to indicate when things are clear and less clear.

(4) Do we apply the same level of scrutiny to diachronic and synchronic levels? [The “diachronic level” is the creation of each of the earlier texts that were assembled into the Pentateuch; the synchronic level refers to the compilation of the Pentateuch as a unified whole from those earlier texts.]

(5) What is the significance of ideological/theological perspectives [in the text] for scholarship?

(6) How exceptional is the literary situation in the Pentateuch? Do the sources extend to other parts of the Bible?

(7) There is no way around a thorough discussion of dating; we need considerably more interaction with linguists.

Joel Baden, Yale
– Baden is a documentarian, author of the book J, E, and the Redaction of the Pentateuch. His task at the session was to discuss the source analysis of Genesis 12. He said this:

• Genesis 12 is easily divided, as all agree:

– vv. 10-20 are a wife-sister episode

– vv. 6-9 are Abraham’s itinerary

– vv. 4b-5 are the notice of Abraham’s departure from Haran

– vv. 1-4a the promise and fulfillment of the command
[“a” and “b” mean “the first half of the verse” and “the second half of the verse”]

• Everyone agrees that only 4b-5 are P. After that:

(1) everything but 4b-5 could be consistent

(2) if you assume the wife-sister stories are related or that the descent to Egypt foreshadows the exodus, then this episode was added and the beginning of Genesis 13 was inserted redactionally.

(3) if the patriarchal stories were not originally related, or all promise texts must belong together, then 1-4a separates out.

(4) [He made a 4th point that I didn’t get.]

His conclusion: A myriad of different understandings are logical, based on the presuppositions of the interpreter. It is the presuppositions, not the analysis, that must be evaluated. We must say not just what we think but why we think it.

Shimon Gesundheit, Hebrew University of Jerusalem
I don’t know Gesundheit or his work; by the logic of this session’s lineup, he must be a “non-documentarian.” His overview of Exodus 12 followed a very different path from that of Baden for Genesis 12. He pointed out that פסח in Exod 12 is not “pass over” but “protect” and then went on to discuss vv. 24-25, which clearly refer to home-based sacrifice in perpetuity, despite the fact that elsewhere in the Pentateuch sacrifices are restricted to the single “place that the Lord will choose.” Gesundheit noted a number of sources from the 2nd Temple period and later that portray “official” sources as having no objection to animal sacrifice outside Jerusalem: Elephantine Papyrus A4.1, m. Men. 13:10 (referring to the Temple of Onias), and b. Meg. 10a (also accepting sacrifice in the Temple of Onias). He concluded by saying that the powers that be in those days were less dogmatic than biblical scholars today.

Benjamin Sommer, Jewish Theological Seminary
Sommer, the first respondent to the panel, has been a friend of mine since we met as grad students at Brandeis in 1987. He underscored that opposition to the Documentary Hypothesis does not either return the situation to a pre-modern view or amount to abandoning the attempt to explain the text historically: “We must not let fundamentalists or postmodernists think they can be right.… we must discuss why this debate matters.”

Jan Gertz, Ruprecht-Karls-Universitat Heidelberg
I don’t know Gertz or his work, but he struck a tone of sweet reasonableness. Even Wellhausen, he said, agreed to “supplementing” the documents. I very much agree with his remark (echoing the 4th of Schmid’s 7 points) that the compiler must have had a unifying idea just as the authors of the sources did. He concluded by saying that at some point one of the two following responses will be called for — either: “Well done! Now let’s talk about the composition of the other books” or “Well done! Now let’s talk about the contents.”

I add here a brief summary of some of the comments and responses from the question period that struck me as most important or interesting.
David Carr (Union Theological Seminary), discussing a possible name for the “non-documentarian” group: How about “documentarians” vs. “sources and supplements”?
Sommer: We should read and interpret first, and not let questions of dating force our interpretations.
Schmid: One should let every possible 1st-m. BCE influence have its possible role.
Schwartz: I’m looking for literary context rather than historical context.
Dalit Rom-Shiloni (Tel Aviv University): Why must we think that there is only one way that the Pentateuch came about?
Rainer Albertz (Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität): What do you mean by source or document?
Schwartz: In fact the two groups use those words differently.
Schmid: “Source” denotes a formally distinct earlier work; my disagreement with Baruch is how we distinguish continuity in any source. Different standards are applied to the sources and the work as a whole.”
Schwartz: JEDP’s innovation was the assembly of stories into a continuous text with a purpose. In the humanities, unlike the hard sciences, a century of scholarship means nothing; everything always starts with the text.

A couple of notes of my own.

• I was interested in Schwartz’s comment that the innovation of (each of) the four sources was the assembly of stories into a continuous text with a purpose. Schwartz is an observant Jew (see the interview with him on a relatively new web site called, which I’ll discuss in a future post), and this description very well matches the achievement of Rashi, the greatest of the medieval Jewish Bible commentators, who managed to create a brilliant and long-lasting synthesis of traditional Bible commentary while adding rather little of his own original work.

• Finally, I must wonder whether there really only just these two groups among serious scholars of the origin of the Pentateuch. Because if these are the contenders, it is still (almost) the Germans versus the Jews.


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