Search SBL

SBL Forum Archive
<< Return to SBL Forum Archive Response to Rolf Rendtorff's "What Happened to the Yahwist? Reflections after Thirty Years"

I was invited to make this response to Rolf Rendtorff's paper, not, I suppose, because of my own modest contributions to Pentateuch studies, but because I was, with my Sheffield colleagues, the initiator of an interesting and perhaps even significant discussion we organized for the third issue of the Journal for the Study of the Old Testament in July 1977. It seemed to us then that one of the rather few areas in Old Testament studies where a mold was being broken and some shaking of foundations could be anticipated was in the Pentateuch. We evidently had been attracted by the readiness of Rolf Rendtorff, in his Edinburgh paper to the International Organization for the Study of the Old Testament in 1974, to question the consensus that had for a century provided not only the foundation for the scholarly understanding of the Pentateuch but also a framework for conceiving the history of the literature of the Hebrew Bible as a whole.

The roll call of the contributors makes fascinating reading, thirty years on. In response to Rendtorff there were Norman Whybray, John Van Seters, Norman Wagner, George Coats, and H. H. Schmid, all of whom proved sympathetic in one way or another to Rendtorff's project. What none of us could have anticipated was that thirty years later the Pentateuch would still be a hot issue, and that despite all the dissatisfaction with the Wellhausenian theory, it would still be perfectly respectable, and in some places still obligatory, to admit adherence to it-even after the radical questioning of it by Schmid's Der sogenannte Jahwist: Beobachtungen und Fragen zur Pentateuchforschung (1976), Whybray's The Making of the Pentateuch: A Methodological Study (1987), Van Seters's Prologue to History: The Yahwist as Historian in Genesis (1992) and The Life of Moses: The Yahwist as Historian in Exodus-Numbers (1994), to name only the books of our 1977 contributors. And no one would have guessed, those thirty years ago, that on a summer evening of 2006 in Edinburgh, a city of many alternative cultural attractions, 150 of us would of our own free will make our way to a distant lecture theater to hear Rendtorff bridge those years with his own inimitable update on the Pentateuchal landscape.

This is not the place for me to attempt to enter into an Auseinandersetzung with the intricacies and evaluations of Rolf Rendtorff's paper, but I can at least unburden myself of three thoughts that kept forming in my mind as I read and reread his paper.

1. A distinction between truth and value

The question above all others about the Pentateuch has long been the question about its origins, usually in the form: Is the documentary theory of Pentateuchal origins, or some other such theory, true? But there is another set of questions we should also be asking, not so much about truth as about value, such as, Is such a theory useful? Should I be interested in it? How important is it to have a theory of Pentateuchal origins?

These two questions are often collapsed; wrongly so, to my mind. At fault on the one side are those who are very enthusiastic about Pentateuchal origins and are therefore tempted to think that a theory about them is foundational for Hebrew Bible studies generally and that nothing serious can be said about the Hebrew Bible if one does not have a good theory about the Pentateuch. At fault on the other side are those who are occupied with one of the other thousands of current topics in Hebrew Bible studies and have little time to devote to Pentateuchal origins; their temptation is to think that because they are managing quite well without the documentary theory, the theory is actually wrong.

Rolf's paper itself at one point collapses the two questions, I do believe. In commenting on Richard Elliott Friedman's representation of the documentary theory, he complains that Friedman is "cutting the Bible into pieces .... What happened to the Bible itself...? ... The modern historical-critical analysis of the biblical texts ... does not — or at least not sufficiently — ask the question, [W]hat is the meaning and significance of the given text[?]." I agree wholeheartedly with that as a criticism of the practice of biblical scholars, but it is not an argument against theories of Pentateuchal origins. If the Bible was indeed formed from bits and pieces, there is nothing wrong (it is in fact a scholarly necessity) to cut it in pieces; if in so doing people neglect the perhaps weightier question of its meaning and significance that may be an error, but it does not undercut the value of their project.

