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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive Why is There a Documentary Hypothesis, and What Does It Do to You If You Use It?: A Response to David Clines

This article is in response to David J. A. Clines's "Response to Rolf Rendtorff's "What Happened to the Yahwist? Reflections after Thirty Years"

The year 1753 was an important one in the history of Old Testament scholarship. It was the year that saw the appearance of two scholarly works, both of which—each in their respective area—were to be hailed as inaugurators of important traditions of scholarship that even today continue to govern our way of thinking. The one book is Jean Astruc's Conjectures sur les mémoires originaux dont il paroit que Moyse s'est servi, pour composer le Livre de la Genese, the other Robert Lowth's De Sacra Poesi Hebræorum Prælectiones Academicæ Oxonii Habitæ.[1] Astruc became known as the father of the Documentary Hypothesis; Lowth as the discoverer of the nature of Hebrew poetry and the first systematizer of the phenomenon.

The fact that the two books appeared in the same year is, of course, a coincidence. In many respects, the two works and their authors are diametrical oppositions: Astruc's book was published anonymously and even with false indication of place of publication; Lowth's book was based on public lectures and published at the Clarendon Press. Astruc wrote his treatise in his passtime; Lowth during his professorship at Oxford. Astruc was in his late 60s and could look back on a brilliant career as a professor of medicine and as the personal physician of Louis XV. Lowth was in his early 40s and still in the middle of his career. The publication of his lectures was only his first major scholarly contribution. Astruc's Conjectures appeared as a handsome little octavo; Lowth's Prælectiones as an impressive quarto. The former is written in elegant French; the latter in learned Latin.

But above all, the two books treat two very different subjects. Astruc's Conjectures deal with the composition of a prose text (we can safely designate the text of the Book of Genesis as prose in this context; it was only after Lowth that the quest for poetic passages in prose narratives began), Lowth's lectures are on the nature of Hebrew poetry. There is no reason to believe that the authors knew of each other. And even if Lowth later read Astruc's Conjectures, the reading would not have induced him to modify his theories in any way or quote Astruc in his footnotes. And why not? Because the two scholars were thought to be working in two completely different areas of literature, prose and poetry.[2]

It is my contention that the two books and the two scholarly traditions they engendered are not quite as unrelated as it would seem. Though completely unintended, the two hypotheses in the long run reinforced each other.

One example: When the author of Prov 30 four (!) times mentions "three things, nay four things," thus

Three things there are which will never be satisfied,
four which never say, "Enough!" (Prov 30.15 - REB)

Three things there are which are too wonderful for me,
four which are beyond my understanding: (Prov 30.18 - REB)

Under three things the earth shakes,
four things it cannot bear: (Prov 30.21 - REB)

Three things there are which are which are stately in their stride,
four which are stately as they move: (Prov 30.29 - REB)

and consistently gives a list of four in each case, this is not a problem for us. No one, as far as I know, has undertaken a documentary-hypothesis-kind-of-analysis of these verses, arguing that there is an older sheloshah source, which has been combined with a later, and more systematic (since the list always contains four elements), 'arba'ah source. Why? Because the Book of Proverbs is a book of poetry! And since it is poetry, which is characterized by the widespread use of parallelisms, we have to grant its author poetic licence! And therefore the peculiar and repeated talk of "three things, nay four things" does not confuse us. Examples of this kind could be easily multiplied.

In the Flood Story, however, God commands Noah to bring one pair of all the animals into the ark, and a few verses later, Yahweh commands Noah to bring seven pairs of all the clean animals and of the birds into the ark. This kind of inconsistency is usually solved through the documentary hypothesis leaving aside the question of whether this is a kind of parallelism. It is surely not a parallelism of members, parallelismus membrorum of the kind that Lowth identified. But parallelisms are not only "of members," but exist on other levels of language as well: two words, two compound expressions, two paragraphs, or two "chapters" can constitute a parallism. Parallelism is a much more complex phenomenon than it is often thought to be. And parallelisms occur in prose both on the level of the line (the "traditional" parallelism) and on other levels, as well. Gen 1 and Gen 2 could be viewed as a parallelism, which is what Mark G. Brett does in his reading of Genesis, though he doesn't explicitly use the term paralllelism. Brett's parallelistic reading is carried out on the level of chapters (the anthropocentric view of Gen. 1.1.-2.4a is replaced by the geocentric view of Gen. 2.4b-25) and on the level of words (radah "to rule" in Gen. 1.26 is contrasted with `bd "to work as a slave, to till" in Gen. 2.15).[3] Maybe the doublets of the Flood-story could be read as parallelisms.[4] But very few scholars would read this way, because we are used to think not only in terms of the documentary hypothesis, but also in terms of the notions of prose inherent in this hypothesis: A prose-author will strive to obtain clarity and to avoid conflicting statements. This ideal of prose was reinforced by Lowth's pre-romantic description of Poetry:

