The Pentateuch in the Twentieth Century: The Legacy of Julius Wellhausen

By Ernest W. Nicholson | Go to book overview

1
The Documents of the Pentateuch

I

Julius Wellhausen ( 1844-1918) did not regard the investigation of the composition of the Pentateuch as an end in itself. Rather, it was a means to solving a larger and for him more urgent problem--the history and development of Israelite religion. More specifically, the problem was the place of the Pentateuchal law in the history of Israelite religion. Ostensibly the law lay at the foundation of Israel's religion, having been mediated by Moses to the people at Sinai. In reality, however, little or nothing of the law seems to have been known in the pre-exilic period, and the literature deriving from that period records and reflects customs and practices at odds with its demands. Neither the period of the Judges nor the monarchical period shows the faintest awareness 'of a sacred unifying constitution that had formerly existed', or displays any tendency towards the hierocracy envisaged in the detailed Priestly legislation in the middle books of the Pentateuch. In short: 'The religious community set up on so broad a basis in the wilderness, with its sacred centre and uniform organization, disappears and leaves no trace as soon as Israel settles in a land of its own, and becomes, in any proper sense, a nation.'1

In an autobiographical note in the 'Introduction' to his Prolegomena to the History of Israel2 Wellhausen describes the difficulty he encountered in attempting to reconcile the traditional priority of the Pentateuchal law with the religious customs and institutions reflected in the historical and prophetic literature of the pre-exilic period:

____________________
1
J. Wellhausen, Prolegomena zur Geschichte Israels, 5; the quotation is from the English translation, 5. (For details see next note.)
2
This work was first published as Geschichte Israels, i ( Berlin 1878) and was renamed in subsequent editions as Prolegomena zur Geschichte Israels. The English translation was made from the second edition ( Prolegomena zur Geschichte Israels ( Berlin 1883)) and published as Prolegomena to the History of Israel ( Edinburgh 1885). References here are to the 2nd German edn., and quotations are from the English translation.

-3-

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