Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Neo-Documentary Hypothesis

Joel S. Baden

I have talked before about source criticism of the Torah/Pentateuch, usually whenever the Kuzari Principle comes up. My 2011-12 series on biblical scholar James Kugel's How to Read the Bible dealt by necessity with source criticism, that is, with the Documentary Hypothesis (DH).

I once summarized the DH this way:
The modern form of [the DH] emerges from seven types of evidence: (1) the Hebrew language of different periods in the Torah, (2) the use and quantity of terms in the different sources, (3) consistent content (such as the revelation of God's name, (4) the narrative flow of each source, (5) the connection between parts of the Torah and other parts of the Bible, (6) the relationships of the sources to each other and to history, and (7) the convergence of the different lines of evidence. According to the Documentary Hypothesis, the Torah as we have it today develops from early oral and written sources that coagulated into four main sources--J, E, P, and D. Between 922 BCE and 400 BCE, the four sources were compiled and woven together to produce the Torah.
This summary, taken from Richard Elliott Friedman, does not discuss the divide between documentary and non-documentary pentateuchal scholars. Indeed, the summary doesn't indicate how much of the DH had been discarded because of the approach's methodological problems.

Joel Baden, an Assistant Professor at Yale Divinity School, writes about the transformation of the DH in the last four decades. This transformed DH is sufficiently new; he calls it a Neo-Documentary Hypothesis (NDH) and asserts that through it, revitalized source criticism "is regaining its place as a viable, productive, and current approach to the Pentateuch."

Baden's NDH is a narrative-based approach to the Pentateuch, interested in assessing literary phenomena against the source-critical position that the text was formed from the combination of previously independent documents, that is, essentially complete and self-contained sources.

I like Baden's framing of the DH/NDH:
The Documentary Hypothesis, it must always be remembered, is precisely that: a hypothesis. It is an attempt to explain the literary phenomena of the Pentateuch: clear narrative contradiction, repetition, and discontinuity. It posits that the best explanation for these features is the existence of four independent documents that were combined into a single text, basically the canonical Pentateuch as we now have it. It is the literary solution to a literary problem, no more and no less. Scholarly claims regarding stylistic criteria or similarity of narratives are not inherent parts of the theory; they are aspects of the methods used to argue for the theory. If they do not succeed, the theory does not of necessity fail; the methods do. The theory may simply need to be argued on different grounds. Thus the very correct criticisms of anti-documentary scholars from the earliest days of the theory until our own time are not necessarily grounds for dismissing the whole hypothesis; they are, rather, a call to refine and revise the methods employed by scholars when describing and applying the hypothesis. When such refinements and revisions are undertaken, as they have been recently, the Documentary Hypothesis regains its place as the most economical, comprehensive explanation for the literary phenomena of the canonical Pentateuch.
The last bit above boldly asserts the preeminence of the DH via the NDH. Below, Baden explains the literary focus of the NDH:
We place at the forefront of the analysis plot and narrative continuity—the events that occur, the sequence in which they occur, cause, and effect. The mark of an author is his creation of and adherence to a distinctive and definable set of narrative claims: who did what, when, where, and how. Where these claims are contradictory, we must consider that a different author is at work; where they are the same, there is no need to pursue any source division.
One key issue for the DH/NDH is separating it from at least some of the work of Julius Wellhausen (and followers):
For generations now, the Documentary Hypothesis has been considered synonymous with Wellhausen’s reconstruction of the evolutionary growth of ancient Israelite religion. The source division and the placement of the sources in a straight line of development from earliest to latest, from naturalistic to legalistic, has been taken as the fundamental claim of the hypothesis. This is demonstrated by the attempts in scholarship to debunk the Documentary Hypothesis by arguing against Wellhausen’s view of Israelite religion, as if the former is dependent on the latter. On the contrary, however, it was Wellhausen’s source division in his Composition that allowed for his historical reconstruction in the Prolegomena. In the first book, he addressed only the literary evidence; in the second, he addressed only the historical questions. The Neo-Documentary Hypothesis returns to the first stage, and leaves the second unconsidered. The literary question is primary, and is in fact the only question that can be answered by the documentary theory. Even if one disagrees with or disproves the arguments of Wellhausen’s Prolegomena, the literary analysis of the Pentateuch stands on its own merits.
Separation and restriction are recurring themes in Baden's explanation of the NDH. Below, he discusses how the NDH becomes a better scholarly approach by being properly restricted in scope:
The Neo-Documentary Hypothesis is concerned only with the penultimate form of the text: what the compiler had at hand when he put the four documents together. This approach allows for far greater clarity in addressing the question of how the Pentateuch came to be this way, for it goes back only a single step. It is crucial to note, however, that the Neo-Documentary Hypothesis does not deny the internal growth of the sources; it is simply unconcerned with them. Like so much else, how each source came to look as it does is a secondary question. The Neo-Documentary Hypothesis does not deny that each source has a history; nor does it deny that the Pentateuch itself has a history after the compilation of the documents. It is a restricted answer to a restricted question.
The next bit, below, presents the NDH as a kind of return or re-start of the DH model:
The classical theory began as a fairly simple proposition: four independent documents, combined into a single Pentateuch. Over time, however, it expanded dramatically, so that even within a generation or two of Wellhausen the analysis of the Pentateuch required innumerable sigla, regular divisions of the text into half-verses and even single words, and highly complex theories about redaction. The unwieldiness of this theory inevitably led in part to opposition, as it could no longer be said that the Documentary Hypothesis was a particularly simple or elegant solution to the problems of the pentateuchal text. Ironically, of course, the newer analyses coming out of Europe are, if anything, even more complex than the most tortuous classical source-critical work. The Neo-Documentary Hypothesis restores the simplicity of the earlier scholarship. It requires precisely four sources and one compiler.
This is a tremendously interesting essay, and comments/objections from readers appearing below the article are also enlightening. I would be very interested to understand non-documentary hypotheses better.

1 comment:

  1. I think this is the same approach Randal Helms took with his work "Gospel Fictions."

    I think so many classicist historians have a hard time accepting that story-telling methodologies are just as valid of inferences as the cultural artifacts themselves.

    I think much of Dennis R. Macdonald's approach comes at the Bible from this angle too. He finds the threads within the sentence structures themselves which mimic or echo, often times verbatim, the threads and themes of the sentences found within the Greek Epics.

    What I find interesting is how many people seem dismissive of this form of investigation. They don't want to admit even for the possibility that there might be influences and relationships to more mundane texts.

    When my Evangelical Christian friends use the stupid argument that more fragments of the NT survived antiquity than any other text, even the Iliad and Odyssey--the most popular ancient texts (this argument is so stupid I can't even be bothered to explain how stupid it is to them!).

    I usually say, a) that's irrelevant, and b) even if it were relevant it wouldn't help their point any considering that NT borrows so heavily from Homer.

    These aren't vague comparisons either. Both Helms and Macdonald go into detail as to the mimetic relationships which exist between the texts. One of MacDonald's points that has always stuck with me is that the NT writers, whoever they were, often use the language of Homer--which is out of place for the spoken language of their day. Unless, of course, you take into account that they were writing fiction, in which case, it makes sense to utilize the work of that which they would have been most familiar, the Homeric epics.

    It sounds like, to me, this NDH is reflective of this same line of investigation but focusing on the OT instead of the NT.


Feel free to comment if you have something substantial and substantiated to say.