The language of Reason is cool, temperate, rather humble than elevated, well arranged and perspicuous, with an evident care and anxiety lest any thing should escape which might appear perplexed or obscure. The language of the Passions is totally different: the conceptions burst out in a turbid stream, expressive in a manner of the internal conflict; the more vehement break out in hasty confusion; they catch (without search or study) what ever is impetuous, vivid, or energetic. In a word, Reason speaks literally, the Passions poetically. (Lowth 1753, Praelectiones XIV, quoted from the translation of G. Gregory). Loquitur Ratio remisse, temperate, leniter; res ordinate disponit, aperte signat, distincte explicat; studet imprimis perspicuitati, ne quid confusum, ne quid obscurum, ne quid involutum relinquatur. Affectionibus vero nihil horum admodum curæ est: turbide confluunt, intus luctantur, conceptus; ex iis vehementiores temere, qua licet, erumpunt; quod vividum, ardens, incitatum, non quærunt, sed arripiunt: ut verbo dicam, mero sermone utitur Ratio, Affectus loquuntur poetice.

Prose as the language of Reason and poetry as the language of the Passions (and we may with Lowth retain the singular of Reason and the plural of the Passions, since Reason speaks uni-vocally, whereas the Passions are many and confused and speak accordingly) is a notion that we have inherited from the Romantic Movement (Herder was very fond of Lowth). Though we do not speak of it in the same way as did Lowth, it underlies much exegetical work on the Pentateuch. In very general terms:

What in a poetic text is perceived as couplets, which must be appreciated for its poetic qualities, are in a prose text regarded as doublets, which must be explained for its lack of consistency.

This does not mean that documentary-hypothesis-kind-of-work has not been done on poetic texts. Isaiah, Jeremiah, and the Book of Psalms have all been subject to redactional theories. But at least on one level of the poetic text, namely that of the parallelism of members, repetitions and inconsistencies are admitted in a way that scholars would normally not allow in prose:

Once God has spoken; twice have I heard this: that power belongs to God, and steadfast love belongs to you, O Lord. (Ps 62:12-13)

An obvious "prose-question" would be, If God spoke once, who said the other thing that the "I" of the text heard?" But, thank God, this is poetry! And Noah obeying a deity with two different names and who says two different things—that has to be accounted for in a different manner.

"Why is There a Documentary Hypothesis"?
"Why is There a Documentary Hypothesis, and What Does It Do to You, If You Use It?" is a Clinesean kind of question. Clines uses the formula in connection with books of the Hebrew Bible,[5] but the power that texts exercise over our minds is comparable to the influence that hypotheses have over our way of seeing things, and therefore I have adopted the question and addressed it to the present subject.

I would like to link the first part of the question to one of the questions that Clines raises in his "Response to Rolf Rendtorff" namely the question of value: "Is such a theory useful?"

The value or usefulness of the documentary hypothesis lies in its ability to create consistency, and this, I suggest, is also the answer to the question "Why is There a Documentary Hypothesis"? The hypothesis readily accounts for the repetitions, doublets, and the alternating names of the deity in the Book of Genesis, and thus satisfies our "need" for consistency.

In the Wellhausenian form, the documentary hypothesis was coupled with a historical project (or history-of-religion project). The historian needs consistent sources for his project, and the historian of religion needs unmixed literary specimens of literature pertaining to the various levels of the religion he is about to describe. Again, the documentary hypothesis proved to be a valuable tool to create the kind of consistency needed.

Very generally speaking, the text of the Pentateuch (which is mostly prose) was regarded first and foremost as a historical source, and for that reason it had to be consistent—and if it wasn't, scholars had the tools to make it consistent!

What Does the Documentary Hypothesis Do to You, If You Use It?
In positive terms, the documentary hypothesis enables you to create consistency, nay more than that, to create consistencies on various levels, and to explain the text in a highly detailed and sophisticated way—which usually is highly regarded and admired in academic circles, and which continues to give power to the theory (see Clines's response, second paragraph). The documentary hypothesis gives you power, if you use it well!

