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  • Brian Chilcote

Wellhausen's Big Idea

Updated: Dec 6, 2022

The Great Isaiah Scroll, part of the collection of documents discovered in the Dead Sea Scrolls trove is 23 feet long and contains 54 columns of text. Until now, the number of different scribes who carefully penned the massive work was in dispute- was it one or two? Textual analysis experts have resorted to digital technologies to find the answer. From the Fall 2022 issue of the Biblical Archaeology Review:

"Because its handwriting is nearly uniform, some scholars say one scribe wrote this scroll. Others, however, suggest there were two scribes. Our team was able to present new evidence for two scribes."*

Using artificial intelligence to learn and quantify the minute differences in stroke patterns it was determined that two scribes were involved in copying the scroll. Clustered in the middle of the scroll was the telltale work of a penman that was demonstrably different from the remainder of the scroll.

There are other kinds of seams in both Old and New Testament documents which go beyond handwriting. At many points, the narratives in the Old Testament diverge in vocabulary, style, political viewpoint, and other literary elements. The hermeneutical implications are significant, bringing us to a discussion of an interpretation method guided by a critical look at the various forms of content in ancient documents, or for short, the Form Critical hermeneutic.

A Form Critical Hermeneutic

It's not hard to detect the difference in authorship between the books of the Bible. Even though the books of Kings and Chronicles cover much of the same material, the style, tone and focus are dissimilar. Jeremiah is different from Isaiah and Psalms is a world away from Genesis. But what about possible seams between different authors or redactors (editors or compilers) within the same scroll?

In a majority of branches of popular Christianity and Judaism, you'll learn that Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible- Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy. There are many traditional and theological reasons for this assertion such as later biblical characters (like Jesus) referring to Moses' authorship as fact. As scholars through the centuries have put that idea to the test, it has become apparent that we can't be as sure as a first century Rabbi that Moses was the author of the Pentateuch.

Form Criticism doesn't mean a person who is judgmental or negative about anything, rather, they "critique" a literary source, seeking to find and analyze various defined units that have been woven into one written work. The goal is to narrow down the number of possible interpretations by linking those units to times and places revealed by clues latent in the textual differences.

A form critical hermeneutic takes seriously the fact that the concept of authorship in 500 BCE was radically different than what we know today. Summarizing Richard Elliot Friedman's book Who Wrote the Bible? William Schniedewind points out that in order to understand anything the Bible says, one must know something about the writers and their sources.** How exactly was Genesis produced? What oral traditions can we detect? Are there relationships with other ancient near eastern origin stories (yes, there are many)? If Moses wrote it, how did he know what to write? If others recorded it, when did they do so and why? Were there social or political reasons for assembling the Pentateuch as we have it?

A modicum of research into how ancient codexes and scrolls were set down, stored, retrieved and consumed shows us that the actual process was a world away from our conception of how books are made. Historians deal with tangled webs of multiple authors, oral sources, early and late editions that vary in surprising ways, translations into other languages and so on. A form critical hermeneutic considers the evidence and how it impacts the meaning of inaccessibly lost-but-reconstructed original manuscripts.

When we moderns imagine the production of a written text, we see in our minds a single author, toiling away at a computer or scribbling on a legal pad in a coffee shop. Maybe we think of recorded interviews or shelves of books, photographs, and file folders used for research. Perhaps a novelist travels to the places she uses for the settings of the action to get a feel for them. Retrojected back in time, we continue to picture an author tapping away on a typewriter, writing with an ink pen on paper, parchment or papyrus. Because we are accustomed to thinking about authorship from a 21st century mindset, we tend to skip the publishing part thinking that multitudes of copies simply appeared as exact reproductions of the originals.

We forget that the ability to read and write entire letters or books was limited to a very select few. Many merchants or business owners or their slaves could calculate and knew just enough to keep commercial records or understand decrees or inscriptions but when we're talking about epic poetry, governmental chronicles or religious texts, only a few specialists usually employed by a royal court could read and produce written texts. We also forget that the logistics of writing, storage and retrieval of writing prevented any means of mass distribution of texts.

