Literary Criticism and the Composition of the Hebrew Bible – By Juha Pakkala

Juha Pakkala February 10, 2014 1

Juha Pakkala on David M. Carr’s The Formation of the Hebrew Bible: A New Reconstruction

David M. Carr, The Formation of the Hebrew Bible: A New Reconstruction, Oxford University Press, 2011, 544pp., $74.00

One cannot understand the history and religion of ancient Israel and early Judaism if one does not grapple with the composition history of the Hebrew Bible. It has been evident since the dawn of critical research that redactors edited the Hebrew Bible, but the extent and significance of the editing has always been debated. Some scholars assume that editors constantly modified the texts; the process could be likened to the growth of a snowball that expands at every turn. Others assume editing to have been a relatively limited phenomenon that has had no major impact on how we understand the texts. Almost all scholars now recognize that several variant editions of biblical texts — whether Hebrew manuscripts from Qumran or translations into Greek or Latin — show considerable differences between the variant editions (e.g., the Masoretic [MT] and the Septuagint [LXX] texts of Jeremiah, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, and Esther). This evidence calls into question the assumption of limited editing, but it has hardly created consensus.

Understanding these editorial processes is important because the Hebrew Bible is a central source for the history, religion, and culture of ancient Israel, as well as for understanding the beginnings of Judaism. If the Hebrew Bible was heavily edited, the limitations of using its preserved versions are apparent: texts from different periods are intermingled as later redactions are found side by side with the older texts and redactions. Without distinguishing between the layers and understanding their original contexts, it would be difficult to use the Hebrew Bible as a historical source for any period.

Conventional literary criticism has sought to understand the composition history of the Hebrew Bible by identifying the later additions and gradually reconstructing the prehistory of the texts layer by layer. According to this methodology, the later editors mainly made expansions, many of which can be identified as such. In order to identify the later additions, scholars pay attention to various signs in the texts such as contradictions, tensions, grammatical problems, disturbing repetitions, inconsistent sequences of events, divergent vocabulary, the use of later language forms in an apparently older text, and many other small markers. It is also assumed that many expansions are part of a comprehensive revision or redaction that extends to different parts of the same book. After a later addition or a redactional layer has been identified, the scholar would ideally be able to reach the earlier layer, which is then similarly investigated for possible additions. The process can be likened to the peeling of an onion. Each layer would bear witness to the period during which it was written. Scholars would then be able to use the texts of the Hebrew Bible as historical sources. Although it is one of the most widely used methods in biblical studies, the literary-critical method has not been unanimously accepted. It is mainstream in continental European scholarship, while English-speaking scholarship has been more reluctant to use it.

Jehu Obelisk

Depiction of Jehu King of Israel giving tribute to King Shalmaneser III of Assyria, on the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III from Nimrud (circa 827 BC) in the British Museum (London). Stephen D. Johnson, via Wikimedia Commons

By approaching the issue from the perspective of documented cases of textual change, David Carr challenges literary-critical approaches that seek to reconstruct the transmission history in cases where no documented evidence is available. The book discusses examples from various parts of the Hebrew Bible and related ancient literature (e.g., the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Temple Scroll) where variant versions of the same passage reveal the actual editorial processes and techniques used in the transmission of the texts. Carr mentions several techniques that can be observed: “the addition of introductory material, harmonizing, coordination, conflation, addition of appendices, resumptive repetition.” These documented techniques undermine and contradict the assumptions and results of literary-critical analyses in general, and the four-source documentary hypothesis (JEPD) of the Pentateuch in particular. At most, the distinction between the P and non-P sources is viable, while J and E cannot be distinguished. In the end, comparison with documented cases shows that detailed redaction-critical reconstructions do not provide scientifically sustainable results.

On the basis of his observations from the documented cases, Carr proposes “a middle way,” a methodologically more careful or modest approach to transmission history. He emphasizes the uncertainly of the results as well as the necessity of determining the level of plausibility. One can only hope to achieve a partial reconstruction of the literary prehistory of the texts.

Carr follows his methodological discussion with an effort to sketch out a history of Israelite literature. He creates a profile of each period based on “more datable texts” and uses that profile to determine the original context of the less datable texts. The result is a sketch of the composition history of the Hebrew Bible — and also of Israel’s history — from early monarchic times until the Hasmonean period. Given the broad scope of the investigation, as well as the complicated and largely untraceable transmission of the Hebrew Bible, Carr emphasizes the “synthetic and suggestive” nature of the sketch.

Carr’s critique of literary criticism is not unjustified. Despite using the same methodological approach, scholars have not been able to achieve consensus concerning the development of many texts of the Hebrew Bible. Extreme forms of literary criticism have rarely provided a solid basis for other scholars to build upon. Literary critics who claim to be able to reconstruct ten or more literary strata with precision risk being the only ones to understand and accept the results of their own analyses. Carr provides several documented examples of an older text being so extensively revised that a literary-critical reconstruction would be very difficult without access to that documented evidence (e.g., 11QTemple 51:19-52:7 vs. Leviticus 22:24, 28; 26:1 and Deuteronomy 16:21-17:1; 22:6b; and the different versions of the Gilgamesh epic). In some cases, the axioms of literary criticism contradict what can be seen in the documented cases. And conventional literary criticism fails to consider all possible modes of transmission. Carr’s call to examine the basis of the methodology is thus welcome.

