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

By Watts, James W. | Journal of Biblical Literature, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

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


Watts, James W., Journal of Biblical Literature


The Pentateuch in the Twentieth Century: The Legacy of Julius Wellhausen, by Ernest Nicholson. Oxford: Clarendon, 1998. Pp. ix + 294. $75.00.

Ernest Nicholson here reviews discussions of the composition of the Pentateuch over the last two centuries. This book is far from being simply a history of critical interpretation, however. Nicholson employs the review of research as a tool for defending the Documentary Hypothesis against rival theories, especially those that have appeared in the last thirty years. The first three chapters survey critical investigations into the Pentateuch's composition from the early nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth century, highlighting the contributions of Julius Wellhausen, Gerhard von Rad, and Martin Noth (the works of the latter two represent "the climax of pentateuchal research this century" [p. 60]). Nicholson concentrates on each scholar's conclusions and the influence they had on subsequent research. He gives virtually no attention to the wider intellectual and social contexts within which pentateuchal criticism developed.

The remaining six chapters evaluate theories about the composition of the Pentateuch published in the last thirty years. Nicholson first reviews the redactional theories proposed by Rolf Rendtorff and Erhard Blum. He cogently criticizes as overly speculative Rendtorff s reconstruction of the stages by which formulas of promise to the ancestors developed to unite ever-larger complexes of traditions. He has greater respect for Blum's more detailed analysis of the entire Pentateuch as the product of two successive authorial/redactional layers, the first Deuteronomistic, the second Priestly. Nicholson concludes, however, that the texts credited by Blum to the Deuteronomistic redactor (KD) in fact derive from different layers and periods and so cannot be ascribed to a single redactional school working throughout the Pentateuch. Nevertheless, he clearly believes that Blum casts the longest shadow of the recent critics and keeps returning to his work throughout the following chapters. Thus his discussion of P focuses on redactional theories leading up to and culminating in Blum's work.

Nicholson also reviews and critiques John Van Seters's depiction of J as an antiquarian, his and H. H. Schmidt's dating of J to the exilic period, and other suggested revisions of the theory about the four sources and their origins. But a literature review is not the best way to argue the case for one or another theory of the Pentateuch's composition. It requires Nicholson to focus primarily on scholars' conclusions, isolating only an occasional argument for more detailed analysis, and passes over much too briefly their criticisms of the methods and conclusions of the Documentary Hypothesis. Pointing out weaknesses in various contemporary theories does not in and of itself show that the Documentary Hypothesis provides a better alternative. Nor is Nicholson always evenhanded in deploying his arguments: for example, he argues that contradictions within the Pentateuch weigh against the possibility of P being redactional (p. 210) without noting that exactly the same criticism can be made of the Documentary Hypothesis's supposition of a final redactor. Indeed, the readiness with which he deploys the theory's various redactors (following Wellhausen) makes me wonder whether, in the analysis of particular texts, labeling one's approach a "source" theory rather than a "redactional" theory is more a matter of emphasis than a real distinction in method. …

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