If we can distinguish between the truth and the value of a theory of Pentateuchal origins, we could find it possible to say: The theory, though true, is not useful or important. That is to say, even if it were established that the classic JEDP formulation was indubitable, it could nevertheless happen that scholars in a certain period might value more highly completely different questions and answers: about the ideology of the biblical texts, for example, or about their theological value, or about their literary character. To such questions the history of the formation of the Pentateuch may have very little to contribute. Even if the Pentateuch was composed from preexisting sources, some scholars might say (and do, in fact), "It is not those sources that one is studying when answering questions about the text that now exists, and that has indeed been the only text that has existed for the last two thousand years."

So here is an issue we need to come clean about. Leaving aside for the moment the debate over the origins of the Pentateuch, may we hear some views on how important, or perhaps unimportant, such a matter is? One of our external examiners for our undergraduate degree (from a famous medieval university, let me note) reproached us in Sheffield a few years ago because our graduating students seemed to have a very hazy notion of the documentary theory of the Pentateuch, or perhaps no notion at all. How could we let students do three years of biblical studies and not be proficient in Pentateuchal origins? Very easily, we answered; we were busy doing lots of other things with them, and, in a word, we forgot. There was no conspiracy to exclude JEDP from the course; it just didn't manage to impose itself sufficiently upon us to ensure its place in the curriculum. Maybe we were wrong to let our intuitive answer to the value question obliterate the truth question, but at least the value question was raised.

2. The role of power in the perpetuation of theory

Shocking though it may sound, I believe that the time has long gone when we can discuss questions of Pentateuchal origins as academic questions in their own right. No longer is it the truth or falsity of a particular theory that determines whether it will find favor in the guild. Bad arguments will not be driven out by good arguments. Reason will not be the arbiter.

Rational debate still happens in the academy, I allow, and issues are sometimes settled purely on their merits. But when it comes to grand theories like the Documentary Hypothesis there is too much investment in the power that worldviews and grand theories accumulate to themselves for that to happen. I do not mean that there is no longer any place for rational argument, but only that rationality is subordinate to the exercise of power. It is naïve to think otherwise or to act as if our decisions on such matters were not bound up with where we stand in a world of power.

In speaking of "power," I have in mind two separable kinds of power. In the first place there is the power of persons and institutions that implement the adoption of a certain point of view, and in the second place there is the power of theories, explanations, world views themselves to convince large numbers of adherents.

In the first case, certain important and influential scholars, in certain important and influential institutions, have supported, and continue to support, the classical Documentary Hypothesis. Those who do not adopt that position will find it difficult to get jobs in those institutions; they will not be invited to give seminar papers; they will not be so likely to be recommended for publication. Scholars in those institutions will, not surprisingly, often feel an affinity with their predecessors and develop an interest in preserving their legacy. Rolf Rendtorff is one of the most notable exceptions that proves the rule: located for four decades in what must be classified as a center of academic power in Hebrew Bible studies (Heidelberg), he has gone against type. At the same time, he has no doubt paid a price for his refusal to accept the dominant ideology: among insiders he must be the most of an outsider! Not surprisingly, resistance to the classical Documentary Hypothesis has typically arisen from outside the centers of power, often from younger scholars in institutions of the second and third rank.

The second sense of power is that of the power of the theory itself. It stands to reason that the classical Documentary Hypothesis would never have emerged or attracted such support if it had not had a lot of evidence in its favor. But it is not the existence of supporting data that gave the Wellhausenian theory such a long shelf life: it was its explanatory power and its comprehensiveness. It became a matrix into which all matters of Israelite history and literature were slotted, a truly foundational worldview that can only be called a "paradigm." Generations of students internalized this worldview and carried out all their thinking about ancient Israel within its framework; to do so was necessary in order to become part of the scholarly community. The intrinsic power of the theory gave authority to the community that adopted the theory, but in so doing made every new member of the scholarly community a victim of its power.