Considering the problems with using the Hebrew Bible as a historical source, the attempt to find new methodologies is important. Carr’s book functions very well as an initiator of discourse, which it was apparently intended to be. A sketch of the formation of the Hebrew Bible is a bold undertaking with a broad scope, and one should also congratulate Carr for acknowledging its limitations.

In order to judge Carr’s work on its own terms, it is important to focus on general and methodological issues that leave room for questions rather than weaknesses in detail. Carr claims to propose a middle way that sees value in literary criticism and seeks a partial reconstruction. But it is not evident what partial reconstruction means, and whether Carr uses the methodology at all in his reconstruction of the history of the Hebrew Bible and ancient Israel. It is also not entirely clear how Carr thinks the literary-critical method should be refined. One gets the impression that he is more focused on deconstructing literary criticism than on building up an alternative. Most of his examples involve radical revision of an older text and contradict the conventional literary-critical method. But he does not give examples that clearly demonstrate how he would implement his proposed new approach. Moreover, the Hebrew Bible provides good examples that accord with the conventional literary-critical assumption that the redactors mainly expanded the older text (e.g., the MT of Jeremiah in view of the LXX, or the Samaritan Pentateuch in view of the MT). Although Carr does refer to the tendency to preserve and expand in some texts, he does not discuss how they are significant for his critique of literary criticism or the development of his alternative method.

In addition to neglecting documented cases that imply more conservative processes of textual transmission, Carr fails to consider documented cases that show more than two or three major revisions. He certainly discusses the Gilgamesh Epic, but such cases are easily found in the Hebrew Bible as well. For example, the transmission history of the Passover shows at least five different stages in the Hebrew Bible and a further one in the Temple Scroll (Exodus 23:15, 18; 34:18, 25; Deuteronomy 16:1-8; Leviticus 23:5-8; Numbers 28:16-25; 11QTemple 17:6-16), while the transmission of the burning of Jerusalem may be even more complicated (cf. 2 Kings 25:8-12 [cf. MT and LXX]; Jeremiah 52:12-16 [cf. MT and LXX]; Jeremiah 39:8-10; 2 Chronicles 36:19-20; 1 Esdras 1:52-54; Josephus’s Antiquities X 8,5). A comparison of passages in 2 Kings, Jeremiah, and Chronicles (in both the MT and LXX forms) provides several additional cases that would be similarly fruitful. Although documented evidence is preserved only in some cases, it is probable that many texts in the Hebrew Bible have a similarly complicated redaction history. Moreover, since the documented cases are only random glimpses, the actual transmission history is probably more complex. For a new reconstruction of the editorial processes of the Hebrew Bible, a more balanced view would have necessitated that the new model also integrates examples that bear witness to the prehistory of the texts over a longer period. Such cases would have suggested that many central texts of the Hebrew Bible have undergone more than two or three major revisions.

One also has to ask whether the resulting approach is any improvement for literary criticism as far as methodological discipline is concerned. The methodological basis of Carr’s proposed approach is not transparent, perhaps somewhat vague, and only briefly discussed. It is not entirely clear on what basis the “more datable texts” have been selected, especially when they take such a central role in reconstructing the formation of the Hebrew Bible and eventually of the history of ancient Israel. There is hardly any consensus on many of the “more datable texts.” In effect, the selection of these texts and the scholar’s conception of them become the keys for understanding the formation of the Hebrew Bible.

Paradoxically, Carr emphasizes the high uncertainty and the fluidity of the transmission of the texts, but his own approach results in a reconstruction of the history of ancient Israel that is based on a rather optimistic view about our ability to use the Hebrew Bible as a historical source and to date some of its texts. Many hard-core literary critics would avoid saying anything certain about the pre-seventh-century history of ancient Israel, while Carr situates many texts — like the prophets Isaiah, Amos, Micah, and Zephaniah — in monarchic times.

After being skeptical about our ability to properly understand the prehistory of biblical texts, Carr’s confident use of these texts as historical sources for the monarchic period is surprising. He criticizes and partly undermines literary criticism, but he then offers as a substitute an approach whose methodology is vague and puts more weight on one’s preconceptions of the history of ancient Israel. Moreover, it portrays the history of ancient Israel in a way that implies considerable confidence in our ability to understand and date biblical texts that have been heavily edited. Although literary criticism certainly has its weaknesses, it is not easy to establish an alternative that is methodologically more disciplined. While Carr calls for a more solid basis for literary criticism, the same standard should be expected of any alternative.

Despite some critical comments, Carr’s bold attempt to challenge one of the most practiced methodologies in biblical studies is very welcome. It functions as a starting point for discussions about refining a methodology that has been criticized almost throughout its history. It has become apparent that the axioms of the method have to be better anchored in documented evidence. Many of the examples in Carr’s book highlight this need.

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  • Roberto Piani

    Thank to Pakkala for his pointed review. I just want to stress that the literary history of the Hebrew Bible should be kept clearly distinct from the aim, so appreciated by Pakkala, ” to use the texts of the Hebrew Bible as historical sources”.