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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive Some remarks of the paper by Rolf Rendtorff, "What happened to the 'Yahwist'?"

This letter is in response to:
What Happened to the "Yahwist"?: Reflections after Thirty Years
Rolf Rendtorff

I was not able to attend the Edinburgh international meeting and to respond directly to Professor Rendtorff's paper so I will take the opportunity to do so here. I will make only some brief comments since I have already anticipated the content of this paper in other places, in particular in my paper, "The Pentateuch as Torah and History: In Defense of G. von Rad," given at the symposium held in honor of the one hundredth anniversary of von Rad's birthday, in October, 2001, but only published four years later in E. Blum et al eds., Das Alte Testament - Ein Geschichtsbuch? (Münster: Lit, 2005), and in a revised version in my book, The Edited Bible: The Curious History of the "Editor" in Biblical Studies (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2006), chapter 7. In these presentations I strongly protested against what I regard as Rendtorff's misrepresentation of von Rad's position by his dismissal of the Yahwist as an author and historian. Anyone reading through von Rad's corpus cannot be in doubt about how strongly he felt about the Yahwist as author and historian. His study, "Das formgeschichtliche Problem des Hexateuch," was primarily to dispute Gunkel's treatment of the Yahwist as merely a random and accidental collection of old traditions and to argue that the work is that of an historian. He says very little about the Yahwist as theologian. It was Noth, in his study of the Pentateuch, who preferred to follow Gunkel and who also spoke of the process of tradition accumulation as theological, and Rendtorff has followed this line, not that of von Rad.

In the now famous quotation of von Rad (misquoted or misprinted as Rendtorff explains), Rendtorff interprets the statement as von Rad's way of dismissing the Documentary Hypothesis, but of course von Rad did no such thing. What von Rad seems to have had a problem with is not the notion of multiple authors in the Pentateuch, but how they were combined, i.e. the redactors: "Not that the conflation of E and P with J would now appear to be a simple process, nor one which could be altogether explained to one's satisfaction." It is the theory that redactors were responsible for the combining of the sources or traditions about which von Rad expresses doubt. What has happened, however, is that those who have followed Rendtorff's lead have done away with the authors, or at least the Yahwist, and replaced him with redactors! Nothing could be further from von Rad's intention. Ironically, Noth received his own inspiration for identifying Dtr as an historian and not a mere editor from von Rad's identification of the Yahwist as a historian, as Noth says at the beginning of his own study. But the followers of Noth have also turned his Dtr historian into an elaborate redactional process as well.

When comes to characterize my own work on the Yahwist, he tries to represent me as creating "a new kind of Yahwist ... an individual personality; he is not a theologian like von Rad's Yahwist, but a historian." As suggested above, this misrepresents both von Rad and me. I have simply followed von Rad's suggestion that J is a historian, but I do not deny that within J's history there is a theology and I have written on the subject. That is a completely false choice. What is even more puzzling is Rendtorff's assertion that for me there is only one source or author in the Pentateuch and that my views represent a "reduced documentary hypothesis, namely a one-document hypothesis." That bears no resemblance to my views at all. I have rejected the "traditional" E source, but there were a number of scholars before me who did that so there is nothing new there. I retain Deuteronomy and P as separate sources in the largely "traditional sense" so that there remain for me three major sources. Where I part from the Documentary Hypothesis is in the rejection of the role of redactor or editor (see my book noted above) as the one who combined these sources. Instead, I advocate the theory of a successive supplementation of one source or author by another. I have even characterized my work as the "New Supplementary Hypothesis" but Rendtorff has ignored all of this. It is also curious to see that Rendtorff's own student, Erhard Blum, also advocated what amounts to three sources, KD (=J?), KP (=P) and Deuteronomy, with a very similar dating to my J, P, and D.

A number of those scholars who have followed Rendtorff's lead in getting rid of the Yahwist as author are reflected in the book Abschied vom Jahwisten, which is reviewed by Rendtorff in this paper. I heard that such a book was in the works but I was not asked to contribute or respond to it. However, in a second volume on this same theme "Farewell to the Yahwist," I have contributed a paper, "The Report of the Yahwist's Demise has been Greatly Exaggerated!," in which I seek to respond to this movement to get rid of the Yahwist. See also my paper, "The Patriarchs and the Exodus: Bridging the Gap between Two Origin Traditions," in The Interpretation of Exodus: Studies in Honour of Cornelis Houtman (Reimer Roukema, ed.; Leuven: Peeters, 2006), 1-15. I will not comment here on any of these scholars cited by Rendtorff in his support, except to say that they have largely replaced the Yahwist by a series of redactors. They retained the source P, for some strange reason, although large chunks of it have also become the work of the ubiquitous redactor. It was the Documentary Hypothesis that created the redactor as a literary devise, a dues ex machina, to make the whole theory work. That is the only really distinctive feature of the Documentary Hypothesis and it is this part of the theory that Rendtorff and others have retained. Now we supposedly have editors without any authors, which is absurd, and the whole literary process has become known as "redaction criticism." It is high time that the "redactor" takes his leave and the author is restored to his rightful place in literary criticism.

Some comments on David Clines' Response to Rolf Rendtorff's "What Happened to the Yahwist?"

I would make some comments on the "three thoughts" contained in David Clines' remarks. First, regarding his distinction between truth and value, he seems to be setting up a debate between the historical-critical approach to the Bible, on the one hand, and those, on the other hand, who favor approaches that are useful and relevant, whether religious, social, or political, regardless of what the biblical writers "meant" when they wrote the words in their own social and historical context. He refers to Rendtorff's complaint against the historical-critical analysis of biblical texts as destructive of the meaning and significance of the given text, by which for Rendtorff is meant the "canonical" text. As Clines admits, Sheffield was more interested in the second of these alternatives, especially with the contemporary denigration of historical studies in post-modernism. This debate, however, is not new. It came to the fore in the "battle of the books" in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century in the study of the Greek and Roman classics, especially Homer, which was the secular Bible of the day and the foundation of western education. The historical-critical study of Homer was a threat to the whole educational enterprise. And the rise of historical criticism of the Pentateuch in the nineteenth century was perceived as a threat to the religious establishment in the same way. That debate between the two approaches, the historical text of the past and the normative text of the present has been with us ever since.

Second, Clines tries to make the debate about "Pentateuchal origins" a matter of a power struggle between persons and especially between institutions. This seems to be heavily influenced again by post-modern perspectives where the contest of views is really a contest of power. Of course, Rendtorff must then be cited as an exception as professor at Heidelberg, but what about H. H. Schmid at Zurich and myself at Toronto? Or does Clines consider these second or third rate institutions? As soon as I published Abraham in History and Tradition I was promoted to full professor at Toronto and shortly afterwards received an endowed chair at the University of North Carolina. And in any case, the academic institutions for which we worked had little to do with what we wrote about the Pentateuch. One could make a better case for the whole issue of "biblical archaeology" and the historicity of the Patriarchs and Moses and David, but that is another matter.

Third, regarding the notion of "paradigm shift," I have been following the discussion in the scientific community as reflected in the New York Review of Books, which has leveled some rather serious criticisms at Kuhn's position. In fact, it is most often used as just a cliché to suggest a major shift in thinking and little more. I think that the much greater change that has affected biblical studies is in the historical field, which can hardly return to the old way of doing things. I am much less sanguine about any lasting changes or broad agreements in Pentateuchal studies.

John Van Seters, Professor emeritus, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

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Citation: John Van Seters, " Some remarks of the paper by Rolf Rendtorff, "What happened to the 'Yahwist'?" ," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited June 2006]. Online:


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