I spent a lot of time during Monday’s ConWest lecture talking about the “Documentary Hypothesis” formulated by the nineteenth-century German philologist Julius Wellhausen that suggests that the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible) are not, as tradition held, authored by Moses as the result of divine revelation, but rather a compilation of four different sources by an editor.

The sources are referred to as:

  • J (refers to the Deity as “Yahweh,” “Jahwe” in German)
  • E (refers to the Deity as “God,” “Elohim” in Hebrew)
  • P (Priestly material, Leviticus)
  • D (Deuteronomists)

The editor is often referred to as R (the “Redactor”) and thought to be Ezra, the author of the Book of Ezra, which offers an account of events related to the ending of the Babylonian Captivity by Cyrus the Great.

In the context of my course, talking about the sources of the Old Testament is useful because it helps to make the case for the influence of Zoroastrianism on Judaism and thus Christianity. Ezra is described as a “scribe in the law of Moses” during “the reign of Artaxerxes king of Persia.” He is is descended from a line of priests, and it seems likely that what Harold Bloom calls (in The Book of J, his attempt to reconstruct the earliest source for the Pentateuch) the “normative Judaism” according to which Ezra shapes the Pentateuch is marked by Persian influence. Bloom asks:

How are we to proceed when nearly all writing that has survived reflects the canonical choices and redactions of normative Judaism? . . . The normative tradition in Judaism did not censor; it simply ignored what it disapproved in its own backgrounds. Archaic Judaism is all but totally unknown to us. We know the rabbinical Judaism that has been dominant since the second century C.E., and we know, more or less, what that Judaism judged to be the chain of tradition that extended from Ezra the great Redactor to the Pharisees and then to Akiba, central among all the second-century rabbis. What we do not know is the Judaism that was available to the Yahwist, and the history, or the mythology of that Judaism. All that I can see is that the Yahweh of the Yahwist has very little to do with the God of Ezra or the God of Akiba.

Paul Kriwaczek adds (in In Search of Zarathustra):

Unfortunately the only record we have of relations between the Judean exiles and their Achaemenid rulers is contained in the biblical books of Ezra and Nehemiah, a rather tortured account of the re-establishment of a Jewish homeland in Jerusalem, so badly confusing dates and names of kings that generations of scholars have argued about whether Ezra or Nehemiah came first and when and how the walls of Jerusalem were repaired and the Temple rebuilt. What does seem clear is that both Ezra and Nehemiah were important personages in the Persian royal court in the fifth century BC – Nehemiah was cup-bearer to the king  – and that they received permission – and financial support  – to return to the land of their fathers and carry out a religious revolution, forcibly imposing their version of true Judaism on an astonished population.

This year I’ve asked the students actually to read The Book of Ezra and instead of excerpts from Jeremiah, they’re reading the sections of Isaiah (40-55) that deal with the Babylonian Captivity. Together, these selections help them to see the links between the Zoroastrian and Judaic traditions.

The other reason to talk about the sources of the Pentateuch is to make problematic the idea that the Bible is somehow “literally” true, since it is full of contradictions. Few people seem to remember that the story of creation is told twice, once by the P source (Genesis 1-2.3) and once by the J source (Genesis 2.4-3.24). Although both firmly establish a monotheistic tradition, the two sources differ in certain details, such as the order of the creation of the plants, beasts, and humans, as well as in style, and in their presentation of the deity: P’s God is transcendent, but dispatches humans as his agents in creation; J’s God is immanent, engages in dialogues with Adam and Eve, but tends to treat them as if they are children.The P source refers to God as “God,” while the J source calls him “Yahweh” (“Lord” in the King James Bible that we’re using).

One of the things I plan to emphasize again tomorrow is that the expulsion from the Garden only becomes the great “Fall of Man” in the Christian tradition; Judaism stresses the fact that the descendents of Adam remain God’s chosen people and that he engages in dialogue with them, even if he often needs to punish them.

My favorite part of Monday’s lecture, however, was looking at the story of the Flood, which I presented as a mash-up of two different stories, which differ fairly radically in their accounts:

  • P has one pair of each kind of animal; J has seven pairs of clean animals and one pair of unclean animals. (“Clean” here means that they are approved for sacrifice.)
  • J says the Flood lasted forty days and forty nights, with an extra couple of weeks for drying out ; P describes a year (370 days) – see 7.11; 8.14.
  • P has Noah send out a raven; J has him send out a dove.
  • P is concerned with ages, dates, and measurements in cubits; J is not.