In short, although the question of Pentateuchal origins will continue to be debated by papers on the Yahwist and the Priestly Work, for example, I would suggest that the debate belongs equally in the field of the sociology of knowledge — or perhaps rather in the realm of the protest rally — and it would be a mistake to think that we can arrive at a satisfactory conclusion of our current debates purely on the merits of the case.

3. What is the future for a paradigm of Pentateuchal origins?

Thinking of the Documentary Hypothesis as a "paradigm" drove me to reread the classic work of Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962), a little hackneyed by now and sometimes controverted, but relevant to our issue. Paradigm change, Kuhn pointed out, is a complex business at the best of times. It results, he said, from the invention of new theories brought about by the failure of existing theory to solve the problems defined by that theory, a failure perceived as a crisis by the scientific community. Such failures have generally been long recognized, which is why crises are seldom surprising.

In responding to such crises, scholars generally do not renounce the paradigm that has led them into crisis. They may lose faith and consider alternatives, but typically they devise numerous articulations and ad hoc modifications of their theory in order to eliminate any apparent conflict. Kuhn might have been listening to Rendtorff's paper on the current state of Pentateuchal criticism.

All crises come to an end in one of three ways, suggests Kuhn:

XXXX 1. The original paradigm proves able to handle the crisis-provoking problem and all returns to "normal."

2. The problem persists and is labeled a problem, but it is perceived as resulting from the field's lack of the necessary tools with which to solve it, and so scholars set it aside for a future generation with more developed tools.

3. A new candidate for paradigm emerges, and a battle over its acceptance ensues — these are the paradigm wars (p. 84).

None of these depictions rings true for our current situation in Pentateuchal studies. We can hardly speak of the emergence of a "new candidate for paradigm." Rendtorff has amusingly deflated the pretensions of a new candidate that propounds a source-critical theory of Pentateuchal origins but can find only one source. We are still (are we not?) in the phase of exploring the problems of the standard paradigm. Rather than being confronted by a more attractive paradigm than the Documentary Hypothesis, we are still in the process of losing faith in the old paradigm — as we have been for the last three or four decades at least. Inevitably, we must expect to be stuck with that old paradigm for a long time; for a paradigm, says Kuhn, is declared invalid only if an alternative candidate is available to take its place (p. 77). For us, it seems as if the present state of uncertainty is fated to persist.

And yet it may be that a shifting of the paradigm is already silently and almost invisibly under way. To quote a further aphorism of Thomas Kuhn:

XXXX Because paradigm shifts are generally viewed not as revolutions but as additions to scientific knowledge ... a scientific revolution seems invisible.

We are far from the invalidating of the old paradigm. But the invisible revolution that is raising issues of value rather than truth, that is insisting on focussing on meaning, on textuality, on ethics, on the ideology of the biblical texts — all of them irrelevant to questions of the origins of the literature — may be simply displacing, rather than resolving, the questions of Pentateuchal origins. We can, if we choose, see these new interests as merely "additions" to the traditional scope of biblical criticism, no more than a broadening out of the field and thus no threat to the standard paradigm, but a longer perspective may regard their infiltration into the discipline as truly revolutionary.

Will such gestures towards a new paradigm win out? The physicist Max Planck said: "A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it." My forecast is that the new generation in Hebrew Bible studies will, in some parts of the world at least, grow up with other interests in the forefront of their attention and lose interest in questions of origins. But that will not be the end of the Documentary Hypothesis, only its marginalization; the question, How did the Pentateuch, in fact, come into being?, will persist, as a minority interest, for a much smaller audience than this.

David J. A. Clines, University of Sheffield

Comments on this article? email:
Let us know if you would like your comments sent to the author or considered for publication as a letter to the editor. Please include your full name and, if you would like, your affiliation.

Citation: David J. A. Clines, " Response to Rolf Rendtorff's "What Happened to the Yahwist? Reflections after Thirty Years"," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited June 2006]. Online:


© 2021, Society of Biblical Literature. All Rights Reserved.