For most of antiquity, writers of history had a strong sense that their work needed to do much more than accurately record the facts of events. Pointing the reader or hearer toward a virtuous way of life was at the top of the list. Engendering favor with ruling powers or reinforcing a negative bias toward enemies was normal and expected.

In the early 20th century, Julius Wellhausen popularized a theory of interpretation called the Documentary Hypothesis. He proposed that there were at least four different authors of the Pentateuch, each writing from identifiably different agendas and time periods. The books of Moses were stitched together from ancient sources around the time of the Exile, preserving the work of at least four minds, traceable by their vocabulary, style and subject matter. While Wellhausen's scheme has not entirely withstood the research of later scholars, it opened up new avenues of analysis of the Pentateuch. Scholarly consensus today recognizes the compiled patchwork of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, agreeing that a Deuteronomistic and a Priestly source are identifiable, with the rest being of indeterminate authorship expertly meshed together by master redactor-editors in the post-exilic courts of Judahite leadership.

One major event that form critics look at is the Exile that took place in 586 BCE. That searing event shaped much of what we know today as the Old Testament as the nation of Israel faced an existential crisis like no other. In response to a shattered identity that could lead one to believe that Yahweh had forsaken his chosen people by ripping them out of their land (which was supposedly irrevocably promised to them) and allowing the Jerusalem temple to be destroyed, the nation's leaders saw the need to codify their history and fashion it to fit a new reality. A form critical hermeneutic is guided by the idea that the political realities of the rebuild after exile can be seen in the texts compiled and edited by royal scribes during and just after the events of the Babylonian exile.

How does form criticism affect interpretation? Here's an example. In First and Second Kings, there's a chronology of kings of both the northern and southern kingdoms, many with a brief evaluation of their reign. Each one was said to "do evil in the sight of the Lord," or "He did right in the sight of the Lord." In a plain, literal reading without nuance, it appears that the northern kingdom was an awful place to live under a succession of "bad" kings. Only one lone ruler comes in with a mixed review- Jehu in 2 Kings 9-10. It might cause one to wonder if Yahweh made a mistake when he caused the united kingdom to divide- unless you adopt a form critical hermeneutic!

Seeing I and II Kings as they sitz im leben (literally, seated in life), or in their proper political and chronological setting gives us a little help. Remembering that these books were likely either composed or compiled and edited in the context of the Exile we can understand them as a political polemic, heavily biased toward the southern kingdom of Judah. No wonder there aren't any truly good kings in the north- one doesn't lionize one's political and economic rival.

It has been proposed that Second Corinthians is actually a compilation of several of Paul's letters. The abrupt changes in tone and topic, along with the fact that there's precedent for this in the ancient world*** makes it likely that this is the case. Think about how a scroll is put together. Adding additional shorter texts to the end a roomy partially filled parchment or papyrus is much more efficient than handling a pile of individual texts. Groups of house churches may have collected expensive and rare compilations like this and read from them in their regular gatherings. Look at Second Corinthians 10-13 in contrast with the preceding and following chapters. Also consider chapter two's abrupt change in direction when compared with chapters 1 and 3. Reading 2 Corinthians this way must shape any interpretation of the material when looked at as different units of content pasted together instead of a longer coherent argument whose conclusions emerge from the entire letter. Instead, Paul's original intent and message must be first derived from these shorter sections, then interpreted in light of the other units.

Next Up: a look at a Social-Science/anthropological hermeneutic

To Think About…

What are the strengths and weaknesses of a Form Critical Hermeneutic?

Is there a modern-day analog to the way literature was produced in ancient times?


*Biblical Archaeology Review, Fall 2022, Arch-Tech: Using AI to Identify Scroll Scribes by Mladen Popovic Pg. 24

**Schniedewind, How the Bible Became a Book

***Carr, David M., What Ancient Scrolls Teach Us about the Torah’s Formation

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