What’s interesting here is that there’s little attempt to reconcile the two stories, which are mashed together. The whole tale makes little sense, until one realizes that it is a mash-up. You can separate out the two versions quite cleanly, and each is complete and makes sense on its own.

That, of course, hasn’t stopped interpreters who reject the “Documentary Hypothesis” and cling to the belief that there is a single author with a single intention.(The “documents” after all don’t really exist, but hypothesizing their existence offers the best way of accounting for the textual problems of the Pentateuch.)

Here, for example, is one person’s attempt to reconcile the conflicting figures:

Based on my reading in the NIV [New International Version] and further study of some of the original words, it seems pretty clear to me that the author’s intention was to communicate a story that went like this:

The rain, subterranean water flows, and rising water levels lasted for forty days, after which point the earth was covered with standing water to a depth of  about 20 feet over the mountain tops. At some point after the forty days of rain, God sent a wind to begin to dry the water up. The water level then gradually receded until, on the 150th day, it was low enough that the ark ran aground on the peak of a still-submerged mountain. (And, incidentally, the text doesn’t say specifically that it was Mt. Ararat, it says it was on the mountains of Ararat. The word is plural and refers to a range rather than a single mountain.) The water level continued to abate, so that by the 224th day, a number of mountain peaks were at last visible. After that, the water level continued its same, gradual decrease for another forty days, at which point Noah sends out the raven and the dove. Seven days later he sends the dove out again and it returns with the olive branch, so Noah knows that the water no longer completely covers the ground. By the 314th day, there was no longer even any water standing on the surface of the ground, and by the 370th day, or so, the soil itself, even below the surface, was completely dried out and returned to a normal state.

This would put the dates as follows:

  • 40 days, length of rain and rising water level – Verse 7:17 41-149 days, water dominating all land, but gradually receding – Verses 8:1-3
  • 150 days, waters have abated enough that the ark runs aground on a submerged peak – Verse 8:4
  • 224 days, tops of mountains are visible- Verse 8:5
  • 264 days, Noah sends out dove – Verse 8:6
  • 271 days, dove finds land – Verse 8:10-11
  • 278 days, do
    ve doesn’t return – Verse 8:12
  • 314 days, there is no more standing water covering the ground’s surface – Verse 8:13
  • 370 days, the ground is utterly and completely dry, finally having returned to a pre-flood state – Verse 8:14
The author describes the passage as “coherent” and concludes his account by arguing:

I think in reading any text, an ethical and scholarly approach demands that one read with real intention to understand what the author intended to communicate. Whether I like or agree with it is a secondary matter to be dealt with afterward. In this case, given the presuppositions of the framework within which the entire story rests, the narrative does seem to hold together chronologically, and is actually strengthened by the meticulous and progressive recording of noteworthy date markers. It has coherent, internal consistency in that regard. To admit that, of course, is not the same as saying one believes that the text is historical fact.

You can read the entire post here. And because the author is entirely concerned with the question of the duration of the flood, he doesn’t address the discrepancies in the text over what was actually taken aboard.

I’m sorry, but I find something slightly comical in this and similar attempts to blend together two accounts that are so obviously different.

Why didn’t the original editor do a better job of editing here? No one knows for sure. Perhaps each story had such authority that he didn’t feel that he could omit any details. Or maybe he just wanted to preserve each story, without calling attention to the fact that there were in fact two stories. Or perhaps it just goes to show that cut-and-paste problems did not begin with the word processing era.

If you’d like to separate the two versions of the flood story for yourself, here are the relevant divisions:

  • The Story of the Flood – J Version: 6.5-8; 7.1-5; 7.7; 7.10; 7.16 (last clause)-7.20; 7.22-23; 8.2 (last clause) – 8.3 (first clause); 8.6; 8.8-8.12; 8.13 (last clause);8.20-22.
  • The Story of the Flood – P Version: 6.9-22; 7.6; 7.8-9; 7.11; 7.13-16; 7.21; 7.24; 8.1-2; 8.3 last clause)-8.5; 8.7; 8.13 (first clause); 8.14-19.