In negative terms, it turns the attention away from the possible meaningfulness of a text containing conflicting voices (let's for at moment substitute voice for source). The documentary hypothesis brings about a certain perspective on the text, which enevitably (it seems) highlights portions of the text that you happen to like or dislike. Note how the Yahwist is always a hero of the scholar who created him—in this respect, the Yahwist resembles the Jesus of scholarly reconstruction: No one dislikes the Jesus they find. Jesus has been misrepresented, it is claimed, especially by the church, but the original Jesus that the scholar reconstructs is always—ideal! And note how P has traditionally been regarded as a late, uninspiring and uninspired level of Israelite religion (Wellhausen)—a view that has been challenged in the latter half of the twentieth century by scholars using the same tool![6] The documentary hypothesis helps the scholar to focus on likes and dislikes; it's a tool for theological, ideological, or aesthetic up- and downgrading.

This does not mean that the personal bias of the scholar is not visible in final-form exegetical analyses. The question of bias is always crucial in interpretation. I just wanted to focus on the blind spot (or one of the blind angles?) of the documentary hypothesis.

What Shall We Do with the Drunken Sailor?
Terminology (to some extent) reflects our perspective on a text. The emergeance of new perspectives (or paradigms) only gradually causes a new terminology to appear and replace the older terminology. Perhaps it is time that we change the way we speak of things.

The style and content of Gen 1:1-2.4a is markedly different from Gen 2:4b-25. But rather than speaking of different sources, we should, I suggest, find a different term that implies a different perspective. Perhaps we could speak of voices rather than sources. The term voices maintains the differences of style, vocabulary, and so on that have been identified since Astruc, but does not point to one particular redactional solution. Rather than excluding the possibility of source-hypotheses, it opens the door to other kinds of analyses, for instance a Bakhtinian reading. It also opens the door for the identification of other "modes of speaking" than what has hitherto been recognized as sources, for instance the "voice of particularism," which is often juxtaposed to the "voice of universalism" as in Gen 12:1-3b // Gen 12:3c or Ps 149 // 150.

I would, however, like to raise the question in this context rather than to give a solution, and I hope to see reactions to this paper.

Allan Rosengren, University of Copenhagen

Notes
[1] Robert Lowth, De Sacra Poesi Hebræorum. Prælectiones Academicæ Oxonii Habitæ (Oxford: Clarendon, 1753). The English translation is quoted from Lectures on the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews ... to which are added, the principal notes of Professor Michaelis, and notes by the Translator and others translated by G. Gregory (London: J. Johnson, No. 72, St. Paul's Church-Yard, 1787). Reprinted in two vols of Robert Lowth (1710-1787): The Major Works (8 Volumes) (London: Routledge/Thoemmes Press 1995).

[2] John Jarick (ed.), Sacred Conjectures: The Context And Legacy of Robert Lowth And Jean Astruc (Library of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies, T&T Clark, 2006) will probably shed new light on this.

[3] Mark G. Brett, Genesis: Procreation and the Politics of Identity (New York: Routledge, 2000), 30.

[4] Allan Rosengren Petersen, Prose and Parallelisms. The Beginning and the End of the Documentary Hypothesis (Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation. University of Copenhagen, Denmark, 1998), 162-88.

[5] David J. A. Clines, "Why is There a Song of Songs, and What Does It Do to You If You Read It?," in Interested Parties. The Ideology of Writers and Readers of the Hebrew Bible (JSOTs 205; ed. David J. A. Clines; Gender, Culture, Theory 1; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1995), 94-121; ibid. "Why is There a Book of Job, and What Does It Do to You If You Read It?," in Interested Parties. The Ideology of Writers and Readers of the Hebrew Bible (JSOTs 205; ed. David J. A. Clines; Gender, Culture, Theory 1; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1995), 122-44.

[6] E.g., Klaus Koch, Die Priesterschrift von Exodus 25 bis Leviticus 16. Eine überlieferungsgeschichtliche und literarkritische Untersuchung (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht: Göttingen, 1959); Claus Westermann, "Die Herrlichkeit Gottes in der Priesterschrift" in Gesammelte Schriften 2 (München: Kaiser Verlag, 1974); Bernd Janowski, Sühne als Heilsgeschehen. Studien zur Sühnetheologie der Priesterschrift und zur Wurzel KPR im Alten Orient und im Alten Testament (Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag, 1982); Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus 1-16. A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (Anchor Bible 3; New York: Doubleday, 1991); ibid., Leviticus 17-22. A new Translation with Introduction and Commentary (Anchor Bible 3A; New York: Doubleday, 2000); ibid., Leviticus 23-27. A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (Anchor Bible 3B; New York: Doubleday, 2001)

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Citation: Allan Rosengren, "Why is There a Documentary Hypothesis, and What Does It Do to You If You Use It?: A Response to David Clines," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited July 2006]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=566

 
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