Anachronistic Assumptions and the Documentary Hypothesis

David M. Carr opens his book, Writing on the Tablet of the Heart: Origins of Scripture and Literature, as follows:

In her book Oral World and Written Word, Susan Niditch vividly illustrates the problems with contemporary assumptions about ancient textuality, as she outlines the picture many biblical scholars often assume in their discussions of biblical formation. Critiquing the traditional documentary hypothesis (J, E, D, P), she says:

At the heart of the documentary hypothesis [sic] . . . is the cut-and-paste image of an individual pictured like Emperor Claudius of the PBS series, having his various written sources laid out before him as he chooses this verse or that, includes this take not that, edits, elaborates, all in a library setting. . . . If the texts are leather, they may be heavy and need to be unrolled. . . . If texts are papyrus, they are read held in the arm, one hand clasping or “supporting” the “bulk” of the scroll, while the other unrolls. Did the redactor need three colleagues to hold J, E, and P for him? Did each read the text out loud, and did he ask them to pause until he jotted down his selections, working like a secretary with three tapes dictated by the boss?

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  1. I think it was in the Spring of 1961 that a professor of psychology (he was working on his Washington Univ. in St. Louis) introduced the work of Ralph Elliott, The Message of Genesis, a Southern Baptist Seminary professor who set forth the higher (so-called) critical theory of the authorship of Genesis (among other things). It did not sound right, and about 5 yrs. later I wrote to a professor at New Orleans Baptist Seminary, one Dr. Samuel Mikelaski (sp?) who recommended along with other sources, Dr. Oswald T. Allis’ The Five Books of Moses. I shall never forget want to roll on the floor with howls of laughter, when I came to Dr. Allis’ reducto absurdum. He applied the theory to a History of Scotland, where the author was known and who had used various titles and names for a Lord of that nation. They served to indicate that the work had four authors. There is more, of course, to the argument, but the fact is that the so-called higher critical theory of Welhausen (sp?) is neither higher, nor critical; it would best be labeled lower doubtful and deliberate misunderstandings. (I beg pardon for the spellings, etc., as my books are in boxes and inaccessible at this time)

  2. Introduction to Empirical Models for Biblical Criticism, Jeffrey Tigay, Editor

    “That is a nicely visual and witty formulation, but it is not what is pictured in the hypothesis. Precisely what makes the hypothesis seem outlandish in this formulation is what Niditch has gotten wrong. There is no juggling of multiple large, heavy scrolls. There is no one redactor who works with J, E, and P at the same time. Only two large texts are combined at each stage of the editing. J and E are combined not long after 722 BCE. P is combined with the already-edited JE some three hundred years later. I have worked with scrolls. Laying out two scrolls of the size in question and doing the editing process that actually is pictured in the hypothesis is perfectly feasible. (Anyone who has ever seen a scroll of the entire Torah in a synagogue knows that scrolls containing just JE or just P would be much smaller and quite manageable to a scribe.) And Tigay et al have shown that it is more than just feasible. It is something that was done in that literary world. Niditch says that “the hypothesized scenario behind the documentary hypothesis is flawed.” With due respect, it is Niditch’s understanding of what the hypothesis pictures that is flawed.

    “I do not mean to single out Niditch’s challenge as if it were something unique to her. It is just a very recent example of a long line of this type of criticism of the hypothesis. When Niditch uses language like “cut-and-paste” and “dicing and splicing source criticism” (p. 114), much like the old phrase “crazy patchwork,” she and the others who have used these phrases reveal that they have not yet come to terms with the way in which literature was in fact produced in antiquity and that they do not appreciate the artistry that it entailed, an artistry that was a collaboration of authors and editors.”


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