Thoughts of John

What is on my mind.

Torah: A Critique of the Documentary Hypothesis and Form Criticism

There are books, many of them, that attempt to show the weaknesses of these theories. These books have succeeded in a measure, but have made little creative contribution to the study of the Old Testament text. Thus they are of limited value in biblical studies but they serve the aim of apologetics.
We recognize that any attempt to divide the Pentateuch into documents referred to as J E D P is flirting with failure. The approach is subjective and also Western oriented. If a document existed based on the Jehovist (J) preference for the divine name there is no way that such a document may be extracted from the literary material. It has become part of the warp and woof of that material. Furthermore, even if we could find these literary strands and actually separate them out of the Pentateuch we would learn virtually nothing about the Pentateuch. It is, in our Bibles, a unified piece divided into five basic parts by books: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy.
Furthermore, this Western subjectivism frequently failed to understand the Hebrew mode of thought. It saw the differences in the use of the divine names but it failed to recognize alternative accounts for those differences. In some cases the variations may be explained on the basis of the theological slant of the passage. In other cases, however, the solution for the use of a particular divine name may not be possible.
This same Western thought also failed to understand the Hebrew method of telling stories about significant events. Thus to the literary critic Genesis 1 represented one tradition of the creation account and Genesis 2 another tradition of the same event. He failed to understand the purposes for the diversity and thus attempted to use a modern Western logic on the biblical text. As a result the critic lost his way and developed a fragmented Pentateuch that appeared to be patched together by inept reactors.
But there is a greater tragedy that has plagued the critic and turned his methods, sometimes insightful methods, sour. He is often guilty of assuming that the historical data with which he is working is inaccurate and was in fact often fabricated. Or he is guilty of assuming that what is beyond natural explanation was either fabricated or was a slanted perception based upon Israel’s exclusive theological presuppositions. For him, many of the stories built up around the heroes are legends. In fact, for some critics the idea of a supernatural intervention into the affairs of man is impossible. The world is a closed continuum that cannot allow for the suspension of the natural order. Thus God is not a God who is personally active, in this view of things.
We all have our presuppositions and these control the way we come to the biblical literature. For example, I believe the Old Testament to be the inspired and authoritative record of God’s activity and God’s word on man’s behalf. When the author of a biblical text describes an event with a theological orientation he does so because that orientation is the perceived religious structure of that event. Several dynamics are functioning in the seeing and hearing, not the least being a faith that accepts divine intervention and a divine spirit that acts as interpreter.
But we do not want to totally negate the critic nor do we want to destroy certain positive elements of his methods. For example, evangelical scholars have benefited from the documentary hypothesis by becoming more acutely aware of the sources that were used by the biblical writers. These are noted in such titles as “the book of the covenant,” “the book of the upright,” “the chronicles of the kings of Judah/Israel,” “the book of the wars of Yahweh,” etc. There are other sources also, not so clearly designated but implied. Furthermore, the documentation has forced the evangelical scholar to look more closely at the Old Testament data and to come to grips with certain literature, the understanding of which had been taken for granted before this time (creation account and flood account are examples).
The form critic has been more helpful and has given to us a methodological approach to the Old Testament that may be used without the critics presuppositions. He has offered helpful insight in seeing that the Bible is made up of various literary types (genres) and that these types have a particular structure. For example, in the modern day postal service the letter to a friend is one literary type and the business letter is another. Each one follows a particular form. Our sociocultural dynamic has created the form. So in the biblical literature there ara a variety of forms that extend beyond the basic prose-poetry categories. We cannot begin to classify all the genre. But on the basis of our understanding of modern literary forms and the sociocultural dynamic that created them we understand then that certain sociocultural dynamics brought the biblical literary forms into existence.
Form Criticism has thus helped in the process of biblical exegesis by offering four important methodological steps. First, there must be an analysis of the structure of the biblical text to determine each unit. Since these units are not explicitly identified in the Old Testament certain guidelines are used: introductory and concluding formulae for speeches and stories, changes in speaker, in addressee, shifts in tense and mood of the verb, and changes in subject matter.
Second, there must be the determination of the genre. Thus it is not enough to determine prophetic speech, for example, the type of prophetic speech must also be determined. Is the prophetic word an oracle from Yahweh? Is the prophet interpreting an oracle word? Is the prophetic announcement one of judgement or salvation? Does a particular prophetic word contain elements that are common in Wisdom tradition? These questions relate only to part of the forms in prophetic speeches. And there are many other example outside the area of prophetic literature.
Third, an attempt must be made to determine the setting of the genre. This does not mean an attempt to find narrow, specific settings. For example, it does not apply to the setting of a specific Psalm. It does, rather, deal with the sociocultural factors that contributed to or determined the shape of the genres.
Fourth, the genre has obviously arisen and survives to fulfill a particular purpose, thus it is important to determine the intention of the genre in the biblical text. For example, why is a particular historical narrative in the Old Testament? It survived for centuries while others were never recorded. Are we able to determine its function in the Old Testament?


October 28, 2009 - Posted by | Bible, Bible Study, Biblical Interpretation, Christian, Christianity, God, Jesus, Old Testament, Theology

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