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Losing my Religion

I did grad work in biblical studies in Berkeley in the 90s, which means that the Documentary Hypothesis was one of the unquestioned tenets of my faith. (For a quick and dirty explanation of the DH, see here. For a longer and more thoughtful explanation written for LDS, click here.)

But I didn’t really study the OT much, so I just accepted what I was told about the DH and let it go. Until this summer, when I’ve been working through Genesis (with some help from Wenham, Sarna, and Brodie). And I’m starting to think that the DH doesn’t work for me. I am perhaps predisposed to this position because what I did study in school was the NT and there are times when what at first blush looks like sloppy editing in the NT turns out, on further examination, to be the result of meticulous work by one author. While my Hebrew stinks, I am starting to think that literary explanations for seams in the text are (usually) a better fit than redactional explanations in the OT as well.

Now, I don’t completely dismiss the idea that there are multiple authors of Genesis (I find it highly unlikely that Genesis 14 was written by the main author, for example.) I don’t dismiss the idea that Moses had a major hand in the text, but I’m not completely wedded to that idea, either. But when you look at the specificity of the classic formulation of the DH, I think it is way too speculative in the assumptions that it makes about the authors, dates, and audiences and its ability to successfully assign passages to authors.

There’s also some logic behind the DH that doesn’t make sense to me. To be reductionist about it, the theory states “if there is a contradiction in the text, it shows that two different sources were used.” But do we think so little of the editor that he didn’t notice these “contradictions”? A classic case study for the DH involves an apparent contradiction in the Noah story: in Genesis 6:19, Noah is told to take two of each kind of animal into the ark but in 7:2, he’s told to take seven of each. You have to be pretty dense to copy a story about Noah being commanded to take two of each animal into the ark and then just a few sentences later to copy from another story about Noah being commanded to take seven of each animal with pausing and thinking, “Wait a minute!”

I prefer to regard the author/editor as a deliberate, literate, inspired creator and not a slavish, unthinking scribe. I’m not entirely sure what the best theory is for the seven-vs.-two animals bit, but I do think that automatically assuming there was a sloppy editor stitching together parts from two different stories is a bit of a cop-out. If, instead, we asked, “What might the author have been trying to convey by the seven/two thing?” we are in a position to think deeply (and, hopefully, with the guidance of the Spirit) and learn something interesting about the story. If we can’t come up with anything, then it might be reasonable to conclude that there is some sort of problem with the text, even evidence of multiple authors/editors. But if that’s our starting assumption, then we’re passing up many opportunities to learn something interesting from the text. In other words, my objection to the DH is primarily an objection to using it as a starting point for exegesis. We should try to find a deliberate literary move first and then, if that fails, think about some version of the DH. But if you went to the link above, you can see what a missed opportunity it would have been if I had started with the assumption that Mark was a sloppy editor instead of looking for an intentional meaning first.

So I no longer have the naive faith in the classic formulation of the DH that I once did. I’m open to having my mind changed on this still, but I think it is a mistake to use the DH as a starting place for understanding the OT.

Posted by on July 8, 2007.

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Categories: Cornucopia

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Times and Seasons has been the premier source for Mormon blogging since its inception late 2003. The blog was founded by four LDS attorneys (Matt Evans, Adam Greenwood, Nathan Oman, and Kaimipono Wenger) after a series of e-mail discussions, at a time when the LDS blog world consisted of a few solo blogs and one […]more →